Critic's Picks: Naomi Watts' 10 Best Performances

9:00 AM 6/29/2017

by Leslie Felperin

Ahead of the star's debut in the new Netflix drama 'Gypsy,' THR film critic Leslie Felperin ranks the Oscar nominee’s best big-screen work

  1. 10
    10

    St. Vincent

    2014

    The Weinstein Company/Photofest

    It takes a rare skill to accept the role like this — a Russian tart with a heart — and make it work, but in Theodore Melfi's sentimental comedy, Watts pulls it off. As the heavily pregnant Daka who visits Bill Murray's titular sad sack every week and has sex with him for cash, she projects a credible mix of vulnerability, hardness and a salty Slavic pragmatism. The accent is perhaps a tad overripe, but that’s kind of the point.

  2. 9
    10

    Flirting

    1991

    The Samuel Goldwyn Company/Photofest

    It's always fun to look back at an actor in her early years, and John Duigan's charming coming-of-age story is a good enough place to start. Made around the time teenage Watts was dabbling in modeling and making episodes of Aussie soap Home and Away, this features her in a supporting role as a sweet, bespectacled blond named Janet who is friends with Thandie Newton's sexier, more exotic boarding-school classmate. Nicole Kidman, by that point already a close friend of Watts, plays the school's willowy bombshell, the "Gold Coast version of Ursula Andress."

  3. 8
    10

    Ellie Parker

    2005

    Bliar Mastbaum/Photofest

    Originally a short gradually expanded over five years of filming, this ultra-low-budget confection directed by Scott Coffey is the comic flipside of Mulholland Drive, a wry glimpse of the daily grind of an aspirant actor working her way through endless rounds of auditions in mid '00s Hollywood. Watts, also one of the film's producers, channels her own experiences and personality to create the unbreakable Ellie Parker, a talented, sunny but slightly gawky slogger with an uncanny ability to change clothes while driving.

  4. 7
    10

    Eastern Promises

    2007

    Focus Features/Photofest

    Oddly, the thing most people remember best about this David Cronenberg thriller is a naked Viggo Mortensen battling a steambath full of assailants. But Watts is the movie's real star, cast as a London midwife who bravely plunges into the shady world of Russian gangsters when she decides to investigate the death of a pregnant trafficked girl. Wearing scruffy attire and an expression of grim determination, she's a steady human heartbeat amidst the frequent shots of dead bodies, gore and violence.

  5. 6
    10

    Birdman

    2014

    Fox Searchlight Pictures/Photofest

    Watts reteamed with her 21 Grams director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, to play long-suffering Lesley, a co-star in the stage play being directed and produced by Michael Keaton in the Oscar-winning tale of a movie star in search of redemption. It's not an especially showy role compared to those played by Keaton, Emma Stone or even Edward Norton, but once again Watts shows off fine comic chops and a team-player attitude by keeping perfect time with the ensemble's jazzy rhythms. Her tearful flirting scene with Andrea Riseborough is a beaut.

  6. 5
    10

    Funny Games

    2007

    Warner Independent Pictures/Photofest

    It seemed natural that Michael Haneke, Europe's crown prince of arthouse bourgeois-baiting provocation, would choose Watts for his shot-by-shot remake of his own 1997 Austrian shocker Funny Games. Bound, often gagged and wearing just her underwear for most the film as she watches psychopaths abuse her family, Watts adds class, empathy and skill to what's essentially a posh bit of torture porn. It's an example of an actor doing great work in a terrible movie.

  7. 4
    10

    While We're Young

    2014

    A24/Photofest

    By this point, it was no surprise to Watts fans that she could handle comedy as effortlessly as she could the big dramatic roles. In Noah Baumbach's satirical take on male rivalry, the actress is second-banana to Ben Stiller, who plays her husband, and, to a lesser extent, Adam Driver as half of a younger, hipper couple (Amanda Seyfried plays Driver's wife). But her fierce hip-hop dancing in a class is one of the movie's comic highlights.

  8. 3
    10

    The Impossible

    2012

    Summit Entertainment/Photofest

    In the canon of great onscreen criers working in the business today, surely Watts ranks up there with Meryl Streep, Marion Cotillard and Tom Hanks. This thoughtful disaster film gives her many opportunities to sob on cue, and she might just get you weeping with her. As a mother separated from her children and husband when the 2004 tsunami hits Thailand, she turns in a physically and emotionally intense performance.

  9. 2
    10

    21 Grams

    2003

    Focus Features/Photofest

    In Inarritu's puzzle-like drama, Watts stars alongside Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro as a housewife floored by an unendurable tragedy, who finds herself backsliding into addiction in order to cope. Both extremely sexy and wrenchingly moving, the actress found herself up against Charlize Theron in Monster during awards season — and so lost out on what would likely have been, in any other year, a slew of major prizes.

  10. 1
    10

    Mulholland Drive

    2001

    Universal Focus/Photofest

    One could argue that the actress' breakout performance in David Lynch's trippy masterpiece wasn't her showiest display or maybe even her best. But it's almost certainly become her most iconic, marking the moment when everyone started asking, "Who is that woman, and who is her agent?" The key scene arrives halfway through the film, when Watts' seemingly sweet Betty sheds the skin of aspiring-actor innocence before our eyes and transforms into a serious dramatic contender while auditioning for a role. This was the instant a star was born.

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