Top 20 Greatest Actors of the Century (So Far)



Top 20 Greatest Actors of the Century (So Far)

VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Cassondra Feltus
These thespians have dominated the silver screen since the year 2000. For this list, we'll be looking at actors who have consistently taken on challenging and transformative roles, built up their careers, or have become massively influential in Hollywood this century. Our countdown includes Margot Robbie, Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Joaquin Phoenix, Matthew McConaughey, and more!

Top 20 Greatest Actors of the Century So Far

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Greatest Actors of the Century So Far.

For this list, we’ll be looking at actors who have consistently taken on challenging and transformative roles, built up their careers, or have become massively influential in Hollywood this century.

Did we include your favorite actor? Let us know in the comments.

#20: Adam Driver

Since starring in “Girls” back in 2012, Adam Driver has quickly proven his wide range of talent. In 2015, he appeared in J.J. Abram’s “Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens” as Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo). This iconic role skyrocketed him to fame. But it’s his powerful performances in acclaimed films like “BlacKkKlansman” and “Marriage Story” that have cemented him as one of the best actors to watch. Driver’s also hosted “Saturday Night Live” three times, showing everyone that he can do comedy with the best of them.

#19: Timothée Chalamet

By now, almost everyone has heard the name Timothée Chalamet. This young actor became an A-lister almost overnight. He got his big break in 2017 when he played the melancholic Elio Perlman in Luca Guadagnino’s romance drama “Call Me by Your Name.” The film received rave reviews, as did Chalamet for his deeply empathetic portrayal of a lovesick 17-year-old. Since then he’s brought his stylishly intelligent brand of acting to successful films like “Lady Bird,” “Beautiful Boy,” “The King,” and “Little Women.” In 2021, he starred in the sci-fi epic “Dune” remake, proving he can tackle genre films, too.

#18: Scarlett Johansson

Having been in the industry for over 20 years, Scarlett Johansson continues to diversify her filmography. Starting off in indies and moving onto rom-coms, the actress has experimented with different types of roles in a variety of genres. But in the 2010s, Johansson became a key player in the MCU’s Infinity Saga. As Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), she’s one of the OG Avengers and after playing Black Widow for a decade, she finally got a long overdue solo film in 2021. She’s mixed it up with other sci-fi works like “Her,” “Under the Skin,” and “Lucy.” In 2019, she earned not one but TWO Academy Award nominations for her performances in “Marriage Story” and “Jojo Rabbit.” She can really do it all!

#17: Gary Oldman

Since his breakout role as Sid Vicious in 1986, Gary Oldman has proven he’s a true chameleon actor. He’s been a vampire, a Gotham police commissioner, a wizard, and Winston Churchill, just to name a few. He’s consistently morphed into compelling characters in several genres. But with his background in theater, drama is where he really thrives. Give him an emotional monologue or an eccentric personality and he’s at home. It’s a shame he didn’t get his Oscar until 2018, because he was clearly very deserving of the accolade. But we couldn’t be happier for him!

#16: Matthew McConaughey

After hitting the scene with his highly quotable character in “Dazed and Confused,” Matthew McConaughey became the go-to mainstream rom-com lead. However, the 2010s saw a McConaissance. The actor dove into dramatic roles like “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” the latter earning him an Oscar for Best Actor. McConaughey kicked off the HBO gritty anthology series “True Detective” with an Emmy-worthy role as Rust Cohle. He also portrayed an astronaut in the sci-fi drama “Interstellar.” The actor further proved his perfect comedic timing when he joined the star-studded voice cast of “Sing.”

