After all, it's hard to find a better window to the soul of a film than through the eyes of the lead actor, who carries the weight of the tale's expression and elicitation of the audience's reaction on his shoulder more so than any other person in the film set, save for probably the director. If one can't find the best actor to communicate the story, then it falls flat as far the wider movie-going public considers.
Indeed, it is largely thank to the graces of a great actor that a movie can capture the audience's own graces and reach a classic status.
For this reason, at least on my own terms, I find it a lot more easier to like the more modern actors, the ones who seem well-connected to the times I live through in the 90s, 00s and now the 10s. Still every once in a while, there comes an actor so timeless in his/her performance, so raw in his energy that he or she earns a legacy largely unparalleled that'll never be reached again.
This is a celebration of both kinds of actors....
I will be beginning with the males and then post the females soon on another article...
WARNING - Several of these clips once again, do contain spoilers of varying degrees - between showing characters fates, important plot points, the ending of a picture and so on...
20. Mickey Rourke - I remember getting into an argument with my mother after she had seen Sin City off of my early DVD collection (She had a habit of knowing I was a movie buff who usually took the first chance to expand my library and used that to her advantage by borrowing movies whenever she wanted to). Nevermind the fact that my Islamically conservative mother was horrified that I, at the age of 13, had owned such a film smack of violence and sex, she had also gotten into a sort of bad argument after I stated the main reason I loved and owned the movie was Mickey Rourke's performance as Marv.
She dismissed him as extremely ugly. Well, not that he's any Prince Charming, but half of Marv's looks aren't so much Rourke's fault as the make-up department's.
She had a point though, Rourke's career had taken a deep dive after his boxing stint and surgery accident, and that's sad. When I showed her later a picture of Rourke's pre-boxing, she actually recognized him and reminisced of how he use to be sort of handsome. It's a thankful thing that Rourke had risen above such a depression to make a comeback as muscle bound bad men, but that's not all he's about. In fact, his badassery is only the tip of the iceberg.
When it comes down to emotional sequences, or holding our hand at the frights of the night, like he did in movies like The Wrestler and Angel Heart, he nailed them with a flying colors, both before and after comeback. But with The Wrestler, it's a bigger deal, because it could've easily been as depressing as Aronofsky's earlier masterpiece Requiem for a Dream. Instead, Rourke showcases both the good and the bad of Randy the Ram and gives a very powerful performance in the very final act of the picture, one that leaves us gripping for him in what becomes his final flight in the ring...
19. Guy Pearce - I like actors who have versatility. I like actors who can perform characters from anywhere, anyplace, anytime. I like actors who are to acting, like Mike Patton is to singing. Of course, people like to name-drop Johnny Depp or Daniel Day-Lewis into the scene. I like Daniel Day-Lewis and think he's probably one of the best actors of all time, but he's not my total cup of tea. And I don't see such a thing with Johnny Depp at all, in fact, see him in one Tim Burton picture, you've seen him in all of them.
I think Guy Pearce fits this versatile actor line very well.
However, it's not his versatility that gives him his spot on my list, it's his well-done performance of the everyman in a way. When I think of my favorite performances of his, before I reach into Prometheus or Priscilla, I instead reach into Memento or L.A. Confidential. Ordinary men who have been blown into bigger circumstances than they can stand and doing what they can to finish the task at hand. The good guys. He's good at playing modern good guys.
18. Idris Elba - Most of my friends would've easily called out that I was going to select an actor from The Wire. Now, while Omar Little is very easily my favorite character, I feel like Idris Elba has showed himself off in recent years as possibly one of the more intellectual actors in the game. The way he moves about with his characters, whether in a really terrible Tyler Perry movie like Daddy's Little Girls, playing a man of his ship like in Prometheus or a head-level drug kingpin like Stringer Bell, his movements harken back to Shakespearean methods. I don't think he's a Shakespearean actor neither, that's just the vibe I get from his performances.
I recall a controversy when he was cast as Heimdall for Kenneth Branagh's summer treat of Thor. Heimdall is largely the more powerful of all the characters in the film, possibly even beyond Odin. He's all knowing and quite scary. Elba shut them up with his laying down of Heimdall's character in his own manner, even while fitting into the comic book and mythological connotations of the film's universe.
17. Boris Karloff - I really am biased to classic Universal Monster stars, but that's okay because Boris is not just a great monster, he's a great actor. While he's been unfortunately stereotyped to being in horror films, what from his fine stature as a frightening being of large stance, warped face and dark rich voice, he's done well to showcase his ability to be the better actor between him and Bela Lugosi.
