The 20 Best Julia Roberts Roles, Ranked

The once-and-forever Hollywood A-lister has dazzled us in movies and TV, with highlights including 'Mystic Pizza,' 'Erin Brockovich,' and 'Homecoming.'

julia roberts best movies
Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

In the '90s, despite two Oscar nominations to her name, Julia Roberts was often treated like a brand first and an actress second. She was that famous, that tabloid-worthy, that powerful. She's just as famous today, but in an era less driven by traditional movie stardom, Roberts' image has balanced itself out—so much so that rewatching her older performances offers an easy reminder that she is (and always was) a damn good actress. She's no chameleon, but most performers aren't. In each romantic comedy, she finds a different note to play while still providing that reliable Julia Roberts shine. And lest we reduce her to one genre (or one phosphorescent smile), recent TV projects like Homecoming and Gaslit prove she still has layers left to peel.

In honor of one of Hollywood's all-time-great careers, Thrillist is ranking Roberts' best performances.

julia roberts money monster
Sony Pictures

20. Money Monster (2016)

When we talk about performances that single-handedly elevate a movie, Julia Roberts' portrayal of Patty Fenn, the fast-talking producer of a Mad Money-esque financial show whose host is taken hostage on live TV by a disenfranchised investor (Jack O'Connell), is up there with the best of them. The Jodie Foster-directed Money Monster is not quite the taut thriller it very much wants to be, but the bits that are essentially a three-person play between smooth operator George Clooney, gun-waving Jack O'Connell, and Roberts talking them both down from high up in the control booth make it worth the watch. —Emma Stefansky

julia roberts august osage county
The Weinstein Company

19. August: Osage County (2013)

As a movie, August: Osage County struggles to find the potent combination of dramatic thrust and comedic instability that Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play achieved onstage. The direction from John Wells, the veteran TV producer behind ER and Shameless, doesn't exactly solve the visual problems presented by such an inherently claustrophobic text. Instead, he lets the actors, including Meryl Streep as the troubled matriarch and Roberts as her equally acid-tongued daughter, really dig into the material, with occasionally exhilarating results. Even if the project doesn't quite hang tougher, any film with a scene where Roberts gets to seethe "eat the fish, bitch" deserves some recognition. —Dan Jackson

julia roberts charlie wilson's war
Universal Pictures

18. Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

On paper, Charlie Wilson's War looks like it should work better than it does. Mike Nichols directing an Aaron Sorkin script with Roberts, Tom Hanks, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing a range of ethically challenged government figures who get wrapped up in the Soviet-Afghan War in the '80s? That's an evening at the movies! But despite a handful of great scenes, including an all-timer Hoffman monologue, the film never breaks out of its middlebrow trappings. Still, Roberts, playing real-life Texas socialite Joanne Herring, remains a winning foil for Hanks, going semi-comic goofball mode here, and the two find an enjoyable rhythm together even when the song stays mostly tuneless. —DJ

julia roberts duplicity
Universal Pictures

17. Duplicity (2009)

Tony Gilroy's follow-up to Michael Clayton makes a brilliant choice: Cast Roberts and her Closer co-star Clive Owen as two wildly attractive, bracingly intelligent people who trade cutting barbs and try to outsmart each other for two hours. Does a movie really need much else? The elaborately jerry-rigged plot, an attempt to turn modern corporate espionage into a backdrop for a con-artist adventure like The Thomas Crown Affair, threatens to fold in on itself at key points, but the chemistry between the two leads keeps the movie from feeling like merely an exercise in writerly virtuosity. As an actor with a deep understanding of arch rom-com patter, Roberts is a perfect match for Duplicity's mind-bending attempts to interrogate the idea of romantic love as sustained performance. You believe her every step of the way—but should you? —DJ

