The difficulty in providing an intro to our (unranked) list of the best movie performances of 2018 is that, ostensibly, any intro must somehow encapsulate the many varied and heartbreaking and troubling and clear-minded and kind and despicable and absolutely wrecking achievements made by actors in what we can all agree has been a pretty stellar 12 months of film. So, rather than try, we present the following joke, which indelibly achieves what we cannot:
Erik Estrada who?
Erik Estrada from CHIPs.
(Image via Netflix/YouTube)
Alfonso Cuaron’s film tells many stories, but at the center of the frame is the story of his childhood maid, Libo, translated into Roma as Cleo and played by acting novice Yalitza Aparicio, who auditioned for the film almost on accident. Casting her seems a neo-realist move for authenticity, and for the most part it plays out like that: Cleo is quiet, reserved and submissive when in her servant role, somewhat more expressive when interacting with her fellow servants or with her aloof lover—but those revealing moments are fleeting. The film is composed primarily of wide shots, so each medium frame of Cleo’s face is its own gift wherein you go looking for an interior life that you—like Cuaron, knowingly—can’t quite reach. Still, Roma has some weighty demands on Cleo in its final act, and Aparicio’s performance extends, reaching without ever breaking. Tasked with playing both a real woman and a figure of memory, someone disenfranchised but also cherished (to a certain limit) by the family she served, Aparicio finds a perfect balance. One scene demonstrates just that: A multitude of others flounder as Cleo’s spirit points straight up and unwavering. The clarity of her love and kindness holds her in place. —Chad Betz
(Image via RLJE Films/YouTube)
Like so many of the viscous, crimson wonders Mandy has to offer, Nicolas Cage’s performance is a precise distillation of something outside itself, a simultaneously unhinged and perfectly calibrated bit of nostalgia for an experience we forget has been right in front of us this whole time. Cage’s Red Miller is part mullet’d Joe from Bangkok Dangerous, part mouthful of fire Johnny Blaze from Ghost Rider 2, part sadly recovering scumbag Terence McDonagh from Bad Lieutenant—shades of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the way he wields an otherworldly arbalest and ungodly battleaxe—the character and Cage’s heroic performance a survey of the actor’s work (some 50-plus movies) post-Oscar win. He weeps and hollers and freaks out and bludgeons the world around him indiscriminately, massaging his throat to get down most of a bottle of liquor, fuel for his rage against “crazy evil,” an anger so pure one can feel it emanate from the screen, directed at nothing except for everything. By the time we reach the end of the night of Red’s long journey, Cage saturated with blood and guts, save the unending white of his eyes and teeth, hallucinating his Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), we feel as if his whole career has built to this, a moment of bowel-clenching melancholy at what’s behind him, for it’ll no longer look like anything to come. —Dom Sinacola
(Image via A24)
One of the most relentlessly harrowing films in years hinges mostly on an exhaustive performance from Toni Collette as Annie, a woman assaulted from all sides by grief and guilt grounded in decades of abuse—abuse which she has both given and received. We watch as Annie questions how her late mother’s treatment of her has in turn invested her with the potential to harm her own children, instilled in her a violence she is terrified that she may be completely unable to control. We watch as another tragedy drags her into a deep, unfathomable well of pain, all while director Ari Aster spares the audience nothing and Collette gives the camera everything. Hereditary is without question a horror movie, but it’s also a deeply sad one—its sadness rooted in Collette’s totally committed performance. —Ken Lowe
(Image via FOX Searchlight/YouTube)
A voice can be both weapon and armor, the key to unlocking a performance and its red herring. For Yorgos Lanthimos, disaffection is everyone’s shield, a deadpan delivery the perfect method of eschewing feeling while revealing a vulnerability at one’s core. Though, for The Favourite, Lanthimos has distanced himself ever so slightly from his previous approach to blank line deliveries, the ladies of the film are no less sardonic, no less cutting than Lanthimos’s characters from before, perhaps allowing themselves to grasp a sense of vulnerability in an even more confrontational way.
