Total Recall

Rank Charlize Theron's 10 Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Tully star.

by | May 2, 2018 | Comments

Charlize Theron‘s returns to theaters in this week’s Tully, which finds the Oscar-winning star reuniting with Young Adult director Jason Reitman for another character-driven dramedy. In honor of Tully‘s arrival, we decided there could be no better time to take a fond look back at some of Ms. Theron’s brightest critical highlights — and give you the opportunity to devise your own ranking in the bargain. It’s time for Total Recall!


1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) 97%

(Photo by Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.)

Hollywood’s franchise hunger has reached the point where any level of cynicism regarding a sequel, reboot, or reimagining is defensible, and given that it had been 30 years since the last Mad Max installment, one could be forgiven for approaching this continuation of the saga with a somewhat jaundiced eye. But all that time away from the franchise clearly gave director/co-writer George Miller plenty of ideas, because Fury Road is that rarest of blockbuster beasts: an action thriller that isn’t content to merely string together set pieces. In fact, it’s a surprisingly thoughtful film, one whose message is afforded equal importance alongside epic action sequences arranged with balletic, eye-popping grace. It’s also a surprisingly feminist tale, with Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky riding shotgun alongside Theron’s Imperator Furiosa on her quest to dismantle the post-apocalyptic patriarchy. “Believe all the hype,” cautioned Christy Lemire. “This movie will melt your face off.”

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2. That Thing You Do! (1996) 93%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

It wasn’t her official film debut — that honor goes to an uncredited, non-speaking appearance in Children of the Corn III — but Theron’s role in 1996’s That Thing You Do! marked the first time many filmgoers got to see her in action on the big screen. And while her turn as Tina Powers is far from her biggest part, she earned some solid early exposure from the period comedy, which follows the speedy rise (and equally speedy fall) of a rock band in 1966. Writer-director Tom Hanks quipped he’d always take credit for discovering the budding star, and although the movie wasn’t a major commercial hit, it enjoyed highly favorable reviews from the likes of Desson Thomson of the Washington Post, who wrote, “Hanks stays about a half-beat ahead of the clichés with rim shots of boyish enthusiasm and deft comedy.”

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3. Young Adult (2011) 80%

(Photo by Philip V. Caruso/Paramount Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Theron is no stranger to unsympathetic characters, but they’re generally pretty put together; whether it’s genuine or simply her public persona, her body language often communicates a seemingly effortless poise. It really took 2011’s Young Adult to prove she can also be a convincing mess: in this reunion between Juno director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, Theron plays Mavis Gary, a YA ghostwriter whose career drift is mirrored in her own irresponsible and unhealthy behavior. Selfish and casually cruel, Mavis would be all but impossible to care about in the wrong performer’s hands, but as she did in Monster, Theron found a glimmer of humanity beneath a sociopathic exterior. “In a thorny role, Theron is splendid,” wrote Mick LaSalle for the San Francisco Chronicle. “She instinctively reveals everything Mavis doesn’t know about herself and offers an intimate peek into a wayward soul.”

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4. Monster (2004) 81%

(Photo by Newmarket courtesy Everett Collection)

Eager to display more of her dramatic range after a series of projects that were often content to take advantage of her striking looks, Theron helped produce — and underwent a physical transformation to star in — Monster, a look at the real-life murders perpetrated by serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Yet while Theron’s altered appearance drew much of the immediate attention surrounding the project, it was her performance that helped make Monster one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year — and earned Theron a Best Actress Oscar in the bargain. Pointing out that debuting director Patty Jenkins “doesn’t stint on the sickening reality of Wuornos’ abhorrent behavior,” Megan Lehmann of the New York Post argued, “it’s Theron’s complex, deeply felt depiction of a thoroughly messed-up soul that forces us to look beyond the monstrous nature of her acts.”

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5. Atomic Blonde (2017) 78%

(Photo by Jonathan Prime/Focus Features)

Charlize Theron took an infamously ill-advised stab at leading an action thriller with 2005’s Æon Flux, but she wasn’t that sci-fi spy flop’s biggest problem — and she proved it over a decade later with Atomic Blonde, which found her playing an MI6 agent fighting to take down a Berlin spy ring during the waning days of the Cold War. Director David Leitch put his deep background in stunt work to powerfully effective use in John Wick, and that flair for impressive set pieces proved one of the main ingredients that made Blonde a solid critical hit — that and a magnetic performance from Theron, whose bruising fight scenes were anchored with enough emotion to keep most pundits entertained even if the story didn’t quite rank among the classics of the genre. “Can a woman step into James Bond’s shoes? Duh, says Charlize Theron,” wrote Thelma Adams for the New York Observer. “She performs the cold-as-ice secret agent shtick backwards, and in red patent-leather stilettos.”

