Long before the public knew her name, a 7-year-old Laura Dern ate ice-cream cones in the background of Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — 19 cones, to be exact, one for every take. Scorsese was so impressed with her stamina that, according to Dern, he declared, “This girl’s going to be an actress.” A mere six years later, his prophecy came true in earnest.
Across the ensuing four decades, Dern has assembled one of the most revered careers in Hollywood, undoubtedly buoyed by her esteemed parents, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, who encouraged her to “challenge yourself, be bold, be radical.” To say that she is living up to their advice feels simplistic. Dern’s recurring collaborations with David Lynch, which date back to 1986, made her a magnet for highbrow directors and solidified her reputation for work best described as unfettered. She is most alive onscreen when her characters can’t contain themselves, when they are volatile and warped. Off-screen, however, Dern is the opposite of warped. The earnestness she projects borrows Los Angeles’ earthy therapy-speak while still resembling the exact demeanor you’d hope for in your closest friend. She is, in other words, immensely likable, making it all the more frustrating to realize how many half-baked supporting roles have insulted her talents.
This summer, Dern will return to the Jurassic Park franchise, one of the few veritable blockbuster projects she’s been part of. Her reprisal of dinosaur-dung specialist Ellie Sattler marks a welcome extension to a movie series that is otherwise tiring itself out. In honor of her electric career, Vulture is ranking Dern’s live-action performances, with a few notable caveats owing to her very long résumé. TV movies don’t qualify, except for Recount, a buzzy HBO hit that earned her an Emmy nomination. Shows count only if the roles are recurring (no Fallen Angels, Ellen, or The West Wing, though all are great). Films not readily available on VOD or streaming (Haunted Summer, Focus, Lonely Hearts) were tossed out, as were one-scene cameos (Foxes, Downsizing). That nonetheless leaves a catalogue full of dynamic Dern performances that often tap into humanity’s grayest areas.
43. Tenderness (2009)
Dern’s lawyer should sue for gross negligence. This barren Russell Crowe crime snooze doesn’t even pretend to give her something interesting to do. She appears in a few undercooked scenes as the anonymous-seeming aunt of a recently paroled 18-year-old (Jon Foster) who killed his parents, and that’s about all there is to say about it.
42. Cold Pursuit (2019)
“Wife stuck at home while man has grueling adventure” is an all-too-common Hollywood trope that at least sometimes results in affecting plotlines. The tonally mismatched Cold Pursuit doesn’t come close, shoving Dern aside after a couple of perfunctory scenes establishing her as the spouse to Liam Neeson’s nondescript snowplow driver. He jets off to investigate their son’s untimely death, whereas she is nowhere to be found.
41. When the Game Stands Tall (2014)
Dern had one job in this quasi-inspirational sports drama, and that’s the problem. Her character’s only function is to cheer on her overworked football-coach husband (a sleepy Jim Caviezel). She comforts him, tends to his health woes, scolds him for being away from home so often, and takes her inevitable place in the bleachers to root for his team. It’s the definition of a thankless role, and even someone as inviting as Dern can only do so much to shape such textureless material.
40. Bravetown (2015)
Get that lawyer back on the phone. Dern somehow landed in this cringey military-town drama about a troubled teen DJ (Lucas Till) — have you heard enough yet? — whose girlfriend (Kherington Payne) lost her brother to the Iraq War — how about now? Dern is said girlfriend’s despondent mother, who pastes on a foggy smile if she manages to pry herself out of bed. Bravetown wants to respect its characters’ reality, but the maudlin script breeds an inauthenticity that is far beneath Dern’s talents.
39. The Founder (2016)
The Founder introduces Dern as a disembodied voice on the other end of Michael Keaton’s phone, an apt encapsulation of how the middling biopic treats her. She’s the first wife of Keaton’s Ray Kroc, an entrepreneur who purchased McDonald’s in 1954 and supersized it. Robert Siegel’s script denies Dern’s character any interiority, making her a nagging bore who just can’t get behind her husband’s pursuits. Forget sleep — Dern could have done this role in a coma.
38. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)
This cult favorite about three teenage girls who form an early-’80s punk band — one of Alex Ross Perry’s many Her Smell influences — is a good movie. Too bad it’s not a good Laura Dern showcase. Despite playing the group’s bassist and very much looking the part, she gets sidelined to the point of barely having a personality, which is a drag considering “young Laura Dern in a punk band” is an unimpeachable conceit. The film instead belongs to Diane Lane, the Stains’ sardonic front woman. Why should lead singers get to have all the fun?
37. October Sky (1999)
Dern had an uneventful late ’90s. Following a three-year hiatus post–Citizen Ruth, she returned with a chunky southern accent in this true heart-warmer about a budding rocket enthusiast (Jake Gyllenhaal) who defies the wishes of his stern coal-miner father (Chris Cooper). She plays the boy’s supportive teacher, a serviceable role that neglects to capitalize on Dern’s specialties.
36. I Am Sam (2001)
Critics singled out Dern as a highlight of I Am Sam, but that’s not saying much. It’s hard to look past Sean Penn’s tic-laden turn as a mentally challenged single father fighting to keep his daughter (Dakota Fanning), which is a polite way of saying this movie shouldn’t have been made. No matter how well-intentioned, the narrative’s complexities are flattened into hammy contrivances that only accentuate how ill-suited Penn is for the role. As a would-be foster mom who comes to realize Sam is capable of caring for the young girl himself, Dern’s teary concession instructs the audience how to feel. She clearly understands her posture within the story and rises above its iffiest impulses — you just wish she didn’t have to.
35. Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)
Featuring one of Dern’s sweetest performances, Fat Man and Little Boy is an inert World War II polemic about the secretive Manhattan Project. She’s a nurse who grows resentful of the United States–led effort to develop nuclear weapons while watching the physicist she loves (a strapping John Cusack) die of radiation poisoning. In her flirtations, Dern possesses a soft-spoken calm beyond her standard register. However forgotten the movie may be, she and Cusack form a honeyed partnership begging for a better premise.
34. Everything Must Go (2010)
Dern nabbed the illustrious “and” credit for this dramedy that exists to exhibit Will Ferrell’s softer side. She shows up after 54 minutes, playing a long-lost classmate of Ferrell’s who insists he has more going for him than his depressive circumstances might indicate. It’s not a profound role, but it does stress how effective Dern is when called upon to plead with someone to see things from her character’s perspective.
33. Little Fockers (2010)
Dern has just enough fun to make it out of the tremendously unnecessary Little Fockers with her dignity intact. As a circumspect private-school principal, she goes for sly while everyone around her goes for lazy, including Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro, who reportedly earned $20 million apiece for the series’ third and final installment.
32. Happy Endings (2005)
An extremely mid-2000s Sundance movie, Happy Endings weaves together a handful of upper-middle-class Los Angeles story lines striving for the middle ground between melancholic and quirky. Most of them come up short, and despite playing a lesbian entangled in vaguely intriguing drama concerning her kid’s paternity, Dern gets lost amid richer roles that went to Lisa Kudrow and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
31. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
The three most exciting things about Laura Dern appearing in Star Wars were her purple hair, her soft delivery of the line “godspeed, rebels,” and the fact that she apparently kept saying “pew, pew” while firing her blaster on the set. In practice, Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo is a conduit on hand to route The Last Jedi’s plot from one beat to the next, hardly a fleshed-out linchpin destined for earthly eminence. But there was a novelty to seeing Dern, who needn’t kowtow to Hollywood’s franchise addiction, pop up in one of the decade’s most hotly anticipated — and best; sorry, haters — blockbusters.
30. Daddy and Them (2001)
After Sling Blade and All the Pretty Horses, then-boyfriend Billy Bob Thornton recruited Dern for a pivot in his increasingly odd directorial career. Daddy and Them is a hyperactive, little-seen comedy about a dysfunctional Arkansas family that stars Thornton and Dern as a tempestuous couple mired in hot sex and trivial jealousies. As a whole, the film feels artificial; nothing about its sense of humor totally clicks. But Dern yells a lot, and she is a very good yeller.
29. The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
This treacly young-adult weeper doesn’t grant its parental characters much in the way of nuance. Dern is one of those picture-perfect movie moms, on hand to love, support, and cry for her ailing daughter (Shailene Woodley). The most compelling aspect of The Fault in Our Stars, as far as Dern is concerned, is that it coincided with her post-Enlightenment career surge. She’s affecting in the role, but hopefully she’ll never need to make another film like this as long as she lives.
