Charlize Theron is a tricky performer to pin down. Icy blonde and undeniably gorgeous, she could be easily pigeonholed as the “attractive lead”. And then she sinks her teeth into a powerful role, and you realize this is an actress with serious skill.
Just when you think you have a handle on her, she swerves to action thriller, before diving into comedy.
Among her diverse filmography Theron has more than a few iconic roles. She’s a performer that isn’t afraid to challenge herself, but, equally, doesn’t mind having some fun. Whether she’s terrifying you or charming you, Theron is hard to look away from.
Take a journey through the films of Charlize Theron with this guide to her 10 movies you have to see.
1. Bombshell (2019)
Bombshell might not be the greatest movie, but it does contain a truly excellent performance from Charlize Theron.
She effortlessly transforms into Megyn Kelly, a former Fox News anchor wrapped up in an abuse scandal leveled against network head Roger Ailes (John Lithgow).
Theron gets lost in the role, portraying Kelly as both a sympathetic victim and a distant figure.
You can never quite decide how to react to her – how does her role as a victim weigh against her unrelated sins? – and the performance earned Theron an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Bombshell itself struggles to portray the conflicting morals at the heart of the Fox News scandal quite as artfully as Theron does, but even if you don’t like the film, you will like her impactful performance.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
If you find a second to catch your breath during Mad Max: Fury Road, you might spend that time appreciating the bruising performance Theron gives as Imperator Furiosa.
With a shaved head, a perennially soot-smeared face, and a violent sparkle to her eye, Furiosa guides you through the bleak and thumping post-apocalypse of Mad Max.
Furiosa is a lieutenant to citadel-warlord Immortan Joe, who rebels by breaking free with his selection of wives.
What follows is a non-stop journey through the wastelands of the apocalypse, accompanied by a thundering soundtrack, scenes of incredible violence, and a man playing a guitar that shoots fire.
Somehow, in the midst of all that, Theron does more than just hold her own. When she’s on the screen, it’s hard to look anywhere else.
3. Monster (2003)
Theron transformed herself in Monster, and the film itself completely transformed her career. Portraying serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Theron became almost unrecognizable, hiding herself beneath layers of makeup, and under an incredible performance.
Managing to portray a complex character with impressive depth, Theron proved in Monster that she is an actor with range.
Monster tracks the true story of Wuornos, a former prostitute who kills a client in self-defense before embarking on a string of murders.
An intense and unsettling film, Theron is the disquieting heart of the story. Her Wuornos is horribly captivating, and the performance earned her a Golden Globe, Critics Choice Award, SAG award, and the Academy Award for Best Actress.
It also completely changed her career, introducing Theron as an actress with the skills to take on meaty roles.
4. North Country (2005)
By the end of North Country you feel both wrung out and empowered, such is the impact of this courtroom drama. It follows the story of Josey Aimes (Theron), a single mother forced to flee an abusive husband and take a job at an iron mine.
Harassed and abused by her male coworkers, and ignored by management, Aimes launches a landmark lawsuit against the company.
North Country provides a tense and powerful look at the culture of sexual harassment that is embedded in too many workplaces. At times, it can feel like a retread of earlier films, but that does nothing to dilute the performance of Theron.
Able to stand out among an incredible cast list, including Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sissy Spacek, North Country earned Theron her second Academy Award nomination.
5. In The Valley Of Elah (2007)
Paul Haggis’s follow up to the Oscar-winning, if controversial, Crash (2004), In The Valley Of Elah managed to get somewhat lost in the shuffle. If you haven’t seen it, or even heard of it, then it’s time to make up for that oversight.
On the surface, In The Valley Of Elah seems like a standard police procedural, but is actually a heartrending look at PTSD, and the far-reaching fall out of war.
The film centers on Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired police sergeant who is searching for answers regarding his son’s death. He’s assisted by police detective Emily Saunders (Theron).
