The best Laura Dern performances, ranked

From 'Jurassic Park' to 'Little Women' by way of 'Blue Valentine' in betw, we chart the most iconic roles from the actor's illustrious career.

by Jasmine Valentine
23 May 2022, 4:26pm

Even before the dulcet tones of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles at the 2020 Spirit Awards, Laura Dern’s name has never been off the lips of movie lovers for long.

Her filmography is an eclectic bag of pick ‘n’ mix acting roles, meaning you never know what you’re going to get. If she’s not partnering up with director David Lynch to make a wholly divisive fever dream, she’s nursing dinosaurs with Stephen Spielberg or calling out Meryl Streep’s judgey matriarch in a Starbucks. Rating a Laura Dern performance is almost cosmetic. There’s always an A game approach, like she’s been called into head office to “discuss her progress” when she has a glowing report card.

With her upcoming appearances in Susannah Grant’s Lonely Planet and Florian Zeller’s The Son, fans are awaiting her imminent return to the land of dinos in the June release of Jurassic World Dominion. But before she has to risk her life in the name of a badly thought-out amusements park again, we’re taking on the difficult task of ranking (almost) every major role under the gay icons belt.

49. Bravetown (2015)

A somewhat forgettable teen drama, even Wikipedia is sparse on enthusiasm for this film. Still, Laura sheds a patriotic tear or two.

48. Daddy & Them (2001)

Humble genius or straight-talking rubbish? It’s hard to tell. The cover art does the film’s subject matter no justice, but Laura still plays her long-suffering wife role to a T.

47. Dr. T & The Women (2000)

Want to watch a white, male gynaecologist’s take on the women he meets? Yeah, we don’t either. At least Laura dodges the misogynistic mould by playing an overly nosy alcoholic sister-in-law in this regrettable Y2K title.

46. Teachers (1984)

We can’t lie, there’s not much of Laura here, perhaps because it’s one of her earliest film roles. Fans should be advised to skip it and stick to the Channel 4 series of the same name.

45. Cold Pursuit (2019)

Is it too harsh to say this was probably an easy pay check? Regardless, “Don’t Fear The Reaper” still slaps as a song even if it’s not enough to save this movie, sadly.

44. Mask (1985)

Another of Laura’s goody two shoes appearances, Mask hasn’t aged amazingly. It’s the story of Rocky Dennis, a young boy suffering from "lionitis," a fatal disease which causes hideous facial disfigurement. Laura plays his blind love interest, who falls for his kindness and compassion. Hey, it was the eighties!

43. Tenderness (2009)

This is the first time in Laura’s filmography we see her sidelined in a supporting Aunt role. She doesn’t even make the trailer which is criminal. Blink, and you’ll miss her.

42. The Founder (2016)

We’ll keep this one short — another wife role. Watch with a Big Mac and fries.

41. October Sky (1999)

Back in the comfortable territory of a melodic Southern accent, Laura steps into the role of teacher to help a young Jake Gyllenhaal fulfil his dreams. It’s a sweet yet somewhat forgettable voyage — even the rocket launch verges on disappointing.

40. Lonely Hearts (2006)

Try as you might to look past a young Jared Leto with an alarming moustache, the attention feels like its almost everywhere but Laura here. Still worth a watch for Travolta-led gang fights and 90s fashion icon Salma Hayek (say no more).

39. The Master (2012)

A Laura Dern and Paul Thomas Anderson collaboration should be a dream come true. And if Mark Kermode says the performances are ‘great’, they’re surely masterful (get it?)

38. Everything Must Go (2010)

Aw, she got to do a TV commercial with Brad Pitt! In Japan! That sounds like a quote from Mean Girls, but it’s actually closer to the plot of this movie, where Will Ferrell stars alongside Laura as a career salesman whose best days are behind him.

37. Downsizing (2017)

The Borrowers, circa 2017. With borderline cult behaviour, there’s only one woman who can make a headset in a bathtub look expensive: Laura Dern. Her influence!