A seductive Mummy, a sympathetic Frankenstein's Monster, an aging dillusioned star in Targets, a macabre, sinister frightening cult leader in The Black Cat, a headstrong gangster in Scarface.
The closest thing we get to a strong actor like Karloff in these days is Bill Moseley, but alas, Moseley himself has to be strongely stereotyped as well.
16. Toshiro Mifune - Now here's an actor who is just an animal. Unhinged, unrestrained, but there is a method to his madness in the purest of ways. Mifune's strength and insanity is probably the starting point for all the greater actors of today, the ones who have to be wild to looks wild, like Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, even Bruce Campbell.
Then there's the disciplined side of him, the one that acts (rightfully so) like he's controlling the whole show and now he has to steer the movie's mood and theme so on and so forth, however he needs to sway in order to really give his own performance that power.
It works in Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Seven Samurai - among so many others... from the beginning since Drunken Angel...
15. Marlon Brando - But as long as we're talking insanity and method like Mifune, and especially while we're talking actors who went the deep end like Rourke, here's one who went the deep end and unfortunately never rose back from it.
But my, back when he had a run, it was a mighty run. In the early days of method acting, James Dean got blown aside, partly from his unfortunate and sudden death, but also by the amazing pressure that Marlon Brando put on him with such strong performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and most definitely in On the Waterfront.
That strength took a long while to die out too, since it got on through The Godfather to slam dunk a very iconic character as Don Vito Corleone.
I think in the end, though, Brando got a bit too full of himself. His performance in Apocalypse Now was sluggish, disappointing for an actor of the caliber he once had. However, Apocalypse Now still stands with his performance as fitting to the erratic momentum that movie had - so that could be forgiven, perhaps...
14. Rutger Hauer - I think this comes largely from his sublime presence in Blade Runner. Oh yea... Roy Batty was a force to reckon more so than he was a character to experience. Deckard learns that the hard way in the climax.
In addition, the guy can really do bad guys. Complex bad guys. He does it well, he can steal the spotlight like he did in Blade Runner or The Hitcher, or he could just be that guy who's really dislikeble, thinking they can do whatever they want like he does in Batman Begins and Sin City.
Also... he was really awesome in Hobo with a Shotgun. Is it too juvenile for me to say? Too bad. He was awesome as a fucking hobo, delivering justice with a fucking shotgun. Motherfucker.
13. Jeff Bridges - Again, much like Hauer, Bridges gets his own spot largely from one role: That of The Dude, the most natural performance I have ever seen, one that Jeff Bridges had no trouble breathing in and taking in as his own show, even alongside other brilliant actors of the trade in such an all-star cast as The Big Lebowski.
The sad thing is that it seems like afterwards, much of Bridges' performances seem to ride on The Dude, much as Benicio Del Toro seems to ride on Dr. Gonzo and Pacino seems to ride on... well, Pacino today... However, unlike the other two, there are significant gems in Bridges' 00s work, like Iron Man's superficially pleasant, yet internally corrupt Obadiah Stane or True Grit's man with true grit, Rooster Cogburn.
That's only the tip of the iceberg when you look back at the wondrous capabilities Bridges had with his older work like The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Starman, The Fisher King, even Tron had some real gems from this guy (even though Tron: Legacy was, once again, just Bridges riding on the Dude some more)...
I got a very good friend of mine (who's a bandmate I frequently jam with) into Jeff Bridges by recommending The Big Lebowski and within the month, I'm pretty certain he's seen Bridges' entire filmography, trying to force me into watching pictures I still have not been able to catch like Crazy Heart.
I got somebody hooked on Bridges. I'm proud of that.
12. Joseph Gordon-Levitt - Pretty much the last favorite actor I had prior to forcing myself into making this list, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was sure to be a shoo-in with this sort of list - and I'm sincerely shocked at how low he is, even on the top 20. Unlike previous favorites of mine like Bruce Campbell and Nathan Fillion, the latter of whom has fallen far from my graces sadly, Gordon-Levitt has actually maintained a modern mastery of cinematic acting as a craft, impressive when he retired for a short while to go to Columbia University.
When I speak about versatile actors, Gordon-Levitt is the one who started that fascination with such actors to me, especially surprising by his rejection of method. Instead, he merely feels his way along his best performances and fits snug and perfectly in the most of them. Hesher, basically the love letter to Metallica that it is, is the last of these performances of his that gave off such natural blanketing, considering the lackluster performances he'd given in Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Killshot and so on...
