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New York Times - The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far)

The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far)
Chameleons or beauties, star turns or character roles these are the performers who have outshone all others on the big screen in the last 20 years.
By Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott Nov. 25, 2020
We are in a golden age of acting — make that platinum — as we realized when we decided to select our favorite film performers of the past 20 years. There’s no formula for choosing the best (just squabbling), and this list is both necessarily subjective and possibly scandalous in its omissions. Some of these performers are new to the scene; others have been around for decades. In making our choices, we have focused on this century and looked beyond Hollywood. And while there are certainly stars in the mix and even a smattering of Oscar winners, there are also character actors and chameleons, action heroes and art-house darlings. They’re 25 reasons we still love movies, maybe more than ever.
25. Gael García Bernal
MANOHLA DARGIS When Alejandro González Iñárritu’s thriller “Amores Perros” and Alfonso Cuarón’s road movie “Y Tu Mamá También” were released in American art houses a year apart, the shocks were seismic. Their directors were soon racing toward international renown and so was Gael García Bernal, their shared star. He was gifted, held the screen and had a face you kept looking at, partly because — with his doe eyes and lantern jaw — it seamlessly fused ideals of feminine and masculine beauty.
This contrast wasn’t especially obvious in “Amores Perros” (2001), but it helps enrich the warmer “Y Tu Mamá También” (2002), a soulful coming-of-age story that opens with a whoop and ends on a sigh. García Bernal plays Julio, a working-class teenager on a journey of discovery (of the self, of others). Along with his best friend (played by Diego Luna), Julio tumbles through life heedlessly until he doesn’t. As the story’s raucousness quiets, Julio’s adolescent machismo fades, replaced by pensiveness that the actor makes so physical, you see the character retreating inside himself.
By 2004, García Bernal had appeared in Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” as the young Che Guevara and played a duplicitous chameleon in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Bad Education.” Almodóvar put the actor in heels to play a noirish femme fatale, a role that García Bernal apparently didn’t much like doing so but that deepened his persona with a smear of lipstick and a psychological coldness that created new shocks.
A. O. SCOTT In Pablo Larraín’s “No” (2013), García Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a hotshot young advertising creative in 1980s Chile, with his usual charm. He’s cool but not intimidatingly so; good-looking in the same measure; funny but not to the point of obnoxiousness; self-confident but not a jerk. At first, it’s easy to underestimate both Rene and García Bernal, to mistake their casual, unassuming naturalness for a lack of gravitas or craft. Rene is enlisted by a group of opposition political parties to produce television spots supporting a “no” vote on a referendum extending the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Rene’s job is to sell rejection as an upbeat choice, to acknowledge the brutality of Pinochet’s regime while focusing on the happy future without him. Though Rene believes in the cause, he also views it as a marketing challenge, and there is a bit of a “Mad Men” vibe to his wrangling with clients, colleagues and rivals.
It’s up to García Bernal to provide the dramatic link between the banalities of the media business and the terror of political repression, and he does it almost entirely with his eyes. One night, the apartment he shares with his young son is vandalized while they sleep, and in that moment Rene’s chipper resolve liquefies into pure fear. The next day he is back at work, and both he and the audience have a new and profound understanding of what the work means.
24. Sônia Braga
MANOHLA DARGIS I just recently rewatched “Aquarius” (2016) for our ode to Sônia Braga. For those who haven’t seen it: Braga stars as Clara, a writer whose apartment faces the Atlantic. Most of the story follows Clara just living her life while swatting away her landlord. Braga fits seamlessly into the director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s wonderful, unfussy realism. This time while viewing the movie, though — partly prompted by, ahem, a chapter title called “Clara’s Hair” — I noticed how Braga kept rearranging her opulent curtain of hair. And, as she swept it up and let it down, I realized that Mendonça wasn’t just presenting a character but also the legend playing her.
A. O. SCOTT It’s a reminder — subliminal and brazen at the same time — that Braga was a big deal in Brazil and beyond in the 1970s and ’80s, her nation’s answer to Sophia Loren. Her films with Mendonça (“Bacurau” this year as well “Aquarius”) draw on that history and exploit her old-school charisma. But they aren’t just late-career star turns. Clara isn’t Sonia Braga: She’s a highly specific woman with her own history of achievements, love affairs and regrets. But only a performer with Braga’s utter self-assurance, her heroic indifference to what anyone else thinks of her, could bring Clara to life.
