When Elizabeth Olsen exploded onto the movie scene in 2011 with two films at the Sundance Film Festival and one film at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was clear to both critics and viewers alike that it was the beginning of a big career. But what was interesting was that the actress had more or less gone about her life in ordinary fashion — relatively off the grid — despite being the younger sister to actresses and fashion designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
It turns out that despite small roles in some of her sisters’ films at a young age she continued to train in theater, graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2009. Two years later, her breakout role in Martha Marcy May Marlene would then instantly catapult her to stardom. While Olsen is still young and has plenty of films to go, let’s take a look at the 10 best films in Elizabeth Olsen’s short, but already strong career.
10. I Saw The Light
I Saw The Light is a biographical drama about country legend Hank Williams’s rise to fame and early death at age 29. But even though the film has a talented cast, it suffers from all the problems that can mar a biopic including lack of focus and uneven pacing. While the film might be worth watching for fans of Tom Hiddelston (who plays Williams) and Olsen (who plays Williams’s first wife Audrey), if you have no interest in the source material it’s probably worth skipping.
9. In Secret
In Secret is an erotic thriller based on the 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin that premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Olsen stars as Thérèse Raquin, a repressed woman in a loveless marriage whose affair with her husband’s friend leads to tragedy. While the film’s pacing and familiar story were highlighted as problems by critics, the performances in the film — specifically Olsen’s and Jessica Lange’s — were viewed as its strengths.
The Spike Lee-directed Oldboy is a remake of the 2003 Korean film of the same name by Park Chan-wook, which is itself based on the Japanese manga of the same name. The film tells the story of a man imprisoned for unknown reasons for 20 years who is then released and given 46 hours to discover why. The plot itself is almost identical to the original film, which is why critics focused on what exactly the film was adding that the original hadn’t already accomplished. But while the film bombed with critics and at the box office (it is Lee’s worst-performing film in his career), the one thing it does have going for it is the strong performances of Olsen, Josh Brolin, and Sharlto Copley.
7. Silent House
The horror film Silent House premiered at the same Sundance Film Festival as Olsen’s breakout film Martha Marcy May Marlene, but definitely didn’t win over critics the same way. The film is most notable for its stylistic use of one continuous shot (although it hides several cuts in reality) in an attempt to emphasize real time as a young woman’s experiences inside her father’s dilapidated home turn sinister. While critics are polarized between those who feel the style matches the film’s intentions and those who find it hard to watch, the one constant is that Olsen’s performance is the best thing the film has going for it.
6. Liberal Arts
Liberal Arts is a dramedy about Jesse Fischer (Josh Radnor), a disillusioned 35-year-old in New York City who goes back to his college alma mater to try and recapture the happiness he felt there as a student. But when he meets 19-year-old Zibby (Olsen), he finds himself drawn to her despite the fact he knows it probably won’t work.
While it’s not exactly a mind-blowingly original story, the film — which Radnor also wrote and directed — makes up for it with its earnestness. Roger Ebert had a particularly strong reaction to the film. “It’s the kind of film that appeals powerfully to me; to others, maybe not so much,” he writes. “There is a part of me that will forever want to be walking under autumn leaves, carrying a briefcase containing the works of Shakespeare and Yeats and a portable chess set… There is a word to explain why this particular film so appealed to me. Reader, that word is ‘escapism.'”
In only four years Olsen went from debuting in her first feature film to finding herself involved with two of the biggest blockbuster franchises in Hollywood, the first of which was Godzilla. A reboot of the Japanese giant-monster series, Godzilla is directed by Gareth Edwards (currently hard at work on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and has led to a renewal of the series in both the U.S. and Japan. On the American front, the franchise already has two sequels in the pipeline — Godzilla 2 and Godzilla vs. Kong — and Olsen will surely be attached as long as she wants to be.
4. Avengers: Age of Ultron
When it was announced that Scarlet Witch would be coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe fans were already excited, but when it was learned that Olsen would be taking on the role it was immediately celebrated as yet another strong choice by Disney and Marvel. And while Avengers: Age of Ultron did not necessarily live up to the lofty standards of 2012’s The Avengers, Olsen’s turn as Scarlet Witch was praised in what little screen time she had in the ensemble action film.
3. Kill Your Darlings
Kill Your Darlings is a biographical drama about Allen Ginsberg and the other members of the Beat Generation during their college years and a murder that threatens to divide them. Starring Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg, the film garnered strong reviews at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, but later struggled at the box office. While Olsen’s role as Edie Parker was not one of the film’s largest roles, she nonetheless finds a way to steal her scenes looking every bit straight out of the 1940s.
2. Captain America: Civil War
Olsen might not have a lot of room to show her acting abilities in the Marvel films, but her turn as Scarlet Witch continues to be a success with fans. Captain America: Civil War, which might be the best of all the MCU films so far, follows the Avengers as they splinter into two opposing groups and come to blows over how the super group should be controlled and monitored. One of the highlights for Olsen’s Scarlet Witch in the film is her relationship with Paul Bettany’s character Vision, who looks to her with a paternal instinct.
1. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene is the film that put Olsen on the map after it premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, with director Sean Durkin winning the U.S. Directing Award for Best Drama. The film focuses on a young woman who after escaping from a cult in the Catskill Mountains begins to develop a creeping paranoia that the cult is following her. Olsen’s performance in particular was singled out as one of the reasons the film is ultimately so compelling. Roger Ebert wrote at the time that Olsen was “a genuine discovery.” He explained that her performance was, “Childlike and yet deep, vulnerable but with a developing will, beautiful in a natural and unforced way.”
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