The 2000s at the Oscars are filled with winning performances from biopics, and nowhere is that more true than in Best Actor. Throughout the decade, the Academy was clearly impressed with the level of commitment these winning actors had to disappearing into a role, whether based on real life or otherwise. But which Best Actor performance do you consider the best of the 2000s?
Russell Crowe started out the decade strong by winning for his very physical performance in Best Picture winner “Gladiator,” and came close to repeating the next year for “A Beautiful Mind” but lost to Denzel Washington with his commanding role in “Training Day.” Adrien Brody pulled off an upset in 2002 for playing Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman in “The Pianist,” while Sean Penn collected his first of two Oscars next, for “Mystic River.”
A string of performances from biopics followed, including Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in “Ray,” Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in “Capote” and Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” The next two years were actors winning their second Oscars, with Daniel Day-Lewis winning for his virtuoso performance in “There Will Be Blood” and Penn returning to win again in 2008 for playing Harvey Milk in “Milk.” The decade concluded with a richly overdue winner — Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart.”
So which Best Actor-winning performance of the 2000s do you consider best? Let’s look back on each and be sure to vote in our poll below.
Russell Crowe, “Gladiator” (2000) — Russell Crowe won his Oscar for playing Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius in “Gladiator,” one of the actor’s most profound performances. As a man meant to be the heir of the Emperor but forced to compete in the gladiator games, Crowe displays every emotion from rage to heartbreak, with his specific movie star charisma that makes him compulsively watchable. Crowe was nominated the previous year for “The Insider” and the following year for “A Beautiful Mind.”
Denzel Washington, “Training Day” (2001) — Denzel Washington pulled off an unthinkable upset when he won his Oscar for “Training Day,” considering Crowe swept Critics’ Choice, Golden Globes, SAG and BAFTA for “A Beautiful Mind.” But Washington absolutely dominates “Training Day” as rogue cop Alonzo Harris, oozing confidence and a ruthless desire to get what he wants. Washington won an Oscar for 1989’s “Glory” and was nominated five other times, including for “Cry Freedom” (1987), “Malcolm X” (1992), “The Hurricane” (1999), “Flight” (2012) and “Fences” (2016).
Adrien Brody, “The Pianist” (2002) — Adrien Brody’s win was the next big upset, losing all the precursors to either Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt” or Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York.” Brody’s performance as Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman trying to survive the devastation of World War II in “The Pianist” is so hauntingly powerful, though, that Academy members looked past the season’s narrative and awarded the actual best performance. This is Brody’s sole nomination and win at the Oscars.
Sean Penn, “Mystic River” (2003) — Sean Penn in “Mystic River” is a pure acting showcase, playing Jimmy Markum, a man whose daughter is murdered and his childhood friend is the prime suspect. Like the past three years, Penn’s victory was not guaranteed, only winning the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe. Before his Oscar-winning performances in “Mystic River” and “Milk,” Penn was nominated three times, for “Dead Man Walking” (1995), “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999) and “I Am Sam” (2001).
Jamie Foxx, “Ray” (2004) — Jamie Foxx began the trend of Best Actor performances completely sweeping the precursors. For his performance as blind musician Ray Charles in “Ray,” Foxx won the Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA and finally the Oscar, with the industry clearly impressed by his deeply committed portrayal in showing both the good and bad sides of the music legend. Foxx was nominated the same year in Best Supporting Actor for “Collateral.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote” (2005) — The late Philip Seymour Hoffman absolutely nailed his portrayal of author Truman Capote in “Capote,” virtually becoming the man himself. Hoffman perfectly matches Capote’s voice, mannerisms and overall essence in the film, so it’s no wonder he too swept award season. Hoffman would later be nominated three times in Best Supporting Actor, for “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), “Doubt” (2008)” and “The Master” (2012).
Forest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland” (2006) — Forest Whitaker was the next consensus pick among awards groups, for his disturbing, brutal portrayal of Uganda dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” Generally seen as a likable actor, this was a huge departure from his typical gentler roles, having to play an unpredictable tyrant with enough complexity that the audience understands his motivations. This is Whitaker’s only Oscar nomination and win.
Daniel Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood” (2007) — Daniel Day-Lewis was the final Best Actor winner to sweep award season this decade, playing an enterprising oil tycoon in “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis completely transforms himself, as he always does, in playing Daniel Plainview, a man consumed by greed and the possibility of the American dream, and verging on unbridled insanity in the process. Day-Lewis won an Oscar for “My Left Foot” (1989) and another for “Lincoln” (2012) and has been nominated two other times, for “In the Name of the Father” (1993) and “Gangs of New York” (2002).
Sean Penn, “Milk” (2008) — Sean Penn was the only two-time Best Actor winner of the decade, this time winning for playing gay rights activist Harvey Milk in “Milk.” The actor was in a tight race with Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” who won the Golden Globe and BAFTA. But Penn ended up on top, thanks to his immersive portrayal of an out gay man just trying to do what’s right and becoming a symbol of hope.
Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart” (2009) — Jeff Bridges was the last Best Actor winner of the decade, for his performance as country singer Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart.” Finally receiving his due after decades of greatness in film, it was appropriate that Bridges won for playing a grizzled old performer who finds new life again, and this helped kickstart a new era of success in his career. Bridges was previously nominated for “The Last Picture Show” (1971), “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), “Starman” (1984) and “The Contender” (2000), and later for “True Grit” (2010) and “Hell or High Water” (2016).
Be sure to check out how our experts rank Oscar contenders in this and the other top races. Use the drop-down menus at the top of each page to see the other categories. Then take a look at the most up-to-date odds before you make make your Oscar nomination predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.