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The 20 Best Female Movie Performances of The 21st Century

14 September 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Gojko Dimic


When choosing the top 20 performances by an actress of the 21st century I tried to make a list that deals with complex characters as well as the ones that are lesser known to the larger audience.

Of course I could have put a lot of great actresses on this list but keep in mind that these lists are subjective and I decided on only 20 that in my opinion made a mark on the 21st century.


20. Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Volume 1 & 2 (2003/04, Quentin Tarantino)


Uma Thurman (in my opinion) is an underrated actress. She happens to be in some of the most legendary films with some of the most legendary characters but still people don’t give her enough credit. None of her characters can compete with Beatrix Kiddo aka The Bride. A lot of people may disagree with this choice but this list couldn’t be finished without Uma.

In Quentin Tarantino’s two-part martial arts epic Uma plays Beatrix Kiddo, the deadliest female assassin in the world. She was a part of “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad” that made a living from killing people. She becomes pregnant with her boss and lover Bill and decides to quit her job and protect her child form that cruel world.

Bill comes running after her and finds her at a wedding rehearsal with her new soon-to-be-dead fiancée and a pregnant belly. He along with all the other members of the squad massacre the entire wedding chapel and he puts a bullet inside her head. She survives the attack and is left in a coma for 4 years.

After she wakes up she decides to revenge her child and herself in some of the most brilliant film sequences ever filmed. Uma had to master the Samurai sword, learn how to fight for months and learn Japanese language for the film. She showed incredible strength and determination.

Her role in the film is funny, strong, angry, bitter, sad and a lot more. She made it her own and also made it the best female action character ever and showed how women can kick serious ass. Physicality was a major part in the film but her strong performance of a woman who had to repress all human emotion that might make her hunt for blood harder is undeniably noteworthy.  She had one of the most challenging roles in film and having Quentin by her side made it legendary.

Her fight is real, hard and you can’t blame her for wanting revenge after you see what they did to her. She shows such real emotion and bares herself completely for the role. Uma was nominated for over 30 awards (counting both Kill Bill films) for the same role but only won a couple of them.


19. Oksana Akinshina in Lilja 4-ever (2002, Lukas Moodysson)


Lilja 4-ever is a heartbreaking film by Lukas Moodysson. It is based on a horrific true story that happened to a little girl. Oksana is the youngest actress on this list.

At 15 she starred in Moodysson’s film in which she plays a young girl named Lilja who lives in Estonia with her mother. They live in a poor neighbourhood in an old building that is run down. They are preparing to start their new life in America with her mother’s new boyfriend.

Just before they’re about to go her mother tells her that she can’t go with them and leaves young Lilja to live with her aunt. Lilja has a breakdown and begs her mother not to leave her but she still does. Lilja then goes to her aunt’s flat but her aunt leaves her there and moves herself into Lilja’s old apartment that is bigger.

Left to care for herself, Lilja wanders the streets of Estonia in search of someone who can help her. Her friend starts spreading rumors about her and everyone starts to avoid her except a little boy named Volodya who ends up being her only friend.

Oksana does some pretty impressive acting at just 15. She is so raw and uncensored and her young spirit works well for a character like Lilja. After many bad encounters she meets Andrei, a young man who she falls in love with but her life switches for the worst when human trafficking becomes involved.

Oksana possesses incredible realness, she becomes a face of many young girls who were robbed of their childhood and their innocence and for which nobody got the blame. One of the strongest child performances ever and one that had to be on this list.


18. Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar (2002, Lynne Ramsay)

Morvern Callar (2002)

Samantha Morton’s performance in “Morvern Callar” is quite a fascinating ride. This is Lynne Ramsay’s second feature film. In the film Samantha plays Morvern Callar, a young woman who wakes up one day on the floor of her boyfriend’s flat and finds that he committed suicide right next to her. He left her money for his funeral, a note saying “it just seemed like the right thing to do” and “don’t try to understand” and that he finished his novel and that she should go and submit it to a publisher.

After that she follows an unusual “grief” pattern that makes some audiences not so fond of her or the film. This is a work of art, and not everything is meant to be taken literally in it or her actions but then not everything is meant to be metaphorical either. Questions arise, did she love him? Did he love her? Did they have a good relationship? What was their relationship? Did they know each other long? Was he really depressed? This film leaves you with more questions than answers.

