Film

Top Ten Lists: The Best Actresses of the 2010s.

The following list of the best actresses of the 2010s was always going to be a subjective choice on my part. That said, I’ve taken into account a variety of factors and chosen the actresses I thought had the biggest influence throughout the decade. While critical acclaim or Oscar wins and other awards helped shape the following list, I’ve also taken into account things like box office success, the versatility of the roles actresses played, how consistently they worked throughout the decade and last but not least what cultural impact they had, if any.

But first while the likes of Meryl Streep still proved that she was a force to be reckoned with, the 2010s was unfortunately never going to be her decade. Sure Meryl Streep has been consistently active during the decade but with one major Oscar win for The Iron Lady (2011) its a little unfair to think that the 2010s was her decade. After all she has run riot accumulating acclaim and awards all her working life.

Frances McDormand, Judy Dench and Helen Mirren also fall into that same category as Streep, as honest hard working women who turned in some respectable performances, but with one of the dominant narratives of the 2010s in my opinion being the emergence of a crop of brilliant young actresses, who went toe to toe with these great actresses, I honestly don’t see how they deserve top honours of being in the top 10 best actresses of the decade.

But first here are some of the honourable mentions for those actresses I wish I honestly had the room to squeeze into the following list.

You could honestly argued that Cate Blanchett’s deserves her place amongst the 10 best actresses of the decade of the back of two stunning performances. The first was her Oscar winning performance as socialite Jasmine Francis in Woody Allen’s black comedy-drama Blue Jasmine (2013), in which Blanchett’s extraordinary moving performance reminds us what pain and loss feels like in a world crashing down around us. Interestingly, Blanchett’s other Oscar-worthy performance saw her playing another unhappy socialite this time around embarking on an affair with a younger woman (Rooney Mara) in Carol (2015). Moreover while she managed to have her name associated with some of the biggest grossing films of the decade, in particularly, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, great roles were honestly few and far between for Blanchett. 

Big shoutout also to Nicole Kidman, who just missed the cut. It truly pains me that I couldn’t find a spot for this Oscar winning actress, but despite some solid performances in The Paperboy (2012) and The Beguiled (2017) and her Emmy winning performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies, it just wasn’t enough to get her across the line.

Marion Cotillard, who also gave one of the performances of the decade in Rust and Bone (2012), unfortunately misses out because other than The Immigrant (2013) and Two Days, One Night (2014) she has for the most part flown under the radar during the decade.

My commiserations also to Michelle Williams, Margot Robbie, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Davis, Scarlett Johanson, Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt whom I all seriously considered as well.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the pick of the bunch  of ‘The 10 Best Actresses of the 2010s’.

10. Saoirse Ronan.

Notable Performances: Hanna (2011), Byzantium (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Brooklyn (2015) and Lady Bird (2017).

Where do we even begin with our praise for Saoirse Ronan, who has already three Oscar nominations to her credit at the age of twenty-five? How about her portrayal of a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood caught between her final year in high school and college in Lady Bird (2017). Her performance as Lady Bird McPherson is so compelling that it ranks up there with some of the best coming-of-age films of all time. Moreover, Ronan’s radiant portrayal of an Irish immigrant in the Oscar-nominated romance Brooklyn (2015) had everyone talking how she’s matured into a steely performer.

Interestingly, Ronan has never been one of those child-actors who suffered the indignity of doing what Ronan once referred to as that ‘kiddie-acting thing’ i.e Macauly Culkin in Home Alone (1990). Instead, somewhat like her peer Dakota Fanning, Ronan has excelled at choosing challenging roles, such as a teenager assassin in Hanna (2011), or a two hundred year old vampire in Neil Jordan’s acclaimed thriller Byzantium (2012), or even a kidnapped victim suffering from Stockholm Syndrome in Stockholm, Pennsylvania (2015).

With a curious appetite for seeking out an array of different roles, even her muted talked about incarnation as Mary Stuart in Mary, Queen of Scots (2018), acts as a wonderful example of of her desire to challenge herself as an actress. I have no doubt we will be seeing more of Ronan into the next decade and hopefully with an Oscar to her name.

9. Viola Davis.

Notable Performances: The Help (2011), Fences (2016), Widows (2018) and How to Get Away with Murder (2014- ).

