Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
Did you know that when Sandra Bullock won her Oscar for The Blind Side, at about the same time she also won a Razzie for Worst Actress in All About Steve? And she was equally excited about both awards, glad to show up for both ceremonies. Shucks, she even brought DVDs of All About Steve to The Razzies. Who but Sandra Bullock could swing back and forth like that and still keep making movies with a smile?
Bullock’s made a career out of her unbelievable flexibility. She can be the comic relief, the point person, the charmer, the flake, the manic pixie, the strong and feisty lead, and in some cases, a witch. She can be snarky, silly, sincere, sexy, or sullen. Name other actresses with her studio-level bankability, affability, and integrity. That’s why Sandra Bullock’s one of the best and most commercially appealing actresses working in Hollywood today. Regardless of the material, Bullock will show up, give her best, and often be viewed as the best part of a movie. She’s good and honest — hard qualities to live by, but that’s what makes her such a mainstay.
With the release of Our Brand Is Crisis, we thought it was time to look back at 25 years of Bullock performances, and ask, “What were her best?” Whether she was pants-wettingly funny, wildly likable, or just gosh-darn moving, we got the Best of Bullock right here.
— Blake Goble
10. Leigh Ann Tuohy, The Blind Side (2009)
It is with great ambivalence that we include The Blind Side on this list. It is, at best, a middling film. Even if it weren’t a comfortably middlebrow liberal fantasy that embraces the frustratingly resilient white savior trope, the based-on-a-true-story film about Michael Oher, a homeless young black man who earns a college scholarship and gets drafted by the NFL after being taken in by a white family, would still be a tepid and sanctimonious affair. And the real-life Oher is not a fan.
But Bullock’s endearingly earnest performance as adoptive mama bear Leigh Anne Tuohy did earn the star the SAG, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards for Best Actress that year, and it is a testament to her seemingly unfailing ability to find humanity in every character she plays. It’s also a perfect example of how Bullock can make anything — or almost anything short of Crash — worth watching.
Best of Bullock: It’s a simple and slightly pandering moment, but armed with a brassy countenance and a large glass of wine, Bullock brings an almost Tami Taylor-level likability to The Blind Side’s Thanksgiving scene.
— Sarah Kurchak
09. Diane Farrow, Love Potion No. 9 (1992)
Love Potion No. 9 is a poor man’s Billy Wilder film, a rom-com with a high-concept plot device right there in the title. This is a movie that suffered from its lead becoming popular just a little too late (less than $1 million in box office returns, YEEEOWCH). So, when Sandra Bullock broke out in 1994 with Speed, Comedy Central re-played the hell out of Dale Launer’s light, Nutty Professor-esque farce about a big-eyebrowed, bespectacled scientist getting her hands on a magic, sexifying elixir.
Love Potion No. 9 is the kind of movie where the studio re-releases it on home video with new art to focus on marketing a star’s rise, that’s for certain. But there’s an appeal to the movie, and it’s not an exact science: Sandra Bullock’s really good and sweet and totally attention-grabbing.
Bullock brings the buck teeth, the eyebrows, and a smirking sense of play to the mid-level movie about scientists in love. Watching the curly-haired Tate Donovan score with tons of promiscuous women is neither fun nor all that funny. But watching a fresh-faced Bullock tease princes and moguls shows the early promise and charming abilities Bullock had at the ready. She’s a total sweetheart in a lab coat.
Best of Bullock: Would you look at how much fun Bullock’s having while letting a horned-up Italian paramour flirt with her? It’s all in the smile and the natural, casual way she carries herself.
08. Sarah Lewis, Forces of Nature (1999)
Sixteen years later, it’s easy to cringe at this late-’90s romantic road trip comedy. But what you have to remember is that this movie, which features an unfulfilled blurb writer named Ben (Ben Affleck) questioning his imminent marriage as he goes on a cross-country adventure with a wacky and fun-loving young woman named Sarah (Bullock), predates both Affleck’s obvious on and offscreen sliminess and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. This kind of movie was neither tired nor uncomfortably close to real life just yet.
Bullock’s proto-MPDG character also manages to bring a lot more humanity to the table than most of her successors have managed since. Yes, Sarah’s quirky. You can tell because she has a purple streak in her hair. And yes, she largely exists to help Affleck’s character learn important lessons about his life. But Bullock refuses to let her character remain a left-of-center cypher and packs her performance with as much thoughtfulness and depth as the script will allow.
