Top 100 Acting Performances of the ’00s (100-81)

100 + 99. Ryan Philipe and Benicio del Toro – Way of the Gun

This is by far the most controversial choice on the list. Way of the Gun is one of those violent and vulgar movies from the ’90s cribbing on the style of Quentin Tarantino, but there is something more going on here. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie admitted to writing lengthy dialog for his two actors to mow through, however, he also left the camera running for a little while after each scene instructing the actors to stay in character. McQuarrie ended up cutting all his dailog for what the actors came up with (little glances, facial tics, and casual lines of dialog). Phillipe and del Toro made two of the most perfectly lived-in characters in cinema.

98. Ryan Reynolds – Adventureland

Ryan Reynolds might be built like a superhero, but all his best work has been done on smaller scale projects. In Advenutreland, he takes on a much smaller role than we have become used to seeing him in, at least at this point in his career. He subverts his usual pretty boy charm for what ends up being a deeply sad townie who has nothing left but his good looks and his fake stories.

97. Billy Crudup – Jesus’s Son

This little seen movie about drugs and depression is surprisingly light-hearted thanks to Crudup’s effortless immaturity. He’s like a big kid running from responsibility, recklessly self-medicating and participating in other manner of criminal activity. Wide-eyed and optimistic to the bitter end, no matter how many times he is reduced to ash or left in a mess of tears, he upswings big.

96. Scarlet Johansson – Lost in Translation

In her breakout role, Scarlet Johansson announced to the world her sex appeal and dramatic chops as the hipster pixie dream girl to Bill Murray’s depressed aging actor. She’s not just any pixie dream girl though (thank God). She actually ha problems of her own and her own depression to work through. Both she and Murray lean on each other, shouldering the others misfortune which turns depression into tenderness.

95. Mark Ruffalo – Zodiac

In the late 60s and early 70s the country was scared shitless of San Fran’s Zodiac Killer and in the wake of that fear, we were inundated with multiple tough guy cops, who were more vigilante than anything else. Ruffalo’s trusty thinker cop looks like slo-mo in comparison to his silver screen counterpart Dirty Harry. With that comes a sense of authenticity, which doesn’t even need to necessarily be accurate, that’s authentic it feels.

94. Jocelin Donahue – House of the Devil

Jocelin Donahue is House of the Devil is one of the earliest examples of a recent trend to move away from the bimbos and Breakfast Club stand in slasher fodder that we were forced to watch in the ’90s. Donahue, who is just as beautiful but actually DOES look like the girl next door, spends most of the movie staring off into the darkness, ears perked up, waiting for something terrifying to happen, making us anxious in the process. I’ll never NOT be impressed by that level of empathy.

93. Toby Kebbell – RocknRolla

Guy Ritchie’s criminally underseen return to the Brit gangster flick after the horrendous Swept Away, with Ritchie’s then wife, Madonna, was a fun romp for a number of familiar faces including Mark Strong, Gerard Butler, Tom Hardy, and Idris Elba. However, they were all upstaged by Toby Kebbell’s perpetual showman. He is a titular rock-and-roller, who never uses 2 words when 10 will do, who has a damn opinion about everything, who has never seen a face he didn’t want to yell at.

92. Jake Gyllenhaal – Donnie Darko

Lots of breakthrough performances on this list. Jake G’s is the titular teen from Donnie Darko, a manic depressive who is either losing his mind or chosen by the universe to be some kind of savior. No matter which you believe, Gyllenhaal’s performance works. He is either struggling under the weight of his cosmic responsibility or betrayed by his own psyche. His underrated nuance fills in the rest.

91. Casey Affleck – Gone Baby Gone

Much like Ruffalo in Zodiac, Casey Affleck brings some sensitivity back to a character that has been rendered moot by over “hard-boiling” (see what I did there). I mean, he never runs from a fight and lays that Boston townie accent on pretty hard, but he speaks in direct statements that are clever in their simplicity. It is more about what he doesn’t say, than what he does, leaving Casey’s slight reactions to neighborhood hardship picking up the slack.

90. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Mysterious Skin

In one fell swoop, Joseph Gordon-Levitt dusts off his rep as sitcom son, Disney kid, and rom-com geek by playing a gay hustler. A victim of childhood abuse, he thinks he is upgrading from rural small-town closet cases who would kick his ass if there were actual witnesses to the open-minded big city only to fall victim to more abuse and consequences of selling his body.

89. Marcia Gay Harden – The Mist

A while back, in an article meant to acknowledge Oscar-worthy performances in genres that the Oscars tend to ignore, this performance from Marcia Gay Harden made it as horror’s best supporting actress. I referred to her as the perfect Southern-fried spinster who in another movie may reveal herself not to be the scary lady everyone thinks she is, but the events of the movie, a monster-filled mist that strands a number of people in a grocery store, turns her into the Bible-thumping plague. The more people she infects, the crazier and more disturbed she reveals herself to be.

88. Guy Pearce – Memento

The Nolan Brothers’ reverse tale puts us in the shoes of our hero, not knowing anything from the start of each scene. Guy Pearce handles this confusion pretty deftly. It isn’t with panic. He has nothing to panic about. It is with curiosity that he starts each scene. Between this and the semi-rehearsed nature of how he introduces everyone to his disability, it could just as easily be inherent to his lot in life as it is a placebo-like way of getting around his own trauma-induced psychological problems.

87. Michelle Williams – Brokeback Mountain

Michelle Williams took what easily could have been a thoughtless side-character swept up in the wake of Heath Ledger’s struggles with identity and made her a flesh and blood person. Not only did she symbolize everything Ledger had to lose, but she was a victim too. It is easy to want Ledger to just be the person that he is, but Williams is a person with her own wants and desires that he committed to and is now betraying by going outside the marriage. Taking a lover of the same sex isn’t a free pass to cheat. Someone is still getting hurt, and Williams reminds us of that.

86. Robert Downey Jr. – Zodiac

Although he barely shares the same screen time as his fellow protagonists: Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr.’s foppish journo spirals the most out of control. Maybe he is just a product of the drug-addled time, but his character is like the portrait of Dorian Grey for Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal’s characters. It is one of the first stops on the RDJ comeback tour. He really makes his mark.

85. Jamie Foxx – Jarhead

This is not the Jamie Foxx that we are used to seeing. Not the one from his old sitcom. Not the one from “In Living Color.” In the shadow of a very wacky persona, Jamie Foxx subverts his usually verbose comedic chops into an equally verbose sense of authority in Jarhead. It is the perfect stepping stone before his Oscar nominated role in Collateral and Oscar winning performance in Ray. 

84. Ryan Gosling – The Believers

In one of his earliest adult roles, Gosling plays a young Jewish man who becomes a skinhead. He spends most of his time in ideological debates scolding his skinhead brothers for not knowing more about Judaism (the enemy) or arguing with his fellow Jews about their disdain for the Nazi party. Seething with anger over his own self-hatred, he naturally runs from any identity that is forced on him.

83. Hugh Jackman – The Fountain

As awesome as he was as Wolverine (and he was much better than he needed to be), it is easy to forget Hugh Jackman actually has some chops. In The Fountain, he plays three different characters: a conquistador in the past, a doctor in the present, and a hippie space traveler in the future. The biggest thing they have in common is they are in love with women who are played by Rachel Weisz (who could blame them). Hugh plays out the anger and sadness that results from them trying to prove their love across cosmic circumstances.

82. Kate Hudson – Almost Famous

Hudson subverts everything about Penny Lane. She’s not a sex-obsessed groupie who loves rockstars, she’s a sex-positive band-aid whose heart belongs to the music and who has eyes only for one of the artists. Like Scarlet Johansson in Lost in Translation, she is a manic pixie dream girl, except when she isn’t. Except when she is using that free-loving, sage-wise  hippie girl persona as a mask to hide her self-doubt and anxiety.

81. Choi Min-sik – Oldboy

I often find foreign languages to be a burden on how to read a performance. I don’t know the sentence structure so i don’t know where the emphasis actually is. I don’t know the cultural norms that would give insight to that emphasis either. But none of that is a problem in Oldboy. I wouldn’t say it is a wordless movie, but so much is conveyed through Choi’s intense stare. We don’t read his mind. His mind dictates to us.