Over the last decade, Jessica Chastain has slowly cemented herself as an important figure in Hollywood. Working with respected directors like Terrence Malick, Kathryn Bigelow, and Guillermo Del Toro, Chastain has been able to develop a knack for playing strong and savvy women who often have deep emotional struggles. Since she came into the spotlight, Chastain has received two Oscar nominations, and her third might be on the way thanks to the recent release of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, where she underwent a dramatic transformation to play the famed televangelist.
Along with Tammy Faye, Chastain recently starred in Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley to great acclaim, and is considering playing a one-time villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having already appeared in the X-Men film Dark Phoenix. Here are Jessica Chastain’s best films, ranked:
10 Miss Sloane
In this political thriller directed by John Madden, Jessica Chastain plays the kind of character she plays best: a strong, determined woman. Miss Sloane follows a Washington lobbyist known for her impeccable track record of success. One day Elizabeth Sloan is approached by an arms manufacturer who wants to oppose a gun control bill but she refuses his offer and ends up working with the politicians trying to control the sales of weapons in America. While the fast-paced script is entertaining and the film offers an interesting peek at the world of political intrigue and machination, Miss Sloane is ultimately carried by Chastain, who is the real highlight here.
Inspired by a true-life story and set in 1931’s Prohibition era, Lawless follows the Bondurant brothers, a family gang that runs a bootlegging business in Virginia. It is a rather violent and brutal story of revenge after the brothers refuse to bend to the whims of Special Deputy Charles Rakes, with an intense war ensuing as a result. Lawless is not a perfect film, but its setting, cinematography, and performances make it a worthy vehicle for Jessica Chastain completists and fans of gangster dramas. Chastain plays a woman who fled the brutal anonymity of Chicago only to wind up in a gang war in Virginia, bringing much needed feminine energy to a tale that is led by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clark, and Guy Pearce.
8 The Help
The Help is a 2011 movie about a young white aspiring journalist played by Emma Stone who is writing a book about the experience of black maids in 1960s Mississippi. The film features an ensemble cast of extremely talented actresses like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janey, and Jessica Chastain, who became a breakout star thanks to her role. While Chastain had been working in Hollywood for years, this was the movie that introduced her to most audiences and earned her a first Oscar nomination. She gives an affable and lovable performance as Celia Rae Foot, one of the few white characters who treats her domestic workers with some modicum of respect. The film was understandably criticized by writers like Roxane Gay for its use of certain tropes, like making Black characters “magical” supporting figures, but it was a commercial and critical hit, garnering a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. It remains one of Chastain’s most popular films.
7 Molly’s Game
Renowned West Wing and Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin made his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, a film based on the true story of former Olympic athlete Molly Bloom, who starts hosting poker games for celebrities and members of the elite. Chastain plays Molly and perfectly blends into this Sorkian tale filled with humour, sharp one-liners, and fast-paced dialogue. On top of that, Chastain is able to infuse Molly with her signature strength as an actress, while also allowing for emotional softness. It is a good film for Sorkin and Chastain fans alike.
6 A Most Violent Year
A Most Violent Year features Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain at what was arguably the peak of their critical acclaim. Hot off Inside Llewyn Davis and Zero Dark Thirty, Isaac and Chastain starred in J.C. Chandor’s crime-drama about a small-business owner of a heating-oil company dealing with hijackers and violence in his cutthroat and corrupt industry. Chastain fits perfectly as Oscar Isaac’s fictional wife Anna because the character is fiercely uncompromising; she urges her husband to respond violently to their enemies’ attacks. Chastain plays the confident ‘woman operating behind the scenes’ archetype rather naturally, elevating the overall narrative stakes of the film, but provides a unique and bombastic flair to her character. This dynamic picture helped cement the status of A24 as a taste-making film distributor,
5 Crimson Peak
When Crimson Peak came out in 2015, it was met with a rather lukewarm response from critics, but this beautifully shot film by Guillermo del Toro has only gotten better with time. It is an eerie and supernatural romance (in the register of Wuthering Heights and other dark, Gothic love stories) featuring Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Mia Wasikowska, and Jessica Chastain. Playing the villain of the film, this was a great opportunity for Chastain to expand her somewhat homogenous filmography into the realm of fantasy, and she delivered with her most hateful, evil, and egomaniacal characters. The wardrobe, tone and gravity, of the film suit her powerful acting style perfectly. Crimson Peak is a wonderful, moody, and romantic film that succeeds at its mission of evoking the macabre with Gothic imagery and themes.