28. Trial by Fire (2018)
A death-penalty debate in movie form, Trial by Fire dramatizes the story of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a Texas yokel executed for arson based on evidence that has since been widely discredited. It features Dern at her folksiest, playing a do-gooder who advocates for Willingham while he’s incarcerated. She seems a bit distant at first, but as the case heats up, so does her performance. Dern’s relentless optimism makes her a compelling avatar for the anger at the film’s core, even if Edward Zwick’s starchy direction never reaches its potential.
27. Dr. T & the Women (2000)
The F rating this movie received from CinemaScore seems a tad melodramatic, but Dr. T & the Women is without a doubt one of the more confounding things Robert Altman directed during his illustrious career: a tone-shifting quasi-rom-com about a gynecologist (Richard Gere) whose wife (Farrah Fawcett) reverts to a childlike state after developing a condition that only afflicts happy, wealthy women. Dern, however, emerges unscathed. Her sauced Dallas divorcée — vampy in that clueless nouveau-riche way — leaves you wishing the movie surrounding her were equally heightened.
26. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005)
This highly watchable fact-based dramedy about an embattled 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore) who supports her alcoholic husband (Woody Harrelson) and ten kids by winning jingle-writing contests features Dern in one of those stock supportive-friend roles. But this is Laura Dern! She can make a stock role worthy of Elizabethan theater. Here, she does so with a peppy optimism that feels almost pathological, playing a pen pal who becomes Moore’s generous jingle compatriot.
25. Certain Women (2016)
Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone are the champs of Kelly Reichardt’s quiet triptych about Montana women living in the same small town. Frankly, Dern’s segment — she’s a lawyer trying to off-load an unstable client (Jared Harris) — is the film’s thinnest. But Reichardt always gives her actors room to find space between the words she’s written. Dern adopts a weary countenance that suffuses her body with years’ worth of backstory.
24. Year of the Dog (2007)
Before they made Enlightened together, Mike White cast Dern in his directorial debut about a lonesome administrative assistant (Molly Shannon) whose life is turned upside down when her beloved dog dies. Dern plays Shannon’s self-absorbed, neurotic sister-in-law, who at one point unleashes a two-minute rant about a babysitter supposedly “doping” her infant with Benadryl. It is, in other words, a Dern signature: the easily aggrieved, better-than-thou mom type who doesn’t know when to shut up. You almost wish White had given her something a bit meatier to chew on, but that would come soon enough.
23. 99 Homes (2014)
Ramin Bahrani’s housing-crisis drama is taut and underappreciated. It may be Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield’s show, but Dern is the story’s heart. She plays the lower-middle-class mother of an Orlando-based construction worker (Garfield) who makes a Faustian get-rich-quick bargain after the pair are evicted from the home they share. Every terrible decision — by her son, by America’s financial institutions — becomes her cross to bear, and along the way, Dern goes from maternal to helpless to utterly exasperated.
22. Mask (1985)
You don’t watch Mask for Laura Dern; you watch Mask for Cher, who plays a brassy biker mom refusing to let her teenage son Rocky (Eric Stoltz) take any guff over his cranial dysplasia. Still, Dern has a vital supporting spot as Rocky’s blind love interest, a heartfelt girl attracted to his intelligence and compassion. Her youthful naturalism, combined with Peter Bogdanovich’s sturdy direction, elevates the character beyond saintly young-adult clichés.
21. A Perfect World (1993)
One of Clint Eastwood’s more undervalued directorial endeavors, A Perfect World lets Dern tell a bunch of men what’s what. She’s a perceptive Texas criminologist enlisted to help a police unit track down an escaped convict (a career-best Kevin Costner) who kidnapped a young boy (T.J. Lowther). This is a crime movie that isn’t really about the crime, with Eastwood weaving together a deft narrative about American masculinity. The hard-boiled dudes in her midst don’t believe Dern’s Sally Gerber can offer them any worthwhile insights, and oh boy, does she prove them wrong, landing a bunch of clever jabs about their macho hang-ups along the way.
