The 25 Best Male Performances of The 21st Century

17. Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler


Jake Gyllenhaal may be considered one of the world’s most beautiful people, but in Nightcrawler, he’ll make your skin crawl. It’s not that audiences haven’t seen an off-kilter Gyllenhaal before, but after a string of movies where he uses his sex appeal to his benefit, people may have forgotten just how good he is at playing a weirdo.

First-time director Dan Gilroy eventually came along and made Nightcrawler, which forced Gyllenhaal to go back to his Donnie Darko days and play a character that’s about as far from “sexy” as physically possible.

Quirky doesn’t begin to explain the character that Gyllenhaal has to play. Lou Bloom is a sociopathic outcast that loves sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. Most importantly though, he’s a total creep.

From his physical mannerism to the way he speaks, Lou Bloom is someone who has the ability to make you feel more than a little uncomfortable. He’s not necessarily as harmful as he appears (though he’s still very much corrupt), but everything he does is genuinely unsettling.

So that leads to the biggest challenge Gyllenhaal had to face. How could he portray a character that’s not outright psychopathic, but still manages to show all the signs of someone with no empathy? Somehow, he makes it seem like a cakewalk. Even if Lou Bloom doesn’t do the same kind of damage as a character like Hannibal Lecter, he still finds a way to be almost as frightening.

At the end of the day, that’s what makes Nightcrawler so impressive. The fact that Gyllenhaal has such control over his audience is one of the strongest aspects of the well-written thriller. In a career filled with achievements, Nightcrawler just might be Gyllenhaal’s best.


16. JK Simmons – Whiplash


“Were you rushing or were you dragging?” In that moment JK Simmons went from the goofy dad in Juno to the most tyrannical band instructor one could ever imagine. A man that teachers college kids how to play instruments may not sound like one of this century’s greatest villains, but when you sit through Whiplash and watch Terence Fletcher destroy the psyche of young adults, you begin to realize that he’s almost as immoral as your average Marvel villain.

JK Simmons gives us more than just a guy who yells at students, though. He presents viewers with somebody who, at times, is actually morally ambiguous. Terence Fletcher is a surprisingly complex characters, and the emotional 180s that Simmons presents to filmgoers helps drive that point home.

If Simmons simply went through the motions and screamed for two hours, it would still be a solid performance. What makes this more than just “solid” is his commitment to authentically portraying a man whose both detestable and respectable.

Fletcher is a character who challenges viewers. Simmons wants to put the audience in the band members shows and force them to ask how they would respond in this kind of situation. His callous behavior is without a doubt off-putting, but there are small things within his character that make viewers question whether or not he’s as heartless as he appears. Simmons takes an excellent script with an excellent character and makes things even more thought-provoking. It’s a knockout.


15. Denzel Washington – Training Day

Alonzo Harris (Training Day)

Training Day shows us Denzel Washington at his most despicable. Though recent releases like American Gangster, Safe House, and Flight have had Washington play a less-than-holy character, he had previously been pretty well known for playing the good guys. From Glory to Malcolm X, Denzel was usually if not always given the role of a noble and heroic character. It wasn’t until 2001 that we saw the darker side of Washington as an actor.

Then comes along a little movie like Training Day where the seemingly typecast Denzel Washington defies expectations. As corrupt cop Alonzo Harris, Washington is positively ruthless. This is a loud, over-the-top performance that was quite different from the more subtle performances we had previously seen.

In the hands of some actors, this was a performance that could have been filled with groan-inducing overacting. Washington never comes across hammy or “too much.” Despite playing a character that had potential to come across cartoonish and silly, Washington’s skill as an actor allows him to play an over-the-top character without going overboard, and that means a lot when the script has a tendency to feel a bit excessive.


14. Ryan Gosling – Half Nelson

Half Nelson (2006)

Prior to the year 2006, Ryan Gosling was mostly known simply as “the guy from The Notebook.” Sure, his talent was on full display in The Believer, but that 1 million dollar box office draw was doing him no favors.

The most popular Nicholas Sparks movie to this day put Gosling in danger of being a one-hit wonder. How on earth could he separate himself from that identity? By now, after movies like Blue Valentine, Drive, The Ides of March, and The Big Short, audiences are well aware of Gosling’s immense talent. The short period after the release of The Notebook, however, was a huge question mark.

The first real sign that Gosling was more than just a dreamy guy in a sappy romance flick was after the release of Half Nelson. Gosling is dazzling as a drug addicted teacher who befriends a student who helps him get over his addiction. Dan Dunne is a multidimensional character and Gosling demonstrates that he’s able to display every possible dimension. Watching this smart but troubled character combat his demons is is as rewarding as it is captivating.

Gosling’s performance is solid enough by itself, but his chemistry with Shareeka Epps is icing on the cake. The two make for one of the most compelling duos in a contemporary drama. Gosling is definitely the star of the show, which is why he made it onto this list, but Epps helped make his performance such an achievement.

With La La Land coming out in a few months, it’ll be interesting to see if Gosling can top his greatest career achievement. Currently though, Half Nelson is both the best performance of Gosling’s career and one of the strongest of the 21st century.


13. Michael Fassbender – Shame


Fassbender has done an impressive job in all three of his Steve McQueen collaborations, but this look into the eyes of a sex addict is the best of the bunch. Considering Fassbender’s talent, that ends up being one might feat.

Watching Shame is an uncomfortable experience. The subject matter and plotting are cringe-inducing as is, but when you throw in an unsettling Fassbender, the movie becomes even harder to watch. Make no mistake, Shame is a phenomenal movie, but it’s one that will test you.

