The terrific actress that is Tessa Thompson may be most recognizable to some for her role as the heroic Valkyrie in the newest Marvel movie Thor: Love and Thunder or for her turn as a host in the currently airing HBO series Westworld. However, these are not the only works that Thompson has to offer. Her best performances have come in movies that are all similarly strong, spanning a variety of genres and tones that all are worth checking out. Therefore, for anyone looking to dig deeper into her filmography and all that it has to offer, we’ve got the best of the best you’ll want to see for yourself as soon as you can.
Josie Radek in Annihilation (2018)
A science fiction exploration of the self and what it means to destroy what you were to begin anew, Annihilation has the most stunning visuals of any of the films on this list. Directed by Alex Garland and loosely based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, it follows a group of women who undertake a dangerous expedition into an unknown zone known as the “Shimmer.” What they discover there will fundamentally alter who they are and everything they have come to know about themselves. If you haven’t yet seen it, it is a film best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. What I will say is that Thompson as the astrophysicist Josie Radek has one of the most striking scenes in a film that is full of them. As she undergoes a transformation towards the end, the monologue she gives and the gravitas she brings to the scene are nothing short of breathtaking.
Bianca in Creed (2015)
A soft Rocky reboot of sorts that has no business being as good as it is though still proves to be anyway, Ryan Coogler’s Creed is a knockout punch of a film that benefits from consistently outstanding performances. It centers on Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis, the son of the late Apollo Creed who died in the previous films. He is looking to get training from a little boxer by the name of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in a journey that he hopes will bring both redemption and a connection to his father. Along the way, he will meet Thompson’s Bianca who becomes an integral part of the experience. A talented musician who is more than just a love interest for Adonis, the chemistry they have is undeniable in every scene they get to share together. In a film that is full of strong actors and performers, Thompson proves that she can once again carve out an outstanding presence in anything she takes on.
Samantha in Dear White People (2014)
The breakout Sundance hit that launched a series and showed Thompson could walk a tonal tightrope with ease, Dear White People is a film with an abundance of snark that it uses to tell a satirical tale all its own. Set at the fictionalized Ivy League college Winchester University, it follows four Black students as they navigate the still-present racism that is baked into the foundation of the institution. At the center of this is Thompson’s Samantha ‘Sam’ White, an art student who runs a witty radio show that gives the film its title and takes on the establishment. However, when she finds herself thrust into a leadership role that brings more pressure, she will have to reflect on what it is she wants for herself and her future. The film often plays out with skits of sorts as interludes, taking on all of the casually racist aspects of college life in America with a wink and a smile. Thompson excels throughout, bringing both humor and heart to give the story an emotional foundation. When it all reaches a climax and ends on a perfectly timed final joke, it emerges as an enduringly funny work worth revisiting.
Ollie in Little Woods (2018)
A crime thriller of sorts that challenges our understanding of the genre and those who must struggle on the margins of modern life, writer-director Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods is a reflective work that proves to be just as involving as it is quietly devastating. It centers on two sisters, Ollie (Thompson) and Deb (Lily James), as they struggle to make a life for themselves in rural North Dakota. It hasn’t been easy following the death of their mother, a loss that they knew was coming though still has left a hole in their lives. Now, Ollie is trying to get back on her feet after legal troubles though gets blindsided by a crisis that will leave the duo with few options for their future. It is a film that is a deeply felt portrait of their lives that also reveals how cruel and callous the world can be. Driven by desperation and with nowhere to turn other than each other, it is a grim reflection of how fraught American life can be for those that get left behind. Beautifully shot and sharply acted by a resolute Thompson, it is the type of film that sneaks up on you before taking your breath away in one fell swoop.
Irene in Passing (2021)
Poetic and profound in equal measure without ever overplaying its hand, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing is a precise portrait of two people that takes on something more. Shot in beautiful black and white, it centers on two friends who reconnect after not seeing each other since high school. Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, it sees Irene (Thompson) discover that Clare (Ruth Negga) has been passing as white. In doing so, she has been able to marry a wealthy white man and get access to far more than a Black person would typically get in 1920s New York. What follows is a series of tense and incredibly well-shot scenes where the respective worlds of the characters begin to intertwine with disaster looming on the horizon. While Negga received a whole host of praise for her work and the way she shifted from scene to scene, Thompson is similarly outstanding. They both complement and conflict with each other, two friends who have grown distant as their trajectories have gone in vastly different directions. By the time it all comes together in tragedy, it leaves a lasting impact that is as revealing as it is utterly riveting to witness.
Detroit in Sorry To Bother You (2018)
The surrealist and uncompromising satire that also is the most vigorous feature debut of recent memory, writer-director Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You is unlike anything you’ve ever seen and likely ever will. Placing itself in a dystopian present-day Oakland that is all-too-similar to our own, it follows the down-on-his-luck Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) who takes a telemarketing gig to make ends meet. When he discovers he has an ability that can help him achieve personal and professional success, he will be thrown into a world where greed rules everything. Providing a crucial counterbalance to Cassius is Thompson’s Detroit, an artist who works as a sign spinner on the side. In addition to having the best earrings of any movie ever, the character also is cutting and challenging of Cassius when he begins to be corrupted. As Riley has said, she and all the characters represent the different parts of himself that he has been over his life. The result is a character that, even as a supporting one, pushes the story forward into interesting new places in the briefest of moments. In particular, an art installation scene is strange yet silly in the best way possible and a standout moment in the film.
Sylvie in Sylvie’s Love (2020)
A richly textured film about love and the lingering way it can take hold of your life, Sylvie’s Love is the type of work that will sweep you off your feet as its story unfolds. Written and directed with a passionate eye by Eugene Ashe, it follows two young people who meet in the 1950s and are forever changed by the encounter. The titular Sylvie (Thompson) is working at her father’s record shop though aspires to work in television. Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) is an aspiring saxophonist that is looking to break into the world of music. Both begin a cautious flirtation which turns into a passionate love that is complicated by their respective lives and situations that threatens to keep them apart. Shot on gorgeous Super-16 mm that makes every single frame come alive, it is a film that coasts on the charm of its leads and the dynamic settings they inhabit. Thompson in particular shines once more, capturing the nuances of the character as she tries to build a future for herself with a compassionate touch. When it all comes together, you’ll be glad to have gotten swept up in its fully realized world.
Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
While the new Thor isn’t nearly as good as what has come before for the God of Thunder, Thor: Ragnarok still remains an uproarious good time that will make you forget about the most recent misstep. To see Thompson first appear as Valkyrie, drunkenly attempting to descend from her ship and falling before getting back up, is still the best entrance of a superhero the series has ever done. As we learn more about her character and the past that she carries with her, Thompson is tactile in hitting all the right comedic notes that mask her greater trauma. The way she carries herself imbues the character with a clear sense of strength and street smarts, making every scene she is a part of endlessly entertaining. When things really kick off towards the end where she struts into battle with fireworks exploding behind her, you can’t help but be stunned by the sheer magnetism she brings to the role. Sure, there are lots of other fun moments, but it is Thompson that completely steals the show.