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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.

Ellen Burstyn, “Requiem for a Dream

“Requiem for a Dream”

Every once in a while, an actor gives the kind of performance that transcends the craft and becomes so painstakingly authentic that it’s hard to distinguish between what’s performance and what’s real life. Ellen Burstyn in Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem For a Dream” is one of those performances. As Sara Goldfarb, an image-obsessed mother who becomes addicted to weight-loss amphetamines, Burstyn takes on her character’s mania with such rawness and vulnerability that Sara’s self-destruction is often too sickening to stomach. The character’s mental deterioration is charted with agonizing detail and precision by Burstyn. The actress gets so lost in the character’s agitated ticks and frenzied hysteria that it becomes hard to tell where Burstyn ends and Sara begins. Watching “Requiem,” you begin to fear for Burstyn. Sara was no doubt a colossal acting challenge, and Burstyn took it on with the kind of commitment that leaves you shattered. —Zack Sharf

Laura Linney, “You Can Count On Me

“You Can Count on Me”

Kenneth Lonergan’s melancholic debut film galvanized viewers and critics with engaging dialogue and his unique ability to paint painfully human characters with the lightest touch and sharpest of wits. The prolific playwright knows the importance of smart actors, and his films attract the very best. As single mother Sammy, Laura Linney fills in the spaces Lonergan intentionally leaves with her own unique color and depth. You want to root for Sammy, who is just trying to get through life, but her almost pathetic sadsack nature makes it awfully hard. Nevertheless, there is something charming about her, and her sweet but fraught relationship with her brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo). It’s hard to think of a better film about the unique and strange bond between adult siblings, the years of resentment and rivalry that build up, and the special familiarity no one else can offer. Linney is able to translate Sammy’s pain with a graceful dignity. “You Can Count On Me” announced her as one of the greatest actresses of her time. —Jude Dry

Emmanuelle Riva, “Amour

Michael Haneke Amour

“Amour”

Riva was a legend decades ago, when she helped turn “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” into a piece of film history. But she proved she lost none of her talent over the years with this whopper of a career-capping performance opposite Jean-Louis Trignant in Michael Haneke’s acclaimed drama. As a stroke victim whose husband goes to dire lengths to help her live out her final days, Riva manages to be both fragile and determined, a woman keen on remaining in charge of her behavior even as her mental and physical conditions decline. It’s a resilient turn that’s simultaneously tragic and empowering, the ultimate swan song for the rare performer capable of rebuilding her iconic stature from the ground up when most people wind down. —EK

Marion Cotillard, “La Vie En Rose

“La Vie En Rose”

The life of iconic French singer Édith Piaf could easily sag into hagiography or made-for-TV sentimentalism, but Cotillard elevates every scene. Her Oscar-winning performance follows the singer from her bumpy rise through the devastating losses that culminated with debilitating morphine addiction. No matter her hardships, Piaf delivers a transcendent power whenever she belts out another tune, and Cotillard injects each moment with an emotional depth that speaks to the nature of Piaf’s struggle. The actress hits every gorgeous note even as her eyes register as a cry for help. As her life starts to crumble, Piaf is a figure of pure feeling, and Cotillard communes with that tradition so well she may as well be performing a seance. Few musician biopics can approach this degree of raw intensity, and Cotillard is the main reason why. —EK

Scarlett Johansson, “Under the Skin

Under the Skin

“Under the Skin”

Courtesy of A24

Talent is rarely enough to build and maintain a Hollywood acting career; the key is finding roles to showcase it. In the case of Scarlett Johansson, the turning point was more of a completely unexpected twist, a trio of non-human characters (“Her,” “Lucy,” and “Under the Skin”), each of which played off her icy allure, but were about the humanity buried underneath. The crown jewel of the three is her work in the Jonathan Glazer masterpiece that poses the question of what it means to be human through the eyes of Johansson’s seductive alien sent to earth to probe for answers. The actress’ cool air of detachment is essential to her appeal. Constantly implying that there’s an alien beneath her human disguise, Johansson’s eyes — which in previous roles always betrayed her as being somehow removed — become a window to a unique, complex soul. —CO

Charlize Theron, “Monster

monster movie charlize theron

“Monster”

