Best Of The Decade: Actors

So lately critics and film lovers alike have been prompting (and soon after, answering) the question of “Who Was The Best Performer of the Decade?”. Here, I’ll list who I felt to be the top ten (one for men and one for women because there are far too many to discuss in a mere list of 10) taking into account only their consistency; how often did they churn out a bad performance, were they able to rise above poor material if handed to them, etc. In addition, I’ll also provide a top list for the most disappointing performers of the decade (actors/actresses who had a great decade in 90s but failed to continue that brilliance into the 00s), as well as five that I’m predicting will be biggest players in the ’10s (based on how well these actors did this decade and are bound to get their ‘big break’).

And a small note: Americanized performers will swarm these lists so do not be offended if Mathieu Amalric or Martina Gedeck do not make the lists. There’ll be performers that do pop up (primarily French, as that’s the country I most focus on outside of the US it seems), but since I’ve only been really watching foreign cinema since 2007, I certainly haven’t absorbed the best from foreign performers unless I actively sought out their work.


He’s a man fit to make any top ten list like this already, even despite the fact he hasn’t been given a lead role to truly demonstrate his skill. As one of the prime character actors of today, Mr. Sarsgaard has demonstrated intimidating versatility with his various approaches to his uniquely scripted characters. His timid strain in Jarhead, his quiet annoyance in Shattered Glass, his unwavering sexual freedom in both Kinsey and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and his understanding with an erratic soul in The Salton Sea are all top quality works, but he’s not been given the lead role he needs to really staple his name to the faces of cinephiles. If it doesn’t happen this decade, it never will. But I have faith in this guy and feel he’ll pop off an Oscar nomination or two when the ’10s are all said and done. Personally, he’s obtained a few “best of the year” laudations, so AMPAS, give him some love.

: Michael Shannon
I did an artist retrospect on him a month ago. I only place him so low because his “career” didn’t really begin until 2006 and to compare him with people who have been impressing since 2000 doesn’t seem quite fair to me. But look at what he’s accomplished since 2007, shall we? First, a performance in Bug that’s more zany than Spongebob Squarepants and more accurate than Steven Seagal’s shooting… in any film. A tragic, but dexterous veiling on a tragic soul. Then he had small, but excellent work in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — his “groucho” disorients Bardem’s “friendo” — as well as a similar, but a more acclaimed effort in Revolutionary Road. On top of this he’s delivered one of the best performances of 2009 with his work in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? and only promises to exude more brilliance when I finally get to check out The Missing Person.

NUMBER TEN: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Don’t get me wrong: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an excellent talent. He’s exposed most of the brain and brawn that can be found in his tiny frame. On top of this, he is the poster boy for indie cinema. With acclaimed work dating back from 2003’s Manic to this years (500) Days of Summer not only is he finding a rhythm that he’s comfortable with, but one film fans can adore. He’s even gone a little mainstream for the sake of enjoying the fruits of his exhausting labors. Look at his performance in this years GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra – you may or may not love it, but he defined cartoon villainous in an unrecognizable portrayal of the Joe’s antagonist. Personally, he’s yet to find *that* role (many found it in Mysterious Skin, but even though I really appreciated his work there, I didn’t latch onto it like others) but it will come in a year or two. Oscars as well.

The most profitable man in Hollywood is not only a name and a face, but a poetic soul. After making the transition from television goofball to Muhammad Ali in 2001, Will Smith has put his foot on the pedal, accelerated and has found himself in a land full of riches and adulation comparable only to Jesus’ reputation at the Vatican. My personal favourite work of his isn’t apart of the two nominations he received this decade – both were wonderful turns, with Ali being the better of the two performances – but rather in the 2007 feature I Am Legend. One of the first reviews I wrote on this blog was essentially dedicated to his pragmatic work of a man disconnected from human interaction. That performance alone catapulted him past the past two performance I’ve discussed because it is truly a masterpiece, even if its within a film far from being called something similar.

