This is a common topic of discussion among cinephiles: who are the greatest thespians working right now? A comprehensive list of such actors would have to include living legends like De Niro, Pacino, Caine and so on, of course, and while there should be recognition and appreciation of the talent of such brilliant professionals, how could one narrow it down to the actors who truly represent a current generation?
Let’s say we’re only talking about actors under 50 years old, and actors whose period of success started after the turn of the century, or shortly before.
That’s how this list was structured, and it’s also limited, as said in the beginning, to actors working right now – so, unfortunately, you’ll not find the sadly departed Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger here either. There’s also bound to be some actors that some readers might think should be here instead of the ones we chose, but that’s nothing if not a statement on how diverse and interesting the filmmaking community is right now around the world.
Please note that this list includes MALE actors only, we will have a list of female actors soon.
15. Cillian Murphy (b. May 25, 1976)
Standout performance: Breakfast on Pluto
It’s not easy to forget Cillian Murphy’s face. The Irish actor, with his high cheekbones, squared jaw and sharp blue eyes, has an unsettling and yet strangely attractive completion, but that’s not all that he’s shown since his breakout in Danny Boyle’s now-classic zombie flick 28 Days Later. He had done impressing jobs already in Kristen Sheridan’s Disco Pigs and John Carney’s On the Edge, more than qualifying him to survive Boyle’s zombie apocalypse and bring a strange vibe and an everyman sensibility to the role.
Hollywood has explored Murphy’s eccentricity in villain roles like Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Wes Craven’s unnerving airplane thriller Red Eye. But the magic truly happens when he gets to sink his teeth into meatier, more diverse roles like the unforgettable Patrick “Kitten” Braden in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto.
Murphy’s performance is light-years ahead of more famous male actors who tackled a trans role, and that’s surprising coming from the guy who’s typecast as creepy villains in Hollywood. He’s also been terrific since 2013 as gangster Thomas Shelby in BBC’s Peaky Blinders.
14. Chiwetel Ejiofor (b. July 10, 1977)
Standout performance: 12 Years a Slave
This British thespian came to Hollywood’s attention right on his first film role, on Steven Spielberg’s terrific Amistad, following it with supporting parts in a wide variety of films, including Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, celebrated rom-com Love Actually, Woody Allen flick Melinda and Melinda, and musical comedy Kinky Boots, recently made into a Tony-winning stage musical. He’s terrific in David Mamet’s Redbelt, and playing opposite William Hurt in the tense Apartheid political thriller Endgame.
His breakout year was 2013, though, first with an Emmy nominated performance in Starz miniseries Dancing on the Edge, and finally in the defining turn of his career as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s powerful 12 Years a Slave.
The intensity and thoughtfulness he brings to his roles reach its peak in the revolting journey of the free black man sold into slavery in the antebellum United States. He’s since delivered a strong performance in the little-seen post-apocalyptical drama Z for Zachariah, playing opposite Margot Robbie and Chris Pine in a charged love triangle that’s nothing if not a metaphorical retelling of the tale of Adam, Eve and the serpent.
13. Matthew McConaughey (b. November 4, 1969)
Standout performance: Magic Mike
We’ve been familiar with Mr. McConaughey since his 1993 breakout in the now-classic Dazed and Confused, but we haven’t really appreciated his talent until recently, in the event now jokingly known as the McConaissance.
The U-turn in the second act of his career started around 2011, when after a year off the screen he made his comeback starring in legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer, an unusual choice for an actor that was mostly known for his roles in various futile rom-coms. Then it was the defining duo of Killer Joe and Mud, who earned him nominations for a plethora of awards and critical acclaim.
The real change would come in 2013, of course, when his turn as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club would win him his Oscar. His finest piece of acting is still in HBO’s True Detective, season 1, of course – a few years have passed, and his Rust Cohle still haunts us in our dreams sometimes. And let’s not forget, he was the bedrock upon which Christopher Nolan built his ambitious (and sometimes frustrating) Interstellar.
In the theatrical releases, though, our money is still on his turn as strip club-owner Dallas in Magic Mike, a film that’s often diminished for its themes, but feature strong performances from the cast, especially McConaughey, combining his newfound sensibility with an energy that’s not so far removed from his rom-com days. That’s what we call the best of both worlds.
12. Ewan McGregor (b. March 31, 1971)
Standout performance: Lo Imposible/The Impossible
Nobody’s favorite Obi-Wan Kenobi is, despite George Lucas’ complete inaptitude at directing actors, a very fine thespian, if your take a look at his hugely diversified and fascinating career.
This Scottish gem had his breakout, of course, as the lead in Danny Boyle’s absolute classic Trainspotting, from 1996, and many film fans would say this is still his best performance. That’s no coincidence – McGregor is magnetic, hugely energetic and tremendously complex as Renton in this drug-induced journey through Edinburgh. His choices since then have managed to be even more interesting and unpredictable since, though.
