This is my Power Rankings series where I rank actors and actresses on a mix of commercial and critical bankability. The measure is on the odds that casting this actress in your film will make it a critical or commercial success. It's based on December 31, 2015 as I originally wrote it then and haven't gotten around to posting it. Check out the last power rankings I did three years ago for reference.
Fair warning: A proper noun or two might be spelled wrong.
The top four:
1. Charlize Theron
2. Cate Blanchett
3. Jennifer Lawrence
4. Kate Winslet
There were four clear contenders for the top spot. The two K/Cates (Blanchett and Kate Winslet) are the go-to actresses for auteurs and they have both displayed a seemingly endless range for Oscar-caliber acting in the last twenty years. Blanchett is penalized a little because she’s so chameleon-like that she doesn’t have any star persona. Winslet is penalized a little because she wasn’t on any particular hot streak before Steve Jobs (which got her an Oscar nomination but it was a film which no one really saw) as evidenced by the disaster that was Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.
Lawrence is on fire (as Alicia Keys can attest) with two franchises she’s successfully helmed and more Oscar nominations than any 25-year-old really needs. However, she could be in danger of being ghettoized if she chooses to do all her non-tentpole films with David O Russell. For non-DOR fans, she is in danger of falling off their radar as the lack of success Joy had in finding an audience showed. There’s also some debate about whether she can master an older woman but that’s based on whether you think she pulled Joy (I'm in the camp that she did).
That leaves Charlize Theron who has been recognized as a high-caliber actress for a dozen years now, has the hardware to show for it, and has a certain edge to her screen persona that sells. By sheer talent and appeal, I am comfortable calling her the biggest star in moviedom today.
5. Meryl Streep-Universally considered the best actress of her generation, Streep continues to take risks and interesting choices while also doing broad appeal films like Mamma Mia, Lemony Snicket, It’s Complicated, Prime, and some might say Ricki and the Flash (in theory, this film should have had broad appeal). She’s aging gracefully and is a threat to get an Oscar nomination pretty much every year.
6. Scarlett Johansson-Although she’s never been Oscar-nominated, she’s come close enough a few times that she’s considered high-caliber. She also has several Golden Globe and BAFTA nominees and has been an established actress for a dozen years. She’s a certifiable action star and has made boundary-pushing choices through films such as Lucy, Her or Don John’s Addiction. And yes, the plot of Lucy was pretty ridiculous, but it was an edgy choice on her part.
7. Julianne Moore-She’s hot because she just won an Oscar, but even so, she consistently brings the goods. She’s been in romantic comedies, art house films, and adaptations BUT she goes down a couple pegs from Top 5 because her best performances are often for obscure films. She won an Oscar for Still Alice but did anyone see Still Alice? Free Held, Maps to the Stars and, in the past, The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio didn’t even get wide-scale distribution.
8. Amy Adams-The female answer to Leonardo DiCaprio. She has the make and temperament of a character actress but she has shown the ability to hold her own as a lead (she out-acted Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle) and her filmography is so full of good films, she can rival John C Rilley or the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as contemporaries. Man of Steel brings tent pole credentials and so did Enchanted (although that was back in 2007). She also has done comedy like Talladega Nights or The Muppet Movie and was pretty game to get her hands dirty .
9. Naomi Watts-How often she appears in film is relative but her talent alone groups her in the top tier. Like Nicole Kidman, she’s chameleon-like in accents and although this is three years ago, The Impossible was very DiCaprio-like in terms of the rigor of the shoot.
10. Rooney Mara-Although her filmography is relatively short (not as short as Hailee Steinfeld or Saiosre Ronan), she has made strong marks in everything she’s in. Even small supporting roles in Social Network or Her garnered attention. She has about a 50% chance of winning an Oscar for Carol but even if she doesn’t, she will likely be back.
11. Keira Knightley-Authentic English actors and actresses always get a boost in bankability because so many period pieces (even things not explicitly set in England like Troy or Merchant of Venice) require an English thespian. On top of that, Knightley is hip and cool and has a modern sensibility. She could easily fit into a Diablo Cody or Noah Bombauch work (Begin Again or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World might not have been written explicitly by those two but they were in that mold). Plus, she can swashbuckle AND sing.
12. Anne Hathaway-An Oscar winner at the right age to play a wide range of parts, her public persona is a bit polarizing. She did action in Get Smart and sang in Les Miserables. Even though she’s been on SNL, her comic chops are not particularly strong in my opinion.
13. Rachel McAdams-Introduced to Hollywood in a villainess role in Mean Girls, she’s tackled a wide range of parts working with Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Thomas McCarthy and kicked ass in Sherlock Holmes and a Most Wanted Man. Turned a best supporting actress nomination in a competitive field this past year and is a very strong romantic lead.
14. Sandra Bullock-The female counterpart to Matthew McConaughey in that she was seen mostly as a romcom type of actress with a bubbly personality but her 2009 Oscar gave her a makeover and the follow-up Oscar nod in Gravity gave her a lot more leverage in being taken seriously.
