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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Catalina Sandino Moreno