Let’s fight – Round 2: The best actresses under 40

I know.

I KNOW.

I’m terrible. When I posted the list of the best actors under 40, I said we’d be doing the actresses the next week, and now here it is, months later. What can I say? I’m lazy. But now here we are, with a list of the best actresses under 40. The same rules apply—same age range (25-39) and criteria (body of work, diversity of work, recognition received). I can’t stress enough how much harder this list was than the actors’ list. First, I had waaaay more options. Even after remembering that Rachel Weisz and Gong Li (if you’re scratching your head at Li, check out Raise the Red Lantern or Farewell My Concubine) were over 40, I still had over 30 candidates. At one point, I had five French actresses alone. I know you’re going to be like, “Where’s so-and-so?!” and want to know how I could possibly leave what’s-her-face off the list. The answer is probably that she tied with someone on the list and I made a taste call between them.

Also, this list is in for a shake-up over the next few years as some recent break-out talents continue to establish themselves, like Rooney Mara, Gabourey Sidibe and Anna Kendrick, and foreign-language imports extend their influence, like Aishwarya Rai and Noomi Rapace. And if you want to yell at me for excluding the likes of Insert Name Here, I’m going to agree with you. (For instance, Natalie Portman and Emily Blunt were numbers 16 and 17 but if they rank higher for you, I get it.) This was tough and it was a case of splitting hairs across the board. There may be a dearth of good roles for leading ladies, but there is no shortage of talented actresses.

On to the list!

Jessica Chastain

Where you’ve seen her: The Tree of Life, The Help

Don’t miss her in: Take Shelter

Going from zero to sixty this year is Jessica Chastain, who came out of nowhere to have a year of six (!!!) movies, each vastly different and featuring a range of work that immediately thrust Chastain not only into the spotlight, but onto lists like this. From ditzy trophy wife in The Help to 1950’s homemaker in The Tree of Life to a Mossad agent in The Debt to a woman watching her husband break down in Take Shelter, Chastain is a grounded, convincing presence on screen. She isn’t a showy actress but instead inhabits characters that we recognize and can immediately identify with, aided by her easy, natural touch and ability to look like a wholly new person role to role. Chastain has a long and bright future ahead of her.

Penelope Cruz

Where you’ve seen her: Blow, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Don’t miss her in: Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother)

Penelope Cruz does her best work in her native Spanish, which is less about her accent and more about the kind of roles she gets in the US versus Spain. Here she’s a sex bomb; there she’s a serious and seriously gifted actress. Pedro Almodovar’s favorite muse, Cruz can break your heart with her big eyes. She’s as capable of playing the vulnerable ingénue as she is the scheming mistress, but one of her best talents is that, despite her crazy amazing face, she can seem like such an everywoman. Beauty can be alienating but Cruz wields hers like a defense, a shield to be raised or lowered moment to moment, giving glimpses of an interior life within her characters that enriches her performances.

Vera Farmiga

Where you’ve seen her: The Departed, Up in the Air

Don’t miss her in: Down to the Bone

If you told me fifteen years ago that cheesy historical TV show Roar would produce two of the greatest talents of this generation, I would’ve laughed in your face. Remember that show? Oh my god, it was SO CHEESY. But its two stars were Heath Ledger and Vera Farmiga, so of course, I remember that show not only for the fromage but also for being the first time I saw Farmiga and her piercing eyes (and Ledger’s smile, sigh). In the years since, Farmiga has become one of the most formidable actresses around. She’s a “no bullshit” actress, relying on simplicity of action to communicate with an audience. There’s never any fuss with Farmiga, just complete realization of character every time. And with Higher Ground she earned stellar reviews not just as an actress, but as a director, signaling a new phase to an already interesting career.