While most of Viola Davis’ roles in her three-decade career have been supporting in nature, you can’t help but be impressed by her hunger to be one of the hardest working actresses going around. In that time she has seen and felt how hard it is for a black performer to succeed in an industry dominated by white actors. Even when she earned critical appraise for her breakout role in The Help (2011) it did not afford her the range of roles she had hoped. Little did she know she was well on the way in turning into one of the most influential actresses of the decade; in the process becoming the first black actress to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting, a term used to describe actors who have won Academy Award, Emmy Award and Tony Award during their acting career.

Interestingly, Davis achieved this feat during the 2010s, winning a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Fences (2016) as the heartbroken wife of troubled husband Troy Maxson, played by Denzel Washington. In the same role, previously in 2010 on a Broadway stage, she also earned a Tony Award for the stage version of Fences. But importantly away from the stage and big screen, Davis is arguably most recognised by television fans in the critically acclaimed series How To Get Away With Murder. It’s fair to say Davis’ role as the self-destructive Professor Keating made her a household name, keeping her consistently on our radar. It also earned her an Emmy for best leading actress, which helped opened the door to a variety of opportunities for Davis, among them her first recognised film lead role in 2018’s acclaimed heist film Widows.

8. Rooney Mara.

Notable Performances: A Girl With A Dragon Tattoo (2011), Side Effects (2013), Carol (2015) and Mary Magdalene (2018).

Many of us still remember Rooney Mara’s kick ass introduction as Mark Zuckerberg’s (played by Jesse Eisenberg) girlfriend and how she ceremoniously puts him back in his place after breaking up with him. Mara as Erica Albright in that moment, illustrated why David Fincher, who directed The Social Network (2010) had so much faith in Mara, when he next directed Rooney in her breakout role as Elizabeth Salander in A Girl With A Dragon Tattoo (2011). As a relative unknown actress, her amazing interpretation of Salander won her acclaim and an Oscar nomination, despite at the time Sony fighting hard against her casting by Fincher.

For the better part of the decade, a lot like Michelle Williams, Rooney Mara flew under the public radar, choosing screen roles simply on merit. The big difference though between Williams and herself I believe was that many of us actually got see these lesser projects Mara appeared in like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), Side Effects (2013), Her (2013) and Lion (2016)The pick of the bunch is arguably Side Effects, a menacing noir psychological thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh. Moreover, when you are also able to go toe to toe with a great actress like Cate Blanchett in Carol (2015) as her onscreen love interest and in the process pick up a second Oscar nomination for your efforts, I believe its fair to say Mara is deserving of being considered one of the best actresses of the decade. And if that isn’t enough to convince you, check out her emotionally exhausting performance as a grieving widow in A Ghost Story (2017) which is nothing short of brilliant.

7. Natalie Portman.

Notable Performances: Black Swan (2010), Jackie (2016), Annihilation (2018) and Vox Lux (2018).

There are some that argue that Natalie Portman has been far from influential as an actress in the 2010s. Sure she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her haunting performance as Nina Sayers in Darren Aronfsky’s Black Swan (2010), and even earned herself an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for her intelligent and poised performance as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie (2016); but other than that what has she really done that sees her so highly position (even ahead of Cate Blanchett) as one of the decades best actresses?

To answer that question we need not look no further than her directorial debut in A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015), Terrence Malick’s Song To Song (2017), Annihilation (2018), or even Vox Lux (2018) with Portman playing a mass shooting survivor who becomes a messed-up mother and star; as all rare examples of Portman’s ability to inhabit the characters that she plays. With the horror sci-fi Annihilation arguably the pick of the litter, which sees Portman play a biologist sent on a mission to investigate a disturbing phenomenon inside a mysterious zone called “the shimmer”, it’s the type of emotionally terrifying role that we hope she continues to pursue in the years to come.

6. Brie Larson.

Notable Performance: Short Term 12 (2013), Room (2015), The Glass Castle (2017), Unicorn Store (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019). 

Movie fans and critics alike were absolutely stunned by Brie Larson’s riveting performance as a young woman held prisoner in a garden shed for seven years in the bleak drama Room (2015). It’s fair to say Larson had truly arrived as someone we should all be paying attention to. And just when things couldn’t get any better, in 2016, up against a stellar field of leading lady nominees, which included Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlotte Rampling and Saoirse Ronan, Larson won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for performance for Room.

