The 25 Best Male Performances of The 21st Century
To begin, let it be known that this list of best male performances of the century could easily be extended to upwards of 50 actors. While there will always be people stubbornly attached to the past, most will conclude that this century has brought us an abundance of mesmerizing performances from acclaimed actors and newbies alike. From all across the globe, you’ll find some of the most memorable performances that made sizeable impressions on filmgoers.
Keeping in mind that this is a subjective list, don’t get too furious over the exclusion of certain performances. The fact is, nobody has seen every movie released in the past sixteen years, so some omissions may be due to the fact that the movie in question hasn’t been seen by this particular author.
Also, we’ve decided to narrow things down to one film per actor. So despite the fact that Daniel Day Lewis stunned in Lincoln and Ryan Gosling charmed us in Lars and the Real Girl, those performances will not be included.
A lot of thought has been put into this list, so sit back and enjoy the read! Remember, if you’d like to share feel free to sound off in the comments.
25. Ben Kingsley – Sexy Beast
Don Logan is one hell of a nasty dude, and Ben Kingsley is well aware of that. He channels his inner gangster in this gruesome British crime film that benefits immensely from Kingsley’s strong performance. Frankly, he is such an integral part of what makes Sexy Beast such a success that it’s hard to imagine getting anywhere near the same amount of enjoyment without his glowing presence.
It’s not that the film would be bad without him. The writing, direction, and editing are all solid – but that’s all they are. Kingsley, on the other hand, is exceptional. This brooding baddie is pretty much the exact opposite of his Gandhi portrayal, and that just proves that he has a seriously impressive range.
Along with being one of the best performances to come along the past sixteen years, Kingsley’s performance insures that Don Logan will be remembered as one of the best villains of the century. Sorry Mandarin, but this guy is a real mad man.
24. Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Everyone knew that Mikkelsen was more than capable of playing a villain. He had plenty of practice in that particular area. What many weren’t totally certain of was whether or not he could pull of a more sympathetic character. That all changed when Danish Oscar nominee The Hunt was released.
The heartbreaking story of a teacher falsely accused of child molestation garnered plenty of praise, particularly directed at Mikkelsen. The seemingly hokey premise could have been handled like a Lifetime Original Movie, but luckily it was in very capable hands.
Vinterberg’s assured direction made it so that Mikkelsen couldn’t phone in his performance even if he tried. Let’s be real, though. Mikkelsen had no intention of delivering anything other than the best performance of his entire career. His villainous performances are always fun to watch, but his first stint as a character audiences can commiserate remains the highlight of his already impressive filmography.
23. Sam Rockwell – Moon
If you ever wondered if Sam Rockwell can carry a movie by himself, give Moon a look. The indie sci-fi flick directed by Duncan Jones is a cerebral mind-bender that puts Sam Rockwell front and center as Sam Bell, or rather, as multiple Sam Bells. You see, Rockwell is taking on the role of clones. Dual roles are tricky enough, but dual roles by someone who is basically the only actor in a film is even more impressive.
Rockwell is tremendous as the pair of eccentric astronauts tasked with mining the moon for minerals. Though they may be the same person, the two Sam Bells that appear on screen have enough subtle differences to keep viewers on their feet. Rockwell makes an active effort to sneak small distinctive features into the clones. This performance is one that benefits because of Rockwell’s attention to detail. His effort to make these character more than meets the eye is commendable.
22. Bruno Ganz – Downfall
This list features quite a few biopics, and they all feature important characters that need the right actor to pull off the part. Let’s be real though, no actor on this list had the same challenge as Bruno Ganz in Downfall. That’s because Ganz was tasked with playing perhaps the most infamous man to ever grace this lovely little planet – Adolf Hitler.
Hitler has been played plenty of times before. Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheard, Dick Shawn, and dozens of others have taken a crack at playing the much-loathed dictator. Plenty of people have done a perfectly fine job of portraying him. None of them, however, were able to truly capture the essence of Adolf Hitler.
Enter Bruno Ganz, whose tour de force performance is both moving and humanizing. Ganz gave the world the best possible portrayal of Adolf Hitler. Seriously, it may never be topped. It helps that most portrayals of the character were in more minor roles (like in Indiana Jones and The Producers). After all, Hitler is the prime focus of Downfall. Still, the way Ganz makes us feel for one of the most vile humans to ever exist is beyond commendable regardless of how long he appears onscreen.
Downfall is an ambitious epic to be sure, but it’s made even more fantastic because of the stunning performance given by Ganz. It’s definitely one of the best European performances of the 21st century, and it’s something I imagine many actors will aspire to recreate in future biopics about the character.
