The 15 Best Actresses of Our Generation

8. Amy Adams (b. August 20, 1974)

Standout performance: American Hustle

Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) stands on the Teeterboro Airport Tarmac in Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE. (Amy Adams coat, hat: vintage)

This Italian-American girl raised in a Mormon family took everybody by surprise in 2006 when she got the first of her five Oscar nods for her supporting work in indie darling Junebug, as an optimistic and wordy pregnant woman.

Adams was around since 1999, but after the Academy caught wind of her the good parts kept on coming, including the one that made her a household name with the audiences as well as the critics, Disney princess Giselle in live-action comic fairytale Enchanted. The ingénue energy is one of her many qualities, abundantly used in films like Julie & Julia, The Muppets and Leap Year.

When she got serious, though, the praise kept on coming – she held her own opposite Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, arguably the two greatest actors working at the time, in 2008’s Doubt; did excellent work in supporting parts like Charlene Fleming in The Fighter and Peggy Dodd in The Master; and got everything right when given the opportunity to headline David O. Russell’s crime comedy American Hustle. Her hypnotic performance doesn’t betray the awful mood Russell allegedly left her in – her Sydney endures as one of the most unforgettable characters of the last few years.

Frequently using understatement and body language as her greatest weapons, Adams slowly became one of Hollywood’s best working actresses. No wonder every director, from Denis Villeneuve to Tom Ford, has her booked for the past couple of years.


7. Charlize Theron (b. August 7, 1975)

Standout performance: Mad Max: Fury Road

mad max

The slow and steady climb to fame in Charlize Theron’s career throughout the late 90s and the early 00s did not betray the brilliant actress we would see rise in the second act of her filmography. Who’d have known that the girl in The Devil’s Advocate, Sweet November and Trapped would go on to portray serial killer Aileen Wuornos in such an uncanny way in Patty Jenkins’ Monster.

Though many think she won that Oscar because the Academy loves beautiful actress “going ugly” for a role, it’s much more than that – Theron’s performance is a chilly and very human one, a sign of what was still to come for the South African dancer-turned-model-turned-actress.

She was even greater two years after her win as Josey Aimes, the first woman to win a sexual harassment case, in Niki Caro’s North Country. She was brilliant in the handful of episodes where she played the hilarious Rita in Arrested Development. She was amazing in severely underseen movies like Battle in Seattle, Young Adult and, most recently, Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places.

She was deliciously evil as Queen Ravenna in both Huntsman movies, practically the only good thing in an otherwise dreadful would-be franchise. She was never as good as she is as Imperator Furiosa in 2015’s smash-hit Mad Max: Fury Road – in a few choice looks and expressions, she says more than many actresses would in whole monologues.


6. Michelle Williams (September 9, 1980)

Standout performance: My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn

Williams is one of those cases that absolutely no one could have predicted. Though she was acting since the age of fourteen, when she scored a role in Lassie (and a guest spot on Baywatch, believe it or not), Williams came into prominence as bad girl Jen Lindley in the reviled TV teen hit Dawson’s Creek, which ran from 1998 through 2003.

She scored a few interesting roles toward the end of her run, especially in Tom McCarthy’s indie darling The Station Agent. Nothing that would get people ready for her terrific performance in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, that earned her the first of three Oscar nods. It was also through that film that she met Heath Ledger, her ex-fiancé and the father of her daughter.

After that, she did amazing work in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, Derek Cianfrance’s heartbreaking Blue Valentine, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and Saul Dibb’s Suite Française.

Her standout roles, however, came in three very different films: first, her second film with Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff, saw her playing the fiercest member of a family stranded in the desert; then she became a contemporary woman struggling against her attraction for a charming stranger while her perfectly sweet husband is at home in Sarah Polley’s superb Take This Waltz; finally, she completely transformed herself into one of the greatest, most mysterious and most fascinating movie icons of all time in Simon Curtis’ delicate (and quite beautiful) My Week With Marilyn. At 35, that’s certainly quite a career record.


5. Nicole Kidman (b. June 20, 1967)

Standout performance: The Others

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This Hawaiian-born, Australian-raised beauty might be past her best roles, but her talent is absolutely undeniable. Acting since 1983, she became a star when Philip Noyce’s Dead Calm, Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder and Ron Howard’s Far and Away pushed her that way, but it was in the late 90s that Kidman managed to spread her wings into more ambitious roles.

It all started with the ambitious Suzanne Stone in Gus Van Sant’s classic To Die for, which she followed with some big Hollywood pandering (Batman Forever, The Peacemaker), all the while gearing up to give terrific performances in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

The early 00s were when Kidman would become arguably the best actress working in Hollywood. Her unforgettable portrayal of courtesan Satine (plus some fine-tuned vocals, of course) in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! is among her best performances, but even better is her Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s oppressively Academic (but still brilliant) The Hours.

Our true highlight, however, has to be Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others – as a paranoid, desperate mother trying to protect her children and dealing with the loss of her husband, she’s a transparent boiling pot of emotions in a movie that thrives on her performance.

It’s true she went kind of downhill from there, but she still delivers great performances from time to time. Take notes: Dogville (2003), Cold Mountain (2003), Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), Margot at the Wedding (2007), Australia (2008), Nine (2009), Rabbit Hole (2010), Stoker (2013).


