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The 15 Best Actresses of Our Generation

04 May 2016 | Features, People Lists | by Caio Coletti

kate winslet

This is a common topic of discussion among cinephiles: who are the greatest thespians working right now? A comprehensive list of such actresses would have to include living legends like Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and so on, of course, and while there should be recognition and appreciation of the talent of such brilliant professionals, how could one narrow it down to the actresses who truly represent a current generation?

Let’s say we’re only talking about actresses under 50 years old, and actresses whose period of success started after the turn of the century, or shortly before.

That’s how this list was structured, and it’s also limited, as said in the beginning, to actresses working right now – so, unfortunately, you’ll not find some sadly departed talents here either. There’s also bound to be some actors that some readers might think should be here instead of the ones we chose, but that’s nothing if not a statement on how diverse and interesting the filmmaking community is right now around the world.

Some readers have called for an honorable mentions section, so here are some of the actresses who fit the criteria, have obvious and amazing talent, but did not make our list: Emily Blunt, Keira Knightley, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Connelly, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Greta Gerwig, Anne Hathaway, Alicia Vikander, Brie Larson, Rosamund Pike, Felicity Jones, etc. Talent and acting is subjective, and we chose the ones on this list over them, but maybe you wouldn’t.

 

15. Lupita Nyong’o (b. March 1, 1983)

Standout performance: 12 Years a Slave

Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong’o is not the youngest on our list, but she’s probably the one with the shortest filmography. That’s mainly because her big break came only in 2013, with her debut feature length performance in Steve McQueen’s acclaimed 12 Years a Slave.

Nyong’o would go on to win the Oscar for her spectacularly sensitive and profoundly physical performance as brutalized slave Patsey, beating a strong competition that included Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, June Squibb and Sally Hawkins.

It is indeed an impressive debut, and even though we still find ourselves hungry for meatier Lupita Nyong’o performances, she was outstanding in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though hidden behind motion-capture technology to play the diminutive (but wise) Maz Kanata – like Lupita herself, the character left the viewer wanting more.

Prior to 12 Years a Slave, Lupita starred in the award-winning MTV Africa series Shuga as a young Kenyan girl developing a passion for an older man. She’ll be in Mira Nair’s highly anticipated Queen of Katwe this year, so wait for bigger things from this fresh and impressive talent.

 

14. Scarlett Johansson (b. November 22, 1984)

Standout performance: Under the Skin

Under The Skin (2014)

This New York-city born beauty has been a big star since the tender age of 14, when she scored a critically acclaimed performance in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer. 2003 was the year she became a true household name (and kind of an indie darling), though, starring in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Peter Webber’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Both parts got her Golden Globe nomination, sealing the beginning of a truly impressive career, including of course becoming the latest Woody Allen muse in Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).

Versatile, Johansson brought her very precise and focused style to costume dramas like The Other Boleyn’s Girl, contemporary fables like The Nanny Diaries, and even standard Hollywood fare like Michael Bay’s The Island (still the questionable director’s least dreadful film) and the Marvel movies, bringing a little girl power and nuance to a world of costumed macho superheroes.

Johansson’s second act was even more impressive, though, as she fashioned herself into a sci-fi muse, delivering terrific performances in Under the Skin, still her finest, most complex work; Her, playing the voice of operational system Samantha; and Luc Besson’s Lucy, a lunatic sci-fi pastiche held together by a surprisingly affecting performance by Johansson.

 

13. Rooney Mara (b. April 17, 1985)

Standout performance: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Though her older sister, Kate Mara, is quite a talent herself, the few years we have with Rooney as one of the top actresses in Hollywood only show how much potential and emotion she can tap into. She’s been around since 2009, when she played a part in the underseen comedy The Winning Season, but her big break came through the work with director David Fincher.

The Se7en and Fight Club filmmaker cast her as Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in a few scenes of The Social Network, and there was clearly something special there, so he gave her the role of her lifetime next: Lisbeth Sandler, the clearly disturbed hacker and detective at the center of Stieg Larrson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Getting the first of her Oscar nods for her outstanding work as Sandler, she went on to star (and once again impress) in the great Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a slow western drama directed by Pete’s Dragon helmer David Lowery. Paired with Casey Affleck, the carefully constructed yet another character that was hard to forget, as was her brief appearance in Spike Jonze’s Her as Joaquin Phoenix’s ex-wife.

