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The 25 Best Male Performances of The 21st Century

20 October 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Justin Gunterman

8. Jim Carrey – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

1998’s The Truman Show was basically the first time Jim Carrey broke out of his shell and tried something a little more experimental. It resulted in his first Golden Globe win. After that, we got a series of mediocre movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Majestic, and Me Myself and Irene. Man on the Moon was above average, but it was a far cry from what made his turn in The Truman Show so breathtaking.

It took Carrey six years to get back on track and show audiences that he was more than just a fun loving goofball. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Carrey shows us his melancholy side. The Truman Show was more dramatic than Carrey’s other roles, but it still allowed Carrey to occasionally show off how silly he could be.

On the other hand, Eternal really pushed Carrey away from his comfort zone. It wasn’t necessarily 12 Years a Slave, but this was still the most dramatic role Carrey had ever taken on. The lighter moments were there, but they consisted of a different kind of humor than Carrey was probably used to.

His Joel Barish was sensitive, kind-hearted, and tender. This kind of affectionate persona was something that Carrey had never touched. Up to this point, viewers had no idea if Carrey could successfully play this kind of person. Worries subsided after film lovers finally saw the heartbreaking performance. It’s kind of a bummer that he still tends to stick with safer roles, but now that we know what he’s capable of, it’s always excited to see where he’ll go in his career.


7. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight


There has been an awful lot of backlash since the release of The Dark Knight. It makes sense when you consider how much attention that movie got when it was released and how much it still gets today. It broke box office records, climbed to the top of the IMDb (where it still sits at the #4 spot), and became the most quoted movie by fourteen year old boys.

In all honesty, some of the criticisms are completely warranted. The Dark Knight is certainly not a perfect movie. Since the film has fallen victim to overhype, most detractors are willing to write essay-length explanations about the film’s flaws. One thing that is rarely brought up when discussing issues with the movie is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker.

There are people who will claim that Nicholson was the superior Joker, but even those people tend to avoid using the word “bad” to describe Ledger’s performance. That’s because the performance is undoubtedly one of the most praise-worthy elements of the movie. Heath Ledger’s rendition of one of the most iconic villains of all time is unforgettable.

Transformative doesn’t even begin to describe this performance. The stellar makeup helps Ledger become almost unrecognizable, but that’s not the only thing masking the fact that he’s playing the clown prince.

Ledger’s voice, body language, and facial expressions are all things the audience had never seen before. This wasn’t the heroic knight from A Knight’s Tale or the bad boy love interest in 10 Things I Hate About you.

This was something entirely unique compared to his previous performances along with performances by the other actors who have taken on the character. The Joker has been portrayed by so many people throughout the years, it would have been easy for Ledger to just copy what Nicholson or Hammill did. It also would have been easy to slightly modify one of his more villainous performances.

Luckily for everyone, Ledger didn’t take the easy way out. He made sure to give us a performance that we would remember years down the line. If Jared Leto’s unfortunately lackluster performance in Suicide Squad proves anything, it’s that playing The Joker is tough work. Ledger may have passed away too young, but he left us with a role that will remain iconic for years to come.


6. Adrien Brody – The Pianist

Adrian Brody The Pianist

Adrien Brody has yet to top his work in The Pianist. It’s not that he’s incapable of it, but he set the bar so high that it’ll take an awful lot to even come close to touching this kind of achievement. This would be a milestone for any actor, but the fact that a 29-year-old actor who had barely gotten his feet wet was capable of giving such a powerhouse performance makes this more of an accomplishment.

As a young Holocaust survivor, Brody paints an intimate and traumatic picture of a man who went through hell. Get the tissues ready, because if the story doesn’t make you cry than Brody’s touching performance most certainly will. One scene in particular, where Brody’s character plays piano in front of a German officer after physical and emotional turmoil, shows off Brody’s ability to get a response out of his audience. It will make want to weep.

There are seriously too many positive examples of his commitment to count. Brody’s performance is earth-shattering. He’ll make you cry, he’ll make you smile, and he’ll take you on an emotional roller coaster. With so many lackluster films with so much lackluster acting, Brody gives one of the most important roles of the twenty-first century.