It is most evident through the performances of Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill and Emma Stone as Abigail Hill that this film is fundamentally about power and love as objects to be manipulated, used, given to, taken away from. Not to be glib, but the film can be read as about two tops fighting over a bottom, and to frame the performances as such gives insight into the way that power is used throughout. Who puts the “power” in “power bottom”? The anachronistic touches in both Weisz and Stone’s performances—thrilling freedom in a breakdance, or a conniving handjob reminiscent of The Master—give both a kind of clever narcissism, an assumption of who controls the game and what the prize is. But while Colman’s Anne presents herself as selfish, helpless, willful child, moaning on the floor or vomiting up cake, isn’t she the one who created the game in the first place? The three women collectively swing effectively between guardedness and exposure, testing just how much they’re willing to lose in order to win. —Kyle Turner
(Image via HereToWin LLC/YouTube
As a man in the midst of a nervous breakdown—finally broken by the recent death of his mom—Officer Jim Arnaud can’t quite keep his shit together any longer. As played by writer-director Jim Cummings, he’s not only a man untethered, he’s a man flummoxed by the sheer inexplicability of human existence, far from equipped, as we all aren’t, to face whatever conflagration of cosmic coincidences that have conspired to ruin him—to make his ex-wife such an asshole, his daughter so aloof, his mother so dead. Cummings is an exceedingly likable presence, and Jim Arnaud is, for lack of a better descriptor, a good person, but Thunder Road is about how being a good person hardly matters when the hidden rhythms and equations of the quotidian do nothing to make life fair for those who seemingly play by its rules. And throughout, Cummings carries an intensely beleaguered good nature about his misfortune, willing to challenge everything unfair in his life if only he knew how, stymied to the point of apoplexy. No other actor this year could best summarize this year with an unintelligible stammer, his words not quite able to catch up with his brain, but only because he has no words, because his brain can’t quite catch up with the purposelessness of all the mundane shit he’s got to suffer. —Dom Sinacola
(Image via 20th Century Fox)
Amidst Widows’ tension and twists, there is also a story of profound grief. Viola Davis is superb as a bright, organized woman who’s learned to cope with loss—Veronica has absorbed other heartbreaks in her life—and what’s profoundly moving about Widows is how little sadness the character has room to reveal: There’s simply no time as she’s trying to stay alive and also pull off an impossible robbery. Davis holds Veronica’s tension beautifully, connecting with director Steve McQueen’s previous films in their close study of the pain we carry around, and the spiritual cost it demands. —Tim Grierson
(Image via A24)
Elsie Fisher’s take on a socially awkward eighth grader who struggles to make friends in the cruelest of all pubescent years is the kind of performance, typically from some luminous newcomer, absorbing in how instinctive it is, how easily it sheds artifice. As soon as Eighth Grade begins, we see Fisher’s Kayla through her low-resolution webcam, talking about her solid self-esteem while every pause and crack in her voice clearly shows the opposite. I was instantly transformed to when I was 15; a flurry of nostalgia and sadness enveloped me. It was as if I was Anton Ego, and Fisher’s performance of the life of a self-conscious and constantly discomforted teen was my first bite of the ratatouille made by a newcomer chef. Fisher’s been appearing in fairly small roles for almost a decade, mostly in voice-over work for animated fare, but this is the kind of breakout screen presence that hopefully kickstarts a formidable career. —Oktay Ege Kozak
(Image via Jojo Whilden/Netflix)
Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life explores the difficulties of infertility with deft wit and observation, as well as with an excellent Paul Giamatti, but first and foremost with the piercingly vibrant performance of Kathryn Hahn. She embodies a legion of adjectives in this film: strong and weak and brilliant and vulnerable and hilarious and heartbreaking. At one point she, surging with injected hormones, delivers a brief tirade while nude from the waist down; it’s probably the funniest half-minute of the year. In another scene she tears down her husband in a way that only someone who deeply loves another person can. And in the quiet moments she gives us her character’s wisdom. Her fearless performance never feels like showmanship or awards-bait (and, tellingly, the awards aren’t biting). Credit Jenkins for creating a fully realized and dynamic character, but credit Hahn for nary a misstep, making every single moment land like an anvil, be it to bust the gut with laughter or break the heart with empathy. —Chad Betz
(Image via Magnolia Pictures/YouTube)
In retail and service work, the myth of co-workers/employees as family is nearly a necessary coping mechanism—bonds are fostered mostly out of hardship—but the idea of a “clan” is not really sustainable unless someone believes in it. Regina Hall’s Lisa Conroy, the manager of a highway-bound breastaurant, believes it. She has to in order to keep the ship running. As she runs around Support the Girls, putting out fires, she encapsulates the strangely familiar and yet hierarchical nature of service work: the reality that even the most intimate of relationships are effectively transactional. Regina Hall pairs toughness with maternal warmth, both because the traits seem embedded in Lisa’s personality, and because being tough and maternal is simply the most effective way to do her work. She is allowed to be vulnerable in Support the Girls, certainly, but the most striking thing about Hall’s performance, how it works within the film, is that it suggests the gendered connotations of managerial duties are not so different from those of domestic labor. —Kyle Turner
What makes a man start fires? What if that person were a man of God? Paul Schrader, now 71, has perhaps spent his entire career as a filmmaker attempting to ask that question, to breach the impenetrable truth of whatever that question’s answer could be. With First Reformed, Schrader’s 20th feature as director, that question absorbs the whole film—not through cries of nihilism, as in his previous, garbage Dog Eat Dog, but as a sustained act of faith: What must the devout do for a world God has abandoned?