DARGIS Yet what I found fascinating about “Aquarius” this time is that Clara is alsoBraga, in the sense that the character’s meaning is partly shaped by everything that Braga brings whenever she’s onscreen, including her history in Brazilian cinema as a woman of mixed ancestry as well as her adventures in Hollywood. There’s something fantastically liberating watching Braga play this majestic woman, who has visible wrinkles and never had breast reconstruction after her mastectomy. That’s especially true given how Braga was once slavered over as a sex star. “There is nothing else to call her,” a male critic once wrote — well, you could call her an actress.
SCOTT Her skill manifests itself in a totally different way in “Bacurau” this year, a crazily fantastical (and violent) science-fictionish allegory of Brazil in crisis that departs from the realism of Mendonça’s other films without abandoning their political passion or their humanism. Braga, part of a sprawling ensemble that includes nonprofessional actors, is essential to this. She plays Domingas, a small-town doctor with a drinking problem and a sometimes abrasive personality — a deglamorized, comical role that no one else could have managed with such depth and grace. Or as Mendonça put it, “In a symphony, she’d be the piano.”
23. Mahershala Ali
A. O. SCOTT Mahershala Ali has one of the great faces in modern movies — those sculpted cheekbones, that high, contemplative brow, those eyes tinged with melancholy. His presence on camera is magnetic, but also watchful and sly. His characters tend toward reticence, guardedness, but their reserve is its own form of eloquence, their whispers more resonant than any shout.
Ali has won two Oscars for best supporting actor. The first was for “Moonlight” (2016), in which he quietly demolished a durable Hollywood stereotype. Juan is a drug dealer, a figure of community destruction and implicit violence. What defines him, though, is his gentleness, the unconditional kindness he bestows on Chiron, the young protagonist. Juan listens to the boy; he answers his questions; in one of the film’s most moving scenes, he teaches him to swim.
And then, between the first and second acts, he vanishes. But Ali haunts the film even after his departure. He’s both its tragic, nurturing image of manhood and the first man worthy of Chiron’s love.
MANOHLA DARGIS Ali first got my attention in the Netflix series “House of Cards.” He played Remy Danton, a Washington lawyer whose knowing little smile could flicker like a warning, signaling the danger in his world. Remy entered in the second episode in a scene at a restaurant, where the lead character, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), is eating with two other power brokers. Remy doesn’t stand over the seated men, he looms. You know Underwood is bad news, but when the director David Fincher cuts to Remy’s face, Ali abruptly changes the temperature by dropping his affable facade for skin-prickling wariness, making it clear that he isn’t talking to a man but to a predator.
I was so accustomed to seeing Ali in a bespoke suit (and sometimes out) that I didn’t recognize him at first in “Moonlight.” It wasn’t simply the different wardrobes, but the precise bearing that Ali gave each man, variations in bodies, yes, but also in how those bodies move and signify. In “House of Cards,” Remy flows and there were moments when I thought I was looking at the next James Bond. In “Moonlight,” Ali creates a titanic character whose force, even after he disappears from the movie, continues to resonate. The actor creates a very dissimilar character in “Green Book” (2018, his second Oscar winner), this time with a performance — as the musician Don Shirley, whom Ali plays as a man and a defended fortress — that surpasses the movie.
SCOTT I would almost say that the performance is the opposite of the movie. Ali is graceful, witty and self-aware while “Green Book” is clumsy, jokey and blind to its own insensitivities. I’m not sure any other actor could have handled the notorious fried chicken scene with such sly dignity. That “Green Book” and “Moonlight” were both best picture winners speaks to the contradictions of our cultural moment, but it’s proof of Ali’s talent that his subtle craft and unshakable charisma can anchor two such divergent films.
22. Melissa McCarthy
MANOHLA DARGIS When critics anatomize comic performers like Melissa McCarthy, we often touch on familiar qualities like timing, grace and elastic physiognomy. But we’re also talking about acting. Since making the transition from TV to movies, McCarthy has repeatedly demonstrated her range and exhilaratingly helped demolish regressive ideas about who gets to be a film star. No movie has served her better than “Spy”(2015) in which she plays Susan, a timid C.I.A. analyst who’s sent on an outlandish mission that allows McCarthy to mince and then delightfully swagger.