eat pray love julia roberts
Sony Pictures

16. Eat Pray Love (2010)

This might be a hot take, but would Eat Pray Love work without Julia Roberts? The term has been beaten into the ground at this point, after the success of Elizabeth Gilbert's wildly popular memoir, wherein, after a messy divorce and subsequent rebound, Gilbert decides to travel the world to find herself. With 2022's hindsight, there are a myriad of problems with the premise. But when casting for the film which was released in 2010, who else could play Gilbert? Roberts' easy charm and chemistry with nearly everyone (even James Franco, blech) always makes her a compelling watch. So one positive thing about the "everywoman" journey of Eat Pray Love is that it's exhilarating to watch Roberts use her own charms on herself as she forges a new path forward. —Kerensa Cadenas

julia roberts gaslit

15. Gaslit (2022)

Did we need another Watergate exposé? No. Did we need another juicy Julia Roberts television role? Of course. The Starz series Gaslit, produced by Roberts' Homecoming collaborator Sam Esmail, cast the actress as Martha Mitchell, a gossipy Republican socialite who became an unlikely Watergate whistleblower amid her husband's involvement in Richard Nixon's infamous scandal. Donning a chunky Southern accent and a performative charm that conceals deep layers of hurt, Roberts commands an ensemble show that would benefit from a little less ensemble and a lot more Roberts. —Matthew Jacobs

julia roberts mona lisa smile
Sony Pictures

14. Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Assumed at the time to be Roberts’ next big Oscar vehicle, Mona Lisa Smile faded from the awards derby when middling reviews annulled its potential glory. Critics didn’t know a good thing when they saw it. The underrated dramedy starring Roberts as a young Wellesley art history professor in 1953 who inspires her students to want more for themselves than husbands should not be dismissed because its portrait of mid-century gender dynamics traffics in effervescence instead of headiness. Surrounded by an all-star supporting cast (Kirsten Dunst! Maggie Gyllenhaal! Julia Stiles! Marcia Gay Harden!), Roberts is the movie’s fiery, likable focal point, appropriately earnest in a role that plays to her warm determination. —MJ

julia roberts ben is back

13. Ben Is Back (2018)

The ever-shifting dynamic between Ben, a struggling addict played by Lucas Hedges, and his mother Holly, played with nerve and determination by Roberts, gives this small-scaled character study its much-needed dramatic charge. Even if the plot occasionally feels contrived, attempting to gin up suspense and tension with some mostly unwelcome thriller beats, the strained relationship between Hedges and Robets remains wisely calibrated and carefully observed. The two are incredibly strong together, grounding the melodrama around them. The insights into addiction offered up by Ben Is Back are shopworn—nothing you haven't seen from similar tales of upper-class domestic life disrupted by drug use—but the performances keep the film from drifting into after-school-special territory. —DJ

julia roberts stepmom
Sony Pictures

12. Stepmom (1998)

Just thinking about Stepmom makes me tear up. Julia Roberts plays the titular stepmom, Isabel, a photographer who lives in the shadow of Jackie (Susan Sarandon), her boyfriend's kids' mother, who is fiercely devoted to them and skeptical of Isabel, to say the least Roberts uses that infamous smile and charm to try to worm her way into the children's hearts, but when Jackie is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the scenes between Roberts and Sarandon are absolutely electric. It's like watching a master class between two incredible actresses during their heights. —KC

julia roberts pelican brief
Warner Bros.

11. The Pelican Brief (1993)

Roberts' early-'90s youthfulness is put to good use by director Alan J. Pakula at the outset of this still-thrilling John Grisham adaptation. In its early moments, she's a curious law student who comes up with a theory as to who is behind the murders of two Supreme Court judges. But when the people in power get wind of her work and she's under attack, that sunny inquisitiveness turns into haunting paranoia. The Pelican Brief also pairs Roberts with Denzel Washington, a team-up that should have spawned several more movies. Washington, playing a journalist, starts pursuing Darby as a source, but they become more like partners, slowly opening up to each other. There's no romantic plot line between them, but they crackle nevertheless. —EZ