NUMBER EIGHT: Chiwetel Ejiofor
A man whose stature is only comparable to his ability to mask his British accent flawlessly, Chiewetel Ejiofor has slowly risen up high enough to become familiar with both the arthouse crowds and the public eye — even if neither can pronounce his name correctly every given time. From breaking onto the cinematic scene in 2002/2003 with his acclaimed performance in Dirty Pretty Things to his first two major American nomination in 2006 at the Golden Globes for his audacious work in Kinky Boots and dire evocation in the miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath to penetrating the mainstream only a few months ago with a co-leading role in the latest disaster epic 2012, the spectrum of Ejiofor’s resume is more inspiring than a rainbow.

NUMBER SEVEN: Sam Rockwell
Yeah, him. While ruffling through his work this decade, I almost excluded him for being too top heavy and not keeping interesting work throughout the whole decade. Then I remember I had seen Confessions of the Dangerous Mind and went “Yeah, him”. Not only is his work there brilliant, but it comes in one of the most competitive years for lead actors in 2002. On top of this he changes up palpating supporting work with meticulous leading portrayals. From a riotous supporting turn in Matchstick Men to a depressing one in Snow Angels to a class in claustrophobia in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to his most acclaimed performance yet in Moon, he keeps it more varied than a box of Lucky Charms and is the marshmellow in the mix that keeps the film tasty.

NUMBER SIX: Paul Bettany
Or as I like to call him (not really) the British behemoth. Is there anything this man can’t do? Throw him a villainous role in Dogville, one that is more warm than an August afternoon in A Beautiful Mind, an encapsulation of the proverb “ignorance is bliss” by displaying the opposite in Master and Commander or the daunting task of Charles Darwin in Creation (which is surprisingly more a physical portrayal than crafty) and you’ll receive brilliance each and every time. He even impresses in duller films – just watch him mask his British accent and unmask a man torn apart by guilt in The Secret Life of Bees or become a religious freak this side of those people that show up on your doorstep in The DaVinci Code. Hopefully there’s more of this to come next decade, as well as his first Oscar nomination. Too bad the distribution company muffed up his chances this year in Creation with a release date more obscure than Darwin’s ideology prior to On the Origin of Species.

NUMBER FIVE: Ryan Gosling
Despite the meager beginnings of his decade (Remember the Titans, The Slaughter Rule & Murder by Numbers), Ryan Gosling has developed a career from his quiet and discomforted aura, turning fantastic performances in in several films and getting an Oscar nomination for one, even. From his brooding work as an antisemitic Jew in The Believer to his latest performance as the disconnected, but lovable isolated man in Lars and the Real Girl, Mr. Gosling is the definition of quality over quantity. This decade he simultaneously capture the hearts of women with his romantics in the widely acclaimed The Notebook and just about everybody else with his cool as ice to Hopkins’ vile as venom in Fracture. Toss in astounding work in Stay, The United States of Leland and Half Nelson and you’ve got a plethora of reasons as to why this man is “best of the decade” material.

Is there anybody like Jude Law in film today? He’s been a constant in cinema since his first major film role in 1997, but that’s last decade, so let me get on with my gushing about him this decade. 2001 – he gives two acclaimed performances in semi-beloved films and comes this close to grabbing himself a second Oscar nomination for his soulful work as a robot in A.I: Artificial Intelligence. 2002 – creepy work as a silent assassin in Road to Perdition. 2003 – his second Oscar nomination by way of his Southern veil and undulating romantics as Inman in Cold Mountain. How does he follow this? With six performances in 2004 that were each relatively well taken to (mixed receptions for his work in Closer and I Heart Huckabees by way of “inability to maintain an accent”) and the lead of the re-envisioned Alfie. Oh, and his cameo performance in The Aviator? Perfectly capturing the lively spirit of the adventurous Errol Flynn. I’ll skip ahead to 2007 now (even though he had a lot to offer in 2006) where he gives my favourite performance of his in Sleuth as Milo Tindle. As paradoxical as any work you’ll see all decade. His frantic sexiness; his dramatic humor; his dire entertainment – the re-written role from the ’72 adaptation (Kenneth Branagh’s Sleuth is not a remake, just a re-imagining of the original text) is one of the most complex roles to grace the screen and to watch Law his each note with more punctuality than the Philharmonic Orchestra is as educative as it is a pleasure. To cap off an already accomplished decade, he stepped into two supporting roles – Watson in Sherlock Holmes and one of Tony’s transformations in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – with as much enthusiasm as he predecessors in Nigel Bruce and Heath Ledger.

