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Top 10 Greatest Actors of Our Generation

Cory is a film school graduate and former political organizer with a B.A. in Communication.

It's easy to underestimate the importance of a good actor these days. With so many actors simply coasting on average and lackluster work, those who can constantly deliver hard-hitting performances are hard to come by.

While the days of great method actors may be behind us, we can look at the performers of our generation that can wow audiences with awe-inspiring performances. Here is a list of some of them.

Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey

10. Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey is a well-trained actor who became a legend in the 1990s with roles in films such as Glengarry Glen Rose (1992) and Seven (1995). He had an Academy award-winning performance in The Usual Suspects (1995). He also won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in American Beauty (1999) as a man whose midlife crisis sets forth a chain of events with some unfortunate outcomes.

Though many felt he peeked in the 90s and that he coasted through the 2000s with few memorable performances, he made an amazing comeback in the television world. In the Netflix series House of Cards, he plays a charming yet conniving U.S. Congressman named Frank Underwood, who uses cutthroat and downright illegal tactics to seek revenge on his political friends who crossed him. The role rejuvenated Spacey's career and redefined the nature of dramatic television acting.

In 2017, Spacey faced a series of sexual assault allegations. As a result, he was removed from House of Cards as well as from other productions he was involved in. It seems unlikely that he will have any significant roles in the future.

Best Films Starring Kevin Spacey

  • L.A. Confidential
  • Glengerry Glen Ross
  • Baby Driver
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Margin Call
  • American Beauty
George Clooney

George Clooney

9. George Clooney

A lot can be said about George Clooney. He's one of the most recognizable men in Hollywood, an avid activist, and a humanitarian. He is also one of the most profitable actors in recent decades. However, some have made the claim that Clooney is often typecast into playing roles of successful men in positions of power with little variation in his characters. But if one looks closer at his work, one would find that Clooney is just really good at what he does.

He came to fame in the 1990s playing the role of Dr. Douglas Ross on the NBC medical drama E.R. He played leading roles in films such as Batman and Robin (1997), Three Kings (1999), and the remake of Ocean's Eleven (2001). But it was his head-turning, Oscar-winning role as a troubled CIA agent in Syriana (2005) that brought new life to his career. Many began to see him in a more critically acclaimed light. He has since scored Oscar nominations for Best Actor for his performance in films like Michael Clayton (2007), Up in the Air (2009), and The Descendants (2011). He won the Oscar for Best Picture as the producer of Argo (2012). He is one of only three people (the others being Walt Disney and Alfonso Cuaron) to receive Academy Award nominations in six different categories.

Best Films Starring George Clooney

  • Gravity
  • Three Kings
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Out of Sight
  • Michael Clayton
  • Up in the Air
  • The Descendants
Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston

8. Bryan Cranston

Very few television actors can bring such greatness to the small screen that they are put on the same level as the feature film guys. Bryan Cranston, however, has gone above and beyond with a television role that beats most of the last few winners of the Oscar for Best Actor.

Cranston is well known for his role as slick dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfeld and as the loveable yet wacky dad Hal in Malcolm in the Middle. The latter resulted in Emmy nominations for Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. But it was his role as Walter White in the AMC series Breaking Bad that has turned him into one the most compelling performers of our time. His Breaking Bad role as a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking and selling crystal meth has been called one of the best roles in television history. He transforms from the protagonist into an antagonist, which had never been done before on TV. By doing so, he has reached levels of emotion that puts Cranston on par with any film actor out today.

Best Films Starring Bryan Cranston

  • Argo
  • Drive
Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks

7. Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks was considered to be one of the top performers in the 1990s. He dominated that decade with several memorable performances. He became the first actor in decades to win two consecutive Oscars for Best Actor with iconic performances in Philadelphia (1993) and Forest Gump (1994). He continued to wow viewers with roles in films such as Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Green Mile (1999), and Cast Away (2000).

In the 2000s, his career suffered a few setbacks, and he fell off of many people's best actor lists for a while. In the 2010s, he made a stirring comeback with his titular role in Captain Philips (2013) and as Walt Disney himself in the film Saving Mr. Banks (2013). He has received six Academy Award nominations in his career. His most recent nomination was for this portrayal of Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019).

Best Films Starring Tom Hanks

  • Big
  • Catch Me If You Can
  • Apollo 13
  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • Captain Phillips
Christian Bale

Christian Bale

6. Christian Bale

Christian Bale is an actor whose range and seriousness is both stunning and hard to come by these days. Getting his start as a child actor in the 1980s, Bale delivered two hard-hitting, psychological performances in American Psycho (2000) and The Machinist (2004). He then became a well-known and commercially successful actor with his portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the films Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

He also won praise for his roles in the David O. Russell films The Fighter (2010) and American Hustle (2013). He has received a total of four Academy Award nominations, the most recent being for his portrayal of Dick Cheney in Vice (2018). Bale is known for his method actor approach as he often loses himself in his roles to an inspiring degree.