36. Little Fockers (2010)

12 years on, the Fockers films are still such a marmite watch. You either think they’re cringe or you love the nostalgia, basically. Laura isn’t even a main character here (she plays an elementary school headteacher) but she still injects the Fockers funnies into some quality family bonding.

35. The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio (2005)

There’s something really entrancing about a group of 1950s housewives obsessing over ridiculous beauty treatments and jingle writing contests. It’s hard to steal the spotlight from Julianne Moore, but Laura gives it her all.

34. Happy Endings (2005)

Ensemble storytelling fuelled by sex and domestic entanglements is surprisingly a place where Laura’s comedic foresight can shine. Towels at the ready…

33. Year Of The Dog (2007)

Described as ‘emotionally sterile’, Laura’s performance could be classed as ahead of its time. Warning: the dog does die. Laura’s character is kind of mean about it.

32. Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

She might be ready for a revolution, but Laura, in one of her early roles, is painstakingly pushed to the guitar-angst sidelines in this film about three teenage girls who start a punk band together. The ending is divisive!

31. Focus (2001)

Somehow this entire film looks like it’s been filmed in 1971, not 2001. Nonetheless, Laura’s slinky Gertrude Hart effortlessly delivers drama through 1940s persecution.

30. I Am Sam (2001)

In its star-studded line up, Laura makes her mark as a foster care giver done good. How has she not aged a day since? Drop the skincare routine queen!

29. We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004)

Crossing a line somewhere between cool indie flick and formulaic Hallmark movie, Laura gave us Big Little Lies style lust and drama 13 years before the show’s creation. We Don’t Live Here Anymore is a movie about two couples who have dinner together a lot and two of them are best friends and perhaps fall in love. Very Conversations with Friends!

28. When The Game Stands Tall (2014)

Giving Connie Britton a run for her money, Laura turns her hand to dramatic tensions on the sports field. There’s something really Desperate Housewives about this. Maybe it’s all the heart attacks.

27. Trial By Fire (2018)

Yes, *another* Southern accent. Teamed with heart-stopping crime drama, Laura’s pretty hard to resist.

26. A Perfect World (1993)

There’s real Murder, She Wrote vibes to Laura’s criminologist, Sally Gerber. Sadly, there’s little in the way of a jaunty theme tune or oversized magnifying glass.

25. Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)

Yes the title is absolutely horrendous, but Laura’s intense wistfulness as Kathleen Robinson sets a rather sexy dramatic tone for a movie about the atomic bomb. Plus, there are pyramids!

24. Novocaine (2001)

2001 was a busy time in the filmography of Laura Dern. So much to fit in! So little time! Nevertheless, tired girlfriend Jean tells it how it is with a few verbal slaps in the face.

23. The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

Following the frenzy of Twilight, The Fault In Our Stars was right behind in inspiring famcam fodder for a whole generation. Playing Frannie, Laura is *actually* convincing as Shailene Woodley’s mother. Just don’t go with her to the beach.

22. Industrial Symphony No. 1 (1990)

Avant garde music concerts just scream ‘kitschy obsessions for the kids that just want to be different’. Nonetheless, frequent collaborators Laura and Nicolas Cage pair up again here to deliver another melting of the mind.

21. Haunted Summer (1988)

Lusty, period drama with terrible effects? We’re kind of here for it.

20. Foxes (1980)

In her first credited role, party girl Laura plays opposite a fresh-faced Jodie Foster as one of four LA teenagers coming of age during the death of disco. Come on, Hot Dern Summer!

19. Wilson (2017)

A Laura Dern that’s strung-out, bottom barrel and possibly deranged might be the best kind? There’s an argument to be made for it at the very least!

18. 99 Homes (2014)

Now this one is tasty. Moving from small town eviction to multi-million dollar real estate, the mother-son duo of Laura and Andrew Garfield explore a relationship dynamic rarely seen on screen with such aplomb.