In last year’s Carol, she got matched with Cate Blanchett, and her rigorous portrayal of Therese’s insecurities and immaturity earned her the second Oscar nomination, though in the wrong category (she’s clearly as much of a lead as Blanchett).

 

12. Carey Mulligan (b. May 28, 1985)

Standout performance: Shame

Carey Mulligan

This British gem career-defining performance in Lone Scherfig’s brilliant coming-of-age drama An Education might have limited her offers, since she’s been cast more often than not as a calm, collected, introvert and yet quietly seductive young woman. And don’t get me wrong, she does that amazingly well – she’s been terrific playing straight woman to Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley’s intensely emotional performances in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go; bringing a heightened sensitivity to Nicolas Winding Refn’s brutally laconic Drive; and playing second fiddle to Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.

Mulligan really gets interesting, though, when she gets to break out from that mold and play around in the dirt a little. In Shame, her performance as Michael Fassbender’s sister is not only appropriately a hot mess, but it feels like it comes from a deep personal place, and it gets expressed in very minute details.

As Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, she nails the character’s fundamentally vain and hollow love for Leo DiCaprio’s Gatsby, at the same time getting us to understand that was what a woman in her position could have done in her time. She’s terrific too as the feisty and strong leads she plays in Far from the Madding Crowd and Suffragettes, even though both movies don’t fully rise up to the occasion.

 

11. Naomi Watts (b. September 28, 1968)

Standout performance: Lo Imposible/The Impossible

The Impossible

It took a little longer for Naomi Watts to get noticed and rise to stardom than it did for her best friend, Australian actress Nicole Kidman. They both starred in John Duigan’s Flirting, in 1991, and became BFFs – though while Kidman was already setting Hollywood on fire, Watts had to wait another good decade for her big break.

It came in the form of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., a weird and surrealist mystery (what else could it be?) which was initially filmed as a TV pilot, but found its way to the silver screen in 2001. In her brilliant performance as a wide-eyes young actress arriving in Hollywood for the first time, Watts instantly became a household name, following up with the starring role in Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring.

She would go on to shine in Alejandro Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which granted her first Oscar nod; David O. Russell’s comedy I Heart Huckabees; Scott Coffey’s questionable but terrifically acted Hollywood satire Ellie Parker; Peter Jackson’s new and moving version of King Kong; John Curran’s adaptation of The Painted Veil, playing against none other than Edward Norton; David Cronenberg’s violent crime epic Eastern Promises; Michael Haneke’s shot-by-shot remake of his own Funny Games; Woody Allen’s underestimated You Will Mett a Tall Dark Stranger; J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible, earning her another Academy Award nomination; the much maligned Diana, in which, no matter the quality of the film, Watts gave a stunning performance as the former princess; and, of course, Iñárritu’s Birdman.

She’s truly making terrific choices lately, so it’s a matter of time until she gets her much-deserved Oscar.

 

10. Saoirse Ronan (b. April 12, 1994)

Standout performance: Brooklyn

Brooklyn (2015)

Yes, she’s still very young (the youngest on both this list and our previous male-oriented list). Yes, there’s still much we have yet to see from her. Still, Saoirse Ronan’s relatively short career shows so much potential, and so much sheer talent, it’s hard to ignore she’s one of the finest working right now, and probably the single best actor in their 20s nowadays.

2007 was the big year for her – at 13, she got her first Oscar nomination for her superb portrayal of egoistic tween Briony Tallis in Joe Wright’s Atonement. That year, she was also co-starring with Catherine Zeta-Jones in the underestimated Gillian Armstrong romance Death Defying Acts, but those were only the first steps.

