I few months ago I realized that everyone I thought of as the best actors working today are over 40. This startled me and got me to thinking about who are the top actors under 40, since they’re the ones who will take over, in a sense. I wrote out a list of nearly thirty names (over sixty when I included actresses, whom we’ll deal with next week), and started Netflixing away. Over the next couple of months, I began winnowing down my list. For example, I realized that while I like Shia LaBeouf and think he’s talented, he tends to make crap movies. The last few years have shown a dearth of good taste, a kind of lowest-common-denominator thinking that concerns me. Sure, Shia will deliver quality to your crappy blockbuster, but the result for him, as an actor, is a kind of stagnation I can’t admire. So he was removed from the list.
There are other criteria at play—I tried to be scientific about this. This isn’t just a taste call (although certainly my taste can’t be divorced entirely from it); I tried to use a set of objective standards in my judging process. My basic criteria are three things: body of work, diversity of work and recognition received. I was looking for, essentially, consistency—actors who deliver at the highest level again and again. Take Ben Foster. My taste dictates that he’s an amazing talent and should be on the list, but the formula I derived said otherwise (he’s made one too many bad movies). So I had to remove him in the name of objectivity.
You might be asking, Why did you only consider actors aged 25-39? I could never do this kind of thing for actors under 25 for the simple reason that they’re still unformed at that age. Still finding their feet. You don’t know how that’s going to translate into a mature career. What’s precocious at 17 might not work at 27. By 25, though, they’ve had time to amass a significant body of work, to diversify, to explore other media. Certainly we can point to certain people and say that they’re very talented and are bright prospects. But there’s a reason a lot of child actors fail to transition into adult careers. You have to be capable of making that leap in the first place.
Yesterday I asked the Twitter who were the best actors under 40. I wanted to input popular opinion into the final equation, though I’m sure we’ll be fighting over this anyway. When I got down to 20 actors I had to start making some tough calls and while Jake Gyllenhaal, Diego Luna, Anthony Mackie, James McAvoy and Elijah Wood didn’t make the final cut they were really close and deserve some recognition anyway. And now, on to the best actors.
Where you’ve seen him: Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, American Psycho
Don’t miss him in: Velvet Goldmine
Where do you even start with Christian Bale? Do you know how hard it was to pick just ONE movie everyone should see him in? It’s debatable, because we all have different taste, but to me, Bale is the single best actor working under 40 today. To me great acting is the ability to convince me of anything and Bale can convince me of anything. It’s so cliché to say an actor is “chameleonic”, but that’s exactly what Bale is. He inhabits each character completely, often transforming his body to do so, but the real mark of Bale’s talent is his ability to crush everyone around him (I call this being a “screen tyrant”). Check him out in The Fighter, obliterating Mark Wahlberg in every scene. When Bale is on screen, you can’t look away. The only actor who’s come close to stealing his spotlight is Heath Ledger. The only other actor I can think of with that same tyrannical bent is Daniel Day-Lewis. Yeah, I said it. Christian Bale = Daniel Day-Lewis.
Where you’ve seen him: Sherlock, Atonement
Don’t miss him in: Hawking
I crush on talented guys. To me, being good at something is sexy. I don’t care if you’re a plumber, an athlete, or a lawyer—if you’re good at what you do you gain a unique confidence that is like crack to me. It’s not about being arrogant, it’s just being assured that you’re doing exactly the right thing for you and you’re doing it well. That’s Benedict Cumberbatch all over. Cumberbatch is just beginning to make his mark across the pond, but in the UK he’s widely regarded as one of their brightest talents. I’d have to agree. Film, television, theater—Cumberbatch lights it up wherever he goes. He even does radio! There is nothing he can’t do and he makes it all look so ridiculously easy. He’s getting the best work in film, television and theater so it’s only a matter of time before everyone stops making fun of his name (myself included) and starts taking him seriously.
Where you’ve seen him: There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine
Don’t miss him in: Meek’s Cutoff
While everyone was watching Daniel Day-Lewis destroy the scenery in There Will Be Blood, Paul Dano quietly delivered one of the most impressive performances in the first decade of the 2000s. When I connected him to the morose, near-silent teenage son in Little Miss Sunshine, I was shocked. Same guy! But totally different! Dano is impossible to get a read on—you can’t extrapolate his real personality from his performances like you can with some actors. He’s an intensely focused performer who is a weird mix of choosy and accessible. He works in some of the most out-of-the-way movies being made yet pops up with small parts in stuff like Knight & Day and Cowboys and Aliens. Dano ducks the limelight, too, so his career will likely continue as a slow burn for years to come, but one day I promise we’ll all look around go, “You know that Paul Dano? He’s like, our best actor.”
Where you’ve seen him: Inception, The Aviator
Don’t miss him in: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
Has anyone transitioned from child actor to Serious Adult Actor better than Leonardo DiCaprio? Here’s how good an actor DiCaprio is: Going into The Departed I told myself, “Don’t get attached to anyone—everyone is going to die.” As the movie unfolded I kept chanting to myself, “Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care,” and still I got my hopes up. I was rooting for DiCaprio’s character, Costigan. I even started to think he was going to make it out okay. Leonardo DiCaprio, the man who’s made a career out of dying on screen, managed to convince me that he wasn’t going to die in a Martin Scorsese movie—the director who’s made a career out of killing characters. He made me care AGAINST MY WILL. Once a teen heartthrob, DiCaprio has had to fight to get taken seriously and short of Johnny Depp, I don’t think anyone has done a better job of making that leap.
