1. Inception (2010)

IMDB Rating: 8.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 87%

Storyline: Inception dives into the realm of the subconscious, where skilled thief Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a specialist in the dangerous art of extraction, steals valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state. Cobb’s rare ability has made him a coveted player in the treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he once loved. Now Cobb’s crew, including team member Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), has only one last chance at redemption – to carry out the near-impossible task of inception, planting an idea in someone’s mind instead of stealing it.

Why it’s a major performance: Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Robert Fischer Jr., although not the main character, was a vital asset to the storyline. The crux of the narrative depended on his character being manipulated, his connection with his father, and his ultimate realization. Murphy delicately balanced Fischer’s external coldness with an undercurrent of vulnerability, managing to gain the audience’s sympathy by the end. It proved yet again that Murphy’s performance shines even if he isn’t the main lead.

Cillian Murphy’s exceptional performance added depth and nuance to the complex storyline of Inception. His powerful acting evoked the necessary empathy that made the inception possible. It undeniably demonstrated his versatility, with audiences and critics alike appreciating his ability to convincingly portray a diverse range of emotions throughout the movie. His performance was a testament to his acting prowess, strengthening his reputation in Hollywood.

2. The Dark Knight (2008)

IMDB Rating: 9.0/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 94%

Storyline: The Dark Knight tells the story of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in his fight against the Joker (Heath Ledger), a sadistic criminal mastermind who wants to plunge Gotham City into anarchy. In the midst of chaos, Batman also has to encounter a psychology-obsessed ex-attorney-turned-villain, Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), who behaves like a demonic scarecrow, spreading fear with his neurotoxic gas.

Why it’s a major performance: Murphy’s role as Dr. Jonathan Crane, also known as the Scarecrow, in the Batman trilogy, was indeed a breakthrough in his career. His haunting portrayal of the fear-inducing Scarecrow was deeply unsettling and made a strong impression on viewers. Despite the character traditionally being underrated in Batman’s rogues’ gallery, Murphy managed to bring the Scarecrow to life with an eerie charm and intelligence that made his performance unforgettable.

Cillian Murphy’s role may not be the main in The Dark Knights, but his portrayal of Scarecrow lingers as one of the film’s memorable performances. His Scarecrow was conniving, and Murphy accurately brought out the nuances of a character whose strength lies in understanding and exploiting his adversaries’ fears. He was suitably menacing and managed to hold his own among a star-studded cast, setting a new standard for his future roles.

3. Peaky Blinders (2013-2021)

IMDB Rating: 8.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 92%

Storyline: Peaky Blinders is a crime drama series that centres around the exploits of the Shelby crime family in the direct aftermath of the First World War. The family is driven powerfully by their ambitious and cunning boss, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy). The series showcases the violent and challenging time period, giving an insight into the gritty backdrop of England and the political and social turmoil of the 1920s.

Why it’s a major performance: Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of gang leader, Tommy Shelby, has won hearts worldwide. He sets himself apart with his icy-blue stare, stoic demeanour and Brummie accent, a challenging feature to accurately portray. His multi-layered portrayal allows the audience to become emotionally attached, alternating between feeling sympathy for the war-scarred war veteran and fear towards the ruthless gang leader. This role showcased Murphy’s versatility and talent more than any other, leading to several award nominations.

Using his exceptional grasp of the character, Murphy painted a vivid picture of a complicated man dealing with post-war trauma, while maintaining a stronghold on his criminal empire. The nuanced performance demonstrates Cillian Murphy’s wide range, proving why he’s one of the most underrated actors working today. The fascinating character of Tommy Shelby will forever be synonymous with Cillian Murphy – a testament to the actor’s supreme performance that laid the series’ foundation.

4. 28 Days Later (2002)

IMDB Rating: 7.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 87%

Storyline: In 28 Days Later, a deadly virus escapes from a British research facility. Animal activists unknowingly release the contagion when they free a small group of infected chimps from a lab. Twenty-eight days later, bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a deserted hospital. He discovers that London is overrun with the infected who have succumbed to the virus, resembling the living dead.

Why it’s a major performance: This remarkable portrayal of an unassuming survivor in the post-apocalyptic horror film shot Murphy towards international stardom. His performance was highly praised for how he brought vulnerability and grit to this compelling role. His struggles seemed palpable, and his transformation from a naive, young man to a hardened survivor drew audiences into this horrifying world.

His breakdown of the character was incredibly believable, capturing every bit of confusion, fear, determination, and hope that Jim experiences throughout the movie. It was enlightening to watch Cillian Murphy display a wide spectrum of emotions seamlessly. This film marked one of Murphy’s most dynamic performances and solidified his place as a talented and versatile actor.

5. Sunshine (2007)

IMDB Rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 76%

Storyline: Sunshine is set in the future where the dying sun threatens life on Earth. A crew of eight astronauts, including physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), are on a mission to revive the sun with a nuclear bomb. As they near their target, losing contact with Earth, the team begins to crumble under the psychological and physical toll of their journey.

