This is a list of best actors working today based on how likely it is today that if you cast them in your movie, that film will succeed commercially and/or in terms of critical/awards recognition with weight given to the last three or four years or so.
Also, worth noting, I'll reference Oscar nominationss and BP appearances but I pay attention to other stuff like BAFTA, GGs, how often it appears on critics' top ten lists, comments on IMDB message boards, but Oscars are slightly easier to cite and to remember.
This power ranking was written at the end of 2015, so view it as a snapshot of December 31, 2015. The last edition (published December 2012) was here:
Chime in and tell me who you think should move in or out, up and down
1. Matt Damon-I'm thinking back to 2006 when Scorsese cast both DiCaprio and Damon as leads in the Departed and Ed Zwick and Robert De Niro reportedly agreed to basically work around Departed's schedule for their prestige films (Blood Diamond which succeeded and Good Shepard which er.. had noble intentions). Since then, they've been pretty much the go-to guys for any prestige project wracking up Oscar buzz wherever they go, picking among the most innovative projects, killing it on the acting side, and generating good will as Hollywood ambassadors. I give the edge to Damon because he has better commercial appeal (The Bourne series, The Martian). I don't think Damon would invest himself in a prestige film without commercial legs like DiCaprio
did with J. Edgar and I don't think DiCaprio would be willing to play action or humor.
2. Leonardo DiCaprio-At this point, the current generation of young adults has grown up with Leonardo DiCaprio as the very capable star of all of their favorite films. His status is summed up pretty well by Sasha Stone at Awards Daily makes a convincing case that pretty much the only thing teenagers know about the Oscars is that DiCaprio doesn't have one.
"I suspect one of the biggest draws, in addition to Creed and The Martian, to encourage the younger generations to give a damn about the Oscars will be the question of whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio can pull off a victory, since his lack of an Oscar win has become practically a cultural cause célèbre."
3. Christian Bale-One of those actors for whom the talk of his talent is mythical enough that you've (or at least I have) heard the "best of his generation" appraisals of his in the years leading up to his breakout roles. The centerpiece of the most successful tent pole trilogy with Dark Knight, he can carry an action franchise and although he failed to do the Terminator series justice in 2009's Terminator Salvation, it says a lot that he was cast as the guy to resurrect another franchise. Critically, he's a staple of David O Russell's high-flying Oscar streak in the 2010s and he's back in the Oscar conversation this year with a third nomination and a 3rd BP film in Big Short. Also working with Terrence Malick.
4. Benedict Cumberbatch-Extremely talented and versatile guy who just won an Emmy in TV and has been in Oscar BP films in the past couple years (he's been in 4 BP noms total if you count War Horse and Atonement) along with an action role in Star Trek II. Of all the up-and-comers, I think he is posed for longevity
5.Bradley Cooper-His Inside the Actor's Studio pedigree and his friendly intensity off-screen does wonders in making him a likeable box office draw (IMO). He was in 3 BP nominees in the past few years and had tentpole/comic potential in the Hangover series. It helps a lot that he didn't do his last BP nominee with Eastwood which shows he can succeed outside of the David O Russell factory. Pretty untarnished by Aloha and Burnt was a fun lightweight change of pace for him.
6. Michael Fassbender-X-Men and Prometheus are fine enough tent pole credentials and he's pretty much all over the map in high-end directors-David Cronenberg, Steve McQueen, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle,etc. and with the exception of Prometheus, Shame, A Dangerous Method, 12 Years a Slave and Steve Jobs have all been critical darlings. As evidence of his pedigree, consider how Jobs was not treated as a must-watch film with Ashton Kutcher in the lead
7. Brad Pitt-Clooney and Pitt are arguably more poster boys of the ideal Hollywood actor in the 2000's than the best and most productive actors and I think there’s a division. If not, Elvis Prestley and Frank Sinatra would have been the best actors of the 50’s. The thing is unlike Clooney, Pitt still has the potential to do his best acting in future films. He really broke out as a top tier actor in 2011 by turning in two of the best performances of anyone that year in Oscar BP nominees (Tree of Life & Proof of Life). With appearances in two other BP nominees in the last three years, he’s still relevant.
