There are no apologies for any omissions. No designations, either. Just collaboration. A criteria, too. The goal: to peg and order the thirty greatest actors of the last thirty years, while trying to avoid—at all costs—turning the list into a popularity contest or a beauty contest or a filmography contest. What resulted were thirty men that can play the shit out of any role. It’s about talent. It’s about uniqueness. It’s about three decades of performance that connects the individual to the screen. It’s about how much you change, as a person, from the time you purchase the ticket to the time you walk out the back door of the theatre. It’s not about the popcorn or the pop or the previews. It’s about escape. Imagination. Values. Love. And these are the men responsible. Their intention is always the same: to try and discover life, or at least create for themselves the illusion that they have, which might give them some chance of convincing other people of it.
KALMAKOFF: Curious and painfully shy as a boy, the immersive acting talents of young Heath Ledger left too soon, but there will come a time eventually when people just remember those looks, that husky voice, the beautiful work he did and would have done. There will come a time when his movies will live on, though we’re still busy getting caught up.
Must-See Performance: The Dark Knight (2008)
STEFANSON: By all accounts, Heath Ledger really was just getting started as a serious actor when a fatal combination of drugs took him from us at the age of 28. He recreated an iconic character, made us squirm with discomfort or titillation and stretched his performance by working with one of the most imaginative directors of our time. Sure, the early days of his career were filled with roles designed to make teenage girls swoon, but everyone’s got to start somewhere and Ledger was on his way to a memorable and lasting career.
Must-See Performance: Two Hands (1999)
29. Jet Li
KALMAKOFF: He embodies Chinese culture, executing a dramatic acting range never before seen in the kung-fu realm. But it doesn’t stop there. He can play as tragic a character as he can tough, and he can be scary as hell. Whether it’s with a grin or a kick or a tear, Jet Li stomps on your heart and kicks your ass, every single time. You get the idea that he’s inter-generational, too, ever-grappling and all-consuming in his silence.
Must-See Performance: Fearless (2006)
STEFANSON: Jet Li does his best acting without saying a word, at least when it comes to his English-speaking roles. When he speaks his native language, most often in epic martial arts films, Li’s voice fits his characters: fearless warriors motivated by honour and passion. In his many forays into Hollywood, it’s clear that he hasn’t quite mastered the English language, but this somehow works when he plays characters that possess a vulnerability that the heroes he portrays in China would never dare show.
Must-See Performance: Unleashed (2005)
28. Barry Pepper
KALMAKOFF: Almost every role he plays is small, but every one of those roles he plays is noteworthy. Though not a leading man, Pepper brings something to the term “character actor” as a secondary figure that few others in Hollywood can match. It’s called work ethic.
Must-See Performance: 61 (2001)
STEFANSON: Need a solid, reliable actor for a role as a soldier or law enforcement agent? Call Barry Pepper. Pepper has embodied these characters in some of the best movies of the past 15 years with his intense focus, angular facial features and rigid discipline.
Must-See Performance: Saving Private Ryan (1998)
27. Jeremy Davies
KALMAKOFF: There’s something there that no other actor has. It’s his seething whispers, his tics and stutters—tapping into and bringing to the surface demons that live inside all ordinary people. But he does it in a meek way, completely out of touch. It’s pathological. It’s fragile. It’s Jeremy Davies as usual.
Must-See Performance: Rescue Dawn (2006)
STEFANSON: The characters portrayed by Jeremy Davies are not confident, not powerful, not assertive. He is not the guy that gets the girl, beats the bad guy or steals the show. Yet somehow you can’t help but give your entire focus to him when he is on screen. He has never tried to be a movie star and, as a result, he has become one of the greatest character actors of our time.
Must-See Performance: Spanking the Monkey (1994)
26. Tom Cruise
KALMAKOFF: He’s ruthlessly genial with that old-fashioned movie star charm, which is to say he’s a romantic alpha-male with an edge, but that’s not even the best part. The best part is that while Cruise has never won Oscar’s top award, nine other actors have got at least an Oscar nomination for their role in a movie co-starring him. He’s passionate—extremely passionate—and he makes everyone else better. Whether you’re working alongside him, or merely watching the finished product, you can’t help but feed off the incessancy of his day-and-night ardour.