Looper wasn't bad, though, but he just got hindered down by Bruce Willis' demanding features, which Gordon-Levitt had to copy off of, instead of the other way around...
He once was THE indie guy, the perfect actor to fall into a really challenging role like Mysterious Skin's complicated sex-driven rape victim or Brick's hard-boiled bastard. The truest performance, one that didn't really need gimmicks out of him, really seemed to stem from The Lookout, a performance he probably tapped back into in the recent Premium Rush, the performance in The Lookout is him at his most vulnerable, struggling to hold onto the criminal circumstances placed around him and alienating himself from the majority of the surrounding world as it is, the only anchor he has being a man just as damaged as he is, Jeff Daniels' humorous run as his blind companion.
Still, with such fare as Morgan M. Morgansen, 3rd Rock from the Sun, 10 Things I Hate About You and (500) Days of Summer (even the summer trash movie of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), one can't doubt that Gordon-Levitt loves to have fun doing what he does on the screen. We just know he's capable of much more.
11. Humphrey Bogart - The classic cinema icon. Sterling Hayden to me IS film noir, but Bogart is just so much more. The original tough guy with a soft heart, the guy who gets the ladies and holds quick to the draw, girls wanna bed him, guys wanna be him. I mean, sure that last part goes for James Bond moreso, but Bogart was better than James Bond. He was Bogey.
And he's unforgettable in practically everything one sees him in. I can't read my copy of The Maltese Falcon anymore without seeing him as Sam Spade, that doesn't usually happen to me when I read books that have been adapted into films - usually I imagine people I actually know personally, to be honest. It's humorous at times (I remember offending one of my bandmates, a very tasteful and respectfully Christian man, by joking that I picture him as Pontius Pilate when I read the Bible).
Anyway, see The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - See if you can still love him.
See Casablanca - See yourself proven wrong when you say no at the last one.
That's audience manipulation at it's finest....
10. Takashi Shimura - I know everybody sees a Kurosawa film and they look out for Mifune, but for me, Shimura's my man. He's not as outrageous, instead he's reserved, he does well as the troubled old man in Ikiru and the wise leader who is weary of war in Seven Samurai. Matter of fact, while I think Yul Brynner is cooler in The Magnificent Seven, Shimura's really the boss of the matter in Seven Samurai and I take more love in Kambei than I surprisingly do at the engaging Kikuchiyo. I know, right?! That's surprising to me too!
Also, like most monster movies, being in Godzilla will give you cool points by me. Sorry, Mifune...
9. Orson Welles - While I'm not as fazed at his directing ability (I think it's skillful, it just doesn't touch me), I think Welles is a surprisingly solid actor. It's a pleasant time to see him take a stance alongside his Mercury Troupe, showcasing how it's really done. Citizen Kane was more than a performance, it was a real construction of who Charles Foster Kane is and Orson Welles was the one driving factor in the entire American classic.
Then you get real terrifyingly evil villains like in Touch of Evil and The Third Man. Men who know what they are doing is wrong, legitimately villainous like you rarely see these days. Instead of being melodramatic, Welles allows you to understand the complex many of these characters have, a God complex, very natural to Welles' being. It may be from being one of the world's greatest directors, a king of the stage, the radio and the screen. If it is an ego trip, who the hell cares? He's really giving us some classic performances.
8. Al Pacino - I do believe these days Pacino's great acting has died. He's now all HOO-AH and no real technique or at least a call to the audience's emotions. But back in the day, his minimalism surprisingly did it all. I mean, his filmography really says it all, I don't need to really say much - The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Serpico, Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross...
The man was once at a real stature as the actor of the century, an actor who always blended smoothly into his own world and yet stood as the true narrative guide between us, the viewers and the new characters we enter into...
Serpico was probably the harshest, but also one of the more stronger performances I've seen of the 70s.
7. Song Kang-Ho - So, I'm also surprised how many international actors I can call out, but Song (and Tony Leung) are really the ones that worked for that recognition. In addition to being in many of my favorite South Korean films, Song has a talent for balancing empathetic fathers in desperation like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in a realistic manner, totally outrageously dense fathers, again in desperation, like The Host, men at a struggle of duties like J.S.A.: Joint Security Area, really outrageously (Tuco-esque) bandits like The Good, the Bad, the Weird, dedicated officers like Memories of Murder and so on...
He's an international actor who I recognize by character first, and then by physicality - unlike Choi Min-sik - a great South Korean acotr, but not a favorite as he seems solely placed in the sociopathic realm of characters. It's easier for me to digest a picture with Song's acting on screen...