Essential to the subversive fun of “Spy” is how it deploys genre conventions to showcase McCarthy’s talents while also blowing up stereotypes. Susan contains multitudes, first as self-protection (she dampens her fire) and later as an expression of her humanity. In the field, she unhappily assumes several frumpy, tragically bewigged disguises — variations on how others see her — before transforming into a sexy, trash-talking fantasy of her own design. As Susan lets down her hair and inhibitions, McCarthy cuts loose. Her voice booms, her fluttery hands ball into fists, her Kewpie-doll face goes full-on Medusa. McCarthy isn’t playing one woman — she’s all of us, with a vengeance.
A. O. SCOTT Lee Israel is funny. She shares a fast and furiously aggressive verbal wit with some of McCarthy’s other creations, like Tammy in “Tammy” (2014) and Mullins in “The Heat” (2013). But Lee was a real person, and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”(2018) isn’t exactly a comedy. It’s not quite a biopic either, but rather a highly specific slice of late-20th-century New York queer and literary life threaded through a misfit buddy picture and twisted into a caper film.
Lee is not easy to like or root for. She’s abrasive, self-absorbed and self-sabotaging. She alienates friends and maintains as tenuous a grip on ethics as on sobriety. McCarthy resists turning her story — which involves trading a faltering career as a writer for a lucrative stint as a forger of famous writers’ letters — into a parable of recovery or redemption.
It’s about how Lee and her sidekick (the wonderful Richard E. Grant) gamble on survival, rebelling against the fate that an indifferent world has prepared for them. The movie’s title poses an honest question. Maybe you can’t forgive Lee for her lapses and lies, her lack of consideration for other people’s words and feelings. But there’s no way you can forget her.
21. Catherine Deneuve
By MARJANE SATRAPI
In a lengthy career working with a who’s who of auteurs, Deneuve has stood for a certain kind of elegant Frenchwoman whether she’s playing an ordinary wife, a down-on-her-luck bistro owner or even an Iranian mother. For that last role, in the animated “Persepolis”(2007). Deneuve voiced a character based on Marjane Satrapi’s mom. We asked Satrapi, who directed the film with Vincent Paronnaud, to explain why she sought out Deneuve.
If you live in France, Catherine Deneuve is the symbol. When I was growing up, she was the dream. She always made choices that were too advanced for her time, more anarchist than bourgeois. She has always looked like a very bourgeois Parisian woman, which is absolutely not true. She is a rebel who looks like a grande dame.
The first time I met Catherine Deneuve was like meeting God in person. I was so impressed. And yet, I had to direct her, and I didn’t dare tell her a thing. The first two hours, I was completely paralyzed, and she calmed me down. She told me, because she’s a very generous woman: “You’re the director and I’m your actress. Tell me what to do and I will do it.” She didn’t do it in front of other people. She said, “Let’s go have a cigarette,” and she said it to me privately.
For the character of the mother, I needed to have someone who is not this eternal mother who is very lovely, because this is not my mom. My mom is a very lovely person but she is like: “You do this. You do that.” I needed somebody who had the power of a woman that wants her daughter to [make her life] better and be more emancipated. Catherine Deneuve has this way of talking that is not playful, because she doesn’t try to be likable. She’s very frank. When she talks to you, she looks straight into your eyes.
She doesn’t try to be likable. She’s very frank.
There is this scene when I come home and my mom starts yelling at me: “You know what they do with young girls in Iran? You have to get out of this country.” I remember when she played it, she was a little bit off. She tried to contain herself as she normally does. I was like, “No, Catherine, you’re really out of your mind.” She did it and she actually cried. That was extremely moving.
And still, after all these years, each time I see her, I have the heartbeat. She is like a lion. She is not loud, she does not make gestures. But even if she is behind you and you don’t see her, you feel that a feline is in the room. It feels at the same time very exciting and very dangerous. She is ferocious and she is fearless, and I love that about her. — Interview by Kathryn Shattuck
20. Rob Morgan
A. O. SCOTT The great character actors are masters of paradox, at once indelible and invisible. You don’t necessarily recognize them from one role to the next, but they leave their stamp on every film, enhancing the whole even in small parts.
