Few actors as young as Jodie Foster can say they’ve enjoyed making excellent movies for five decades. From the moment she made her debut in 1972’s Napoleon and Samantha, after years of TV and commercial work, Foster took control of the screen.
Since then, she’s worked with major directors such as Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, she’s directed several films herself, and she won two Academy Awards. Across the years and genres, Foster has proven herself as one of the 20th century’s most exciting cinematic talents. It's time to celebrate the best Jodie Foster movies.
1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Foster’s second Academy Award win came playing FBI recruit Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel directed by Jonathan Demme. Although most conversations about the movie focus on her co-star Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs rests on Foster’s performance.
Demme’s use of shot/revere-shot underscores the way Clarice lives in the gaze of men. And while Clarice sometimes buckles under that attention, Foster does not. She plays the determination and self-confidence of the character, even if Clarice herself doesn’t know how to show it.
2. Taxi Driver (1976)
Foster already worked with Martin Scorsese, having done a small part in his previous movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. However, even he must have been shocked at the presence she brought to Taxi Driver, in which she plays Iris, the underaged streetwalker who draws the attention of Robert De Niro's vigilante Travis Bickle.
Even at that tender age, Foster plays notes of vulnerability under Iris’s bitter exterior. Thanks to Foster’s measured take, Iris never becomes the victim that Travis thinks he sees.
3. The Accused (1988)
Although she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Taxi Driver, Foster’s first win came for lead actress in The Accused, directed by Jonathan Kaplan and written by Tom Topor.
Despite playing a waitress who gets sexually assaulted by several men, Foster never relies on audience sympathies. She crafts a complex and resolute character in Sarah Tobias, who joins District Attorney Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) in a fight to see all the men prosecuted for their crimes for no other reason than she knows that she deserves justice.
4. Contact (1997)
The hard science fiction novel Contact by Carl Sagan doesn’t seem like something that lends itself to a big-budget Hollywood adaptation. The story of researcher Ellie Arroway has its emotional arcs, but Sagan has more interest in searching the stars than the depths of the human heart.
Yet, when director Robert Zemeckis took on the adaptation, written by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, he grounded the scientific speculation in real pathos. Zemeckis made that switch by casting Foster as Ellie, a smart and determined woman with a complex relationship with her father (David Morse). Playing off of Matthew McConaughey as religious devotee Palmer Joss, Foster keeps Contact on relatable ground, even if its head gets lost in the stars. Regardless, the film ranks as a sci-fi masterpiece and one of the greatest Jodie Foster movies.
5. Panic Room (2002)
Foster had made her name playing tough ladies who know how to handle a difficult situation. However, David Fincher’s thriller Panic Room put a unique spin on Foster’s signature character type, by casting her as a mother and recent divorcee who moves into an apartment once owned by an eccentric millionaire.
The script by David Koepp pits Foster’s character Meg Altman against a trio of burglars, whose break-in drives her and her daughter (Kristen Stewart) into the titular room. While Fincher gives his leading lady room to show off her grit as an actor, the Jodie Foster movie also lets her play a character as cunning, caring, and strong.
6. Freaky Friday (1976)
The same year that she shocked audiences as Irene in Taxi Driver, Foster won them over in the more age-appropriate Disney movie Freaky Friday. Well, almost age-appropriate.
When Foster’s Annabelle wishes that she could swap places with her mother Ellen (Barbara Harris), she finds herself in her parent’s body. Based on the novel by Mary Rodgers, who also wrote the screenplay, Freaky Friday makes gentle jokes about the battle between generations. And yet, Gary Nelson’s pleasing if unremarkable direction still finds plenty of moments for Foster to play a believable adult, in between playing a believable kid.
7. Maverick (1994)
In the hands of actor, Annabelle Bransford would be no more than a naive waif, swept away by the charming gambler Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson). Although Bransford does present herself as a pretty no-nothing at the start of Maverick, written by William Goldman and directed by Richard Donner.
However, Bransford reveals herself as a savvy con artist who can handle anything the duplicitous Maverick and the untrustworthy Marshal Zane Cooper (James Garner) can throw at them. This change in motivation makes Maverick a rollicking good time and also shows off Foster’s range as an actor.
8. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
1976 saw five Jodie Foster movies hit screens and while The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane may be less loved than Taxi Driver, Freaky Friday, or Bugsy Malone, it provided a rich showcase for the talented teen performer.
