I’ve been doing a “best male actors on the planet” list for years now but this is my first attempt at doing a male actors of a decade list. Here we go:
- Leonardo DiCaprio – DiCaprio had almost a perfect decade. It’s not worth dwelling too long on 2011’s J. Edgar’s miss— but it is actually the easiest way to talk about the rest of the decade because the other six films he worked in were absolutely brilliant (and he is brilliant in them). He started the decade in 2010 with Inception and Shutter Island, 2012 brought us Django, then pairing with Scorsese again for The Wolf of Wall Street, The Revenant in 2015 and then after some time off returning to top for 2019’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Five of those six films landed in my top 100 of the decade, two of them in my top ten—a decade for the ages.
- Ryan Gosling – Gosling is also phenomenal in five of the best 100 films of the decade—Blue Valentine, Drive, Only God Forgives, La La Land and Blade Runner 2049 and is among the best male actors of the year four or five times. I think Gosling’s understated almost Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood-like stoic acting style will serve him well in 10-20 years even if isn’t the type of work that gets recognized by the Academy (he had just one acting nomination this decade which is a sharp contrast with like Christian Bale with his 4 (well-deserved) Oscar noms this decade).
- Joaquin Phoenix – Phoenix gives the male acting performance of the decade in The Master—a mic drop turn that probably wouldn’t need much else to land him high on the list but Phoenix backs it up with another four films that land in the top 100 of the decade (Her, The Immigrant, You Were Never Really Here, and Joker).
- Brad Pitt – Pitt had two stand-alone years that got him here- 2011 (The Tree of Life, Moneyball) and then the capper in 2019 (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Ad Astra). He’s front and center (in a sturdy, internal performance) in James Gray’s best film and when it’s all said and done I’m not sure The Tree of Life and Tarantino’s latest opus don’t land in the top 100-150 films of all-time. Those opportunities don’t come around often to actors and Pitt capitalizes on both with tremendous (and very different) performances.
- Adam Driver – So this list is not just a math equation- but it is hard to ignore that since (and including) 2012, Driver has been in fourteen archiveable films. FOURTEEN (14!)!! Now, in a few of those you’ll miss him if you blink (Inside Llewyn Davis, Meyerowitz Stories) but he’s in a few that landed in my top 50 of the decade where he gives either the best or second best performance of the year (Paterson, Marriage Story). He’s worked with Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Jarmusch and Soderbergh—but it does feel like the key collaboration is the four archiveable films with Noah Baumbach
- Christian Bale – Another unbelievable decade for Bale. He’s the greatest chameleon on this list (though Phoenix giving us both Joker and Her gives me pause here). His work as Bruce Wayne in Rises his best work in the trilogy, his two collaborations with David O. Russell (The Fighter, American Hustle) put him on the short list of the best performances in both 2010 and 2013 and the two collaborations with Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) gave him a chance to show off his range. The guy who can effectively play Batman and Dick Cheney is proof enough that he’s right there with DiCaprio and a few others as far as the best and/or most talented actor of his generation.
- Ethan Hawke – Hawke is a big part of Linklater’s back to back triumphs in 2013 and 2014 with Before Midnight and Boyhood. Hawke has always been steady going back being a child actor in the 1980’s but this is the best work of his career. Pawlikowski’s tragically underseen and underrated The Woman in the Fifth gets Hawke a third strong performance in the top 100 films of the decade. I’m not quite as high on many on 2017’s First Reformed yet (look forward to a rewatch) but Hawke is undeniably good in it and it helps give his decade some depth to compete with the other imposing names and resumes on this list.
- Michael Fassbender – So Fassbender closed the 2000’s decade on an incredible run- Hunger, Fish Tank and Inglourious Basterds all came out in 2008-09– holy hell—and he picked up the 2010’s where he left off with A Dangerous Method, Haywire, Jane Eyre and Shame (career-capper)all from 2011. What a year! Fassbender would continue with Prometheus in 2012 and another year where he’s one of the best actors of the year in 2013 with his third pairing with auteur Steve McQueen (and the third time Fassbender is among the best male actors of the year). Steve Jobs from Danny Boyle was impressive in 2015 but it has been a quiet few years in the back half of the decade.