(NOTE: There's no great showcasing clip from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance - I particularly wanted to use his scene where he performs his revenge on the river - the speech he gives right before he fulfills his sadistic task is absolutely frightening from how far his character has gone to the edge and yet heartbreaking to me... - instead I had to go with this less than outstanding run of the mill action scene. He's the guy getting his ass whupped, struggling to get his guns back. If you're going to see a movie looking for one of Song's finer acting performances though, I really suggest either The Host, Memories of Murder or above all, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.)
6. Charlie Chaplin - Once again, like Pacino, I really don't have to say much. He is the Tiger Woods of silent film acting, even if you can't name more than two silent greats, he will always one of them and always be the first one you name.
And the best part is, even when you see him acting, you think of him as a clown, but he's really a humanist. Like I say, cinema is supposed to elicit something out of the audience while it's storytelling - other it's just a good story with nothing great to show for it. Chaplin's films - both thanks to his directing and his acting - are meant to bring out the best of people...
He's not too versatile, with his main claim to fame being either The Tramp or Monsieur Verdoux, but when something is so well-intentioned and beautiful as a Chaplin film, with the ballet-like grace of a Chaplin performance like the Tramp, who can't forgive that?
5. Steve Buscemi - Once again, he is the ultimate everyman. He's the 'that guy' guy. He's just one of the guys. He talks like a guy, he walks like a guy, he sits in on the action like one of the guys. He's so relatable as an actor, who could truly be against his presence on the screen, who?
'Course he does have his standouts. While Boardwalk Empire is a pretty bad show that was so boring for me, he can really press himself out in films like Fargo, where he's just a greedy little shit who won't shut the fuck up. Or Con Air where he's practically the one likeable con, despite his deeds. We get him in the all-star cast of The Big Lebowski, just striking out and being hot on the bowling floor, but oblivious to the truly plot of the picture. We get Monsters, Inc. where he rivals Sully to the point of evil intentions. We get Reservoir Dogs where he really deconstructs the situation around the robbers and begins the main mystery in motion...
But by the end of the day, Buscemi is, like I say, just one of the guys. I'd enjoy a brew with him anyday. It would seem just right.
4. Gary Oldman - Now, when I mentioned versatile actors, I was really thinking of this master. This guy really has it all under him. While crazy may be his main forte (Leon, The Fifth Element), he's really just as strong in any other role about him. He certainly unforgettable when he lets you into the window of his characters' lives like in Sid & Nancy. His classical form certainly helps when it comes to pictures like Bram Stoker's Dracula or even Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Even in a background role like in The Dark Knight, he really brought out all the things we loved about Gordon in the comics similar to Batman: Year One and I really doubt the man has even read any Batman comics.
It's amazing what Oldman is capable of as a strong British actor of today.
I'd say the one role I don't like him in was Sirius Black in Harry Potter, but it's fine really when Prisoner of Azkaban is the only Harry Potter film I liked anyway (I guess I grew too attached to the books... and to good movies... to like the Harry Potter films).
3. Jack Nicholson - This guy is a real rebel in his performance standard, never hindering his ability for anybody or anything. As of recent, he seems to have gotten the Pacino drop and played off a lot of himself - but when you see a performance like The Departed or About Schmidt or The Bucket List - the man's lack of shit to give clearly remains strong throughout his characters.
Then we go back to the 60s, the beginning of Nicholson as we know him, the wackiness he carried from Roger Corman's film The Little Shop of Horrors actually translating into a wonderfully kooky persona of George Hanson in Easy Rider. Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest carried out that whole standard of rebellion and shock that Nicholson so well hinged on for his own performance styles...
Then we get The Shining, The Witches of Eastwick and Batman, now the clown's smile is less friendly, less wacky, less comfortable, more hideous, more frightening, more sinister... You don't to be left in a room with this guy for too long before he just decides you're not useful to him anymore...
But what happens when he just takes it easy... well, we get lovely little guidances out of Chinatown, Prizzi's Honor, Reds... When the man takes his craft very seriously, it's worth the stuff of legacy...
And he takes his craft very seriously... half the time.
The other half... he's just plain better.
2. Claude Raines - I don't really have a huge pinpoint on what about Raines' acting that attracts but I just find myself pleasantly surprised everytime I see him in a movie. I had no idea he'd be in Casablanca, North by Northwest, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Notorious, The Wolf Man or Lawrence of Arabia, and yet his absolute charm in every role I see him in, his pride and statue makes me love his characters almost as much as I love all of these movies.
