Ranking the Best Actress Oscar Winners of the 2020s

Ranking the Best Actress Oscar winners of the 2020s.

I know, there aren’t a lot of contenders to rank right now. But there’s nothing wrong with getting ready, right? I’ll keep adding the winners of the Academy Award for Best Actress as they happen and we’ll see what this list looks like by the end of the decade. If you would rather browse completed lists in the meantime, feel free to do so.

First, some notes on how I do this. I will comment on whether or not a win was deserved but worthiness alone cannot impact the ranking. Also, please note that for me, these are fluid lists. As I revisit and rethink the winners, I may decide to move rankings around. My list, my rules.

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

3. Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

It would be tempting to lob a complaint at Jessica Chastain that is similar to the one I had against Will Smith, the Best Actor winner for this same year. That is to say, it would be tempting to say that while Chastain does a great impression of televangelist Tammy Faye Baker, she doesn’t dive deep into the interior. The difference here is that so much of Tammy Faye really was about the surface–and Jessica Chastain really seems to understand that quite well. And there are moments when an almost desperate yearning seems to radiate from her very being, which feels appropriate for the role.

Just like the 2020 Actress race, this was another barnburner. It genuinely felt like any one of the five nominated actresses had a shot at a win (and at different points of the campaign process were favored to take the whole thing). While Penelope Cruz seemed to be surging toward the finish line, it was ultimately Chastain who emerged with the trophy in hand.

Should have won in 2021: I know she had recently won this category for The Favourite, but Olivia Colman is just. So. Good. in The Lost Daughter.

Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once

2. Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

I usually help myself rank these performances with a single question: if you swapped this person out for another actor, would the movie work as well? You’d be surprised by how helpful that is. It came in handy here, where I was struggling with how to place the top two performances. Here’s the thing: Everything Everywhere All At Once absolutely depends on Michelle Yeoh to sell the movie. Without her aching, overburdened, and quietly angry mother at the core of the film, it would be difficult to get the audience to go along for the truly wild ride that the movie is.

But EEAAO succeeds so well because everyone in the cast is doing their part to sell the movie. That’s why this became the first movie to win six (SIX!) of the biggest Oscar categories: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actress for Michelle Yeoh. Michelle Yeoh does a lot of the heavy lifting, but at its heart EEAAO is a team effort.

Not that that takes anything away from Michelle Yeoh, who finally earned Academy recognition after decades of solid work that was overlooked–largely because it didn’t fit the type of role the Academy likes to reward. Yeoh is even one of the best Bond Girls ever, for crying out loud.

EEAAO is the perfect movie to showcase Michelle Yeoh’s range of talents. She gets to be a dramatic actress weighed down by routine, stress, and expectation. She gets to be an action superstar, performing incredible stunts throughout the film. She gets to be a romantic lead as she reconnects with her husband. Most importantly: she gets to be funny without sacrificing any of the other things she’s balancing.

I reserve the right to change my mind about this later, but right now I’m putting Yeoh in second place because there is a performance that answers my question better.

Should have won in 2022: You could argue that Cate Blanchett is a better choice based on my signature question because Tár is specifically built around Blanchett’s towering performance (the script was even written for her). And without much of a supporting cast to back her up, Blanchett is more essential to Tár. The movie crumbles without her. And yet, I’m still on team Yeoh.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland

1. Frances McDormand, Nomadland (2020)

If you want to talk about a performance that is absolutely essential to whether or not a movie works, this has to be it. With a limited supporting cast (mostly comprised of actual nomads who are not actors), McDormand’s only real costar is director Chloe Zhao–the only person who works with McDormand to set the tone of Nomadland. McDormand even helped shape the movie, not just as a producer but as a human who made the nomad community comfortable on a film set–not just as performers but as people willing to share their lives with a film crew. If you take Frances McDormand away from Nomadland, it simply does not work.

Yet it’s surprising to remember that this win nearly didn’t happen.

Best Actress has become one of the best categories in any given Oscar year if you ask me. At no time was this more true than in 2020, when there was no frontrunner and any one of the nominees could have easily emerged as the winner. Only one nominee, Vanessa Kirby, got through award season without a major televised award. It was a category that was nearly impossible to predict. You could argue that McDormand, who had won her second Oscar a mere three years earlier, got the edge on her competition because she starred in that year’s clear Best Picture winner.

Interestingly, McDormand’s second and third Oscars were for performances that deal with grief, and yet they couldn’t be more different. Three Billboards, which I called a Garbage Movie, is about grief that expresses as rage. Nomadland is much quieter. In it, McDormand settles into life in a van-dwelling community of nomads after losing her husband, her job, and her home in quick succession in the economic collapse of 2008. As she weaves from location to location and job to job, McDormand imbues the film with a natural curiosity and kindness. It’s a master class in subtlety–the kind of performance that doesn’t always catch the Academy’s attention but deserves all the recognition it gets.

Should have won in 2020: Even though I would have been happy with any of the nominees winning, McDormand was and is my choice. Nomadland wouldn’t be anywhere near the movie it is without her delicate, empathetic work.


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