We are in a golden age of film. And as a result, when we tried selecting our favorite performers, we realized that it is an impossible feat. There’s no formula for determining the best (just bickering), and this list is both fundamentally subjective and perhaps agitating in its omissions. Some of these actors are new(ish) to the scene; others have been in the arena for decades.
In making our selections, we have concentrated on this century and looked past Hollywood. And while there are established stars in the mix and a smattering of Oscar-holders (also, just an Oscar… spoiler alert! ), we also included character actors and acting chameleons, action stars, and art-house favorites. Presenting a list of TEN reasons we still love films, maybe more than before:
10 Best Actors in the World
10. Shah Rukh Khan
Although typecast as Bollywood’s quintessential romantic hero, Khan started his career as an anti-hero. A few of his earlier projects that are rated high saw him in a negative avatar. The movie Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was what kicked off his journey as a romantic hero in Bollywood and an international star, earning him tags such as “The King of Romance,” making him one of the highest-earning actors out there, more so than some of his Hollywood counterparts, and undoubtedly the biggest Indian superstar of his generation.
Even though Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘anti-hero’ characters became successful after Darr and turned into a myth after Anjaam, it was with Baazigar that it all began. Considering Khan is best recognized for his romantic roles, it is interesting that his character of Ajay Sharma, a psychopath, was what made him a household name. It also makes many fans speculate as to why Khan adhered to a stereotype for so many years after he dared to venture with a ‘negative’ role early in his career. He truly pushed the boundaries of what a ‘hero’ could get away with, in a Bollywood film.
9. Oscar Isaac
When actors make an intense first impression, they often get bound up with your opinions on what they can achieve. After “Inside, Llewyn Davis,” many associated Oscar with soulful defeat, with a trace of grudging resentment. Scarce other roles shored up this opinion of his innate mournfulness, including his appearance as a besieged mayor in the HBO show “Show Me a Hero” (2015).
This somewhat has to do with his broody, romantic appearance, and his perfectly framed eyes. And then there’s the voice, its lovely sound, but also how its resonance builds intimacy. Even when he fixes on a nasal quality, his voice retains an essence of closeness, one reason it often feels like Llewyn is singing more for himself than the listeners. Isaac’s voice softens his beauty, pulling you in. Sometimes he uses that intimacy for something insinuating, sinister, take his role in “Ex Machina”, for example.
8. Tilda Swinton
The woman of so many otherworldly faces, Tilda Swinton, has generated enough personas — with countless wigs, outfits, and accents — to have built a roster of one. She’s a character actor, a performance artist, a trickster, and a star all-in-one package. Her pale, sharp facial features offer an ideal canvas for makeup and prosthetics and are capable of showing an unnerving stillness. You want to understand her but can’t.
That helps turn her into a terrific villain, whether she’s a demon, a queen, or a corporate lawyer. In 2009’s “Julia”, she loses that wall to present an out-of-control alcoholic slash child-snatcher, delivering a full-throttle performance so visceral and transparent, you notice the character’s feelings and thoughts furiously at work, like little parasites moving beneath the skin.
7. Zhao Tao
From the year 2000, Chinese actress Zhao Tao and director Jia Zhangke have created more than a dozen feature films and short films, dramas, documentaries together and work resisting such neat categorization. Their filmmaking partnership is so holistic and natural that it is hard to guess what these films would seem like without Zhao’s face and grounding appearance. She’s frequently called his muse (they’re married), yet that doesn’t come close to seizing the richness of her participation — it’s a metaphor, emotional granularity, it is poetry captured on the reel.
6. Willem Dafoe
One of the most versatile artists today, Willem Dafoe, is a genuine acting everyman. Formerly having made his start in theater in his home state of Wisconsin and then moving to New York to transition into cinema, Dafoe now sees himself weighing between starring in grandiose blockbusters and acclaimed independent movies.
