The decade is young and there’s still a lot to come, but let’s get the process started on this ranking anyway. I’ll keep adding winners as they are announced and we’ll see how this list plays out by the end of the decade. If you want more in the meantime, feel free to browse other decades.
Just a quick note on process: I will comment on whether or not an actor deserved their win but whether or not they were worthy of Oscar cannot in and of itself impact their place in the ranking. Also, these lists are fluid for me. I reserve the right to revisit and rethink them over time and make changes. The Academy is stuck with its choices but I am under no such obligation.
2. Will Smith, King Richard (2021)
I feel like it’s necessary to say that Will Smith’s position in this ranking has nothing to do with his behavior at the Academy Awards ceremony where he won his statue. I don’t even want to go into that here. I will say that my ranking of the Best Actor contenders for this year would have been different from the Academy’s. Truth be told, Will Smith would have been running in fourth place on my ballot. He’s very good as Richard Williams, the pushy and uncompromising father of Venus and Serena Williams. But to me, his performance is almost all surface level. He does a great impression of Williams. He does a great job conveying the anger and the desperation. But he doesn’t dive very deep inside–at least not as deeply as his competitors. It’s similar to my complaint about Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Should have won in 2021: When I have a hard time selecting between two performances, as I do with Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Garfield, I try to think about whether or not you could swap in another actor. If I try that here, I think The Power of the Dog does okay without Cumberbatch but tick, tick… BOOM! completely flounders without Garfield holding it all together. So my answer is Andrew Garfield for tick, tick… BOOM!
1. Anthony Hopkins, The Father (2020)
The biggest shock of the Oscar races for 2020 was that Best Actor seemed like a lock for Chadwick Boseman, who was set to be the first posthumous acting winner since Heath Ledger thanks to his stellar turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (a performance all the more remarkable knowing that Boseman was dying of cancer at the time it was filmed). Instead, after a wildly successful run through the precursors, Boseman lost to Hopkins at the BAFTAs–in hindsight, perhaps the first omen that voters were tired of the (seeming) inevitability of the Best Actor race. Whatever the cause, the result was totally unexpected. So unexpected that the producers of that year’s show announced Best Actor last, likely gambling that Boseman’s posthumous win would be an emotional high to end on. Instead, the show ended utterly without ceremony (due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Anthony Hopkins was safely sequestered in his home in Wales and unable to attend the ceremony).
At the end of the day, though, a truly spectacular performance won. It’s easy to take a legendary actor like Anthony Hopkins for granted but The Father is some of his best work. As a man losing himself to dementia, Hopkins expertly fluctuates between assurance and confusion, cruelty and playfulness–often in the very same scene. His character is the point the entire movie pivots around, which made it all the more crucial that he never miss a beat. Hopkins expertly sells the complexities of his character without a single misstep. It’s a showcase for a master at work.
Should have won in 2020: While it’s sad that there won’t be another chance to reward Chadwick Boseman, I think in the end the Academy got it right with Hopkins.
Other Rankings for the 2020s
Best Supporting Actor • Best Supporting Actress