Following on from her Oscar win, Larson was touted as ‘the next Jennifer Lawrence’. But as flattering as the comparison was, Larson was humble enough on just being her own woman. With success came a variety of role opportunities, including her first big-budget film  Kong: Skull Island (2017)

In recent years, Larson has also become a champion of gender equality, inclusivity and women’s rights within her industry. Not only has her involvement in activism off screen helped propel change but it has also helped knock down doors and stereotypes onscreen. As Captain Marvel (2019), the second major Hollywood movie to feature a female-led superhero, Larson put in a game-changing performance, worthy of anything her male counterpart has to offer.

5. Emma Stone.

Notable Performances: Easy A (2010), The Help (2011), Birdman (2014), La La Land (2016), Battle of the Sexes (2017) and The Favourite (2018).

Emma Stone’s meteoric rise seemingly came out of nowhere beginning with her charismatic screen debut in the coming-of-age teen comedy Superbad (2007). Soon thereafter, proving that she was capable of holding her own in Hollywood, she next landed the lead role in Easy A (2010) as Olive Penderghast, a witty unpopular young woman who pretends to be the school tramp to bolster her reputation. It earned her first Golden Globe nomination.

While Stone’s career could have easily gone down the teen comedy trajectory, she was clever enough to instead mix it up, appearing in films like Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), The Help (2011) and Amazing Spider-Man (2014). Occasionally though she missed the mark and starred in some duds. But the occasional flop didn’t deter Stone from bouncing back as she did in her first Oscar nominated supporting role for Birdman (2014). Two years later she won an Oscar for her leading role in the musical La La Land (2016). A Golden Globe nomination the following year for her portrayal of Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes (2017) and another Globe and Oscar nominations in The Favourite (2018) pretty much rounded out her phenomenal decade. 

4. Jennifer Lawrence.

Notable Performances: Silver Lining Playbook (2012), Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), American Hustle (2013), Joy (2015), Mother! (2017) and Red Sparrow (2018). 

There is no ceiling on what Jennifer Lawrence can hope to achieve next. She is one of the best actresses going around nowadays who has successfully balanced a career with leading roles in dramas and huge blockbusters. Interestingly, at the midway point of 2010s she was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood thanks to her final Hunger Games instalment.

Whilst we could easily talk all day about Lawrence as Mystique from the X-Men series or Kathniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, it is her acting prowess several steps away from her blockbuster roles in films like Silver Lining Playbook (2012), American Hustle (2013), Joy (2015) and Mother! (2017) that cemented her place as one of the decades best actresses. Her stunning performance in 2012’s romantic comedy-drama Silver Lining Playbook in particular caught an entire industry by surprise, including her veteran co-star Robert De Niro, who was absolutely mesmerised by her energy. So good was her performance as Tiffany Maxwell, a grieving young widow with depression, that Lawrence walked away with an Oscar for Best Actress for her role.

Lawrence who is never one to rest on her laurels, rounded out the decade in controversy with performances in the nightmarish Mother! and the ‘skin-crawling’ violent and sexually-charged Russian spy thriller Red Sparrow. The latter in particular saw Lawrence for the first time consent to nudity onscreen, something that went against her better judgement, after being the victim of a 2014 nude-photo hack. But Red Sparrow’s script was too irresistible to pass on for the aspiring actress. “I realized there’s a difference between consent and not. I showed up for the first day and I did it and I felt empowered,” Lawrence said in 2018. “I feel like something that was taken from me, I got back…It’s my body, it’s my art, and it’s my choice. And if you don’t like boobs, you should not go see Red Sparrow.”

3. Rachel Weisz.

Notable Performances:The Whistleblower (2010), The Deep Blue Sea (2011), The Lobster (2015), Denial (2016), My Cousin Rachel (2017), Disobedience (2017) and The Favourite (2018).

To put it simply veteran Oscar winning actress Weisz has admitted that she was often guilty of taking whatever role comes her way so as to pay the rent. But that seemingly defeatist mentality changed when she accepted the lead role in The Whistleblower (2010), playing real life heroine Kathryn Bolkovac, a former Nebraska policewoman who served as an International Police Task Force human rights investigator, who found herself in the middle of a gross human trafficking web in Bosnia.

For Weisz, The Whistleblower was the beginning of a successful run of standout films in the 2010s that showcased her growing confidence and credentials in playing female-centric roles. For instance, her performance as the wife of a prominent judge who embarks on a romantic affair in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea (2012) was so well received that it earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Other notably films she anchored in which her character work also excelled includes Denial (2016), The Light Between Oceans (2016) and My Cousin Rachel (2017).

