Kristen Stewart's 14 Best Roles Ranked

It's been a wild journey watching Kristen Stewart evolve over two decades on screen. As soon as it seems like fans and viewers can pin her down, she morphs into something else. Over the course of her career, she's gone from child star to teen idol to arthouse ingenue. And even as she receives some of the best notices of her career in a transformative performance as Princess Diana in "Spencer," Stewart shows no signs of remaining static.

Throughout her journey from punchline to cause célèbre to critical and awards darling, Stewart has remained constantly enigmatic in the way that only a true movie star can be. At once, she feels entirely open to the audience through her vulnerability while also keeping some part of herself cloaked in mystery. Whether she's in the lead or a supporting role, featured in a blockbuster or an indie, she always brings something unique and unforgettable to the films she chooses. Let's look back at 14 of her best roles.

14. On the Road

The result of the decades-long journey to adapt Jack Kerouac's beatnik classic "On the Road" for the screen certainly did not capture the cultural imagination in the same way as the novel. But Walter Salles' film did provide an early outlet for Kristen Stewart to display her acting chops after several years inside the supernova phenomenon of the "Twilight" saga. At times, it can feel a bit as if Stewart's so desperate for meaningful material that she overdoes it. But nonetheless, this opening of a new chapter for Stewart does show off some of her considerable strengths.

She effortlessly slips into a period sensibility as the young Marylou, who we first meet as the wife of Garrett Hedlund's charismatic Dean Moriarty. Stewart channels both the ennui and excitement of the immediate postwar era, a duality difficult to contain within a single performance. "On the Road" is also an early example of the actress chafing against her own chosen projects, especially in regards to breaking outside of limiting notions for female characters. Through the eyes of Kerouac and his stand-in Sal Paradise, Marylou is often little more than an object of desire for the male characters. Stewart finagles a tricky balancing act of embracing this status when she must, and subverting it when she can.

13. Panic Room

Signs of promise were already apparent in Kristen Stewart's first major film role, David Fincher's 2002 thriller "Panic Room." While perhaps not the kind of show-stopping child performance that vaults someone immediately into stardom, she knows to serve the story first and her own ambitions second. As the young Sarah, Stewart nails the child-of-divorce archetype effortlessly. She's been forced to mature earlier than she should, which results in fascinating tensions as she clumsily attempts to wield that newfound power over her high-strung mother Meg (Jodie Foster).

The film does sideline Sarah in the second half, using her juvenile diabetes as a plot point to add urgency and stakes to the home invasion standoff that forces the family into the titular safe haven. Perhaps the physicality of her gasping for air gets a bit overwrought, but that does not erase or undo Stewart's impressive work in "Panic Room." From a young age, she proved capable of navigating a character through a complex web of emotions.

12. The Runaways

2010's "The Runaways" marked the first time that Stewart played a public figure, and her deconstructionist approach to the nature of celebrity arrived fully formed. Rather than play up the characteristics of trailblazing rocker Joan Jett that linger in pop culture, she opts to lean into the psychology of the person. There's something recessive about the way Stewart inhabits well-known figures that runs counter to what audiences are primed to expect from biopics. Stewart refuses to let the iconography or winking self-awareness that this person is larger than life overwhelm the performance.

The film also marks the beginning of an important thread running throughout Stewart's body of work: an interrogation of the funhouse mirror known as fame. She's clearly intrigued by the friction between person and persona, as expressed through figures for whom the boundaries are blurred. While she would later bring even more depth and nuance to these internalized investigations, "The Runaways" is still worthwhile, if only to see the first glimpse of a long-running fascination taking hold.

11. Into the Wild

Many people with a simplistic read on "Into the Wild" view the real-life tale of Christopher McCandless as an aspirational tale rather than a cautionary one. To an extent, Sean Penn's film indulges his foolhardy fantasy of forswearing society in favor of living as one with nature, yet it also presents an emotional counterpoint that Emile Hirsch's interpretation of McCandless misses in his naive idealism. The connections we share with other people are what make life worth living, and the film's quiet tragedy is that the protagonist misses what's right under his nose as he makes his way to a doomed Alaskan wildlife stay.

Kristen Stewart only appears briefly as a stop along the way in "Into the Wild," but among the vast ensemble, she makes a real impact, selling the thematic heft of the story. As Tracy Tatro, a romantic interest who briefly captures McCandless' heart, she helps him briefly realize he can love and be loved in return. The value of this kinship may be lost on the character, but Stewart's soulful performance ensures that the audience understands.