8. Joaquin Phoenix-He doesn’t get that “best actor of his generation” buzz that DiCaprio or Bale get, but can I make the argument that he should? Pretty much every film he touches puts it in the Oscar race every year-Her got nominated and Master and Inherent Vice were pretty darn close. This year, he did a Woody Allen which rarely generates buzz outside of the Woody Allen fanbase and generally lives or dies on the strength of its writing (I don’t think Charlize Theron killed Curse of Jaded Scorpion’s chances).
9. Denzel Washington-The #Oscarssowhite movement could benefit him in the future as people will have to put their money where their mouth is and treat his next films like gold. Since the early 90’s, he’s been one of Hollywood’s most dependable brands and in that sense he’s pretty much timeless. Filming a Magnificent Seven remake now that I have no doubt his name on the marquis will help.
10. Will Smith-From about 1996 to say 2009, Smith was pretty much the most dependable box office draw Hollywood had (Men in Black III was riding on past glory), and while he’s out of it, there’s little
evidence he couldn’t return and Concussion gave him a decent shot at a third Oscar nom which isn’t shabby.
11.Johnny Depp-I would have ranked him in the top 5 about five or six years ago. He is still loved as the epitome of a talented actor making daring choices. Even though Alice in Wonderland and Lone Ranger are highly commercial, he miraculously holds onto a reputation as an artist’s artist. Fewer of them have panned out in the past year but his brand is strong with Jack Sparrow and Alice in Wonderland (both of which sequels have already been planned out).
12. George Clooney-He hasn’t had a noteworthy performance since 2011 and I imagine that’s starting to count for something. The Monuments Men and Tomorrowland were both highly forgettable and his role in Gravity wasn’t as essential as advertised. The fact that Hail Cesar is coming out in February indicates that this is more Ladykillers than No Country for Old Men. Then again, he’s on the front pages of tabloids and is constantly name checked as Mr. Hollywood, so that capital still goes a long way, but to some degree it’s worth mentioning that he’s more the posterboy for Hollywood than the most successful actor working today.
13. Matthew McConaughey-Hollywood isn’t as now-obsessed as one would imagine. The McConassaince was more of a 2012-2013 thing, effectively ended by Insterstellar, but the world is still this guy’s oyster. He’s already had the likeable quality that still can drive a romcom but he’s added the bearings of a prestige actor to his resume and at times he’s been the top choice for a prestige part like Interstellar. Plus True Detective.
14. Ryan Gosling-Mr. Handsome has not been particularly steady but he’s liable to pop up in any given year and kill it whether 2007 (Lars and the Real Girl), 2011 (Drive, Crazy Stupid Love) or 2015 (The Big Short).
15. Hugh Jackman-Like Bradley Cooper and McConaughey, Jackman has cultivated a persona offscreen as likeable and there’s a school of thought that it helps his brand immensely. He’s extremely versatile
in genres – musicals, historical epics, comedies, superhero flicks- and his Oscar nomination three years ago gives him that prestige.
16. Ralph Fiennes-Primarily known as the classy British guy of refined heritage you plug into period pieces -- The White Countess, Quiz Show, End of the Affair, Avenger -- he's shown a lot of range as a villain with Red Dragon and the Harry Potter films and last year, broke out as a comic star. He can definitely bend quite a bit if Hollywood. He's actually been in 6 best picture nominees-Quiz Show, Schindler's List, English Patient, Reader, Hurt Locker, and GBH, so he knows how to pick them too.
17. Tom Hardy- There's a bunch of young guys who have broken out recently -- Joseph GL, Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Henry Cavill -- but Hardy's had somewhat of a cult following since Bronson and Layer Cake and many of his film choices are credible indie darlings (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was he first English language film of Tomas Alfredson, Warrior was also a pretty low budget thing) and he can step over to a big tentpole film like Mad Max and Inception. Was in 2 BP nominees this year.
18. Michael Keaton-Like McConaughey a couple years ago, Keaton is at a place where he's pretty hot and can pretty much do anything. He followed up Birdman with a film that has a good chance at winning the Best Picture Oscar again. Personally, I've never seen him as a great actor, but it's not about me but an objective ranking.
