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The 25 Best Female Movie Performances of the 21st Century

From Oscar winners to the frightfully snubbed, comedic high-wire acts to the most hard-hitting of dramas, and everything in between.

Much has been made about the dearth of strong female roles in contemporary cinema, and the problematic depictions of women in many recent movies, but the past two decades have provided plenty of counterexamples. While the onus is on writers and directors to craft strong female characters, the actresses themselves bring these figures to life, and they’re often the main reason we keep being drawn back to these works.

In no particular order, our favorite — and we’d like to think the best — female performances of the 21st century.

Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”

“Elle”

Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” begins with a laugh that catches in your throat: A wide-eyed cat looks off-screen to the screams of a man and woman in apparent orgiastic bliss. Then comes the cutaway, which reveals a far more nefarious incident: Middle-aged Michéle (Isabelle Huppert), in the process of getting raped by a masked assailant on the floor of her home. Once he dashes out the door, Michéle simply lies there, gazing up at the ceiling, and it’s not clear if she’s traumatized or intrigued. So it goes for the rest of this tantalizing provocation of a movie, as Huppert once again proves she’s one of cinema’s greatest living performers with a gutsy role that finds her both horrified and titillated by her rapist. While not exactly a rape-revenge movie, Michéle gets the last laugh, and that’s largely due to Huppert’s commanding screen presence — not to mention her sheer willingness to go there. —Eric Kohn

Uma Thurman, “Kill Bill”

“Kill Bill”

Much has been made about the characters Quentin Tarantino dreams up, but his real gift is his deep appreciation of his favorite actors and his ability to create roles that unlock all the aspects of what makes them so cool on the big screen. With “Pulp Fiction,” he already revealed the badass that was lurking underneath Thurman’s authentic quirky demeanor, but the idea that she could actually kick some ass — and to the degree she does for the entire four hours of  “Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2” — was a complete revelation. Thurman retains all that makes her such a unique screen presence by playing a woman seeking bloody revenge for unspeakable horrors, while transforming into a martial arts expert in the process. Beyond the raw physical ability and willingness to undergo intense training to learn such a wide variety of fight moves, she brings a physical grace, humor, and an unreal sense of timing to create one of the greatest action heroes of all-time. —Chris O’Falt

Sandra Hüller, “Toni Erdmann”

“Toni Erdmann”

Perhaps not the greatest performance of all, but almost close to it, Sandra Hüller’s full-bodied and full-hearted take on the delightfully uptight Ines manages to outshine even Peter Simonischek’s amusing performance as her wacky dad. The real joy in Maren Ade’s 2016 festival hit is how she takes seemingly bonkers concepts and flat-footed tropes — a man who essentially functions as a living, breathing “Dad Joke,” and the daughter who just doesn’t get it — and brings them to the screen with nothing but exuberance and heart. Hüller grounds it all from the start, gently unspooling the (understandably annoyed) Ines as the narrative gets more and more bonkers, the center of normalcy, the soul of the entire outing, until she too has no choice to bust loose and embrace her own brand of lunacy. Few films have offered up such eye-popping high notes, from the unexpected appearance of a Whitney Houston song to the most charming nude scene ever put to film, but Hüller makes sure that every single one stays true. —Kate Erbland

Paulina Garcia, “Gloria”

“Gloria”

As the titular star of Sebastian Lelio’s moving character study, Paulina García delivers a mesmerizing embodiment of midlife frustrations. She’s a lonely, divorced woman at a crossroads in her life — until she discovers a romantic businessman poised to help her get her groove back. But appearances can be deceiving, and as Gloria receives a brutal reality check, García imbues the character with a mixture of sorrow and yearning that sets the stage for the galvanizing finale. One of the greatest modern roles for an older woman, it continues to serve as an inspiration and a challenge for the global film industry to write more of them. —EK

Jeon Do-yeon, “Secret Sunshine”

“Secret Sunshine”

Lee Chang-dong movies abound in stellar performances — see also Yoon Jeong-hee in “Poetry” and Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri in “Oasis” — but none is as devastating as Jeon Do-yeon is in “Secret Sunshine.” Her tear-streaked turn is grief embodied, and a reminder that the kind of tragedies you imagine only befalling other people can and will eventually befall you. Jeon was awarded Best Actress laurels at Cannes for her portrayal of a grieving widow who moves to her husband’s hometown with her young son in tow after the death of her other half; though intended as a kind of homecoming, the move results in even more hardship. Jeon ensures that we feel everything she does, which proves as cathartic as it is heartbreaking. “Secret Sunshine” was highly successful in South Korea, where Jeon remains a frequent onscreen presence — if only we were so lucky on this side of the globe. —Michael Nordine

Viola Davis, “Fences”

Viola Davis, "Fences"

“Fences”

Paramount Pictures

Davis is one of the rare performers who sizzles on the screen no matter the role. For years, the actress made a career out of bringing intelligence and humanity to characters who were hiding in plain sight, which is why it’s such a joy to see her finally unleashed as the sexy, fearless lead in Shonda Rhimes’ “How To Get Away with Murder.” Yet the true defining role for Davis — pulling together all of her acting attributes and winning her an Oscar — was playing opposite Denzel Washington in “Fences.” Davis, as Rose, is the enduring strength holding together a family in which the men are plagued by the damaging combination of pride in the face of racism. While Rose is an endlessly supportive character, her role was anything but supporting (despite awards shenanigans that designated it as such). In her big scene, when she finally puts words to the emotions buried inside — leveling a fierce Washington to quivering silence — she grabs hold of the movie and never lets go. It’s a moment that was written for the stage (and, yes, Davis did that, too), but one in which Davis empties her seemingly endless tank and transforms the words into pure emotion on the big screen. –CO

Daniela Vega, “A Fantastic Woman”

"A Fantastic Woman"

“A Fantastic Woman”

There are few breakthrough performances for trans women in the history of cinema, which makes Daniela Vega’s heartbreaking performance in “A Fantastic Woman” an essential piece of film history: As with “Gloria,” Chilean director Sebastian Lelio delivers a mesmerizing portrait of defiant femininity, this time with Vega as a woman reeling from the death of her older male partner. While his family mostly rejects her, she maintains her independent spirit through a series of hardships while figuring out a way forward, single-handedly carrying the movie on her fierce gaze. The title does not lie: In “A Fantastic Woman,” Vega gives us just that in every scene. —EK

Naomi Watts, “Mulholland Drive”

Mulholland Drive

“Mulholland Drive”

There have been countless movies made about Hollywood dreams and its harsh realities, but never have both the starry-eyed and deep despair of Los Angeles been so perfectly rolled up into one performance like Naomi Watts’ breakout role in David Lynch’s masterpiece. In what might be considered two roles — the plot is impossible to completely piece together — Watts brings to life a wide-eyed Betty, who arrives to stay at her aunt’s only to get caught up in the mystery of an amnesiac (Laura Harring) hiding in the apartment. Of course, Watts would go on to become a big star, playing characters who are often strong, steady types (like outed CIA agent Valerie Plame in “Fair Game”), but as we’ve been recently reminded with her appearance in the new “Twin Peaks,” she can go deliciously big and unfiltered, demonstrating an incredible tonal range. She has an innate ability to adapt to Lynch’s unique cinematic world and land completely authentic moments of wonder, desire, and desperation. —CO

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