Best of the 2010s: Actresses


Every month I've been focusing on a particular genre of film and count down the 10 Best of the Decade from that genre. This will, ultimately, lead to a 100 Best list. In addition to this, our podcast, The Movie Lovers, has had a corresponding segment monthly during the Film Faves portion of the show wherein we count down our favorite films.

We've gone through quite the list of genres over the past several months. So, this month, as we approach the end of the year, we turn our attention to the talents of the decade. So, the decade is nearly over. Let's look at the actresses that helped define the decade.


This has been an incredible decade for actresses! There was a growing movement for better representation and respect towards women in media this decade that lead to the #TimesUp movement. In that time more and more female-focused stories kept popping up. The term F-Rated came about in 2014 and was semi-popularized in March of 2017 when IMDb adopted it as a keyword. There were also many acting debuts and break-outs this decade by women, some of which you'll see appear on this list.

What factors are taken into consideration when crafting a Best-of list? Well, one of the first is whether the actress is one that comes to mind when reflecting on the decade. Did the actress make her debut or break-out performance during the decade or even shortly before it?  How prolific or varied was her during the decade? And what sort of win/loss record does her filmography have critically? Rotten Tomatoes plays a large role in answering that question. Box office is not a deciding factor, as any piece of crap can make a ton of money in theaters (case in point: Disney remakes). All of these other things play a role in weighing a list of over two dozen actresses and boil them down to just 10.

Note: while there have been a great number of talent in TV this decade our focus is on those in film.

Let's get to it...

10. Melissa McCarthy
Best Movies: Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
I don't think there is a more decade-defining comedic actress than Melissa McCarthy in the 2010s. She made her breakout in Paul Feig's 2011 comedy Bridesmaids where she played the sexually aggressive and vulgar member of the group. From then on she starred as the lead in at least one movie every single year for the rest of the decade - in the case of 2013 and 2016 it was twice each! Not every film was gold, but McCarthy puts everything she has into every role. In 2018 she tackled her first dramatic lead role in Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which won her rave reviews and awards. McCarthy starred in no less than 16 films this decade, making her one of the most important actresses to help shape the decade in film.

9. Lupita Nyong'o
Best Movies: 12 Years a Slave, Black Panther, Us
There is no denying Lupita shook everyone to their core with her debut performance in 12 Years a Slave back in 2013. But she might not be an obvious choice for this list. Or maybe she is. After all, she has starred in no less than eight theatrically-released films this decade and not a single one of them is critically panned. No other actress this decade can share that claim. When polled on Instagram, our followers chose Lupita as the best actress of the decade, beating out many names on this list and the likes of Tilda Swinton. Yet, aside from bit parts in The Jungle Book and the Star Wars trilogy, her esteem can be attributed to the three movies listed below her name above. Her most powerful performance was the emotional turn as the horribly abused slave in 12 Years a Slave. She went from 12 Years a Slave's past black experience to Black Panther's future image of black empowerment. That said, her most interesting performance may be in 2019's Us, not just for playing two completely different characters, but for other very spoiler-heavy reasons we can't go into here. Seeing Lupita play those characters and their arcs is fascinating and deserves further chatter throughout the culture. So, don't underestimate Lupita. She'll surprise you.

8. Jennifer Lawrence
Best Movies: Winter's Bone, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle
With 118 awards Jennifer Lawrence may be the most decorated actress of the decade. Lawrence came in hot immediately this decade with the 2010 indie film Winter's Bone and small, but noticeable roles, in Like Crazy and The Beaver. Those films quickly landed her a role in two of the decade's biggest franchises, X-Men, as a young Mystique and The Hunger Games, as the main character Katniss Everdeen. While critics and cinephiles already loved her, those two franchises launched her to the stratosphere of cultural relevance and stardom. One can debate the quality of her roles in those films, but they cannot deny the ubiquity those roles had this decade. The only reason Lawrence is as far down the list as she is is because, after working with David O. Russell in not one, but two films back-to-back (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), her choices largely went downhill the rest of the decade, starting with 2014's Serena by Susanne Bier and continuing on with 2015's Joy (also by Russell), 2016's disastrous Passengers, 2018's Red Sparrow, and the last two X-Men films, Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix (although it might be telling that Lawrence exits the latter quite quickly). Her output went from three films a year to one film annually and a project with Amy Schumer never came to pass. It isn't as though her star has faded and she's disappeared, as she has three projects in the works. However, the potency of her presence has softened a bit during the second half of the decade. Still, a list like this would be remiss without acknowledging her as one of the strongest and hottest talents to rise from this decade and make a mark that cannot be ignored.

