Coming up with a list that englobes the “best actors of all time” is no easy undertaking. It might be a highly subjective endeavour, in fact, seeing as everyone has their own tastes and requirements to be called the “best.”
That said, there have been some great actors that shine just a little bit brighter than your everyday Hollywood celebrity, and that’s a fact.
Knowing full well that this list is as subjective as they come, we’ve come up with a listing of the 20 actors who we believe are among the best artists to ever grace the silver screen.
A powerhouse of film artistry, Sean Penn is a versatile actor that will stay stamped in the history books for a long time.
This Los Angeles native had his breakthrough in Fast Times at Ridgemont High as a stoner kid. However, he didn’t seem like the sort to elevate his career to what it is today. His open-mindedness is undoubtedly what has given him the drive to succeed so thoroughly as an actor, playing roles that are vulnerable and unconventional from what was once a “bad boy” actor.
The 2000s were a profound time to see Penn on screen, giving us an emotionally gripping performance in 2003’s Mystic River, and playing the first openly gay man to be elected into political office in 2008’s Milk.
He’s an accomplished individual even outside of acting, but his accolades still stand tall with 2 Oscar wins and 5 nominations in his career. As one of the greatest actors of all time, Sean Penn has definitely earned his place on this list.
19. Tom Cruise
If there’s a face for the phrase “movie star”, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone other than Tom Cruise to take the crown. Without playing up his importance in interviews or press runs off-screen, Cruise is able to draw audiences into his roles simply thanks to his consistency.
Once people are aware of a new Tom Cruise flick in the works, everyone is sure that he has some mind-blowing scenes to display on-screen.
As a total and undiluted figure, he treads some paths few men would even dare to attempt in life-or-death scenarios. While it is flashy to highlight the stunts, Cruise has shown that he has the range to bring passion onto the screen as evidenced by his performance in films like Rain Man.
So far, he has shown no signs of slowing down, displaying a true love for the craft. Tom Cruise may lack any Oscar nods, but he doesn’t need them to show the biggest critics how it’s done.
18. Paul Newman
An icon in film history, Paul Newman is an unforgettable figure thanks to his illustrious career and passion for self-expression.
Whether it was his racing career, political activism or anti-hero roles in movies, we could always witness and appreciate his individuality on display. A highlight of his fame is also worth attributing to his ever-so-popular piercing blue eyes. With a no-nonsense attitude, he had fans swooning over him and the bad boy brand he exemplified.
In his film roles, Newman was an impressive figure to watch, showcasing his talent and artistry as a student of the Stanislavski method of acting. This brought a lot of realism into his roles, making his characters feel more impressionable with their natural mannerisms combined with his charismatic charm.
In his successful career, Newman earned 1 Oscar win along with 10 Nominations and multiple Golden Globes.
An actor with a cinematic legacy that has warmed the hearts of millions, Robin Williams is a massive influence on many millennials today, providing performances that have connected with the core of his audiences.
His Academy Award-winning role in Good Will Hunting is an example of what made this actor so special. Performing with a delivery that pierces the heart like a dagger, he’s one that is willing to show vulnerability in a way that encourages dialogue.
Films like Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam and The Fisher King are among some of the finest pieces of film a camera has ever reeled in.
While he’s gone now, his legacy stands tall. Williams earned 4 Oscar Nominations along with a well-deserved win for Good Will Hunting.
16. Robert De Niro
There’s no actor that manages to find a way to complement a good script the way De Niro can.
His filmography has been stellar right from the 1970s, showing viewers that an actor can be on top of their game for however long they choose. Although the modern trajectory of films hasn’t done any favours for his career, his amazing run during the peak of gangster movies and underdog vs. the world stories will never go unforgotten.
He’s given us a wide spectrum of performances including a funny and gripping presence in The King of Comedy. His dedication towards a role is uncontested, with films like Raging Bull displaying his willingness to make physical changes for a character. Even the fine details don’t go unnoticed with Robert DeNiro, taking even little things like mannerisms when holding ketchup into consideration.
Some of his best films include The Deer Hunter, American Hustle, Taxi Driver, Awakenings, Cape Fear, Goodfellas, The Godfather II, and Heat.
So far, he has earned 2 Academy Awards along with 8 nominations. Like other actors on this list, his total award and nomination count is impressively diverse and indicative of his talent.
An actor like Christian Bale seems like a dying breed in the current clime of filmmaking. As one of the few masters of the craft, it’s important to give him his flowers.
