In this particular scene in Scenes from a Marriage, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s famous Swedish TV miniseries from 1973, Mira (played by Jessica Chastain) is sitting through an interview with her husband, Jonathan Levy (played by Oscar Issac). She receives a text message on her phone, and from this moment, her body language starts showing signs of restlessness. Such is Chastain’s performance in this scene that unless you are carefully observing her, it will be difficult to discern this change. She maintains her calm through the day only to reveal the reason behind her disquiet at night, surprising her husband and us. I knew then that I’d have to dive into Jessica Chastain’s movies to understand her better as an actor.

Jessica Michelle Chastain (1977 – ) was named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 Most Influential People in the world in 2012. She has bagged accolades for numerous roles, including two Academy Award nominations and two British Academy Film Award nominations. She has also won a Golden Globe Award for her role as a CIA analyst in the film Zero Dark Thirty. With an impressive number of movies in her bag, she has starred in popular movies, such as Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015), and It Chapter 2 (2019).

Let us look at her ten best movies. It is important to mention here that this list has been curated from a personal point of view, and I have not taken into consideration the popularity or success of the movies she stars in. We seek to discuss her prowess as an actor below. Many of them, I realize, are contrary to public opinion, but please hear me out here. Happy Reading!

10. Mama (2013)

Jessica Chastain Movies - Mama (2013)

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Beginning as a horror movie for the brave-hearted, Mama quickly descends into melodrama. Just like Chastain’s character, Annabel is a rock band member and grudgingly agrees to babysit her boyfriend’s nieces, Victoria and Lily. To bring out the grunge in her character, she has been given a black-hair wig, smoky eyes, and tattoos to flaunt.

I was enjoying her reluctant, nonchalance towards the children when she started shedding her tough exterior, and her motherly instincts started coming out. She is strictly ‘okay’ in the latter half of the role. The real creeps in this film come from scenes involving the children at play in their room and a handful of dream sequences.

The next time Chastain opts to act in a horror movie, she plays Beverly in It Chapter 2, and a better actor by a far shot.

9. The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Chastain plays the role of a Polish zookeeper, Antonia Zabinska, in this riveting drama based on a true story and a popular non-fiction novel that unfolds right when the Second World War breaks out in Europe.

It is a pulsating story that moves us, especially because Chastain manages to capture glee, tension, and pain through her character. She lives in an Eden-like house and manages to hide around 200 Jewish guests successfully. I found her Polish accent a little disturbing, and it does tend to weigh down her performance from time to time.

Otherwise, in scenes like the one where she is trying to help a suffocating baby elephant recover, her penchant for art comes through. Unfortunately for the script, her character’s purpose becomes easily misdirected.

8. Miss Julie (2014)

Jessica Chastain Movies - Miss Julie (2014)

Miss Julie is an adaptation of a Johan August Strindberg play by the same name, in which Chastain plays the titular character with unmatched softness and grace. In it, she was directed by Liv Ullmann, who reunited with Chastain during the shoot of her 2021 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage.

As an heiress, Chastain commands her presence in her usual ardent fashion; since it is a period drama, her authority is restricted to whims and flirtations. Unfortunately, the inviting intimacy that was hailed didn’t quite make a mark upon me, appearing somewhat forced at times.

In the scene where she orders the valet, played by Colin Farrell, to kiss her shoes, she tries to shine, but the air of snobbishness cuts it short for me. However, she is a delight when she faces the camera and speaks out her monologues. She approaches the chaos – social and emotional – with unique tenderness in this one that I think begs a rewatch.

Related Read: Love, God, and Silence: The Evolution of the Films of Ingmar Bergman

7. A Most Violent Year (2014)

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An Oscar Issac-Jessica Chastain pairing did not go down well with me, even though I was quite excited about watching this film after I had finished Scenes from a Marriage. In fact, she appeared to be as good in this role as she was in the film Take Shelter (2011), where she played Samantha, the wife of Curtis (played by Michael Shannon). I believe both the actors have sharpened their acting skills in all these years. In this movie, their chemistry doesn’t stand out.

Chastain’s character, the hard-hearted wife of an oil company head, tries to bring out a Lady Macbeth-like performance, but she staggers. In one scene, where she shoots a hurt animal on the highway, her coldness is unmatched. In another scene, when she stands up to protect her children, she is a fierce mother. The lows in her acting are prominent when she is with her husband, sharing a couch or a kiss.

Her wardrobe in this film created quite a sensation, and many critics came forward to hail her character as a perfect portrayal of the nouveau-rich women of New York from the 1980s.

Also Read: The 40 Best A24 Movies that You Shouldn’t Miss

6. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

This film won Chastain a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture—Drama. Inevitably, I walked into it with sky-high expectations, but it left me craving a little more.