If you saw “Mudbound,” “Monsters and Men,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”and “Just Mercy” — four movies released between 2017 and 2019 — you are aware of Rob Morgan, whether or not you know his name.
As a death row prisoner in “Just Mercy,” he is a notably undramatic presence, a quiet man haunted by remorse, helplessness and fear whose plight encapsulates the film’s humanist argument.
In each of the other movies, he plays a father, in the Jim Crow South and the modern urban North — a man who knows more than he chooses to say. The sons in those movies do most of the talking, but Morgan gives eloquent expression to experiences that lie outside the main story even as they ground it in a larger history. In “Last Black Man” he appears in a handful of scenes and utters just a few lines, but everything that movie is about — the pleasures and disappointments of life at the margins of an idiosyncratic, rapidly changing city — is written in his face. He listens, he chews sunflower seeds, he plays a few chords on an old pipe organ, and after a few minutes in his presence you understand exactly what you need to know.
MANOHLA DARGIS Every so often, a small movie gives an actor a chance to go bigger and hold the center, which is what Morgan does in Annie Silverstein’s “Bull” (2020). He plays Abe, a former rodeo bull rider with stiff joints, blood in his urine and a fragilely held together life. His bull riding days over, he now works on the ground as a bullfighter, helping protect fallen riders. The role of Abe, mercifully, isn’t overwritten, which allows Morgan to define the character with a persuasively embodied performance, one whose head tilts, sideways looks and withdrawn presence expresses a bruising past and the self-protecting instincts of a man in emotional retreat.
“Bull” should be only about Abe, but it instead focuses on his relationship with a white, rootless 14-year-old neighbor, Kris (Amber Havard). Their fates sourly cross after she’s caught trashing his house, and is shaped by the unearned optimism that’s foundational to American cinema. In other words, Abe and Kris save each other. What saves the movie, though, is the window Morgan opens onto the Black cowboy and how the performance complicates America’s favorite myths, including the figure of the hard, stoic loner. Abe doesn’t ride in from John Wayne territory; Abe rides in from an entirely different land that Morgan makes visceral, haunted and wholly alive.
19. Wes Studi
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Wes Studi has one of the screen’s most arresting faces — jutting and creased and anchored with the kind of penetrating eyes that insist you match their gaze. Lesser directors like to use his face as a blunt symbol of the Native American experience, as a mask of nobility, of suffering, of pain that’s unknowable only because no one has asked the man wearing it. In the right movie, though, Studi doesn’t just play with a character’s facade; he peels its layers. A master of expressive opacity, he shows you the mask and what lies beneath, both the thinking and the feeling.
He shows you the mask and what lies beneath.
Studi vaulted into cinematic consciousness as the vengeful Huron warrior in Michael Mann’s epic “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), a character the actor conveys with powerful physicality and intensities of contempt, impatience, resentment, fury. Doing a lot with a little has been a constant in Studi’s movie career, which includes signifying roles in “The New World” (2005) and “Avatar” (2009). Like many actors, he has done his share of forgettable work, made exploitation flicks and TV fodder. Often specifically cast as a Native American, he has played Geronimo and Cochise; he might right more film wrongs if westerns were still popular. And if the industry were adventurous, he might also play more types like the supervisor of a homeless shelter in “Being Flynn” (2012), a man who doesn’t wear what Studi calls “leathers and feathers.”
Instructively, he wears neither in Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” (2017), about life and death in late-19th-century America. Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk, a dying Cheyenne prisoner whom the federal government has agreed to return to his ancestral lands. The movie is largely interested in his escort, a war-ruined Indian hater played by Christian Bale, the star. Once again, Studi delivers a supporting turn that complements the leading performance — his character’s indifference to the escort’s rage is a wall that can’t be breached — and helps equalize the story’s balance. Yellow Hawk has survived long enough to die on his terms, survival that Studi makes a final act of self-possession.
18. Willem Dafoe
By JULIAN SCHNABEL
The actor has been a vital presence in movies as different as “Shadow of the Vampire”(2000) and “The Florida Project” (2017), for which he received Oscar nominations. He was also nominated for playing van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s biopic, “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018). We asked Schnabel why he turned to Dafoe.
