There is a long history of spectacular actresses delivering intense performances in movies that inspire, destroy, horrify, or excite viewers. Here are 26 great movies with actresses who deliver remarkable performances that will leave you in awe.
1. Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Everything Everywhere All at Once was a certified critical darling, and Michelle Yeoh's turn as Evelyn Quan Wang was a big reason why. In the role, she plays a frustrated laundromat owner who learns the ability to travel through different universes. In those alternate realms, she meets different versions of herself, and Yeoh turns in a virtuoso performance while portraying the differing alternate Evelyns.
2. Nomadland (2020)
In Nomadland, Frances McDormand plays the role of Fern, a fiercely independent widowed woman who chooses to live a nomadic existence amid changing times. With her contemplative gaze and quiet self-assurance, McDormand renders the character — and potentially others like the character — with nuance, power and grace.
3. Hereditary (2018)
The scene in Hereditary when the mother screams at her son while at the kitchen table is chilling and heartbreaking. Toni Collette delivered one of the most intense performances ever, ending in a terrifying bang that is permanently imprinted on my brain.
4. Misery (1990)
Kathy Bates’ performance in Misery lives in infamy, as she was one of the most creepy and horrifying characters ever put on screen. Her unhinged behavior and unstable mental state are portrayed perfectly by Bates, sending chills up and down your spine. And her performance only becomes more compelling and intense as the movie progresses.
5. Us (2019)
Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation in Jordan Peele’s horror movie Us. She plays the evil version of Adelaide Wilson, pretending to be Adelaide. Her character’s name is Red, and her terrifying performance walks the line between dark and light as she balances the two roles she’s meant to be playing.
6. I, Tonya (2017)
I, Tonya is about the infamous figure skater Tonya Harding, who was part of a scandal that targeted her biggest competition, Nancy Kerrigan. Margot Robbie plays Harding in a highly convincing performance where she brings intensity and a somewhat unhinged vibe to the notorious figure skater.
7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a heartbreaking but inspiring movie about a mother whose daughter is brutally murdered. The mother, played by Frances McDormand, stops at nothing to get her daughter justice, despite the local authorities doing next to nothing to solve the case.
8. Sophie's Choice (1982)
Frankly, every single one of Meryl Streep’s performances belongs on this list, but this list isn’t about Meryl Streep, so I couldn’t do that. But her performance in Sophie’s Choice is easily one of the most harrowing and emotional ones I’ve ever seen. She brings true pain and turmoil to the screen that no one else can.
9. Pretty Woman (1990)
While Pretty Woman is a fun rom-com in many ways, it also has some heavy themes about classism and the prostitution world. Julia Roberts manages to be adorable and lovable in the movie with cute and silly moments but also showcases the raw side of the character.
10. The Women (2008)
Meg Ryan is another actress with an array of impressive performances, but one of my favorites is her role in The Women, where she plays a married woman who discovers her husband is having an affair. She captures the confusion and heartbreak of this situation beautifully while injecting humor and reliability into the role.
11. Black Swan (2010)
Easily one of the most incredible performances ever, Natalie Portman’s role in Black Swan is chilling and unforgettable. She plays a ballerina on the edge of insanity as she drives herself mad, striving for ultimate perfection. Portman is compelling and intense from beginning to end.
12. The Way We Were (1973)
The Way We Were is a sad romance about two people who fall in love over time but don’t end up together due to their political and social situations. Barbra Streisand delivers a balanced and evolving performance, perfectly showing how the character grows and matures over several years.
13. The Favourite (2018)
Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne in The Favourite, an erotic and complex movie with many layers. Queen Anne is a depressed and unhinged woman with a quirky personality and complete power. Colman delivers a captivating and sometimes unsettling performance that makes the movie a sensation.
14. Palm Springs (2020)
Palm Springs is a fun but emotional movie about wedding guests who find themselves in a cruel time loop, living the day over and over again. Cristin Milioti plays the female lead, a woman struggling to find and like herself, but she has incredible determination and street smarts.
15. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Many of the actresses in Girl, Interrupted deserve a shoutout, but Angelina Jolie’s performance is on another level. Her character in the movie is distinct and gritty, with a somewhat sensual yet violent temperament that keeps the audience on their toes.
16. Fargo (1996)
Another Frances McDormand performance that had to make the list, Marge Gunderson is a clever and down-to-earth police officer in a sleepy town in Minnesota. Her investigation of a triple homicide is offbeat but pointed, offering the audience a unique kind of police officer who, first of all, is not a man and, second of all, is somewhat quirky and domestic.
17. The Devil Wears Prada (2004)
Meryl Streep’s iconic performance in The Devil Wears Prada is pure perfection. She plays the editor-in-chief at a Vogue-esque magazine, making everyone’s life around her a nightmare. Her cold demeanor but elegant aura create a special character that strikes fear but also inspires people.
18. Mother (2017)
Mother! is a wild ride of a movie and Jennifer Lawrence is without a doubt a star in it. She plays a woman who lives in a remote house with her husband in the middle of a lush forest. The psychological thriller is divisive and layered, with Lawrence’s spectacular and poetic performance at the center.
19. Carol (2015)
Carol is a tragic movie in many ways, and Cate Blanchett displays every possible emotion throughout, eliciting strong cathartic responses from viewers. Her character is powerful but shows vulnerability in subtle, heartbreaking moments.
20. Mommie Dearest (1981)
Joan Crawford, a legendary actress, is the main character in this impactful movie about how she abused her daughter, Christina Crawford. Faye Dunaway gave such a convincing and terrifying performance as Joan Crawford that she felt the public began to view her as a horrible person.
21. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an understated movie about Holly Golightly, a spacey but adorable woman living in New York. Audrey Hepburn brings Truman Capote’s character to life, striking the perfect balance between charming and depressing.
22. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Million Dollar Baby is a severely tragic movie, and Hilary Swank delivers an outstanding performance as the lead character. Her performance received critical acclaim, as she delivered an emotionally powerful role that could make anyone cry.
23. Melancholia (2011)
Melancholia is an odd and eerie film about a strange planet hurtling toward Earth on a woman’s wedding day. Kirsten Dunst is the lead character in this cryptic art film about the end of the world, and her performance is subtle but unique and complex.
24. Kill Bill (2003)
Uma Thurman plays The Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill franchise, creating a character who the audience simultaneously feels sorry for and roots for emphatically. She’s a strong woman out for bloody revenge and I don’t think anyone could’ve slayed this role as Thurman did.
25. Don't Worry Darling (2022)
Florence Pugh is currently one of the most sensational actresses in Hollywood, churning out movie after movie that receive high praise. One of her best performances is in Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, as she plays a young wife in a strange world that begins to fall apart around her.
26. The Help (2011)
Many of the actresses in The Help give stunning performances, including Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer, and Bryce Dallas Howard. However, Viola Davis’ performance is unmatched, as her character’s strength, resilience, and patience are admirable and moving.
Veronica is a food, fashion, and entertainment writer from Boston, MA, with a passion for all things lifestyle and culture. She graduated from Boston University in 2019 with a bachelor's in English literature. From Anna Wintour to Angelina Jolie to Alton Brown, she has her finger on the pulse of all things Hollywood and celebrity.
If she's not in the kitchen crafting new recipes, then she's binging the latest HBO series and catching up on the hottest trends in Vogue.
She has written for and been syndicated by publications like The Weather Channel, The Daily Meal, The Borgen Project, The Good Men Project, The Express, MSN, Wealth of Geeks, and Not Deer Magazine. Her writing experience ranges from global news articles to celebrity gossip pieces to movie reviews to homemade recipes and more.