Samantha’s performance is very reserved. You can see her character is a wounded girl but not in a traditional sense. She comes off as guarded and lonely not necessarily because of her boyfriend but perhaps she was always like that and that is the only way she knows how to be. She puts her name as the writer of the book and tries to completely eliminate his traces.

Why would she do that? What was he like towards her? We can see glimpses but never the whole picture. Her portrayal is one of a kind and creates a real character with real issues that deals with alienation and pain in atypical ways. Samantha’s role of a flawed, distant young woman is one that is going to be remembered for a long time.


17. Mo’Nique in Precious (2009, Lee Daniels)


How comedienne Mo’Nique came to be Mary Lee Johnston in “Precious” is a mystery to me but I am glad to have been a witness to her amazing performance. In the film she plays a mother of the main character, a 16-year-old girl Precious who is obese and illiterate. They live in Harlem, New York with her daughters two kids that came from incest after her father raped her. They are poor and living of off welfare.

She is unemployed and abusive to her daughter and often subjects her to mental, and physical violence. Mary Lee has completely given up on her life and takes it out on her daughter. She belittles her and makes her feel worthless every day. She tries to make her feel exactly as she feels. After her daughter learns how to read and tries make a better life for herself she becomes more and more abusive and mean.

Mo’Nique gives all of herself in this film. She plays a sad and damaged individual who was never a good mother to her child. She is filled with rage and fear. She feels jealous of the affection her daughter received from her husband. She can’t seem to figure things out because she was once “Precious” that never received any help or affection. Everything was taken away from her and when she fought for something she fought with the wrong person. Her daughter.

It is masterful acting and it shows just how low a person can fall. How bad can a fall affect a person and after that affect others around that person. She handled her character with empathy and never looked her as a character on a page. Mo’Nique won an Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her role along with numerous other awards.


16. Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tilda Swinton is a great actress. In Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” she gave one of her most memorable performances. In it she plays Eva, a lonely middle-aged woman who has to survive a life of shame and nasty looks after a traumatic event that not only changed her life but the lives of the whole town.

We see her living alone in a small house splattered in red paint. Before that she lived with her husband, son and daughter. Her son is in prison and she sometimes comes to visit him.

Throughout the film she tries to piece together her life and moments of her son’s childhood that might have had something to do with the way he turned out. This film deals with guilt so beautifully and cinematically. Tilda as Eva is impressive in the way she tries to cope with the harsh reality she might have caused. You see her struggling as a mother to a cold, distant and manipulative child.

Should she have been a stricter mother? Could she have eliminated evil in his son? Was it something she did to him? She now has to live the consequences of her son’s actions and that is the only thing that is certain.

Tilda’s face can be a canvas that you can explore for hours. She gets lost in her character and creates magic. You empathize and feel sorry for her. Tilda Swinton was nominated for a Golden Globe, BAFTA and a Screen Actors Guild Award.


15. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)

Cate Blanchett in ‘Blue Jasmine’

Combining Cate Blanchett and Woody Allen together proved to be some great magic. In this film Cate plays Jasmine, a middle-aged, spoiled socialite whose husband was arrested for doing some illegal business. Jasmine then suffers a nervous breakdown before coming to San Francisco to move in her sister’s middle class home she shares with her husband and kids.

Jasmine is used to living a life of luxury, travels and excess and now has to learn how to stand on her own two feet. Cate’s performance is so entertaining and bewildering. She plays this manic, delusional woman that tries miserably to get her old life back but instead all she gets is heavy doses of reality. She speaks anxiously and tries to numb her pain with alcohol and pills.

Soon she gets a job working as a receptionist with a dentist that harasses her and quits. Cate is in full control of her performance, and frame by frame you are witnessing her characters demise. She mumbles and talks out loud while reminiscing of her glorious past life. She refuses to be thrown in the middle of this blue-collar world.

It later becomes apparent that she was the one responsible for her current situation and perhaps can’t come to terms with that fact. Cate Blanchett won over a dozen awards for her portrayal of Jasmine including an Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award.



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  • Nodar

    Some of this names Overrated, However Isabelle Huppert really killing in The Piano Teacher

  • Pingback: The 20 Best Female Movie Performances of The 21st Century | roberto cimatti()

  • 20 Best Female Performances of the 21s century? Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, 20 times! Just kidding, this list is great, I would only add Emily Watson as Bess McNeil in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996)

    • Emre Kara

      It’s not 21st century though

      • Wow, I can’t believe I wrote that without thinking it through 🙂 Good point and thanks for the correction!