Willem and I met more than 30 years ago. He has always lived in the neighborhood, and we had a lot of friends in common. Oliver Stone was shooting “The Doors” in New York, and we were standing around the set one night and that was the first time we really started to talk.
One thing that’s super-important is he’s a very generous actor. He cares about other people’s performances and about helping them by being available in whatever he is doing. He’s very, very loyal and very, very smart. If you’ve got somebody who’s smart, they can make it better.
He’s a very generous actor. He cares about other people’s performances.
[For “At Eternity’s Gate”] I needed somebody that would have the depth of character to play van Gogh. And it wasn’t about just looking like him. It was somebody that could have enough life experience to be that guy. People thought, well, Willem is 60 years old, van Gogh was 37 when he died. That was irrelevant to me. You just have to have a hunch about trusting somebody and thinking that they can do something. I trust Willem implicitly. And that level of trust goes both ways.
There’s stuff we shot in Arles after he arrived that we couldn’t use. He was wearing the same clothes, had the same hairdo, but he wasn’t the guy yet. Then there was a certain moment when all of a sudden he was. He was transformed, transfigured. He was somebody else.
One of my favorite scenes is where he’s talking to the young Dr. Rey, who is seeing him after he’s cut his ear off and he is guaranteeing him that he’s going to get to paint when he’s in the institution. That interaction is extraordinary, what Willem does there. He’s basically sitting at a table and there’s not a whole hell of a lot of room for movement. But what goes on in his face in his response to what the young doctor is saying to him — and also in response to whatever other thoughts seem to be traveling through his mind at that time — is a landscape of events and an interior life like foam coming to the top of a vanilla egg cream. — Interview by Kathryn Shattuck
17. Alfre Woodard
By A. O. SCOTT
In a just world, there would be a bursting roster of great performances to fill this entry, a collection of matriarchs, romantic heroines, divas and villains to reflect the full range of Alfre Woodard’s gifts. Such roles are always in short supply for Black women, but even in small parts in minor movies or television series, Woodard is an unforgettable presence, at once regal and utterly real.
The two films that have given her the most room — Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”(2013) and Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency”(2019) — both place the question of justice front and center. In each, Woodard must assert her character’s dignity and ethical integrity in the face of impossibly cruel circumstances. Bernadine Williams, the prison warden in “Clemency” whose job includes supervising executions, finds her professionalism increasingly at odds with her humanity. In “12 Years,” Mistress Shaw, an enslaved woman whose relationship with a plantation owner has brought her a measure of privilege, has bargained with a system built on her dehumanization.
Woodard’s art, her commitment to truth, is what you see.
The contradictions that Bernadine and Mistress Shaw contend with are larger than any individual. What Woodard does is make them personal. Self-control is a matter of survival, and Woodard sets her face into a picture of proper decorum, impersonating the genteel Southern lady or the efficient bureaucrat that the situation requires. She doesn’t so much let the masks slip — except perhaps in the devastating final scenes of “Clemency” — as show the cost and care that go into wearing them. The characters are also performing, playing their roles for mortal stakes, and Woodard’s art, her commitment to truth, is what you see in the space between how they seem and who they are.
16. Kim Min-hee
By MANOHLA DARGIS
In Hong Sang-soo’s “Right Now, Wrong Then” (2016), a woman and man meet. They drink and drink some more and testily part ways only to meet in the movie’s second half as if for the very first time, a setup that evokes “Groundhog Day.” Once again, they go to a cafe, a studio, a restaurant. Yet while their actions generally remain the same, as does the overall arc of the evening, enough has changed — how they look at each other, the inflections in their voices — to turn this second encounter into something different.
Kim Min-hee’s exquisitely nuanced performance is at the center of the movie, and the actress herself has been at the heart of Hong’s work ever since, appearing in most of his ensuing movies. An established art-house auteur, Hong tells modestly scaled stories that are formally playful, sensitive to human imperfection and drenched in soju. Familiar things happen, sometimes unfamiliarly. Repetition is often a narrative focus, one that is grounded in life and beautifully served by Kim’s lucid expressivity.
