Cinema has spanned a total of a century, beginning with a short clip of a jockey riding a horse called the Roundhay Garden Scene. From the silent film era through the Golden Age of Hollywood, cinema has aged like fine wine, only getting better with time as artists in the industry learn and grow from past productions. With the advancement of technology on top of this, the way movies are made has changed drastically, bringing about a whole new generation of filmmaking.
Update December 15, 2023: Every day, the list of great actors grows, so this list has been updated to include even more iconic names that have defined cinema in recent years by Federico Furzan.
With this much evolution throughout cinematic history, it makes sense that the actors that starred in the films have also changed as well. The Golden Age of Hollywood brought us Clark Gable, Orson Welles, and Katherine Hepburn, some of the greatest actors of their time. Cut to 2023, modern-day cinema is filled with talented performers that manage to wow audiences. More great actors are emerging and becoming defining talents with each passing day, it seems, so here are the greatest actors of our time.
35 Ben Foster
Ben Foster‘s career speaks for itself. The young actor has a natural ability to pick the roles that suit him, and countless times, he’s blown away audiences with honest portrayals of good, bad, weird, and ugly. Notable performances include Leave No Trace (undeniably his best), Hell or High Water, and Alpha Dog. Recently, he impressed everyone with his role in The Survivor. Foster’s range is admirable, and he’s a much better performer than he’s given credit for.
34 Robert Downey Jr.
Hollywood really loves a great redemption story in front and behind the cameras. Robert Downey Jr. had a tumultuous past since he’s been in the industry since 1970. While he had multiple minor works to his name, 1985’s Weird Science would be his breakout hit as a young actor.
He got his first Oscar nomination back in 1992 for his performance in Chaplin. Then he led multiple comedies and romantic films such as Heart and Souls, Only You, Air America, and Natural Born Killers. His career took a nosedive due to his crippling drug and alcohol addiction, but he resurfaced like the proverbial phoenix thanks to Iron Man in 2008. He’s been very in demand since with great comedy parts in Tropic Thunder (for which he was also nominated for an Oscar), and other action features like Sherlock Holmes. In 2023’s Oppenheimer, he delivered the best performance of his career, and one that will surely get some attention in the upcoming award season.
33 Brad Pitt
There’s no denying Brad Pitt is one of the greatest actors of modern times. While his early works are not exactly groundbreaking, he got his first major role in Thelma & Louise as the scummy J.D. Pitt would increase his profile with more dramas and a few comedies such as Cool World, Kalifornia, and True Romance.
In 1996, he got his first Oscar nod for his role in 12 Monkeys. If you do a little searching on the top of your head, you will likely easily remember five to six films featuring his talents. Brad hasn’t stopped making movies, either by acting in them or the producer role. Some of his most memorable works include Fight Club, Snatch, The Ocean’s Eleven trilogy, Burn After Reading, and many more.
32 Cillian Murphy
Not many people think of Cillian Murphy as the superstar he is. His breakout hit was the horror drama 28 Days Later, and he hasn’t stopped pumping bangers since. He would surprise everyone with his role as Johnathan Crane in Batman Begins, which he reprised in the next two sequels. He’s also featured in more grounded productions such as The Wind that Shakes Berkley, Breakfast in Pluto, and Sunshine.
He came back to large-scale big-budget films with Inception, but he increased his profile with his powerful performance as Thomas Shelby in the show Peaky Blinders. With this year’s Oppenheimer, he tackled a defining role that will surely bring him plenty of well-deserved accolades when the award season begins.
31 Bryan Cranston
Known for his role as Walter White in the hit series Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston has built a reputation as one of the best actors of our time. Winning a total of six Primetime Emmy Awards, Cranston has even spent a great deal of time on the stage, earning him a Tony for Best Actor in a Play for All the Way.
Cranston’s versatility knows no bounds as he stars in war films like Saving Private Ryan, while also making time for voice-acting roles like in Isle of Dogs. He’s one of the few notable actors in Hollywood whose career in TV put him in the Hollywood spotlight, and not the other way around.
30 Olivia Colman
Olivia Colman is one of today’s most interesting performers. Sure, she’s already in Oscars history for her performance in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, but Colman’s best roles go way back, and not only in the big screen. She got people’s attention with her participation in the sitcom Peep Show, but her move to dramatic roles cemented her importance in the industry. Her role in Broadchurch is one of the best in modern television.
The Favourite gave her for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 2018, and in 2020 and 2021, she was in the ballots again for The Father and The Lost Daughter. Most recently, she came back to TV for a very small but important role in The Bear.
29 Natalie Portman
Beginning her career at the age of 12 in Leon: The Professional, Natalie Portman immediately caught the eye of critics and audiences. She went on to star in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Closer, V for Vendetta, and the infamous Black Swan, which earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress and is undoubtedly her best performance. Starring in the Thor franchise established her as one of the world’s highest-paid actresses. Her versatility speaks for itself, as she’s been able to tackle numerous genres and always makes sure she isn’t typecast in a very specific role. She can most recently be seen in an incredible role in May December which unites her with another person on this list, Juliane Moore.
28 Scarlet Johansson
Scarlett Johansson has been an actor since childhood, starring in films like Ghost World. As an adult, she broke out strong in Lost in Translation, earning a BAFTA for her performance. Her career has only continued to bloom, earning roles in films like Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit, both of which earned her simultaneous Academy Award nominations. Not to mention her large presence in the MCU as the Black Widow. Contrary to how the industry often paints her like, she isn’t just a pretty woman. Her role in films like Under the Skin is remarkable for removing her from the sexy stereotype and standing among the best in her body of work.