Bale has had an air of magnificence ever since his start as a child actor back in the 1980s. However, his true statements of permanence in film were present in his roles from the 2000s with a maniacal perfectionist in American Psycho, as well as his eerie uncertainty in The Machinist. He also went on to embrace commercial success with the philosophically gripping take on Batman in a magnificent trilogy.
In addition to these roles, Bale has also solidified his range by proving himself to be among the best method actors, doing what it takes to perform in multiple films such as American Hustle and Vice.
He has many accolades and awards including an Academy Awards win and 4 Nominations.
14. Dustin Hoffman
An actor that manages to sink so deeply into his roles, you forget the actor and remember the characters. Dustin Hoffman is a true artist with his convincing yet smooth embodiment of his characters.
His breakout role in The Graduate elevated him to new heights in his career, becoming a household name. This film was eventually inducted into the U.S. National Film Registry, a great honour for any actor to behold.
The Kramer vs. Kramer actor has produced some of the most iconic performances of the 80s and 90s such as his role in Rain Man where one might be mistaken to believe that the actor in the main role actually had the condition being portrayed.
Some of his best films include Midnight Cowboy, Tootsie, Hook, Marathon Man, and Runaway Jury.
A natural gift for central roles, Hoffman never really seems to find it hard to put a smile on the faces of an audience in his more comedic performances. Likewise, he embodies the tumultuous range of emotions felt in dramatic performances.
In his illustrious career, Hoffman has earned 2 Academy Awards along with 7 nominations and multiple accolades.
One of the most accomplished actors in Hollywood, Denzel Washington is the epitome of smoothness when it comes to delivery. With a dominant screen presence, he’s the one you’re always watching out for, even when he’s in a supporting role.
Over time, Denzel has gathered a nice list of classic roles that enrich his film catalogue in ways that are rare to see over the course of decades. Training Day, Malcolm X, The Hurricane, Equalizer, Macbeth… The list goes on with a definitive favourite from the New York actor.
His critical acclaim is well deserved with 2 Oscars earned and 10 nominations. Commercially, he’s also one of the most praised actors among fans across social media and film discussions.
There’s no doubt that Denzel Washington is one of the best actors of all time.
An actor that embodies America’s warmest virtues, Tom Hanks is a movie star that manages to avoid the braggadocios air of entitlement Hollywood stars seem to embrace.
His film performances have been nothing short of heartfelt, regardless of the genre. A testament to how an actor usually brings a little bit of themselves in a performance without deviating from a character’s core elements.
Pulling off the role of the main character in Saving Private Ryan, Philadelphia and Forrest Gump is something a casting team would probably need two very different actors to play, but Hanks has enough finesse and charisma to mould himself into a character.
Earning his place as one of the most phenomenal actors of his generation, Hanks is a two-time Oscar winner with no signs of slowing down in his performances. He recently tried out a more antagonistic supporting role in the Elvis biopic.
Perhaps the best example of a method actor, Daniel Day-Lewis is a name that is synonymous with passion in a film performance. Whether it is a biopic or a Scorsese gangster flick, this English actor has the tools in his arsenal to embody a character.
Day-Lewis’ career originally began with theatre, performing in multiple stage plays prior to his arrival in Hollywood.
Typically choosing roles based on passion and not commission, he doesn’t boast of an extensive list of projects compared to some other actors presented here, but he has a reputation for the fine details invested in every performance.
On one occasion, the actor contracted Pneumonia for refusing to wear a coat or receive medical treatment while filming Gangs of New York. He cited that this behaviour was accurate for the time period. Talk about dedication!
His accolades include 3 Academy Awards with 6 nominations, 4 BAFTA Awards, 6 nominations and a slew of other reputable awards across the industry.
10. Brad Pitt
Believe it or not, it’s actually easier to choose who’s going to take the first spot on this list than who’s going to be on the 10th spot. Brad Pitt might be one of the most recognizable actors of the 21st century, and his impressive filmography and charming good looks might be the main reason for his worldwide popularity.
More than just a renowned actor, Pitt was known as a pop culture icon during the peak of his popularity. His “Brangelina” days made him the de facto face of Hollywood stardom. Nowadays, he seems to be a bit more laidback with his acting, but that doesn’t mean that he’s stopped starring in great films, like Moneyball and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
It’s hard to deny that Brad Pitt is one of the best actors of all time.