20. We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004)
An angsty Sundance downer that only halfway achieves the emotional opera director John Curran has in mind, We Don’t Live Here Anymore plays like a sedate Closer. Dern, Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, and Peter Krause portray two pent-up New England couples — best pals, of course — who open long-ignored wounds as they swap partners behind their spouses’ backs. This is Dern’s movie through and through. She is easily its sympathetic core, as evidenced by three (3!) showstopping monologues that cut through her character’s bitterness to reveal tiers of anguish.
19. Little Women (2019)
Dern’s Marmee is a bit softer than Susan Sarandon’s, accentuating the sacrificial spirit of Louisa May Alcott’s matriarch. She makes poetry out of the hyperliterate prose that Greta Gerwig adapted, particularly during a scene shared with Saoirse Ronan’s Jo. Counseling Jo about her volatility, Marmee gently reminds her still-naïve daughter that just because she doesn’t let herself erupt doesn’t mean she isn’t exasperated. The way Dern says “I’m angry nearly every day of my life” — with a tender matter-of-factness that surprises Jo — turns their exchange into a consolation. She is bestowing wisdom on someone who needs it, revealing a raw part of her interiority that has been tucked away for her daughters’ sake.
18. Novocaine (2001)
If Novocaine had been cunning enough to centralize Dern’s character, it might have been her To Die For. As a scheming dental hygienist, she and her crimped hair bring a sprightly airiness to the role that makes the movie’s juicy twists even more of a missed opportunity. That’s because it’s really about her boyfriend, a dentist played by a miscast Steve Martin who gets caught up in a prescription-drug scandal involving a seductive Helena Bonham Carter. Even Dern’s MVP performance can’t streamline Novocaine’s disjointed tones, making it a comedic thriller without much comedy or many thrills.
17. Wilson (2017)
Wilson has one of those blissfully gonzo performances that Dern submits every few years or so. She’s a gawky, erratic waitress conscripted to participate in her misanthropic ex-husband’s (Woody Harrelson) self-discovery endeavor. If you squint, the movie sort of plays like a Citizen Ruth sequel: Dern screeches and lunges with the childlike excess of one Ruth Stoops.
16. Marriage Story (2019)
When the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Marriage Story premiere saw the fiery monologue Dern delivers about sexism and the Virgin Mary, they burst into applause. The performance she gives as “dressed slutty in court” divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw doesn’t expose any layers we didn’t already expect from Dern, but she commands those layers so ferociously that you can’t deny she is extremely good at her job. Could she have won her first Oscar for something more dimensional? Sure. Regardless, Dern perfects the satirical underpinnings that other actors might have missed, deciding along the way that Nora’s flirtatious aplomb is what helps her win over any room she enters.
15. Recount (2008)
With husky brown hair and enough bronzer to fill a M.A.C showroom, Dern storms through Recount. She is Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who certified the 2000 presidential election in George W. Bush’s favor and became an overconfident media nitwit along the way. It’s a deliriously over-the-top roast that surpasses every other detail in Jay Roach’s buzzy HBO docudrama, for which Dern earned an Emmy nomination and won a Golden Globe. She treats Harris as someone whose ambition outstripped her good sense. From the theatrical way she rips open a sugar packet to her self-serving kinship with the biblical queen Esther, Dern’s Harris is the consummate show woman, in over her head but unwilling to yield her sudden celebrity.
14. The Master (2012)
Dern’s role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature-length Scientology allegory isn’t huge, but she nails one of its best scenes, a confrontation with the L. Ron Hubbard–esque leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a cult movement known as the Cause. Their conversation starts friendly: Dern plasters a prim smile on her face as she asks about a discrepancy in her guru’s latest text, only to recoil in shock as he howls at her in a way she never could have expected. In 90 seconds, she captures an opera’s worth of emotions, realizing in real time that the belief system she’s adopted is not what she thought it was.
13. Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
Until she popped up in the sixth episode of Showtime’s Twin Peaks revival, Dern’s role remained a mystery. Then came that platinum-blonde bob and cat-eye makeup. David Lynch had pulled off one of his finest hat tricks: casting Dern as Diane Evans, the heretofore-never-seen secretary to Kyle MacLachlan’s quirky FBI agent. Twenty-six years after the beloved show’s cancellation, Diane is a skeptical, profane chain-smoker with a multicolored manicure — an exciting development for someone previously represented only by the tape recorder MacLachlan spoke into. Dern gets her biggest moment toward the season’s end, unleashing a monologue about a bygone trauma with the same crinkled cry she served up in Blue Velvet.