In Hong’s minimalist canon, life is condensed in everyday moments, in conversations and the way bodies lean toward one another. The differences in the two halves of “Right Now, Wrong Then” reveal new facets of the characters and create new tensions between them. They also give free rein to Kim’s range, allowing her to play with intonation, gestures, flickering looks. Yet while the movie’s two sections feel like variations of the same story, her performance feels more like it’s coalescing as — smile by smile, with deflected and fixed gazes — Kim gathers the character into a whole.
She goes big and small, veers from monstrous to mousy.
She went for baroque in Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” (2016), her best-known movie. In this outlandish, often perversely funny drama set in Korea in the 1930s, she plays a Japanese noble who’s saved from her deviant uncle by her wiles and by another woman. The story’s flamboyant excesses and narrative twists allow Kim to use every tool in her workbox. She goes big and small, veers from monstrous to mousy, and alternately hides her character’s feelings and lets them run amok. Her body rocks and her face distorts as fear and pain give way to ecstasy and release. The character is a mystery that the movie teases but that Kim deliriously unlocks.
15. Michael B. Jordan
By RYAN COOGLER
Michael B. Jordan has played lawyers, athletes and superheroes, but even before his range became clear, the director Ryan Coogler wanted to work with him. Coogler has made three features (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed” and “Black Panther”) and Jordan stars or co-stars in all of them. We asked the director to explain just what it is about the actor that draws us in.
I met Mike in 2012 when I was doing research and working on the script for “Fruitvale.” He was who I decided would be best for the role before I met him, based on the other work that I’d seen him do — a couple of movies that year, “Red Tails” and “Chronicle,” and a bunch of stuff in the TV space. But I thought that he could play Oscar. He looked like him, but also what I saw was this ability to make you empathize with him. Not all actors have this thing, when you immediately care about somebody right offhand and that triggers an empathetic reaction. He had that. He also has a very advanced tool kit as an actor.
What I saw was this ability to make you empathize with him.
He’s been in all the feature films I’ve done. And I keep casting him because he’s the best person for the job. “Creed” [2015] had another character I thought he could play well. Before Mike was an actor, he was an athlete, back in elementary school and high school. He had played athletes on TV, the most famous being on “Friday Night Lights,” so some of the things we knew his character would have to do in “Creed,” Mike felt right for it. It was a part of him that wasn’t a big reach.
And [in] “Black Panther” [2018], with him and Chadwick facing off and going toe to toe, it felt like an event. Their stars were rising. They were both leading men by the time we shot that movie.
Now, what’s exciting about us getting older in the industry is getting to work together in different capacities. He’s doing a lot of stuff behind the camera now. And we have some opportunities to work together beyond actor and director.
He’s very ambitious in a way that’s endearing. He always wants to push and challenge himself further. And that comes across in his performances, but also in the business sense. That ambition keeps him open-minded. He watches everything and doesn’t want to cut himself off from certain genres or opportunities. So I think the sky’s the limit for him and his career. — Interview by Mekado Murphy
14. Oscar Isaac
A. O. SCOTT While I can take or leave the recent “Star Wars” movies, I do have a fondness for some of the characters, in particular Poe Dameron, the resistance flyboy who is the third trilogy’s designated charmer. As Poe, Oscar Isaac is an appealing, easygoing presence in those movies, a guy who seems to know what he’s doing.
His characters aren’t always as lucky, or as sure of themselves, but the man himself operates with the precision of someone who is confident enough in his skills to push himself into risky new territory. The summer before “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) was released, Joel and Ethan Coen told us that they had originally wanted to cast a well-known musician in the title role. Instead, they found Isaac, who told them (according to Joel) that “most actors, if you ask them if they play guitar, they’ll say they played guitar for 20 years, but what they really mean is they’ve owned a guitar for 20 years.” Isaac could actually play. When I think about what makes him so credible as an actor, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Not because it’s such a big deal to play guitar, but because whatever Isaac is pretending to do onscreen — selling heating oil (in the underrated “A Most Violent Year,” (2014); inventing sexy robots (in “Ex Machina”); flying X-wing fighters — I always believe that he really knows how to do it, and that I’m watching some kind of authentic mastery in action.
