Over the weekend, Kristen Stewart made news by being honest. “It’s a total crapshoot,” she admitted about the unpredictability of the film business. “I’ve probably made five really good films, out of 45 or 50 films? Ones that I go, ‘Wow, that person made a top-to-bottom beautiful piece of work!’”
As with anything involving Stewart, the internet exploded, with people who only remember her from Twilight snidely arguing that her suggested number of good movies was way too high — while filmgoers who knew better tried to speculate which five she meant. In the interview with The Sunday Times, Stewart singled out two she’s especially proud of — Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper — which both absolutely deserve to be described as “really good.” The other three? She didn’t say, but there are plenty of worthy candidates. My picks would be Adventureland, Certain Women and Spencer, a drama about Princess Diana, which comes out in a couple weeks that I haven’t seen yet.
But whether or not you think Stewart has made “five really good films” in her career, it’s worth asking: How many actors have made that many recently? Unless she’s counting Into the Wild, which came out in 2007 and featured her in just one sequence, or 2002’s Panic Room, which was made when she was a kid, I have to assume that the five are during or after Twilight, which premiered in 2008. So that’s five really good films in 13 years. Honestly, that’s a pretty great track record — especially if Stewart’s own criteria is “[o]nes that I go, ‘Wow, that person made a top-to-bottom beautiful piece of work!’”
So I decided to do a deep dive, researching several acclaimed actors’ filmography over the last decade-plus. I only came up with nine who have five or more “really good” films to their name since 2008, and admittedly a few of them are a stretch — after all, your definition of a “really good” film may be different than mine. But put it this way: Stewart may have been trying to be self-depreciating, but the truth is, it feels more like a flex. Listed alphabetically, here are the actors whose recent film résumé is as sterling as KStew’s…
Great Movies Since 2008: Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian, Crimson Peak
Chastain had a huge 2011, with The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Help all opening that year, setting the stage for one of the most distinguished careers of the last decade. (Naturally, Chastain was Oscar nominated for The Help, easily the weakest of the three.) Her finest performance was still to come in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which saw her playing a driven intelligence analyst determined to bring down Osama bin Laden, but she’s proven to be just as compelling in fun genre fare. Indeed, she’s one of the secret MVPs of the hugely entertaining “Let’s rescue Matt Damon” sci-fi drama The Martian, and she clearly had a blast in Guillermo del Toro’s knowingly amped-up Gothic horror movie Crimson Peak.
Great Movies Since 2008: Doubt, Fences, Widows, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Suicide Squad
When you consider that Davis spent a good chunk of the last 13 years doing a TV series — How to Get Away With Murder — it’s even more impressive that she made the cut. Sometimes, she’s been better than the material — hello, The Help — but when she finds a script worthy of her, she tends to be the best part of whatever she’s in. (To wit, she’s barely in Doubt, but her scene opposite Meryl Streep is easily that movie’s highlight.) The emotional crime thriller Widows proved she could carry a smart, grownup studio film, while Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom allowed her to let loose with a bravura, go-big performance. And The Suicide Squad is one of 2021’s nicest surprises — so much better than the original — and it’s delightful to watch this serious, laser-focused Oscar-winner deliver such a delightful heel-turn.
Great Movies Since 2008: Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, The Counselor
Fassbender’s best work over the last 13 years has been with director Steve McQueen: They both came to the world’s attention on 2008’s Hunger, in which Fassbender played Bobby Sands, an Irish republican prisoner who staged a daring hunger strike in 1981. From there, the two men crafted another study of extreme spiritual desolation with the searing sex-addiction drama Shame. Few actors of recent years have been so magnetic on screen, whether it’s as the creepy boyfriend in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank or as the morally slippery protagonist in Ridley Scott’s divisive, engrossing The Counselor. It was a shame Fassbender got sidetracked doing X-Men movies — he could have had an even more impressive résumé — although I’m sure that franchise did wonders for his bank account.
Great Movies Since 2008: White Material, In Another Country, Louder Than Bombs, Things to Come, Elle, Happy End
When The New York Times’ film critics picked the 25 best actors of the 21st century a year ago, Huppert was ranked No. 2 — Denzel Washington took the top spot — and you can understand why fellow actresses like Chastain and Rebecca Hall adore her. Forget the quality of her work — at 68, she’s an example of how women can still find challenging, exciting roles later in life, although sadly that may be a case of her being the exception that proves the rule. Combining intelligence and vulnerability, in the last decade-plus she’s worked with world-class filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Hong Sang-soo and Mia Hansen-Løve. And with Elle, she earned her first Oscar nomination, playing a rape victim who gets vengeance on her attacker in Paul Verhoeven’s twisted thriller.
