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Best Actor Oscar-Winners Since 2000, Ranked Worst to Best

From French comics to Method-acting chameleons, our updated list on the gentleman who have taken home the 21st-century gold

On Sunday night, five men will square off at the Academy Awards for Best Actor – only one of them is walking away with the gold. This century has seen a wide variety of performers claim this particular prize, everyone from French comic actors to veteran American stars, newcomers to established Hollywood names resurrecting their careers. Some of those performances already seem guaranteed to stand the test of time. Others … well, nobody’s perfect, especially Oscar voters, who often pick their winners for reasons that are unfathomable to the rest of us.

So in honor of the 89th Academy Awards, we wanted to look back at the last 18 years of Best Actor champs, ranking them in order of greatness. A couple things we learned in the process, though: 1.) Playing a real person helps your chances of nabbing an Oscar (10 of the 16 winners fall into that category); and 2.) Your chances of winning go up immeasurably if you happen to be Sean Penn or Daniel Day-Lewis (they’ve both won two Oscars this century).  

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Adrien Brody, ‘The Pianist’

Before The Pianist, this New York actor was perhaps most famous for a movie he wasn't in, having been cut out of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. But after Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama, Adrien Brody was a star, becoming the youngest Best Actor winner ever at age 29. His career has never again featured such a terrific role, but his later career ups and downs only amplify how singular he is as Władysław Szpilman, a Polish Jew whose life as a venerated pianist is destroyed once the Nazis invade his homeland. Brody's performance is all haunted looks and pregnant pauses — like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, the principal job is to convey the quiet resilience required to stay alive in impossible circumstances. Brody's soulfulness permeates this often devastatingly bleak film, his character's simple need to survive transformed into an act of heroic defiance in the face of unimaginable atrocity.

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Russell Crowe, ‘Gladiator’

In other hands, Ridley Scott's neo-biblical epic would have just been another sturdy summer blockbuster. But Russell Crowe, who had earned kudos for previous dramatic roles in L.A. Confidential and The Insider, brought gravitas and heart to his role as an honorable Roman general who must defeat the bratty young emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) who banished him to a life in the cutthroat world of the kill-or-be-killed arena. The 21st century hasn't produced many soulful, brooding, broad-shouldered action heroes, nor has it yielded a lot of popcorn movies with the scope and heart of Hollywood's old-fashioned epics. Crowe and Gladiator are the exception, a rare example of a performer rising to the challenge of making a swords-and-sandals event movie that has emotional breadth. His Maximus brings down a corrupt leader — and in the process, the Aussie actor earned his place among a new generation of superstars.

Best Actor; Oscars; Academy Awards

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis accepts the Best Actor award for "Lincoln" from presenter Meryl Streep onstage during the Oscars held at the Dolby Theatre on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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Daniel Day-Lewis, ‘Lincoln’

Most know that Daniel Day-Lewis initially turned down Steven Spielberg's request that he play America's 16th president, sending the director a letter praising the brilliance of Lincoln's script but feeling that "I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice." Thankfully, the two-time Oscar-winner changed his mind. Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln's intelligence and stateliness, but the performance reveals more: how this shy, slightly silly, unbendingly resolute president wielded charm, intimidation, smarts and patriotism to bring an end to the Civil War while securing enough votes to pass the 13th Amendment. (His Oscar for the role made him the only man to ever win three Best Actor Academy Awards.) It took a foreign-born actor to reveal the best of the American character: our decency, our will, our humanity, our love of telling dopey jokes. Day-Lewis' initial reluctance to play the part demonstrates why he was uniquely destined to do it so well. And it wasn't even his best performance this century. 

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Philip Seymour Hoffman, ‘Capote’

The tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death in 2014 only makes this jewel of a performance more haunting. Playing Truman Capote, a snide, insecure, brilliant writer on the hunt for his masterpiece, Hoffman delivered a portrait of ambition and manipulation that never shortchanges the conflicting emotions underneath his character's ruthless drive. In Capote, the author travels to Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 to interview the townspeople living in a community where a gruesome murder has occurred, resulting in the deaths of four people. The actor plays the author as part journalist and part vampire, never letting us see fully the depths of this character's self-centeredness and callous prizing of a good story over good people's lives. But the sneaky power of Hoffman's portrayal is how we end up feeling sorry for this odd, smug monster anyway: It was this gifted, chameleonic, much-missed star's finest hour. 

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HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis accepts the Best Actor award for "Lincoln" from presenter Meryl Streep onstage during the Oscars held at the Dolby Theatre on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Kevin Winter/Getty


Daniel Day-Lewis, ‘There Will Be Blood’

To prepare to play Daniel Plainview, the towering, greedy misanthrope who strides the landscape like a lanky giant in There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis studied Dust Bowl-era audio recordings, as well as tapes of actor-director John Huston. From those sources and others, he crafted one of the signature depictions of American exceptionalism writ large. Very, very large, actually: Everything about Plainview is oversized, including his avarice, pettiness, competitiveness — and especially his ruthless certainty that, somehow, sucking up all the oil in the American West will fill the void in his soul. It's a performance that's both endearingly gonzo and also shockingly, unexpectedly tender. But above all it's so stunningly assured and complete that it's as if the actor and writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson are showing us something dark, rotten and true about capitalism itself. Oscar voters didn't so much award him Best Actor but, rather, acquiesce to his portrayal's indomitable, imposing magnificence.

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