Judy Greer

Where you’ve seen her: 27 Dresses, Love and Other Drugs

Don’t miss her in: The Descendants

The greatest character actress under 40, Judy Greer is a That Girl—you know, That Girl from That One Movie/TV Show. Everyone has seen Greer in at least one thing. A natural comedienne, she can just as easily lend a project depth as she can lighten up the proceedings with her killer timing. Greer can be both spaz and poised princess, ditz and savant, best friend and bitch. She’s mastered the “airhead secretary” but is equally believable as a woman in charge. The audience follows where Greer leads—one look from her can determine if we like or loathe a character, which is the trait filmmakers are increasingly keying into. It’s depressing that most will now know her as “That Girl on Two and a Half Men”, but the last couple years have also seen Greer’s film roles getting better and better, and that shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Where you’ve seen her: The Dark Knight, Crazy Heart

Don’t miss her in: Sherrybaby

Maggie Gyllenhaal has one of the best bitch faces in the business and she’s the type to meet suggestions that she should be more accessible with a sneer, but it’s that very expressiveness that makes her an effective actress. Gyllenhaal can take on the harder edges, playing the bitches, the sanctimonious, the unlikeable, but she can just as easily drop her guard and show real vulnerability. Her most underappreciated talent as an actress is a natural wit and ability to read a comic line. Gyllenhaal has good timing and is a lot funnier than she usually gets credit for, which will hopefully be on display in the Victorian sex comedy Hysteria. But it’s her ability to make us care about the otherwise unlikeable that lands her on this list.

Sally Hawkins

Where you’ve seen her: Happy Go Lucky, Made in Dagenham

Don’t miss her in: Vera Drake

As the unrelentingly cheerful Poppy Cross in Happy Go Lucky, Sally Hawkins was so personable and bright it was almost unbearable. No one should be that happy! And Hawkins, with her huge smile, was the perfect person to communicate Poppy’s particular brand of cheery, though she can just as easily sneer and tear down, as she did in Jane Eyre. But it’s her brightness that sets Hawkins apart. Watching her, even when her character is less than nice, just makes you feel good. Either she’s actually making you root for her or she’s giving you the satisfaction of watching a job well done, but either way, she has a visceral effect on audiences. She’s a scene dictator like Michael Fassbender, someone who can set the tone and command the emotions in the room without dominating their scene partners. Her no muss/no fuss approach to acting combined with her ability to add shine to a scene makes Hawkins worth watching for sure.

Melanie Laurent

Where you’ve seen her: Inglorious Basterds, Beginners

Don’t miss her in: Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas (I’m Fine, Don’t Worry)

There are a lot of super talented French actresses working right now—I probably could’ve made this list just using French actresses. So why did Melanie Laurent get the edge? For one thing, she doesn’t struggle with English as some of her peers do (see also: Marion Cotillard, Audrey Tautou), and for another, it’s the way she can command a scene or slide into the background of one just as easily. Laurent is fascinating to watch—even in the face of Christoph Waltz’s mesmerizing Colonel Landa in Inglorious Basterds, Laurent remains an engrossing scene partner. But she can also take a backseat in a scene and not detract from anyone else on screen, which is an underrated trait for a lead actor. Laurent continues working in French cinema, but she’s also gaining more and more notice for her English-language work, so it’s only a matter of time before someone gives her a shot in a Hollywood production. It’ll be interesting to see what trajectory her career ultimately takes.

Charlize Theron

Where you’ve seen her: The Italian Job, Monster

Don’t miss her in: In the Valley of Elah

Another of the great bitch faces, Charlize Theron is so beautiful she’s probably from another planet. Yet she won an Oscar for getting ugly—physically and emotionally—in Monster, the movie about serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron is particularly fearless as a performer—with her looks it would be easy to coast by on a string of romantic movies and tear-jerkers, but she instead chooses challenging, difficult roles, and is not afraid to get her hands dirty by playing murderers and villainesses. She’s only now coming back to work after a two-year break with Young Adult, for which she is earning rave reviews, and has several high-profile projects on the horizon. Given her penchant for choosing the tough roles, Theron is sure to have one of the most interesting careers among her peers.