17. Certain Women (2016)

With chef’s kiss scenery, Laura’s dogged attorney, also named Laura (yes, really) embodies the kind of subtle, slow-burn drama we’re loving in 2022. Extra points to Kristen Stewart in a washed-out turtleneck.

16. JT LeRoy (2018)

At a stretch this movie is kind of like Parent Trap, only with double identities and literary espionage. Alongside Kristen Stewart, Laura takes angsty comedy to new heights.

15. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

A grey dress and a purple wig? We do think. Laura’s cameo is truly epic and earns a spot high on the list as a fan favourite.

14. Little Women (2019)

Did we really need another remake of Little Women? No, but does it stop Laura giving us her best internally struggling Marmee? Also no.

13. Enlightened (2011-2013)

Winning her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a comedy series, Laura’s charmingly unhinged portrayal of Amy Jellicoe was an instant hit with critics. Sadly, dwindling viewership didn’t say the same. This comically ironic journey from mental breakdown to full-scale enlightenment might seem a bit twee, but Amy’s reality packs a sobering punch.

12. Wild (2014)

We can’t quite believe Laura’s cast to play Reese Witherspoon’s mother either, but here we are. A saint that appears in the form of flashbacks, her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance still left a lasting impact strong enough to earn her an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress.

11. Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

A reveal with a 20-year wait? Lynch loves to see it. It’s hard to rock a bob cut in this economy, but Laura just about manages.

10. The Tale (2018)

What do you get then you cross horseriding with unhealed childhood trauma? A mind-bending mystery the viewing public love to lap up. Deep-diving into the past has never looked so healthy.

9. Smooth Talk (1985)

Dancing her way around a bar and flirting with bad boys who drives convertibles makes this quintessential Laura Dern viewing. The naive coquette that literally everyone has dreamed of being in their lifetime, her awakening turned horror reminds us that men just aren’t to be trusted.

8. Big Little Lies (2017-2019)

Cathartic screaming is a hobby that travels well anywhere, a concept perfectly showcased by Laura’s Renata Klein. Watching her rage about ‘this whole bankruptcy thing’ is satisfying to anyone with a grudge or who’s wanted to eat the rich.

7. Jurassic Park (1993, 2001)

Sometimes you need a level-headed woman to get you through being hunted by a T Rex (we’ve all been there). Calm and collected with eyes full of wonder and a fist deep in dino poop, Laura is the lynchpin of any good that comes from Jurassic Park, with her wealth of knowledge she’s both sexy and infectious.

6. Blue Velvet (1986)

A complete 180 from her other Lynch roles, Laura’s sickly sweet demeanour is the only shred of sanity in this otherwise incredulous neo-noir.

5. Citizen Ruth (1996)

Unbearably apt for 2022 America, Laura flipped nuance on its head by playing off pro-life and pro-choice abortion arguments. Underneath it all, her addled protagonist shows women are truly hated just for existing.

4. Marriage Story (2014)

Love it or hate the film, Laura’s kick-ass lawyer has to be appreciated. Crowning her an Oscar winner, the killer, quotable monologue is her weapon of choice. All while holding her cell phone and wearing a strappy vest top in court. Bottle her up to send to the government, please.

3. Rambling Rose (1991)

Being nominated for an Oscar alongside your mum is a niche brag, but we’ll allow it. The film has a sketchy premise that definitely wouldn’t make the cut today, but Laura’s flawless portrayal of confusing illicit emotions was one for the history books.

2. Wild At Heart (1990)

The iconic outfits. The sadistic mother. The boy in the snakeskin coat who won’t stop singing Elvis songs. Laura comes into her own in this fever of emotional ecstasy, with her realistic handle on sexual assault victims the crux of her crowning moment.

1. Inland Empire (2006)

The last in the triage of Lynch-Dern outings, Inland Empire arguably holds Laura’s best work. Ahead of its time? Yes. An effortless look at Laura’s incredible range of nuance? Definitely.

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