We’re breaking down the filmography of Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, and ranking her movies from worst to best. Over the course of her 25+ year long career, Charlize Theron has consistently surprised audiences, filmmakers, and the industry itself. Born in South Africa, Theron moved to America to attend ballet school until a knee injury led to a drastic career change. She worked as a model for several years while trying to establish herself as an actress. After landing a non-speaking role in the horror film Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest, she got her first major part in 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley, which brought her to the attention of Hollywood. From the beginning, Theron challenged expectations and refused to allow herself to be typecast as a mere beauty, taking roles across a variety of genres and budgets.
In 2003, Theron became a major star when she played serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, a performance that Roger Ebert described as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” The movie landed her an Oscar and catapulted her into a new level of fame. Theron continued to push herself in new directions, working with directors like Ridley Scott and carving out a position for herself as an action star. Indeed, Theron may be the most successful example of an actor working today who is able to successfully juggle high-concept blockbusters with character-driven indie projects. She also stretches herself in comedic and horror-based parts. Truly, she is one of the few actresses of note working in modern-day Hollywood who can make a solid case for being able to do it all.
Theron is that rare actor with true star power who can fully transform herself into near-unrecognizable roles when the occasion calls for it. She is both a franchise favorite and an awards darling. It’s easy to downplay just how smart and talented she truly is, not just as an actor but as an industry figure who navigates the often-treacherous waters of the entertainment world with ease. Up next, Theron will return to the world of Fast and Furious for the ninth installment of the series, which saw its release delayed by an entire year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Until then, we’re looking at the 46 films in Theron’s filmography and ranking them from worst to best.
Disclaimer: This list does not include uncredited roles or cameos.
The Last Face is the sort of cringe-inducing cinematic disaster that can only happen when a movie takes itself 100% seriously. Directed by Sean Penn, this is a film that truly believes it has an important message it must share with the world, and therein lies most of its truly embarrassing details. Theron plays a doctor who falls in love with a handsome surgeon played by Javier Bardem against the backdrop of civil war in West Africa. It’s a ham-fisted and deeply arrogant movie, one more concerned with the petty romantic squabbles of its white leads than the Black characters who are reduced to puppets for cheap emotional kicks. A subplot involving the HIV epidemic proves to be especially insulting. Both Theron and Bardem are truly terrible, although it’s hard to see how they could be good in a film that saddles them with dialogue that seems as though it was written by a robot. The Last Face is a smarmy display of fake nobility that represents the absolute worst of both prestige drama and Hollywood’s appropriation of Black suffering for white drama.
A film featuring aliens, domestic drama, and NASA conspiracies should be far more interesting than The Astronaut’s Wife. Theron plays the titular role, acting against a seriously detached Johnny Depp, the astronaut who comes back to Earth after a mission gone wrong and seems to be an entirely different person. The story has the makings of a melodrama, but the film seems oddly disconnected from its own concept. If it had leaned more into the camp 1950s B-movie potential of its story, then perhaps there would have been something more enjoyable for audiences to latch onto. As it is, The Astronaut’s Wife doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself, and as a result, the cast looks lost.
Theron has great comedic chops, but you wouldn’t know that from Seth MacFarlane’s supremely lazy attempt to make his own Blazing Saddles, 2014’s A Million Ways to Die in the West. Too many of the jokes simply don’t work, which is obviously a problem for a comedy, but it’s also oddly safe for a MacFarlane effort. There are plenty of bad taste jokes here but nothing especially unexpected or truly daring. It’s mostly toilet humor that you’ve heard many times before and a few cameos that may raise a smile, if nothing else. Theron is saddled with an especially uninteresting role that gives her no opportunity to show off how hilarious she can be.
Theron is certainly a strong aesthetic fit for 2004’s Head in the Clouds, a glossy melodrama set in 1920s/30s Europe, but the movie itself is sorely lacking. Director John Duigan is clearly aiming for something in the vein of Casablanca or the works of Henry Miller in its blend of history with eroticism, but the end result is a stiff affair featuring a cast who are ill-suited to this material. For a story about the Second World War that features the Nazi occupation of Paris and the rise of General Franco’s fascist regime, Head in the Clouds is a depressingly silly movie, and one that veers too often into cringe-inducing at that.
