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The greatest actors of the 21st century

Denzel Washington is beyond category: a screen titan who is also a subtle and sensitive craftsman, with serious old-school stage training and blazing movie-star presence. He can do Shakespeare and August Wilson, villainy or action heroism. He’s also one of the supreme regular-guy actors. Who can forget his embattled working stiffs in “Unstoppable” (2010) and “The Taking of Pelham 123” (2009), a pair of big, noisy train-themed movies directed by Tony Scott? Neither one is a masterpiece, but I never get tired of watching Washington on the job.

Fearless and mesmerizing, sometimes scary, sometimes freakish, Isabelle Huppert has taken on an astonishment of roles over her career, moving effortlessly from tears to shrieks, from the straightest stories to the most gloriously unhinged. She’s acted in more than 50 movies this century alone, industriousness that speaks to her ambition and popularity, but also suggests a ravenous hunger that you can see in her acting. I love many of her performances, but I am especially captivated by her monsters, by her horrifying, unspeakable women.

At the start of “There Will Be Blood” (2007), a man in a deep, dark hole rhythmically strikes the wall with a pickax, sending up sparks and dust. It’s so dim that you can’t make out his face, but his pale shirt draws your eyes and throws the contours of his powerful arms and their machinelike movements into relief. You only fully see him when he lifts his head to look up at the sky, causing light to flood his face. Behold, the man — behold, Daniel Day-Lewis!

Maybe you’re surprised to find Keanu Reeves so high on this list. But ask yourself: have you ever been disappointed when he showed up in a movie? Can you name one film that has not been improved by his presence? We’re talking about Ted Logan here. About Neo. John Wick. Diane Keaton’s also-ran love interest in “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003). Ali Wong’s also-ran love interest — a guy named Keanu Reeves! — in “Always Be My Maybe” (2019). Surely there is not another movie star who exhibits so much range while remaining so irreducibly and inscrutably himself.

Artist, princess, writer, muse Nicole Kidman has played them all, with short hair and long, a prodigious artificial schnoz and a fantastically jutting chin. She can smile like the sun and weep with enough tears that you want to hand her a box of tissues. In mainstream cinema, realism is an actor’s coin in trade, an aesthetic choice that helps turn artifice into something like life. For Kidman, a miniaturist with a lapidary touch, creating that realism sometimes involves obscuring the beauty (for the role, not awards) that has long defined her. It also means consistently playing with femininity.

His uniqueness as a protagonist comes from his ordinariness and mundaneness. Especially to the Korean audience, Song Kang Ho projects the quality of the typical Korean working man, a neighbor or friend you might encounter in your neighborhood. So, they are even more engrossed when they see this seemingly everyday character confronted by a monster or a monstrous situation in movies like “The Host” or “Parasite.”

Toni Servillo is probably best known to American audiences for “The Great Beauty” (2013), Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning tour of the decadent ways of the modern Roman cultural elite. That movie is what Pauline Kael called a “come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe” party, starring Servillo, playing a writer of slim accomplishment and large reputation, as the master of revels. With his handsome, creased face and impeccable haberdashery, Servillo recalls a more established version of the social butterfly Marcello Mastroianni played in “La Dolce Vita” — a detached, vaguely depressed participant-observer in a swirling spectacle of hedonism.

Since 2000, the Chinese actress Zhao Tao and the director Jia Zhangke have made more than a dozen features and shorts, dramas and documentaries as well as work that resists such neat categorization. Their filmmaking alliance is so holistic and familiar that it is hard to imagine what these movies would look like without Zhao’s face and grounding presence. She’s often called his muse (they’re married), but that doesn’t come close to capturing the richness of her contribution — its poetry, symbolism and emotional granularity.

Viola Davis has worked with Denzel Washington several times in the last 20 years — whether he was the director (“Antwone Fisher,” 2002), star (playing Troy Maxson to her Rose Maxson in the August Wilson family drama “Fences” on Broadway and then on film in 2016) or producer (he cast her in the title role in the forthcoming Wilson jazz drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”).

How many different ways can one person come of age? Growing up is a lot of what young people do in movies, but few actors have been doing it for so long, or with such nuance, intelligence and variety as Saoirse Ronan. She has been maturing in front of our eyes for more than half her life (she’s 26) becoming wiser, sadder, freer and more herself in each new role. Of course, it’s mostly the characters who undergo those changes. Eilis Lacey (“Brooklyn,” 2015) finds love and independence in her new home; Christine McPherson (“Lady Bird,” 2017) learns to appreciate her mother; Jo March (“Little Women,” 2019) finds her voice as a writer. Ronan herself, inhabiting these women and girls in all their particularity, has been almost unnervingly consistent, in full, disciplined command of her gifts right from the start.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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). Willem Dafoe. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.