The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far): Part One

A count down of the 25 greatest actors. The first in a new three part series.


[junkie-dropcap]T[/junkie-dropcap]he end of the year is huge for me.  Yes, because it’s a great time for reflection, celebration, and goal setting as we ready ourselves to tear another page off the calendar.  But most importantly, because it’s when pop culture journalists post their end-of-the-year lists.  This, for me, is heaven.  Nothing makes me more excited than pouring over these lists, nodding my head in agreement, shaking my fist in contempt, squinting my eyes in intrigue, or furiously taking notes of things left to consume and weigh in on.

Recently, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, chief film critics/writers at the New York Times posted a list entitled THE 25 GREATEST ACTORS OF THE 21ST CENTURY (so far).  I, being a stereotypical Virgo with a love for lists and an opinion on everything west of the Mississippi, of course, had to curate my own list. Thus, here we are.

Oscar Isaac to Play Solid Snake in Live-Action Metal Gear Solid Film

The qualifiers were simple: 1.) the actor had to thrill me, 2.) they had to have at least three films I could recommend to others, and 3.) the body of work in question had to be released in the year 2000 or later.  The people on the following list have flagged and kept my attention year after year through their dazzling skill, magnetic screen presence, and dizzying performances.  Some of them are multiple Oscars deep, some of them are fresh talents making a huge splash in the lake that is Hollywood, some of them are staples in the tapestry of world cinema, but all of them are indelible in their own right.

Oh and one quick thing: no, I did not include Meryl Streep.  And before you riot, that’s because a superstar of film like Meryl, who’s career has no end in sight, transcends a list like this— I’ll save her mononym for a list more aptly titled like “The Greatest Actors of All Time” or “The Most Prolific Movie Stars to Ever Live.”  But those aren’t this list, so, let us begin.


Honorable Mention – Nicole Kidman

For her commitment to keeping us on our toes with her project choices (from The Hours, to Moulin Rouge, to Rabbit Hole, to The Prom) and her singular ability to rock a wig fit for a drag queen. 

Honorable Mention – Zhang Ziyi

For her ability to make intense fight scenes seem like a piece of art floating from frame to frame and her unmatched ability to serve timeless glamor in the works of Wong Kar-wai. 

Honorable Mention – Octavia Spencer

For her ability to add third, fourth, and fifth dimensions to her characters. Characters that she dares us not to fall in love within minutes after meeting them.


25. Kristen Wiig

From Bridesmaids to The Skeleton Twins, with an endlessly expressive face and bombastic physical comedy chops, Kristen Wiig is an undeniable star of both comedy and drama.  Most people know her from her scene-stealing work on Saturday Night Live as she ate the scenery of Studio 8H during her 2005-2012 tenure and that uncontainable star power has translated just as well from the small to the silver screen.  Plus, if Bridesmaids is any indication of her writing skills in the screenplay department, she is sure to join the ranks of other boundary pushing and genre defining greats like Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers, and Diablo Cody.

Essential Viewing: Bridesmaids (2011) dir. Paul Feig, The Skeleton Twins (2014) dir. Craig Johnson, The Martian (2015) dir. Ridley Scott

24. Oscar Isaac

Seesawing seamlessly between being an arthouse darling and a blockbuster hero, no one oozes charm and raw talent like Oscar Isaac, who’s career spans from Ex Machina to the X-Men multiverse.  Famously, I disliked the experience of watching Inside Llewyn Davis very much and here’s why: Oscar Isaac is so good in his portrayal of a jaded, down-on-his-luck, woe-is-me musician that it reminded me of some of my insufferable art school classmates to an uncomfortable degree.  And for that, I must give it up to the modern marvel that is Oscar Isaac.  Oh, Oscar-related-side-note: PLEASE give me Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, I need it like I need air to breathe.