Directed by Nicolas Gessner and written by Laird Koenig, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane follows Rynn Jacobs (Foster), a thirteen-year-old girl left alone in an unfamiliar town by her vagabond poet father. When landlord Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith) dies during a visit, Rynn becomes the subject of scrutiny, which allows unsavory characters to attempt to take advantage. Both innocent and wise, vulnerable and resourceful, Rynn best underscores Foster’s acting prowess, even at a young age.
9. The Mauritanian (2021)
For the past decade, Foster has split her time between big goofy genre films and smaller and challenging indies.
The Mauritanian falls into the latter category. Based on the memoir by Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi and directed by Kevin Macdonald, The Mauritanian features Foster as American lawyer Nancy Hollander, who defends Mauritanian national Slahi (Tahar Rahim). Macdonald’s sober approach leaves little room for big acting moments, but Foster captures Hollander’s righteous passion, playing her as a woman who still believes in the law even after witnessing all manner of abuse.
10. A Very Long Engagement (2004)
French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet followed up his whimsical worldwide smash Amélie with A Very Long Engagement, the least fantastical entry in his filmography. Based on the novel Un long dimanche de fiançailles by Sébastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement stars Audrey Tautou as Mathilde, a woman searching for her missing fiancé (Gaspard Ulliel), a soldier in the French army during World War I.
Foster has a minor part in the film as Élodie Gordes, one of the women whose letters Mathilde. Despite acting in French instead of her native English, Foster shines here as well, using Élodie’s plight to underscore Mathilde’s struggle.
11. Inside Man (2006)
Foster is just one of the impressive names in the cast of Inside Man, the underrated crime thriller from director Spike Lee. Alongside
Denzel Washington as hostage negotiator Keith Frazier, Clive Owen as bank robber Dalton Russell, and Christopher Plummer as bank founder Arthur Case, Foster plays fixer Madeleine White. At first, Madeleine acts like a heavy who makes Fraizer’s job harder by forcing him to play ball with Russell for the sake of her employer Case. However, as she learns about Russell’s position and Case’s secrets, Madeleine changes her approach to Frazier, a story that allows Foster to play a subtle character arc alongside her fellow screen legends.
12. Foxes (1980)
Foxes seems like a far cry from the work first-time director Adrian Lyne would make later in his career, well-regarding thrillers such as Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. This slice of teenage life follows four unsupervised girls as they deal with their parents and make poor decisions in 1980 Hollywood.
However, Foxes does fall in line with the types of parts given to Foster at that point in her career. Foster’s Jeanie does a party with her friends, including the reckless Annie (played by Cherie Currie of the rock band the Runaways). However, she also feels the need to take care of them (and her struggling mother, portrayed by Sally Kellerman), making Jeanie another kid character who must act like an adult.
13. Five Corners (1987)
Based on a screenplay by Moonstruck writer John Patrick Flannery and directed by Tony Bill, Five Corners attempts to tell a screwball story about a man called Harry (Tim Robbins) who attempts to live a life of non-violent resistance. However, Harry lives in an absurd world of violence, in which random arrows kill innocent people and his girlfriend Linda (Foster).
Flannery and Bill seem at odds with one another, resulting in a film that never settles into a consistent tone or theme. However, Foster and her co-stars do an admirable job trying to make the movie work, trying to find a medium between the script and direction.
14. Catchfire (1990)
Director Dennis Hopper took his name off of Catchfire, also known as Backtrack, replacing his name with a credit for Alan Smithee. Looking at any of the cuts released to home video, one can understand why Hopper would disassociate himself as the film, based on a screenplay credited to Rachel Kronstadt Mann and Ann Louise Bardach, cannot do justice to its many big ideas.
However, Foster has reason to take pride in her contributions to the film as radical artist Anne Benton, a complex and challenging character that stands out in her filmography.
15. Little Man Tate (1991)
In addition to working in front of the camera, Foster has directed multiple TV shows and four feature films, starting with Little Man Tate. Written by Scott Frank, Little Man Tate stars Adam Hann-Byrd and Fred Tate, a rare genius born from a working-class single mother (Foster). As Fred goes to college and participates in a study operated by academics, he grows distant from his mother, who feels intimidated by her son’s brilliance.