4. Natalie Portman (b. June 9, 1981)

Standout performance: Black Swan

Black Swan (2010)

The wonder girl whose performance opposite Jean Reno in Luc Besson’s The Professional made her an early star, has grown up to become one of the best, most peculiar and effective actresses working right now. Yes, she’s been hugely wasted in the Star Wars prequel, but that’s less about her performance and more about the way the character was written and Portman was directed.

Her small part in Cold Mountain gave some clues of what was to come, but her unforgettable work as Alice in Mike Nichol’s masterpiece Closer was the one that wowed everyone and made her a force to be reckoned with.

She built another iconic character in James McTeigue’s and the Wachowski’s V for Vendetta. As the young woman recruited by freedom fighter V into helping him take control of a strict, authoritarian government, Portman showed off her uncanny ability to connect with the audience and not only communicate the character’s feelings, but compose a visual interpretation that sticks in the spectator’s mind for much longer than the duration of the film.

Her magnum opus, of course, was the performance that gave her the Oscar, as ballerina Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but she’s also been consistently brilliant in movies like Kar Wai Wong’s underestimated My Blueberry Nights, Zach Helm’s Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Justin Chadwick’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and Jim Sheridan’s Brothers.


3. Marion Cotillard (b. September 30, 1975)

Standout performance: Deux Jours, Une Nuit

Two Days, One Night

Hollywood’s favorite French actress right now is also one of the best to come out of the country’s filmography in the last decade or so. A big movie star in French cinema since the late 90s, Cotillard had some interesting parts in Tim Burton’s Big Fish, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s celebrated Innocence, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s romantic fable A Very Long Engagement and Abel Ferrara’s controversy-filled Mary.

It’s when she became legendary singer Edith Piaf for Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose, however, that the world took notice – not only was it worth an Academy Award, it was also the big break for one of the finest and most sensitive and expressive actresses we have working nowadays.

She went on to such an impressive run of performances it’s hard to pick a favorite. She was the absolute standout in Michael Mann’s crime epic Public Enemies, elevated the so-so material of Rob Marshall’s Nine (while delivering the best musical number in the film), provided useful supporting work in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and was perfectly adorable in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Her return to France provided her with her best roles in years, though, as she paired with Matthias Schoenaerts in Jacques Audiard’s stunning Rust and Bone and became the Dardenne brothers’ muse in Deux Jours Une Nuit. Her work as a depressed woman trying to get her job back is not only moving – it’s a brilliantly physical performance.


2. Kate Winslet (b. October 5, 1975)

Standout performance: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Of course she is primarily remembered as Rose, the romantic lead in James Cameron’s mammoth of a hit, 1997’s Titanic. It was probably her big break into stardom, but she was building a reputation with critics and British thespians since starring in Peter Jackson’s weird mystery Heavenly Creatures, in 1994.

Her first Oscar nod came a year later, for her brilliant work in Ang Lee-directed, Emma Thompson-scripted Sense and Sensibility, and was also stunning in Michael Winterbottom’s Jude and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. In summation, Winslet is amazing in virtually everything that she does.

A versatile performer, she took on very different roles in very different movies throughout her career. She was a young Iris Murdoch in the 2001 biography titled Iris, the mother to a bunch of kids who inspired J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan in Finding Neverland, the stay-at-home mom trapped in a loveless marriage in Todd Field’s brilliant Little Children, the war criminal who had an affair with a young man during WWII in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, half of a couple dealing with hardships in their young marriage in the mid-50s in Revolutionary Road, an uptight parent trying to deal with a violent incident involving her child in Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and played a supporting part in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. Her truly unforgettable role, though, has to be the blue-haired Clementine in Michel Gondry’s masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.


1. Cate Blanchett (b. May 14, 1969)

Standout performance: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013)

With 2 Oscars in her resume before turning 50, Australian actress Cate Blanchett is without a doubt the finest of her generation. As highlighted in her recent role in Todd Haynes’ Carol, Blanchett is an actress that operates in such nuance, with such a sense of theatricals, that her mere presence is hypnotizing, and the small details of her characterizing and emoting can hit the viewers like a punch in the gut.

Her big break came in 1998, when she played the virgin queen in Shekkar Kapur’s cinebiography Elizabeth. She then came to the attention of a bigger audience while playing the powerful and mysterious Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

The path to stardom was set, and Blanchett took the opportunity to take challenging and diverse roles like an avenging widow in Tom Tykwer’s underseen thriller Heaven, the pregnant journalist that drives a rift between father and son in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Katherine Hepburn herself in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, half of a couple trying to work their issues through while on a trip to Morocco in Babel, the young art teacher having an affair with her underage student in Notes on a Scandal, one of the many incarnations of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, the love of the title character’s life in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the villainous intelligence operative in Joe Wright’s terrific action drama Hanna, the princess’ stepmother in Cinderella, and Mary Mapes, ex CBS editor, in James Vanderbilt’s Truth.

Her prime moment came in a team-up with Woody Allen, of course, as she was instrumental to design the downward spiral the titular character goes through in Blue Jasmine. She’s darkly funny, heartbreakingly sad and infuriatingly selfish, sometimes within the same scene.

Author Bio: Caio Coletti is a Brazilian-born journalist, a proud poptimist, and has too many opinions to keep them all to himself.