Must-See Performance: Days of Thunder (1990)
STEFANSON: Beyond the couch-jumping antics, the Scientology bullshit and his relationships with women nearly as beautiful as he is, we must remember that Tom Cruise is a really good actor. Sometimes he shows us just how good he can be and other times he skates by on his looks, his charm and his name. We can forgive him his vanity projects if he keeps bringing us periodic gold.
Must-See Performance: Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
25. Brad Pitt
KALMAKOFF: He’s one of those people you hate because of genetics, or want to hate, but can’t because he’s that good and that versatile and his laugh alone is Oscar-worthy, year after year. And you’d think he’d get away with more, but he really never gets away with anything. He can do the pretty-boy role as well as anyone in film, but he doesn’t. He sees his looks as a curse. He’s an actor, first and foremost. Not a model. And if he were any less good looking, he might just have your respect.
Must-See Performance: Meet Joe Black (1998)
STEFANSON: A young Brad Pitt gambled when he abandoned his college education two credits short of a degree to take his shot at Hollywood. The risk paid off. Brad Pitt is arguably his generation’s greatest movie star (he might have to fight it out with number 26) with his golden looks, his overwhelming charm and a smile that could stop traffic, but he’s also possessed of remarkable range, irrepressible spirit and an inspiring sense of adventure.
Must-See Performance: Twelve Monkeys (1995)
24. Ewan McGregor
KALMAKOFF: He can sing. He can dance. You never see him in the tabloids or in the gossip columns, either. Not one to get caught up in Hollywood attention, McGregor is too busy making good movies. He enjoys acting. He’s earnest. Sincere. And right when you think you have him pegged as just another actor with a disarming smile, he goes and pulls off another genre without a trace of irony. Take that.
Must-See Performance: Shallow Grave (1994)
STEFANSON: He’s done love stories, animated children’s movies, epic space odysseys, period pieces, weird indie films and big budget action flicks. No matter what genre Ewan McGregor tackles, he gives it his all and his keenness is palpable. He doesn’t have a disingenuous bone in his body and this translates to depictions of remarkable grace and authenticity.
Must-See Performance: Moulin Rogue (2001)
23. Colin Farrell
KALMAKOFF: The Dublin head-turner caught Kevin Spacey’s attention early on during a play in a London theatre. Spacey then suggested him for breakthrough roles and even starred alongside him before Tim Roth, who narrowly missed making this list, thought enough of Farrell’s acting talents to cast him in his directional debut. He has also been sought after by directors Joel Schumacher, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Woody Allen and Michael Mann. Al Pacino, an actor who also missed this 1980-2010 list, but would have made a 1950-1980 top thirty list, called Farrell the best actor of this generation. In true Irish fashion, all of this can be attributed to one thing: he works his arse off.
Must-See Performance: Miami Vice (2006)
STEFANSON: His sex appeal is off the charts and that kind of beauty usually makes it difficult for an actor to be taken seriously. His wild ways off screen and his roles in superhero and shoot-‘em-up movies don’t help either. It’s easy to forget just how talented Colin Farrell is. In fact, we neglected to include him on this list until late in our brainstorming process when we remembered how his nearly-black eyes slice through scenes no matter what emotion he’s trying to convey.
Must-See Performance: In Bruges (2008)
22. Jude Law
KALMAKOFF: If a man had a one-time usage on the word beautiful to waste on another man, I’d waste it on Jude Law. He’s beautiful, he’s electric and he’s straight, which is sometimes hard to believe. Maybe the most enjoyable thing about watching him is that he’s better with women than even women are, and somehow he convinces you that his onscreen charm translates into real life. Almost every movie he’s played in should be re-titled How to Be a Man, parts one, two and thirty-four.