In fact, the only movie I knew him to star in - the Universal Horror classic The Invisible Man - is one of the pictures I have not seen him in and now, knowing of the fantastic being that he is on the screen, I'm simply excited to see his turn as the tragic professor very very soon...
1. Robert De Niro - Nobody, and I mean absolutely NOBODY, will ever master the character study the way De Niro has.
My father had once taken 8 or 9 year old me, my brother and I think my baby sister to see The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and upon discovering that Robert De Niro starred in the movie, excitably whispered to me that he once, as a taxi cab driver (ironic, ain't it?) picked him up. I didn't really know how legendary De Niro was at the time, but it put a bit of a personal mythology in how I approached films starring the man who had once been chauffeured by my dad (The same mythology goes to Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, of whom my dad had been well acquainted with at the time that Stevens had initially converted to Islam).
Now, I see his pictures, the bar that he so highly placed for every other actor since him and I just stand in awe of how he commands the script, the environment, how he breathes as Travis Bickle, how he suffers as Jake La Motta. Those two films have two of the greatest performances I have ever seen in cinema and I doubt something will ever come along to match it.
I also happen to think he did a better job as the younger Vito Corleone than Marlon Brando did as the elder Vito, but that's just me. I thought De Niro showed real dedication, really engaged us into the journey of how he became the Godfather and it was really blast with De Niro at the helm.
Then again, he's not a demanding actor. He does have fun - Midnight Run was funny, he stepped aside in Goodfellas for Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci to take the limelight. But baby, he really gets on a roll with Martin Scorsese's films - frightening in Cape Fear - absolutely brutal, a rapist! a murderer! who we cannot stand, who relishes in his evil...
with Sergio Leone's films - an enigma in Once Upon a Time in America - once again, a rapist and a murderer, but one who is outright confused, who does not know how to live in the world without crime, without his friends whom he sold out so needlessly...
He's shown a real apt ability in comedy as well - The King of Comedy just makes you feel like a bad person, just sickening and yet Meet the Parents, he'll match wits with Ben Stiller and really have a minimalist runaround as a parent who just doesn't know how out of it he is.
Mean Streets, Heat (a movie that was made more exciting by the methodical, the pure business De Niro in my opinion than the HOO-AH, violently mad Pacino), The Untouchables - the man becomes Al Capone, he doesn't act as him, he gains weight, he dresses like him, he talks like him, he becomes Al Capone. Without the messy publicity of Daniel Day-Lewis, De Niro fits into his characters, both as a young actor and as an old legend, and walks around in their skin like natural. It's a real joy.
I feel like I'm just hyping him up a bit too much, but hey, he's really a perfect actor in every sense... I can't name all of the great roles he has for everyone... Everything he does seems just a tip of the iceberg, truly...
And of course, cause I am so OCD and freakish and can't make up my mind... the expansive list of HONORABLE MENTIONS
- Woody Allen - Manhattan
- Michael Caine - Get Carter
- Burt Reynolds - Deliverance
- Vincent Cassel - La Haine
- Sterling Hayden - Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
- George C. Scott - Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
- Henry Fonda - Gideon's Trumpet
- Jackie Chan - Police Story
- Gene Hackman - The French Connection
- James Cagney - White Heat
- Buster Keaton - The General
- James Stewart - It's a Wonderful Life
- Erich von Stroheim - Grand Illusion
- Morgan Freeman - Se7en
- Joe Pesci - Goodfellas
- Clint Eastwood - High Plains Drifter
- John Wayne - The Searchers
- Bill Moseley - The Devil's Rejects
- Doug Jones - Pan's Labyrinth
- Robert Downey, Jr. - Iron Man
- Kyle MacLachlan - Twin Peaks
- Bill Murray - The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
- Tony Leung - In the Mood for Love
- Tom Wilkinson - Batman Begins
- Paul Newman - Cool Hand Luke
- Max Von Sydow - The Virgin Spring
- Johnny Depp - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
- Ian Holm - Alien
- Dennis Hopper - Blue Velvet
- Albert Brooks - Finding Nemo
- Jack Lemmon - The Apartment
- Walter Matthau - Dennis the Menace
- Robert Duvall - Apocalypse Now
- Phillip Seymour Hoffman - The Big Lebowski
- Dustin Hoffman - Kramer vs. Kramer
- Charles Durning - O Brother, Where Art Thou?
- Bruce Campbell - Evil Dead II
- Dave Grohl - Low <- Surprisingly has shown himself more adept at acting in music videos than most give musicians credit for, however has deliberately refrained from acting in film beyond two movies: Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny and The Muppets.
- Daniel Day-Lewis - There Will Be Blood