19. Sean Penn-Like Bale, he gets the "best of his generation" tag a bit, and he is that good. He was definitely top 5 material in the 2000's, but he hasn't been particularly active lately. I also feel a possibility that he might be heading the path of Mel Gibson and becoming so unlikeable as a public persona that it might affect his box office (the El Chapo interview didn't look good for him)
20. Robert Downey Jr.-He has the tentpole credentials of Iron Man (the centerpiece of the megasuccessful Avengers) and Sherlock Holmes and brings his own brand of cool to the former and a refusal to see the part as lowly genre fare to the latter (for which he got a Golden Globe). He is an exceptional actor and can make a smart character emotionally affecting BUT he did some damage to his reputation with The Judge. It's not just that the film bombed but it showed Downey Jr going back to the same character tics of his more acclaimed roles and suggested he might not have that many tricks left in the bag.
21. Ben Affleck-He has a highly complicated relationship with the public and has undergone two of the most bizarre cases of celebrity worship gone wrong (with Gigli and his casting as Batman) but he is a Hollywood pro who is extremely intelligent about his career and his future, and deep Hollywood knows it (case in point: the public outpouring of love for his Argo win was a de facto "we're sorry we were so *beep* to you ten years ago" apology). Although he has a BAFTA nom (for Argo), he's not Sean Penn-level good but he's a capable leading man, and has enough clout as a producer/director/man about town to find films that cater to his strengths as an actor (Hollywoodland and Gone Girl were perfect matches of it).
22. Will Ferrell-The most reliable comic actor in Hollywood. He wasn't in Adam McKay's last film but he's a frequent collaborator so if McKay's getting a boost so should he. Neither Get Hard not Daddy's Home was a stroke of genius but he's creative enough in defining characters that there's little reason to count his ability to bring an iconic Ron Burgundy-like character in his next outing.
23. Tom Hanks-Like Denzel Washington, he's simply timeless. He will definitely get anyone the attention of someone who's maybe 35 or older with every project he does. He's not Mr. Now, but strangely enough he's been in 4 best picture nominee in the last six years: Toy Story 3, EL & IC, Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies.
Loses points because Da Vinci Code never really caught on and Hanks really could have had the power to make that film an event picture if he played the part like Indiana Jones.
24. Mark Ruffalo-He's on his third Oscar nomination since 2010 and has been in such critically acclaimed works as Kids are Allright, Foxcatcher, Spotlight, while doing indie fare such as Infinitely Polar Bear and Begin Again, AND playing a big role in the Marvel Universe. He even improved on past performances of The Hulk.
25. Channing Tatum- Built like an action herobut plays that tortured youth persona that I equate with James Dean or Montgomery Clift. He has talent and if he doesn’t have the requisite talent,
it’s clear he chooses his parts with great ambition.
26. Steve Carell-He's a guy who can play comedy and lead a film and is getting some dramatic acclaim. Ironic as it is, but I think Date Night was the best example I've seen of him carrying a movie as the straight guy like Paul Rudd or Jason Bateman does and that is a big skill.
27. Chris Pratt-The man of the moment for headlining the two biggest hits of the past two summers. I love this guy but there I have to question how much range he has outside of bringing a different
sort of energy to an action film.
28. Seth Rogen-One of the most bankable funnymen and his ability to co-direct lets him control his own image more. His serious role in Steve Jobs wasn’t full fledged Jerry Lewis playing a sad clown in terms of comic going full dramatic, but it showed that like Louis CK and Zach Galifiranakis, he can be dropped into a prestige drama without inducing a humongous laughing fit from the audience
29. Liam Neeson-Whether Neeson is one of the most successful actors today depends on whether you think there's merit in taking on three to four movies a year indiscriminately. Personally, I think being a workaholic is benefitting him as it's getting his name out there more and odds are sooner or later, he's going to walk into a great film or a great role. Besides, no one is alleging he's making these movies worse through his presence. He has always been an extremely gifted actor. As he's stated in interviews, the reasons that he's taking on more roles are because it helps him stay busy in the wake of his wife's death so who is going to fault him for that.
30. Daniel Craig-If outacting every James Bond that came before him wasn't enough, he's already had roles that showed off great acting chops (Infamous, Munich, even Road to Perdition) and is positioned to take on more high-caliber roles with Bond behind him.