julia roberts closer
Sony Pictures

10. Closer (2004)

Cate Blanchett was initially slated to play the Julia Roberts role in Mike Nichols' big-screen adaptation of Patrick Marber's Tony-nominated play. Today, Blanchett's casting seems painfully obvious. Part of what's novel about Closer—a sultry, slippery drama about negotiations between lovers—is seeing Roberts in what is probably the closest she's ever come to an art-house role. She gets the movie's best line, erupting as she tells her boyfriend (Clive Owen) that her paramour's ejaculation "tastes like you but sweeter." This isn't America's sweetheart capitalizing on the brand she'd built; in her brooding restraint, Roberts finds liberation. —MJ

mystic pizza julia roberts
The Samuel Goldwyn Company

9. Mystic Pizza (1988)

Not every actor comes by a star-making role as they're launching their career, but Roberts' breakout role in Mystic Pizza is proof that she was always destined to be an A-lister She was among the unknowns (also including Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor) who led this coming-of-age film about three teenage girls working at a Connecticut pizzeria and learning to navigate class, love, and sex. As the effervescent, outspoken Daisy, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where Roberts became America's sweetheart. It could be when she beats the preps at pool, tells off her date, or pours a barrel of fish into his Porsche. Maybe it's all of the above, since she makes Daisy feel like every ballbuster you wished you were friends with. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "I have a feeling that Mystic Pizza may someday become known for the movie stars it showcased back before they became stars." He couldn't have been more right: It was all there in Roberts' captivating presence and cheek-to-cheek smile, comforting and warm as a pizza pie. —Sadie Bell

sleeping with the enemy jiulia roberts
20th Century Fox

8. Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

It would have been easy for Julia Roberts to turn her character, Laura—a woman trying to piece her life back together after escaping a horrifically abusive husband (Patrick Bergin)—into a shrinking violet, yet another cliché in a movie built on the sort of twists and plot beats you could find in a sleazy Lifetime movie. But, because this is Julia Roberts we're talking about, she instead plays Laura with a hidden steel, hinting with gestures rather than words at her grand plan to fake her death and escape her idyllic prison, betraying her emotions with only a shifty flick of an eye or the twitch of an arm. Her embodiment of Laura is so complete that when she smiles her famous joyful smile you can only feel relief, and when she sets her jaw with the line "I've just killed an intruder" delivered right to the face of the man who ruined her life, you can only cheer. —ES

notting hill julia roberts
20th Cenutry Fox

7. Notting Hill (1999)

Julia Roberts is maybe the only star in Hollywood who can wield the meta power of her own stardom to such great effect, and Notting Hill is a perfect example of it. In the Richard Curtis-scripted romantic comedy directed by Roger Michell, she plays Anna Scott, a movie star who is a lot like Julia Roberts. One day Anna wanders into a quaint travel bookshop owned by Hugh Grant's William Thacker, and the next thing you know, she's just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her. With another star, the self-references might seem annoying, but Roberts manages to balance her unmistakable twinkle with genuine humanity. It's a role only Julia could nail. —EZ

ocean's 11 julia roberts
Warner Bros.

6. Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve (2001 and 2004)

Steven Soderbergh's endearingly glitzy, winningly self-referential Ocean's trilogy cultivates a boys'-club mentality, selling the viewer on a fantasy of male friendship defined by designer suits, sarcastic quips, and elaborate schemes. But it's easy to forget how much the first movie relies on Roberts, playing ex-wife Tess to George Clooney's ex-con Danny Ocean, to sell the central premise and provide a dollop of pathos to the caper narrative. More than the money, she's the whole reason for the heist. If that dinner scene between her and Clooney, filmed with a similar sense of sexual tension Soderbergh brought to Out of Sight, doesn't work, then the whole movie doesn't work. It succeeds because Roberts brings a steely elegance and a melancholy core to Tess: When she calls Danny a "liar" and a "thief," the words sting. That she gets to have so much fun going meta in the (still underrated) sequel feels like the reward for having pulled off something so precise, rich, and difficult in the original. —DJ

