Time to rank the Best Actress Oscar winners of the 2010s. This category has gotten to be one of the most fiercely competitive of Oscar night, although not all winners are created equal. It’s certainly one of the awards I most look forward to every year.
When it comes to the Best Actor race for this decade, it frequently seemed that the noisiest performance was the one that won come Oscar night. It’s more difficult to find a throughline for Actress. There’s a greater degree of range in this category reflecting a lot of complicated women performed by great actresses. That’s probably a great reason why I like this category so much.
Let me again remind you that I may discuss the other nominees in a given year and who should have won, but the worthiness of a win cannot impact the ranking in and of itself. And for me, these are fluid lists that I will update and change over time as I see fit.
10. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress, but this was not an Academy Award-worthy performance. She’s great as a love interest with serious emotional scars, but I can think of at least five actresses who could have done just as well. Faulting someone for the degree of difficulty is a minefield, I know, but this is mostly a standard rom-com role. Throwing in some mental illness as a curveball does not eliminate that fact. She won because 2012 also launched The Hunger Games, sending us into a J-Law moment. Well, that and the person who should have won, Emmanuelle Riva, was in a little-seen French movie about old people dying. That’s kind of a downer, no? J Law herself has given many better performances. The Academy jumped the gun by giving her an Oscar for Silver Linings.
Should have won in 2012: Had Lawrence been nominated for her other 2012 release, The Hunger Games, I would actually be more on board with her win. She does a fantastic job balancing star power with emotional heft in that film. However, the winner still should have been Emmanuelle Riva for Amour.
9. Emma Stone, La La Land (2016)
Emma Stone’s Oscar is a case of convergence. She starred in the right movie in the right year at the right point in her career (hot on the heels of her first Oscar nomination for Birdman in 2014), then campaigned the shit out of it. She was suitably charming as the face of a movie everyone (or at least most people) loved. She’s a fine singer, but not great. She dances fine, too, but she’s not Ginger Rogers. She’s appealing as a struggling actress but that’s about all you can say here. When La La became a festival darling she made it clear she was going to ride the wave all the way to the finish line. Her performance was incidental–just one more reward for La La Land. Stone is a great actress, but she’s done better.
Should have won in 2016: Natalie Portman was robbed. A previous winner, Portman had an uphill battle competing against the ‘been there done that’ factor. It’s a shame. Portman’s performance was smart, layered, and devastating. She deserved a second Oscar.
8. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady (2011)
I know most people have trouble getting passionate about both this movie and Meryl’s performance. As the first female British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, she delivers a hard-charging, transformative performance (AKA the Streep Special). She covers Thatcher’s early years, where she claims power, to when she becomes controversial and loses power, on into Thatcher’s later years, when she succumbs to dementia. She’s great. But I can see why people don’t love this performance: it’s so calibrated that it feels like impersonation without interpretation. It can also feel a little cartoonish. I think this is more a failing of the movie, but it does hamper the performance a bit. This is the most scenery-chewing performance on this list and a good critique for why the most acting isn’t always the best.
Should have won in 2011: There’s an assumption that Meryl Streep wins Oscars all the time, and it isn’t true. Until The Iron Lady, she had been on a thirty-year losing streak. Many predicted Viola Davis would win for the quiet dignity she brought to The Help, but if I may spout a (probably) unpopular opinion: Michelle Williams should have won for My Week with Marilyn.
7. Brie Larson, Room (2015)
Category fraud is very common at the Oscars, and Larson probably owes her win to Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander competing in the Supporting races even though they were the co-leads of their films (both had more screentime than a costar who was nominated as leading actor). Given the field we got, it’s easy to see why the previously unknown Larson gained momentum. Voters love a fresh young face in the actress pool, and Room is devastating. Larson has a showcase role as a mother who suffered years of abuse while hiding the truth from her son, but Larson is remarkably understated. Instead of melodrama, she focuses on a quiet humanity that makes the movie all the more powerful. The revelatory performance of her child costar, Jacob Tremblay–and the adorable chemistry they shared throughout award season–also helped her stand out. It says a lot about the quality of this category that this performance ranks so low. It probably would have cracked the top 5 on the Best Actor side.
Should have won in 2015: I would move the nominations for both Vikander and Mara over from Best Supporting Actress, which basically makes this category a battle royale considering the stellar work Cate Blanchett also did in Carol. In the end, as much as I respect what Larson did in Room I would give it to Blanchett.
6. Julianne Moore, Still Alice (2014)
As Julianne Moore swept through award season, there was a sense that it was about time; that after almost twenty years of indelible performances she was due an Oscar. That type of thinking takes away from the great care and subtle work she did in Still Alice, where she plays a professor facing a heartbreaking diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s. Over the next few years, she undergoes a rapid deterioration, struggling to come to terms with the implications on her family (one of her daughters also tests positive for the gene) as well as the perceived loss of respect and dignity. Moore handles the transition with eloquence, grace, and surprising humor. The connection she forges with one of her daughters is genuinely touching. It’s a beautifully calibrated performance.
Should have won in 2014: Any other year Reese Witherspoon’s fierce performance as a woman who walks the Pacific Crest Trail to find redemption and peace in Wild would have easily won. But not against Moore, who deserved the victory.
