1. Monster (2003)

IMDB rating: 7.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 81%

Storyline:
The story of “Monster” is a real-life dramatization of Aileen Wuornos, a highway prostitute who became a notorious serial killer in Florida during the late 80s and early 90s. Wuornos was executed by the State in 2002 after confessing to the murders of six men. Charlize Theron gives a career-defining performance, embodying Wuornos with a rawness and humanity that cuts to the core.

Why it’s a major performance:
In “Monster”, Theron demonstrated remarkable commitment to her craft by physically transforming herself to embody the character of Wuornos. Gaining thirty pounds and wearing prosthetic teeth, Sheron took extreme measures to ensure she could realistically portray the character’s physicality. These transformations, while astonishing in themselves, would be meaningless without accompanying emotional depth – something Theron supplies in spades. She lends Wuornos a damaged vulnerability that is gut-wrenching to watch.

Imbuing Wuornos with this humanity required Theron to access a depth of empathy and emotional intelligence that speaks loudly of her talent as an actor. It’s a testament to Theron’s striking performance that we are able to see Wuornos as more than just a ‘monster’, but a deeply troubled individual pushed past her breaking point.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

IMDB rating: 8.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 97%

Storyline:
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a woman of action and a survivor, seeks to return to her homeland while being pursued by a tyrant ruler named Immortan Joe. She builds an uneasy alliance with the mentally unstable loner, Max. Together, they combat the ruthless warlord and his henchman in high-speed vehicular chases with nail-biting fight scenes.

Why it’s a major performance:
In “Mad Max: Fury Road”, Theron’s Furiosa is an invention for our time — a damaged, shrewd, strong and resourceful woman who can hold her own in a male-dominated dystopia. Throughout the film, Theron fully commits to each action sequence and challenge her character faces, conveying every emotion with visceral authenticity.

Charlize Theron’s Furiosa becomes a symbol of female empowerment in an aggressively masculine world. Even more significantly, she’s a non-sexualized female action hero — a rarity in mainstream cinema. Theron’s turn as Furiosa redefined the action-heroine for a new era, showcasing an astonishing performance that is equal parts grit, resilience, and spirit.

3. Atomic Blonde (2017)

IMDB rating: 6.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 78%

Storyline:
“Atomic Blonde” is a spy thriller that takes place in Berlin during the height of the Cold War in 1989. Theron plays the role of Lorraine Broughton, a top MI6 agent sent to Berlin to track down a list which contains the names of every active field agent in the Soviet Union, while also investigating the murder of a fellow agent.

Why it’s a major performance:
Theron’s portrayal of Lorraine Broughton is impressive. Not just because she’s utterly capable of performing much of the action herself, but because she exudes a unique, magnetic charisma. She wrestles, punches, shoots, and outsmarts her opponents with the best of them. A definitive scene-stealer, Theron rises above the formulaic trappings of the spy genre and gives “Atomic Blonde” its electric charge.

In “Atomic Blonde”, Theron also carries an interesting balance of power and vulnerability that we rarely see in action-heroine performances. She’s tough but also human, weaving a thrilling aura of danger and ferocity around her. Every move she makes is filled with an equal measure of grit and glamour. This blend of brutality and vulnerability makes her performance in “Atomic Blonde” a noteworthy one.

4. Young Adult (2011)

IMDB rating: 6.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 81%

Storyline:
“Young Adult” revolves around Mavis Gary (Theron), a divorced, alcoholic writer of teen literature who returns to her small hometown in hopes of reliving her glory days and reclaiming her high school sweetheart. Upon her return, she find her sweetheart happily married and she spirals into a cycle of self-destruction and delusion.

Why it’s a major performance:
In “Young Adult”, Theron delivers a fearless performance, painting a stark and at times disheartening image of a woman stuck in her past, unable to accept her present. Through Mavis, Theron explores the complexities and raw edges of her character with immense courage and realism.

This character could have easily become a caricature, but Theron’s brilliant acting skills help in making Mavis vulnerable, unlikable and sympathetic at the same time. The actress brings depth and layers to her character, making her more relatable and unforgettable. Her remarkable performance in “Young Adult” once again showed audiences her range as an actress, capable of playing diverse and challenging roles.

5. Tully (2018)

IMDB rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 87%

Storyline:
“Tully” follows the story of Marlo (Theron), a mother of three including a newborn who’s thrust into the realities of postpartum depression. As a gift from her brother, Marlo receives a night nanny named Tully, who’s intended to help her. The two form a unique bond, with Tully becoming a beacon of youthful hope for the weary Marlo.

Why it’s a major performance:
In “Tully”, Theron delivers a raw and authentic portrayal of motherhood that pays homage to the trials and tribulations of being a mom. She beautifully portrays the struggle of balancing parent life and personal life without sugarcoating the harsh realities or diluting the complexities.