MANOHLA DARGIS When actors make a profound first impression, they sometimes get bound up with your ideas about what they can do. After “Llewyn Davis,” I associated Isaac with soulful defeat, with an undercurrent of grudging resentment. A few other roles shored up this idea of his innate mournfulness, including his performance as a besieged mayor in the HBO series “Show Me a Hero” (2015). This partly has to do with his broody, romantic looks and how his brows frame his luxuriously lashed eyes. And then there’s his voice, its pretty sound but also how its resonance creates intimacy. Even when he puts nasal in it, his voice retains a quality of closeness, one reason it often feels, sounds, like Llewyn is singing more for himself than the audience. Isaac’s voice also softens his beauty, drawing you in. Sometimes, though, as in “Ex Machina,” he uses that intimacy for something insinuating, sinister.
Isaac has a supporting role in “Ex Machina” (2015), but he’s vital to its vibe and power. He plays Nathan, a Dr. Frankenstein-like tech billionaire involved in artificial intelligence who’s building (and destroying) beautiful female androids. A savagely critical stand-in for today’s masters of the digital universe, Nathan could easily have dominated the movie. Isaac instead keeps his own charm in check, letting the character’s creepiness poison the air. Nathan’s mercurial moods and surprising looks — his shaved head and full beard, eyeglasses and cut muscles — make it difficult to get a bead on him. But when he suddenly boogies down, executing an amazing dance, Isaac lays bare all you need to know about Nathan in the geometric precision of his choreographed moves and the madness in his eyes. It’s 30 seconds of pure genius.
13. Tilda Swinton
MANOHLA DARGIS The woman of a thousand otherworldly faces, Tilda Swinton has created enough personas — with untold wigs, costumes and accents — to have become a roster of one. She’s a star, a character actor, a performance artist, an extraterrestrial, a trickster. Her pale, sharply planed face is an ideal canvas for paint and prosthetics, and capable of unnerving stillness. You want to read her but can’t. That helps make her a terrific villain, whether she’s playing a demon, a queen or a corporate lawyer. In “Julia” (2009), she drops that wall to play an out-of-control alcoholic and child-snatcher, giving a full-throttled performance that is so visceral and transparent that you can see the character’s thoughts furiously at work, like little parasites moving under the skin.
A. O. SCOTT We like to praise actors for “range,” but that’s an almost laughably inadequate word for the radical shape-shifting that Swinton accomplishes. Just look at one strand of her career: her work with Luca Guadagnino, a filmmaker who shares her delight in self-reinvention. In “I Am Love” (2010) she played the Russian wife of an Italian aristocratic, giving a performance in two languages and in the key of pure melodramatic heartbreak. In “A Bigger Splash” (2016) she had barely any language at all: She decided that it would be interesting if her glam-rock diva character had been struck mute by throat surgery. In “Suspiria” (2018) she executed one of her many self-doublings, appearing as a member of a balletomaniac coven of witches and also as an elderly male Holocaust survivor.
DARGIS That doubling shapes her most androgynous performances, where she effortlessly blurs gender, confirming (yet again) the inadequacy of categories like “man” and “woman.” She’s both; she’s neither. A different doubling happens when she plays twins, in the 2016 “Hail, Caesar!”(as rival gossip columnists) and in “Okja”the next year (as visually distinct very cruel captains of industry). In each, Swinton shows us two sides of the same person, much as she does in “Michael Clayton” (2007) when her lawyer rehearses a duplicitous spiel in front of a mirror. As the lawyer talks, pauses and drops her smile, you see her desperately trying to control a reflection that is already cracking.
SCOTT Those roles can be theatrical, but they almost never feel gimmicky. Swinton has roots in an avant-garde tradition — earlier in her career, she worked with Derek Jarman and Sally Potter — that emphasizes the mutability of identity and the blurred boundaries between artifice and authenticity. Over the past 20 years she has brought some of the intellectual rigor and conceptual daring of that work to Hollywood and beyond. She’s not only a uniquely exciting performer, but also one of the great living theorists of performance.
12. Joaquin Phoenix
By JAMES GRAY
Joaquin Phoenix has appeared in four of the director James Gray’s movies, starting with “The Yards” in 2000 and including “We Own the Night” (2007), “Two Lovers” (2009) and “The Immigrant” (2014). We asked Gray to explain how the actor has expanded — and improved — on his own vision.