NUMBER THREE: Robert Downey Jr.
It feels criminal to have one of the masters in cinema at number three, but the two ahead of him posted ridiculous numbers throughout the decade, whereas Robert Downey Jr’s decade didn’t really have any stretches of success until 2006 to 2009, but it found solace in small works despite his sordid personal affairs. Regardless, he was inspiration enough for me to do a biographical one-man play (25 minutes long) and is clearly as talented as anybody on this list (even the following two). So in 2003, Mr. Downey Jr. found acclaim in the year’s wackiest little film called The Singing Detective. Although he is masked by his character’s burns for the majority of the film, his delusional expressions seep through the cracks. It’s hardly memorable, but Downey Jr’s belaying work will be stuck in your mind long after it ends. A personal nomination in a tough year for leading actors. Since then he’s catapulted his name into daily conversations thanks to intelligible performances in ostentatious moneymakers like Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes and Tropic Thunder, a performance in which he found his first Oscar nomination since his role as Charlie Chaplin in ’92. He is a master of disguise through makeup (Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus) accents (Sherlock Holmes) and suave (pick your poison) and is the quintessential leading man for the 00s. He can be funny in serious situations or depressing in hilarious scenarios – he is the ideal leading man and a leader in ideal men. Like a forgetful mother’s iron, he’s always on.

NUMBER TWO: Leonardo DiCaprio
Some love him, some loathe him – fortunately I love the guy and am excited for nearly every project he’s involved in (ironically enough, his next two aren’t all that appealing to me; perhaps because his decade of destruction has just ended?). Although he’s only have 9 performances this decade (and one of them was extremely mediocre in Body of Lies), I find Mr. DiCaprio sustains a high profile and exudes his all into each role. He doesn’t pop in for a small role and perhaps this is his only flaw – he cares too much about each performance to find himself in a supporting role, because his work ethic in one of those would be as plentiful as one in say, The Aviator. He has certainly grown from the frumpy young man that got his career rolling in the early 90s, but he still maintains his emotional enthusiasm. Additional, he likes his theatrics: or even more important in this situation, I love his theatrics. From the mumbling paranoid he makes you care for in The Aviator to the South African criminal that left my packed auditorium with “wow, so cool” to his pomp and vigor in Catch Me If You Can, Leonardo DiCaprio keeps it as varied as a man with such focus can. Perhaps his visual spectrum and ability to interpret a role could be on a vaster scale, but that only gives us fans of Mr. DiCaprio something more to look forward to with his aging. His final performance of the decade in Revolutionary Road are great indications of this blossoming maturity in Leonardo.

