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There are few better ways to court the internet’s ire than to publish a list ranking the 25 greatest actors of the 21st century that does not include the words “Meryl” or “Streep.”
But Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, The Times’s co-chief film critics who over the past six months compiled the nearly 12,000-word list of standout performers, have no regrets. “Just because you haven’t seen a film or aren’t familiar with an actor doesn’t mean they aren’t great,” Ms. Dargis said. “I hope people use this list as an opportunity to expand their horizons.”
She and Mr. Scott embarked on the list — an effort to not just identify, but also rank, the best actors of the past two decades — in May at the urging of Stephanie Goodman, The Times’s film editor. The list they did three years ago of the 25 greatest films of the century was extremely popular and spawned lots of spinoff lists, Ms. Goodman said. “So I figured it’d be fun to do something like that again.”
Late last month, after the list published online, Ms. Dargis and Mr. Scott discussed notable disagreements, that Meryl Streep exclusion and the importance of representing performances from around the globe.
What has reader reaction been like so far?
A.O. SCOTT I’ve been surprised by the intensity of the Meryl Streep loyalty. I thought people might be upset about Tom Hanks, but we haven’t heard a word about him. The male actor people are most upset that we left off is Leonardo DiCaprio.
MANOHLA DARGIS We’ve gotten some really nasty comments about the decision to include Melissa McCarthy, which I think comes not only from who she is, but also from a prejudice of viewing comedy as lesser than drama.
For the record, why is Streep not on this list?
DARGIS I’m not going to say anything bad about Meryl Streep — we love her! Maybe if we’d had 26 slots, she’d be on it.
SCOTT Meryl Streep has given some very fine performances in the past 20 years, but she’s also given some not very good ones that are showy and overdone. I’m thinking of her portrayal of Violet Weston in “August: Osage County” or even as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” which she won an Oscar for in 2012. Those didn’t knock her out of contention, but they show she has more of a mixed record than her fans might acknowledge.
This list is nearly 12,000 words long. When did you start working on it?
SCOTT We started brainstorming in May. We were originally going to do the 25 best performances of the century, but that was just too titanic — conservatively, there have probably been between 15,000 and 20,000 movies released in the past 20 years — so we instead chose to focus on people’s bodies of work. Our initial lists had hundreds of names — we wanted to make sure we didn’t overlook anyone — and then we each made a list of 25 names and switched to see where we overlapped.
DARGIS We would get on the phone and go through the list, sometimes talking for hours at a time, weighing each actor one by one.
Were there any fisticuffs?
SCOTT One of my first lists had Will Ferrell, and I got a one-word response from Manohla: “No.”
DARGIS It wasn’t quite “Over my dead body,” but I was emphatic that it wasn’t going to happen.
SCOTT The hardest one for me to give up was this Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov — he stayed in there until the very end, but there just wasn’t room.
DARGIS I had a few square-jawed men like Viggo Mortensen, but I just had the feeling I was going to have to let them go. Maybe we should have done 50, but I don’t know that anyone wanted to read 25,000 words from us.
Anyone you didn’t debate?
DARGIS Denzel Washington was always No. 1 on both of our lists. [Ms. Goodman didn’t tell his representative before he was asked to talk about Viola Davis.] We didn’t want it to seem like there was a quid pro quo.
SCOTT Keanu Reeves has been a controversial pick, but he was on the list from the beginning. Then we decided we were going to make a statement by putting him up there on the list [at No. 4]. The John Wick movies aren’t masterpieces of cinema, but the way Reeves embodies this slightly ridiculous action hero in those movies is just beautiful to watch.
DARGIS And Rob Morgan. He just makes us happy every time he shows up in a movie.
What do you hope people take away from the list?
SCOTT Just because you haven’t seen a film doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of inclusion. We didn’t just want this to be famous movie stars. There are lots of wonderful character actors who are consistently outstanding in smaller roles.
DARGIS Some people have said, ‘I don’t recognize any of these people” or “These are all foreign people.” Well, they aren’t foreign in their country! Expand your horizons and get beyond Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker.”
Any final thoughts?
DARGIS People keep yelling at us about how many Oscar nominations Streep has, as if that’s a metric Tony and I ever paid attention to. This is not a list of people who have been nominated for Oscars; this is our list of people we really, really respect and love. But we will be doing a 25,000-word ode to Meryl Streep at the end of the year, just so everyone knows.