Once again, I’m offering my selections for favorite performances, quite a bit later than seems topical. Call it an unfortunate side-effect of a creative person with interests in many arenas…but I will always bring them to you, that I can guarantee. So here they are!
The more I do this, the more I feel the need to emphasize how much my favorite performances are determined not by an assessment of acting prowess but by strength of impression. However one measures that is so abstract and subjective that it explains why I qualify my top annual performers list with “Favorite” instead of “Best.” Many tough decisions were made, but at the end of the day, I went with my gut. The old, reliable standby.
I’ve offered my five favorites for each category (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Lead Actor, and Lead Actress) as well as five honorable mentions in alphabetical order. Starting with…
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Honorable Mentions (in Alphabetical Order):
Catherine Bailey as Vryling Wilder Buffum, A Quiet Passion
Anne Dorval as Claire, Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants)
Holly Hunter as Beth Gardner, The Big Sick
Kirin Kiki as Yoshiko Shinoda, After the Storm (Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku)
Tatiana Maslany as Erin Hurley, Stronger
5. Sarah Adler as Dafna Feldmann
Playing a grief-stricken parent for the majority of a film’s running time can’t be easy, and runs the risk of defining the character by that grief. But Adler lets that grief play into Dafna’s personality, becoming part of her existing anxieties and frustrations, as she seeks to assert herself in a society largely defined by men’s roles in defending the homeland. While she can wound with a cutting remark, she never loses sight of the love she bears for her family. When her husband collapses into her arms, you know those arms are like that of Atlas, bearing his grief with a strength of her own making.
4. Edie Falco as Pat Jacobs
Exacting matriarchs are certainly not new to Falco’s resume, but as Pat, you feel every inch of her vexation. Rather than play a stick in the mud, she adopts a kind of witty sarcasm that endears rather than grates. Far from playing one note, Falco lets us glimpse the faith Pat has in her family, even as she begins to feel like the only responsible person within it. A scene with her daughters on a bathroom floor does credit to the nuance in Falco’s portrayal; it feels not like a betrayal of the character but a truly earned liberation, a chance to be who she always was.
3. Elizabeth Marvel as Jean Meyerowitz
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
As the sole female sibling of the Meyerowitz clan, Marvel has less screen time than Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler but arguably makes the biggest impression of the three. Seemingly taciturn, Jean reveals she has a wild and fun-loving side, and she does it while remaining true to her more reserved nature. While her brothers squabble, she carves out her own, far healthier niche in the world. Look at the smile Marvel gives when her niece’s boyfriend offers to cut her hair. It feels off-the-cuff and yet totally in keeping with Jean’s way of living her own life, outside the shadow of her family.
2. Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson
In yet another excellent portrayal of motherhood, Metcalf excels at constantly playing with our sympathies. We can agree with her matronly tone for a while until, well…she goes too far. Or we can cringe at her patronizing attempts to rein in her daughter…before she hits upon an unexpected grace note. In Metcalf’s hands none of these shifts in character feel like whiplash, but part and parcel of the same complicated human being. We see that all distilled in Metcalf’s face in one amazing long take after dropping her daughter off at the airport: the stubbornness of her will ultimately succumbing to the stubbornness of her feelings.
1. Lesley Manville as Cyril Woodcock
If anything comes across in Manville’s portrayal, it’s that you don’t mess with Cyril. The matron of the house can stare daggers, and there’s a swagger in the way she politely, calmly assures her brother not to speak rudely toward her. And while she masterfully reveals her role as the true head honcho of the Woodcock dynasty, Manville invests Cyril’s icy exterior with a true warmth, through quiet, subtle gestures. Despite first appearances, Cyril has quite the heart for her brother and later for his wife. Even in the moments where she snaps, her family bond is her life, and thank the heavens for it.
My Favorite Supporting Actors
Honorable Mentions (in Alphabetical Order):
Duncan Duff as Austin Dickinson, A Quiet Passion
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Lucas Hedges as Danny O’Neill, Lady Bird
Farid Sajjadi Hosseini as The Man, The Salesman (Forushande)
Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe Ionescu, God’s Own Country
5. Terry Notary as Oleg
Notary has played ape characters before (most recently in the Planet of the Apes trilogy and Kong: Skull Island) but this is the first time I’ve seen him become an ape without the aid of motion capture effects. He’s absolutely convincing as a performance artist embodying a wild animal at a donors dinner, refusing to break character no matter what happens. With raucous hoots, shows of dominance, or even the tender way he strokes a patron’s hair, Notary seems to shed his human identity, much less any sense of morality. It leads to one of the most insanely unpredictable scenes of the year.
