The Top 5 Kristen Stewart Performances, And Where To Watch Them

Here we are, in the year of lord 2021, and I'm still seeing folks on Al Gore's internet claiming that Kristen Stewart is a bad actress. The entire basis of this opinion seems based around Stewart's admittedly stiff work in the "Twilight" saga. But the "Twilight" film franchise ended nearly a decade ago, and Stewart has done so much more since then. To be fair, Stewart's reputation as a great actress has increased over the years thanks to her consistent indie movie work. And while I'm no Oscar prognosticator, I do think she's on the cusp of her first nomination. But there's still a stigma surrounding Stewart as a performer, with people claiming she lacks range, or that she mumbles her way through her roles, or that she's still just "the girl from 'Twilight.'" 

If you're of that mindset, I've come here to help dispel those notions. I'm of the mind that Stewart is one of the most interesting actors working right now. Is she the absolute best? No. But she continually makes fascinating choices, and even when she takes roles in films that, quite frankly, stink to high heaven – I'm looking at you, "Charlie's Angels" – she never phones it in, or takes the easy way out. Stewart's style of acting is mannered, to be sure – it's not entirely naturalistic, and she's a fidgeter; someone who seems to always be uncomfortable, squirming when she sits, or biting her fingernails, or anxiously pulling a cigarette from its pack. 

Those decisions might rub some the wrong way, but I find them captivating. On top of that, Stewart is, to be blunt, cool as hell. She exudes a certain tortured coolness that harkens back to the days of James Dean. Dean, too, was a fidgeting actor, prone to exaggerated hand movements and knowing looks. But while Dean's career was cut tragically short just when it was starting to get going, Stewart has continued to grow, to challenge herself, to deliver strong, memorable work. With all this in mind, I've decided to highlight five of Stewart's best performances so far. To be clear: if a movie/performance isn't on this list, it's not because I think it's bad/disappointing. It just didn't crack the top five. And, to help you see these performances for yourself, I've gone ahead and included info on where you can watch them. 

5. Adventureland

Now Streaming on HBO Max

I went back and forth on trying to decide on the fifth entry for the list: either "Adventureland" or "The Runaways." While Kristen Stewart's work as rocker Joan Jett is more than solid in "The Runaways," that film's rather pedestrian script hampers her a bit, keeping her from ever making the character her own. Which is why I ultimately decided on "Adventureland," where Stewart is so effortlessly believable as "the cool girl a nerd would instantly fall in love with." 

Set in the 1980s, "Adventureland" follows recent college graduate Jesse Eisenberg, who has his dreams of traveling to Europe squashed when his parents run into money troubles. In order to save up for grad school, Eisenberg takes a job at a local amusement park in Pittsburgh. There, he meets Stewart's character, Em, another employee. She listens to cool music, has her own crappy but useful car, seems smart and funny, and has Eisenberg immediately smitten. 

"Adventureland" is plenty charming, and quite funny, if not particularly original. But Stewart's work is the highlight here. Her Em could've easily been the type of manic pixie dream girl that was popular in youth-driven rom-coms around this time; someone who could've seemed more like an ideal, or an object, instead of a real person. But Stewart knows just how to play the part, blending an effortless coolness with a genuine vulnerability. She's not a walking bundle of cool girl cliches; she's authentic. Roger Ebert summed things up perfectly in his review of the film, writing: "What surprised me was how much I admired Kristen Stewart, who in 'Twilight,' was playing below her grade level. Here is an actress ready to do important things." Damn right. 

4. Certain Women

Now Streaming on The Criterion Channel

Like in "Adventureland," Stewart's character in Kelly Reichardt's ensemble drama "Certain Women" is someone desired after. But Stewart's Beth Travis in "Certain Women" is completely different than Em in "Adventureland." She's not nearly as cool or as self-aware. Here, she seems completely oblivious to how people perceive her, or why they might be drawn to her. Not arriving until the third act of the film, Stewart's Beth teaches a class on education law in Montana. One night, on a whim, local rancher Jamie (Lily Gladstone) wanders into the class. She's not a law student, and has no interest in law. But she's immediately drawn to Beth, and the two strike up an awkward friendship.