5. Sean Penn – Milk


If anybody else would have “stolen” Mickey Rourke’s Oscar in 2008 for The Wrestler there may have been an uproar. Sean Penn did such an outstanding job in Milk that most Oscar watchers were able to recognize that his victory was not necessarily undeserved. The battle between Penn and Rourke was just one of those Oscar competitions that was too close to call. Think The Social Network versus The King’s Speech, but with actors.

Penn may not have had the same type of career redemption as Rourke (we all knew about Sean Penn’s talent), but that doesn’t mean his performance was any less meritorious. Actually, the fact that he was able to top a majority of his career highlights, such as Mystic River and The Thin Red Line, makes this a different career accomplishment.

Sean Penn gives a compassionate performance as the introverted activist and politician. He makes you care for this man every step of the way. The downer of a true story about Harvey Milk is heartbreaking enough, but when you add in Penn’s instantly likable performance, you’re left with a movie that’s bound to make you feel something.

Penn will make you adore Harvey Milk only to shatter your soul when the unfortunate climax happens. If the goal of the movie was to take you on an emotional, enlightening journey, then everything went according to plan.


4. Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino films are so focused on the characters that countless lists have been made counting down the best characters in his numerous films. Websites like Shortlist, IGN, and even Taste of Cinema have articles based around the best of the best Tarantino characters. Looking through the lists, you’ll probably notice a certain character is consistently near the top, if not the number one choice – and that’s Hans Landa. Heck, even Tarantino believes Landa is the best character he ever created.

There are two obvious factors that contribute to the critical acclaim Landa has received as a character. The first is Tarantino’s brilliant script, which paints Landa as a clever, Sherlockian villain with a gigantic ego and small heart. The second, and the one we’re going to focus on for the purpose of this list, is Waltz’s legendary breakthrough performance as the character. In the first major role of Waltz’s career, the Austrian actor clearly makes it his mission to create a lasting impression.

According to interviews, Tarantino was unwilling to film Inglorious Basterds until he found the perfect Landa. After considering Leonardo DiCaprio for the role, he eventually decided that Landa needed to be played by an actual German actor, but he wasn’t going to pick just anyone. It was more than just picking the first German actor that came in to audition. Actually, Tarantino was worried that Landa was so complex that the part would be unplayable.

In comes Waltz to save the movie and prove Tarantino wrong. Waltz plays the part so naturally, viewers may wonder why Tarantino was worried about finding an actor to begin with. Simply put, Waltz makes it look easy. He masterfully conveys every one of Landa’s flaws while also making him out to be one of the most chilling antagonists in a 21st century drama. How he manages to make us fear a man that so willingly wears his insecurities on his sleeve is what makes the performance that much more laudable.

He rightfully won numerous awards for the role, including an Academy Award and a Best Actor award at Cannes. Three years later, Waltz was able to wow Oscar voters again for his second collaboration with Tarantino. Tarantino’s decision to cast Waltz resulted in a commendable career achievement for both parties. Not only did Tarantino get to finish making one of his passion projects, but Waltz’s career blossomed thanks to his contributions.


3. Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler


Talk about a comeback! After staying out of the limelight for a number of years, Mickey Rourke returned to the public eye when he played Randy ‘the Ram’ Robinson in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. His comeback somewhat began after appearing in 2005’s Sin City, but it was The Wrestler that really proved he was an actor to keep an eye on.

Somber and poignant are two adjectives that many people couldn’t imagine Mickey Rourke pulling off in a film performance. Who could have guessed that he’d be able to make audiences teary-eyed? Rourke, with the help of Aronofsky, paints a portrait of a man who is trying. He’s trying to get back into a wrestling career, trying to earn money at a part time job, and trying to get in touch with his estranged daughter. Sure, the wrestling part of the story isn’t exactly relatable but the character’s aspirations remains universal.

The relatability of the character clearly struck a chord with Rourke, as he seems to embody this particular character in a way that we haven’t seen from him before. In interviews, Rourke said that his background in fighting (in his case boxing) helped him prepare for the role emotionally, and that is beyond obvious. The emotional turmoil that’s so easy to spot in Randy ‘the Ram’ Robinson seems to come from Mickey Rourke’s heart. In many ways, this seems like the role that Rourke was born to do.

Rourke went on to win a number of awards for his performance, including a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. His masterful work in front of the camera is something that he has yet to replicate, but that doesn’t really matter. He’s already proven himself as an actor whose talent is hard to ignore.


2. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Capote


There’s a reason that the list is only including one performance per actor. That’s because if it wasn’t limited like this, it would be filled with Philip Seymour Hoffman. From Charlie Wilson’s War to The Master, Hoffman was one of the most well rounded actors of his generation. His ability to completely transform himself is something that’s honestly something you have to see to believe.

With so many stunning performances, one would think that it would be hard to narrow it down to just one. However, even with so many masterful performance there is one obvious winner: Capote. Bennett Miller’s critically acclaimed biopic earned Hoffman his first Oscar. In fact, it’s one of the few movies where a performance managed to pick up an Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, SAG award, and Critics Choice award. Really, he won just about every award he was for which he was nominated.

Hoffman didn’t just do his best Truman Capote impression. Rather, he crawled in the author’s skin and became him. His role as Capote stands out as perhaps the best performance in a biopic this century. He wasn’t necessarily the perfect physical representation of Capote like Toby Jones in 2006’s Infamous, but that didn’t matter when his mannerisms, voice, and personality traits were so on point.

Dan Futterman’s script definitely contributed to the overall quality of Hoffman’s performance as well as the film itself. Still, something tells me that PHS could make the best out of the role even if Michael Bay wrote the film. His commitment is absolutely evident and it resulted in one of the strongest performances to come around in many years.


1. Daniel Day Lewis – There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood plainview

What is there to say about There Will Be Blood that hasn’t already been said? Widely touted as one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of the 21st century, Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnum opus is still discussed almost a decade later. With timeless themes, gorgeous cinematography, and some notably crafty work behind the camera, this is a movie that has earned its place among the cinematic greats. It’s a modern day classic that will be remembered long after its release.

There are so many things that work together in order for the film to become a masterpiece, but the heart of There Will Be Blood is Daniel Day Lewis, whose go for broke performance easily becomes the center of attraction in an already monumental filmmaking achievement. Paul Thomas Anderson clearly has a firm grasp of the material. He handles the story with confidence and sophistication. While his contributions are undeniable, this is DDL’s picture at the end of the day.

Daniel Day-Lewis commands the screen from the second he enters a shot. He gives us a Daniel Plainview who is intense, strong-willed, frightening, and above all, compelling. His mastery over vocal inflections, subtle gestures, and timing isn’t the only the he has going for him. He also makes it his goal to further expose the thematic depth of the film.

There are plenty of things worth analyzing in a film like this, but rarely does one single performance warrant any kind of research. Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a character who’s downright symbolic. When the British Film Institute ranked There Will Be Blood as one of the greatest films, they said that the Plainview “some kind of symbol for the American century.”

Decipher that how you’d like, but the point is that Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t just read the lines. He makes an effort to portray a character that brings to light the more subtle strengths of the movie. The things you might not notice until a second or third viewing, like the motifs and metaphors, are made easier to spot because of how Daniel Day-Lewis plays the character.

In a movie filled to the brim with value, Daniel Day-Lewis never ceases to be the strongest aspect. In this performance, every gesture and voice inflection seems intentional.

Day-Lewis doesn’t let one moment go to waste in the almost three hour long epic. His commitment to deconstructing the character is something that no other actor has been able to do in the past sixteen years. The slow, art-house style plotting of the film can be offputting to blockbuster fans, but even they can admit that Daniel Day-Lewis owned this performance.

Author Bio: Justin is a paraprofessional teaching assistant and full-time film enthusiast with a degree in English. When he’s not writing about films, he’s probably watching them in his spare time.



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  • Lio Mustoni

    Great list! I would add Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the lambs), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Robert De Niro (Godfather II/Taxi Driver), Al Pacino (Scarface), Dustin Hoffman (Rainman), Jack Nicholson (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Edward Norton (American History X)

    • bitches brew

      none of those are 21 century movies .

  • Fernando Luz

    Look, it is impossible to respect this list wen it is without ANY Ricardo Darin performance.

    • Erik

      No, you CAN respect this list without Ricardo Darin included. Outside Argentina he hasn’t really had much success (apart from The Secret in Their Eyes, Wild Tales and probably Nine Queens)

  • bitches brew

    i think christian ball performance in American Psycho is better .

    • Lorin Iulian Adam

      American Psycho was from 2000, so not 21st century

      • Brandon Thompson

        That is technically true but Del Toro’s performance from Traffic is on the list so it is eligible.