The question lingers wetly in Ethan Hawke’s eyes as he carries every frame of Schrader’s film. Playing Father Ernst Toller—a minister who in a former life had a wife and a son and a military career, an end brought to all three by that son’s death in Iraq—Hawke has spent the past 20 or so years sublimating the radical tendencies of his iconic slackerdom into a fiercely simmering anxiety, as if the purposelessness of his past malaise has left him stewing on how little he can or could do to change anything in this world. Hawke, of course, haunts every single moment of the film, so gentle that his brief outbursts seemingly foretell apocalypse, and so troubled that his saving feels futile. Who better to play a minister ineffectually shepherding a tiny, practically non-existent congregation than Hawke, a symbol of outrage gone to pasture? —Dom Sinacola
(Image via Annapurna Pictures/YouTube)
In Widows, Brian Tyree Henry plays a man attempting to cover up a sinister past by wresting power from the white institutions who put him in such a compromised position in the first place, but in If Beale Street Could Talk, for 12 minutes or so, he completely occupies the screen helplessly unable to cover up anything, something so much more fundamentally evil haunting him, compromising him beyond anything we can imagine. Or maybe we can: In one scene in which we see the night that would become Fonny’s (Stephan James) futile alibi for a crime he didn’t commit, Daniel (Henry) has dinner with his old friend and partner Tish (Kiki Layne), nervously asking for beer and cigarettes as he gradually reveals what he’s been up to recently. He’s been in jail, out for only a few months, and things are “bad,” though Daniel doesn’t elaborate. We understand enough, or so we think—he’s a black man in 1970s New York, and even within the context of the film itself, everything that happens opposes the mere existence of our many characters, especially the mere existence of love between two young black people. But then, clutching his cigarette for dear life, his eyes welling, Daniel begins to etch out a baser idea of what life in jail was like for him. What it meant for “they” to be able to so manipulate him, control him, destroy him—there, they’re capable of getting someone like him to do anything. Daniel doesn’t elaborate; cinematographer James Laxton’s camera is uncomfortably close to Henry, hushed and searching his face for…something, anything, relief maybe?—but so, so reluctant to look Daniel straight in his eyes, which wouldn’t be notable were Barry Jenkins’ film not so occupied with staring straight into his character’s pupils. Because to look Daniel, and Henry, in the eyes in that moment would be an act of Sisyphean proportions. Because we know, in 12 minutes, that nothing has changed in almost 50 years. —Dom Sinacola
Playing yourself in a movie about your life feels like the easiest-paying gig a person could find, but the truth is that none of us are Brady Jandreau, the lead of Chloé Zhao’s extraordinary The Rider, a movie about a modern day cowboy reckoning with his identity and livelihood, one inextricable from the other, after suffering a ghastly brain injury in a rodeo accident. Zhao didn’t spin the accident from whole cloth: Jandreau actually suffered a similar injury in real life, prior to agreeing to star in Zhao’s movie. Jandreau and his character, Brady Blackburn, don’t share the exact same experience; Jandreau only needed stitches, Blackburn needs staples. But reenacting your own unimaginable trauma on screen, whether the details line up precisely or not, is no small thing, and takes no small amount of strength to pull off. Jandreau’s determined quietude speaks volumes: Blackburn isn’t a flashy part, or a flashy performance for that matter, but watching Jandreau find himself through Zhao’s filmmaking is one of 2018’s more memorable experiences at the theater. —Andy Crump
(Image via Marvel Entertainment/YouTube)
The success of Marvel’s first feature to focus on a star of African descent since the Blade films hinged on authenticity. Grounding the film in a dazzling Afro-futurist aesthetic and casting a great ensemble all contributed to that, but one of the major reasons Black Panther rang so true was Michael B. Jordan’s singular performance as the darkly charismatic Erik Killmonger. Jordan embodies seething resentment and radiates violent caprice as the man who as a boy was orphaned by his own uncle, a crime he’s come to understand as a microcosm of the victimization of all peoples descended from Africa. What pushes Jordan into the territory of the best villain in Marvel’s decade-long run is the genuine hurt beneath the all-eyes-on-me style, the flip attitude toward theft and murder, the casual megalomania. We’re allowed to see Jordan’s Killmonger in two of his most unguarded moments—in which we see how completely his innocence was crushed, and another in which, knowing he’s failed, he refuses to give up his defiance. It’s a new bar for Marvel to clear. —Ken Lowe
(Image via Neal Preston/Warner Bros.)
