The 20 Best Female Movie Performances of The 21st Century

14. Nicole Kidman in Birth (2004, Jonathan Glazer)

Birth (2004)

Nicole Kidman has a range of astounding roles under her belt but this is maybe her most underrated one. In “Birth” Nicole plays Anna a wealthy Manhattan woman that is engaged to be married to Joseph, ten years after her husband’s death.

At a party in her apartment a young boy shows up and claims that he is her dead husband Sean reincarnated. He is ten years old and is also named Sean. At first she dismisses his story and claims but after he continues to share her and Sean’s most private secrets that only the two of them could know she starts to wonder if that could really be her dead husband.

The director at first didn’t think Nicole was the best choice for the role because he thought her famous Hollywood persona could damage the film. When she insisted on meeting with him he realized that she could really do Anna justice. Nicole’s performance in this film is so nuanced and finely crafted.  There is one scene in an opera that is one of Kidman’s finest moments and one of the best close-up shots in cinema history.

After an encounter with the boy and the boy’s father she goes to the opera with her fiancée and takes a seat. Then the camera keeps getting closer and closer to her face until it covers the whole screen. You can see her mind unraveling, wondering what it could all mean. Does she still love Sean? Does she love her future husband enough? All the questions keep coming up in her head and her eyes show it masterfully.

Love is the main theme of this film, “eternal love” as the director puts it. Can love for a lost person be lost or can it appear again? Nicole’s character drifts in a state of confusion while she is bombarded by the memories of her time with her dead husband. Her performance is toned down and is focused more on subtle reactions than overdramatizing.


13. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)

best performances David Lynch movies

Naomi Watts’ breakthrough performance was in David Lynch’s beautiful, cinematic, dreamy neo-noir film set in Los Angeles. The film follows a young woman named Betty who comes to LA to be an actress. Her aunt lets her stay in her apartment while she goes out of town.

Inside the apartment she finds a woman who says her name is Rita and that she was in a car accident, lost all her memory and somehow managed to sneak inside. Betty then tries to help the woman find out who she is and where she comes from. Then begins a series of dreamlike events that make one of the best and memorable cinematic experiences.

Naomi in a way plays herself because before the film had been made she was a struggling actress in Hollywood just like her character. She is young, talented and ready to make her name be known in Hollywood.

That is just what Naomi managed to do. It is a strange, surreal experience watching her perform. She is so real and open and still remains so enigmatic. Something about the way she stares with her big eyes and the way she exudes confidence and determination.

As the world and the mood of the film switches from innocent to dark and twisted we see her character experience and do all sorts of dark and twisted things. She is beyond herself in all the right ways. She is absorbed by Hollywood the moment she walks into it and almost everything she once was became unknown to her just like in the case of Rita and a car crash on Mulholland Drive.


12. María Onetto in The Headless Woman (2008,  Lucrecia Martel)

The Headless Woman

One of the most subdued and interesting performances ever to be put on screen. In “The Headless Woman” María plays Verónica, a middle aged woman who while driving her car on a deserted road accidentally hits something.

At first she stops her car and is visibly shaken by it but she never looks back to see what she hit. That accident triggers a reaction inside Verónicas head and from that point onward she becomes consumed with her inner most thoughts.

Did she accidentally kill someone? María excellently portrays a woman in distress whose catatonic state threatens her relationship with everyone around her. Her performance is so realistic and interwoven that it becomes legendary. She literally becomes a headless woman, living her life like a robot without any real emotion other than confusion and discomfort.

All around she keeps on moving while she slowly disintegrates. María makes so many interesting and wonderful choices as an actress which give her character so much depth.

Lucrecia (the director) really made an incredible choice by casting her in the role of Verónica. Her face becomes the center-point of the film, and it allows the audience to interpret her emotions rather than feel them. It is like she is playing little games with the one who is watching. Onetto won an award from the Argentinian Film Critics Association for her role and was nominated for three other awards.


11. Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)

Lupita Nyong’o came to the world prominence with her first role as an actress for which she won over 20 awards. Although she was the supporting actress in this film she nevertheless proved her talent to be better than most leading actresses of the decade.

In “12 Years a Slave” Lupita plays Patsey, a young woman whose main character of the film Solomon meets when he is enslaved. Patsey was the “queen of the field” as Solomon described her in his book. She was the hardest worker on the plantation, including men. She was different from the others in the way she coped with the difficultly of her situation.

