The 20 Best Female Movie Performances of The 21st Century

7. Laura Dern in Inland Empire (2006, David Lynch)

Inland Empire David Lynch

Just like Charlotte and Lars, Laura Dern and David Lynch have this amazing chemistry and it simply works out each time they work together. Inland Empire is David’s last film to date and it is (in my opinion) one of his best. In this film,

Laura Dern plays an actress Nikki Grace who is planning a career comeback in a movie called “On High in Blue Tomorrows” which is remake of a film that was originally never finished because something went wrong during the shooting. That is somewhat of a plot description if you can call it that.

Laura gives the performance of a lifetime in this batshit crazy, wonderfully constructed film. She goes through an array of emotions, as the movie itself. She is its physical manifestation and she bends and cracks and dies and laughs and moans and groans and teleports and screams and all the things that you can only dream. She embodies all that a Lynch film would demand of her.

Most of the time she didn’t even know what the next scene would be so every time she’d get new text she would have to piece the character together. From all those fragments and ideas she creates a memorable character that leaves you wondering and leaves you breathless. Only a few actresses could pull this role off and fortunately only one does.


6. Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist (2009, Lars von Trier)


Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lars von Trier go really well together. She starred in his last three films which all deal with depression as a major theme but their first collaboration is considered their best (although Nymphomaniac comes quite close).

In Antichrist, Charlotte plays a grief stricken mother whose son fell off a window while she reached an orgasm with her husband in the next room. She is heartbroken and suffers greatly because she feels that she could have stopped it somehow.

Her husband (played by Willem Dafoe), a therapist decides to treat his wife by himself because he doesn’t feel that she is getting the right care at the hospital. They take a retreat into their cabin in the woods which becomes the epicenter of the whole gory story.

Charlotte gives a dreary, self-loathing, manic performance that makes you cringe, sick and gasp for breath. Her strange and unique face has all the ingredients of a wounded and troubled anti-heroine.

Here you have a woman who is so convinced she is responsible for her son’s death that she starts to believe that her true nature and the nature of all women is evil (representing Antichrist). Lars von Trier creates a film that seeps into a human soul through Charlotte and there couldn’t be no one better for the job. Gainsbourg won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.


5. Bjork in Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars von Trier)

Dancer In The Dark

Lars von Trier is a great filmmaker, and he is especially great at making films with complex female leads. Dancer in the Dark is one of those films and Bjork is surely one of those women. She has this enigmatic persona that you can observe for hours on end. She was originally only supposed to be in charge of the soundtrack for this musical drama but when Lars met her and spent some time with her he soon realized that no one could act as Bjork could.

It seems that Bjork didn’t really act in the traditional sense of the word but sort of felt the character of Selma and acted as Bjork in that position. Selma is a Czech immigrant, she lives with her young son in The United States, in a small trailer on a property owned by a police officer. She works in a factory with her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve).

She also suffers from a disorder which causes her to slowly become blind. She accepted her faith long time ago but works hard to collect the money so her son could get an operation because he will also go blind if he doesn’t. Her troubles only get worse when the money she collected disappears and she is forced to do unimaginable things to save her son’s life.

While all that is happening Selma keeps having visions that she is in a musical (which she loves as much as her son) and from time to time, while her world is slowly crumbling down she escapes reality by creating a whole new world for herself in which she is happy and carefree.

Combination of all those things make this film an incredible experience but none of those things would be any good if it weren’t for Bjork. She creates a character so unforgettable and dazzling that all you can do is sit and be moved by it. She won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000.


4. Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007, Olivier Dahan)

La Vie en Rose

Director Olivier Dahan said in an interview that he choose Marion Cotillard to play the role of the famous French singer Édith Piaf before he had even met her, stating that he cast her when he noticed a similarity between their eyes.

From that moment Marion became one of the best French actresses working today. I couldn’t imagine a better person to play the legendary Édith Piaf and she really did her justice. Marion was given the hard task to play the singer from a young age all the way to her old and dying self. She somehow managed to capture her bright and tempered spirit like it was her own.

