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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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10

Charlize Theron, ‘Monster’

In another time, under different circumstances, maybe Aileen Wuornos's life wouldn't have turned out so tragically — maybe she wouldn't have brought such misery to so many who crossed her path. But this is the world we live in, and Monster unsparingly depicts this serial killer and prostitute in all her torment and anger. But what made you care was Charlize Theron's eye-opening performance. It's very easy to dismiss her Oscar win — just one more glamorous actress burying herself in unattractive makeup to prove her dramatic bona fides, right? But that doesn't explain the depth of anguish Theron brought to the role, the sense of active wrestling within Wuornos's head as she tries to make a life with a new lover (Christina Ricci) while killing her johns in a misguided attempt to cope with the abuse she suffered as a child. Theron isn't interested in explaining Wuornos, which makes Monster all the most unsettling: It's very possible Wuornos herself couldn't grapple with the mess of demons swirling inside her.

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9

Brie Larson, ‘Room’

For us folks who’d been following Brie Larson’s career in indie films like Short Term 12 and noticed how she could slyly steal scenes in supporting roles (see Rampart, Don Jon and the Jump Street movies), we knew it would only be a matter of time before she was recognized as a major talent by voters. The surprise was that it happened this quick for the young actress – but really, how many times does a plum role like Room‘s resident hostage/loving mother come around? And how many performers could have lent such grace and maternal grit to the part while also being the perfect screen partner to the equally intense Jacob Tremblay? It’s both a win and an A-list coronation.

Best; Actress; Oscar; Winners; Jennifer Lawrence; Silver Linings Playbook

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Actress Jennifer Lawrence accepts the Best Actress award for "Silver Linings Playbook" during the Oscars held at the Dolby Theatre on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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8

Jennifer Lawrence, ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

As we enter the umpteenth year of J.Law hysteria, it can be easy to forget what inspired all the hoopla in the first place. Revisit Silver Linings Playbook, in which Lawrence plays Tiffany, a recent widow who’s mourning her dead husband but also battling ongoing issues with depression. That describes the character, but not the way the young actress portrays her, which is as a combustible, brittle woman who doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going — empowered by her attractiveness and sexuality but also afraid of what falling in love with a new man (Bradley Cooper) might mean. It’s not often that the movies produce a “troubled” character this layered and vibrant, and Lawrence’s livewire performance typifies what’s so tremendous about her acting: It feels urgent, compelling and lifelike without ever feeling fussed-over or a fluke. The backlash is coming, but SLP will be here to remind us why it wasn’t all hype.

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in LA LA LAND.

Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

7

Emma Stone, ‘La La Land’

After all the furor died down around La La Land — Was it escapist pap, or a deft, melancholy salute to the challenges of balancing art and love? Was it a too much of a back-patting Hollywood throwback in the year of Moonlight? Did Ryan Gosling really save jazz? — what remained was Emma Stone’s performance as Mia. The big screen has been filled with stories of dreamers moving to Los Angeles to make their name, but Stone encapsulated them all in her giddy, dorky enthusiasm and sweet demeanor. Here’s a character whose optimism is boundless, and you fear what will happen if the cruel crush of reality ever knocks her down. It’s not easy to portray an indomitable spirit, but Stone reveals all the courage and faith that go into believing in love and dreams. She puts a song in your heart and a lump in your throat. 

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6

Halle Berry, ‘Monster’s Ball’

Because Halle Berry had mostly done comedies and X-Men movies before Monster's Ball, it's possible that her Oscar triumph was partly a surprised reaction from some Academy voters that she had such dramatic chops. But that patronizing attitude doesn't do justice to what's an exceedingly raw portrayal of Leticia, a working-class Georgian who loses both her husband and son over the course of the film, falling into an ill-advised love affair with Billy Bob Thornton's racist prison guard. (The buildup to their intense, fumbling sex scene — in which Leticia begs him to "make me feel good" — remains one of the century's most intimate, visceral mergers of pain and release.) Berry plays her with such wounded pride that it's almost too much to take, and in the year of #OscarsSoWhite, it's worth pointing out she's still the only African-American to ever win Best Actress. 

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5

Natalie Portman, ‘Black Swan’

Undertaking a year of ballet training to prepare for her Black Swan role, Natalie Portman delivers a worst-case/best-case scenario of an artist's need to push herself beyond her breaking point to make something that lasts. Both the beauty and the madness inherent in pursuing perfection is written all over the actress's face, resulting in the sort of go-for-broke portrayal that leaves you in thrall, even if you remain fearful that the woman giving the performance might break in the process. But Portman never wavered: In a career that began with the icy confidence witnessed in The Professional, Black Swan was the culmination of the delicate/steely juxtaposition that is often at the heart of the characters she plays. This psychological thriller often risks flying right off the rails, but Portman gives the movie its empathetic grounding.

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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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