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Variety chooses Benedict’s 10 best performances

Ahead of Benedict’s Hollywood Walk of Fame honor, Variety’s Janelle Riley has ranked 10 of his best performances. Do you agree with their list?

There are few actors as skilled at capturing the gift and curse of genius than Benedict Cumberbatch. In a career that’s spanned stage, television and film, the actor has established himself as your go-to for cinematic brilliance. But that’s only part of his range and over the past decade, the star of “The Power of the Dog” has played a wide variety of complex characters. Cumberbatch is set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Feb. 28, the latest accolade for the Emmy- and BAFTA-winner and two-time Oscar nominee. On the eve of this honor, we take a look at 10 of his greatest roles.

WHAT: Benedict Cumberbatch receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
WHEN: 11:30 a.m., Feb. 28
WHERE: 6918 Hollywood Blvd.

10. Van Gogh: Painted With Words (2010)

Add Cumberbatch to the growing list of actors who have portrayed the troubled painter to great acclaim. In the documentary about the artist that utilizes re-creations drawn from Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Cumberbatch is absolutely magnetic, showing both the appeal and the cost of genius — a theme that would continue to fascinate Cumberbatch throughout his career. (Available for rental on Amazon Prime and Britbox.)

9. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

While every cast member of the franchise’s 2009 reboot had to face comparisons to their predecessors, by the time its sequel rolled aroun,d Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto were just as much Kirk and Spock as the originals. So all eyes were on Cumberbatch, stepping into the role of one of the series’ most iconic villains, Khan Noonien Singh, originally portrayed by Ricardo Montalban. It’s intended as a compliment to say Cumberbatch’s steely eyes and angular face make him perfect casting for a genetically engineered human. The film at first hides his identity (as did its marketing) but it’s revealed in a scene set in the brig where, standing behind glass, Cumberbatch coolly admits his true intentions. Just try not to get chills when he finally announces: “My name is … Khan!” (Available on Hulu, Epix and for rental on Amazon Prime.)

8. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Cumberbatch is an integral part of the ensemble of Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning best picture as plantation owner William Ford, who initially purchases Solomon Northup at a slave auction. At first, Ford seems like Northup’s ally — he recognizes his talents and even gifts him a violin. But when Northup explains he’s a free man and begs for Ford’s help, it falls upon cowardly ears as Ford refuses to help or even listen to his story. It’s one of the most gutting scenes of the film and an early reminder of how even a seemingly decent man will quickly choose his own interests over humanity. (Available on Hulu and HBO Max.)

7. The Imitation Game (2014)

Cumberbatch’s first Oscar nomination was for playing Alan Turing, the mathematician who helped crack codes for the British government during WWII. Cumberbatch nails Turing’s brilliance, of course, but also captures his tragedy — he hides his sexuality as long as he can and when it’s discovered, he’s convicted of gross indecency. As smart as he is with numbers, he is equally awkward with people and Cumberbatch pulls off this dichotomy perfectly. (Available for rental on Apple TV, Amazon Prime and YouTube.)

6. Patrick Melrose (2018)

Cumberbatch produced and starred in the five-episode adaptation of Edward St. Aubyn’s series of novels, which landed him BAFTA Awards and Emmy nominations for lead actor and limited series,
playing the title character over the course of five decades. A struggling addict, Patrick at first appears destructive and entitled but as we delve deeply into his past, Cumberbatch reveals layer upon layer of complexity to the character. It’s a tour de force in a challenging role, and the actor never hits a false note. (Available on Showtime and Hulu.)

5. The Hollow Crown: Richard III (2016)

It all led up to this: in the seventh and final film in BBC Two’s television adaptation of William Shakespeare’s history plays, Cumberbatch takes on one of the most challenging and memorable roles in the Bard’s canon as the power-hungry king. Though the actor played the role in the series’ previous installment, it’s “Richard III” in which we fully grasp his madness and determination. With his wicked asides and confessions directly to the camera, he makes a stunning villain. But Cumberbatch also gives him a self-awareness and soul, particularly in the famous soliloquy: “And if I die no soul will pity me. / And wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (Available for rental on Vudu.)

4. Sherlock (2010-17)

Though many actors have played Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth, there is simply no one else who could have starred in “Sherlock,” Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt’s utterly delightful present-day version. Never have violent mood swings been as captivating as when Holmes is desperate for a case and rarely has a character been so enjoyable while being so inconsiderate. The show won Cumberbatch the Emmy in 2014 — over some notably big names, including Mark Ruffalo and Billy Bob Thornton — and set him on the path to stardom. (Available on Amazon Prime and Apple TV for rental)

3. Doctor Strange (2016) and What If…? (2021)

Cumberbatch was the perfect choice to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Dr. Stephen Strange. He quickly takes us through the arrogant but charismatic doctor’s journey as a car accident strips him of his ability to perform surgery and embodies his obsession with healing that leads to a world of sorcery and alternate dimensions. Cumberbatch employs the right amount of snark and heroism throughout all of Strange’s appearances, but none of are more heartbreaking than his role in an episode of the animated series titled “What If … Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” After witnessing the death of his love, Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange repeatedly attempts to change the future, with universe-collapsing results. Playing both Strange and his counterpart Strange Supreme and using only his voice, Cumberbatch guides us through one of the most emotional sequences in the MCU. (Both available on Disney Plus.)

2. Frankenstein (2011)

Danny Boyle directed this National Theatre production of “Frankenstein,” which screened in cinemas in 2011 and can now be found online. While I’m generally not a fan of filmed plays, this production is an exception: somehow both capturing the spectacle and the intimacy of Nick Dear’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley classic. Stars Jonny Lee Miller and Cumberbatch would alternate the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature but whichever role you catch Cumberbatch in, you can’t lose. But it’s hard to top his heartbreaking turn as the Creature, which opens with a nearly 10-minute “birthing” scene that is a master class in physical performance. (Available on SchoolTube.)

1. The Power of the Dog (2021)

Sometimes the obvious answer is also the correct answer. A bravura performance that ranks with his best, Cumberbatch went against type to play cruel, closeted cowboy Phil Burbank in Jane Campion’s stunning Western, which just earned him his second Academy Award nomination. Phil does have something in common with many of Cumberbatch’s roles — he’s fiercely intelligent — but he masks it with a filthy appearance and chooses to use it more for cruelty than anything, particularly when playing mind games with his brother’s fragile new wife. But Phil is not a complete monster, as Cumberbatch simply isn’t capable of being a cardboard villain. As the film progresses, we see glimpses of humanity and begin to hope for a different outcome than what we all know will be his destiny. (Available on Netflix.)