Jamie never fully articulates what she wants, or how she feels, about Beth, but she returns to the class again and again, even showing up on horseback one night to give Beth a ride. As Beth, Stewart is wonderfully aloof and kind of clueless to how Jamie feels. So much so that she doesn't even bother telling Jamie when she takes a new job somewhere else. Jamie tracks Beth down and clumsily tries to tell her how she feels, but again, Beth seems either oblivious or is willfully trying to stay uninvolved. It's a difficult, illusive character – the segment is told entirely from Jamie's point of view, so we never really get inside Beth's head. This could've been tricky, but Stewart knows exactly how to play the character in such a way that she seems both alluring and frustratingly obtuse. It's not a showy role, but it still leaves a lasting impression. 

3. Clouds of Sils Maria

Now Streaming on The Criterion Channel

With "Clouds of Sils Maria," Stewart became the first American actress to win a César Award (the national film award of France). Stewart plays Val, the personal assistant to an aging, testy actress, played by Juliette Binoche. In Olivier Assayas' enigmatic drama, Binoche's actress is approached to appear in a new production of a play she once starred in as a younger performer. Now, however, Binoche is being asked to play the role of an older character in the play, setting the stage for an uncomfortable dynamic between her and the younger starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz) she's meant to appear with.

Stewart's Val accompanies Binoche's character every step of the way. She's loyal and extremely helpful, and yet that doesn't stop a building awkwardness between the two – along with an undeniable sexual tension. This is yet another non-showy role for Stewart, and yet she walks away with the entire film with her sharp, layered work as Val, who clearly has bigger and better dreams than just being a personal assistant for the rest of her life. 

2. Personal Shopper

Now Streaming on Hulu

I'll confess that for the longest time, I was a Kristen Stewart agnostic. I had no real opinion on her, and I didn't pay much attention to her work. That changed when I first caught her second movie with Olivier Assayas, the haunting, unique ghost story "Personal Shopper." This was the film that made me finally focus on Stewart as an actress of serious talent, and I was completely blown away by her twitchy, nervous energy here. 

In "Personal Shopper," Stewart is Maureen, the personal shopper for an in-demand fashion model. She's also an amataure medium, and she's in the midst of trying to contact the ghost of her twin brother, who recently died from the same heart condition that still threatens Maureen's life. As she moves about Paris like a chain-smoking live-wire, Maureen begins texting with a mysterious stranger. Is she texting with a ghost? 

Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, the virtual pen pal is able to draw Maureen out of her shell, triggering a psychosexual game that builds towards shocking twists and turns. Deliberately paced and willfully obtuse, "Personal Shopper" is not your standard ghost story, and it might not have worked at all had it not been for Stewart's exemplary work here. There are long stretches of this film that are little more than Stewart nervously sending text messages, and yet she manages to make it all look exciting and compelling by using her eyes and body language to convey an overwhelming amount of emotions. 

1. Spencer

In Theaters November 5, 2021

While I have no doubt that Kristen Stewart doubters will remain skeptical of her work in general, I am hopeful that "Spencer" will put most of those doubts to bed. In what is arguably her best performance to date, Stewart plays Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín's melancholy, dreamy, fictionalized portrait of the tragic former royal. While there are other characters flitting about the margins of the film, "Spencer" belongs entirely to Stewart, who occupies nearly every scene of the movie as we're drawn inside Diana's stormy, troubled mind. 

"I don't want to just play Diana — I want to know her implicitly," Stewart said of the role, and that shines through the performance. To be clear: "Spencer" begins by announcing itself a "fable," which means it clues us in immediately that we shouldn't interpret this as a completely accurate portrayal of Princess Di. But it genuinely starts to feel like Stewart is doing a bit of conjuring here, summoning Diana from the afterlife and becoming possessed in the process. 

She nails down Diana's upper-crust accent, but more than that, she summons up the emotional and mental weight that bogs Diana down as she attempts to spend one very long Christmas weekend with the Windsors, a family that clearly doesn't understand her at all. Stewart's work here is raw and often brutal, and yet, she also finds a glimmer of hope buried within Diana's fractured mind. We all know the story ends badly for Diana, but in the context of the film, Diana doesn't know that – and Stewart is able to grab hold to that potential for hope and run with it.