Since then, she’s been great in three young-adult adaptations – 2008’s City of Ember, who deserves to be rediscovered; 2013’s The Host, a movie that manages to barely work exclusively because of her; and the very much inconsequential How I Live Now. She’s also been brilliant as Susie Salmon in Peter Jackson’s moving The Lovely Bones adaptation, which earned her a BAFTA nomination; in Geoffrey Fletcher’s action-comedy Violet & Daisy; in Neil Jordan’s beautifully crafted vampire extravaganza, Byzantium; as an enchanting young woman in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel; as a teenager who’s been kept captive most of her life in Stockholm, Pennsylvania; and, of course, in the lovely immigration drama Brooklyn, a film that genuinely stops, from time to time, to watch Ronan’s (or better yet, Eilis’) face as she reacts to the world around her – and she manages to make it an enthralling experience.

 

9. Jessica Chastain (b. March 24, 1977)

Standout performance: Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Though she’s been acting ever since 2004, when she nabbed a few guesting spots on E.R., Veronica Mars and Lar & Order, among others, it took nearly a decade for Jessica Chastain to finally get her big year.

2011 was it, as she was cast in nearly everything you can imagine, from Jeff Nichols’ tense Take Shelter to Ralph Fiennes’ version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Terrence Malick’s crazily philosophical The Tree of Life, Al Pacino’s documentary-hybrid Wilde Salomé and, of course, Tate Taylor’s racial drama The Help, in which she superbly played the good-hearted Celia Foote.

She followed it with a wide array of different characters, relying on sometimes risky, almost always brilliant choices. She found gold pairing with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal for their follow-up to The Hurt Locker, the staggering chronicle of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden titled Zero Dark Thirty, which earned her the second Oscar nod.

Many felt she deserved it again for one of her two big 2014 roles, be it Christopher Nolan’s flawed sci-fi epic Interstellar or J.C. Chandor’s underseen crime drama A Most Violent Year. Critical acclaimed once again was bestowed upon her in 2015, for her daring portrayal of a deranged sister in Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Keep doing you, Jessica – it’s definitely working.

 

 

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  • Paesito “Martin Paez” Paez

    Great list! (Love that you put Johansonn and Williams on this list, both are really underrated), I am not sure about Lupita Nyongo: Rachel Mcaddams, Alicia Vikander, or Anne Hathaway could have taken that spot

    • tea & snark

      I don’t know about Lupita Nyongo because I haven’t seen that movie.

      But I really like Anne Hathaway.

    • Hallyuers

      Alicia and anne can take her spot…but rachel im not sure..she is okay but not great in my eyes

    • sweet_em_sexy

      Lupita is a no! She is more famous for her fashion than her acting.

  • Jacob Lyon Goddard

    It’s a shame Tilda Swinton was left off because of your rules.

    • Marci

      Anyone who agrees to do yellow face shouldn’t qualify.

      • Phoenix Ramsey

        What an idiotic thing to say. You obviously haven’t see Tilda Swinton act. Amazing talent. Orlando, Julia, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Only Lovers Left Alive, Grand Budapest Hotel and more. But you choose to spread some nonsensical agenda, which is completely irrelevant and makes you appear desperate. The real reason Swinton isn’t on here is because she’s 55 and this list is highlighting actresses younger than 50. Grow up. You saw your platform and chose to stand on it, looking for attention you so desperately crave.

  • No Jena Malone? Olivia Thirlby? Ellen Page? Anne Hathaway? 🙁

  • Eri Taide

    I saw the pic so i was shure Kate Winslet was going to be on the list, im quite happy you have put Ms. Blanchett where she belongs, i was ready to riot if you didn’t. Im not that shure about Nyongo though.

  • sailor monsoon

    I know The tide has turned on Jennifer Lawrence (which i honestly can’t figure out why) but she absolutely deserves a spot on this list.
    She’s fucking flawless in silver linings playbook and winters bone

    • Indira Iman

      Name one movie where she plays against type. Right. So far her roles have always been the strong-emotional-angsty-“badass” women–be it Mystique, Tiffany, Joy, Katniss, etc. I would love to see her take some risk. A predator extraterrestrial (Johansson), an evil serial killer (Theron), a paranoid schizophrenia ballerina (Portman), etc. etc. The lady has a long way to go.

      • sailor monsoon

        I think you’re confusing badass with strong willed.
        She portrays strong women.
        But to discount her talent by lumping them all together is asinine.