Lesser actors can get overshadowed by veteran performers, so it says something about the skill of Theron that she holds her own so well against Tommy Lee Jones.
6. Long Shot (2019)
Anyone introduced to Theron through her fantastic turn as Rita Leeds in Arrested Development will know that she can do comedy very well. Unfortunately, it’s a genre she doesn’t spend much time exploring.
So, Theron fans should make sure to check out Long Shot, a romantic comedy that thrives on the unexpected chemistry she has with Seth Rogan.
Rogan plays Fred Flarsky, an unemployed journalist who is hired by Theron’s Secretary of State as a speechwriter. Inevitably, hijinks ensue, and the two eventually fall in love.
Long Shot might not be the most challenging of Theron’s roles, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one.
The film works even when it shouldn’t, mostly thanks to the strong central performances of Rogan and Theron. More comedy, please, Charlize!
7. Prometheus (2012)
There was a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s follow up to his 1979 sci-fi classic Alien.
Although it might not have quite lived up the dazzlingly high heights of the original, it’s still an excellent movie, in no part thanks to the strong performances of its central cast.
Prometheus is set prior to the events of Alien, tracking a spaceship (the Prometheus) as it searches for the origins of humanity.
But instead of finding the answer to their question, the crew instead finds their lives at risk as they encounter unexpected monsters on a distant planet.
Theron plays an ice-cold authority, a corporate boss who lurks chillingly in the background of events. You don’t trust her, and even among the natural dangers of an unexplored foreign planet, she still stands out as a threat.
8. Tully (2018)
The exhausting pressures of motherhood are at the heart of Tully, a comedy-drama from writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman.
At points, Tully offers a lighthearted look at life as a mother of three, before switching to scenes so quietly devastating they’ll take your breath away. Underappreciated on release, Tully is a film that deserves more recognition.
Theron plays Marlo, a mother of three who has struggled with postpartum depression. To lighten the load, she’s encouraged to hire night nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis).
After some initial friction, the two women form a tight friendship, before things begin to take a darker turn.
Theron and Davis play well off each other, providing a potentially overwhelming film with much-needed brightness. For new moms, Tully can be a unique look at the struggles of parenting, or it might hit a little too close to home.
9. The Cider House Rules (1999)
Adapted by John Irving from his novel of the same name, The Cider House Rules is an odd film, but one with an enchanting emotional resonance.
It follows the story of Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), an orphan who longs to see the wider world, and leaves his home with young couple Candy and Wally (Theron and Paul Rudd).
With Wally away at war, Homer and Candy grow ever closer. They begin an affair, discovering hidden depths in each other through slow and soulful scenes.
Of course, things can’t stay rosy forever, and both parties face struggles as they look to find a place to belong.
Theron takes a character that could be hard to love, and provides her with the same tender charm that makes the film so enjoyable.
10. Young Adult (2011)
Before Tully came Young Adult, the initial collaboration between Theron, Diablo Cody, and Jason Reitman.
Earning Theron a Golden Globe nomination, Young Adult is both funny and devastating, the story of an unlikable woman doing unlikable things that, nevertheless, you want to keep watching.
Young Adult follows Mavis Gary (Theron), a ghostwriter for a series of young adult novels.
Divorced, alcoholic, and filled with delusion, Mavis returns to her hometown hoping to rekindle a romance with her (happily married) ex-boyfriend. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go exactly according to plan.
Mavis is hateable, but in an intensely compelling way. Theron gives a sharp performance, and the film sparkles, even if you never quite warm to her character.
What To Watch Next
Charlize Theron is a diverse performer, and you could spend a lot of time delving into her filmography.
Once you’ve finished with our top 10, make sure to check out more fantastic Theron performances in films such as That Thing You Do! (1996), Atomic Blonde (2017), and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016).
If you liked this article, you might enjoy our post on ‘15 Unskippable Al Pacino Movies You Should Watch This Weekend‘.