2002’s Waking Up in Reno was supposed to be a star vehicle for then-Hollywood power couple darlings Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who dropped out of the project before shooting began. That may be the most exciting element of this uninteresting comedy that leaves no stereotype or cliché untouched. Everyone in the cast, which includes Natasha Richardson and Billy Bob Thornton, is slumming it to the max and you can’t blame them for not caring much about this bland material.
John Herzfeld’s cop thriller 15 Minutes certainly has some lofty ambitions. Taking its title from the famous Andy Warhol quote that claimed “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”, the story follows an acclaimed homicide detective (Robert De Niro) who must track down a pair of Eastern European murderers who are videotaping their crimes in an attempt to become celebrities. As a standard cops vs. killers movie, 15 Minutes is reasonably okay, but the moment it tries to aim for something more scathing or satirical, it all falls apart. Its own conceit is too flimsy to stand up to a modicum of scrutiny, and rather than being savvy or perceptive about its own themes, it comes across as unbearably smug.
Naming your film Sleepwalking when it is as dull and bereft of new ideas as this 2007 drama is is simply asking for mockery. William Maher’s story of family abandonment and an unlikely bonding seems to be aiming for languid but lands on soporific, despite the best efforts of its cast, which includes Nick Stahl and Dennis Hopper. There’s simply no energy to this film and its aimlessness makes the 100-minute running time feel like twice that length.
Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves should be a match made in heaven, but Sweet November is an absolute waste of both of their talents. The movie could be forgiven for its unabashed schmaltz if it weren’t so eager to spin its questionable conceit as an earth-shattering romance. It’s contrived, hugely manipulative, and practically begs the audience to overlook just how creepy both protagonists are. Theron and Reeves also have negative romantic and sexual chemistry so both of them look lost throughout this wannabe Love Story.
Towards the tail end of Seinfeld‘s run, Michael Richards got to work trying to establish himself as a movie star. To ease the process, he teamed up with Jeff Daniels, beloved for Dumb and Dumber, and director Jonathan Lynn who made the Oscar-winning courtroom comedy My Cousin Vinny. Lightning did not strike twice with this courtroom tale, and Theron was left with a much less satisfying supporting role than Marisa Tomei got.
Writer Greg Iles adapted his own bestselling novel 24 Hours for director Luis Mandoki’s Trapped, but a whole lot went missing from page to screen. It takes no time at all for this supposed thriller to fly completely off the rails, completely undone by its own increasingly ludicrous set-up. What should be tense is instead predictable and the film ends up relying too heavily on exploitation-style tactics to make a cheap point.
Robert Redford is a Hollywood legend both on and off the screen. He landed a Best Director Oscar for his first film behind the camera, Ordinary People, and won acclaim for titles like Quiz Show and The Horse Whisperer. 2000’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, however, is a real low point in his career as actor and director alike. It’s painfully dated in terms of its script and ideas, relying on a trite sports drama mixed with the Magical Negro trope that leaves poor Will Smith stuck in the role of kindly mysterious mentor to Matt Damon. The cast tries as hard as they can to ground the material but Bagger Vance feels like a leftover from 50 years prior in all the worst ways.
Kristen Stewart was infamously not invited back for the follow-up to Snow White and the Huntsman, so the movie became a strange sequel/prequel hybrid and, as such, a noticeably less thrilling affair. Theron is still having a ball as the lascivious and proudly evil queen but her charm is squandered, as is that of her co-stars, who include Emily Blunt, Chris Hemsworth, and Jessica Chastain. The movie clearly takes inspiration from Frozen but has little for audiences to latch onto beyond some gorgeous costumes.
Theron, director Karyn Kusama, and the cult MTV animated series Æon Flux seemed like a great match, but studio interference forced the filmmaker and actor alike to compromise on their original vision for the story. Kusama alleges that the studio took the film away from her in the edit and heavily reworked it, changing storylines and characters, and molding the movie into something more traditional than the artsy take she had on the material. It’s a shame, because the film we got is chock full of glimmers of immense potential. Theron is predictably great and the movie certainly looks nice, but it’s mostly a tedious affair that lacks the cartoon’s subversive edge and expressionist elements. When the source material is this imaginative and challenging, it seems such a waste for the film to be so conventional.