julia roberts steel magnolias
Tri-Star Pictures

5. Steel Magnolias (1989)

Roberts had proven to the world a year prior that she was an actress to pay attention to when she stole the show in Mystic Pizza, but her dramatic breakout came 12 months later, when she and the rest of its star-studded cast wrung our tear ducts dry with Steel Magnolias. Roberts plays Shelby Eatenton, a bride-to-be whose hopes of starting a family with her future husband (Dylan McDermott) are strained by her rare and extreme form of diabetes, providing an anchor around which the cast spins in ever-faster orbits. Going toe-to-toe with the divas of the silver screen—Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, and Olympia Dukakis—so early in her career was no joke, but Roberts was more than up to the challenge, proving herself an equal to the seasoned names that bolstered the rest of the movie. Lines like "I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special" would sound saccharine from anyone else, but Roberts knows exactly where to put the wrinkle in her brow and the wobble in her voice to make them classics. —ES

homecoming julia roberts
Amazon Prime

4. Homecoming (2018)

By 2018, when Roberts starred in the Amazon series Homecoming, the kinds of movies that made her a star weren't being made anymore. In the post-Big Little Lies landscape, the juicy roles for women of her era were on television. Thankfully, Homecoming gave Roberts one of those roles. In the twisty series based on a podcast and produced by Mr. Robot's Sam Esmail, she's Heidi, a therapist at the mysterious Homecoming Initiative working with traumatized vets. But when the narrative jumps ahead into the future, Heidi can't remember any of her past. Roberts navigates these timelines excellently, but it's her relationship with Stephan James, playing a former soldier questioning the process, that makes this one of her top performances. —EZ

pretty woman julia roberts
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

3. Pretty Woman (1990)

Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Molly Ringwald, and many other A-listers auditioned for or turned down Pretty Woman before director Gary Marshall took a chance on a relatively unknown 21-year-old Roberts. But like the movie's "Cinder-fuckin-ella" story, it's what launched her into proper stardom. She wasn't just the perfect choice to play sex worker Vivian Ward because of the way she struts down Hollywood Boulevard in thigh-high boots, though; Roberts understood and conveyed with nuance how important both the fairy-tale romance and capitalistic underpinnings were. Like Richard Gere's Edward Lewis, we're charmed by her as she's singing Prince in the bathtub (in a famously unscripted scene) and cackling with laughter when she feels out of place in a ballgown. She's adorable, smart, and witty, and makes you feel elated with every rewatch when she finally gets to one-up the snobs on Rodeo Drive. Even still, it's an absolutely priceless performance. —SB

my best friend's wedding julia roberts
Sony Pictures

2. My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)

The movie that revived Roberts' rom-com run in the '90s and crowned her the rom-com queen was a subversive spin on the genre. By no means is this a showcase for Roberts the charmer: Her character, Julianne, gets about as maniacal as any rom-com will allow, attempting to sabotage her best friend's (Dermot Mulroney) wedding. The star proudly says "I do" to all of the nasty high jinks that ensue in a way that lets her comedic chops shine. (She's so convincing, we're still not sure if we'd want to do karaoke with her.) But even in all that bitchiness, she finds a way for the audience to root for her up until that fateful final chase sequence because she taps into how lovelorn and lonely Julianne must be. It's safe to say that this topsy-turvy rom-com may not have had the lasting legacy that it did without Roberts' star power and balancing act as the anti-heroine. —SB

erin brockovich julia roberts
Universal Pictures

1. Erin Brockovich (2000)

It may be a cop-out to put Roberts' Oscar-winning film at the top of this list, but her work in Erin Brockovich as the titular legal aid turned activist is so unimpeachable it belongs here. Steven Soderbergh gave Roberts the perfect vehicle to show off the wealth of her talents in this biopic. The role matches her bravado and charm in equal measures, as she stomps around in a push-up bra with a foul mouth and the passion to right a deep wrong. Erin Brockovich is great because of Soderbergh's jittery direction, his deep well of anxiety that makes it more upsetting than your typical feel-good "based on a true story" saga, but it's Roberts' charisma funneled into this persona that makes it an all-timer. —EZ

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