It would burst out of her in all sorts of emotions and captured Édith as she was, a child in an old woman’s body. Her performance seems so natural to her, as if Édith was channeling her. Her eyes really are the star of the film and they grip you to your seat and demand your attention. She pulled off her well known hand and mouth movements to the core.

Marion was in her thirties but still played a convincing old woman whose life had passed long ago along with her looks. She won an Oscar and a César award for her portrayal and was the first actress (since Sophia Loren in 1961) to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a non-English language performance.


3. Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream (2000, Darren Aronofsky)


This is Ellen Burstyn’s most critically acclaimed role even though she never won any major awards for it. In “Requiem for a Dream” Ellen plays an older woman Sarah Goldfarb who lives alone in her New York apartment. She is obsessed with watching infomercials and tv-shows.

One day she gets a phone call and is told that she won a chance to appear on a game show that she loves which sparks a downward spiral into a world of drug addiction and nightmarish consequences.

Ellen Burstyn really outdid herself in this movie. As an actress she descends into madness with such unexplainable courage that your stomach keeps turning hours after the film finishes.

Out of four main characters that are in the film, hers is maybe the hardest one to watch because she makes it seem so believable and horrifying at the same time. You are watching a woman whose mind becomes so damaged to the point that she can’t comprehend what are hallucinations and what is reality.

Ellen made the character into an experience, into a dreadful emotion that stays with you. Her fearlessness and acting instinct are always on point. She became this character 100% and that is what makes it great and unique. After many years in the business she proved that she still has it. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.


2. Charlize Theron in Monster (2003, Patty Jenkins)


Charlize Theron made a real career turn with this real-life inspired drama about a female serial killer Aileen Wuornos who was executed in 2002 for killing seven men. “What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins’ “Monster” isn’t a performance but an embodiment.” said the famous film critic Roger Ebert in his review of the film and named her performance as “one of the best in cinema history”.

She received over a dozen awards including an Oscar, Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for this incredible portrayal of a deranged woman who lived her whole life in misery. She began doing sexual favors when she was 11 years old, got molested by her grandfather and got pregnant at 14 by her grandfather’s friend who raped her.

To say that Theron had a hard task ahead of her is an understatement. She gained 30 pounds, plucked out all of her eyebrows for the role but all that came second place when she would give the camera that frightening stare.

The way she talks and twitches like Aileen sometimes makes you question if you are looking at a documentary. She is sick, scary, sad and psychotic. She shows her not as a cold, blood hungry woman but makes her a more complex character and in that showing her acting potential.

Nobody really expected that out of her and the performance really pulls the rug out under you. All of her hardships and inner most thoughts can be seen on her face and she creates this demonic figure that is actually a frightened little girl which acts the only way she was ever taught to act, in a destructive way.


1. Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher (2001, Michael Haneke)


An actress like no other. Isabelle Huppert made so many remarkable acting choices throughout her career but none shined as bright as her role in Haneke’s sad psycho-pathological masterpiece “The Piano Teacher”.

Isabelle plays Erika Kohut, a tough, lonely and sexually repressed piano teacher who works at a Vienna music conservatory. She is in her forties and lives alone with her overly-controlling mother while secretly performing bizarre and masochistic sexual acts. She meets a young student named Walter Klemmer who instantly becomes enchanted with her enigmatic persona.

Without much thought, he decides to pursue her and uncover what lies beneath that frigid surface. That becomes the turning point in both of their lives. Huppert is known for choosing tough roles. Her characters are always a little held back and she never overacts. It seems to me that she was born to play this role.

As you see her you can’t help but be intrigued by the face that shows you so much by doing so little. It exudes some sort of discomfort she has with this world in which she feels like the ultimate outsider no matter how hard she tries to pick herself up.

Sometimes you can see her skin change colors from burning red to purple. It’s as if she’s trying to hide her secrets and misery so hard and deep within herself that her skin starts to break out in patterns.

There is nothing Isabelle does in this film that is traditional when it comes to acting. She created a mesmerizing character that shows how acting really should be done. This performance earned her a Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001.

Author Bio: Gojko Dimić studies media and journalism in Novi Sad, Serbia. He is obsessed with watching films and he hopes to become a director one day in the future. His main influences are Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, David Lynch and Terrence Malick.