4 Zero Dark Thirty
Chastain’s turn as a CIA intelligence analyst named Maya in Zero Dark Thirty is arguably her most important role to date. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who made the similarly war-related Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker, this film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it probably came closest to winning Best Actress. Playing a strong-willed and utterly committed FBI agent, Chastain is a vital ingredient of this film about the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden after 9/11. It garnered almost universal acclaim by American media but some questioned its ties with the Obama administration, and The Guardian went as far as to call it “pernicious propaganda.” Additionally, the film about the performances isn’t one of the greatest depictions of the darkness of war (and may even endorse it). Still, it is Chastain’s most significant display of her confident acting style, and if it weren’t for Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Silver Lining’s Playbook, Chastain might’ve become an Oscar-winning actress.
Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar tells the story of an astronaut who takes on a mission to travel through a wormhole near Saturn in order to find a new planet for mankind to live on. McConaughey leaves behind his daughter, who grows up to become a successful NASA astronaut played by Chastain. This is a typical Nolan movie so it is built on an ambitious and expansive plot filled with thrilling philosophical thought experiments, but Interstellar contains the director’s most emotional work, and it’s this kind of pathos that Chastain taps into. While she is not the main focus of the film, Chastain is a crucial addition to a great ensemble, and she helped Nolan bring his complex and unique vision to life. Whether one is a fan of his work or not, the technical skill and craft of this film is unquestionable, and Chastain’s performance remains emotionally resonant.
2 Take Shelter
Directed by Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter explores themes of existential uncertainty, fear of death, and the protectiveness of love. Michael Shannon plays a blue-collar oilfield worker who starts having apocalyptic visions which may or may not be a result of mental trauma. Chastain plays his dismayed wife in a versatile performance that sees the actress exploring more nervous and fragile moods than in her typical roles. It is a surprisingly good fit for the film’s suspenseful yet meditative pacing. Take Shelter shines thanks to its originality and willingness to portray the haunting anxieties of mortality. It also stands out in Chastain’s filmography as one of her most evocative and impressionistic works. The film won the Critics’ Week Grand Prix at Cannes and it shared the Fipresci award from the International Federation of Film Critics with Le Havre and The Minister.
1 The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is not just the best film that Jessica Chastain has been in, it is one of the best films of its decade according to both Roger Ebert and the Associated Press. Malick’s films are often divisive, and The Tree of Life was not an exception thanks to its abstract introduction that many viewers disliked. Nonetheless, it is a sublimely beautiful and entirely unique film that truly explores the potential of the cinematic medium.
This film wouldn’t have been able to ask transcendental questions about existence, God, and the source of life without the performances of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain to ground the film in individual humanity. The pair plays a couple who raised their children behind a white picket fence, but Sean Penn’s character grows up to resent his father for his abusive behaviour. To contrast Pitt’s brutish gestures and masculine performance, Chastain brings a graceful energy that reminds Penn’s character, and the viewer, of those rare moments of contentment that make life worth living. She is almost literally angelic with her otherworldly performance. Malick’s cinematic masterpiece broke the rules of mainstream cinematography, plot, and editing to explore some of the most fundamental questions about human existence. Chastain’s performance here is arguably her most important contribution to film history.
Chastain’s transformation into the heavily made-up Tammy Faye Bakker took over 7 hours to achieve every day on set.
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