In sports, there’s something known as a window, a fleeting period of time when everything clicks for a team—the right coach is in place, perhaps the rest of the field is relatively soft, but most importantly, players are peaking at the same time. We’re in the midst of the Golden State Warriors’ window, which, unfortunately for anyone who doesn’t root for them, doesn’t seem to be closing anytime soon. The window is a concept that can also be applied to movies. Some projects are lucky enough to cast a group of actors who peak at the same time and each deliver career-best performances. Watching movies that have the window open, so to speak, is a revelatory experience. Each line-reading is somehow topped by the next, with performers bringing it no matter how big or small the role.
Inspired by a tweet regarding The Talented Mr. Ripley’s window, staff members of The Ringer were asked to submit which movie they think captured the most peak performances from a group of actors. These are their answers.
Andrew Gruttadaro: The anchor of this opinion is, of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Lester Bangs—the booze-soaked, vocally fried rock journalist who waxes poetically often and gives the movie its soul—but what also makes Almost Famous such a stacked film is how it is, top to bottom, filled with actors nailing it. Kate Hudson is seductive and frustrating as Penny Lane, easily convincing the audience about why every man who comes into contact with her falls in love. As Russell Hammond, Billy Crudup is a perfect genius asshole, while still imbuing the role with a considerable warmth. Frances McDormand is in peak shape no matter what the movie—but her performance as the formidable, worrying, god-save-my-child loving Elaine Miller may be my favorite of hers. And Jason Lee! Oh my lord, Jason Lee. Bless his depiction of the insecure singer who knows he’ll never be the frontman, despite being the one who has the microphone. “You know what I do?! I connect—I get people off!”
Almost Famous is a beautiful movie, made all the better by knowing that you’ll never see this collection of actors be that good again.
Michael Baumann: It’s no surprise that one of the five greatest works of 20th-century American cinema would be so stuffed to the gills with great performances. Harry Connick Jr. was robbed of Best Supporting Actor in a loaded field that included Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire and William H. Macy in Fargo; Bill Pullman delivered the most moving monologue since Hamlet and the best American presidential speech since JFK dared us to go to the moon; even Brent Spiner, whose peak is undoubtedly Star Trek: The Next Generation, may never have delivered a better performance in a film. Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, James Rebhorn, Will Smith, and Jeff Goldblum all deliver a version of their best selves (Loggia’s gruff military man, Will Smith’s slapstick action hero, Goldblum’s bumbling but hunky genius). Indeed, you could say that Smith’s run of 1990s movie star dominance all stems from this performance. Without Independence Day there is no Men in Black, no Wild Wild West, and by extension, no goofball type to cast against in Ali. The closer you look, the clearer it becomes that Independence Day is the cornerstone upon which our culture is built.
Miles Surrey: David Lynch’s masterwork has a trifecta of performances that remain the best the actors have ever delivered, all for different reasons. Naomi Watts has been elite ever since Lynch put her on the map with a spellbinding turn in Mulholland Drive; the problem in recent years is that she’s gotten trapped in projects that are bafflingly terrible (see: The Sea of Trees, Shut In, a Divergent movie, the canceled Netflix series Gypsy, and, most indicting of all, The Book of Henry, in which she plays a video-game-obsessed mom). Meanwhile, there’s a (very legitimate!) argument that Justin Theroux’s apex is his work on The Leftovers, but playing cocky director Adam Kesher in Mulholland Drive also required him to be the straight man in a film with an abundance of surreal flourishes. (Perhaps the funniest bit in the whole film is Adam’s bewilderment by Angelo Badalamenti’s strict espresso requirements.) And Laura Harring, unfortunately, has meandered through B-movies and network legal drama guest spots.
Mulholland Drive is a fun time capsule for everyone involved—remember when Lynch could still make respectably financed feature films?—all the way down to its aesthetics. Heck, even the woman who portrayed the Demon Hobo is now scaring the shit out of people as a Demon Nun.
Austin Elias-de Jesus: Parenthood is stacked, OK? The movie starred Steve Martin at the end of his absurd streak of ’80s classics. There was Rick Moranis, who in 1989 starred in two blockbusters. It featured the ever-charming Oscar winners Mary Steenburgen and Dianne Wiest. And it starred a young Martha Plimpton (paired with a young, drag-racing Keanu Reeves). While basically all of those actors have given more iconic performances throughout their careers, their complicated, empathetic, and hilarious work in this movie qualifies as their best. As Gil Buckman—a neurotic father who will go to any length to support his children, yet refuses to accept that his oldest child might have a disability—Martin is at the top of his game, and he strikes the perfect balance between silliness and tenderness. The same can also be said of Moranis, who is so good in this movie that even his singing comes off as charming. Plimpton is perfect in her role as the angsty and hopelessly-in-love teen who gets in brutal screaming matches with her mother. And both Steenburgen and Wiest are gold in their roles as exhausted mothers who are trying so hard to be the anchors of their respective households. Sure, it might seem stupid to say that Wiest’s performance in Parenthood tops her work in Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway, but, on the other hand, those movies don’t have Wiest giving this perfect line read:
Being John Malkovich
Kenrick Cai: Without ever meeting John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman wrote a script about him in which he’s an actor turned mind-controlled puppeteer being subconsciously used as a vehicle for sex to propagate a demented love triangle. Somehow, Malkovich agreed to take the part—which he later compared to getting a blowjob. But somewhere along the way of Malkovich playing John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and a bunch of other strangers inside his own body—not to mention a trippy scene when every single person in a crowded restaurant is Malkovich saying “Malkovich” over and over—he delivered a signature performance to match the stakes of being in a movie with your own name in the title.
Then you’ve got sad-sack Cusack, who outshines his Say Anything … performance by being the opposite of the optimistic jock he played in that film. Diaz is totally in her element as she gets to be ditzy and offbeat in her best, and almost last, role before making the jump to comedy. Catherine Keener got an Oscar nod for being the seductive, in-control catalyst of the love triangle, Maxine, an unofficial (but pretty much official) precursor to her role as Missy in Get Out. Plus, I’m pretty sure this was the best performance that chimpanzee ever delivered in his career.
Lindsay Zoladz: Here’s the wild thing: Even if you do not think Step Brothers is Peak Ferrell (Anchorman, sure) or Peak Reilly (Boogie Nights, duh), Step Brothers is still the correct answer to this question. Adam Scott seems like a nice guy in real life, but he has never been more hilarious than he is when playing a douchebag who personally knows Jeff Probst, who hollers impatiently from the driver’s seat at his immensely unsatisfied wife (Kathryn Hahn, PEAKING, by the way), “DANE COOK. PAY-PER-VIEW. TWENTY MINUTES. LET’S GO!” Did you see The Shape of Water? Was the pathos evoked by Richard Jenkins eating key lime pie in that movie really more Oscar-nomination-worthy than when Mr. Doback sighs to his family on Christmas Eve, “I’m gonna go down to the Cheesecake Factory, have a drink”? (Hint: NOPE.) I don’t really know what the child who takes the lead in a family rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” got up to after this, but it feels safe to say that Step Brothers was Peak Him. And last but not least, please, for the love of Ted Danson, give Mary Steenburgen a Kennedy Center Honor solely for the way she exasperatedly screams, “What the fucking fuck?!” as her grown son and stepson brawl on her front lawn. Oh, and let’s not forget Johnny Hopkins and Sloan Kettering—what else have any of those guys done with their lives?!