27 Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron has made a name for herself in Hollywood through films like The Cider House Rules and The Devil’s Advocate. Her performance in Monster earned her critical acclaim, including the Silver Bear, an Academy Award for Best Actress and worldwide recognition that shut people’s mouths: she wasn’t the sex symbol Hollywood painted her out to be. Her filmography includes hits like Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Fate of the Furious, and Prometheus. In 2016, TIME named Theron one of the most influential people in the world.
26 Richard Jenkins
Character actor Richard Jenkins is one of the most underrated performers in current cinema. He’s no stranger to genre cinema, and constantly shows up in roles that aren’t usual for an actor of his caliber. With a couple of Academy Award nominations in his pocket, Jenkins has the dramatic ability to improve films with his presence. You’ve seen him in The Shape of Water, Spotlight, The Humans, Let Me In, and The Cabin in the Woods. He achieved stardom with his TV performance in the HBO drama Six Feet Under.
25 Keanu Reeves
Only one man can be John Wick and Neo, and that man is Keanu Reeves. With a career spanning more than 30 years, Reeves made an impression in his breakthrough role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a role he reprised several times. Reeves has gone on to star in a variety of films, most notably The Devil’s Advocate, Dracula, and Street Kings. Reeves made a comeback through John Wick, a welcome reminder of his awesomeness and his ability to be a memorable action star. A very underrated role of his: Donnie in Sam Raimi’s The Gift, one of his few performances as a really bad dude.
24 Johnny Depp
You may know him as Sweeney Todd, the Mad Hatter, or Jack Sparrow, but his name is Johnny Depp. Depp made his film debut in A Nightmare on Elm Street before going on to star in the TV series 21 Jump Street. He began collaborating with Tim Burton in 1990 with Edward Scissorhands, and since then he became the director’s alter ego starring in films Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow. Depp has been subject to critical acclaim and commercial success, one of the few actors to manage to have success in both areas. Unfortunately, his recent run through the spotlight wasn’t because of a performance; it was due to a very famous trial.
23 Sigourney Weaver
The Queen of Sci-fi didn’t earn that name overnight. Sigourney Weaver rose to fame after being cast as the main character Ellen Ripley in the iconic Alien franchise. The role became critically acclaimed and earned her an Academy Award nomination for Aliens. Over the years, Weaver has appeared in films like Holes, Galaxy Quest, and Avatar, earning several accolades in the process. If there’s someone who can elevate your film, no matter the genre (her role in Ghostbusters is awesome), it’s Sigourney Weaver.
22 Helena Bonham Carter
Helena Bonham Carter rose to prominence through A Room with a View and Hamlet. She would gain more recognition through supporting roles, as seen in Fight Club, Howards End, and The King’s Speech, the latter of which earned her a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress. Her roles have varied from the evil Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter to the caring mother in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, proving her versatility. In recent times, her most prominent role was in the Netflix historical drama The Crown.
21 Christian Bale
Known for his extreme method acting that has cost him his health, there is no doubt that Christian Bale is one of the greatest actors of our time. Starring in Empire of the Sun at 13, Bale had an early start to his career, gaining recognition through his leading roles in American Psycho and The Machinist. He went on to become Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy, a role that earned him love and praise from both critics and audiences. His performance as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter was exceptional, and for that he won a much-deserved Academy Award. He’s been nominated for times for the highest prize in Hollywood.
20 Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway had her breakthrough role in The Princess Diaries, which later led to a series of family films like Ella Enchanted. Her first adult film role was in Brokeback Mountain, where she earned her way and made it to Rachel Getting Married, which earned her, her first Academy Award nomination, and is undoubtedly her best performance to date. Hathaway finally won a well-deserved Oscar for her performance in Les Misérables.
19 Leonardo DiCaprio
There’s a reason that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the world’s most important actors, and it’s not because of his good looks. At a young age, DiCaprio had already been recognized for his talents, receiving his first Academy Award nomination for his performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He went on to achieve stardom through Romeo + Juliet and Titanic. In more recent years, DiCaprio has proven himself more than just a heartthrob through films like The Revenant, the film that gave him his first Oscar. Will he repeat in 2024 for his performance in Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon?
18 Joaquin Phoenix
This well-known method actor goes to some deep extremes in order to get into his character. Known for his roles in Gladiator, Her, and Joker, Joaquin Phoenix began his career alongside his brother River back in the ’80s and earned critical acclaim in To Die For. He has been the recipient of numerous accolades, including several Academy Awards for Best Actor. Whether you agree with his method of acting or not, you cannot deny the natural talent he possesses on-screen.
17 Morgan Freeman
Known for his distinct deep voice, which has landed him a number of narrating gigs over the years, Morgan Freeman is one of the most recognizable actors of our time. Starring in several now-classic roles, including Lean on Me, Driving Miss Daisy, The Bucket List, and The Dark Knight Trilogy, Freeman has no shortage of phenomenal roles under his belt. His best performance is in David Fincher’s horror thriller Se7en.
16 Emma Stone
Ever since Emma Stone burst out onto the scene in Superbad, she has shown time and time again she is one of the most exciting performers. From her comedy work in Easy A to dramatic work in films like La La Land and The Favourite, Emma Stone has been wowing audiences for almost two decades now. Her most recent performance in Poor Things might be her best year as it pushes her into new territory. It is highly suspected she will earn another Academy Award nomination. Combine that with her performance on the critically acclaimed series The Curse, 2023 might be Stone’s best year yet.