12. JT LeRoy (2019)
JT LeRoy suffers in the shadow of Author: The JT LeRoy Story, the captivating 2016 documentary exploring the once-pseudonymous author whose visceral work made her a late-’90s literary sensation. In biopic form, LeRoy’s fame loses some of its sociological complexity, which might explain why this movie was a nonevent. It’s sort of a shame: Dern is spectacular, depicting LeRoy (real name: Laura Albert) as a grandiose, self-absorbed charmer who can be sympathetic in one breath and icy in the next. That hot-and-cold caprice is Dern’s sweet spot; there’s no single way to interpret LeRoy’s ruse, and Dern makes sure we can’t walk away with some pat armchair psychoanalysis.
11. Wild (2014)
Bobbi Grey is a sneaky performance. On paper, a lot of Dern’s dialogue seems hokey. “If there’s one thing I can teach you, it’s how to find your best self,” she implores when her troubled daughter (Reese Witherspoon) asks how she can possibly be so cheerful when so much around them is amiss. But Dern turns the monologue bookending that sentiment into the movie’s best scene, somehow sounding like she’s the first person who has ever uttered these words. Her breathy insistence and “life sucks, get over it” joie de vivre are essential to Wild’s ethos, and the fact that she earned her long-overdue second Oscar nomination for such unshowy work hinted at the major career renaissance awaiting her on the other side.
10. Big Little Lies (2017–2019)
Dern’s defining contribution to HBO’s Big Little Lies is the five seconds in season two when Renata Klein musters all her might to tell her imprisoned husband (Jeffrey Nordling) that she “will not not be rich,” her finger stabbing the partition between them with every syllable. But despite the scene’s immediate GIF-ability, it’s hardly the series’ Renata highlight. Frankly, there are too many to pick from. Because Dern’s part is more ancillary than those of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, she could inject a winking humor that underscored Lies’ wit. Renata’s weakness lies in her inability to square her fear of being disliked with her vituperative personality. The adult characters’ drama is often pettier than their children’s, and the uptight, hypermanicured façade that Dern gives Renata makes her fits of rage all the more delicious.
9. Blue Velvet (1986)
Dern’s first collaboration with David Lynch minted her legacy. Where would she — or we — be without those allegorical robins from Sandy Williams’s dream? Sandy kindles the plot of Blue Velvet, telling the movie’s amateur detective (Kyle MacLachlan) that the severed ear he found belongs to a local lounge singer (Isabella Rossellini) whose grim personal life breaches the supposed paradise of suburbia. “I can’t figure out if you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy says to him. There’s magic in the way Dern delivers this line, as if Sandy — cherubic in an almost hallucinatory way — is happy not to know which label fits her alluring new sweetheart.
8. The Tale (2018)
The Tale is very much the sum of its parts, a thorny, somewhat Impressionistic exploration of childhood sexual assault that’s both unnerving and palliative. As a globe-trotting documentarian — an analog of the film’s director, Jennifer Fox — who encounters largely forgotten (or at least misunderstood) relics from a “relationship” she had at age 13 with her adult horseback-riding instructors (Elizabeth Debicki and Jason Ritter), Dern has the weighty task of calibrating a character experiencing emotional whiplash as she excavates old memories. When the movie begins, she possesses a careerist grit that doubles as psychological armor. But as her shell cracks, Dern moves from perplexity to anguish to incandescent rage, never once overplaying her hand.
7. The Jurassic Park franchise (1993–2022)
It’s easy to take Dern’s Jurassic Park performance for granted. Dr. Ellie Sattler has been memed, quoted, and Halloween-costumed to death, transforming into one of those blockbuster mainstays no longer associated with Great Acting. But it is great acting, and not just because Dern convincingly thrusts her hand into a massive pile of triceratops poop. She blends Ellie’s intelligence with a wide-eyed awe that makes her an audience surrogate, reminding us there’s no reason we shouldn’t still be wowed by the dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s immortal hit. Dern reprised the role in Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World Dominion, but there’s nothing like the first time.