Best of Bullock: At one point, Ben and Sarah’s misadventures lead them to a strip club where they must perform for money. It’s a ridiculous scene based on the even more ridiculous premise that anyone at that club would be interested in seeing that doofus version of Affleck half-naked, but damned if Bullock doesn’t sell it for everything she’s worth.
07. Sally Owens, Practical Magic (1998)
Critics didn’t think much of Practical Magic when it premiered, dismissing the film about a pair of wildly different sisters, who must band together to end a curse that condemns every man they love to death, as an uneven mix of romance, slapstick, magic, and drama. But the supernatural romantic comedy almost instantly hooked a passionate fanbase that remains loyal to this day.
Bullock, who plays the uptight and constantly flustered sister Sally to Nicole Kidman’s free-spirited Gillian, is a large part of the movie’s enduring appeal. Whether she’s playing off her fellow witches in Kidman, Stockard Channing, and Dianne Wiest, or nervously flirting with Aidan Quinn’s Gary (whom her character swooningly describes as “nice in a very penal code sort of way”), she’s always a delight to watch.
Best of Bullock: MIDNIGHT MARGARITAS!
06. Ashburn, The Heat (2013)
Say what you will about Paul Feig’s formal tendencies as a director, but the man has a deft sense of humor and impeccable taste in casting. Bullock brought straight-laced, uptight amusement to Feig’s 2013 buddy comedy as Ashburn, the talented and resented FBI agent stuck with crass super-cop Mullens (Melissa McCarthy). It was a comedy of odd coupling, as the duo work to crack down on a drug kingpin, or something.
The Heat was all about pairing the hotter-than-hot McCarthy with a very wound-up Bullock, and they bounce off each other so well, playing around within broad characterizations and turning them into something genuinely interesting and amusing. Bullock takes a stuffy caricature and makes it a fleshed-out person with gifts and foibles. But it’s not at Bullock or her character’s expense. Bullock has total control of the joke, and every situation, no matter how lame she may look, and Feig got Bullock in top awkward comic form.
That is to say, there’s genuine humor, humanity, and tragedy in having a glum Bullock take care of her neighbor’s tabby cat, unbeknownst to them. Tragicomic.
Best of Bullock: Maybe it’s the character, or maybe Bullock’s not a born improviser like her counterpart McCarthy, but watching her run the gamut from outrageous disdain for idiot colleagues to meltdown-level swearing and gibberish is something she does far too well. It’s arguably the silliest and most unrestricted moment in Bullock’s career.
05. Birdee Pruitt, Hope Floats (1998)
When her best friend takes her on a Ricki Lake-like talk show to reveal that she’s been having an affair with her husband, naive housewife Birdee Pruitt (Bullock) is forced to return to her less-than-welcoming hometown and move back in with her estranged mother (Gena Rowlands). In addition to dealing with her own heartbreak, Birdee must face her father’s decline into dementia, her young daughter’s divorce-related anger, and the romantic overtures of her dreamy childhood friend, Justin (Harry Connick Jr.).
At times, the plot of this ostensibly romantic drama is almost unbearably miserable, but Bullock manages to keep both her character’s and her audience’s spirits afloat with her irrepressible sweetness. There’s even a hint of the goofy charm that she would go on to play to such great effect in Miss Congeniality when she finally steps out on the dance floor with Connick Jr.
Best of Bullock: When Birdee realizes, on national television, that her husband has been cheating on her. To borrow a line from The Simpsons, if you watch closely, you can pinpoint the exact moment her heart breaks.
04. Lucy, While You Were Sleeping (1995)
While You Were Sleeping is corny. Old-time romantic. It’s a happy-ending film that’s vein-popping if watched or read about out of context. CTA token-taker fake woos a guy in a coma, but falls for his brother? Oof. But Jon Turteltaub’s movie is delivered with such an honest and careful sweetness, and Sandra Bullock basically sells the entire thing on her flustered and fluttery-hearted lead performance.
Bullock doesn’t necessarily save the film, but rather she brings out its true potential as the kind film it wants to be. She braves the waters of an overbearing family, a banal job, and her own impulsive emotions, and comes out with a cute leading performance that made the film eminently enjoyable and re-watchable. It’s pure superstar-grade magnetism. She progresses from a low-level, say-nothing turnstile jockey into an empowered and romantic young woman in Chicago, and makes the experience a smiling one.