Challenging movies are kind of McQueens forte, and Shame is no exception. Like 12 Years a Slave and Hunger, McQueen makes it his job to help each and every cast member deliver a gut-wrenching performance. So while Fassbender is great as the lead by himself, Mulligan is fantastic as well. The chemistry between the two leads is one of the primary reasons why Fassbender is so watchable.

Honestly, there are numerous elements that help this performance stand out among Fassbender’s already top notch resume. This is an emotionally complex performance that forces Fassbender to take everything he’s learned throughout his career and apply it to the film. The result is a harrowing, memorable experience.


12. Benicio Del Toro – Traffic

Traffic (2000)

Fun fact – Del Toro is one of a select few actors who managed to attain an Academy Award with a role that was mostly in a foreign language. Yes, Traffic is an American film, but a large chunk of the plot revolves around the Mexican drug trade. Well, technically a third of the film revolves around the Mexican drug trade. Soderbergh’s most talked about movie features three concurrent storylines with different casts of characters in each.

As a result of the scope of the film, Traffic features an ensemble cast that includes cast with Don Cheadle, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, Amy Irving, Viola Davis, Topher Grace, and of course Benicio Del Toro.

The cast members all put in their best possible effort, but the one that continuously sticks out is Del Toro. He may not have as much screen time as Douglas, and honestly, his story may not be the best of the bunch, but he’s still the standout of the strong cast.

Del Toro is another example of an actor who showed a sizeable amount of dedication in his depiction of the character he was sought to play. The studio allegedly wanted to dub over Del Toro’s Spanish dialog, but both Del Toro and Soderbergh rejected the idea, largely because of the amount of work Del Toro put into perfecting Mexican voice inflections. Del Toro, who hails from Puerto Rico, allegedly believed that the film helped improve his Spanish vocabulary as well as his work on accents.

The dedication was obvious when the film was released. This understated performance always played to the movie’s advantage. As the soft-spoken voice of reason, Del Toro played the role with gusto and professionalism. He seemed to really enjoy playing the part. Lucky for us, we enjoyed watching him play the part.


11. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Aviator

The Aviator (2004)

DiCaprio’s Oscar winning role in The Revenant was definitely impressive, but out of all his performances, his take on pilot Howard Hughes still stands out as strongest work to this day. Whether it’s the best overall Scorsese/DiCaprio collaboration might be more up in the air, but in terms of acting only, The Aviator takes the cake.

According to several sources, DiCaprio did a hefty amount of research to perfectly replicate everything about Hughes. For those who don’t know, Hughes had a particularly unique case of OCD, which made the performance more difficult than meets the eye. DiCaprio allegedly spent countless hours researching the character and making sure he could perfectly replicate every obsessive compulsive tick. Hughes was a complex person, so it makes sense that DiCaprio would dedicate so much time to nail his role.

Since biopics are so focused on recreating the lives of real people, actors and actresses have to make sure they do justice to the subjects in the film. They’re required to mimic every aspect of these people’s lives, and if they don’t, the believability might as well be thrown out the window.

DiCaprio makes it abundantly clear that he wants to show the world the most authentic and believable portrait of Howard Hughes. The dedication to the role is astounding, and the outcome is beyond satisfying.


10. Forest Whitaker – The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was a merciless narcissist with ice running through his veins. His reign resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and he never even batted an eye. Forest Whitaker, who normally chooses to play it cool and reserved, decided to step up to the plate and take on the role of Amin. His bravura performance is the perfect combination of ominous and barbaric. He phenomenally fits the tyrants shows to the point that you’ll forget you’re watching a movie at times.

It really is hard to believe that the man from Species and Battlefield Earth could so easily hypnotize his audience. Listen, we all knew Whitaker was a good actor from roles like Panic Room and A Little Trip to Heaven. What we weren’t as confident about was whether or not he could command the screen.

In The Last King of Scotland, he’s able to elicit a large range of emotions from viewers. He can frighten them, he can earn sympathy from them, and he can make them want to rip out their hair. He demands attention in every shot. Whitaker makes you want to know more about Amin because he’s so able to grab you by the neck and get your attention. If that’s not the sign of a great performer, I don’t know what is.


9. Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men


When Javier Bardem was nominated for (and eventually won) the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, some viewers of No Country for Old Men may have scratched their head. They probably thought to themselves, “Wait, he wasn’t the lead?” A quick rewatch can assure you that no, Bardem was not actually playing the main character in the Coen-directed Oscar giant.

The top billed cast member was actually Tommy Lee Jones. It’s not that pointing out the protagonist is difficult because of a messy script though. It’s the fact that Bardem was so hypnotic as Anton Chigurh that viewers are liable to forget anybody else stars in the film at all.

Even with a haircut that makes him look like a girl scout from another decade, Bardem still gives the audience one hell of a menacing villain. His haunting portrayal of this sociopathic monster is terrifying. Bardem gives viewers a villain with no empathy for human life. His calm demeanor constantly reminds the audience that this is a character incapable of feeling guilt.

He plays a character that’s not just frightening to the characters, but also to the audience. No Country for Old Men certainly isn’t a horror movie, but Bardem’s take on the character could still find its way into your nightmares.

Like always, the Coen brothers have written a top notch script with well developed characters. Bardem is just talented enough to take things to the next level. He takes a character who’s well written and adds even more depth. In the end, audiences are left an antagonist that will stick with them.