  • Relf

    Uma Thurman? Fuck no, she was horrible. Just like that crap Tarantino ripped off… Overrated hack

    • Emre Kara

      She is great, so is he.

    • Uma Thurman was amazing in that role and a big ass snub in ’03 for the Oscars

      • Relf

        Hahaha thanks for making me laugh friend!

  • hans_matze

    Rooney Mara in The Gril with the Dragon Tattoo
    Brie Larson in Room
    Rachel Weisz in Youth

    • ray gudel

      Brie Larson for sure, but I think Noomie Rapace played the tortured hacker better.

      • Mortimer

        Not much impressed with Larson. She was very good but nothing special. Kid has done a better job.

        • ray gudel

          I agree that the kid was terrific, but this was about female performances, and Brie Larson definitely deserves a mention at the very least for taking on such a heavy role and nailing it. Few actresses her age can display that kind of depth so early in their career. That was miles better than Jennifer Lawrence’s in silver linings (for which she won an Oscar).

          • Mortimer

            Definitely better than Lawrence, I agree.

  • Pablo J Daroca

    jaja and Meryl streep?? camon!!

    • AmazingAmy

      Most streep greatest performance honestly from 70’s and 80’s while this century her best role maybe angel in america and julie and julia….but latter seemed overshadowed by carey in an education and sidibe in precious work

  • Scarlett Johansson-Lost in Translation, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Her, and Under the Skin.

    • Agree, she is so underrated!

    • ray gudel

      She really deserves an Oscar at this point. Jennifer Lawrence seems to get one (or at least a nomination) every time David O. Russell makes a movie.

      • And in Oscar-bait films that aren’t as good as they really are. I do like Jennifer Lawrence as an actress but she’s nowhere in the level that Scarlett is in terms of performance.

        • ray gudel

          That is 100% true, Jlaw is a great young actress, but Scarlett is on a whole nother level. Lost in translation and under the skin are two of the greatest female performances I have seen outside of a Von Trier film in a very long time.

          • V.C. Privitera

            I think Jennifer Lawrence is a decent actress, if she were to find the right roles to play.
            I think David O. Russell has more than a bit of a Hard-On for Lawrence for her to actually branch into different material & roles.
            Sure, it’s not like she’s played the exact same character with every role, but I really couldn’t endure “American Hustle,” and I really tried! But that whole film was just too overrated & wicked oversaturated (in my humble opinion).
            Lawrence seems to have a major push from the Hollywood “Powers-That-Be” when it comes to Awards and such (like the Weinstein Bros), so that is most likely why Jennifer is able to slip into being Nominated every year.
            I completely agree that Scarlett is a much better actress…and this is coming from a cat whom actually tries to find any reason to not like her (I don’t know why), but I’m pretty much left with discontent with myself for wanting such, cause Scarlett has proven herself to be a fine actress time & time again.

          • ray gudel

            I agree with you on all counts, except that I enjoyed American Hustle enough to watch it all the way, and Lawrence and Amy Adams were definitely the highlights for me in that film. I also think Lawrence needs to branch out and work with some other highly talented filmmakers like Scorsese or Innaritu just for a couple examples. She was almost in the hateful eight though, kind of a step in the right direction. I also think Wes Anderson would pull an incredible performance out of her.

          • V.C. Privitera

            Personally, I found Jeremy Renner to be the driving force that led myself to watch the film in full….and yes, I’m well aware that there are a lot of people that hate on Renner, but I think he’s a great actor.
            Christian Bale also did a great job….I personally found his Hair-Style in “American Hustle” to confidently confirm everyone’s question:
            “Donald Trump’s Hair – Real/Fake/Comb-over: COMB-OVER!!!”

          • ray gudel

            I like Renner too, he was good in The Town and Kill The Messenger, and I agree that he did well in American Hustle. Haha to the Trump parallel with Bale’s character’s comb over.

          • I’m hoping that Scarlett would work with von Trier or Nicolas Winding Refn since she is part-Danish and maybe do something in her father’s language.

          • ray gudel

            Either of them would pose a brilliant challenge for her, that could be amazing.

    • Carl Edgar Consiglio

      Pffff …yes but In Her its just her voice

      • But that voice had personality and did a lot for the film as it was originally supposed to be Samantha Morton in the voice.

  • Steppenwolf

    I like that you included Charlize Theron in Monster. However, whenever I see a list about “… of the 21st century” I am reminded that the great century of movies and actors was the 20th.