It’s easy to understand why Theron threw her power behind The Burning Plain, both as an actress and executive producer. The movie was the directorial debut of award-winning screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, whose collaborations with Alejandro González Iñárritu included Babel and proved to be huge hits with American critics. Typical of Arriaga’s works, this film is told in a nonlinear narrative and is as thematically bleak as one can imagine, but the ferocity of his previous work seems diluted by his own directorial hand. The movie relies far too much on head-thuddingly obvious symbolism rather than trusting its actors to do their jobs. There are moments of elegance peppered throughout but nowhere near enough to sustain this concept.
Theron would probably have been an excellent choice for the role of Morticia in a live-action adaptation of The Addams Family. It’s a shame, instead, that she is left only with a voiceover part in this most recent take on the classic characters. While Theron gets to work alongside an impeccable cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Nick Kroll, and Catherine O’Hara, the movie saps the wonderfully macabre source material of its chipper darkness. Gone are the pitch-black jokes and subversion of the suburban American fantasy and in its place is an unnecessarily saccharine affair that’s more reliant on puns and pop culture references than character development. Fans of The Addams Family would do well to stick with the live-action movies from the ’90s.
One of the low points of Woody Allen’s professional output in the 1990s, Celebrity is a tired rehash of his better movies but with an added homage to La Dolce Vita that doesn’t really make sense. Kenneth Branagh plays a neurotic writer who becomes a celebrity profiler and falls head-first into the world of fame. Branagh’s Allen impersonation is often embarrassing to watch and even Judy Davis, who was so excellent in Allen’s Husbands and Wives, struggles to make this material interesting. Given how famous Allen is and how long he’s been in the business for, it’s strange that he doesn’t seem to understand the specific layers and oddities of fame required to make this plot work. Everything feels simultaneously overblown and half-baked. And to top it all off, Donald Trump turns up playing himself.
Gillian Flynn became hot property in publishing and Hollywood alike when her novel Gone Girl became a breakout hit. In 2014, David Fincher brought that movie to life with dark humor and just the right balance of prestige and trashy. A year later, another one of her novels was adapted for the screen: Dark Places. This one, however, was nowhere near as good. Theron plays the sole survivor of a family massacre that has left her traumatized and forever marked as a victim, well into her adulthood. To make ends meet, she agrees to meet with a mysterious true crime club who doubt her telling of events. The set-up is fascinating, but the strangeness of the novel doesn’t work so well in adaptation. Even as the endless twists and turns are revealed, the film loses the attention of its audience very quickly. What felt so effortless in Gone Girl feels contrived and tedious in Dark Places.
The original Italian Job is a classic for a reason, a super-cool and deeply funny crime caper that is inimitably British and entirely the product of the Swinging Sixties. So naturally the remake is American, not especially humorous, and slick to the point of dullness. Those car chases are undoubtedly enjoyable, but the ramshackle thrills of the original movie are sorely missed. It’s leave-your-brain-at-the-door escapism that gets the job done but you will inevitably miss the scrappy charm of Michael Caine and company.
It may have only come out less than a year ago but already Jay Roach’s Bombshell feels like a regretful decision of the long-ago past. Taking on the true story of the epidemic of sexual harassment at Fox News under the tenure of the infamous Roger Ailes was never going to be a simple job. This was a story that needed a deft hand and a razor-sharp understanding of the various intersections and conflicts at play. Instead, Roach takes the easy route and we end up with an utterly disingenuous story that overlooks the real abrasiveness of these events. Absolutely no attention is given to the poisonous power of Fox News and the ways that women like Megyn Kelly (played by Theron with uncanny accuracy) contributed to that. Instead, it’s a “you go, girl” whitewashing of reality that smugly views watering down these women’s lives as some form of encouraging feminism. This is a film that sorely needed some ambiguity or at the very least a moral backbone, but Bombshell is simply a glossy rewrite of history that is elevated beyond reprehensible by the sheer force of its actresses, all of whom deserve better than this.