6. Inland Empire (2006)
What Dern captures in Inland Empire is jolting even before you realize she never saw a completed script and apparently had no idea what it was about; David Lynch handed the actors a new scene each day, unsure himself how his hypnotic story would end. That tactic makes sense for a film about an actress who lands a role in a cursed production and begins to lose touch with reality. Or is it the reality around her that’s lost, subsumed by a culture unable to separate the real from the imagined? Appropriately, Dern spends Empire in a daze. Her perplexed grins and escalating paranoia are just shy of a nervous breakdown, but she is too measured to reduce an identity-shifting character to one frenetic quality. Without her mettle, this surreal curiosity — Lynch at his Lynchiest — wouldn’t work.
5. Rambling Rose (1991)
The movie that garnered Dern’s first Oscar nomination could never survive today’s exhausting internet discourse. The bellyachers who objected to the age difference between Licorice Pizza’s relatively tame protagonists would go mad dissecting Dern’s Rambling Rose character, a coquettish Depression-era housekeeper who falls hard for her older employer (Robert DuVall) and provides his 13-year-old son’s (Lukas Haas) first sexual experience. No matter. Dern is fantastic, taking the emotional nakedness she revealed in Blue Velvet to a southern-fried extreme. She manages to seem at once pure and precocious, virginal and perpetually aroused. The Martha Coolidge–directed movie came and went, but this barn burner of a performance deserves revisiting.
4. Smooth Talk (1985)
Though it wasn’t a commercial hit, any bona fide Dernhead knows Smooth Talk is when her career burst open. Take the movie’s standout scene, which comes toward the end: Dern’s 15-year-old Connie, an itchy Southerner too old to be mama’s little girl and too young be a seductress, exchanges hesitant flirtations with an enigmatic smoothie (Treat Williams) who has turned up in her front yard driving a slick convertible. Unsure whether to strip off her shirt or call the police, Connie slinks around, desperate to shake her shyness but unable to escape the naïveté that still defines her. As a result, Dern seems both towering and infantile — a study in incongruity that would reappear in several of her finest performances. Smooth Talk is a coming-of-age masterstroke that resists the genre’s tidy messaging, with Dern as its thorny gravitational pull.
3. Citizen Ruth (1996)
Sadly, this is the only movie in which Dern leans out of a car window and yells, “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!” It’s one of countless glorious moments from Citizen Ruth, a layered abortion comedy that she aptly calls an “equal-opportunity offender.” The titular Ruth Stoops, prone to huffing paint and hurling profanities at anyone who gets on her bad side (a.k.a., everyone), is another one of those daring Dernian signatures, as despicable as she is savory. Pregnant and facing possible jail time, Ruth finds herself in the crosshairs of pro-choice activists and Evangelical opponents — a dispute she is hardly equipped to maneuver. Dern is volcanic, her movements childlike and untamed in their gangly abrasiveness. Every time you watch the film, you’ll find another nuance to appreciate.
2. Wild at Heart (1990)
Despite winning Cannes’ coveted Palme d’Or prize, Wild at Heart was quite contentious when it first opened: Test audiences protested the unsettling violence, and many critics found the movie strange and uneven. They were wrong. Dern’s second David Lynch collaboration is a feral take on The Wizard of Oz, with Dern as its gum-smacking ingénue fleeing home (and the law) alongside her sleazy-sexy lover boy (Nicolas Cage). She personifies the Lynchian delirium with her entire physique, flinging herself about like an ostrich, at once unschooled and hyperconfident. No major studio today — streaming services included — would dare to green-light something so bold, and few American actresses would take on such a morally ambiguous Rorschach test of a movie. Bummer.
1. Enlightened (2011–2013)
What else but Enlightened could go at the top of this list? Dern, the centerpiece of Mike White’s brilliant HBO show, had two seasons of television — nine hours in total, though she deserved more — to shape the arc of Amy Jellicoe, who starts with a mascara-stained corporate meltdown and transforms into a spiritually rehabilitated try-hard. We hold this truth to be self-evident, that no performance Dern has given — few performances anyone has given — matches its excellence. Wistful narration, a low-simmering rage that Amy conceals with amiable New Age psychobabble, and an “I’m just a woman who’s over it” feverishness combine to form a character so dynamic she feels like a manifestation of the entire modern id. Most crucially, Amy is often right: The world is an untrustworthy mess. If only she knew how to express herself more productively. Dern seizes Amy’s contradictions and turns her into a lovable screwup whose every blunder makes her a bit more human.