8. Ryan Gosling (b. November 12, 1980)
Standout performance: The Ides of March
2004’s The Notebook did more than bring tears into teen girls’ eyes around the world – it gave us Ryan Gosling, Hollywood star. What’s curious about this Canadian wonder’s short but impressive career is that he never really gave in to the pressures of becoming a big movie star in blockbusters – he mocked his fame in the great Crazy, Stupid, Love alongside Steve Carrell, but that was mostly it. Since 2004, Gosling has chosen deep roles in interesting films by talented directors, making him the rare A-lister who’s not really making what Hollywood would call A-list films with big box office expectations.
Of course, he was already terrific as the young Jewish man developing anti-Semitic beliefs and joining the K.K.K. in The Believer, who came three years prior to The Notebook. He has since been nominated for an Oscar for playing a high school teacher with a drug habit in Half Nelson, but he was also arguably awards-worthy as a delusional guy having a relationship with a doll in Lars and the Real Girl; half of a couple in the brutally honest Blue Valentine; a mysterious stuntman/mechanic/runaway driver in the brilliant Drive; and as a staffer for a new presidential candidate who sees his ideals turn to dust in The Ides of March. He’s great in dramas and great in comedies, and he’s been directing lately – best of all, he’s still only 35.
7. Tom Hardy (b. September 15, 1977)
Standout performance: Bronson
Tom Hardy’s intensity and precise characterization has been such a gift for the last few years of cinema that it’s easy to forget he’s actually been around for some time – his first big role in the silver screen was as villain Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis, and that was 2002! Sure, he’s taken some years since to battle his drug addiction, appearing sporadically in smaller roles and on television.
His big breakout came really in 2008, when he was virtually everywhere with Sucker Punch, RocknRolla and Bronson, probably his best performance to date. As notoriously violent inmate Charles Bronson, Hardy channels his struggles into an unforgivingly cynical and brutal character, and the results are as uncompromising as they are spectacular to watch.
He’s truly been on a roll since, getting big Hollywood gigs after his performance in Chrisopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Inception. He’s been amazing in Gavin O’Connor’s celebrated Warrior; in his tour de force performance (he’s literally the only actor onscreen) in Locke; in the Dennis Lehane-scripted crime drama adaptation The Drop; as the iconic title-character in Mad Max: Fury Road; in a double role as twins and crime kingpins Reggie and Ron Kray in Legend; and, of course, in his Oscar-nominated turn as Leo DiCaprio’s nemesis in The Revenant. If you want intense, disturbed and deep, he’s the guy you should go to.
6. Christian Bale (b. January 30, 1974)
Standout performance: The Machinist
A chameleon as much as he is becoming an easily distinguishable performer, Welsh wonder Christian Bale is the rare child-actor gone right.
At the tender age of 13 he was the young British boy trying to survive Japanese occupation during World War II in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun; at 18, he was singing and dancing as the leader of striking newsboys in Kenny Ortega’s Newsies; at 26, he finally found the part that would forever change the public’s perception of him, and the beginning of a brilliant adult career – the wealthy banking executive turned serial killer in Mary Harron’s classic American Psycho. As great as he was in that iconic role, it was only the beginning for Bale.
He’s even better in the vastly underappreciated dystopic sci-fi pastiche Equilibrium; and delivered his very best performance (though that’s not an easy pick) in Brad Anderson’s shocker suspense The Machinist; was the best Bruce Wayne to ever grace the screen by truly trying to understand the neediness and fear inside him in Nolan’s Batman trilogy; endured survivalist extremes for Werner Herzog’s amazingly crafter Rescue Dawn; flourished again under Nolan’s watch in The Prestige; squared off against Russell Crowe in spectacular fashion for western 3:10 to Yuma; and submerged inside his characters in a trio of Oscar-nominated performances in The Fighter (for which he won), American Hustle and The Big Short.
5. Michael Fassbender (b. April 2, 1977)
Standout performance: Hunger
Though he was in HBO’s hugely successful Band of Brothers, German actor Michael Fassbender a good few years trapped in small roles for British television before coming to every critic’s attention as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s brutal docudrama Hunger, a portrait of the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike.
As Sands, Fassbender not only lost an insane amount of weight, he became the face and soul of the fragility, strength, stupidity and wisdom of such an act of protest. In the now-famous unbroken shot in which Sands talks to Liam Cunningham’s Father Moran, Fassbender’s performance commands the attention in a way that’s nothing if not premonitory of how he’d face future roles in his career.
Be it as Rochester in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s terrific adaptation of Jane Eyre; as powerful mutant Magneto in the X-Men films; as Carl Jung under the masterful command of David Cronenberg in A Dangerous Method; in his two future team-ups with McQueen in Shame and 12 Years a Slave, the latter of which granted him his first Oscar nod; as a gunslinger trying to sell his favor to a young man in the underseen indie Western Slow West; as the classic Shakespeare character in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth; or as Apple founder, genius and very difficult man Steve Jobs in Danny Boyle’s like-titled film, Fassbender has created an impressive mark in recent cinema history.
