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The 25 Best Actors of the 21st Century

30 March 2017 | Features, People Lists | by Andre Watkins

best actors of our generation

The 21st century has provided some of the greatest performances in film history by master actors from around the world. The following is a listing of actors that have made some of the most memorable and acclaimed performances of the century thus far.


25. Denzel Washington

Remember the Titans, Training Day, John Q, Antwone Fisher, Out of Time, Man on Fire, Inside Man, American Gangster, The Great Debaters, The Book of Eli, Flight, Fences

Man on Fire

Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar in 2001’s Training Day for his role as Detective Alonzo Harris, a corrupt police officer with questionable tactics. Washington would later appear in a series of thrillers throughout the early 2000’s with films like Out of Time, Man of Fire, The Manchurian Candidate, and Inside Man.

Washington returned to critical acclaim with 2012’s Flight, the story of an alcoholic airline pilot who saves his passengers in a malfunctioning plane. Washington adapted the late August Wilson’s play Fences to the movie screen in 2016, receiving a Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar Nomination.

Washington received Screen Actors Guild nominations for his roles in The Hurricane, Training Day, Flight, and Fences; winning the Best Actor SAG award for Fences.

Washington received Oscar nominations for his performances in Cry Freedom, Glory, Malcom X, The Hurricane, Training Day, Flight, and Fences; winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1990 for Glory, and the Best Actor Oscar in 2002 for Training Day. Washington received the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 2016 Golden Globes for his lifetime achievement in film.


24. Bruno Ganz

Downfall, Bread and Tulips, Luther, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Unknown, Youth Without Youth


Bruno Ganz has been a prominent actor in Germany for decades, starring in the acclaimed Werner Herzog film Nosferatu the Vampyre, and Win Wenders classic Wings of Desire. However, Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall may go down as his most recognizable role of all, and one of the great performances of the 21st century.

In the film Ganz portrays and old, paranoid Hitler hunched over with trembling hands spending the last days of World War II in his bunker compound. Ganz’s performance as Hitler went viral on the internet in subsequent years in various memes and video clips.

One particular scene in which Hitler launches into a tirade after hearing from his reporting officers that the war is lost has created countless parodies on websites such as Youtube.


23. Kang-ho Song

JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Memories of Murder, The Host, The Show Must Go On, The Good the Bad the Weird, Thirst, The Face Reader, The Attorney, Snowpiercer

Song Kang-ho - “The Host”

Kang-ho Song came to prominence in South Korean for this portrayal as a North Korean sergeant in Chan-wook Park’s J.S.A.: Joint Security Area.

His follow up performances in acclaimed films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Memories of Murder, The Host, Secret Sunshine, Thirst, Snowpiercer, and Face Reader have placed Song among the top Korean actors of his generation. His performance in Memories of Murder in particular, as a local detective overwhelmed in the search for a serial killer, showcased a level of emotional depth mixed with humor and suspense.

Kang-ho Song was won several award among Korean critics and award associations including a Best Actor wins at the Asian Film Awards for The Host, and Best Actors wins at the Korean Association of Film Critics’ Awards for Memories of Murder, The Show Must Go On, and The Face Reader.


22. Edward Norton

The Score, 25th Hour, The Illusionist, The Painted Veil, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman

25th hour movie

Edward Norton shot to stardom from his feature film debut in 1996’s Primal Fear, and gain further acclaim from his performance as a former neo-nazi skinhead in 1998’s American History X. Norton received Oscar nominations for both films, and would go on to star in critically acclaimed 21st century films such as 25th Hour, The Illusionist, The Pained Veil, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman.

In Birdman Norton plays an opinionated Broadway actor who freely bestows his own acting philosophies and learned wisdom onto Michael Keaton’s washed-up character. Norton received an Oscar nomination for his performance in Birdman, and received Independent Spirit Award nominations for his performances in both Birdman and The Painted Veil.


21. Christian Bale


American Psycho, The Machinist, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Fighter, Out of the Furnace, American Hustle, The Big Short

Considered one of the more versatile actors of his generation, Christian Bale has starred in 3 Oscar nominated Best Picture films in the past 7 years with The Fighter, American Hustle, and The Big Short. Bale’s performances have ranged from Blockbuster films such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, to smaller independent projects such as American Psycho, The Machinist, and The New World.

Bale has worked with directors among the likes of Christopher Nolan, Terrence Malick, David O. Russell, Werner Herzog, Todd Haynes, and Ridley Scott. Bale received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in The Big Short, and a Best Actor nomination for American Hustle. Bale won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2010 for his role in The Fighter.


20. Michael Shannon

Shotgun Stories, Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter, 99 Homes, Midnight Special, Loving, Nocturnal Animals

Michael Shannon in Take Shelter

Michael Shannon has been one of the more active actors in Hollywood as of late with credits to 10 films released during 2016 including critically acclaimed standouts such as Midnight Special, Loving, and Nocturnal Animals.

