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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.