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6. The Road (2009) 74%

(Photo by Dimension Films courtesy Everett Collection)

More than most films trying to depict the end of the world, John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road faced an uphill climb: not only was the source material a Pulitzer-winning bestseller, it was also an impossibly grim, utterly minimalistic work, populated with nameless characters consumed by a ceaseless, last-ditch drive for life in the face of all but certain doom. All of which is to say that Charlize Theron’s character, the late wife of Viggo Mortensen’s character and mother to their son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), had very little to do in the book — and while Joe Penhall’s screenplay didn’t deviate too much from the source text, some slightly fleshed-out characterization was in order. The end result, while still very much Mortensen and Smit-McPhee’s show, was given an added emotional anchor by Theron’s flashback appearances, helping move the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Steven Rea to write, “I cannot think of another film this year that has stayed with me, its images of dread and fear — and yes, perhaps hope — kicking around like such a terrible dream.”

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7. Prometheus (2012) 73%

(Photo by Kerry Brown/20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

Theron’s feline inscrutability has helped her sell a series of characters whose agendas are difficult to discern — and that’s presumably exactly what Ridley Scott was looking for when he cast her as Meredith Vickers in his long-awaited Alien prequel, Prometheus. Serving as an emissary of the shadowy Weyland Corporation pulling the strings throughout the franchise, Theron communicated the constant threat of betrayal without saying a word — and when her ultimate loyalties are revealed, it’s both a pivotal twist and no surprise at all. “Stripped to its visceral essentials, the franchise is meant to frighten us and gross us out,” wrote the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell. “Prometheus rises to that modest challenge.”

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8. The Italian Job (2003) 73%

(Photo by Paramount courtesy Everett Collection)

Part of the wave of heist flick remakes that gave us new versions of The Thomas Crown Affair and Ocean’s Eleven, F. Gary Gray’s “homage” to the 1969 Michael Caine caper The Italian Job followed the explosive exploits of a double-crossing, gold-thieving band of criminals that included Theron, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Statham, Mos Def, and Seth Green. Though critics were quick to point out that the new Job didn’t really add much to the original — and the movie was arguably better-known for its heavy use of trendy Mini Coopers than anything that actually transpired in the plot — it offered 111 minutes of agreeably undemanding action thrills. As Jon Niccum of the Lawrence Journal-World wrote, “Filled with easy-to-like characters, innovative action sequences and a story rife with momentum, the movie is as endearingly zippy as the BMW MINIs the heroes use to pull off their scam.”

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9. In the Valley of Elah (2007) 74%

(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

Writer-director Paul Haggis followed up his Oscar-winning Crash with another sober take on a thorny issue: In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon in the fact-based story of parents desperately trying to uncover the circumstances leading to the death of their son (Jonathan Tucker), a soldier who survived Iraq only to fall victim to a grisly murder. Thwarted by military officials and a disinterested sheriff (Josh Brolin), Jones relies on his own military training — and some help from a compassionate detective (Theron) — to bring his son’s killers to justice. “It’s a testament to Elah‘s stoicism that the heartbreak at how dishonesty undoes decades of dignity pierces without ever patronizing,” wrote Nick Rogers for Suite101. “It’s an unforgettable, angry film that understands several simple thank-yous can trump eruptive, emotive speeches.”

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10. The Cider House Rules (1999) 71%

John Irving’s novels have had an uneven history in Hollywood, from The World According to Garp to Simon Birch, so when the time came to bring The Cider House Rules to the screen, he shouldered the burden of writing the script himself. The result, while not a critical home run, netted a pair of Oscars — one for Michael Caine’s supporting turn as the complex Dr. Larch, and one for Irving’s screenplay. All of which goes to demonstrate that Theron was in good company here, appearing as the luminous Candy opposite Tobey Maguire (as the orphan Homer) and Paul Rudd (as his friend Wally). Calling Cider “a fable that turns into a 1940s New England variation on Charles Dickens,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bob Graham proclaimed, “It is also one dickens of an American movie.”

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