#15: Jennifer Lawrence

As one of the youngest Oscar nominees for Best Actress in a leading role, Jennifer Lawrence first gained praise for “Winter’s Bone.” She soon became a household name as the heroic Katniss Everdeen in the widely successful “Hunger Games” franchise. At the same time, Lawrence also had a prominent role in the “X-Men” film franchise as Raven (aka Mystique). Her balance of vulnerability and strength made both characters cultural icons. Over the years, she’s earned numerous award nominations for acting, including four Oscar nods. And at just 22, she won Best Actress for her role as the young widow Tiffany Maxwell in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

#14: Denzel Washington

From stage to screen, behind the camera and in front, Denzel Washington has solidified his legacy as one of the greatest artists alive. He’s everyone’s favorite movie star, fans and critics alike. Washington played real-life figures like career criminal Frank Lucas in “American Gangster,” and the titular African American activist in “Malcolm X.” He’s become known for dominating the screen in action thrillers such as “Man on Fire,” and Antoine Fuqua’s “Equalizer” films. In 2021, Washington combined his love for theater and film playing the lead in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

#13: Cate Blanchett

Master of accents and period pieces, Cate Blanchett is one of the most prolific and gifted actresses in the industry. She introduced one of the best Marvel villains as the ruthless Hela in “Thor: Ragnarok,” though it wasn’t her first time in a massive film franchise. Blanchett also portrayed the otherworldly Galadriel in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit” trilogy. She’s received acclaim for her more dramatic roles in “Elizabeth” and “Blue Jasmine,” both of which earned her awards for Best Actress. If this impressive filmography wasn’t enough, Blanchett played a whopping 13 different characters in “Manifesto.”

#12: Charlize Theron

She’s recognized most for her stunning beauty, but the incomparable Charlize Theron has demonstrated time and time again that she’s more than capable of carrying a film. In 2003, Theron landed her career-defining role as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” Since then, she’s taken on iconic characters like Evil Queen Ravenna in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and Imperator Furiosa in George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The actress has an innate ability to tap into the physical and emotional identity of a character. This is just one of the many reasons she’s constantly fascinating to watch.

#11: Christian Bale

This method actor is known for his intense transformations altering his appearance significantly. But Christian Bale’s serious acting ability doesn’t get enough praise on its own. The dedication he puts into his characters is as psychological as it is physical, and it always pays off. Bale has played everything from a fit Wall Street serial killer, to an emaciated insomniac, to an aging American Vice President. His portrayal of Dicky Eklund in “The Fighter” landed him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He even became the Caped Crusader in Christopher Nolan’s widely successful “Dark Knight” trilogy. Bale’s slated to make his villainous MCU debut in Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

#10: Heath Ledger

Speaking of method acting and Batman, let’s talk about the scene-stealing clown in “The Dark Knight.” Heath Ledger’s Joker set a new standard for anyone taking on the character in the future. It’s a remarkable performance that earned him a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and garnered lasting praise. Given his previous work in films like “A Knight’s Tale,” fans didn’t believe he could tackle such a role. Boy, were they wrong! But let’s not forget his heartbreaking role as a closeted sheepherder in “Brokeback Mountain.” The late actor was a transcendent artist taken way too soon.

#9: Toni Collette

There are some actors who are criminally underrated, and Toni Collette is one of them. She’s been both a leading lady and a supporting player, delivering equally mesmerizing performances no matter what she’s in. She played the eccentric aunt in “Knives Out,” the dedicated detective in “Unbelievable,” and a single mom in “The Sixth Sense.” Collette got to play an array of unique characters in “United States of Tara.” While she’s done dramas and comedies, it’s the horror genre that really showcases her emotional range. Her character’s experiences in Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” were terrifying and devastating, and Collette expertly conveyed both.

#8: Margot Robbie

Robbie came into the spotlight with “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Since then she’s taken on standout roles in “Bombshell,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” One of her most recognized characters is, of course, Harley Quinn. It’s honestly hard for us to see anyone else as the psychiatrist turned villain. And since her debut in “Suicide Squad,” she’s let the world know that she is the Harley. She brought the lovably insane character back in “Birds of Prey” (which she also produced) as well as James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad.” And let’s not forget about her award worthy performance as the titular figure skater in “I, Tonya.” Truly iconic!

#7: Willem Dafoe

With almost 150 credits in his extensive filmography, Willem Dafoe is easily one of the greatest living actors. Younger audiences likely know him as Peter Parker’s sinister foe, Norman Osborn (aka Green Goblin). The skilled actor has always been a great villain. His chilling performance as Max Schreck/Count Orlok in “Shadow of the Vampire” earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. And 17 years later, he was nominated again for a very different role in “The Florida Project.” 2019 saw him embody a stranded lighthouse keeper alongside Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse.”