Must-See Performance: Breaking and Entering (2006)
STEFANSON: One look at Jude Law and you can tell he’s a heartbreaker. Of course, that doesn’t stop women from queuing up to have their time with him, whether it’s starlets and nannies or movie theatregoers. We don’t mind when he breaks our hearts because he does it so beautifully, so tenderly, we almost forget it’s painful.
Must-See Performance: Closer (2004)
21. Jim Carrey
KALMAKOFF: He began at the very bottom in a hard-luck Canadian family before dropping out of high school at sixteen and pursuing a career in comedy. What has followed is one of the most unique acting careers we’ve ever seen, by one of the most unique actors we’ve ever seen. With his weird facial expressions and rolling-over-funny voices, Carrey is a box-office staple as one of the best comedic actors of this or any generation. And if he wanted—if he really wanted—he could easily be one of the best dramatic actors, too.
Must-See Performance: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
STEFANSON: Jim Carrey may be the most successful ADD sufferer in the entire world. He channeled the wired energy of his boyhood into a stage act that brought him attention from the television and movie world. The rubber-faced actor seems to be driven by an insatiable desire for all eyes to be on him, whether he’s in an outlandish costume, stretching his dramatic muscles or sharing uncomfortably honest Tweets with his fans.
Must-See Performance: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
20. George Clooney
Must-See Performance: Out of Sight (1998)
STEFANSON: George Clooney’s crinkly-eyed smile, sexy, underground cave of a voice and ever increasing beauty would easily allow him to get by on looks alone. He does employ those qualities certainly in many of his movies and employs them with panache. Yet when you look beyond the enveloping charm, you see that Clooney commits utterly to every role—smart-ass, imbecile, tortured soul, playboy, secret agent, criminal, good guy.
Must-See Performance: Michael Clayton (2007)
19. Ethan Hawke
KALMAKOFF: Through his acting, he’s inspired cops to become cops and writers to become writers. He has fun working inside a genre. He’s nuanced. He’s deep. And he understands the point of performance is not to be liked, nor is it to flash that winning smile. It’s to be completely fluid, infused with a sense of gratitude and a sense of wonder.
Must-See Performance: Training Day (2001)
STEFANSON: Ethan Hawke is the poster boy for Generation Y, the most aimless and self-critical generation, yet he is remarkably driven as an actor, a writer and a director. One gets the feeling that whatever has come into his life—women, children, money—his craft has always remained his top priority. He occasionally borders on preposterous in his confidence, but he’s got the talent to back it up.
Must-See Performance: Reality Bites (1994)
18. Viggo Mortensen
KALMAKOFF: Introspective. Raw. He digs so deeply into his roles you usually don’t even recognize him at first. Casting him into mystifying realms of the human existence is always wise, if not pitch-perfect.
Must-See Performance: The Indian Runner (1991)
STEFANSON: He can play the everyman as well as he can play the mystic, the mysterious and the exotic. He’s a master of accents and masks of expression. His best work is not in the blockbusters on his resume, but even with the Hollywood epics he refuses to phone it in. When you get Viggo, you get everything he’s got.
Must-See Performance: A History of Violence (2005)
17. Will Smith
KALMAKOFF: Smith really tricked everyone if you think about it. You grew up watching him on Fresh Prince. You laughed, sure. But then, all of a sudden, you’re watching and weeping, crying your ass off. His career arc has gone from funny-kid to heartthrob-thriller-guy to bring-the Kleenex-but-hold-the-popcorn-man. And every now and then he throws in something funny again just to remind you of where he came from.
Must-See Performance: Seven Pounds (2008)
STEFANSON: Will Smith could have sailed through his career on comedies and action flicks. He makes those look easy and audiences never tire of his wisecracking and ass kicking. While the laughs and stunts are still his bread and butter, Smith has also proven that he can act with the best of them. He’s adept at pulling emotions out of you of all kinds.
Must-See Performance: I Am Legend (2007)
16. Kevin Bacon
KALMAKOFF: He comes off as a compassionate lunatic, which, you know, probably no one else anywhere has ever been able to pull off. He plays a damn good investigator, a damn good outdoorsman, a damn good kidnapper, and he can even be damn funny when he wants. My favourite part about Bacon is that even when he’s lying, he’s as believable as anyone you’ve ever seen in a movie.