Harrison Ford redefined what it meant to be cool back in the 80s, and he hasn’t stopped being cool ever since. Starring in legendary franchises like Indiana Jones and Star Wars, the image of Ford as a rogue who plays by his own rules is engraved in the minds of everyone who grew up during the 80s and 90s.
Besides his more mainstream roles, Ford has also starred in some great thrillers, like the 1993 classic The Fugitive. He also had the lead role in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and its sequel, Blade Runner 2049. With a fifth Indiana Jones movie coming to theatres soon, Ford simply shows no signs of ever slowing down.
8. Russell Crowe
Even though we don’t see Russell Crowe in mainstream films as frequently these days, it’s hard to understate how successful the Kiwi actor truly was. Perhaps the role that defines his career is that of Maximus Decimus Meridius in the 2000 historical drama, Gladiator.
Crowe’s acting in Gladiator is simply perfect – a fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognised with an Oscar in 2001. Recently, Crowe has been taking his career in a new direction, mostly playing the bad guy in some indie films.
7. Joaquin Phoenix
Few actors can play a broken man with the raw emotion that Joaquin Phoenix instils into every character he’s ever played. He shared the screen with Russell Crowe in Gladiator, playing the narcissist tyrant, Commodus.
Despite his long list of outstanding drama roles, the moment that truly made Phoenix’s career shine happened just a few years ago when he starred as the Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips’ Joker.
He might forever be remembered as a charismatic villain, but one of his best performances comes from a simple love story between a man and his cellphone in 2013’s Her.
Joaquin Phoenix is definitely recognised as one of the best actors of all time.
When it comes to working in the film industry, some actors have tried it all: from standing in front of the cameras to moving behind them and directing their own feature films. Clint Eastwood is a man who has done both – and also redefined the face of the American cowboy for generations to come.
Starring in such legendary western films as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and For a Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood has also directed some spectacularly touching drama films. 2004’s Million Dollar Baby might be his magnum opus, and even now, at 91 years old, Eastwood is still directing and starring in films like Cry Macho.
5. Morgan Freeman
There’s hardly anyone in the entertainment business with a voice as soothing as Morgan Freeman. Known primarily for his collaborations with Christopher Nolan, Freeman has become a drama icon thanks to his impressive skills and the sheer emotion he manages to communicate through his acting.
Some of his best films are Seven, the Nolan Batman trilogy, and the absolute classic that is The Shawshank Redemption. He also played everyone’s favourite version of God in the Bruce Almighty duology.
One of the most recognizable personalities in Hollywood, Jack Nicholson has some of cinema’s most iconic performances under his belt. It would be hard to pick a single role to call his best, but if we had to choose some of our favourite Nicholson movies, we’d probably pick One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Few Good Men, The Shining, and, of course, his version of the Joker in 1989’s Batman.
Here’s a fun fact: it’s well known that Stephen King wasn’t a huge fan of Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining, but did you know why? The reason is that King believed that the audience would immediately know that Nicholson’s character was going to go wild at some point in the film due to his already menacing looks.
3. Al Pacino
Al Pacino’s name became synonymous with some of Hollywood’s most popular crime films of all time. This is an actor that makes being bad look good – from The Godfather to Scarface, Pacino has proved his mettle as an amazing character actor time and time again.
Even if he has recently appeared in some… questionable roles (like his cameo in Jack and Jill,) the fact remains that Pacino’s career is one of the most prolific in cinema history. His starring role as Michael Corleone in The GodfatherPart II rivals in quality with the work of Marlon Brando – a feat that not many actors can presume of.
Starting in the movie business at a young age is rarely kind to child actors, but some of them, like Leonardo DiCaprio, end up reshaping the entire entertainment industry for the better. Not only is DiCaprio an incredible actor, but he’s also an immensely altruistic fellow, helping the environment and those in need with his philanthropic organizations.
In 2015, thanks to The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio finally managed what some thought was impossible: he finally won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, an accolade he had been pursuing for quite some time.
1. Marlon Brando
Considered by many to be one of the best actors of all time, Marlon Brando’s imposing presence commanded both respect and admiration from his peers, even in the later years of his career. His role as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather pretty much shaped the entirety of the Italian mob genre.
Besides The Godfather, Brando also starred in Apocalypse Now, comedies like The Teahouse of the August Moon, and as a true 50s rebel in The Wild One and A Streetcar Named Desire. Even at his worst, Brando still managed to be absolutely enjoyable, like he was in the fever dream that is The Island of Dr. Moreau.