Jodie Foster is one of the most iconic actresses of her generation; without the movies she starred in, film history would be completely changed. She was born in Los Angeles and was a highly intelligent child. Her mother was a publicist for a film producer who sought to get her children into the industry, and at the age of three, Foster starred in her first commercial for sunscreen. This opened the floodgates into film and television, as she managed to appear in fifty television shows before becoming a regular in Disney films.
But once her mother, now her manager, decided that Foster needed to transition to adult roles, Martin Scorsese decided to cast her in his 1976 film Taxi Driver. In Taxi Driver, Foster had her breakthrough and began to see acting as a craft. Since then, she has continued to stun audiences around the world and has moved behind the camera as a director. Her trophy case now features two Academy Awards, three Golden Globes Awards, and being in a film that won the Palm d’Or, among many other honors. Her career boasts over forty films, some of which she both directed and acted in. With such an impressive resume, it can be a little tough to figure out which films to watch first. Nevertheless, here are the best films ranked.
Update February 7, 2024: In honor of Jodie Foster’s Academy Award nomination for the role in Nyad, this article has been updated by Soniya Hinduja with more details on Foster’s best performances and movies.
A recent biographical sports drama that broke out with awards voters, Nyad tells the incredible true story of a daring athlete, Diana Nyad. As one of the most celebrated long-distance swimmers of her time, her achievements have been glorious. After failing to accomplish a certain goal at the age of 28, Nyad is determined to become the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of 60. Assisting her is her best friend and reluctant coach, Bonnie Stoll.
Nyad does several things right in bringing an inspiring event to the big screen, but the two prominent ones are a.) it never sugarcoats how unfriendly and bad-tempered the main protagonist (played wonderfully by Annette Bening) is, and b.) it allows Jodie Foster’s Bonnie to add spirit and sensitivity to Nyad’s pursuit for a fantasy and many accomplishments. At one point, Foster’s Bonnie says to Diana, “Do you know how exhausting it is to be your friend?” That said, Nyad is not only a film about Diana but also about friendship and how Bonnie is the catalyst that ultimately makes Diana likable. Stream on Netflix
Starring Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane mixes genres: it could be classified as horror, thriller, or mystery. The location is in a small conservative Maine town, and Foster’s character, Rynn Jacobs, has just moved into town from England with her absent father. Over time, her solitary life is disrupted when an elderly man takes an active interest in her, and her landlady frequently visits her.
Foster sunk her teeth into her first major role where she’d have to showcase intuition well beyond her years. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane attracted a lot of controversy upon release because Foster’s character, a thirteen-year-old girl, has a nude scene, and many believed it to be Foster herself. However, it was not her but a 21-year-old body double. With that in the clear, praise for Foster’s cinematic potential, as well as her character’s haunting complexity, was prominent. The film opened to mixed reviews but has since gone on to establish its status as a cult film. Stream on Prime Video
Freaky Friday has been an iconic movie for several generations: four different versions of the movie have come out in less than fifty years. It’s a lighthearted, humorous film with an unassuming and simple plot. A mother (Barbara Harris) and daughter (Foster) accidentally switch bodies after fighting on Friday the 13th. Forced to confront the lives and people that the other faces, they get a lot more understanding towards each other’s situations.
Jodie Foster leads the unassuming and magical body swap premise with warmth and humor. She explores her character with different perspectives and makes the predictable film fun and offbeat. Both Harris and Foster were nominated for a Golden Globes for their performance, demonstrating how popular the film was when it was released. Overall, Freaky Friday brought some much-needed laughter to the big screens and added some flavor to Foster’s varied filmography. Stream on Disney+
In Sommersby, Foster is paired with actor Richard Gere in a period drama set in the Reconstruction era of American history. She portrays a woman in Tennessee whose husband has been missing for six years, having gone to fight in the American Civil War with no trace of him having been found. Her husband was abusive and toxic, and she seemed quite at peace living without him, but then a man claiming to be him shows up—and he seems to have switched personalities.