When I saw “To Die For,” I said, “That actor” — I didn’t even know his name yet — “is unbelievably good at conveying his internal life without dialogue.” That’s a really important thing in cinema, because the camera reveals everything. Here was an actor who had so much going on and you could tell. I thought, “That’s a very interesting actor. I’d love to meet him.” And I did.
We were on the same wavelength, instantly. We liked the same things. We thought about things the same way. And I just immediately liked him. He had that dimensionality to him. The first film we did together [“The Yards”], I’m sure that I pissed him off a lot. I have a very direct way. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s not so good. I’m better at it now. Let’s just say that I wasn’t always willing to say, “Yeah, that’s interesting, but let’s try this.” I was more into, “Joaq, what are you doing? That sucks, try another one.” And I know I would frustrate him because his talent was so vast.
He has a limitless ability to surprise you in the best ways and inspire you to move in a direction that you haven’t thought of originally, better than what you have in mind, and expands the idea. He’s extremely inventive. He’s always thinking and actually has gotten more so over the years. I’ve never said, “I want my vision on the screen.” I want something better than that. You want to lay down the parameters of what it is you have in mind, and then surround yourself with people who will make it all more beautiful. Not different, necessarily, but more intense, more vivid.
He has a limitless ability to surprise you in the best ways.
You want the actor to surprise you, and to do so in a way that seems consistent with the character but also very interesting. Joaquin was absolutely fantastic at that. That’s inspiring. You don’t know what to expect in the best sense. Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. If I have any regret at all, it would be that he’s not in every single movie I made. — Interview by Candice Frederick
11. Julianne Moore
A. O. SCOTT The unhappy American housewife — smiling to keep up appearances in the face of domestic tragedy and inner turmoil — is a durable movie archetype. It’s one that Julianne Moore has both explored and exploded, in “The Hours” (2002) and especially in her collaborations with Todd Haynes like “Far From Heaven” (2002).
That film is set in Connecticut in the 1950s, but it’s a pointedly stylized landscape, evocative of the Hollywood melodramas of that period. Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Moore and Dennis Quaid) are each pulled away from their stifling marriage by forbidden desires: Frank for other men, Cathy for Raymond Deagan, a Black landscaper (Dennis Haysbert). These transgressions aren’t symmetrical or intersectional. In their heartbreak, humiliation and longing, Frank and Cathy have no consolation to offer each other.
Moore could have placed Cathy’s anguish in quotation marks, evoking the suffering divas of ’50s cinema while winking at a modern audience contemplating the bad old days from a safe aesthetic distance. Instead, she goes all the way in, staring out from the soul of a woman who is rooted in her time and absolutely modern, trapped by rules and appearances and also — terrifyingly and thrillingly — free.
MANOHLA DARGIS Unhappy or not, wives can be dead ends for actresses and for too many there comes that time when they’ve been forever banished to the kitchen. Moore has played plenty of wives and mothers, but hers are sometimes more complex and surprising than her movies, an index of her sensitivities and talent. One reason she lifts her characters out of stereotype is that she plays with codes of realism, whether she’s delivering a naturalistic performance (“Still Alice,” the 2014 melodrama about a professor with Alzheimer’s) or a hyperbolic one (David Cronenberg’s 2015 satire “Maps to the Stars,” where she’s a Hollywood hyena). Moore can externalize a character’s interior state beautifully, so you see feelings surface on her skin. But she’s an artist of extremes, and she and Cronenberg have fun playing with her gargoyle faces.
For the most part, her work in “Gloria Bell”(2019) is in a realist key. She plays the title character, a generous-hearted divorced insurance worker with two adult children, an ex she doesn’t hate and an achingly lonely apartment. The movie itself is modest, intimate, thoughtful and rich in human detail. Gloria starts an affair with a man. It goes badly, they break up. Not much happens in ordinary movie terms, yet everything happens because Gloria loves and is loved in turn. It’s a story that could have led to buckets of snot and empty showboating. But Moore and the director Sebastián Lelio transcend obviousness. They don’t merely create a story about a woman’s feelings — and being — as she falls in love; they create a landscape of emotions, the texture and shape of a sensibility. Moore’s Gloria doesn’t cry and laugh; she shows you what love looks like from the inside. It’s a miracle of a performance.
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