7. Margot Robbie
Best Movies: The Wolf of Wall Street, I Tonya, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Margot Robbie is a star. Ever since her role in The Wolf of Wall Street, which won her an Empire Award for Best Female Newcomer, the camera and audiences have loved her. But she's proven herself to be much more than a pretty and charismatic face on the screen. While she's had the occasional roles in films like Suicide Squad, The Legend of Tarzan, and Peter Rabbit, she's pushed herself with weighty and demanding roles. She started with the mediocre Z for Zachariah and Goodbye Christopher Robin. But then came I, Tonya, Mary Queen of Scots, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and the upcoming Bombshell. These are the roles that really pushed her and showed she had plenty of substance and was willing to go in some very challenging places as an actress. The one thing all of these dramatic roles have in common is they are women who were victimized or manipulated by men. Being an outspoken supporter of the #TimesUp movement, these roles helped shape Margot Robbie as one of the most important actresses of the era. She exemplifies in her roles why this movement needs to happen and why we need to make progress. She also made Harley Quinn, another woman abused by a man, one of the most iconic characters of the decade in what is otherwise a rather forgettable movie (Suicide Squad). She will reprise this role in four other projects in the upcoming decade, as well as take on other icons like Barbie and Maid Marian. The future is very bright with Margot in the picture.

6. Kristen Stewart
Best Movies: Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Certain Women, Personal Shopper
Kristen Stewart is probably the actress who has been the biggest surprise and had the most growth, yet is still one of the most underrated. Even though it has been eight years since Stewart finally put the Twilight franchise to bed and behind her and has starred in over a dozen films since she is still thought of as the Twilight girl who can't emote (just look at the comments to any news post about her on social media). And even when she was starring in one of the biggest YA products of the decade, she was also starring in smaller indie films like Adventureland, The Runaways, and On the Road. They weren't necessarily good, but she showed she had more going on than Bella Swan. She proved that with just about every film she starred in throughout the rest of the decade, her best being her films with Olivier Assayas. In those films she holds her own against the likes of Juliette Binoche and outacts Chloe Moretz. She is the rock of those films and earned universal critical praise for her performances. Camp X-Ray is also quite notable, as she plays an officer at Guantanamo who slowly begins to question the moral integrity of her surroundings. If Bella Swan was your introduction to Stewart then Camp X-Ray is nothing short of stunning, as well as her work with Assayas, Kelly Reichardt, and others. You get the sense, watching these films that Stewart is meant for small indie films and not big budget franchises; they fit her perfectly and she excels most in them. That's not to say she's staying away from studio films; Charlie's Angels just opened and she has a underwater thriller coming soon. But she is one of the decade's biggest surprises and one we should all be grateful is still working.

5. Emma Stone
Best Movies: Easy A, Birdman, La La Land, The Favourite
Emma Stone has got to be one of the most iconic actresses of the decade. Thanks to roles in Easy A, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Help, Birdman, Battle of the Sexes, and The Favourite you'd be hard-pressed to think of this decade without thinking about at least one of Stone's movies. She first got attention shortly before the decade in a small role in Superbad and then a supporting role in Zombieland (which she reprised 10 years later). She proved herself perfectly capable of leading a film when she starred in the Will Gluck 2010 comedy Easy A. That hit comedy launched her to stardom.  Since then Stone slowly inched her way towards weightier material like The Help in 2011 and Birdman in 2014, stretching herself as more than just that fun and relatable redhead. It wasn't long before she won her first Oscar (La La Land), along with 16 other awards, cementing her as a serious talent of our time. The past few years (and 60+ awards) have shown that she's growing as an actress. But she's still the fun-loving girl she was at the beginning of the decade; not only has she just done another Zombieland film, but she will return to her lone animated movie, The Croods, next year and star as Cruella de Vil in a live action Disney film in 2021 (she will also be working with Damien Chazelle and Alexander Payne in other projects). We have a lot more to look forward to from Emma in the coming years.