15. Emma Stone-This might just be me but I have trouble not seeing her as a teeny-bopper sor tof star even though we’re apparently 5 years removed from her high school roles in Easy A and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. She’s had a respectable turn in the Help, starred in two of Woody Allen’s most invisible films and her big Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman (which I’m pretty sure would not have materialized if she wasn’t acting in the eventual BP winner) was still that of a teenager. I think it might still be a while until she’s taken seriously as an actress who can play 30+.
16. Judi Dench-If you need a senior citizen, she’ll work in nearly every film, but it's worth noting, she’s getting to the age where her acting days are limited due to failing eye sight.
17. Jessica Chastain-Two Oscar noms in the past five years and a very close call last year for a nominaion as well. Not to mention she’s been in four Best Picture nominees-The Martian, Zero Dark Thirty, Help, and Tree of Life- in that time period as well. She’s also won a Golden Globe and two NBR awards. With Interstellar, The Martian, Zero Dark Thirty, and a Most Violent Year, she has a very good track record of interesting film choices
18. Helen Mirren-Very versatile actress who not as old as she looks (she’s 70), although she gets relegated to senior citizen parts (though she is considered a cougar of sorts). She still gets awards buzz here and there (Woman in Gold and Trumbo in this year alone). Also worth noting: Woman in Gold got $33 million domestically at the box office. Extremely impressive for a film no one’s ever heard of.
19. Alicia Vikander-It’s hard to properly rate someone who’s been in the public spotlight for exactly one year. Man from Uncle, Ex Machina, The Danish Girl ere all great performances and she could even win an Oscar and just won a SAG award, but it’s just one year. The longer you’re in the public eye the better chances you have of working up a fan base.
20. Nicole Kidman-The first time I wrote a list like this in 2009, she was #1 and she’s still just as good but a lot of her films are not wide-release. Her best role in the last half-decade, Paperboy, was mostly enjoyed ironically by people. The Oscar campaign for that role was something along the lines of “Let’s give an Oscar nom to someone in a bad movie for once!”
21. Saoirse Ronan-I tend to group her, Haile Steinfeld and Carey Mulligan together in the same boat. Women who got Oscar noms at young ages and subsequently got set up with expectations as the next big thing. Of the trio, Ronan has had the biggest cult. She carried Brooklyn to a Best Picture Nomination this past year.
22. Kristen Wiig-Some might disagree but I would maintain she wasn’t as well-known on SNL as Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Those three were known as Hollywood royalty. Wiig had the most screentime of anyone on SNL in her later years, but there was a good chance if you didn’t watch SNL during those years, you wouldn’t have known she was on. Since leaving, she’s had a game-changing megahit in Bridesmaids, has taken value-added supporting roles in nearly every comedy to come out. She has also won critical acclaim in a wide variety of indie films.
23. Emily Blunt-This is more wishful thinking because somehow I don’t think Blunt is quite A-list yet, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t. I don’t even understand why she wasn’t nominated for Sicario. She can play a brooding, introspective star, she can do dramedy (Sunshine Cleaning, Devil Wears Prada), she did period (Young Victoria), and she has edge.
24. Reese Witherspoon-Wild was one of the best performances of any actor last year IMO and she deserved an Oscar, but she’s so ingrained as the ingénue that it’s sometimes hard to see her outside of that typecast. Even Walk the Line had her playing a version of that Southern Ingenue. It’s also been well over a decade since she became a tentpole star with Legally Blonde.
25. Claire Danes-Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, James Gandolfini and Kyle Chandler have enjoyed extremely successful movie careers since their star-making TV roles have ended. I predict when Homeland ends, Danes will be an A-lister in the movies. As far as I can gather, she’s only been in one film in the 2010s (a Sundance entry) but that should change when Homeland ends. Anna Faris and Kerry Washington are two others I believe will explode in film when their TV shows end.
26. Carey Mulligan-Her casting in the Great Gatsby when it was hyped up in the pre-production phase says a lot about how prized she is among casting directors. She’s the right age to be cast in young women roles. Garnered some Oscar buzz this past year for Suffragette.
27. Marion Cotillard-Being from England is a big plus. Being from nearly every other country is an impediment, but Cotillard has done extremely well for herself acting in such high profile films as Public Enemies, Midnight in Paris, and Inception and shone in MacBeth this year.
28. Kerry Washington-She had a long career as a character actress (Ray, Mr and Mrs Smith, Last King of Scotland) before being cast in a highly visible TV show which should give her a big boost when Scandal ends. She’s even done great work in the movies while on Scandal (Exhibit A: Django Unchained)
29. Rosario Dawson-Dawson amasses a lot of longevity points: She’s been in consistently good roles for the last 13 or 14 years throughout multiple genres. With a supporting role in Daredevil, she's dipped her toe into prestige TV, but she still has plenty of time on her schedule to be in the next big thing on screen.
30. Ellen Page-Has a hip and cool edge (Whip It, Juno) but could use a better agent. Her latest film, Freeheld, did not get great distribution but she's visible enough that a comeback isn't out of the question.