The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far)
by A. O. Scott
We are in a golden age of acting — make that platinum — as we realized when we decided to select our favorite film performers of the past 20 years. There’s no formula for choosing the best (just squabbling), and this list is both necessarily subjective and possibly scandalous in its omissions. Some of these performers are new to the scene; others have been around for decades. In making our choices, we have focused on this century and looked beyond Hollywood. And while there are certainly stars in the mix and even a smattering of Oscar winners, there are also character actors and chameleons, action heroes and art-house darlings. They’re 25 reasons we still love movies, maybe more than ever.
#4 - Keanu Reeves
Maybe you’re surprised to find Keanu Reeves so high on this list. But ask yourself: have you ever been disappointed when he showed up in a movie? Can you name one film that has not been improved by his presence? We’re talking about Ted Logan here. About Neo. John Wick. Diane Keaton’s also-ran love interest in “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003). Ali Wong’s also-ran love interest — a guy named Keanu Reeves! — in “Always Be My Maybe” (2019). Surely there is not another movie star who exhibits so much range while remaining so irreducibly and inscrutably himself.
Can you name one film that has not been improved by his presence?
But he has been curiously easy to underestimate. Like so much else in the ’90s, the appreciation of Keanu Reeves in the first phases of his career was hedged with irony. It was too easy to make fun of the blank, earnest confusion that defined his characters in “Point Break,” “The Devil’s Advocate” and the “Matrix” movies, to project their blankness onto him, to suppose that his still waters ran shallow.
He was always in on the joke, though. And never entirely joking. In middle age, he has risen to a new level of achievement, a zone where artlessness and self-consciousness converge. He’s one of our most credible action heroes, and also one of our most resourceful and inventive character actors. He has weathered beautifully, becoming at once sadder and more playful without losing the otherworldly innocence that was there from the start.
Is the melancholy, uxorious, dog-loving assassin in the “John Wick” movies a genre put-on, a paycheck gig, a midlife action workout? Probably. Of course. With (let’s say) Gerard Butler in the title role they would be slick, nasty throwaways. What Reeves does is give the franchise more gravity than it deserves, more humor than it needs, and the soul that it otherwise comprehensively lacks.
One of the delights of movie-watching in the past decade has been encountering him in unexpected guises. As some kind of post-apocalyptic cult leader known as the Dream in “The Bad Batch,” Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2017 crusty dystopian fantasia. As the chalk to Winona Ryder’s cheese in Victor Levin’s abrasive anti-rom-com “Destination Wedding” (2018). As the voice of a cat named Keanu in “Keanu” (2016).
There is more to the man than the sum of these parts, which are puzzles and koans, chapters in a perpetually updated manual in meta-modern movie stardom as a way of being. He’s not a perfectionist. He’s perfection itself. We were told a long time ago, and now maybe we can finally believe it: he’s the One.