Great Movies Since 2008: Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, The Card Counter, Dune
Most filmgoers didn’t know who the guy was who played Carey Mulligan’s jailbird husband in Drive, but pretty soon Isaac would be everywhere, his career getting a jump-start thanks to his superb performance as the frustrated folk singer in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Since then, he’s been busy with blockbusters, such as the recent Star Wars trilogy, but he’s continued to do strong work in arthouse fare, too. In Ex Machina, he illustrated an ability to blend brains with menace — plus, his dance skills turned him into a meme. (And I could have added to his tally the excellent Annihilation, except he’s not in it very much.) This fall, he’s been in two very different, equally superb films: Paul Schrader’s brooding The Card Counter and Denis Villeneuve’s epic Dune. Almost alone on this list, Isaac has managed to straddle indies and tentpoles — he’s a capital-A actor who’s also a legitimate movie star.
Great Movies Since 2008: A Single Man, The Kids Are All Right, What Maisie Knew, Still Alice, Gloria Bell
The Oscar-winner has been doing terrific work since the mid-1990s, but in the last 13 years some of her finest films have been modest indies. Few checked out her turn as the high-maintenance mother/rock star in What Maisie Knew or as the divorced Angeleno in Gloria Bell, but they demonstrated Moore’s range — one character is bitterly caustic, while the other is a gentle soul. But Moore has made a career out of shifting gears, segueing from the boozy Charley in A Single Man to the loving but philandering wife in The Kids Are All Right. And, of course, she snagged an Academy Award for the underrated Alzeheimer’s drama Still Alice, which just so happened to co-star Kristen Stewart.
Great Movies Since 2008: Cosmopolis, The Lost City of Z, Good Time, High Life, The Lighthouse
Stewart’s former Twilight co-star faced similar resistance when he tried to extricate himself from the teen-vampire series. But like Stewart, he proved the doubters wrong, assembling a pretty formidable body of work by largely resisting big-budget films and instead focusing on auteur-driven indies. That run started, funny enough, with him playing a metaphorical bloodsucker in David Cronenberg’s wonderfully chilly Cosmopolis, and Pattinson has only gotten better from there, jumping from the old-school adventure-drama The Lost City of Z to the portrait of a compellingly self-absorbed criminal in Good Time. His up-for-anything energy is evident in the daringly oblique, straight-up brilliant sci-fi saga High Life and the darkly comedic The Lighthouse. And even if Tenet wasn’t terrific, I’m extremely curious what he brings to Bruce Wayne in The Batman. Pattinson has shown that he shouldn’t be underestimated.
Great Movies Since 2008: Two Lovers, The Master, Inherent Vice, You Were Never Really Here, Joker, C’mon C’mon
The meta faux-documentary I’m Still Here threatened to derail Phoenix’s career, but since then he’s gone from strength to strength, delivering intense, emotionally raw performances. The Master and Joker are probably the best-known on this list — put me down as a fan of his work in the latter blockbuster — but between the sensitive love story Two Lovers and the anguished crime-thriller You Were Never Really Here, he’s been extraordinary even in little-seen indies. Later this year he’ll be back with Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, one of his most delicate portrayals as a journalist who takes care of his sister’s young son while she’s away. No matter what mode he’s in, though, his immediacy is startling. You’re riveted because you’re never sure what his characters might do next.
Great Movies Since 2008: Julia, I Am Love, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Bigger Splash, Suspiria, Memoria
“I never, ever, ever intended to act,” Swinton said in 2018. “I still don’t intend to act. I mean, I’m thoroughly distracted from what I really want to do, which I’m never gonna really get to if I don’t stop doing this stuff.” Well, “this stuff” has been pretty exceptional: She’s one of the few actors who’s only gotten better since winning an Academy Award — and she was pretty darn fabulous in 2007’s Michael Clayton. No one takes risks like Swinton, moving from a go-for-broke thriller like Julia to the despairing character study We Need to Talk About Kevin to the deeply romantic vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive. And she and Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino have been frequent collaborators, working together on love stories (I Am Love) and psychological horror movies (Suspiria). And wait ‘til you see her in the forthcoming Memoria, where she plays a woman obsessed with a strange sound only she can hear. Who else would be able to pull that off?