Lupita captures her youthfulness and heart precisely but maybe even better her struggle and pain which she endures when she becomes the easy target of malicious people. She is driven to the point of giving up on her life due to the extent of the punishments she would receive. Her words and her voice are so gut-wrenching, emotional and true that all the other characters in the movie become fading images. All her emotions are emotions of a caged bird and it takes its toll on her.

Lupita has that beautiful, radiant face whose frowns and tears make you feel that something so pure and honest should never be in the position of such monstrous misery.


10. Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche)

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, (aka BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR, aka LA VIE D'ADELE), Adele Exarchopoulos, 2013. ©Sundance Selects

If I could show you all the stages of love and youth on the big screen I would show you the face of Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue is the Warmest Color”. Abdellatif Kechiche did something quite unique in this film. He cast the young Adèle in this epic drama about love and heartbreak and I heard no one complain.

This is such a special film, not only because its subject is the love of two women but also because the way it was shot and acted. Two women who act in this film got one of the highest honors at the Cannes Film Festival.

Adèle and Lea Sèydoux won for the first time ever the Palme D’or for acting along with the film itself. The jury thought that the two of them were such an integral and inseparable part of the film that they had to award them with it. Adèle plays a young girl with the same name who studies literature. She wants to be a teacher and has a pretty normal highschool life. She has her friends, a guy who likes her and she sort of doesn’t know how she feels for him.

One day all that changes in a form of an older blue-haired girl she sees while crossing a street. Her life suddenly takes a total 360 turn and things start becoming clear that her life is not what she thought it was. Growing up, falling in love, maturing, experiencing sex for the first time with a woman, feeling jealous, feeling lonely, feeling happy, feeling sad, feeling all sorts of things is what this movie is about.

Feeling the life go through you, with you and without you. Discovering yourself, discovering your lover, discovering life. All of that shown on the face of Adèle Exarchopoulos. Never have such innocent moments of a young person’s life been showcased like this and it is an honor watching such true acting.


9. Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (2012, Michael Haneke)

Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

Emmanuelle Riva at 85 was the oldest ever Oscar nominee for Best Actress for her role in Michael Haneke’s heart stopping “Amour”. Her performance can be summed up in just a few words: brave, true, sad and brilliant.

In “Amour” Emmanuelle plays Anne, an old and retired music teacher who lives with her long time husband Georges. They lead a quiet elderly life in their apartment in Paris. One day, as they are talking at a table she suffers a stroke that leaves the whole right side of her body paralyzed. The rest of the film deals with them coping with her condition.

Emmanuelle played the part with all her body and soul. In some behind the scenes footage you can see Emmanuelle lying on the bed having a hard time while filming a scene. She calls it “traumatic”. She had to completely let go of any vain or self-centered thoughts about herself.

With her face and her body she had to represent the painful, ugly, sad and final days of a humans life. Her beauty faded away, her body no longer functions properly and all she and her husband are left with is their love for each other. Riva was Anne in every sense possible. You can see her becoming fragile and coming to terms with her condition.

Audience’s hearts can’t help but feel for her knowing what the final outcome will be. Knowing that death is certain and unavoidable puts human’s heart in sort of a trance like state. Gradually you are losing all that you ever fought for. This is a once in a lifetime performance that leaves a deep mark on all who watch it thanks to Emmanuelle Riva. She won a BAFTA and a César Award for Best Actress along with many others.


8. Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)

Black Swan (2010)

Natalie Portman’s finest work without a doubt. She prepared for a year learning how to dance like a ballerina. Those gracious, poised creatures that look like their moves are as easy as taking a breath. But a lot of hard work, sweat and tears go into each step they take and that is what this film and Natalie do so brilliantly.

Natalie plays Nina Sayers, a young ballerina in New York City. She lives with her mother (former ballerina who gave up her career to raise her daughter) who controls her every move.

Nina is a hard worker whose whole life has been devoted to ballet and nothing else. Soon she is cast in the new adaptation of “The Swan Lake” (a ballet by Tchaikovsky) as the lead. She has to portray two main characters, The White Swan (whose nature she exudes naturally) and The Black Swan (the evil twin who is impulsive and sensual) whose characteristics she doesn’t possess.

Throughout the movie you are witnessing this frail, delicate woman slowly descending into dark places trying to rediscover that repressed side of her and it only creates more misfortune. Natalie was a frail, confused woman and the audience is convinced that she is that person. She moves through the film with such intricacy since movement is so very important in a world of a ballerina.

From scared and tortured soul she becomes this imaginary mythological creature. Audiences can’t help but sympathize with her and all the baggage she carries every day. Even the way Natalie breathes in this film carries so much depth and dread. She won dozen awards for this role including a Best Actress Oscar, Golden Globe and a BAFTA.