Directed by Jon Amiel, the film was a hit with audiences, as many enjoyed the chemistry between Gere and Foster. They both sizzled on screen and made the romantic mystery one of a kind. While their unforgettable on-screen pairing makes up for most of the film’s acclaim, Foster’s role in particular is spell-binding. Her part calls for her to contain her emotions and remain calm and poised, and Foster achieves that impeccably. Overall, Sommersby is a beautiful story of love, fate, and identity. Stream on DirecTV
One of director Martin Scorsese’s most auspicious and unusually hilarious films of all time, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, stars Ellen Burstyn as a mother who decides to move her family to California after her husband’s death. In the process of seeking independence and rediscovering her passion for singing, Alice stumbles upon two men who could very well change her life. Foster didn’t play a major character in this film, as she was still starting during this time, but she played the role of Audrey, a tomboy with tendencies for shoplifting and chugging flavored fortified wines.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was Scorsese’s and Foster’s first collaboration. The film was released in 1974 after competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was considered a critical success after drawing in $21 million. Even though her screen time in the movie was brief, we could witness Foster’s feisty personality and singular talent that would come to define her in the decades after. Following this collaboration, Foster and Scorsese would later work together in Taxi Driver. Stream on Netflix
The 2006 Spike Lee film Inside Man features Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Foster as individuals tangled in the same situation: a bank heist occurring on Wall Street. From the opening sequence itself, Lee keeps you guessing what the gold at the other end of all the clever cinematic plot twists is going to be like. Jodie Foster portrayed a power broker meant to fix the heist situation in a face-off against Owens Rubber, who always seems to be one step ahead of the game.
Like every Spike Lee film, this one also fools you into believing that it’s simply a well-written heist drama. But as layers of deception are peeled back, and a taut and entertaining narrative is fabricated, Inside Man transforms itself into a fascinating thriller. The movie was a commercial success, garnering $184.4 million globally, and praise for the actors’ performances was abundant. Foster was particularly appreciated for her sharp and savvy royal, as she commands every scene she is in against powerhouse performers like Denzel Washington, Christopher Plumber, and Clive Owen and always feels like the one in control. She was overjoyed at the prospect of working with director Spike Lee due to being a fan of his previous movies. Rent on Apple TV
Bugsy Malone is the gangster spoof that the world never knew it needed. Written and directed by Alan Parker and featuring an outstanding musical soundtrack composed by Paul Williams, it is classified as a gangster musical comedy, and all adult roles are played by child actors, including Foster, whose role is that of a gun mull – a woman who serves as a companion to a crime boss.
Lauded particularly for its bold cinematic vision and slapstick hijinks, Bugsy Malone is a movie that was geared and marketed towards children, replacing bullets with whipped cream, slinging cream pies as attacks, and more. Foster’s character, Tallulah, lit up every scene with her skills and talent and helped establish the movie into one of the most original films of the decade. It competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; it captivated audiences with its catchy tunes, bright visuals, and solid performances by the actors. Stream on Kanopy
Years before #MeToo took the world by storm, The Accused tackled the topics of classism, misogyny, and shaming women who have been assaulted, raped, or abused. The Accused was based on real-life events that occurred in 1983; Foster’s character, a waitress named Sarah, is brutally gang-raped by three men, and onlookers do nothing about what’s happening in front of them. The film then pivots in the fight for justice, as Sarah joins forces with a local prosecutor (Kelly McGillis) to try and get these men behind bars for what they’ve done.
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, The Accused is a testament to the brilliance of cinema. Its searing message and hard-hitting truths about society and the justice system are felt loud and clear. Foster delivers an outstanding performance as Sarah, uncovering new depths of her steely-eyed character as well as herself as an actor. Critics lauded the film as “modest and effective,” with Foster’s commanding screen presence only amplifying the exploration of the issue. Moreover, Foster took home the Academy Award for Best Actress due to her sympathetic and well-acted performance. Stream on Showtime
Jodie Foster and a young Kristen Stewart play a mother-daughter duo in this 2002 thriller. After moving into an Upper West Side brownstone in New York City, their home is broken into by three burglars. Meg and Sarah seek refuge from these intruders in a high-tech panic room, their supposed safe haven. When the intruders begin using brutal force to enter the room and get what they came here for, the panic in the panic room only increases.