Shannon is a frequent collaborator with director Jeff Nichols, and has appeared in each of his films Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, and Loving. Shannon received Independent Spirit Award nominations for Take Shelter and 99 Homes, and received Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations for his performances in Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animals.


19. Gael Garcia Bernal

Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries, Bad Education, The King, The Science of Sleep, Babel, Mammoth, No, Rosewater, Desierto, Neruda

Bad Education

Gael Garcia Bernal has starred in some of the most acclaimed Latin directed films of the 21st century. His filmography is filled with work from directors such as Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, Babel), Pedro Almodovar (Bad Education), Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda), and Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries).

Garcia Bernal received a BAFTA nominated for Best Actor for his role in Motorcycle Diaries, and won a Best Actor Golden Globe for his role in in the television series Mozart in the Jungle. Gael Garcia Bernal was named among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2016.


18. Heath Ledger

Monster’s Ball, Lords of Dogtown, Brokeback Mountain, Candy, The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger’s career was tragically cut short in 2008 by accidental prescription drug overdose; the filmography he left is a testament to an immense talent. His performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is considered to be among the best performances in the genre of superhero films. Ledger described the Joker as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” and left his own stamp on the classic comic book character.

Heath Ledger received Best Actor SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominations for his performance in Brokeback Mountain. Ledger received numerous posthumous awards for his performance in The Dark Knight, including Best Supporting Actor SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Oscar wins.



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  • AmazingAmy

    This list will provokes unnecessary fan-war……..

    But overall i agree with your list though Denzel should be higher and where is Matt Damon ( Jimmy Kimmel will laugh if he see this list 😀 )

    Honorable mention : Choi Min Sik, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Geoffrey Rush, Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, George Clooney, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Ian McKellen, Matthew Mcnaissance, Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton, Bryan Craston…..

  • Unkle Amon

    Hmmm… Vincent Cassel, Sam Rockwell, Brendan Gleeson not even in honorable mentions.

  • lauramoreaux

    Benedict Cumberbatch

  • Abhishek

    I don’t see how you have not included Brad Pitt. You might be a fanboy of Leo but Brad is a better actor and filmmaker than him. Please have a loot at these 21st century films done by him: Babel, Assasination of Jesse, Curious Case, Inglourious Basters, Big Shorts, Moneyball. Though 25 is still a short selection we could easily have fifty.

    • Silver Game Dog

      Brad Pitt, like Tom Cruise is a MOVIE STAR!
      Not a great actor. I love watching Pitt on screen and he’s been able to choose some interesting roles but he’s just not a name that comes to mind when you think of great actors

      • Abhishek

        IMO Leo is also a MOVIE STAR! Pitt’s acting was always overshadowed with star image. I think for me he is a better actor than Leo just how he pulled Curious Case and IBasterds effortlessly!

  • Milo Ricketts

    Fair list

  • Tiago Couto

    I just knew that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis would be top 2 and there is no discussion to be made about that,both of them are just fantastic and step above anyone else who has been put in from of camera since the century turned.
    From 3 to 25 the real discussion begins and it boils down to personal preferences,for instance I do not think that actors like Leo,Jake,Fassbender who I really like should be place so far ahead of Christian Bale,for me he should be joining Philip Seymour Hoffmand and DDL in top 3
    I would also like to see a top 10 actors of the decade!

    • Agree about Hoffman and Lewis

    • Magus

      I’d say that discussion starts from 5.

      I’d personally put Michael Shannon way higher. It says something when Werner Herzog has you as the best actor in Hollywood right now.

  • Zwei

    Gael Garcia Bernal……LOL

  • Rui

    Great list!

  • Allister Cooper

    Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, George Clooney, and J K Simmons, even if I refuse to watch all of Whiplash [just the second half of it]. His performance in Dark Skies was more my cup of tea.

  • Very strong list, and even the comments have been fairly complimentary (that’s saying a lot for this site).
    Love seeing Mads get high placement among these acting Goliaths.

  • bluesborn

    No love for Forest Whitaker?Andrew Garfield? Cillian Murphy?James McAvoy? (check out “Split”)

  • Mortimer

    Very good list. I hope female version is coming very soon.

  • Carlos Felipe Suárez Sánchez

    ¿Ricardo Darín?

  • José Morbán

    Why the fuck is casey afleck there

    • Mortimer

      Because…he deserves to be on the list ?

    • Maryanne

      was thinking the same thing!

    • Ricardo Correia

      Because he is a terrific actor, Manchester By The Sea, Gerry and The Assasination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford are reason enough for him to be on the top 10

  • Footlight Movement

    Lee Byung-hun deserve in honorable mention. . .

  • Blurrygirl13

    So glad to see Mads Mikkelsen on here, I just think he’s brilliant! But where is Gary Oldman? Loved that guy since I was a teenager & saw him in FFC Dracula!

    • bluesborn

      Oldman is a brilliant actor

  • Troy Desrosiers

    Gary Oldman…….

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