Best Films Starring Christian Bale

  • The Dark Knight
  • Ford v Ferrari
  • American Hustle
  • The Fighter
  • Rescue Dawn
  • The Big Short
Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt

5. Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt is another of the more recognizable men in Hollywood these days, and many see him as a blockbuster actor rather than a serious performer. However, it would be foolish of someone to write Pitt off as just another face in Hollywood. The man has certainly paid his dues with roles in films such as Legends of the Fall (1994) and Seven (1995). 12 Monkeys (1995) would earn Pitt his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

One of Pitt's most astounding performances came in the 1999 cult film Fight Club, where he played the cool alter ego of a man with insomnia. Since 2000, Pitt has dominated with both high grossing films (Ocean's Eleven, Troy, and World War Z) as well as critically acclaimed performances in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and Moneyball (2011). The latter two performances resulted in Oscar nods for Best Actor. He would win his first Academy Award as the producer of 12 Years a Slave (2013), which won the Best Picture award. He would win his first Oscar as an actor when he won the Best Supporting Actor award for his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).

Best Films Starring Brad Pitt

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Moneyball
  • The Big Short
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • 12 Monkeys
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio

4. Leonardo DiCaprio

Even at a young age, Leonardo DiCaprio always wowed as an actor. He blew critics away with his roles in films such as This Boy's Life (1993) and What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). He then rose to international fame as Jack Dawson in the James Cameron epic Titanic (1997). But it was in the 2000s when DiCaprio started to truly stand out as an actor. He, like Robert De Niro before him, became well known for his collaborations with director Martin Scorsese.

For Scorsese, he first played a young man who avenges his father's murder in Gangs of New York (2002). Then he starred as Hollywood mogul and plane designer Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004). He then went on to play an undercover cop who infiltrates a crime boss' crew in The Departed (2006). In the 2010s, DiCaprio played various roles ranging from a dream-stealer in Inception (2010) to a manic slave owner in Django Unchained (2012). He teamed back up with Scorsese to deliver a powerful, somewhat shocking performance as drug-addicted stockbroker Jordan Belfort in the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street. He closed out the decade with stellar performances in The Revenant (2015) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), with the former winning him the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Best Films Starring Leonardo DiCaprio

  • Catch Me If You Can
  • The Departed
  • What's Eating Gilbert Grape
  • Inception
  • Titanic
  • Django Unchained
  • The Aviator
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Sean Penn

Sean Penn

3. Sean Penn

When Sean Penn's career exploded in 1982 with his role as surfer and stoner Jeff Spicoli in the coming-of-age film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, few probably thought he would turn into one of the most celebrated actors of the early 21st century. After several bad boy roles in the 80s, the 1990s saw Penn in more serious roles, such as a racist murderer in Dead Man Walking (1995) and a jazz guitarist with a massive ego in Sweet and Lowdown (1999).

Some of Penn's most powerful work came in the 2000s. That decade saw him win two Oscars for Best Actor. The first was for playing a dad devastated by the death of his daughter in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2003). His second came with his portrayal of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to political office, in the 2008 film Milk. Penn has also become well-known for his political and social activism. He has also directed some films, most notably Into the Wild (2007).

Best Films Starring Sean Penn

  • Dead Man Walking
  • Milk
  • Bad Boys
  • Mystic River
  • At Close Range
Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp

2. Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp is a performer who truly loses himself in every role he plays. He does this to such a degree that it is sometimes scary. Like many other actors on this list, Depp got his start as a teen actor. He became an idol in the 1980s with his role as Officer Tom Hanson in the TV series 21 Jump Street. After leaving that show, Depp quickly began playing more challenging roles, starting with the titular role in Edward Sissorhands (1990). That role propelled him to even greater fame, and he went on to become known for his stark portrayals of real people. This includes roles as the odd, cult filmmaker Ed Wood in Ed Wood (1994), undercover FBI agent Joesph D. Pistone in Donny Brasco (1997), eccentric writer Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and cocaine dealer George Jung in Blow (2001).

In the 2000s, Depp went on to become a top box office draw with huge films such as the Pirates of the Caribbean film series and Alice and Wonderland (2010). He had previously played the role of Gellert Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts films before resigning from the role due to domestic abuse allegations he was facing at the time.

Best Films Starring Johnny Depp

  • A Nightmare on Elm Street
  • Ed Wood
  • What's Eating Gilbert Grape
  • Edward Scissorhands
  • Donnie Brasco
  • Arizona Dream
Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis

1. Daniel Day-Lewis

Sir Daniel Day-Lewis is by far the greatest actor of the last three decades despite only taking on a small number of roles near the end of his career. This gave him a reputation as one of the most selective actors in Hollywood. Throughout the 1980s, he played numerous roles in British theater, film, and television. By the end of that decade, he received international attention for his portrayal of Christy Brown in the 1989 film My Left Foot. This role resulted in the first of an unprecedented three wins for the Academy Award for Best Actor. In the 1990s, he continued to impress with films such as The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Age of Innocence (1993), and The Crucible (1996).

