Best Actress Winners of the 21st Century Ranked from Worst to Best [Updated]

     February 22, 2017

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[NOTE: This list has been updated from the original 2000-2009 ranking to include the 2010-2015 races; we are re-posting in excitement for this weekend’s Oscar ceremony]

Revisiting a decade of Oscar-winning performances is interesting for anyone who watches the whole awards trail (Oscar season unofficially kicks off this month with the Venice Film Festival followed by Telluride and TIFF). The clips that were repeated ad nauseam from the Golden Globes through the Oscars to highlight the actor’s work generally favor the BIG moments (think Sissy Spacek’s “everything!” plate-breaking scene in In the Bedroom). But these reels generally do become what we think of when we think of Oscar-nominated performances. Revisiting the actual winners is much more sobering. It’s nice to find the quiet moments that most likely started their award buzz before the awards machine started to splice together their screams and tears.

In revisiting the Best Actress winners of 2000-2009, I ended watching a lot of biopics. But even with this biopic framework, one third of the winning actresses weren’t even the leading role in their own film and instead served the purpose of a man’s memory or road to recovery. A few barely had much screen time for what we consider to be the leading role award winner. For the first half of the aughts, 2010-2015, the winning performances came from fiction and nearly all of them placed the leading women in the main role. We’re only halfway through this current decade, but the roles for the Best Actress winners over the past six years now have routinely been the lead of their film (only Jennifer Lawrence had to share in Silver Linings Playbook). That’s an immense improvement in storytelling and bestowing awards and its also made the category much more competitive.

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Image via Sony Picture Classics

In ranking the century (so far) the previous decade had many worthy performances but also its share of disappointments at how many of them were pushed to the edge of the movie they won for. And in re-doing this ranking to include the last five years, those films thrust their leads much higher because leading roles for women have become immensely better in the last five years, even more competitive than their male lead counterparts because Hollywood has given them better roles. Look at 2016 for example, the trifecta of Natalie Portman (Jackie), Isabelle Huppert (Elle) and Emma Stone (La La Land) is stronger top to bottom than leading male. But before we find out who’ll win that match-up this Sunday, let’s take a look back at the 16 previous.

Below, after re-watching all the wins, is my ranking of the 10 Best Actress winners from the 21st century (so far). The rankings aren’t for the film’s themselves, but for the performance and how the performance was used in the film.


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