At number three, Weisz is probably the most underrated actress on this list. But is she deserving of her spot here? You bet! Whether she is pulling out all the stops with dramatic heartache in Disobedience (2017) or getting her claws stuck into actress Emma Stone as Lady Sarah in her Oscar nominated supporting role in the period black comedy The Favourite (2018), Weisz has truly proven to be one of the best at what she does.

2. Jessica Chastain.

Notable Performance: The Help (2011), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2013), Interstellar (2014), A Most Violent Year (2014), Miss Sloane (2016), The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), Woman Walks Ahead (2017) and Molly’s Game (2018).

It is no secret that I love Jessica Chastain and everything that she stands for, not only as a warm attentive modern woman, but also as a successful actress who uses her position in Hollywood to shine a light on other actresses. 

To Chastain every single line in a script related to the characters she is going to play before coming anywhere near a camera is questioned and interpreted. It helps her draw on her own conclusions about how to tackle a role. Moreover, this clever foresight together with her transformative qualities allows her to handle films of a variety of tones and genres, and that is why she repeatedly produces amazing polished performances. It is fair to say Chastain is one of the best actresses of the last five years or so which is particularly evident in the amazing choice of strong female characters that she seems to deliberately seek out.

In short, of those strong female characters she deliberately seeks out, I definitely recommend you check out her performances in A Most Violent Year (2015) Miss Sloane (2016) and Molly’s Game (2017) as a starting point. Next circle back and immerse yourself in her extraordinary Golden Globe winning and Oscar nomination performance as CIA agent Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Of course, don’t forget her acclaimed supporting role of an aspiring socialite in The Help (2011) which incidentally landed Chastain her first Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. Finally, don’t miss her spellbinding performances in the American gothic romance Crimson Peak (2015) and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2013).

1. Amy Adams.

Notable performances: The Fighter (2010), The Master (2012), American Hustle (2013), Big Eyes (2014), Arrival (2016), Nocturnal Animals (2016), Sharp Objects (2018 TV mini-series), and Vice (2018).

It has been picked up on many time through interviews that Amy Adams desire to rise above her insecurities has made her a better actress. Interestingly despite all the acclaim, with two Golden Globe wins and five Oscar nominations, Adams is best known for picking roles that don’t scream ‘look at me’. So how do you know Amy Adams is one of the best contemporary actresses going around? Well, from her film debut in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) to Vice (2018), Adams has bewitched us for two decades now, but importantly the last ten years has been a master class in method acting. Her ability to ‘climb inside a character’ has helped audiences to easily relate to the roles Adams brings to the screen.

I have to say it’s hard to believe Adams has yet to pick up an Oscar win. It’s the one glaring thing from her diverse and engaging career. While awards speak volumes of success, praise from her peers is seemingly better, particularly when it come from those who know what they are talking about, especially from the likes of Meryl Streep. Interestingly, Streep’s praise of Adams a few years back illustrates what many of us have come to recognise about Adams and that is her humility, drive and conviction.

Whether she is playing a con-artist in American Hustle (2013) or a religious scheming wife in The Master (2012); or saving the world from an alien invasion in Arrival (2018) to a reporter who must confront the psychological trauma of her past in the TV mini-series Sharp Objects (2018), I guess that is why Adams is above all others the best actress of the 2010s.

Photo credit: The movie still of the actresses represented here in this article, with the exception of the image of Emma Stone which is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license, are used under the rationale of fair use, which has helped me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone.

4 comments on “Top Ten Lists: The Best Actresses of the 2010s.

  1. Great post Robert, and very well-written (other than for the relatively minor misspelling of Frances McDormand’s name LOL). I essentially agree with your choices, although I would be one to argue for the inclusion of Cate Blanchett, who’s one of my favorite actresses working today. I loved her in every role I’ve seen her in, especially “Notes on a Scandal”, “Blue Jasmine” and “Carol”. I also love Amy Adams and Saoirse Ronan.

    • Thanks for the feedback Jeff. I have corrected my error. I’m glad you agree with my appraisal of the best actresses of the 2010s. Cate Blanchett was a tricky one though. It still pains me that I left her out.

      • Top 10 lists are inherently challenging, as there often seems to be an otherwise worthy contender that must be sacrificed for another.

  2. I love all of these actresses too but I would add in a few more Australians Toni Collette, Judy Davis and Rachel Griffiths but that’s just personal preference. This was such a well-written and fascinating piece thank you Rob

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