Essential Viewing: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, Ex Machina (2014) dir. Alex Garland, Annihilation (2018), dir. Alex Garland

23. Saoirse Ronan

No one has made quite a splash since the 2000s began like Saorise Ronan.  The reigning queen of the coming-of-age film has proved time and time again that her talents are seemingly endless, and she’s only just begun.  At the ripe old age of 26, she already has four (yes, you read that properly, four!) Academy Award nominations under her belt.  Ronan is one of those actors that you can count on to be grounded and earnest, showing no signs of being jaded or phony even after spending more than decade of her formative years in front of the camera.  With each passing role, her presence on screen seems both like a weathered sweater you’ve known and loved for years and a brand new t-shirt you’re just discovering and luxuriating in for the first time.  In short: she’s magic.

Essential viewing: Brooklyn (2015) dir. John Crowley, Lady Bird (2017), dir. Greta Gerwig, Little Women (2019), dir. Greta Gerwig

22. Michael B. Jordan

Strong-jawed and kind-eyed MBJ is a bonafide superstar who’s partnership with director Ryan Coogler helped define the 2010s.  I first became aware of Michael B. Jordan in the 2012 film Chronicle but when he began working with Coogler is when I knew for sure that we we were watching the rise of a burgeoning superstar.  Named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2020, it’s becoming evident that MBJ is poised to become the young king (of pop culture) that he was promised to be in Black Panther.  A model for that mystic fusion of strength and heart that evades so many, he’s one of those people that I can’t wait to see how he’ll beguile us next.

Essential viewing: Fruitvale Station (2013) dir. Ryan Coogler, Creed (2015) dir. Ryan Coogler, Black Panther (2018) dir. Ryan Coogler

21. Marisa Tomei

Effortless and ageless, Marisa Tomei has been capturing the hearts of America for three decades whose steady career has spanned from the MCU to the Apatow comedy tribe to star-packed Indies.  It would be so easy to consider Marissa a star of the 90s given her Oscar winning turn in My Cousin Vinny, but her longevity, range, and recent resurgence as the Marvel Universe’s coolest Aunt May prove that she is shining just as brightly today as she was in that 1992 courtroom.

Essential viewing: In the Bedroom (2001) dir. Todd Field, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) dir. Sidney Lumet, The Wrestler (2008) dir. Darren Aronofsky

20. Benicio del Toro

A master of saying everything without having to say a word. He is equal parts menacing and comforting and has been trusted by the best of the best, from Iñárritu to Soderbergh to Villeneuve.  I first remember encountering Benicio del Toro in 1995’s The Usual Suspects and thinking to myself, “Woah, who is THAT?”  Since then I’ve marveled at how committed del Toro is to bringing truth to even the most heightened of circumstances.  And, I mean, that signature stare? Unshakable.

Essential viewing:  Traffic (2000), dir. Steven Soderbergh, 21 Grams (2003), dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Sicario(2015) dir. Denis Villeneuve 

19. Annette Bening

If you want to see a masterclass in nuanced, subtle choices, watch almost any of Annette Bening’s performances, especially those in 20th Century Women and The Kids Are All Right.  Bening is one of those actresses who glides in and out of scenes with scintillating ease as she invites us to experience the trials and tribulations of being human.  And it is a damn shame that her work has not been awarded by the Academy yet, as she has been giving grounded performances that don’t even feel like acting for decades.  We are very lucky to be witnessing the transcendent work of Bening and though she’s been a mainstay in American film, she feels more relevant now than ever.

Essential viewing: The Kids are All Right (2010) dir. Lisa Cholodenko, 20th Century Women (2016) dir. Mike Mills, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) dir. Paul McGuigan.

18. Daniel Kaluuya

Imagine anyone else playing Chris Washington, the central character in Jordan Peele’s, Get Out.  You can’t, can you? That’s because Daniel Kaluuya is a master of making the audience believe no one else should play the part he is.  I have always said that Get Out does not work without the central performances from Kaluuya and his shockingly good co-star, Allison Williams, and that just proves how commanding of a presence, how generous as a scene partner, and how gripping and compelling Kaluuya truly is.  Tip for the near future: keep an eye out for Kaluuya in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, scheduled to be released early 2021, as he is already garnering rave review for his leading performance.

Essential viewing: Get Out (2017) dir. Jordan Peele, Widows (2018) dir. Steve McQueen, Queen and Slim (2019). dir. Melina Matsoukas

So there you have it.  Part One.  Keep you eyes peeled for Part Two, coming soon.

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