Panic Room was David Fincher’s follow-up to his 1999 film Fight Club, a classic cult movie for the generation that grew up with it. While Foster brings a consistently sharp and sympathetic tone to her part, it is the claustrophobia that kicks in early and makes the movie so tight-paced and compelling. Meaning that the role of the home itself plays an impact on the narrative. Besides, Panic Room has feminist undertones and outstanding performances from Stewart and Foster, which is what lends cultural resonance to the film. While certainly not one of Fincher’s higher-profile films, it speaks to both his talents and Foster’s that the movie is still great by every metric. Rent on Apple TV
An absorbing story about extraterrestrials, Contact is a science-fiction drama centered around Dr. Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer working in Puerto Rico. While searching for proof of alien intelligence, she sees her years’ worth of dedication of sifting through codes and signals bear fruits. Dr. Ellie finally receives an alien transmission containing a sequence of prime numbers, which she uses to build a machine that will change science and humanity.
Inspired by the 1985 novel by Carl Sagan and directed thoughtfully by Robert Zemeckis, Contact is a film that proves just how brilliant storytelling can get with the right minds at work. Jodie Foster plays the lead character, delivering one of her best but also most underrated performances as the undeterred and passionate Dr. Ellie, whose dedication and faith drive the movie with a series of soulful energy. Overall spectacular, Contact also tells a deeply human story and one that is elevated by Foster’s incredible performance. While, on the surface, not a conventional blockbuster, the movie was a hit with critics and audiences and grossed $171 million worldwide. Rent on Apple TV
Taxi Driver is set in 1970s New York City after the Vietnam War. The film’s protagonist, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), is a Vietnam War veteran with PTSD. Suffering from insomnia, Bickle decides to become a taxi driver during the night to be more productive. Disillusioned with life and amid an existentialist crisis, he meets Iris (Foster), a child prostitute. His growing detachment from society and desperation to free it from darkness leads to an explosive and unforgettable finale.
Martin Scorsese’s iconic film evokes the sensation of being stuck between being awake and sleeping. Indeed, the dreamlike quality of the camerawork and blocking offers additional insight into Travis’ mind. But it is Foster’s vulnerability that commands the screen. Foster was twelve years old when she appeared in the film and had to undergo psychological tests in order to play the character. What’s more, controversy arose from the subject matter of her scenes, but her performance was nevertheless outstanding and helped her break free from the Disney image she had originally into being considered one of the best stars working in the business. She and De Niro were both nominated for Academy Awards for their roles. Stream on Tubi TV
What else could it be? A hunt for a psychotic criminal plunges two individuals into a high-stakes game of trauma and betrayal. In Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster plays the role of a rookie FBI agent, Clarice Starling, who is supposed to hunt down a dangerous serial killer. She turns to another serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), an imprisoned cannibal, for counsel, unaware of the sheer nightmare she’s walking into
First things first, Silence of the Lambs is considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made since its successful debut in 1991. The film won the prestigious top five Oscars for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. It is the only horror film to win Best Picture. Foster won the Best Actress award for her flawless and intensely vulnerable portrayal of Starling. Under the direction of Jonathan Demme, her talents came out raw and pronounced in this psychological thriller.
While Foster had won an Academy Award before and was a big-name star, for many, this is her defining role. Jodie Foster is Clarice Starling, so much so that one of the reasons the sequel Hannibal was such a disappointment was that Foster declined to return, and for as great as Julianne Moore is, it was never the same. In a career filled with great roles and iconic movies, it will always be Silence of the Lambs that she is most remembered for. Stream on DirecTV