Where you’ve seen him: The Social Network, Adventureland
Don’t miss him in: Rodger Dodger
Of course Jesse Eisenberg would be on here, because he always makes the list. Eisenberg is the geek chic choice of the week for a lot of people, but to assign him only nerd status is to ignore that he’s got a face made for cold calculation. What made him so impressive in The Social Network wasn’t that he was believable as a socially awkward computer genius, but that he was believable as a stone-cold ruthless businessman. He’s an odd combination of vulnerable and unpredictable on screen. Eisenberg balances film work with off-Broadway plays and he sometimes writes (he has a play in development off-Broadway), and he’s a bit reclusive, which keeps him intriguing. Some people build careers on their face or their abs, others on an ability to tell a good joke. Eisenberg is building his on mystery.
Where you’ve seen him: Children of Men, Love Actually
Don’t miss him in: Kinky Boots
The man with the most impossible name to pronounce, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is also the most under-served actor on this list. Like Cumberbatch, Ejiofor is a popular guy in the UK, but stateside he’s best known for supporting roles in stuff like American Gangster, 2012 and Salt. I first noticed Ejiofor in 2005’s Serenity, in which he played the unflappable Operative. It’s a chilling example how sometimes the scariest bad guys are the ones who never raise their voices. And his performance as Othello in London’s West End was equally chilling, though for different reasons, even in blurry bootleg form (he won an Olivier Award for it). Ejiofor has the ability to electrify at will—if he wants you to feel it, you’re going to feel it. But it was the dominance he displayed in Othello that really won my admiration. He’s got some Laurence Olivier voodoo working for him.
Where you’ve seen him: X-Men: First Class, Inglorious Basterds
Don’t miss him in: Fish Tank
The Fassbender needs little introduction—this is his year with Jane Eyre, X-Men, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and Shame all opening in 2011. The Fassbender is what I like to call a “scene dictator”—a performer who dictates moods. He doesn’t dominate his scene partners like Bale and he’s not emotionally manipulative like DiCaprio and Ejiofor, but what The Fassbender does so well is control how a scene is going to go (Heath Ledger was also a scene dictator). This is why he stood out in Inglorious Basterds and it’s why everyone sat up and noticed him in 2008’s Hunger. The Fassbender doesn’t need grandiloquent speeches or gestures to get his point across. By thinning his lips he can make everything dark and scary. It made him a particularly effective Rochester in Jane Eyre. Directors love scene dictators because they add so much atmosphere to a movie just by showing up. The Fassbender is going to be highly in demand for many years to come.
Where you’ve seen him: Pineapple Express, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man
Don’t miss him in: 127 Hours
I know, I know—you’re rolling your eyes. No one has worn out their welcome more than James Franco, but just because he’s more concerned with being an artiste right now doesn’t mean he stopped being an actor. 127 Hours was a master class of acting and it reminded me that Franco can throw down when he’s engaged with the material. Among American actors, Franco comes closest to being a screen tyrant, but he doesn’t do it all the time. He did it in 127 Hours but that was his movie start to finish. Franco is actually an underrated character actor—The Dead Girl, The Company, In the Valley of Elah and Milk all demonstrate his capabilities in a supporting role. Some actors are leading men and some are characters guys but Franco can be both. Yes, he’s annoying. Yes, he needs to go away for a while. But yes, he’s also a great actor.
Where you’ve seen him: Inception, (500) Days of Summer
Don’t miss him in: The Lookout
This is what I mean about not being able to predict how child actors turn out—who knew back in the 1990’s that JGL would turn out THIS good? The turn came in 2005 with Rian Johnson’s Brick, which also starred a guy named Noah Segan, who a lot of people thought would be something. Then 22, Segan showed a lot of promise. Now 27, he hasn’t delivered. JGL, meanwhile, has turned out to be a rare kind of leading man—one who makes you feel good despite bad circumstances. Maybe it’s that smile, or maybe it’s a less-defined, vaguely Jimmy Stewart-ish aura, but JGL is the perfect guy to headline your comedy about cancer (50/50), because he can deliver the emotional weight without making the audience want to kill themselves. But he can also go dark and twisted, such as in Hesher. JGL is old-fashioned—a good actor without any fancy tricks—and he’s just plain fun to watch.
Where you’ve seen him: Blue Valentine, The Notebook
Don’t miss him in: Lars and the Real Girl
So The Gos hides out for a couple years only to reemerge the most in-demand actor in Hollywood. Was it that absence made our hearts grow fonder or would this have happened anyway? I think it was inevitable, whether The Gos took a break or not. Just 26 when he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Half Nelson, The Gos has been on everyone’s radar for a long time. He’s talented, yes, but what sets The Gos apart is his taste level. He picks consistently interesting projects. If The Gos is attracted to it, it’s probably good. That doesn’t mean he’s immune to making bad movies—no one is—but that his career is and will be a mix of big and little films, populated by a lot of oddball characters. The Gos has the soul of a character actor with the face of leading man and a metric ton of charisma. He is Bale’s closest competition.