        • Indira Iman

          The idea is most of her roles are all in one dimension. And i think there are more than one way to portray “strong women”. Watch Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue, where she portrays a grieving woman. There is nothing heroic nor the so called strong willed about her, just her portrayal of a woman struggling with her griefs. I didn’t mean to discount JLaw’s talent, but even compared to those in this list who get the same media exposure and sometimes overrated as she is, (ScarJo for example) her versatility has yet to be tested.

  • Hallyuers

    No anne hathaway ? i will put her, j law, brie larson and keira over lupita

  • Klaus Dannick

    Laura Dern

  • Lupita doesn’t have enough trajectory to be consider in a list of “the best of our generation” Alicia Vikander or Anne Hathaway should have take her place on this list.

    • Rosa Eshkenazy

      he was obliged to put an afro-american in the list, you know, just for “diversity”. anyway she is on no 15, no sweat

  • Tristan Reed

    Another terrible list…glad you didn’t stoop as low as to add Jennifer Lawrence to it though 😉

    • Chrisychipz

      who would you put on the list then? And chill out, Jennifer Lawrence is a good actress smh

  • Rosa Eshkenazy

    I never comment on these lists even though I am an avid reader of this particular site but it really strikes me so strange that no uproar has been created yet for such an anglosaxon-centred, predictable, boring, frustrating list (besides the token french girl). botoxed-kidman? cant act to save her life scarlett and/or mara? has TOC been hijacked by cosmopolitan? worst list in ages

  • Rosa Eshkenazy

    lest we forget also the token afroamerican lupita who is nothing to write home about. seriously laughable list

  • Dimitri Poenaru

    No Hilary Swank? Also Keira Knightley and Ellen Page.

  • Andressa Dantas

    keira knigthley???

  • Milica Mitrovic

    What about Eva Green and Hilary Swank?

    • sweet_em_sexy

      I love Eva in Penny Dreadful!

  • Rudi

    Elizabeth Olsen is without a doubt the best actress of this generation.

    Other favorites: Keira Knightley, Emily Browning, Emma Watson, Emma Stone, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Roberts.

  • Special_One

    Lupita Nyong’o? WTF, she’s been in like one film.

  • Indira Iman

    Would’ve add Penelope Cruz. The woman is terrific, especially her works with Pedro Almodovar. Hollywood clearly have no clue on how to use her other than being a mere eye candy. Also, Hillary Swank? Emily Blunt? Their big break is in 1999 (Boys Don’t Cry), 2006 (The Devil Wears Prada), i don’t see why not include them in this list if your criteria is “success after the turn of the century or shortly before”. Kate Winslet has her big break in 1997 and you include her.

    And please make effort to include non-Hollywood actress. Shu Qi is easily one of the best asian actress working today–most notably her works with Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Zhang Ziyi needs no introduction, Iranian gem Golshifte Farahani, the list will go on.

  • Still D.R.E.

    Taraji P Henson should be on here

  • Moy Hernández

    I would definitely add Jennifer Lawrence and Emily Blunt

  • Romeo Garcia

    where is Brie larson or Elizabeth olsen o Jena malone or Mary elizabeth winstead or Ellen page???

  • Tiago Nunes

    Cate Blanchett???????????????????????????

  • Tiago Nunes

    I hope to be alive when to Kirsten Dunst be recognized as it deserves.

  • Relf

    Only one non-English…

  • Zvika Greengold

    Jennifer Connelly? Natalie Portman?

    • Paesito “Martin Paez” Paez

      Well she did kind of fade away after 2005 as well as Rene Zellweger

  • Carsten Nilsson

    Emily Blunt needed to be on this list

  • Chrisychipz

    Charlotte Gainsbourg??? Antichrist?!

  • Ellen Page, Emily Blunt and I think Lea Seydoux could have been on this list too and maybe Viola Davis? She’s an acting force indeed

  • Otto Sou

    Only 3 from this list:Theron ,Watts,Chastain..and Yiuliya Snigir, Julliette Binoche,Ekaterina Guseva,Eugeniya Hirivskaya,Rachel Weisz