10. Adventureland

With respect to Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart's best on-screen partner throughout her career has been Jesse Eisenberg. The two form a kind of yin-and-yang for youthful anxieties that's thrilling to watch across any number of genres. Their first outing, "Adventureland," showcases how the duo possesses complementary yet clashing energies. Where Eisenberg's neuroses are all raw nerve endings, Stewart maintains a borderline affectless removal to steel herself from the pain of unvarnished emotion.

Her performance as Em in "Adventureland" is pitched delicately between teen angst and quarter-life resignation. As someone of sufficiently monied background to major in art history at NYU, she has a prematurely jaded glow about her that reels in Eisenberg's high-strung recent grad (and her new amusement park coworker) James. Stewart channels a note-perfect indifference in the film as she vacillates between her budding relationship with James and her long-running fling with the park's maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds). Her desires may be ambiguous, sure, but Stewart never slides into lazy ambivalence.

9. Camp X-Ray

Stewart's career has zigged and zagged rather than proceeding along any usual trajectory, be it rising or established. If there's any time she ripped a page from a pre-existing playbook, though, it's 2014's "Camp X-Ray." There are few strategies more tried and true for a career refresh than starring in a low-budget indie that premieres at Sundance, especially if it marks a notable departure from a familiar persona established by studio fare.

The movie itself is just alright — it's pretty much what one might expect from an Obama-era film set at Guantanamo Bay. But these movies are often just vessels for a great performance, and "Camp X-Ray" gives Stewart just that opportunity. As a rare female guard in the military prison overseeing detainees, her character, Cole, must carry the weight of gender politics and performance on top of her gnawing sense of moral compromise for participating in this institution of imprisonment. The film is at its best when Stewart can explore these internal conflicts through conversation with a particularly chatty and erudite prisoner, Payman Maadi's Ali Amir.

8. Cafe Society

It's no secret that women in Woody Allen movies often represent little more than a flat, sexualized fantasy for a nebbish male lead (or, even ickier when considering his off-screen life, a young prize for an aging gent). It's to Kristen Stewart's immense credit that she can transcend some of these less savory elements of her character in "Café Society." In a set of dynamics quite similar to their first on-screen pairing in "Adventureland," Stewart finds herself caught up in a budding romance with a colleague played by Jesse Eisenberg while also torn in her alliance to an older man. Here, that's Steve Carell's Phil, a Hollywood agent significantly more senior who calls Stewart's Vonnie his secretary — and Eisenberg's Bobby his nephew.

Stewart could have surrendered to the worst elements of this character, but she brings a notable agency and vitality to Vonnie. She finds a way to represent both a romantic ideal and an authentic human being. Both are necessary components for her to land the film's final shot, a killer glance that packs the powerful punch of a full film's worth of potential energy converting into kinetics.

7. JT LeRoy

The narrative feature "JT LeRoy" came and went when it was released. Maybe it got buried due to the bad buzz generated out of its closing night berth at TIFF 2018, or perhaps Amazon releasing a documentary about the infamous literary scam artist just two years prior satisfied the demand. Justin Kelly's film is admittedly not all that much to write home about, but it's an absolute must-see for the performance and meta-text.

Kristen Stewart plays Savannah Knoop, an aspiring artist who assumed the physical embodiment of literary persona JT LeRoy in public appearances. The true author of JT's books, Laura Dern's Laura Albert, cannot pull off the androgyny or mystery required to match her masquerade. Stewart really digs her teeth into the warping effects that fame can have on self-image, but she also explores how people can get closer to their "true" self through the very art of performance. It's also quite compelling to consider her performance in conversation with Dern's own stardom, given her similar youthful ascent but relative under-appreciation until her midlife renaissance.

6. Clouds of Sils Maria

It was "Clouds of Sils Maria," the first of two collaborations with French director Olivier Assayas that really cracked open Stewart's skills — both for herself and for audiences. Her turn as Valentine won her France's prestigious César award, and she remains the only American to ever win it. Assayas realized that Stewart's talent was an unadorned naturalism, a sense that whether onscreen or off, she was so used to the presence of the camera that she could act as if it wasn't even there.

Somewhat paradoxically, it's this very lack of affect that allows Stewart to unlock the rich subtext of "Clouds of Sils Maria" as the middle-aged actress for whom Valentine serves as assistant, Juliette Binoche's Maria. Whether running lines of a play or waxing casually philosophical, Stewart's plainspoken performance suggests powerful unspoken dynamics at play. She proves adept at calmly navigating her character through professional, personal, and psychosexual waters alike.

5. Twilight

Yes, really.