4. Amy Adams
Best Movies: The Fighter, The Muppets, American Hustle, Arrival
There were a lot of incredible actresses to breakout, debut, or come into their own this decade. Amy Adams is one of the greatest. Like many talents on these lists she first caught critical attention shortly before the decade began with award-winning supporting performances in Junebug and Doubt and caught audience attention in Enchanted, Sunshine Cleaning, and Julie & Julia. It's fair to say that it was this decade that she really dug in and established herself as one of our most powerful actresses, first in the award-winning The Fighter and then The Master, American Hustle, Big Eyes, Arrival, and Nocturnal Animals. In-between those she sprinkled in a little Muppets, a small role in Spike Jonze's Her, and a little Justice League here and there.  As delightful as she is in any role she inhabits, those aren't the ones she will be remembered for this decade as much as the former set of films by the likes of David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tim Burton, Tom Ford, and Denis Villeneuve. And she's not slowing down any time soon, as she has two films with Joe Wright and Ron Howard slated for release at the beginning of the next decade and a sequel to her star-making Enchanted announced for later down the road. She has staying power and she's one of the few actresses who will be in the spotlight for many years to come.

3. Saoirse Ronan
Best Movies: Hanna, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Brooklyn, Lady Bird
Saoirse Ronan raised eyebrows as the meddling little girl in Atonement just a couple years before this decade began in 2007. During the course of this decade she has fulfilled her potential as one of the most interesting actresses and she's done so by primarily sticking to period pieces! Well, okay, in truth only six of her 15 live action films are period pieces - but four of those (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Brooklyn, Mary Queen of Scots and the upcoming Little Women) represent most of her best performances this decade. In fact, her choices this decade have led her to only four critically-panned films (The Host, Violet & Daisy, Lost River, and Stockholm, Pennsylvania). Regardless, her two best films - Hanna and Lady Bird - couldn't be more different; one is an action thriller about a teen assassin while the other is about a teen trying to figure out her life and relationships. It's important to note Saoirse is ending the decade at the age of 25! Her talent is staggering and it is remarkable to think she is just getting started.

2. Scarlett Johansson
Best Movies: Avengers series, Her, Under the Skin, Jojo Rabbit
So, Scarlett Johansson broke out last decade with Ghost World in 2001 and Lost in Translation launched her to the stratosphere in 2003. She spent the rest of that decade in a hodgepodge of films that included The Prestige, The Island, The Nanny Diaries and a handful of Woody Allen films like Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She had a fairly strong presence last decade. It's fair to say that this was the decade that she really stretched herself as an actress. Yes, her role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Widow made her a big presence in the decade. But she didn't rest on those ginormous films. In-between she worked with Cameron Crowe, Spike Jonze, Jon Favreau, Jonathan Glazer, The Coen Bros, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Taika Waititi on smaller films, some of which demanded more of her and challenged her as an actress. This is where Scarlett really blossomed as a talent this decade. In fact, she could've passed entirely on the part of Black Widow and she'd still make it on this list because of all of her other projects, a couple of which are among the best films the decade had to offer.

1. Jessica Chastain
Best Movies: Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar, A Most Violent Year, The Martian, Molly's Game
Jessica Chastain is the greatest dramatic actress of the decade. Of all of the actresses to break out this decade there is no comparison; she is a powerhouse. She also has the most critically-acclaimed films of any actress this decade with a whopping 16 out of 25 films! Her performances in Zero Dark Thirty, Miss Sloane, A Most Violent Year, and Molly's Game demanded our attention. And she got it, as well as a whopping 80 awards, including a Golden Globe for Zero Dark Thirty. Next to Jennifer Lawrence, she is the most decorated actress of the decade. What's also interesting about Chastain is when she stumbles it's usually with big studio tentpole films like Huntsman: Winter's War and Dark Phoenix. Her choices to work with directors like Jeff Nichols, Terrence Malick, Kathryn Bigelow, Christopher Nolan, Andy Muschietti, Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott, J.C. Chandor, and Aaron Sorkin brought her her most interesting roles and notable performances that made her what she is today. By the way, take a look at that resume of directors she's worked for; that is an actor's dream resume and it represents only 6 years' worth of work! Nobody becomes this in-demand by such heavy-hitters without being one of the most talented and promising actresses around. No other actress can claim such an impressive resume and so many accolades in such short amount of time this decade. And don't think she's going to take a break any time soon! She's already prepping roles as Tammy Faye Bakker, Tammy Wynette and in a handful of thrillers. Chastain is sure to be around for quite some time to come.

Honorable Mentions:
Elizabeth Olsen, Marion Cotillard, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson, Greta Gerwig

Those are the best actresses of the decade. Who do you think is the best? Comment below.

Don't forget to check out the rest of the Best of the 2010s series, including last month's horror list and last week's Actors list.  Next we'll move on to Directors of the decade. Who should be considered?

And be sure to check out The Movie Lovers Episode 68 where we countdown our favorite talents of the decade!

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