According to Gay Twitter, Lady Gaga was destined for an Oscar (and eventually an EGOT) the moment Bradley Cooper scouted her for the Barbra Streisand role in his update of A Star Is Born, one of Hollywood’s most fundamentally remake-able myths. That’s perhaps a bit of wishful homosexual thinking, but not for lack of trying on Gaga’s behalf. After the film’s opening scenes, during which we can’t help but see it as an extended Lady Gaga music video, the world-famous pop star fully embodies Ally, a down-to-earth Italian girl who just wants to share her music with a willing crowd, be it a gay bar, a massive summer festival or Saturday Night Live.
Gaga has spent the last few years jettisoning the arsty-fartsy, ever-shifting persona that so endeared her to her legion of queer fans in the first place, so one gets the sense that Ally is a fiction Gaga wants to see in herself: the authentic musician turned commercial hit, rather than the reverse trajectory she’s attempting in the real world. Beyond nailing the musical moments required of Ally (who doubted that she would?), Gaga succeeds at making you forget she’s Gaga…until the movie forgets that it’s ostensibly about her character, and loses Ally’s story in favor of Bradley Cooper’s collapse. It’s a shame—the lack of focus on Ally in A Star Is Born’s second half is a fatal flaw, and likely to undercut any chance Stefani Germanotta has at securing a golden statuette next year. Regardless, the time the film spends with Gaga is as irresistible as any of her platinum pop hits. —Steve Foxe
(Image via Annapurna Pictures/YouTube)
How can anyone talk about the stars of Barry Jenkins’ difficult new film without talking about them in tandem? After all, they are, to use the phrase from James Baldwin’s source material, “one flesh,” two people apparently destined to fall in love and be together forever. Except, theirs is a romance fomented from youth and hardened by the unforgiving world of 1970s New York City, and, as everywhere else in the U.S., New York is infected by the disease of white supremacy, and white supremacy splits Tish (Layne) and Fonny (James) apart almost as soon as they become a couple. He’s imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, she’s in panicked stasis on the outside, the world her prison for as long as he’s behind bars.
Layne and James accomplish something extraordinary here: They make the audience fall for them, not fall in love with them per se, but sink into their love as though it’s our own. Jenkins loves photographing his actors as they stare head-on into the camera, cool and soft-eyed, the hopes, fears and dreams of their characters documented elegantly via expression. If Beale Street Could Talk is no different, and Layne and James take full advantage of the undivided attention paid them by cinematographer James Laxton: Each moment they spend in front of his lens is a moment spent baring their souls. —Andy Crump
With an explosive personality—brimming with a smile and a sweet pastry in Gilmore Girls or with a mouth like a sailor in Bridesmaids—Melissa McCarthy shines in her performances. But what happens when she has to play a woman who has to disappear into the crowd, who is, at least metaphorically, allergic to that kind of sunlight? As literary forger Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy’s every action is legible with the harshness and hardened qualities of being queer in a post-1970s New York, from her hesitance to start writing, to her choice to wear headphones at Julius’. She ignores the world and the world ignores her—no space available for her to exist in peace. Lee’s attempts at fostering trust and intimacy with a few people around her are marked by reticence, and the only thing that gives her joy is being able to find her voice in the forged letters of literary stars. So, she creates her own little world, and she lets Jack Hock in too.
If Lee Israel wears a shell as hard as a lobster’s, Jack Hock doesn’t mind being a little too trusting. His bitterness isn’t the same as Lee’s; he’s still excited about the world, about New York, even though it’s not like it used to be. Richard E. Grant provides a slinky warmth to the character—a grifter, hustler and pickpocket—complementing McCarthy’s prickly coolness. Flowy and charming, like a Wildean who’s come upon tough times, Grant’s Jack is the perfect stray cat for Lee.