Best of Bullock: How does she do that? Bill Pullman and his looney family shows up to Bullock’s CTA booth, filling up the frame, accompanied by schmaltzy romantic music. It should be eye-rolling. But no, Bullock just smiles it off and keeps the scene together. She’s just that good.
03. Gracie Hart, Miss Congeniality (2000)
This was mega-star Bullock, brandishing a pistol and tiara, front and center on the film’s promotional materials. Brash, ballsy, channeling Mae West in a way, Sandra Bullock is unbelievably fun in Miss Congeniality. She got to be both the badass and the beauty as FBI agent Gracie Hart. Hart has to infiltrate a beauty pageant to try and prevent a bombing, but again, plot is immaterial for the antics Bullock gets into. She breaks down her co-workers, chills with beauty contestants, and shows up Candace Bergen, Michael Caine, and William Shatner. Miss Congeniality was a low-rent, last-minute release on Warner’s calendar in 2000, but on the strength of Bullock and her charismatic and crude Hart, the movie became a sleeper hit.
Now. If we could just never talk about Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous ever again, then we’ll be all set.
Best of Bullock: It’s certainly a gas to watch Sandra unexpectedly bash Benjamin Bratt’s nose, but the self-defense demo scene has a meaningful underlying statement about protection and learning something more valuable than canned statements and hand-waving techniques.
Oh, and when Sandy lands her elbow in Bratt’s boys — that’s also pretty damn funny, too. Sandra Bullock is just so good that she can make low-brow, low-blow humor a guffaw and not a groan.
02. Annie, Speed (1994)
Bullock was still a relative unknown when this film came out, but she was so irresistibly charming and believable as Annie, the civilian who stepped up to help SWAT agent Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) control a booby-trapped bus, that it almost instantly made her a star and deservedly so. It’s hard to imagine that any other actress could have turned such a relatively basic sidekick/love interest role into such a dynamic mix of intelligence, humor, and humanity. And her chemistry with Reeves remains unmatched in either of their careers.
Even the movie’s few critical detractors were effusive in their praise for Bullock and the unique middle ground that she managed to carve between simpering weakling and superhero. As The Washington Post put it: “Wisecracking behind the wheel, she emerges as a slightly softer version of the Linda Hamilton-Sigourney Weaver heroines: capable, independent, but still irresistibly vulnerable.”
Best of Bullock: Annie is cool and capable as she drives the bus over a giant gap in an overpass, but Bullock allows her character one stunned moment of cheeky disbelief once they land. The expression on her face is almost enough to upstage the movie’s biggest stunt.
01. Ryan Stone, Gravity (2013)
Gravity’s been deservingly hailed as the superlative technical feat that it is, but one could argue that the whole thing might break down if not for Sandra Bullock in the lead performance. It’s the human through-line that binds Alfonso Cuarón’s gee-whiz space adventure — Bullock takes Gravity to incredible heights, elevating the Academy Award-winning film from the vividly technical to the grandly emotional.
As Ryan Stone, the NASA scientist having one extremely lousy day, Bullock gyrates, whips, and screams while floating above the Earth, scrambling to find a safe way home, and in the process is given a chance at rebirth. Gravity broke new ground for Bullock. With the help of nifty visualizations (and fellow charmer George Clooney), Bullock’s Stone was a frail, peaceful loner thrust into danger, forced to fight for her life. It’s a focused, intense role, with Stone becoming an unassuming hero of survival. Bullock conveyed deep loss, desperation, and hunger to stay alive.
Bullock braved 10-hour shooting days in mechanical rigs while Cuarón searched for the perfect way to depict Stone’s return to Earth. In the end, Bullock greatly contributed to making Gravity the landmark that it is. All the computer tricks in the world wouldn’t amount to nearly as much were it not for Bullock’s brave and bold choices as an actress. This is hands down Bullock’s most challenging and rewarding performance as an actress. It’s one for the universe.
Best of Bullock: As debris hits, Bullock is flung off into space, detached from any harness or structure, out of radio contact, unable to make her way back to any kind of safety whatsoever. Bullock may be out of control in the actual scene, but she holds on to viewers and refuses to let go. We hope and pray that she’ll land, or more accurately, conquer impossibility.
It’s Bullock, all alone, completely helpless and at her absolute most fragile, and yet as an actor, it’s Bullock in her most powerful moment as a film star. She’s never been this pure and this riveting onscreen.