Must-See Performance: The River Wild (1991)
STEFANSON: The reason a connection can be made between Kevin Bacon and any other actor in Hollywood in just six degrees is that he’s prolific, not a snob about the roles he chooses and not afraid to risk appearing foolish. Kevin Bacon is everywhere and it’s never a bad thing when he shows up, whether it’s a small part or the lead.
Must-See Performance: The Woodsman (2004)
15. John Malkovich
KALMAKOFF: Malkovich is distant, quiet and droll, as if musing things that happened long ago. You could even say that he’s carefully aloof. Whatever the case, one thing’s for sure: he transmits a frequency on screen far from what he is in real life, and he’s drawn to characters with a lack of humanity. Maybe it’s the musing. Maybe he’s evil. Or maybe he’s just really good at leaving us all in the dark—the mark of any great actor.
Must-See Performance: In the Line of Fire (1993)
STEFANSON: John Malkovich appears to be an ordinary man—that is, until he moves or open his mouth to speak. Then you see that every motion is calculated, every sound carefully measured. His stage background is most likely the reason that he is most natural in movies set in another time. The veil of theatre on him is obvious even in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. He acts with pride. His characters are at times exquisite, serpentine and dangerous, but he can also convey innocence effortlessly.
Must-See Performance: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
14. Woody Harrelson
KALMAKOFF: So let’s get one thing straight: although Harrelson is a vegan, an activist for the legalization of marijuana, an ex-sex addict, and a resident of Hawaii who plays poker with his neighbour Willie Nelson while owning an oxygen bar back in West Hollywood, he’s one damn fine actor.
Must-See Performance: No Country for Old Men (2007)
STEFANSON: Woody Harrelson is a little unhinged. This may be why he is capable of playing such an eclectic mix of characters, each with their own compelling idiosyncrasies. There’s a good chance you have overlooked him up to this point, so take another glimpse at his filmography. You’ll find a series of underrated roles in good movies and bad, but he is consistently remarkable in all of them.
Must-See Performance: Natural Born Killers (1994)
13. Ben Kingsley
Must-See Performance: Elegy (2008)
STEFANSON: The most persuasive evidence of Ben Kingsley’s incredible range and characterization is the fact that the very British actor needed little more than a tan and an accent in order to wholly embody the most famous Indian of all time. Add the emotional and physical commitment that he brings to every role and you’ve got one of the best actors of all time.
Must-See Performance: House of Sand and Fog (2003)
12. Peter Sarsgaard
KALMAKOFF: His boyish visage charms while his disturbingly harsh characters dissuade you from ever truly figuring out just what the hell he’s up to. He’s layered, you see. So layered, in fact, that you can skip the popcorn because you’ll spend all of your time baffled and demoralized watching him. But you will always come away pleased.
Must-See Performance: An Education (2009)
STEFANSON: Peter Sarsgaard acknowledges the similarity in mannerisms between himself and John Malkovich, but passes it off as a result of the actors both being from Illinois. Apparently, he does a great Malkovich impression. But where Malkovich slips into grandiosity, Sarsgaard comes back down to earth. Impressively natural in a variety of parts, Sarsgaard works hard and loves his job, which is obvious in the end result.
Must-See Performance: Kinsey (2004)
11. Don Cheadle
KALMAKOFF: The running joke about critically lambasted movies is that if Don Cheadle was in it, Ebert would have liked it. Not always a leading man, Cheadle can sometimes play the smallest of roles, though no role he plays is ever bad. Whether he is the leading man or he goes uncredited, he makes the film better. He completes it.
Must-See Performance: Manic (2001)
STEFANSON: Don Cheadle is underappreciated. Take any film he’s appeared in, imagine it sans Cheadle and it’s automatically poorer for it. He is essential in all of his movies, even the terrible ones and, yes, there are have been terrible ones. Now watch him as a leading man in the few heartbreakingly good films he has starred in and you’ll realize that Don Cheadle more than deserves his place on this list.