  • Chrisychipz

    Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin? Rosalind Pike in Gone Girl? Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia? Marion Cotillard in Two Days One Night?

  • Mortimer

    No way that Cate Blanchett and Naomi Watts are so low on the list. No way ! Especially Blanchett. Maybe her character is annoying but her performance should be in the Top 3 without a doubt.
    Bjork’s performance is so overrated.

    • ray gudel

      Bjork’s performance was incredible, I was glued to the screen when the execution scene was happening.

  • Mortimer

    Rooney Mara in CAROL. That’s probably the most subtle female performance of the 21. Century. Cannes jury knew that.

  • frank mango

    really also love marion cotilard in both rust and bone and two days one night

  • Matthew Sutton

    Moon So-Ri didn’t even make the list for Oasis?

  • Rooney Mara (The Girl with the dragon tattoo) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) are missing

    • AmazingAmy

      I love mara, but in my opinion rappace superior in that role.
      I will add jessica chastain zero dark thirty, julianne moore far from heaven, imelda staunton vera drake, kate winslet in eternal sunshine, helen mirren the queen, cruz in volver and ( all of you will call her overrated or whatever but i think she deserved to be included ) jlaw in winter bone and anne hathaway in rachel get married

      • Oh god thanks for posting that I forgot Rachel Getting Married, love that movie so much, it’s really underrated and Anne Hathaway is amazing in it.

    • Mortimer

      Mara was better in CAROL.

  • V.C. Privitera

    Excellent List, Excellent Choices!
    I’m thrilled to see two of my personal favorite Actresses listed on here:
    Naomi Watts & Laura Dern

    I truly hold Naomi Watts as being one of the Finest, most Underrated & Underappreciated Actors/Actresses of all time.
    Her body of work is quite broad with a depth of all sorts of Characters she’s portrayed…and sure, while I may not have watched a good portion of all of her work, it’s the fact that with the roles I’ve seen her take-on, she seems to go for it all the way and not hold back.
    I also like the fact Naomi Watts has worked with some of the finest Modern-Day Filmmakers…she really did an outstanding job in Mulholland Dr.
    And while, there are plenty of other films/roles to choose from for her, it’s definitely the right choice to pick for a list as such as this.
    I know that most on onlookers for this site, would bat their eyes for even mentioning the Michael Haneke remake of “Funny Games,” (American-Version) but whatever those that rather watch the Original (obviously), I still find the remake to be an excellent Feature-Film that really showcases the Actors’ abilities/talent with quite the range of emotion…and Watts delievered!

    ***I’d like to see Naomi Watts work with Werner Herzog, I think they would work well together.

    Laura Dern is also what I call Underrated/Underappreciated within the Mainstream.
    I really enjoy watching her onscreen and I can’t recall ever seeing her in a film that I didn’t at least enjoy her performance, even if the film didn’t stick, but usually the Films I’ve watched that have featured or starred Dern, definitely seem to consistently be pretty great or at least decent.
    It’s funny, cause the first David Lynch film I ever indulged myself with was “Wild At Heart” (1990), and it was such a groundbreaking experience that it really sparked off a desire to branch off & out deeper & deeper into Cinema than I had been up to that point…I already loved Laura Dern for her work up to that point, but once I viewed her collaboration with David Lynch, it was like a slap in the face of “where the hell have I been & why haven’t I tapped into this sooner?”
    “Inland Empire” is such an Artistic Experiment that even if the viewer can’t grasp the content of the plot of the story itself, there’s plenty of Scenes that will keep the audience invested enough to continue with the entire film as a whole, unless you get freaked out;
    like I did the 1st time…and it was with the exact “Frame-Shot” shown for this List, took me a year or two to have enough balls to withstand a 2nd viewing of the film in its entirety:)
    I gotta say, when I saw “The Master” at the Cinema, I didn’t even know that Dern had a role in the film and the moment she’s featured, even while I already had been completely stunned by everything up to that point; once she entered onscreen, I knew that this would be one of my most Personal Favorites and she definitely delivered for even the small role she portrayed.

    ***I’d like to see Laura Dern work with David Cronenberg…I seriously thought this exact thing while watching her in “The Master” in the theatre, there was just something that clicked about her performance that reminded me of Cronenberg, so if the right film comes along, that would perfect!

    Again, awesome choices…so my hat’s off to the Author!

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    How about Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, or as Marie Antoinette??