Jodie Foster, Helena Bonham Carter, and Frances McDormand are among our favorite leading ladies

Jessica Lange
”There’s a sense of mystery about her. She has this world of hidden emotions churning below the surface, and it always makes you want to know more about her and her characters.”
Elisabeth Shue (her costar in Cousin Bette)

King Kong must have seen her potential when he picked her up back in 1976. Now, 22 years and two Oscars later, she’s one of Hollywood’s most venerable but unpredictable stars. Whether he’s sweetly seductive (Tootsie) or completely nuts (Frances), Lange, 49, can handle any emotional obstacle course.
Don’t Miss Cape Fear (1991), Blue Sky (1994), Rob Roy (1995)
Next Titus (based on William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), with Anthony Hopkins

  • Emma Thompson
  • ”She keeps it light, never takes herself too seriously. To me, that’s a sure sign of greatness.”
  • Anthony Hopkins

Thompson, 39, is the only actress on this list to win Oscars for both acting (Howards End) and writing (for adapting Sense and Sensibility), but that’s not entirely why we picked her. Even when she’s playing Americans — like a certain much-beleaguered political wife suffering a certain skirt-chasing Southern husband — she oozes integrity and gentleness (and manages to steal a movie from John Travolta — no mean feat).
Don’t Miss The Remains of the Day (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Primary Colors (1998)
Next The crime drama Judas Kiss, with Alan Rickman

Sigourney Weaver
”When she auditioned for Ghostbusters, Sigourney did the scene where she transforms into a dog, and she got on all fours and started yelping. She manages to be likable and strong, which is so tough for actresses.”
Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters and Dave)

As the jaded adulteress next door in The Ice Storm, she dares you one minute to take your eyes off her; the next, she’s coiled in a fetal ball, shattered and broken. That trademark yin-and-yang duality is her greatest gift. Even in full-on Sgt. Rock mode in the Alien movies, Weaver, 49, can ache like a real woman and break just like a little girl.
Don’t Miss Dave (1993), The Ice Storm (1997), Alien Resurrection (1997)
Next A Map of the World, with Julianne Moore

  • Angela Bassett
  • ”Angela possesses an overpowering spirit and versatility that allows her to reach deep emotional places other actors are unable to reach. She has the technique to manifest physical characterization that captures the details and vocal subtleties of human behavior that few artists are able to see. She’s an artist warrior, with a will to dive into the work with her whole heart, complete being, and soul.”
  • Forest Whitaker

It takes extraordinary skill to play rage with compassion, but Bassett, 40, is an alchemist, adept at inhabiting angry characters with just enough hurt that it’s impossible not to care for them. Watch her muscle her way through Tina Turner’s angst in What’s Love Got to Do With It, or make vengeance her own as a wife done wrong in Waiting to Exhale. How many women can kick butt and make you cry at the same time?
Don’t Miss Malcolm X (1992), What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993), Waiting to Exhale (1995)
Next The sci-fi thriller Supernova; Wes Craven’s 50 Violins