Must-See Performance: Hotel Rwanda (2004)
10. Matt Damon
KALMAKOFF: He is stubborn and he is private and he is funny and, above all, he is honest. His performances are as genuine as he is, and there is nobody better than Damon at going from thriller to comedy to drama and back to thriller again. It says something when the likes of Hanks and Williams want to work with him, and the likes of Spielberg give him a title role from the very beginning. Though if you know anything about how Matt Damon’s career got started, the word “give” does his story little justice. He’s earned every ounce.
Must-See Performance: The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007)
STEFANSON: Everyone, including this writer, makes a big deal out of Christian Bale’s willingness to sacrifice his body in pursuit of a faultless performance, but we shouldn’t forget that Matt Damon did it first. He has slimmed down to play a gaunt heroin addict and plumped up for a role as a bumbling whistleblower. He also once played a conjoined twin stuck to Greg Kinnear and seriously bulked up for his first major action movie. But focusing on the physical challenges and changes he has faced in his career overlooks the superb performances that have gone along with them. Matt Damon is a movie star of the highest order, but he’s got the chops that make for longevity in a notoriously fickle industry.
Must-See Performance: Good Will Hunting (1997)
9. Kevin Spacey
KALMAKOFF: He is often criticized for being as enigmatic as he is talented, though there’s no denying the talented part. Spacey, the forever-unsatisfied movie star hit his peak in the late 90s and has since returned his focus to the theatre. Maybe the best thing about Spacey isn’t his Julliard education or his two Oscar awards; it’s that his mom was his date the night he won for best actor in 1999. A best actor, and a best son.
Must-See Performance: The Usual Suspects (1995)
STEFANSON: Kevin Spacey has done a little bit of almost everything during his time in movies. He’s voiced animated characters, played psycho killers, dissatisfied suburbanites, unquestionable authority figures and supervillans. Whether his goal is over-the-top caricature or humbly believable ordinariness, Spacey never disappoints.
Must-See Performance: American Beauty (1999)
8. Christian Bale
KALMAKOFF: Nobody does accents like Bale. Nobody does weight loss like Bale, either. He’s as committed as anyone to making the audience believe in his characters. And you’d think by seeing how natural he always is with the roles he plays, that maybe Christian Bale is in some ways a lot like his characters. Suckers.
Must-See Performance: 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
STEFANSON: He starved himself to achieve an alien-like appearance as a man who doesn’t sleep and then put on superhero size muscle in order to don a rubber suit. The extremes of the two roles tell you everything you need to know about Christian Bale as an actor. He is just as devoted to quirky characters in independent films as he is to playing iconic heroes in big budget Hollywood movies. On set tantrums notwithstanding, Bale is an infinitely valuable commodity in the movie world.
Must-See Performance: The Machinist (2004)
7. Denzel Washington
KALMAKOFF: He’s striking. In everything he does, he’s striking. He hits you hard with it, too. Smacks you around a little. And you can’t help but stare. Your eyes never leave the screen. Like a comedian with good timing, Denzel can take a moment, a scene, and build it and build it and build it with energy before that single second where it spills over. That’s when he explodes. And like a $25 thousand watch, he never misses. Always there. Always on time. In rhythm.
Must-See Performance: Man on Fire (2004)
STEFANSON: You never hear anyone say they hate Denzel Washington. How could they? Even his bad guys are irresistible.
Must-See Performance: The Hurricane (1999)
6. Robin Williams
Must-See Performance: Awakenings (1990)
STEFANSON: For a man who has enjoyed fantastic success lending his talents to animated and live action children’s movies, Robin Williams has a damn dirty mouth. When unleashed on a talk show or doing stand-up, the lovable genie disappears and a vile, hairy man takes his place. Surprisingly, he is equally appealing in either world. Add to that his impressive dramatic chops and you’ve got one of the most valuable actors working today.
Must-See Performance: Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
5. Tom Hanks
KALMAKOFF: There has never been anyone as natural or as humble or nimble or tolerable in Hollywood, ever, as Tom Hanks. Sure, at times, he gambles. And sure, at times, there are missteps. But the fact is that he does gamble, after all, and never once has he embarrassed himself. And even if he did, you wouldn’t even notice.