At the time, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was Woody Allen’s most expensive film, with a budget of $33 million (a fortune for a director best known for making things fast and cheap.) The cost is certainly on the screen as the film revels in its homage to classic crime noirs like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, albeit in color rather than black and white. It’s firmly mid-level Allen, one where seemingly every beautiful woman – from Theron to Elizabeth Berkley to Helen Hunt – wants to have sex with him. It’s better than Celebrity in that it at least seems to have genuine warmth for its own ideas, but it’s otherwise an unnecessary title in Allen’s vast filmography.
The original Mighty Joe Young from 1949 was a King Kong wannabe B-movie that remains beloved among stop-motion animation aficionados. The 1998 remake, courtesy of Disney, is a more family-friendly caper with a hefty dose of sentimentality. The central hook remains the eponymous behemoth gorilla, who was created this time round via animatronics, a gorilla suit, and special make-up provided by the legendary Rick Baker. The overall impact is still pretty impressive, although the movie surrounding this gentle giant is far less interesting. Young kids will be pleasantly diverted but their parents may be less entertained.
Even Theron herself admits that Reindeer Games isn’t a great movie, but one she signed onto for the opportunity to work with director John Frankenheimer of The Manchurian Candidate fame. Indeed, back in 2008, Theron admitted that she considered this her worst film. Sadly, though, it’s too forgettable to be truly awful. Made at the peak of Ben Affleck’s somewhat misbegotten action leading man phase, Reindeer Games ends up being as silly as its title. There are some so-bad-it’s-good moments in its ludicrous plot, but not enough to sustain its running time.
Theron is wasted in the token dutiful spouse role in this otherwise solid biopic about Masternited States Navy. Men of Honor is a familiarly structured tale that has enough force behind it to avoid unnecessary sentimentality. The real meat of the film comes from the dynamic between its main stars, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro, who push one another to their limits, although the film is better when it tempers their mutual habit of descending into scenery-chewing.
Nash Edgerton, brother of Joel, directed this crime comedy that Theron produced as well as starred in. David Oyelowo plays a mild-mannered pharmaceutical employee who becomes embroiled in a kidnapping and experimental drug test. The Egerton brothers clearly called in a lot of favors and put together an incredibly talented cast for Gringo, all of whom are all trying extremely hard to find some spark of inspiration amid this messy movie. Whenever it embraces its chaos, it becomes a lot more enjoyable, but Gringo ultimately gets lost in its own conceit and tangled plotting.
2008’s Hancock was released just before the current splurge of superhero movies became the defining force of Hollywood, so it feels like a strange outlier among the genre. Will Smith plays a superpowered vigilante with a mysterious past who has become public enemy number one in Los Angeles thanks to his apathy and drunkenness causing endless havoc to the general public. With the help of a savvy PR guru, he revamps his image, and this satirical slant proves to be the most fascinating and enduring aspect of Hancock. The second half twist and dramatic shift in genre proved too much for most viewers, and the film quickly loses track of what made it an intriguing concept in the first place. Smith is always endearing, and Theron holds her own, even as the plot gets seriously loopy. If only Hancock had stuck the landing, it would have been thought of more fondly over a decade later.
Theron doesn’t do hammy performances, but as the evil queen of Snow White and the Huntsman she’s clearly letting herself have a lot of vampy fun in the role of an unashamed villain. There’s real ambition behind this fairy-tale retelling, which blends classic fantasy with modern-day sensibilities. While an uneven arc hampers its overall energy, it remains a refreshing change of pace from the typical Summer blockbuster fare. Sadly, the sequel learned all the wrong lessons.
Theron landed her second Oscar nomination in Niki Caro’s drama inspired by a landmark class-action sexual harassment lawsuit that a group of female mine workers leveled against their employers. North Country clearly has noble intentions, but it falls into every trap of the biopic formula and is a much worse movie for it. While Theron and co-star Frances McDormand are undoubtedly excellent, this is a story that needed less soap opera sheen. Caro’s heavy hand in the movie’s second half during its courtroom scenes feels especially disappointing. North Country has some powerful scenes and its message is important but its staid commitment to every trope in the book robs this tale of its much-needed authenticity.