Whenever I think about “Monster,” which is probably more often that I should admit in public, I think about the bathroom scene where Aileen is quickly freshening up in the sink. For me, this is where Charlize Theron truly transforms into Wuornos. It isn’t just the shock of seeing the stunning and statuesque blonde’s body rippled with love handles and a beer gut. Compounded in that scene is the realization of hard living, of gas station bathroom baths, of dive bars and watery beer, and hitchhiking and hooking to fill in the unbearable moments in between a buzz and a hangover. Theron is unrecognizable not just because of prosthetic makeup or how she carries herself, but because we can actually feel Aileen’s desperation and rage. The sum of her stupendous, Oscar-winning performance is tallied up in small moment like that fleeting scene, where Theron doesn’t leave any room for doubt that she has fully and truly transformed into a monster. —Jamie Righetti

Kirsten Dunst, “Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier's Melnacholia

“Melancholia”

Lars Von Trier’s spellbinding drama-turned-apocalyptic fever dream is all about Kirsten Dunst’s disposition. As the movie begins, the fierce advertising executive quickly loses patience with her family over the course of a family party that goes very wrong. Then she’s back under very different circumstances — namely, the end of the world — but as she has already survived a gloomy personal experience, she’s more than ready to embrace the occasion. Dunst’s shifting mood over the course the film’s dazzling two hours is a masterclass in performative ambiguity, and in its extraordinary climax, she demolishes the depressing aura of the earlier scenes by demonstrating a kind of spiritual tranquility towards her inevitable demise. She won a well-deserved acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance (and deserved an Oscar that she didn’t get) for bringing fresh soulful depths to the work of a filmmaker better known for cynical extremes. She’s as much the auteur of “Melancholia” as he is. —EK

Brie Larson, “Short Term 12

“Short Term 12”

Cinedigm

It’s everything that she doesn’t say that makes Larson’s “Short Term 12” character Grace so enthralling, a do-gooder with a hard-won heart of gold that has secrets of her own to spare. Grace’s job caring for troubled kids as they attempt to make their entree into the world is tough enough, but as Destin Daniel Cretton’s breakout drama slowly reveals, it’s a task made even more difficult by Grace’s own past. That she’d want to stick around and help others is just one part of her appeal, and how it effects how she moves throughout the world, so gracefully portrayed, so sensitively rendered that it nearly hurts to watch, is another. Secrets are the stock and trade of “Short Term 12,” but Larson makes you feel as if you know it all, you’ve felt it all. —KE

Halle Berry, “Monster’s Ball

“Monster’s Ball”

Monster’s Ball” may be largely remembered as the movie that handed the first (and so far only) best actress Oscar to a woman of color and gave Halle Berry the chance to give that famous speech. Sure. But the role itself isn’t too shabby, either. As Leticia, the widow of a convicted prisoner executed by Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), Berry plays a woman drawn to a destructive relationship by pure grief and loneliness. The dreary setting is elevated by the pair’s unusually erotic chemistry, and while Thornton’s reasonably involving as the sort of bitter introvert he can play in his sleep, it’s Berry who injects “Monster’s Ball” with the fiery intensity of a lost soul suddenly allowed to unleash her fury on a fresh companion. This unfiltered shot of emotional duress is the one of the most extreme expressions of anguish ever caught on film, and it’s hard to imagine Berry — or anyone else — coming close to it again. -EK

Leila Hatami, “A Separation

“A Seperation”

Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian tale of feuding parents in the midst of a divorce and the impact on their child may have won the director a well-deserved Oscar, but Leila Hatami deserved one, too. She plays a woman keen on escaping the country’s oppressive laws by fleeing elsewhere, and when her husband won’t budge, she decides to move on anyway. The courts stand in her way — but that’s just the start of their problems, as a showdown with hired help takes a grim turn that complicates the family’s conundrums on a whole new level. Hatami gives the movie a commanding center as a determined woman keen on taking control of her surroundings even as they slowly close in on her. She exudes desperation but never takes it to histrionic extremes; much about the success of the performance extends from frustrated glances and baffled reactions as the court and other accusers continue to heap discomfort on her life. However, her resilience adds a transcendent dimension to the role on par with Farhadi’s nuanced script. She’s the key engine in the movie’s rage against the system. —EK

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