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Best Actress Oscar-Winners Since 2000, Ranked Worst to Best

From British royalty to the mighty Meryl Streep, our updated list of the ladies who’ve nabbed Academy Awards in the 21st century

Unlike the Best Actor champs of the past 18 years, where Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis have both won twice, the Best Actress field features no two-time winners. Instead, this category has served up a pretty decent rundown of Hollywood’s current acting royalty, including Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard – and even a few Americans here and there.

What’s funny, however, is that our finest actresses have rarely won for their finest roles lately, which makes our ranking of this century’s Best Actress victors especially challenging. But we set aside a performer’s body of work in determining our list, focusing instead on the specific role. Consequently, this will probably be the only ranking of great actresses on the Web that puts Meryl dead last. Please know that you’re first in our hearts, Ms. Streep, especially after that kick-ass Golden Globes speech.

So without further ado, our breakdown of the 21st century’s Best Actress Oscar-Winners, from worst to best.

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4

Cate Blanchett, ‘Blue Jasmine’

What does a slow-motion nervous breakdown look like? In our worst nightmares, we fear it resembles Cate Blanchett's comic/tragic portrayal of the recently widowed Jasmine in Woody Allen's dark comedy, which stands back with a mixture of restraint and horror as it observes a woman's painful unraveling. Blanchett has never been one to hide her characters' tics and mannerisms, but as Jasmine, who is trying to rebuild her life in San Francisco after some unfortunate circumstances in New York, the role requires an endless, fascinating litany of fried nerves, frantic justifications and barely-held-together posturing, combining to dramatize a life inexorably circling the drain. Winning her second Oscar, Blanchett is volcanically funny at times, but we never quite laugh at Jasmine: Her mental collapse is so complete that it's harrowing to watch.

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3

Julia Roberts, ‘Erin Brockovich’

Stars matter: Rarely has that been truer than when Julia Roberts locked onto the story of Erin Brockovich, a struggling single mother who helped fight for a small Southern California community that had been slowly poisoned by a Goliath energy corporation. This is not to suggest that Erin Brockovich isn't a smart, moving tale, but it's Roberts' natural likability, brassiness and frank sex appeal that continually elevate the material. (Indeed, this may be the one Steven Soderbergh film that belongs more to its lead than to the director.) Telling off corporate bigwigs, squaring off with a possible love interest (Aaron Eckhart) and hurling magnificent amounts of sass at Albert Finney's befuddled boss, Roberts doesn't so much embody a role as she perfects her persona.

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2

Helen Mirren, ‘The Queen’

The defining quality of Helen Mirren's performance as Queen Elizabeth II is its stillness. And it's in that quiet command that the actress sums up all that's admirable and also antiquated about the British Monarchy: its constant, comforting continued existence, as well as its blinkered myopia. That's a tricky balance, but Mirren walks it perfectly in The Queen, a seemingly straightforward docudrama about the 1997 death of Princess Diana that peeks behind the curtain to see the inner workings of a woman who had reigned, by that time, for 45 years. Neither a straight facsimile nor a nervy reimagining of one of the world's most famous public figures, Mirren prefers to let Elizabeth remain a withdrawn, restrained presence, hinting at her casual callousness but also suggesting a queen who's seen enough history pass to never be surprised by anything that occurs. Mirren has often carried herself with a regal air, but The Queen was her crowning achievement. 

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1

Julianne Moore, ‘Still Alice’

In 1995, Julianne Moore, still relatively unknown at the time, essayed one of the great modern film roles in Safe, playing a suburban housewife who's allergic to the world, a condition that results in her practically disappearing in front of our eyes. Almost 20 years later, now firmly established as one of our best actresses, Moore delivered another astounding performance about a different woman losing herself. Still Alice tells the story of a linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, and the actress plays her as a bright, poised 50-year-old who quickly learns that her intelligence can't save her from a disease that will ravage her memory. It's a performance that's powerfully internal yet expressed with incredible physicality: The woman's fear, resignation and anger come through in Moore's panicked, anguished eyes, but what's especially remarkable is how she articulates the emptying out of a once-vibrant person. Alice is still there, and yet she's not, and the star honors the mysteries of a body that's lost its inner light and yet retained its ineffable soul.

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