A few of the landmarks of this impressive filmography: his wild-child American rockstar in Todd Haynes’ unofficial Bowie biography Velvet Goldmine; his hopeless romantic bohemian writer in Baz Luhrmann’s classic Moulin Rouge!; his young Ed Bloom in Tim Burton’s fantastic journey through a lifetime Big Fish; the love of Jim Carrey’s life in the weird dramedy I Love You Phillip Morris; the unnamed titular character who stumbles upon a political conspiracy in Roman Polanski’s brilliant The Ghost Writer; the graphic artist whose life is turned upside down by his father’s illness (and his announcement that he’s gay) in sensitive drama Beginners; and, our favorite, the family man desperate to find his wife and kid in the middle of the tsunami in Thailand in The Impossible.
That kind of variety with excellence is what makes him one of the finest performers of our generations, and it’s also what makes it baffling that he’s never been nominated for a single Academy Award.
11. Gael Garcia Bernal (b. November 30, 1978)
Standout performance: Amore Perros
We seem to take Gael Garcia Bernal for granted sometimes, possibly because he chose a path in his career that does not include many high-profile roles in Academy-lauded movies. Since his breakout turn in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s terrific debut Amores Perros, though, Gael‘s been building a filmography as essential and perhaps even more interesting than most Hollywood stars.
His sometimes subdued, sometimes intense sensitivity in a wide range of roles and genres makes him one of the most underestimated performers of his generation – an injustice partly corrected by his Golden Globe win this year for the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, the latest of his unusual forays into Hollywood.
He’s been terrific as a pre-college late-teen taking a trip through Europe (and getting involved in a hot threesome with Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú) in Alfonso Cuarón’s pre-Hollywood road movie Y tu Mamá También; as Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in Brazilian director Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries; as an aspiring writer reconnecting with a love from his childhood in Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical drama Bad Education; as the headstrong nephew of an illegal Mexican worker in Iñárritu’s Babel; as a violent despot in a world where almost everyone can’t see a thing in Blindness; and as an ad executive working to tear down a Chilean dictator in Pablo Larrain’s Oscar-nominated No.
10. Idris Elba (b. November 6, 1972)
Standout performance: Beasts of No Nation
Were it not for David Simon’s The Wire, maybe today we’d be talking about the latest mixtape by DJ Big Driis. That’s right, way before he got his breakout role in the HBO Emmy-nominated series in 2002, Londoner Idris Elba worked as a disc jockey in nightclubs under that ridiculous moniker – so thank God he landed the role of drug kingpin Russell “Stringer” Bell, a 37-episode gig that opened all kinds of doors for him.
He was one of the survivors in the very competent zombie-movie sequel 28 Weeks Later, took a supporting role in Oliver Stone’s American Gangster, made his mark in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, and even paired with Beyoncé for the terrible thriller Obsessive.
Though that list doesn’t inspire much in the way of his rank in our list, take a look at his brief stint on Showtime drama The Big C, and his leading performance on BBC’s Luther, that has earned him a Golden Globe and three Emmy nominations.
He’s been course-correcting on the big screen lately too, taking complex roles such as South-African leader Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and child-soldier recruiting, all-around hateful and pitiful Commandant in Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, a role for which he absolutely should have earned an Oscar nod. Elba’s intensity, grandiosity and deep understanding of his characters rank him as one of the best and most promising working right now.
9. Mark Ruffalo (b. November 22, 1967)
Standout performance: You Can Count on Me
The offbeat energy Mark Ruffalo brings to his roles has been a defining element of the last 15 years or-so of American cinema. That might seem like an overstatement, but his career has been both very versatile and very consistent, especially regarding the warmth and sensibility he brings to each one of his roles.
He’s been on the A-list since Kenneth Lonergan’s Oscar-nominated family drama You Can Count on Me, in which he played Laura Linney’s deadbeat brother, who comes home to ask her for a loan and ends up staying to provide her young son with an adult male figure in his life. Linney owns that film, as she usually does, but Ruffalo brings a more-than-welcome dose of nuance to a complex character whose fundamental relatability is essential for the film to work.
And that’s essentially what Ruffalo is as an actor: a utility player. He has been consistently and exceedingly great in roles that require him to make us relate to characters so that the movie can tell us its story and keep us grounded in firm human ground. He was indispensable in his small part in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; in the underestimated supernatural rom-com Just Like Heaven; in David Fincher’s San Francisco criminal epic Zodiac; as the lead character in Fernando Meirelles’ post-apocalyptic Blindness; in Rian Johnson’s con-men fantasy film The Brothers Bloom; as a manic-depressive father trying to earn the trust of his family back in Infinitely Polar Bear; and on his string of Oscar-nominated performances in The Kids Are All Right, Foxcatcher and Spotlight.