4. Rob Morgan as Hap Jackson
In Dee Rees’s family epic, Morgan masters the art of quiet authority. And he needs it, especially as the patriarch of a black family in 1940s Mississippi. Morgan locates so much of his character’s authority, and emotion, in his eyes, leading to moments of intense focus and intentionality. He is a character steeped in the history of his ancestors and in his own personal experience. Morgan strikes a balance in Hap’s pedantry; he’s tough and exacting on his own family, but only for reasons of protection and safety. He’s far tougher (and for good reason) on the systemic injustices that threaten that safety.
3. Michael Stuhlbarg as Mr. Perlman
Call Me By Your Name
As much credit as Stuhlbarg has received for “the scene” (and you’ll know it when you see it), he deserves equal credit for just how believable he is as a husband, father, and academic. He possesses just the right amount of intellectual curiosity and buoyancy necessary for a professional of his stature. But also keenly felt is Mr. Perlman’s emotional awareness, and the investment in his son’s present and future happiness. We see a life lived full but still teeming with regrets. Talking to his son, you can hear that regret when he states quite simply, “I envy you.” Despite limited screen time, Stuhlbarg becomes part of the film’s beating, breaking heart.
2. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren / Ben Solo
Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi
If Driver is remembered for his angst in The Force Awakens, he focuses that energy into something much more outwardly placid in this radical sequel. Watch the ramrod steel of his spine as he returns to the interstellar fray, his pain and trauma concentrated into a singular purpose. Yet despite Kylo Ren’s best intentions, his conscience betrays him; making the connection he forges with protagonist Rey all the more believable. When he begs her to join his cause, he’s pleading more for his own salvation than for political advantage. Unlike Darth Vader or Darth Sidious, this is a Sith who feels truly lost and afraid, only making him more unpredictable and terrifying.
1. Willem Dafoe as Bobby Hicks
The Florida Project
Working with a host of first-time performers, it’s remarkable how Dafoe doesn’t stand apart from them; instead, he stands neatly among them. That’s a credit both to the talent of those first-time actors, and Dafoe’s own poise and humility. Dafoe doesn’t play Bobby as delusional; he’s fully aware that working at the run-down Magic Castle and tending to his tenants is no substitute for mending his life. And yet he does so anyway, because it is right. Even in the midst of chaos, Dafoe never overplays his reactions; watch how Bobby expertly takes down a potential child predator, affecting a minimal but decisive approach. He can’t offer miracles to the world (or to himself), but he can offer his own small measure of decency.
My Favorite Leading Actresses
Honorable Mentions (in Alphabetical Order):
Zoe Lister‐Jones as Anna, Band Aid
Garance Marillier as Justine, Raw
Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, Lady Bird
Florence Pugh as Katherine Lester, Lady Macbeth
5. Melanie Lynskey as Ruth Kimke
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.
Forever one of our underrated actresses, Lynskey plays Ruth as a relatable crusader; she simply can’t understand why people feel compelled to be “assholes”. She so good at it that we may recoil when we realize Ruth is just as selfish and entitled in her own way. But Lynskey grounds that selfishness in something universal and instantly understandable. Impressive too are the distinctions she draws between Ruth’s self-righteous chutzpah and her utter lack of preparedness for perilous situations. She may unreliable, and she may even be a hypocrite, but you can’t help but root for her in spite of it all.
4. Haley Lu Richardson as Casey
Casey seems like the kind of person who has it all together: confident, brilliant, and especially articulate in her analysis of the legendary architecture of Columbus, Indiana. Richardson plays the part so naturally and has winning chemistry with an excellent John Cho. But she also makes us believe that same person can doubt herself, can even crumble. And when the time calls for it, she can floor us with an emotional gut punch of a reaction, acknowledging Casey’s own challenges while signaling her resiliency and future potential.
3) Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis / Elisa Esposito
Maudie / The Shape of Water
Working within the realms of fantasy and biographic realism, Hawkins delivers two equally great but formally distinct performances. As Elisa in The Shape of Water, Hawkins may lack a voice but never lacks for expressiveness. She traces Elisa’s journey toward autonomy (sexually or otherwise) through pointed movements and evocative facial expressions. And as real-life artist Maud Lewis in Maudie, she plays a woman as unassumingly brilliant as her art. She sees beauty in the mundane, even when tragedy threatens to consume her. Hawkins shapes each character distinctly, proving herself as one of our most quietly versatile actors.
2. Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I’m still wrestling with my feelings toward Martin McDonagh’s latest, but McDormand’s central protagonist showcases every facet of her talent. A Molotov cocktail of righteous anger, McDormand can inject one of McDonagh’s many pointed barbs with delightful spontanaeity, as if Mildred is discovering just how far she can go. Yet McDormand also reveals deeper layers to that anger: feelings of utter helplessness in the face of cruelty, and Mildred’s own sense of guilt over her daughter’s fate. Mildred may rage against the establishment, but she rages even more vehemently against herself.
1. Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson
I keep finding new angles to this marvelous performance. Of course Krieps is every bit Day-Lewis’s match, with Alma appearing tender-footed but actually proving quite crafty. She continually upends any labels or character motivations all while remaining consistent to her character’s core humanity. Even when we think we’ve pegged her as the classic femme fatale, Krieps reveals something far more tender to Alma’s modus operandi: she makes us understand Alma’s unique process of adaptation to life in a strictly-run fashion household. Krieps contains so much in her face, keeping everything hidden and open at the same time.
My Favorite Leading Actors
Honorable Mentions (in Alphabetical Order):
Ricardo Darín as Julián, Truman
Robert Pattinson as Connie Nikas, Good Time
Adam Sandler as Danny Meyerowitz, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Harry Dean Stanton as Lucky, Lucky
Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, Brawl in Cell Block 99
5. Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Feldmann
As a grieving father, Ashkenzai delivers an unexpectedly comic performance, one that is no less affecting in its tragic import. Samuel Maoz’s film gives him the opportunity to leapfrog from one stage of grief to the next, often with choice reactions to the bizarre military apparatus hellbent on adhering to procedure. But there’s also a generosity to his easy demeanor, as he allows his wife to dress him down, or clings frantically to any signs of hope in the face of ultimate tragedy. He threatens to make us laugh and cry simultaneously.
4. Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington
As portrayed by Kaluuya, Chris keeps quiet tragedy locked up inside himself, dismissing racist micro-aggressions and denying the possibility of threats to his life. Kaluuya makes that tragedy palpable if never explicit; he’s silently cultivated this lack of rebellion for years. Which makes it all the more satisfying when we see his survival instincts and decisive fury come out, as he refuses to be another helpless horror movie protagonist. And he makes the most of little moments. There’s a reason the expression of Chris in the “sunken place” has become an iconic image in its own right.
3. Nahuel Perez Biscayart as Sean Dalmazo
BPM (120 battements par minute)
Biscayart delivers the kind of performance that those in the business used to call “star-making”. As Sean, he has the daunting task of portraying an AIDS-stricken activist without simply portraying a glorified martyr. His calls for radical activism are precise, and yet Biscayart never loses Sean’s energy: the belief that things can and will get better. Whether relating stories of ex-lovers or challenging the lack of expediency for a cure, Biscayart captures a certain measure of hope, one that shines even in the midst of death and decay.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock
So impressive are the leading ladies of Phantom Thread, you might neglect the fact that it stars one of our greatest actors, living or dead. But while the film occasionally pivots around Day-Lewis’s Reynolds, he’s always on point, complementing his co-stars rather than overshadowing them. He can elongate a smile so that it contains years of regret and loss, and emote so genuinely that it belies Reynold’s fragile sense of routine. He is poised somewhere between natural and theatrical, vulnerable in a way that makes us pine for Reynold’s bittersweet happiness.
1. Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman
Call Me By Your Name
It’s almost unfair how effortlessly Chalamet commands the screen in this film, utterly believable as anyone you might meet in real life. Elio undergoes an awakening in many senses of the word and Chalamet plays out the web of complications that go along with it. He finds strength in vulnerability and reveals his vulnerabilities through shows of strength. Watch how he adjusts his physicality depending on his level of confidence, and how he finds courage in the smallest of gestures. We can find so much of ourselves in Elio’s spirit of sheer possibility, and yet we ache for him because we know how much he stands to lose. Chalamet reminds us how necessary loving and losing are to a life well-lived.
We shall leave it there for now. Coming soon…my favorite films of 2017!