#6: Lupita Nyong’o

After starting out in theater, and graduating from the prestigious Yale School of Drama, Lupita Nyong’o gave an award winning performance in “12 Years a Slave.” The actress continues to entertain moviegoers on the big screen, joining the expanding MCU in the groundbreaking “Black Panther.” Nyong’o had the opportunity to get into motion capture for “The Force Awakens” as wise tavern keeper Maz Kanata. She also lent her voice to Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book.” The director cast Nyong’o because of her “tremendous depth of emotion.” Her immense versatility inspired Jordan Peele to offer her a dual role in “Us.” So, that’s an Oscar, two big franchises, voice acting, and horror? Is there anything Lupita Nyong’o can’t do?

#5: Mahershala Ali

He caught the eye of viewers and moviegoers with supporting roles in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Marvel’s “Luke Cage,” and both parts of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.” He received universal acclaim in 2016 for “Moonlight,” and again two years later with “Green Book.” Ali took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for both roles, making history as the first Muslim to win an Academy Award. The actor had the chance to show everyone that he’s a fantastic leading man in the third season of HBO’s crime anthology “True Detective.”

#4: Viola Davis

Before she was the badass Annalise Keating we know and love, Viola Davis staked her claim in the film industry. She’s repeatedly delivered on the silver screen with projects like “Doubt” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In 2021, Davis reprised her role as the no nonsense (and sometimes scary) Amanda Waller in “The Suicide Squad,” a character we hope to see for years to come. On the television side, she’s perfected the art of courtroom monologues on the Shonda Rhimes legal thriller “How to Get Away with Murder.” Whether she’s starring in a TV series or film, or even on stage accepting an award, Viola Davis is a powerhouse.

#3: Daniel Day-Lewis

Although his filmography is sparse compared to most of the names on this list, Daniel Day-Lewis is widely considered one of the greatest and hardest working actors in the industry. As a master of method acting, the actor always goes the extra mile to fully embody a character. For example, he remained in a wheelchair the duration of filming “My Left Foot.” Said film won him the Academy Award for Best Actor, an accolade he won two more times for “There Will Be Blood,” and “Lincoln.” In 2017, he announced that his role as dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock in “Phantom Thread” would be his last. But we’re still holding out hope that he’ll return someday.

#2: Joaquin Phoenix

Forever reinventing himself, Joaquin Phoenix has transformed himself into a wide range of distinct characters. After his false retirement from acting, Phoenix returned to the screen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s psychological drama “The Master.” Unsurprisingly, the actor garnered massive praise for his performance as a World War II veteran trying to adjust to civilian life. He followed that up with films like sci-fi romance “Her,” and the biopic “Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.” But it’s the box office hit “Joker” that really got everyone’s attention. He’s known for taking dark roles, but the traumatized failed comedian Arthur Fleck is one of his darkest.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Johnny Depp
Longtime Tim Burton Collaborator & Legendary Actor

Jake Gyllenhaal
Versatile Actor Who’s Always up for a Challenge

Natalie Portman
Harvard Grad Genius & Captivating Actress

Michael B. Jordan
Steadily Rising Star Known for Physically Demanding Roles

Tom Hardy
Consistently Delivers Effortlessly Nuanced Performances

Chadwick Boseman
A Talented Actor Who Ushered in a New Phase of Superheroes

#1: Leonardo DiCaprio

Ask anyone who their favorite actor is and they’ll likely say Leonardo DiCaprio. The legendary actor has brought many a character to life. He’s played heroes, villains, famous millionaires and desperate con men. From the icy wilderness to lavish mansions, Leo has done it all. But it’s his captivating performance as frontiersman Hugh Glass in “The Revenant” that finally won him the Oscar. What makes DiCaprio so intriguing is how he brings his naturally observant nature into each role. DiCaprio is a true master of the craft, and arguably his generation’s greatest actor.
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