  • Mortimer

    Joaquin Phoenix for ‘The Master’ isn’t on the list ? This is a joke right ? It should be easily in the top 5. Fassbender for ‘Shame’ also deserves to be in top 10.
    I don’t understand what’s big fuss about DiCaprio’s performance in ‘The Aviator’. Aside Texan accent he wasn’t convincing at all. To me it looked more like Leonardo playing Frank Abagnale pretending to be Howard Hughes rather than watching embodiment of Howard Hughes.

    • Franco Gonzalez

      Dude, acting is about using the entire body, check that out on the movie, the guy is a genius using both face and body..

      • Mortimer

        If you think his performance in this movie is “genius” well, I advise you to watch more biopics (recent and old ones ). You’ll find some truly great work there.

        “the guy is a genius using both face and body.”
        In which scene specifically ? Senate hearings ? Nothing special, every decent actor would be capable of that.

        The whole movie and performances seemed cartoonish. It certainly doesn’t help when actor with a face of 17 year old kid (and with a teeny voice) is playing a grown-up man. Real Howard Hughes was nothing like that. Not convincing.

    • Carlos Rosado

      Di Caprio is great in Gilbert Grape, his first oscar nomination when he had only 18. It’s a small part though.

  • Juan Diego

    Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto performances in Dallas Bayers Club or Christopher Waltz performance in Django did make it to this list? What kind of people write here?

  • Nikos Ikonomidis

    Excellent choices, but I would place at the top of the list Tom Hardy, the only actor I would go to see a movie just to see him act,with preference to Locke, The drop or Bronson.Also Gary Oldman of Tinker Tailor was a great performance

  • Melih Sancak

    bronson-tom hardy, master-hoffman,pheonix,,chopper-eric bana

  • Raphael Bruckner

    Christopher Walken in Things to do when your Dead in Denver…….But if Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast is in the Mix I have no complaints

  • Too difficult of a list to pin down to just 25. Would have to narrow to US, and even then would be too difficult.
    Most are great suggestions, but there are definitely omissions.

  • Heath Ledger, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN; Jack Nicholson, ABOUT SCHMIDT; Phillip Seymour Hoffman, CAPOTE

  • Not Demi Moore

    Good list, though it lacks Oscar Isaac for ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ or ‘A Most Violent Year’ and McConaughey for ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

  • Vachan Bundimutt

    Where the hell is Tom Hardy in Bronson?

  • Pingback: Mis Películas Favoritas de Tarantino en la Escala Bad Motherfucker |()

  • Squeegee

    McConaughey (sp?) and Leto for Dallas Buyers Club should both be on this list

  • Squeegee

    Also I think the commercial success of a movie should be a factor in whether the performance is recognized some of these movies barely made a blip at the box office

    • Ricardo Correia

      Are they worst for that reason? Guardian Of The Galaxy made a lot of money, but can you call Pratt’s work of a “acting”?

  • Ricardo Correia

    Quite frankly there are some horrible performances in the list
    Washigton in Training Day?
    Leo in The Aviator?
    Such a generic and poor tasted list
    Yevgeni Mironov in The Idiot (2003), Hall Halbrook in Into The Wild (2007), Zhang Hanyu in Assembly (2007), Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine?
    And Phoenix gave two of this century finest in Two Lovers and The Master and he is mentioned for his stupid performance in Her?

    • Mortimer

      I agree with everything you said except that Phoenix’ performance in ‘Her’ is “stupid”. He was robbed for nomination that year.

      • Ricardo Correia

        Only in american films I can easly find 5 or 6 that deserved the nomination more than he did
        He feels like a porcelain doll, not like a real human, and I love Phoenix, but his performance in Her is medíocre

        • Mortimer

          And now, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is skipping Oscar season with February release date. This knocks Joaquin out of the best actor race.I guess they felt it might get buried beneath all the oscar bait if they released it this year.

          • Ricardo Correia

            If it gets released next year it will not have Oscar chances

  • Carlos Rosado

    Eric Bana in Chopper is one of the best.

  • Nicolás Araya

    Joaquin Phoenix is the best actor far away, The Master is the film.

  • Miroslav Maric

    Great list

  • Miroslav Maric

    Phoenix in Master!

  • Gabberman9000

    Bill Skargard as Pennywise is missing.

  • Ivan Rivero

    Mmmmm… I’ll just only stick with Herr (Bruno) Ganz and Heath Ledger…