Michelle Williams

Where you’ve seen her: Shutter Island, Blue Valentine

Don’t miss her in: Wendy & Lucy

Whatever else I may think of Michelle Williams, I will never deny that she is hugely talented. As she enters her thirties her face is retaining its gamine quality and she wears her emotional vulnerability on her sleeve (as a performer) in a way that not many actresses have since Audrey Hepburn. It’s that quality that made her a fantastic Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn—Williams’ emotions are close to the surface and always threaten to bubble over yet she keeps tight control of them. That ability is what caught everyone’s eye in her breakout role in Brokeback Mountain, and it remains one of her greatest strengths as an actress. Williams appears to be a waifish naïf but she has a steely backbone that gives her performances more meat than it may initially seem.

Kate Winslet

Where you’ve seen her: Titanic, Mildred Pierce

Don’t miss her in: Little Children

Kate Winslet makes this list just for the face she made when she lost the Oscar to Helen Hunt (which I tried to find a picture or video of and couldn’t). A legendary WTF face for sure. But seriously, Winslet is on here because she really is a massively talented actress. Trying to choose just two of her most memorable performances was really hard because almost all of Winslet’s performances are memorable. She even made HBO’s interminable Mildred Pierce watchable. If I had to pick one trait that distinguishes Winslet as an actress, it would be intelligence. She gives her characters so much of it that they feel like they could walk off the screen and be an actual person. From lively Marianne Dashwood to depressed April Wheeler, Winslet creates thinking characters that each leaves a mark on audiences.

Honorable Mentions:

Amy Adams

Keira Knightley

Catalina Sandino Moreno

Freida Pinto

Zhang Ziyi

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17 thoughts on “Let’s fight – Round 2: The best actresses under 40

  1. Catalina Sandino Moreno
    Freida Pinto
    Zhang Ziyi

    Can these 3 really be in contention? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming you chose these 3 based on their one breakout role and not on an established body of work. That said, I’m sooo glad you put Judy Greer and Sally Hawkins on your list.

    1. Moreno — Maria Full of Grace, yes, but also Che and being the best thing about Fast Food Nation, Love in the Time of Cholera and The Hottest State, respectively. She’s in too many all-around bad movies to make the list proper, but she’s an excellent actress.

      Pinto — Slumdog, sure, but check out Miral and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Also excellent, but hasn’t worked quite enough to satisfy the requirement.

      Zhang (Ziyi? I can never get that right) — Crouching Tiger, of course, but also House of Flying Daggers, The Road Home, Hero, and she was the least-sucky party of Memoirs of a Geisha. She’s one of Asia’s best, and narrowly missed the master list.

      1. Eeehh, I try to stay away from categorizing the young’uns because it’s so hard to tell how they’ll develop. Like, I just realized that Carey Mulligan and Mia Wasikowska are basically the same person and within a few years one will cancel the other out.

  2. jen

    I like Judy Greer but come on, there’s no criteria for her inclusion in this list other than your girlcrush… I’d pick Kristen Wiig instead. Shocked at lack of Natalie Portman in this list. And also, Melanie Laurent over Marion Cotillard? We’re fighting, Sarah 😉

  3. I still don’t understand what people rave about when they talk about Melanie Laurent. I haven’t seen Beginners, but I did see her in Inglorious Basterds. I found that character to be very one-note. Can’t imagine why people were mentioning her for an Oscar nom for Supporting Actress on that one.

  4. Sarah

    I really have no complaints with this list. It would be interesting to see it again in 7-8 years since I feel like the 15-25 list is currently pretty stacked. I’m so glad you included Judy Greer because I just love her and people might discredit her for always playing BFFs to the Jennifers and the Kates.

    I would be interested in hearing more of what you have to say on Michelle Williams. The “Whatever else I may think of Michelle Williams…” comment intrigued me [or if you’ve commented on it in the past, to provide a link]. She’s probably top of my list just for what she did in Blue Valentine and Brokeback. Also, I like stories where Oscar-type actors come out of lame/awesome teen shows.

