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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.

Anne Marsen, “Girl Walk // All Day”

“Girl Walk // All Day”

Anne Marsen doesn’t say a single word in “Girl Walk // All Day,” but you don’t have to talk when you’ve got moves like this. Elevating a feature-length music video into an irrepressible work of art that completely eclipses the album it was made to accompany, Marsen delivers a dance performance that expresses more emotion in a moonwalk than most actors could convey in an entire Oscar monologue. Her role, “The Girl,” is never intended to be more than an archetype, but her sheer irrepressibleness makes the character feel unique. It’s not just that Marsen is a (very) talented dancer, but also that she’s absolutely fearless. Manhattan is her stage, and all of the people in it can’t help but become her audience — from midtown sidewalks to department store showrooms, she transforms every space she enters, electrifyingly tipping New York City’s unique balance between public and private spaces. We demand a sequel. —David Ehrlich

Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild

“Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Benh Zeitlin’s magisterial directorial debut is an overwhelming spectacle of surreal images and sounds, but no matter its whimsical trajectory, it maintains an undercurrent of realism for one specific reason: Quvenzhané Wallis gives a groundbreaking performance as Hushpuppy, the six-year-old Souther Louisiana resident at the heart of a dreamlike movie that inhabits her perspective. Whether dashing through the bayou with fireworks or showing off her biceps in an amusing show of dominance, Hushpuppy is a commanding presence who confronts every new challenge with astonishing confidence. Wallis deservedly became the youngest Oscar nominee in history for her performance, and while nothing she’s done since has come close matching the sheer hypnotic power of her debut, she’s still got a long career ahead of her. It’s a helluva start. —EK

Catalina Saavedra, “The Maid

“The Maid”

Sebastian Silva’s pitch-black comedy debut is an awesome tale of domestic competition, with Saavedra at its center as a committed housemaid who resents the additional hired help her employers bring on when she starts suffering from dizzy spells. As the woman employs one tactic after another to scare off her new coworkers, the movie transforms into a “Home Alone”-like commentary on the repressed anarchy festering beneath of the surface of the suburban dream. Saavedra brings a brilliant slow-burn quality to the story, with her judgmental stare at once menacing and serving as a key punchline as the mayhem builds up. She delivers an anti-hero for the ages. —EK

Juliette Binoche, “Certified Copy

“Certified Copy”

One of the most consistently incredible things about the films of Abbas Kiarostami is how the late Iranian master could mine bottomless lodes of emotion from self-reflexive premises that seemed to prioritize the mind over the heart. In truth, the only thing separating the two is your neck, and Kiarostami had a rare knack for knowing which actors could empower an audience to feel a story in two places at once. An astonishing puzzlebox of a movie that refracts the plot of “Before Sunrise” through the prismatic layers of “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Certified Copy” begins as a brilliant — and purely intellectual — treatise on authenticity and the performative nature of relationships. But Juliette Binoche, playing an unnamed woman who sits in on a book talk and then strikes up a conversation with its author, forces the film into more ineffably human territory. Is she really just meeting the man for the first time, or are they husband and wife? The answer is irrelevant, but Binoche makes the mystery utterly irresistible all the same, her face as moving and inscrutable as the “Mona Lisa.” Is her character in love, or is she just really good at faking it? Either way, it’s the performance of a lifetime. —DE

Kim Hya-ja, “Mother

“Mother”

From her dance in that field to her impassioned defense of her son, Kim Hye-ja’s character in “Mother” more than earns the title of matriarch. Bong Joon-ho’s follow-up to “The Host” isn’t a monster movie, but there’s a primal ferocity to its heroine that ensures no one — whether detective, suspect, or otherwise — dares cross her. Bong’s best film functions as both a murder mystery and an incisive look at strained family dynamics, with Kim commanding as much attention from the viewer as she does from everyone else onscreen. She never got near the Oscars, of course, but her fiery performance did land her a Best Actress win from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. —MN

Natalie Portman, “Jackie

“Jackie”

Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” is extraordinary filmmaking by every metric, but absolutely none of it would work without Natalie Portman’s riveting performance as the former First Lady during the worst time in her tragic life, writ large for all to see. As Jackie Kennedy, Portman is operating on a wholly different level than we’ve seen her before, and that’s saying something for an actress who always seems to be giving it her all. She’s riveting, transformed, and utterly without fear. And the accent? Stop, it’s perfect. —KE

Björk, “Dancer in the Dark

“Dancer in the Dark”

The purest and most feral of Lars von Trier’s “holy women,” Selma isn’t a complicated figure. On the contrary, this increasingly blind single mother is something of a magical idiot, graced with a childlike simplicity that allows her to zone out of her depressing factory job and daydream that her life is a musical. The worse things get, the more she disappears into her delusions, eventually singing her way to the gallows after she’s convicted of a crime she was forced to commit. It’s the rare character who could truly only be played by one person, and von Trier found her. Leaning into the role like a woman possessed (which is pretty much the way Björk does everything), our planet’s foremost swanstress mines every inch of the hyper-violent precociousness that has always defined her music. She’s an absolute force of nature, her Selma hard to believe but impossible to deny — it’s the kind of openhearted performance that recalls Maria Falconetti’s immortal turn in “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” but in widescreen and with the volume cranked up to 11. It’s also still the only movie performance that Björk has ever given, but sometimes one is enough. See her in “Dancer in the Dark” and it feels like you really have seen it all. —DE

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