STEFANSON: The most likable guy in Hollywood and arguably the rest of the world too, Tom Hanks has built a steady, infallible career playing to his strengths—uncommon comic timing, heartstring tugging sincerity and leading man authority.
Must-See Performance: Big (1988)
4. Philip Seymour Hoffman
KALMAKOFF: Likeable and dark all at once, Hoffman can play the unapologetically nice guy or the renegade, and he can be funny and he can be manipulative and he can be drug addicted and he can pull off deeply-conflicted portraits of people like Truman Capote that are more Capote than Capote was.
Must-See Performance: Synecdoche, New York (2008)
STEFANSON: Philip Seymour Hoffman jumps from indie fare to Hollywood blockbuster with ease. He takes on comedic roles and startlingly dramatic ones. He can do charismatic and creepy, sometimes in the same movie. With few exceptions, he has been a supporting player in the movies he has acted in, but has done more with small parts than most movie stars do with leads. And when he is given first billing on a film, the results have been Oscar-worthy.
Must-See Performance: Capote (2005)
3. Daniel Day-Lewis
KALMAKOFF: He is a lifelong study of evasion. No actor can get himself into a self-righteous frame of mind like Day-Lewis can. He isolates himself while in character and shooting a film, which is in part the reason he is hesitant to take on more work. His goal is always to try to achieve something with his characters that seemed utterly out of reach, and he never fails to pull it off. And he isn’t always articulate either, though not by accident. Day-Lewis knows as well as anyone the sublime struggle of man trying to express himself. It makes him a little perverse. It also makes him unforgettably great.
STEFANSON: Notoriously committed, Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t so much play a part as consume it. He makes you forget there is an actor behind the character. His total immersion in a role is the reason he has taken on so few films during his career. Each part is like a separate life he’s lived and he has so many memories already.
Must-See Performance: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
2. Johnny Depp
KALMAKOFF: He’s more than just highly defined cheekbones. Johnny Depp has range. And although he hates fame and is paranoid and obscure and shy and often plays freakishly eccentric outcasts, he is damn cool. And damn good. But those aren’t even the best things about him. The best thing about Depp is that he doesn’t give a shit what you think.
Must-See Performance: Edward Scissorhands (1990)
STEFANSON: Johnny Depp has a long history of playing quirky characters in films from the twisted imagination of Tim Burton and repeat performances as a rock star pirate in a worldwide smash hit trilogy, but it is through his more subtle portrayals that we see his true genius. He can play over-the-top with the best of them. He can also take a guy next door character and give him depth, passion and authenticity.
Must-See Performance: Blow (2001)
1. Leonardo DiCaprio
KALMAKOFF: At age ten, his agent advised him to change his name to a more American-friendly Lenny Williams. But when you are a perfectionist like DiCaprio is, and you’re obsessed with detail and shedding light on different aspects of the human condition like DiCaprio is, and you can play characters older than yourself and younger than yourself like DiCaprio can, then really—what’s in a name? DiCaprio doesn’t even know who he is, which is why he acts—using it as an outlet to learn about himself. So whether he goes by Leonardo or Lenny, the guy has range like no other actor. The guy gets you to watch. The guy gets you to fight. The guy gets you to cry. The guy gives you something you’ve never seen before, every time you turn your head toward the screen. And he’s humble. He’s humble and he’s authentic like a twenty-four carat. Anyone else in this position would feel like a loss.
Must-See Performance: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
STEFANSON: At a certain point in the 1990s, one could not open a teen magazine of any kind without seeing Leonardo DiCaprio’s glowing grin. Just as he was poised to take on the mantle of pretty boy actor for his generation, he veered off the painless path of popularity and began to master his craft with roles that pushed him to his limits and had him working opposite acting greats like Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep. His filmography astounds, not just with evidence of his massive box office success, but, more importantly, with startlingly good performances in commendable films that have consistently entertained us.
Must-See Performance: This Boy’s Life (1993)