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Penélope Cruz’s Best Drama Movies, Ranked

What to do when you’ve barreled through the Netflix New Releases, you’ve exhausted “What’s Trending On Hulu” and you can’t bear another eight-second TikTok life-hack? With a film like L’Immensità making waves as part of the Spotlight program at Sundance 2023, what better place to start than with Penélope Cruz‘s movies? If you have yet to fixate on an actor and go along for the ride as they discover their artistic potential as a storyteller, you are 1) probably not neurodivergent and 2) most definitely missing out. Neurodiversities aside, diving into an actors filmography is a fascinating experience that can bring you on a multidimensional journey, whether you’re a film-buff, an industry professional, or a casual viewer looking for a new/more meaningful way to unwind from a long day.

Regardless of the seeming ease, an actor’s journey as an artist is often wrought with uncertainty, challenges, and both internal and external obstacles. Most actors will at some point connect deeply with a director that they share a unique ability to communicate with, allowing for seemingly effortless work to ensue. These partnerships will usually produce multiple works together that mutually support artistic development, allowing them to tell stories they feel called to tell. These factors, in addition to where an actor is at in the span of their career, details surrounding filming, and what’s occurring in their personal lives, influences how they interpret their lines, character, and the story.

Watching from this vantage point can be a deeply fulfilling and connective experience, not to mention inspiring. As one of the most iconic actresses of our time, Cruz is an excellent study in the journey of an actor. Here are her best drama movies, ranked

Official Competition presents an utterly entertaining and terribly accurate satirical commentary on the art and business of filmmaking. Cruz plays equally famous and neurotic Spanish filmmaker, Lola Cuevas, who is hired by an existential multimillionaire looking to add to his legacy. Cruz fills out this character as only a truly experienced actor, with decades spent on set, could. As most of her castings have centered on vulnerable and sexual aspects of Cruz, it is absolutely delicious to see this seasoned actor rise to the top of the filmmaking hierarchy and exist on-screen in a storyline that is not centered around another woman pursuing (or escaping) love or motherhood, and almost passes the Bechdel Test. Just as meta as it sounds, it hits all its marks with gusto and exceptional timing. And with this all-star cast (including Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martinez) it’s a must-see that only lives at the bottom of this list because of Cruz’s vast catalog of brilliant, emotionally-striking characters.

Related: Best Penélope Cruz Movies, Ranked

Elegy explores the concept of what director Isabel Coixet, calls “emancipated manhood,” a state in which the main character, David (played by Ben Kingsley), champions a romantic philosophy around casual, short-term relationships. Ray Bennett of The Hollywood Reporter described Cruz’s performance as being “outstanding in an otherwise lame male fantasy.” And he’s not wrong; however, ironically, the male lead’s journey in this film, when removed from the context of gender, becomes somewhat relatable to anyone that’s rationalized a fear of commitment or pursued someone who has. All that aside, Cruz’s character in this film is absolutely impossible not to fall in love with.

The third of seven collaborations between Cruz and Pedro Almodovar, Volver captivated the attention of critics when it released in 2006. Roger Ebert called it “enchanting, gentle, transgressive” and went on to state, “Almodovar is above all a director who loves women — young, old, professional, amateur, mothers, daughters, granddaughters, dead, alive”. This is incredibly clear when observing the way Almodovar directs the women characters in a story that, at face value, appears to be focused around an all-too-common narrative of vulnerable women.

However, Almodovar tells a story of resourcefulness and connection, with vibrant, inventive characters and a playful tone in the face of some of life’s darkest moments. His choice to cast Cruz as his lead is indicative of his insight on this actor’s ability to contrast traditional feminine qualities with larger-than-life energy resolve and a sense of creativity that’s far from predictable. Volver is Cruz smack-dab in the middle of her career at age 31, and it is glorious to see her embody this complexity while still fairly young, Hollywood standards for women aside.

Time Out calls Almodovar “at the peak of his powers” in this 2019 release of this near autobiographical film, Pain & Glory. Once again he positions Cruz as a core character, the mother of a boy slowly coming to recognize that he is gay. At this point, Cruz had worked with Almodovar six times and, still, she says in an interview with co-star Antonio Banderas, for Interview Magazine, “People assume that after so many films together, you arrive to set feeling relaxed and that you know what the other person is thinking. With Pedro, each time feels like the first time. He treats the work with such respect that he lives it as if it were his first time making a film.”