  5. Sigh, I’m just sad to see how both for men and women, the state of affairs regarding diveristy has not changed from one iota.
    Not that it’s on you, not at all, it just reminds me of the ongoing context of white washing (see the utter fuckery of the Akira casting process – the ridiculous casting of Bane in TDKR completely erasing his latin american descent or of Talia & Ras Al Ghul…) and the lack of any prominent actor/actress of color who doesn’t play the role of token.

    But yeah, I guess your list is the most accurate description of most prolific/successful in Hollywood. I’m just glad Natalie Portman wasn’t on it.

    Also hope i’ll see Golshifteh Farhani on your blog one day 🙂

  6. ari

    I think Marion Cotillard should be on this list. I love her movies, even when she doesn’t have the best part.
    Now about the list I can’t say I like Jessica Chastain. I can’t even remember her name most of the time..

  7. Nikki

    I agree with a lot of your choices on this list. Love, love l,ove Judy Greer(seriously her role on Arrested Development was amazing).

    I also can’t argue with Kate Winslet in terms of range and consistency nobody does it better- for my money Little Children and Revolutionary Road are her best work.

    Michelle Williams continues to amazing but I wonder what kind of roles she will take as she ages. I am interested to see what she does in terms of her continued role selection.

    I also really like Melanie Laurent but I cannot believe she made this list over Marion Cotillard who is so amazing and affecting in all of her roles. She is incredibly talented and I think she will continue to transition into English films well.

    Also, where is the love for Jennifer Lawerence? I know she doesn’t have the body of work yet but her subtle presence in Like Crazy was terrific and I can’t say enough about Winter’s Bone.

    And where is Carey Mulligan? She should be up here for her work in Drive alone to say nothing of an education. She is excellent in everything she does. I mean Keira Knightly gets a mention but not her????

    And Amy Adams deserves more than a mention. I haven’t loved her more commercial roles but she is great in movies like Junebug(meerkats!!) and Doubt.

    This list needs to be bigger- so many amazing actresses working right now.

    1. JLaw is under 25, thus she doesn’t qualify. See previous comments for my stance on the under 25s.

      As for Carey, I said it before and I’ll say it again. I realized she and Mia Wasikowska are basically the same person and it took the shine off both of them. Also, I’m still traumatized from her shitty singing in Shame.

      Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

    2. anaishilator

      Agreed. Its amazing how there are so many young talented actress primed to be the next IT

      The next Angelina or Julia or Halle.

      I still cant understand what the deal is with the young actors. I have a feeling brad pitt will be in movies til his face falls off.

  8. Caoimhe O'Reilly

    Freida Pinto?! Really?! Great list but the Pinto is throwing me off, in the roles she has im always ‘distracted’ by her, almost in a way of let her finish the line and not mess up and move on. She’s that kind of actress for me. A HUGE yes for Judy Greer(loved her since Arrested Development) and Sally Hawkins. I’d sneak on Olivia Coleman a million times, i know she’s only popping up on international radars recently but she has been doing stellar work(admittedly on mostly tv) over here for years and her potential for more is assured.

  9. anaishilator

    Ummmmm….whither Emily Blunt??

    I mean, there can clearly be no definitive winner, and maybe I skimmed the article and missed it but seriously, she should be tops on your list no??

    Also, innit a bit early for Rooney Mara? I mean, lets see her actually create a character first before we annoint her with anything.

    And Vera Fermiga is under 40? I mean she is beautiful and all, but she needs to catch up on her beauty rest because when she did The Departed I thought she was in her mid 30’s then.

  10. anaishilator

    Also. you must reeeeeeeeeeaaaaaallllllyyyyyyyy be tired of Natalie Portman, lol. Still holding her raggedy Oscar acceptance speech against her? Or maybe it was the GG where she had that rambling incoherent acceptance speech.

  11. Elizabeth

    Freida Pinto!? Really!? Watching her is like watching paint dry.

    Lots of white people. Not your fault, but still a sad and depressing state of affairs.

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