Theron worked alongside her then-partner Stuart Townsend, who made his directorial debut with Battle in Seattle. The story is loosely based on the many protests that happened during the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999. Townsend has a sharp eye for capturing the frenzy and passion of protest, and it certainly allows the audience to understand what it felt like to be in the heart of the action. The movie fails when it steps away from the politics and dilutes its own righteous fury in favor of characters who we have little interest in. when Battle in Seattle loses its outrage, it becomes a far less forceful piece of work.
Originally broadcast as an HBO TV movie in the U.S., The Life and Death of Peter Sellers received a theatrical release everywhere else and even played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Geoffrey Rush plays the legendary actor while Charlize Theron is his second wife, Swedish model/actress Britt Ekland. Rush is excellent in a supremely tricky role and the movie captures the frenetic energy of both its subject and the era he was at his prime. Your interest in the film will rely heavily on your tolerance for Sellers himself. Britt Ekland criticized the movie for downplaying his more monstrous aspects and the film is certainly guilty of liking its protagonist a bit too much (although it’s hardly a historical whitewash). It may be worth watching just to see so many familiar faces playing true industry legends, from Stanley Tucci as Stanley Kubrick to John Lithgow as Blake Edwards.
1996’s 2 Days in the Valley was the first major role of Theron’s career and the one that announced her arrival as one to watch in Hollywood. The movie’s noir influences are obvious, as well as the debt it clearly owes to Pulp Fiction, and while it never rises to the level of the latter, it remains a fun, nasty crime ensemble with a strong cast of character actors including Glenne Headley, Danny Aiello, and James Spader. Theron is certainly well cast as a femme fatale, but she still gets a chance to show that her potential lies far beyond the limitations of a mere sex symbol.
Another early addition to Theron’s filmography, Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate is at its most enjoyable when it fully embraces its frenzied camp nature. Keanu Reeves plays a hotshot small-town lawyer who moves to New York City to work for a major firm owned by Al Pacino, who is literally Satan. The movie is a weird cross between Paradise Lost, a John Grisham legal thriller, and a drag queen revue, with Pacino hamming it up to near unfathomable levels in a way that only he can. It has its darker and more lascivious elements, but The Devil’s Advocate is more vulgar melodrama and that’s when it’s at its most ridiculously enjoyable.
Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise remains a divisive entry among fans. While it’s still a topic of much debate as to whether this was a story that needed a prequel, it’s undeniable that Prometheus has some fascinating moments that are worth re-watching. Theron works alongside a strong cast (Scott has always been excellent at putting together interesting ensembles of actors), including Idris Elba, Noomi Rapace, and a scene-stealing Michael Fassbender. The original Alien works because it doesn’t constantly explain its story to the audience, something Prometheus gets too tangled up in. It’s still, however, a gorgeous looking film with plenty of scares and surprises to keep you on your toes.
It’s not always a bad thing for a movie to be old-fashioned, especially if the director knows what they’re doing. Lasse Hallström proves to be a strong fit for this adaptation of John Irving’s best-selling novel The Cider House Rules. Michael Caine won his second Oscar for the role of the kindly doctor who runs an orphanage while performing illegal abortions for those in need. The film strikes a precarious balance between the homey comforts of old-school golden age Hollywood cinema and the darkness of the novel, but ultimately pulls it off. It’s a softer take on the content of the book, but no less potent for it.
The evolution of the Fast and Furious franchise is one of the most fascinating arcs in modern blockbuster history. That this series began as a bog-standard carjacking action movie and evolved into a ludicrously over-the-top saga of stunts and friendship is one of the smartest decisions any studio has ever taken with a profitable IP. It’s no wonder that even major talents like Theron were keen to sign onto the fun and become part of the increasingly strange lore. The Fate of the Furious, part eight of the tale, is not the best film in the franchise, but it is indicative of why these movies work so well. This is a franchise that knows exactly what it is and has no qualms about milking its ridiculous nature for maximum impact. Theron’s icy charm proves to be a great foil for the familiar faces, so it’s no wonder she’s returning for part 9.