Their relationship is marked by an antagonism that functions as intimacy, an acidic dynamic which is defiantly queer. Niceness isn’t needed for them, particularly when the rest of the world is indifferent about their marginalization. “I saw you and I felt like I wanted to fucking trip you,” Lee tells Jack, now ailing from AIDS complications, as a goodbye. He fires back, “Wow, you’re a horrid c**t, Lee.” Only they know how a ribald insult is the most loving thing that can be said. —Kyle Turner
(Image via Bleecker Street/YouTube)
In Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s latest movie, Ben Foster’s portrayal of war veteran Will and Thomasin McKenzie’s portrayal of Tom, his daughter, are inseparable. These twin performances depend on one another in much the same way Will depends on Tom and Tom depends on Will: They live off the grid, alienated from the outside world in the verdant, calming embrace of Forest Park in Portland, Oregon, surviving on their wits, subsisting on nature’s bounty. As occasion demands, they venture into the city and purchase necessary goods. It’s a rustic life, but it’s their life, until civilization intrudes on their self-governance and they’re forced into society’s arms.
Will handles this differently than Tom, as one might expect of a combat vet struggling with PTSD. Foster plays him like an anxious audience member singled out in the crowd by a stand-up comic, but with hushed rage and guilt that ripple over his face like pebbles thrown at still water. He’s insular by no fault of his own and only by his life experiences. Tom’s more vulnerable than her father, and McKenzie plays her as wide-eyed and curious about the world she’s shunned (or, more accurately, been shielded from) for her entire life. Together they create a spectrum of survivalism, two opposing perspectives on what it means to survive and what it means to actually live. —Andy Crump
(Image via Amazon Studios)
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to spend 80 minutes in someone else’s private hell, in the world of psychic torment they have to navigate every minute of every hour of every day they’re alive, watch Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance as Joe in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. His eyes are blanks, but his face writes a story of indescribable anguish, a Russian nesting doll of various traumas going all the way back to his boyhood. An abusive father. Combat experience in the U.S. military. A career with the FBI. Joe has seen some shit, but more: He’s in a constant state of reliving that shit. Beneath the slag heap of his body, behind the untamed mane of his beard, he is a man entombed in his own suffering. Phoenix, at a glance, doesn’t do a whole lot to get that suffering across—he’s almost a ghost in his own movie—but that’s the intention. Joe, as you’ll surmise from the title, is never present no matter the space he’s occupying. He’s off in his own head, trapped in the basement where he keeps his demons and his lifetime supply of nightmares. Phoenix keeps his eyes neutral, but his body gives away his discomfort. He’s there, but he’s stuck in his misery, too. No actor working today could reveal Joe’s interior misery to viewers with such soft-spoken ease. —Andy Crump
(Image via Amazon Studios/YouTube)
From sleeping in a glass case in the Museum of Modern Art to portraying a mystical Marvel guru in Doctor Strange, it’s almost impossible to say for sure whether Tilda Swinton is having a great big laugh at life or approaching each new venture with deadly seriousness. In Luca Guadagnino’s spellbinding reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Swinton plays three roles: the advertised Madame Blanc, the heavily made-up Dr. Josef Klemperer credited to the fictional (and male) Lutz Ebersdorf and a third character we won’t reveal here. There’s no immediately evident reason for the triple-casting, beyond Swinton and Guadagnino’s long friendship and the likelihood that she damn well just wanted the challenge. Stunts aside, Swinton’s Madame Blanc is one of the most commanding screen presences of the year, fully embodying the charisma of a legendary dancer, a legendarily influential dance instructor and something more that her students can only begin to imagine. In a lesser actor’s hands, Madame Blanc could have choked to death on the scenery, or at least loomed over her students as a demanding mistress, but Swinton’s innate magnetism transcends the screen, making it clear why each and every girl under her tutelage (Patricia and Olga excepted, of course) would dance their feet down to the bone if Swinton so commanded it. Blanc! —Steve Foxe
(Image via Well Go USA Entertainment/YouTube)
A million miles away from The Walking Dead and so much the better for it, Steven Yeun plays the mysterious counterpart in Chang-dong Lee’s Burning with rich indolence. Calling him the antagonist would be inaccurate, and so would just about any other literary or dramatic label you’d like to throw at Yeun’s Ben, a seeming sociopath who “plays” for a living and holds interests in things that no one else can understand. When Ben yawns in this film, it’s somehow the most meaningful thing that can happen…and yet also just a yawn. Watching Yeun, one feels like he must have meditated for hours to empty himself so that Ben could be as empty as Ben needed to be. If the character’s a blank cipher, it’s somehow an endlessly fascinating one, and Yeun communicates those volumes of nothingness with every non-affectation and listless smile. All the more stunning, then, when a moment comes where Yeun makes Ben feel more real than ever before in a context that might not be real at all. Confused? Watch Burning. Glenn’s dead but Yeun’s still walking, and he delivers a screen zombie to remember. —Chad Betz