NUMBER ONE: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, Philip Seymour Hoffman has suffered in life. Being an unappreciated performer for the majority of his career had left this man stagnant and this decade he found his determination out of spite. You may notice his brutish presence that follows him, but in the case of Mr. Hoffman this can be forgiven for he is a man that lays out his grace on the screen. Kicking off the career is one of the best performance I was subject to this decade with his role as the demure genius whose art is being compromised in State and Main. It may be due to how similar he is to the character of Joseph Turner White, but holy, if you want to see a written character evolve into a tangible person, just look at his work here in contrast to the rest of the great cast. In 2002, he concocts a perfect antagonist to Sandler’s neurotic role in Punch Drunk Love and in a mere seven minutes of screen time he eclipsed the work of Mr. Sandler and Ms. Watson for a high percentage of viewers in that film. He’s the only actor who can make a simple “Fuck you” so detailed and complex. Blind fury, darkly humorous and entirely honest – he spews these two words with more conviction and energy than your pick of the most hardcore rappers. Jump to 2005 (even though you’re skipping some delightful performances that range from immensely human in Love Liza to a pinpoint caricature in Along Came Polly) and you arrive at his first and deserved first Oscar nomination (and win) for his portrayal of Truman Capote in the complex character study the film Capote was. Exact mannerisms above all, but sincere to the core. Top off his decade as an Oscar regular — finding back to back nominations for his hilarious work in Charlie Wilson’s War and enigmatic blanketing of the truth in Doubt — and cap it with the perfect little cherry that his cameo in The Invention of Lying was and you’ve got ten years that can be considered the best stretch of a decade that any actor has complied ever. Oh, and to forget his meticulous menace and malice in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead would be equal to first degree murder in my books. Give this man a crown – he is the king of kings and an unremitting one at that.


After having an amazing 90s — two of the most widely acclaimed performances ever in American History X and Primal Fear — he follows it up with a landslide of mediocrity with a few great performances sprinkled in. Actually, I wouldn’t use the word sprinkled – all but two came in 2006. He had some great work, but his lack of any real recognition and finding himself getting one-upped on many occasions places him here, if barely.

NUMBER FIVE:. Denzel Washington
A man who had the 90s of the balls let his tight grip go to get in on his star power. After his “controversial” Oscar win in 2001 for Training Day, Mr. Washington has been coasting along with leading roles in wide releases since. Sure, he did some fine work in 2007 — I prefer his perennial wisdom in The Great Debaters to his typical tough guy act in American Gangster — but even with his cosmic charm, he has picked some really bad projects. Hopefully he picks up more authentic scripts this decade, but with The Book of Eli – even though it looks like oodles of fun – I can’t be hopeful.

NUMBER FOUR: Robin Williams
Alright, so he wasn’t the most well respected actor in the 90s, but he followed up an Oscar win with… this? He did some interesting work in 2002, but tried too hard to mix drama and comedy in his roles – a formula he used to do so well. It’s only now, since 2009, that he has finally learned that his original antics can’t be used any longer and he’s best if he just lets the roles breathe has he does. He lets the drama overcome him, which is a very mature step to the longevity of his career, but also pulls the vintage Williams out in these roles to remind people that he’s not just doing it to do it, but is doing it because he loves it. I’m in the firm belief that Mr. Williams will come back in the ’10s with a remarkable slew of performances and will pick up Oscar number two.

NUMBER THREE: Billy Bob Thornton
What happened? He gives two fantastic performances in the 90s with ’96s Sling Blade and ’98s A Simple Plan and follows it up with… Bad News Bears, Mr. Woodcock and School for Scoundrels? Albeit, he had a wonderful year in 2001 – acclaimed work in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Monsters Ball and Bandits – but he follows it up with the most generic performances. Bad Santa was a pretty neat little change of pace to him, but he seems to have found enjoyment in variations of this crass humor which is currently cause for his detriment.

NUMBER TWO: Gary Oldman
It pains me to say this, but Mr. Oldman dropped the ball BIG TIME this decade. After his work in the 90s — which I consider the best of the 90s — he starred in the most sporadic films where his screentime was hardly a priority. He’s yet to garner his first Oscar nomination and this is clearly why. Unlike the next person, at least Oldman has brought something to the table with his performances in The Contender and the Harry Potter series; as well as finding an audience in The Dark Knight, but he has certainly devolved. His talent is still present – he just hasn’t picked an interesting script in a long, long time.