There is no shortage of his acclaimed roles to be considered with a filmography that flourishes with over a hundred films and more on the way, including Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. He is a quiet legend.
5. Song Kang-Ho
The Korean actor Song Kang-Ho seemingly first came into the consciousness of most international audiences in the 2020 Oscar winner, for best-picture “Parasite”, acting as an impoverished, conniving patriarch.
He can add life and rawness to each moment on film. Even if a scene includes complex dialogue or extremely technical camerawork, he can find a way to make it seem seamless and spontaneous. Every take will be different, and the heaviest dialogue will come across as improvisation. It’s astounding and a joy to witness.
4. Denzel Washington
He makes work — by which I mean acting — resemble breathing. There’s a reason he was sublime as Easy Rawlins in the “Devil in a Blue Dress”, a primary defining role. Since then, he has played many characters who embody law or corruption and some who survive in the space separating the two. Along the way, he has grown into a dominant totem for specific male self-assurance, the same as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood before him. Denzel Washington can show anguished vulnerability, but he will also tower like a colossus, towering over worlds like some Old Testament patriarch — it’s remarkable given the representations of Black masculinity onscreen not long ago.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis
At the beginning of “There Will Be Blood” (2007), a guy in a deep, dark hole rhythmically hits the wall with a pickaxe, throwing up sparks and dust. You only completely see him when he raises his head to gaze up at the sky, letting light flood his face. Behold, the hero — behold, Daniel Day-Lewis!
It’s an introduction as remarkable, as character-defining, and star-shaping as he deserves.
Day-Lewis is probably one of the most revered artists of the past half-century, a distinction based on his inspiring filmography and polished by an aura of renown that has turned near-mystical in proportion. His well-publicized homework for his roles and persistence on remaining in character during production have grown legendary, the stuff of exciting headlines and fan fetishism. His repeated announcements of retirement have only expanded his esteem, and so has his selectivity: he’s made only six movies this century, all remarkable masterworks.
2. Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman has been celebrated for so long that it’s easy to forget that the legendary star didn’t break out on the big screens till the age of 50. Since then, the 83-year-old legend has performed in more than 100 films and earned five Oscar nominations.
In Frank Darabont’s Oscar-nominated movie, Freeman and Tim Robbins co-star as a couple of convicts sentenced to rot away in Maine’s imposing Shawshank Prison. Even though the screenplay was adapted from one Stephen King novella, the film is not actually a horror story. Instead, it’s a poignant reflection on friendship as these doomed souls grapple and try to hold on to hope in a situation where hope goes to die. Freeman’s Red is stunningly understated, combining compassion, desperation, resignation, and ultimately something like ecstasy when he finally tastes freedom, reunited with his friend, Robbins’s Andy Dufresne, on a sunny beach in Mexico. It’s a film that gets better and more profound with each viewing.
1. Maggie Smith
When it comes to current Hollywood legends, few cross my mind instantly without really thinking about it. Still, Dame Margaret Natalie Smith always comes up, an ingénue who has bestowed us with her talents over several decades, from the theater to the big screen then on to the small screen.
One way or another, you have seen her best movies – and maybe even her best performances on television. She has been around the block, delivering performances all nuanced and so different from one another, you wonder if it is the same face behind them all. From her time in the fantasy genre with The Harry Potter movies, or perhaps even her leading role in the Downton Abbey TV show— Maggie can do it all.
In the movie ‘A Room With a View’, Dame Maggie plays Charlotte Bartlett in the Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adaptation of EM Forster’s famous novel of the same name, directed by James Ivory. It is a short but very potent part as the cautious and disapproving chaperone to a yearning younger cousin Lucy Honeychurch, played by another British legend — Helena Bonham Carter. They tour primarily throughout Italy, holidaying up in Florence. The character is annoyed when their rooms do not have a “view” of the Arno. Maggie somehow condenses and displays her ironic inability to see the passionate possibilities laid out before her character with perfect delivery.
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