James Gray is a director whose richly textured dramas were mostly ignored by American critics while French audiences lavished praise upon them for years. 2000’s The Yards suffered from the wrath of Miramax, who all but dumped the movie and caused it to be a major box office flop. The American critical opinion of Gray has slowly changed for the positive over the past few years thanks to movies like Ad Astra but The Yards is a movie primed for rediscovery. There’s a real flair of authenticity in this crime drama that helps it stand head and shoulders above the myriad Scorsese knockoffs that pollute the field. Theron is excellent but the film really belongs to Joaquin Phoenix, a long-time collaborator of Gray who does some of his most underrated work with the director.
Fury Road lay the groundwork for Theron to establish herself as an action star, but Atomic Blonde was proof that she could more than hold her own alongside the gun-toting dudes of the genre. Set in Berlin towards the end of the Cold War, Atomic Blonde is positively dripping in flair with each scene drenched in an achingly cool style that wouldn’t look out of place in a Blondie music video. Director David Leitch got his cinematic start with John Wick and it shows here in its brutally stylish fight scenes that manage to elicit awes and winces in equal measure. A sequel is in the works with Netflix and Leitch has said he would love to cross Atomic Blonde over with John Wick. We eagerly await further news on both projects.
One of her first named credits, Theron turns up in a small role in Tom Hanks’s immensely charming directorial debut. That Thing You Do! is the name of the song that catapults The Wonders to the top of the charts, only for their dreams to almost immediately fall apart. As is befitting a Tom Hanks movie, it’s a delightful romp full of sweetness and an array of great performances, including Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, and Steve Zahn. The best parts of the film come with how pitch-perfect its depiction of the early 1960s is, not just in terms of production or costume design but the music and feelings of intense pre-Vietnam War optimism. Few movies have original songs this good.
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road is a bleak read, even by his dark standards: A harrowing post-apocalyptic tale of a man (played by Viggo Mortensen) and his young son who try to survive in a wasteland bereft of humanity and trust. John Hillcoat’s adaptation doesn’t always capture the stark terror of the novel, but when it hits the spot it’s a powerful viewing experience. Theron’s role is small (and still expanded from what it is on the page), but this is undeniably the movie of Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. It’s rare to watch a Hollywood film where you, the viewer, are truly unsure if everything will turn out alright.
Theron has never been more laugh-out-loud hilarious than she is starring alongside Seth Rogen in Long Shot. The set-up for this film sounded so insufferable on paper: a schlubby dude reunites with his gorgeous former babysitter who is now running to be the next American President. Yet screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah play a much smarter game with this set-up. Rogen and Theron have warm and believable chemistry that the film teases out to both great romantic and comedic effect. Rather than play out the odd couple nature of this dynamic, Long Shot is more focused on how the pair work in tandem, both professionally and personally. Long Shot had the bad luck of opening in theaters one week after Avengers: Endgame, so it was predictably buried at the box office, but it’s well-primed to be discovered by those who missed it the first time round.
Writer-director Paul Haggis’s professional career will forever be defined by Crash, a film that is widely considered to be the absolute worst movie to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars. Perhaps because of that admittedly wholly deserved backlash, audiences were hesitant to embrace his follow-up film, 2007’s In the Valley of Elah. That’s a shame because it’s easily his finest hour and one of the most interesting films to emerge from Hollywood during the height of the Iraq war. Inspired by a true story, the film is part-crime drama, part Biblical allegory and strident anti-war polemic, centering on a military police veteran who tries to uncover the truth behind the violent death of his soldier son, recently returned from Iraq. Tommy Lee Jones gives one of his finest performances as the disenfranchised father clinging to hope for answers over his son’s violent end, and the movie is bravely bleak in its exploration of the trauma of war.