Her character, Maya Harris, is an intelligence analyst at the CIA, driven by the maddening obsession to come to a conclusion about finding the al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Lader, in the aftermath of 9/11. She not only survives this search but gets more and more committed to her work with every passing moment. We pick up the tension with her, and when she finally breaks down into tears, we are moved to a similar release. There is a gritty determination in this character that reflects better in the role of Murphy Cooper in The Interstellar (2014).

Kudos to her acting, but I wish the script had developed her character better and allowed her some breathing space.

Related Read: The 20 Best Female Filmmakers of All Time

5. Interstellar (2014)

Jessica Chastain Movies - Interstellar

This spot can also be a proxy for her role in The Martian (2015). I chose to rate her performances at par here because both the films are sci-fi dramas, and she plays vital roles in the story even though she doesn’t command a central presence.

Interestingly, she plays them with a brand of confidence that does most of the work for her character. She is Murphy Cooper, who works for the NASA project but appears to be soldering under the weight of some unspeakable grief in The Interstellar. In The Martian, she plays the role of Commander Melissa Lewis, leading the Ares III crew to the space mission.

Interestingly, when I first watched The Martian, I hadn’t watched Interstellar yet. In retrospect, I see Chastain’s Murphy Cooper as having paved the way for Melissa Lewis. She is a smart, restrained actor, informing the audience that she can pull off the role of a jolly Celia Foote in The Help (2011) as easily as she can brave the wormholes of space and time. I admired her in these performances because of her resilience.

Neither of the roles finds her on the screen for a noticeably long time, and these performances are also snubbed under the carpet by the protagonists in both of these films.

Related Read: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar Explained and Dissected

4. The Help (2011)

In a star-studded film like this one, I didn’t think it would be easy for any supporting actors to make a distinct mark, but Chastain’s performance as Celia Foote, a woman desperately trying to socialize in the 1960s, was like a summer breeze.

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She brings a smile and a pace to her role, tracing the graph of her character so seamlessly that you’d think that you have always known her. She brings along the right amount of naivete that Celia deserves, complimenting the character in the popular classic of the same name.

Her performance brought along a tide of nominations for Best Supporting Actress. Even though she lost to Spenser, she is a delight to watch on screen here, especially in the scenes leading up to her confrontation with Hilly (played by Bryce Dallas Howard).

3. Crimson Peak (2015)

Crimson Peak

An under-appreciated gem from Guillermo Del Toro, Crimson Peak is a gothic romance like no other. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved Chastain’s performance in this film.

She plays the role of Lucille Sharpe, the sister to the protagonist, Thomas Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston). Her role demanded she carry around an air of cold cruelty, an aspect that she successfully brought alive through her eyes – a chilling performance. Believe me.

In a particular scene where she flares up in anger at hearing about a misadventure that Edith and Thomas were stuck in overnight, you get to see Chastain losing control as a character and immediately recollecting herself like it never happened. She carefully peppers a hint of jealousy in every frame. I will go so far as to tell you that Chastain’s performance in it helps to add a deliciously ripe element of gothic horror.

In fact, she is also believed to have learned to play the piano for this character and sung the songs by herself; she has confessed to struggling to grasp the complexity of this character in several interviews during the film’s promotions.

2. Molly’s Game (2017)

Jessica Chastain Movies - Mollys Game

I couldn’t take my eyes off Chastain’s impersonation of Molly Bloom here, not because she is who the whole movie revolves around, but because she is simply stunning in this one. Her command over her character here is 2x better than her brilliant portrayal of the lobbyist, Elizabeth Sloane, in the film Miss Sloane (2016).

Critics have agreed that she breathes life into this Aaron Sorkin-directed venture. She plays the role of a fiercely ambitious woman and successfully navigates through the role with unmatched poise. I remember gasping at almost every conversation between her and Idris Elba, who plays the attorney defending her case in court. She throbs with an energy unlike any other film in her bag and keeps up with it, too.

Although an “archetypal Chastain role,” I think the film would have stood no chance if someone else played Molly Bloom. Chastain’s quick, sharp, but composed delivery of the Sorkinesque dialogues is an added incentive to indulge her for this film.

1. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

In one of her most recent works, which has won her numerous nominations and awards as “The Best Actress,” Chastain plays the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. She is jolly at work, driven to pray every time she is challenged by a situation, desperate to be shown affection, confident, and vulnerable at the same time, among other myriad emotions that her character is made to sift through in 126 minutes.

Most importantly, she carries her outlandish makeup like second skin throughout the film. Andrew Garfield, who plays her husband, Jim Bakker, is dimmed by Chastain’s aura in this film.

In a favorite moment from this film, when Tammy’s husband asks her to repent for her sin in front of live television, her face contorts in a complex array of feelings. I was stunned by the lucidity of her acting in this scene and in a couple of other scenes, which threatens her poise as a woman, mother, and believer in God. Condemned for a sappy screenplay, Chastain’s performance helps the film row.

Jessica Chastain Links: IMDb, Wikipedia

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