NUMBER ONE: Robert De Niro
Many can make the argument that DeNiro wasn’t “all that” in the 90s, but he put up some widely acclaimed performances in highly regarded films throughout the entire decade. He had two Oscar nominations for lead actor at the beginning of the 90s, had success with two lengthy crime features in the middle for Casino and Heat, and capped off the decade with great work in Flawless, Wag the Dog and Jackie Brown. This decade, he’s turned the expected brilliance that comes with great actors when they hit 60 to an attempt at remaining as the tough guy in Hollywood. It’s only since 2007 that he’s sort of let go of his crutches and stepped into appealing roles like Stardust and What Just Happened? and away from attempts of making moolah and being rugged.

THE FIVE TO LOOK OUT FOR (in alphabetical order)

Mos Def
I love this guy already. He gave one of 2004’s best performance with his tacit portrayal of a disgusted cop in The Woodsman and has been the focus of some popular films like 16 Blocks and Be Kind, Rewind. He picks his projects dexterously and leaves no room for error in his portrayals. He appears keen on snagging as many dramatic roles as possible with three interesting sounding projects lined up (if the schedules don’t clash) and is bound to finally find himself at the center of a more acclaimed light in a mere year or two, let alone decade.

James Franco
He’s already got a career under his belt with his consistent work in Spiderman, a Golden Globe win for his TV performance of James Dean and displaying unique diversity between his esoteric work as a stoner in Pineapple Express and his “man at his most pure” performance in Milk, but his career is just getting started. He’s got Howl coming up in 2010 which may prove to be his first Oscar nomination (if all aligns for him, it looks like his *role* for the Oscars to take to), as well as plentiful other intelligent choices that he’ll make, as he comes across as an intelligent guy and one who knows what he wants.

Paul Schneider
Now that he’s established his great comedic timing in things like Parks and Recreation and Live Free or Die and his dramatic competence in Bright Star, to assume Mr. Schneider won’t be an Oscar nominee soon seems foolish. If he sticks to despondent scripts like that of Campion’s or Dominik’s (his work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was nice too), he’ll go places. Even more places if Parks and Recreation finds similar success to that of The Office.

Adam Scott
This guy is the new face of indie. Give it a years and soon you’ll find Adam Scott’s name popping up in many places. In addition, he capped off his minimal decade with an ISA nomination for his work in The Vicious Kind, which I’ve got to say is pretty wonderful work. All he needs is a big enough role to show how dramatically competent he can be and boom, he’s off to the races. As a snippet of the talent Mr. Scott has just go to the Jude Law writeup above and click the clip, he appears briefly as Errol Flynn’s cohort and man does he ensnare the modern man of those times.

Channing Tatum
Perhaps it’s a man crush, but this guy oozes charisma. Once he lets go of the “strong but silent type” persona he clutches onto when in doubt, he’ll find himself demonstrating talents many wouldn’t expect from “the guy that was in Step Up“. Plus he’s picking artistic projects and not just popcorn fare, which is a great indication of the places this guy will go.


7 thoughts on “Best Of The Decade: Actors

  1. Joseph M. Ryan says:

    I’ve never commented on any of your posts before, but I love your site. Your musings are so well-written, so insightful, so erudite, and I find myself very rarely disagreeing with you. I regularly check your site, and I must say; I hold your opinion in as high regard as professional critics.

    Great list, by the way.

  2. Holeigh says:

    So I can’t believe you don’t have Johnny Depp on this list, haha. :P All of his stuff may not have been perfect but he’s gotten all his nominations in the last decade, become one of the most bankable stars of his generation and created some iconic characters. Other than that, I highly agree, I like your inclusion of high profile actors like Leonardo DiCaprio as well as the indie guys like JGL.

    • forizzer69 says:

      Puffft. I don’t ever nominate him this decade. He makes my top ten once (Chocolat) and I like him in other films, but he has two emotions: eccentric and stoic. They work, but if he’s going to be so limited perhaps he should limit himself to supporting roles. ^_^

  3. vivian says:

    I love this site and list, great job especially for the next decade!! great actor group u picked :)

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