Netflix has been trying to create its own blockbuster with franchise potential for years now in the hopes of keeping up with the big Hollywood studios. They even tapped in Michael Bay to create his own offering in the form of Six Underground, but audiences were disinterested. The streaming service finally broke through with The Old Guard, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Greg Rucka’s graphic novel. Theron leads a gang of immoral mercenaries seeking revenge against the former CIA operative who set them up. While the movie hits plenty of familiar superhero genre beats, its real energy lies in the balance between its passionate emotional core and its kinetic action sequences. It’s that rare American blockbuster featuring queer characters who have an open and sensual romance, including the kind of dramatic action-scene kiss typically reserved for straight couples. It also features another reminder of why Theron is such a good fit for the world of action. She seems so perfectly at home in this world, as does her fellow actors, including Marwan Kenzari, KiKi Layne, and Luca Marinelli. Netflix is clearly hoping for a full-on franchise of The Old Guard and frankly, so are we.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody got her start with the whip-smart, quip-ready Juno but she’s at her most potent with bleaker tales of feminine trauma, from the always-underappreciated Jennifer’s Body to the Hulu series One Mississippi. Her partnership with director Jason Reitman, with whom she has made three films, yields some of her best work. 2018’s Tully is a mercilessly honest tale of postpartum difficulties, the likes of which are seldom seen in mainstream American films. Theron captures the ceaseless exhaustion and frustration of motherhood, a time of sharply contrasting emotions that many outsiders either don’t understand or refuse to fully confront. Some critics disapproved of the film’s direction in the third act, but Tully’s power lies in its surprises.
Theron has proven to be an excellent fit for the work of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, a director/screenwriter pair who are at their best when in collaboration with one another on dark and deeply humane tales of the struggles of adult life. Young Adult gave her an exciting opportunity to play one of her prickliest characters, a misanthropic alcoholic ghostwriter who obsesses over the lost youth and the life she could have had. The role of Mavis was one described repeatedly as “unlikeable”, which overlooks her serious mental illness and trauma. Theron brings her to life with all the rough edges and refuses to soften her bleak outlook on life. The laughs here are pitch-black, often accompanied by a sharp intake of breath. This is as dark as comedy gets and Theron could not be better suited to it. Between Young Adult and Tully, you cannot help but hope that she becomes a more frequent collaborator with Cody and Reitman.
Laika is the reigning king of stop-motion animation in America and yet they remain shockingly underrated by general audiences. Kubo and the Two Strings is an excellent example of what the company is capable of at their prime, a stunningly beautiful drama inspired by Japanese myth and the works of Studio Ghibli that seamlessly blends stop-motion with CGI. It’s a dreamlike and deeply sophisticated piece of work and one that is smart enough to take its young target audience seriously. The movie never undercuts its drama with cheap gags or pop culture references, the kind that now seems to be mandatory for children’s cartoons. Instead, it is an elegiac and layered tale that is funny, scary, sad, and beautiful.
In contemporary conversations of Patty Jenkins’s biographical drama Monster, most of the focus falls upon the supposedly Oscar-baity nature of Theron’s performance. She is, after all, slathered in prosthetics and playing a real-life figure, and we know how the Academy feels about that, especially when the beautiful actresses in question are seen to be “getting ugly.” None of this gives Monster or Theron’s work in it the credit it really deserves, however, because this is a truly brilliant film that is anchored by a breath-taking performance. It is true that Theron is unrecognizable under all that makeup, but the performance is so much more than that. Theron keenly captures the physical feel of Aileen Wuornos, a woman who has been beaten down by life from day one but tries to hold her head high. This is no mere impersonation. It’s a fully lived-in performance without an ounce of hesitation. The film itself is also superb, offering an insight into a deeply troubled woman and asking the audience to consider her desperate plight without ever excusing her heinous crimes.
Truly no other film, in Theron’s filmography or that of 90% of actors, could come close to topping the majesty of George Miller’s thrilling masterpiece. Mad Max: Fury Road was a jolt of life to a flagging genre, a sharp reminder that action movies could be so much more than mere set-pieces. It’s an extravagant and lavishly mounted piece of cinema that combines B-movie thrills with diesel-punk aesthetics and a post-apocalyptic frenzy. Even if the film were nothing but its action, it would be astounding, but the devil is in the details, from the diverse array of characters to the razor-sharp editing to the performances. Theron may have an Oscar on her shelf for a more traditionally awards-friendly role but the part of Imperator Furiosa is arguably her greatest performance. On top of the pure physicality of the part, which she nails, Theron brings quiet dignity and determination to an often-silent woman, someone who is all too used to bottling up her rage in the face of violent despots. It’s truly a shame that Theron won’t be reprising her role for Miller’s planned Furiosa prequel. As it stands, however, Mad Max: Fury Road is a near-perfect piece of cinema and one that elevates Theron to the upper echelons of Hollywood power players.