- Oscar Isaac – Isaac had nine archieveable films in the 2010’s decade – extremely prolific. He’s outstanding in one of the decade’s best films- Inside Llewyn Davis and that performance is one of the 3-4 that rank right behind Phoenix in The Master as the best performance of the decade (Fassbender in Shame would be right there as well). Isaac is tremendous in his few key scenes in Drive and in the dueling performances in 2014 (A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina). A breakout decade indeed.
- Tom Hardy – Hardy is such a weird case—so he’s in four of the best nine movies of the decade (Inception, Dunkirk, The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road) – lets pause here- that can’t happen. He’s not on Ledger’s Joker-level in the trilogy but I don’t think Hardy gets enough credit for his work (his unparalleled vocal talents and imposing physical presence) as Bane. Hardy is wonderful in Warrior, Locke as well—it feels like complaining after being in four of the best nine films of the decade but it would be great in the 2020’s if he can be a larger part of these masterpieces. Is that asking too much? Haha.
Honorable Mention (alphabetical)
- Ralph Fiennes – Fiennes is here mainly because of The Grand Budapest Hotel– a dazzling comic performance in a masterpiece – these do not come along often. If you agree with me and think his best work prior was in The English Patient and Schindler’s List –than this performance is also key to his career in proving he has just such a wealth of range (Nazi monster to wry concierge in a Wes Anderson film). Don’t sleep on his work in Guadagnino’s already underrated A Bigger Splash (2015) either– Fiennes is just an absolute volcano and that film is somewhere between #101-110 of the decade if I kept going with that list.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman – Tragically, PSH passed away early in 2014 but this is no sentimental honorable mention selection. Sure, the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Keaton and Colin Farrell among others put together remarkable decades but PSH ranked as the #24 actor of all-time when I did my top 100 actors list in 2018 and I ranked his work as Lancaster Dodd, as his single best performance of all-time. I have Phoenix’s work as Freddie Quell as the best performance of the decade and yet others argue that PSH’s work in the same film is actually more deserving of that praise. The processing scene—with those two actors—unreal. They’re just levitating—it’s the finest display of acting on the decade. PSH’s other archiveable films this decade include a small role in Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (he owed him after Capote) and A Most Wanted Man in 2014.
- Michael B. Jordan – He’s the second-youngest actor on the page here (Kaluuya is two years younger) so it’s a major triumph to be on this list. He’s electric in two films that were on the decade’s top 100 films list (Creed, The Black Panther) though he needs to work with someone other than just Ryan Coogler (more than likely) if he wants to be on this list again in 10 years. Jordan has only three total archiveable films (all this decade) and all three are with Coogler (the third is 2013’s Fruitvale Station)— still- from everyone from John Wayne to Mifune to De Niro to Fassbender (see above))—pairing yourself with the right auteurs is the key to this acting thing.
- Daniel Kaluuya – Kaluuya is even younger than Jordan (b. 1989). Kaluuya didn’t even have an archiveable film until 2015 (Sicario) but in the back half of the decade he put together an amazing run with standouts in 2017’s Get Out and 2018’s Widows from Steve McQueen. Kaluuya may be right there with Adam Driver in terms of those actors I’m most looking forward to watching in the 2020’s.
- Matthew McConaughey – With all due respect Lone Star and Dazed & Confused and90’s McConaughey—the 2010’s were easily the best stretch of MM’s career. The “McConaissance” peaked in 2013 and 2014 with Dallas Buyers Club, his jaw-dropping scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, Interstellar and True Detective. Sadly, it looks like it’s over with a quiet stretch from 2015-2019 to close out the decade and take him off the top 10 list and on to the honorable mention list.