Why it’s a major performance: Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of physicist Robert Capa in Sunshine added another feather to his cap. His character was complex, dealing with profound pressures of carrying a mission that held the fate of humanity. He dived deep into the role, capturing the character’s exhaustion, dedication, and the struggle of bearing such a gargantuan responsibility.

Despite the limited space of a spacecraft, Cillian managed to showcase his character’s evolution beautifully, moving from an introverted physicist to a brave, determined hero. He brings forth a sense of realism and deep emotional connection that makes every decision he makes and every sacrifice he takes feel incredibly significant to the viewers. With his performance, Murphy established that he could shine even in the genre of science fiction.

6. The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)

IMDB Rating: 7.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 89%

Storyline: Set during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, the film depicts two brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy, who join the Irish Republican Army to fight for independence from the United Kingdom, only to find themselves on opposing sides after the peace treaty.

Why it’s a major performance: Cillian Murphy’s gripping performance as Damien O’Donovan, a young doctor turned freedom fighter, earned him significant recognition. His subtle yet powerful representation of a man caught up in the whirlwind of war and the inner turmoil that comes with it strongly resonated with audiences and critics alike.

The film, featuring Murphy’s riveting acting and deep understanding of the character, played a considerable part in the movie’s success. His ability to channel the hope, despair, and conflict of his character was something to behold and reaffirmed his growing standing as a significant talent in the industry. This role was one of the many that showcased his true acting prowess.

7. Anthropoid (2016)

IMDB Rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 66%

Storyline: Based on a true story, Anthropoid follows two Czechoslovak soldiers, Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy), who are parachuted back into their occupied homeland in 1941. Their mission is to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and the main architect behind the Final Solution.

Why it’s a major performance: In the WWII drama Anthropoid, Cillian Murphy played the role of Josef Gabcik, one of the two soldiers from the Czechoslovak army-in-exile assigned with Operation Anthropoid. The intense portrayal of a soldier grappling with a heavy responsibility showed his ability to immerse himself entirely into a character.

Murphy successfully captured the terror, courage, and vulnerability of Gabcik. His performance was commendable, and his keen understanding of the character created a sense of gritty realism in the movie. He breathed life into the character and gave depth and nuance to the historical figure, providing an emotional anchor to the movie. It once again demonstrated his impressive acting abilities.

8. Breakfast on Pluto (2005)

IMDB Rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 56%

Storyline: In the 1970s, Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Cillian Murphy), a trans woman, escapes Ireland to go to London in search of her mother, amidst the backdrop of the political and social upheaval of the time.

Why it’s a major performance: In Breakfast on Pluto, Cillian Murphy tackled a challenging character, pushing him to explore a profound emotional spectrum. His portrayal of Patrick “Kitten” Braden was undoubtedly one of the boldest roles of his career.

Despite the complexity of his character, Murphy shone brightly. He portrayed the character’s eccentricity, flamboyance, vulnerability, and determination with great finesse. The role gave Murphy a chance to flesh out a deeply layered character while challenging societal norms, and he excelled in it. His vivid portrayal indeed stole the show and can be considered as one of the most outstanding works in his illustrious career.

9. Red Eye (2005)

IMDB Rating: 6.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 79%

Storyline: Red Eye tells the story of a woman (Rachel McAdams) held captive on a red-eye flight by a man (Cillian Murphy) who threatens her and forces her to assist in the assassination of a government official. The high-altitude thriller unfolds as she attempts to outwit her captor and save her father, who’s been targeted as retaliation.

Why it’s a major performance: Cillian Murphy’s role as Jackson Rippner, a suave but menacing terrorist operative, let him explore his capacity for villainous roles. His calm and cold delivery, mixed with moments of violent outburst, created a chilling performance that kept audiences on their toes throughout the movie.

Maintaining a believable sinister character can be straining, but Murphy was utterly convincing and natural in his portrayal. His acting skills shone brilliantly in the high-intensity thriller, and he presented an unnervingly charming yet dangerous antagonist. The flight enclosed setting demanded a highly controlled performance, which Murphy delivered with aplomb. His compelling performance turned an otherwise straightforward thriller into a gripping narrative.

10. The Party (2017)

IMDB Rating: 6.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 84%

Storyline: The Party is a comedy-drama that unfolds in real-time at a small gathering in London where newly appointed political head Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is throwing a party to celebrate her promotion. The party turns nightmarishly funny when Cillian Murphy’s character, Tom, a cocaine-snorting banker, arrives with a gun and some bad news.

Why it’s a major performance: Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Tom took him out of his typical intense character mould, proving his capacity for comedy. Even though the character is a significantly troubled character, Murphy effectively executed the humour with his impeccable comic timing and his subtle approach of building tension.

Gaining laughs while preserving the intensity of the character isn’t an easy balance to strike, yet Murphy’s charismatic performance made it possible. His exceptional ability to create a character who is both sympathetic and laughable didn’t go unnoticed. With Tom, Murphy demonstrated a comedic side of his that was appreciated by audiences and critics alike, thus rendering it a major performance in his career.