4. Jake Gyllenhaal (b. December 19, 1980)
Standout performance: Nightcrawler
Who could tell that young Donnie Darko would grow up to become one of American cinema’s finest and more confident actors at only 35? Stephen Gyllenhaal’s son showed a gleam on sensibility in his early gigs, especially in Joe Johnston’s wonderful little drama October Sky, and in the aforementioned cult classic.
He became a mainstream sensation following his part in Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, but used that notoriety to make very smart choices: he made Brokeback Mountain with Ang Lee, Jarhead with Sam Mendes and Zodiac with David Fincher, all in less than three years after his breakout.
Yes, he was in some very questionable blockbusters, especially video-game adaptation Prince of Persia and Edward Zwick’s romantic comedy/drama Love & Other Drugs, but assisting his rising star with some Hollywood folly turned out to be the right choice, cause it allowed him to explore new and exciting characters, like Detective Loki in Denis Villeneuve’s tense Prisoners; a man seeking his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie in Enemy; and the scheming, cynical, psychopathic Lou Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s masterful debut Nightcrawler.
He was even great in a below average movie – the only reason Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw remotely works is because of Gyllenhaal’s intensely physical and instinctive performance.
3. Joaquin Phoenix (b. October 28, 1974)
Standout performance: The Master
He might be a little eccentric (that it’s mostly true of a few of his mates on this list, though, let’s be fair), but Joaquin Phoenix is truly a talent to behold when he’s giving his all onscreen. River Phoenix’s younger brothers tragically outlived his bro, and went on to become a big star after his turn in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman at her peak.
He has since shown incredible personality in his choice, and inspired sensibility in his portrayal of deeply disturbed or emotionally distraught people. He may excel at showing vulnerability, but his turn as villain Commodus in Gladiator proves he’s also an immensely versatile performer.
He’s great at black comedy too, as demonstrated in the underseen Buffalo Soldiers, made early in his career. His truly winning streak started with Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, in which he wholly becomes the Man in Black in a stunning performance. Since then, he’s been handed great characters by writer/director James Gray in very disparate movies such as crime drama We Own the Night, romantic parable Two Lovers, and immigration drama The Immigrant. He’s also collaborated with Paul Thomas Anderson for stunning turns in The Master (probably the best of his career, and his third – and latest – Oscar nod) and Inherent Vice. Oh, and let’s not forget his heartrending performance as Theodore in Spike Jonze’s sci-fi tear-jerker Her.
2. Leonardo DiCaprio (b. November 11, 1974)
Standout performance: The Aviator
From a teenage actor with a knack for rebellious roles to America’s sweetheart to the man everyone wished an Oscar for, Leo DiCaprio’s ride in Hollywood hasn’t been without its detours, but he’s been consistently brilliant through it.
From his breakout year in 1993 (at 19 years old) with This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to his fierily brilliant performances in Total Eclipse and Romeo + Juliet, to his unforgettable Jack Dawson in box-office (and Oscar) phenomenon Titanic, DiCaprio’s early career makes for an interesting bulk of work, but he’s become really great when he matured into an adult performer, hungry for big complex roles.
Increasingly more select, he worked with Martin Scorsese in his best performances, be it as the hero in the director’s historic crime drama Gangs of New York; as industry tycoon and future COD sufferer Howard Hughes in The Aviator, arguably his best work; as a cop deep undercover in the Boston mob in The Departed; as the U.S. Marshal trying to figure out what’s going on in an island full of lunatics in Shutter Island; or as stock-broker and professional bullsh*t seller Jordan Belfort in the brilliant The Wolf of Wall Street.
DiCaprio’s work with Scorsese is not the only reason he’s here, though, as he excelled under the command of Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond), Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant), among others. It was about time he got that Oscar.
1. Edward Norton (b. August 18, 1969)
Standout performance: American History X
Yes, he’s famously very card to work with, but he’s also unequivocally the best actor under 50 working right now on American cinema. And he’s been so since 1996’s Primal Fear, for which he scored a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination of three, none of which he won.
When you look at Norton’s body of work, it’s hard to believe he really still doesn’t have an Oscar – maybe we should campaign for him the way we did for Leo. His moment could have been in 1999 for American History X, when his scathing and deeply moving portrayal of a repented neo-Nazi was hands-down the best one on the race.
But Oscar or no Oscar, the truth is we have been taught to expect greatness from Norton since, and he overwhelmingly delivered. He’s done terrific comedy in the likes of 2000’s Have Faith, also his directing debut; in Tim Blake Nelson’s underseen Leaves of Grass, in which he plays twins; and on his team-ups with Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. And he’s been absolutely amazing in dramas like David Fincher’s classic Fight Club; Spike Lee’s heartrending examination of a man’s last day of freedom, 25th Hour; Neil Burger’s glimmering mystery thriller The Illusionist; John Curran’s classy adaptation of The Painted Veil; and on Iñarritu’s magnum opus one-take madness, Birdman.
Author Bio: Caio Coletti is a Brazilian-born journalist, a proud poptimist, and has too many opinions to keep them all to himself.