21. Christian Bale – The Fighter
Bale’s dedication to body transformation is admirable, but we all know that’s not enough to make a great performance. 50 Cent lost over fifty pounds to portray a football player diagnosed with cancer in All Things Fall Apart, Colin Farrell lost over forty to star in the forgettable thriller Triage, and Vanessa Hudgens completely changed her look for the role in the groan-inducing Gimme Shelter. None of that mattered in the end because all of these performances were lackluster. It takes more than a change in diet to wow audiences, and Christian Bale kept that in mind.
By the time The Fighter was released, Bale had already made a name for himself as a physical transformation guru. He lost an unhealthy amount of weight for The Machinist only to bulk up for Batman Begins and finally return to his regular weight for The Prestige. So the fact that he was willing to lose some weight to portray Mark Wahlberg’s junky half-brother wasn’t as noteworthy as it would’ve been years before.
What made the performance stand out instead was the research Bale had to do to make a character like this come to life along with his rhythmic timing. Based on a real life fighter, Dicky Eklund’s physical ticks and voice were extensively looked into by Bale. The result is a performance that earned him a well-deserved Oscar. Since then, his career has continued to blossom with Oscar nominated roles in American Hustle and The Big Short.
20. Choi Min-sik – Oldboy
To some, Oldboy may be nothing more than an exercise in unnecessary violence. To others, it’s a brutal revenge thriller that shows what madness can drive people to do. The bouts of blood-soaked carnage may be the most memorable part of this cult classic, but the people behind the screen shouldn’t be forgotten. Most importantly, Choi Min-sik’s depiction of a man imprisoned for fifteen years for unknown reasons (until the much-discussed twist that will make your jaw drop) shows a wide range of emotion.
Going from 0 to 100 in a matter of minutes, Choi Min-sik shows you everything he’s got when he’s on screen as this emotionally complex character. From subtle and nuanced to loud and in-your-face, viewers certainly get a sample of everything Min-sik has to offer. If anything, his acting abilities help push Oldboy even further away from being a generic revenge thriller.
If the clever script wasn’t enough to convince you that this was above and beyond your revenge move, Min-sik’s commitment to the role may be enough to change your mind.
19. Joaquin Phoneix – Her
This sensational sci-fi comedy by director Spike Jonez puts Joaquin Phoenix into the shoes of a man who falls in love with his operating system. Think Lars and the Real Girl with artificial intelligence. Honestly though, it’s kind of unfair to compare Her to any movie. Despite the fact that it is similarly about an awkward man falling for something non-human, Her is still entirely unique because of Jonez’ magnificent screenplay.
This particular screenplay asks for two perfect performers in order for all the pieces to fall into place. He needs ac actress with an alluring voice to play Samantha, the aforementioned operating system.
It’s no surprise that Johansson was the perfect choice to play this particular part. He also needs an actor who can take this seemingly silly material and make it feel authentic and touching. In comes Joaquin Phoenix who delivers a tender, sensitive performance that allows the script to carry far more dramatic weight than it should.
In the wrong hands, Her could have been too ridiculous for its own good. There’s no denying the fact that the premise is beyond a little odd. The fact that Phoenix and Jonez push Her into tearjerker territory is rather commendable. Jonez’ heartfelt script mixed with Phoenix’s emotionally complex and layered performance leads to the perfect combination of quirky and sincere.
18. Ulrich Muhe – The Lives of Others
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s awe-inspiring debut film somehow managed to avoid every trope found in a crowded genre. Instead of going for big and loud popcorn thrills, Donnersmarck instead gave audiences a subtle, slow-moving thriller about the state of surveillance culture before the fall of the Berlin wall.
This muted spy thriller relies on slow-building tension and naturalistic dialog in order to immerse viewers in a way to which they are unaccustomed. The leisurely pacing and profound thematic depth help distance the film from other thrillers, but the cast also needs to bring the same kind of subtlety for the overall project to feel cohesive.
The late Ulrich Muhe, who serves as the protagonist of the story, assists in providing low-key thrills with his restrained performance. Not everyone needs to play a character like Terence Fletcher in order to please filmgoers. Sometimes a more soft-spoken, subtle role is just as satisfactory.
The shifts in emotion and character are occasionally hard to spot, but don’t let them go unnoticed. Muhe may not be yelling into the camera, but he’s making sure every frame counts. His emotional responses are often discrete, but they all add up to something remarkable. Some actors couldn’t tackle material like this without coming off as robotic, but the arduous work done by Muhe insures that people will notice his efforts.