5. Renée Zellweger, Judy (2019)
Renée Zellweger locked down the Best Actress race early in the festival circuit heading into awards season. For one thing, she had the comeback narrative (always appealing to Academy voters) after roughly a decade in exile from Hollywood after what should have been her greatest moment of triumph: her Best Supporting Actress win for Cold Mountain in 2003. Add to that the fact that Zellweger gives a transformative performance (a category of performance the Academy particularly loves in its actresses) as one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars (another one!) in a biopic (another!) about that actress’ last days and struggles with substance abuse (and another!). If there was a checklist for Best Actress, Judy would tick every box. And while the movie itself inspired little enthusiasm, there’s no denying that Zellweger is wonderful in it. Her performance as Judy Garland is a masterful tightrope walk between impersonation and interpretation. She knows instinctively when to go big and when to pare things down to a human level. She’s genuinely great.
Should have won in 2019: Zellweger was always going to win, but it’s unfortunate that the Academy didn’t take Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible dual roles in Us more seriously. Yes, it’s a performance in a genre film (a knock against it in the Academy’s eyes) by an actress of color (another knock) in a movie with complicated things to say about race (another), but if any performance deserved to be an early lock, it was Nyong’o.
4. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
I called Three Billboards a garbage movie but McDormand shines as a grieving, angry mother lashing out for justice over her daughter’s brutal murder, even though the shoddy script lets her down in the end. Some of the twists it forces her character to make just don’t make sense and even an actor of McDormand’s caliber can’t resolve them. The reason she’s so great is that McDormand’s weary face portrays the grief and compassion within Mildred Hayes in every scene, but even so–it’s hard to reconcile a character who wildly veers between compassion, violence, and downright mean behavior.
Should have won in 2017: Saoirse Ronan’s understated performance in Lady Bird was great, but I’m okay with McDormand’s win (her second after Fargo in 1996).
3. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine (2013)
I’ve come around on this performance in recent years. I think part of my initial resistance to it was that I disliked the movie. Blanchett was great as the booze-addled, depressed social climber who lost everything in Blue Jasmine. She was mesmerizing, giving a confident, commanding performance. Admittedly, she’s played a woman on the verge several times over (nominated for it in Notes On a Scandal, to name one). She’s played ladies with big personalities (and won for it in The Aviator, to name one). So Blue Jasmine feels familiar even though it’s a fantastic realization of roles she had toyed with before.
Should have won in 2013: It’s a tough year and I’m tempted to call a tie between Blanchett and Sandra Bullock for Gravity since both roles are doing drastically different things and both actresses are spectacular. In the end, though, as much as I’ve come around on the quality of what Blanchett is doing in Blue Jasmine, I can’t deny Bullock. Without her deft balance between the technical requirements of Gravity and the profound sense of humanity she brings to her character, the movie just wouldn’t have worked.
2. Natalie Portman, Black Swan (2010)
I’ve been a Natalie Portman fan going back to Beautiful Girls, so it was nice to see her grow up and fulfill the promise she had as a young actress (frankly, I think she should have been more of a contender for Best Supporting Actress in 2004 for Closer). In Black Swan she was nothing short of amazing as a ballerina who gets her big break, only to begin cracking under the pressure–spiraling further and further out of control. This ballerina is determined, ambitious, fragile, vulnerable, and desperately unstable–frequently all in the same scene. It’s a slam dunk performance.
Should have won in 2010: 2010’s Best Actress race was all about Portman.
1. Olivia Colman, The Favourite (2018)
Some years, the best performance gets crowded out through the process of campaigning. It had been 11 years since the last time the Academy shocked its audience by getting it right instead of going with the heavy favorite for Best Actress when Marion Cotillard won in 2007, and Colman’s win was just as much of an unexpected delight. There were indications that Colman was part of the conversation for her wonderful turn as Queen Anne, but it genuinely felt that she was losing the spotlight to her fellow nominees (more on them in a moment). Still, Colman absolutely shined as a spoiled and vain ruler out of touch with anything that has to do with ruling her country but who is hiding deep sorrows underneath the heavy facade. Colman expertly flits between comedy and despair, doing both equally well. She really deserved this win, and I am so happy that she got it.
There is a lot of category confusion in The Favourite since it essentially has three leading ladies. There was initially talk of slipping Colman into the supporting race instead, but ultimately she was run as the lead while costars Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone got nominated in supporting.
Should have won in 2018: In case you couldn’t tell, Colman did. Glenn Close came very close for The Wife thanks to a rabble-rousing speech at the Golden Globes and a campaign that reminded Academy voters that she has never won an Oscar despite her storied career. There were also many who wanted to see Lady Gaga win for her role in A Star is Born, but she will have to learn to be happy with her Best Original Song Oscar instead.
Just for fun, let’s take a look at how the ranking would look if the actresses I think should have won in each year took Oscar home:
10. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn (2011)
9. Julianne Moore, Still Alice (2014)
8. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour (2012)
7. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
6. Cate Blanchett, Carol (2015)
5. Sandra Bullock, Gravity (2013)
4. Natalie Portman, Black Swan (2010)
3. Natalie Portman, Jackie (2016)
2. Lupita Nyong’o, Us (2019)
1. Olivia Colman, The Favourite (2018)