Roger Ebert wisely observed, "Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem." Far too many dismissed "Twilight" less for its style or content and more because of who it appealed to: young girls. To look deeply into Kristen Stewart's performance as Bella Swan is to see a reflection of the hopes and fears of a considerable population.

As an ordinary teenage girl jolted out of her loneliness by the unexpected romantic interest of vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), Bella lives out any number of teen fantasies, ranging from forbidden love, spiritual rather than sensual intimacy, and eternal romance. The later installments in the series lost something as Stewart and the saga at large became more self-conscious about their cultural impact. But there will always be that first "Twilight," a movie that takes the feelings of adolescents seriously both on and off the screen.

4. Certain Women

There's an uncommon shyness to Kristen Stewart among her peers at her level of fame. Unlike many stars, she's crouched and cowering from the camera's gaze rather than gravitating towards its force field. No film captures the magnetism of her recessiveness like Kelly Reichardt's "Certain Women," a compendium of short stories about simmering female frustrations in the Pacific Northwest. As Beth Travis, an attorney who makes arduous drives to teach a modestly attended education law class, Stewart slips perfectly into the pure naturalism of Reichardt's aesthetic. She's as plain spoken yet pensive as the Western landscapes.

It's devastating to watch Stewart play opposite Lily Gladstone, a lonely ranch-hand who stumbles into Beth's classes and clumsily tries to connect with someone she perceives to be another wandering soul. Though modest in demeanor, Beth remains so self-involved that she misses the obvious interest taken by her student. Stewart's carefully calibrated aloofness adds an almost tragic dimension to the story. Whether it's pure naïveté or willful blindness, this missed connection lands with heartrending effect.

3. Still Alice

This might be a movie designed in a lab to win Julianne Moore her long-sought Oscar, but it's Kristen Stewart who shines brightest in "Still Alice." While Moore is all tics and overwrought physicality in the title role as she succumbs to the throes of early onset Alzheimer's, it's Stewart's grounded turn as Alice's daughter Lydia that brings home the toll of her mother's decline. Stewart makes this illness resonate narratively by translating it into human terms. She's keyed into the film's weepy register without ever stooping to maudlin displays of emotion.

Stewart knows when to take center stage with her character and when to stand back and serve as an avatar and entry point into the story for the audience. While she might get an unfair rap for being "cool" — or perhaps even a bit detached — with her remove, "Still Alice" serves as a rebuttal to that reputation. She's in command of a real emotional astuteness here, whether reacting to the latest turn in her mother's health or closing the film with a powerful reading of a monologue from "Angels in America."

2. Personal Shopper

There's a roughly 20-minute segment in Olivier Assayas' "Personal Shopper" that requires Kristen Stewart to hold the audience in suspense as she texts with a mysterious number on a train trip between Paris and London. The extended scene might as well be silent cinema; all the dialogue is digital as Stewart's Maureen attempts to discern whether the unknown messages come from the ghost of her late brother or just a demented prankster. In spite of everything that could make this a bombastic bore, it's absolutely riveting.

Assayas' greatest realization about Kristen Stewart's immense skills was how effortlessly she can act opposite the smartphone. This device is something people interface with just as often as — if not more than — people, and Stewart is among the first in her generation to authentically realize this special kind of interactivity. It's not just gimmickry, either; "Personal Shopper" is a sprawling and complex meditation on experiencing life through mediating influences. Personal shoppers, phones, and phantasms alike all drive home just how much contemporary life is something understood through these substitutes. Stewart's long-running investigation of image-making and performance allows her to plug in seamlessly to this abstract and spiritual cinematic world.

1. Spencer

The entire Kristen Stewart star story feels like it culminates in "Spencer." As an incarnation of Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín's "fable from a true tragedy," Stewart gets to showcase the full range of her performative gifts, spanning technical precision to unhinged camp to raw emotionality. All her probing questions about the corrosive effects of fame and status come roaring to the surface as the subject of "Spencer." The film's stylization renders Britain's palatial estates into something of a haunted house, a setting within which Stewart's Diana can traipse about in her most over-the-top nightmares. But she never loses her pulse on the beating heart of a loving mother and determined individual, and the film is all the better for the multitudes Stewart's can contain.

Whether Stewart is imagining from whole cloth the imprisonment Diana feels inside her image or pulling from her own experiences as a global icon is ultimately immaterial. The origins of this performance pale in comparison to the impact it gathers. "Spencer" is truly a crowning achievement that collapses all of her artistic curiosities and obsessions into a single performance. But the exciting thing is that, in actuality, this is just the beginning for Stewart.