Theron’s performance is strikingly relatable and hits hard in its honest depiction of motherhood. There is nothing glamorous about her role, yet she plays it with a natural grace that elevates the movie. Theron captures every minor detail of her character’s mindset – the exhaustion, frustration, despair, and fleeting joy. This nuanced performance stands as a testament to her versatility as an actor and her ability to portray multi-layered characters with deftness.

6. North Country (2005)

IMDB rating: 7.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 69%

Storyline:
“North Country” is based on a true story, where Theron takes on the role of Josey Aimes, a single mother who starts working at a local iron mine. After being sexually harassed by her male co-workers, she files a landmark lawsuit against the company, putting her own safety at risk.

Why it’s a major performance:
In “North Country”, Theron brings a moving and resonant performance as Josey Aimes, a character that fights against corporate oppression and male dominance. This role is yet another proof of Theron’s exceptional versatility as an actress. Despite the grueling and adverse circumstances her character is facing, she portrays Josey with strength, resilience and determination.

Furthermore, Theron manages to bring a deep vulnerability to the character that adds a layer of depth to the harsh tale of empowerment. Through her extensive character work, Theron makes Aimes’ struggle human and tangible. Theron’s performance is emotionally charged and compelling, making “North Country” an important film about workplace harassment and gender equality.

7. In the Valley of Elah (2007)

IMDB rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 73%

Storyline:
“In the Valley of Elah” is a crime drama where Theron plays Detective Emily Sanders, who aids a retired military man in his quest to uncover the truth about his son’s disappearance following his return from a tour of duty in Iraq. A deep-seated conspiracy begins to unraveled as they get closer to the truth.

Why it’s a major performance:
Theron’s performance as Emily Sanders in “In the Valley of Elah” is as strong, composed and unflappable as the character demands. She approaches the character pragmatically, yet allows her empathy to show through when dealing with the distressed father. With every scene, Theron convincingly portrays Sanders as a woman capable of navigating a male-dominated environment.

By playing Emily with raw authenticity, Theron expertly adds depth to a character that could have become a mere stereotype of professionalism. As Emily, she steadily uncovers a complex puzzle and grapples with her own allegiances in a climatic manner. Yet, beyond her detective work, Theron shines a light on the character’s personal life and a world where absolute certainty is an increasingly distant goal.

8. The Cider House Rules (1999)

IMDB rating: 7.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 73%

Storyline:
“The Cider House Rules” takes place in a Maine orphanage in the early 20th century, where a young man who has grown up there is taught medicine by the doctor who runs the orphanage. Theron plays Candy Kendall, a young woman who forms a romantic relationship with the young man during World War II.

Why it’s a major performance:
As Candy Kendall in “The Cider House Rules”, Theron delivers a heartfelt performance that shines throughout the entire film. While Candy may not be the film’s protagonist, Theron portrays her character with such grace and sincerity that her presence is genuinely felt and remains memorable.

Theron’s portrayal of the emotionally torn Candy is both tender and resonant. Theron’s attention to detail in embodying her character’s struggle and resilience is brilliant, which makes Candy feel genuine and heartfelt. She effectively showcases Candy’s strength and vulnerability, thus marking yet another memorable performance in her career.

9. Bombshell (2019)

IMDB rating: 6.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 69%

Storyline:
“Bombshell” centers around the biggest scandals in American television history. Theron plays Megyn Kelly, a Fox News anchor who, alongside other women, takes on Roger Ailes and the toxic atmosphere he presided over at the network.

Why it’s a major performance:
In “Bombshell”, Theron takes on the role of the controversial figure Megyn Kelly and utterly transforms. Not only does Theron physically mimic Kelly to uncanny levels, but she also captures the spirit and essence of her. The result is a compelling portrayal of a woman caught in the whirlwind of a media firestorm.

This role demonstrates Theron’s capacity to take on intimidating characters and make them her own. She makes the most of this opportunity to highlight the pressures that women face in the media industry. Her performance gives a voice to women battling gender discrimination in their respective fields, making her performance in “Bombshell” one of the most relevant and salient ones in today’s world.

10. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

IMDB rating: 7.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 67%

Storyline:
“The Devil’s Advocate” tells the story of a hotshot lawyer who gets more than he bargained for when he learns his new boss is Lucifer himself. Theron plays Mary Ann Lomax, the wife of the lawyer who slowly spirals into madness after they move to the unforgiving New York City, where the facade of their perfect life unravels.

Why it’s a major performance:
In “The Devil’s Advocate”, Theron delivers an unsettlingly brilliant performance as Mary Ann, portraying a descent into mania with a haunting reality. Her performance carries a lot of emotional weight that elevates the entire narrative.

Theron displays a deep understanding and empathy towards Mary Ann’s plight. The character undergoes a drastic transformation from a naive southern woman to a mentally broken individual, and Theron handles the transition seamlessly. It’s a strong testament of her acting prowess, marking this as one of her most unforgettable performances.