When focusing on the mother’s love and insecurity, Little Man Tate sings and Foster turns in another flinty and fascinating performance. However, when the movie focuses on Tate’s exploits, it falls into schmaltz with too little character, playing like a lesser version of a John Irving novel.
16. Bugsy Malone (1976)
At first glance, Bugsy Malone sounds like another movie in which Foster must play a child thrust into an adult world. After all, she plays Talulah, a nightclub singer with a complicated relationship to the titular gangster. However, despite its Prohibition-era trappings the world of Bugsy Malone is not adult. In fact, no adults appear in the movie at all.
Instead, writer and director Alan Parker cast the parts with kids, including Scott Baio as the title character, and arms them with whipped-cream-shooting Tommy guns. Critics at the time couldn’t decide if Bugsy Malone was a serious film or an unconvincing gimmick. But they all agreed that Foster once again stole the show.
17. The Brave One (2007)
By 2007, Jodie Foster had played many women in terrible situations. But with director Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, she finally got to play someone who fought back with the same dirty tactics. The screenplay by Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor, and Cynthia Mort follows radio host Erica Bain (Foster), who becomes a gun-toting vigilante after the brutal death of her fiance.
Despite The Brave One’s mainstream Hollywood presentation, it channels the nastiness of exploitation flicks from the 70s and 80s, Charles Bronson’s Death Wish in particular. The Brave One doesn’t make for an easy watch, and Jordan doesn’t always know how to handle the nasty material, but no viewer can help but pull for Foster’s Erica.
18. Nyad (2023)
On one hand, the Netflix movie Nyad follows the standard awards-bait route. It tells the inspirational true story of Olympic swimmer Diana Nyad (Anette Benning), who decides at the age of 61 to become the first woman to swim non-stop from Florida to Cuba.
On the other hand, Benning brings real depth and humanity to her character, as does Foster as Nyad’s long-suffering best friend, Bonnie. Throughout the movie, Bonnie gives constant love (albeit often tough love) and encouragement to the prickly Nyad. The believable friendship between the duo makes the movie worth watching, even when the story fails to generate much interest.
19. Sommersby (1993)
When her husband Jack Sommersby (Richard Gere) left to fight in the Civil War, the life of his wife Laurel (Foster) improved a great deal. Without her abusive husband around, Laurel could live in peace. When reports of Jack’s death reached her, Laurel could pursue a marriage to neighbor Orin (Bill Pullman). But when Jack returns several years later, just before her re-marriage, he proclaims himself a changed man and works to win Laurel back.
For all of the high drama in director Jon Amiel’s Sommersby, based on a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer and Sarah Kernochan, Laurel does little more than fret about men. Foster brings the flat character to life in Ameil’s handsome film, but the character does fall short of her qualifications as an actor.
20. Anna and the King (1999)
Most people know the story of Anna Leonowens, the English teacher who befriended Siamese King Mongkut through the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. For Anna and the King, director Andy Tennant does not repeat the same beats and does not include the songs from The King and I, nor does the screenplay by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes stick to the story in Leonowens’s diary.
Instead, it plays for a romantic drama, an approach that does not always work, despite Foster as Leonowens and Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-fat as King Mongkut. Still, despite its shortcomings, Anna and the King entertains, thanks to the chemistry between Foster and Chow.
21. Hotel Artemis (2016)
If she wanted to, Foster could have phoned in performance as the Nurse in Hotel Artemis. After all, writer/director Drew Pearce has no interest in realism or depth and instead presents his action thriller, about a group of criminals double-crossing each other in a secret hospital, as a glossy bit of ridiculous fun. And yet, Foster leans into the role, barking out orders and playing along with the big performances from co-stars Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry.
Foster’s commitment to the bit reminds viewers of her comic chops, a quality too often overlooked by those following Foster’s career.
22. The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)
The Hotel New Hampshire director and writer Tony Richardson deserves credit for retaining the humor and ickiness of the John Irving novel he adapts. The film never turns away from flatulent dogs, whacky neighbors, and the sexual tension between brother and sister John and Franny (Rob Lowe and Foster).
However, Richardson deserves blame for fumbling all of these aspects, relying on sped-up film and obnoxious close-ups instead of trusting the jokes that Irving set up. Still, one has to credit Foster for playing Franny straight, despite the absurd and uncomfortable demands of The Hotel New Hampshire’s plot.