In 2002, after a few years away from the industry, Day-Lewis returned better than ever in the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York, where he played vicious 1860s gang leader William Cutting. He went on to win two more Oscars for Best Actor for his role in the 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood and for his stark, frighteningly realistic portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012). After a phenomenal performance in the film Phantom Thread (2017), Day-Lewis announced his retirement from acting.

Best Films Starring Daniel Day-Lewis

  • My Left Foot
  • In the Name of the Father
  • My Beautiful Laundrette
  • In the Name of the Father
  • The Last of the Mohicans
  • Lincoln
  • There Will Be Blood
  • Phantom Thread


Solid List , Christian Bale should be Number 2 on January 03, 2019:

Solid List , Christian Bale should be Number 2

michael maskaron on August 28, 2018:

what about dustin hoffman ?!

Darla Sue Dollman from Alice, Texas on February 03, 2018:

I also disagree with the choices on this list. No Denzel Washington, Joaquin Phoenix or Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who are both Oscar winners? And which generation are you discussing--Daniel Day Lewis is 60, Tom Hanks is 62. If Lewis and Hanks are included in "our generation," then what about Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins, or the great Robin Williams? The writing and research is fine, but many of the actors on this list do not deserve the honor they've been given and the title of "our generation" is confusing.

Darla Sue Dollman from Alice, Texas on February 03, 2018:

The comments are a bit harsh, but I agree about the choices on this list. No Denzel Washington, Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro? The writing and research is fine, but many of the actors on this list do not deserve the honor they've been given.

DrStevens on December 19, 2017:

No Denzel Washington??? That makes this a BOGUS list!!!

Wallace Damned on July 10, 2017:

Sean Penn!?!?! Sean Penn?!?! This list is descent, but Penn is mediocre at best. He gets his name printed because he's in politics, and he's not even very good at that. Where is Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, Will Smith, etc.( too many way better choices to list.) I could make a top 10 list with actors you excluded that you oils be stronger than your top 10 list. Spacey at night mover 10?!? Whoever wrote this article must of loaded up a little too much fucking entitled retard powder in their pipe before they typed this. Hopefully immediately after we turning in this article they quit writing for good, and started directing traffic or washing windows because this is garbage. Also, to the person that approved it to go online, you are just as stupid as the writer. Tell me, how does it feel to live life with your head CONSTANTLY up your ass? I'm curious, how do you drive? Or make love? Do you just lick your lips and in turn toss your own salad? Reel rundown, I was looking for a legitimate list of the best actors of our time, but instead I found this editorial word vomit excuse of an article. Because I have read this, you have now made me hate the human race. Thank you for the disappointment.

Correia Ricardo on July 10, 2017:

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are better than everyone in the list, excluding DDL (and Sean Penn maybe)

Ryan on March 31, 2017:

No De Niro? Pacino?

Bill on January 06, 2017:

No Tom Hardy? C'mon!

Michael on August 23, 2016:

Personally, I would get rid of the overrated, one note George Clooney and replace him with the superb and versatile Russell Crowe. Denzel deserves a mention too. Other than that, agree 100%.

Michael on April 27, 2016:

Are you kidding me??? This list without D. Washington is a joke. I'm a white man but not one black actor on the list should tell you something. Brad Pitt before Morgan freemen??

Johnny boy on March 23, 2016:

I agree with the list but take out Brad Pitt and swap in Denzel Washington. Denzel Washington is one of the few actors who's preformances wow me even when the film itself isn't that great.

Ally on January 26, 2015:

At last! Someone with real exesptire gives us the answer. Thanks!

Javier on December 03, 2014:

My Rank

#1 Tom Hanks

#2 Daniel Day Lewis

#3 Johnny Depp

#4 Denzel Washington

#5 Leonardo Dicaprio

saifhayel on September 12, 2014:

I strongly agree with Daniel Day-Lewis being ranked #1 however, I think Denzel Washington should be there.

Steeve on August 22, 2014:

Denzel Washington has to be in there. He's an incredible actor.

JOC from Syracuse, NY on June 22, 2014:

Anyone other than DD-L at one would have been just wrong.

Bernie Ment from Syracuse, NY on March 12, 2014:

Indeed. Nice article, although I personally think that Leo DiCrapio is over rated. Again, voted up.

Jeannie Randall from South Dakota on February 04, 2014:

You got them all! Great choices and nice article.

rushmaster on January 26, 2014:

I agree that these are all great actors, and they have done some of my favorite movies of all time. I agree that Daniel Day Lewis is #1 too. I also think Bryan Cranston's performance as Walter White on Breaking Bad is some of the greatest acting of all time.

Kevina Oyatedor on January 25, 2014:

Love them all, can't pick one. Amazing gorgeous actors. Great hub.