And still after six films with a director, there is a level of trust that only can be rivaled by close friends and family. Cruz went on to share, “People always ask me, ‘How do you always get along with Pedro on set?’ It’s because we connect on a personal level. To do that, I become a piece of clay while shooting with him. That doesn’t mean I don’t give my opinion, or that he doesn’t accept changes. Pedro wants you to go through the process with him.”

2001 was a big moment in Cruz’s career with the release of arguably her most well-known film aside from Blow, Vanilla Sky. Starring opposite of man-of-the-moment Tom Cruise, Cruz plays half of the pair of star-crossed lovers. They fall deeply in love and are consequently destined for chaos at the hands of Cruise’s OG Manhattan-playboy wiles and his jilted recurring hook-up, played by Cameron Diaz. Cruz’s performance was exceptional and won her an ALMA Outstanding Actress award, as well as cultivating real-life feelings between herself and her co-star (Cruise) that would later lead to a three-year relationship and eventually an amicable split.

While Cruise himself was still married to fellow A-list actress, Nicole Kidman, during the filming of Vanilla Sky, he claims that the attraction to Cruz only began once the work relationship had ended. One can only speculate that perhaps the connection created during such an impassioned performance might have bled over and contributed to exploring such emotions off-screen, as is often a trend for actors post, and at times, during filming.

Related: Best Pedro Almodóvar Movies, Ranked

On-brand with her most recent works, Cruz plays a complex character dead-set on an objective unrelated to love and sex, far from the average castings of the early-2000s. In En Los Margenes, she takes the screen with an unprecedented grounded boldness as she relentlessly defends her home. En Los Margenes, translated to On the Fringe, is a Spanish-Belgian drama/thriller that ran the festival circuit in 2022 and 2023 and is a must-watch for anyone interested in seeing this highly capable actress explore yet another frontier of her range as an actress.

Every actor has a film that holds their personal best and most challenging performance. For Cruz, Everybody Knows was this film. Cruz plays Laura, wife and mother of two, visiting her hometown outside of Madrid for her sister’s wedding, when her daughter is kidnaped and held for ransom. Cruz’s husband and first feature-film co-star, Javier Bardem, plays opposite her as Paco, Laura’s former love, now also married. When Laura’s daughter is kidnapped, Paco steps in, inadvertently challenging the integrity of both Laura’s partnership and his own. The role was written specifically for Cruz and developed closely with director Asghar Farhadi, over the course of five years.

As a wife and mother of two off-set, undoubtedly Cruz experienced a strong connection to this character. In an interview with Metro, Cruz speaks candidly of filming: “When we did the takes we would go 100% intensity […] by the end of the shooting, I had a fever every night. At the end, during the last month of the shooting, my body was like flipping out. I was like, ‘What is going on?’ Of course you know it’s a fiction, but I think that a little percentage of yourself gets confused […] this was the hardest character.” In spite of her at-home proximity to co-star and husband Bardem, Cruz developed tangible and reliable strategies to manage her emotional health and to ensure she left the character on-set.

Parallel Mothers is a complex story to watch, and a complex story to write about without spoiling. The film explores themes of motherhood, friendship, and sexuality through the female lens. On the topic of motherhood, Cruz explains to NPR how her own experience as a mother supported her performance: “I saw the face of this little baby that was so tiny, of course, in that moment I revisit all the emotions that I experienced in my own – the birth of my kids, which is, like, that first moment when you look at each other and you see those eyes and that soul and you feel like, oh, you already know that person. You cannot imagine your life without that person, even if you just met them. But I don’t think you just met them.”

And coming in at number one, winning Cruz her 2008 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, we have the exhilarating, compelling and completely unpredictable Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with Cruz as Maria Elena. This spinning love-triangle hits us in a both enchanting and tragic way, most notably with the contrast of Maria’s deep, twisted character flaws with equally redeeming strengths. It’s fascinating to imagine the development of such a character and how the actor goes about evoking it.

“You have to look deeply inside of yourself to find something to use in your work” Cruz tells Interview Magazine, “but the older I am, the more I refuse to treat my work as therapy and the more I think it’s less honest to do that, less about acting. When I was younger, I sometimes used personal things in creating characters, to the point where I thought maybe it was a little bit dangerous—at least for me. But I don’t feel that somebody can only be good in a character if they are really becoming that person or really suffering.” And with that we bring this episode of actors analysis to an end. We applaud you, Penélope Cruz, and we’re standing by to see where your journey might take us next.



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