Here it is, folks. The performances of 2018 that blew my mind, melted my heart, made me stop and go, “How can they be this good?!?…oh right, they do this for a living.”
Just to reiterate, these are preferential as opposed to “best” performances, and believe me when I say there were more great performances than I could fit here. Also, I’ve ranked the five performances in each category based on what they meant to me personally, not as some objective comparison.
I’ve offered my five favorites in each category (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Lead Actor, and Lead Actress) as well as five honorable mentions in alphabetical order. We start with…
My Favorite Supporting Actors
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Raúl Castillo as Paps, We the Animals
Sam Elliott as Bobby Maine, A Star Is Born
Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel Carty, If Beale Street Could Talk
Russell Hornsby as Maverick “Mav” Carter, The Hate U Give
Irrfan Khan as Robert, Puzzle
5. Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
As Hock, Grant walks an elegant line between distinguished British gentleman and treacherous reprobate. Boasting charms that work as well on us as Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel, Grant plays the drug-dealing con artist as someone we’d love to trust: the best friend for all things debaucherous, if not the proverbial friend who bails us out of jail. Grant hints at a deep depression behind that toothy grin, for a life that could never truly be free, one haunted by persecution. We get a glimpse of the reliable friend that Jack wants to be…all the better for his betrayal to feel like the tragic gut punch it is.
4. Mark Stanley as Joe Bell
Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize Stanley as Jon Snow-loyalist Grenn from Game of Thrones. But to see his performance in Clio Barnard’s rural drama, you’d think he’d been tilling the Yorkshire countryside all his life. As the brother of Ruth Wilson’s Alice, Stanley imbues Joe with a divided sense of love and betrayal. He lays bare the frustrations of a thankless, sedentary life, as well as the complex emotions of dealing with family abuse. But even at his most volatile, he emanates a deep sense of loyalty and affection, making his moments of self-destruction all the more heartbreaking. Joe’s version of love and support may come beset with its own problems, but we can always identify it as genuine.
3. Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria
The Death of Stalin
With his hulking frame and unflinching death-glare, the Soviet Union’s Interior Minister terrifies on aesthetic terms alone. But Beria’s mind is always active, and as we learn more about his monstrous schemes, his mental powers prove to be his most malicious feature. Beale’s performance reminds us that some of history’s true monsters prefer to lurk behind the scenes, but his forceful personality clues us in to his monstrosity. Rather than assuming the figurehead, Beria waits patiently for his moment to strike, like a venomous snail. And yet it’s a credit to Beale’s performance that once his metaphoric shell is removed, he becomes just as helpless as that image might imply.
2. Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning
Speaking of terrifying performances…it’s a bit jarring to see Kaluuya, so adept at playing likable characters, commit himself to playing an absolute psychopath. But as portrayed by the actor, Jatemme doesn’t see himself that way; in his mind, he’s an entrepreneurial opportunist. It’s amazing how a slight shift in body weight or a sudden, pointed look heightens Jatemme’s sense of menace. Director Steve McQueen is so confident in his performer that he often places him in the same frame with more physically imposing actors, just to prove how magnetic Kaluuya is. This is a very patient brand of evil, simmering with intention and near-constant vigilance…at least, up to a point.
1. Steven Yeun as Ben
There’s something about Ben that feels…off. He’s so naturally suave and unflappable that he begins to seem more alien than human. Yeun turns his good looks and charming demeanor into something truly disturbing, yet always undetectable by anyone other than Yoo Ah-in’s protagonist Jong-su. He gives Ben the look of a man waiting for someone to figure him out, relishing the thought of an investigation purely for his own amusement. Even when Ben appears to be on the edge of confession, he seems to delight in keeping his intentions a mystery. And when eventually bested, Ben refuses to give anyone else the satisfaction; Yeun makes Ben’s downfall feel like a plan of his own design.
My Favorite Supporting Actresses
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Kayli Carter as Sadie Barrett, Private Life
Jun Jong-Seo as Shin Hae-mi, Burning
Molly Parker as Evangeline, Madeline’s Madeline
Sheila Vand as Ma, We the Animals
Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Young, Crazy Rich Asians
5. Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong
Foy seemed primed to get Oscar’s attention with this role, and it’s certainly the type of role they’ve awarded before. But Foy’s performance doesn’t cater to Oscar or anyone else; she crafts a full character whose intensity and formidability know no bounds. As the wife of the notoriously reticent Neil Armstrong, Janet has adapted to her husband’s emotional withholding, for the most part. But when she lays down the law, against Neil or the desperate-to-please NASA men, all bets are off, and the fury feels righteous and earned. Mostly, however, Foy taps into Janet’s inherent compassion and emotional awareness, becoming a rock for her family and her community.
4. Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
Weisz plays Churchill with such deliberation, it’s easy to read the good duchess as a true gameswoman and master manipulator. But Churchill’s antics feel more spontaneous than deceitful, and she derives genuine pleasure from the British monarch’s company (perhaps in more ways than one). She may take pride in playing puppet-master, but that puppetry exists side-by-side with a vibrant emotional side. Churchill’s ambiguous intentions are served so well by Weisz’s enigmatic performance. We see a shady operator caught off guard by sudden feeling, navigating the fraught space between political and personal life.
3. Mackenzie Davis as Tully
Part of what makes Tully such an entertaining character is how difficult she is to pin down. She’s at once impulsive and fun-loving, but steeped in New Age wisdom and amazing powers of empathy. She can suggest a wild night of fun to Charlize Theron’s Marlo, but also caution her against desperate decisions she might regret the following morning. Davis invests this mercurial soul with a true consistency of character, so that she’s unpredictable but never random in her behaviors. She lives on a razor’s edge between confidant and reckless partner-in-crime. And while we learn more about the exact nature of her relationship to Marlo, our newfound knowledge never distracts from the person Davis has created.
2. Elizabeth Debicki as Alice / Mrs. G
Widows / The Tale
These two indelible performances have me predicting that the as yet little-known Debicki will go on to become one of our great actors. Consider just how distinctive these characters are from one another. In Widows, Alice is a kept woman who must summon an inner strength hitherto unknown to herself, and Debicki makes that trajectory a joy to watch. And as Mrs. G. in The Tale, Debicki nails the ice-cold calculation of a character with dark purposes. Because of the film’s flashback structure, she’s good at making us realize that she’s not playing a living person, but really a memory in constant flux. She serves both films and their purposes first and foremost, but can’t help but stand out because of her talent.
1. Regina King as Sharon Rivers
If Beale Street Could Talk
I’m in awe of King’s emotional technique: the way she balances several conflicting feelings at once. You can see it in Sharon’s reaction to her daughter’s pregnancy, or her attempts to convince a witness to change their testimony. Barry Jenkins’s beautiful framing gives King ample room to showcase her facial acting; in King’s expressions we see Sharon’s own burdens and the ones she shoulders for her loved ones. One scene of King in front of a mirror almost threatens to break through the screen. While Sharon might seem like an idealized maternal figure, King makes her real and down-to-earth, a testament to the strength of everyday people.
My Favorite Leading Actors
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Timothée Chalamet as Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy
Joe Cole as Billy Moore, A Prayer Before Dawn
Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley, Blaze
Michael B. Jordan as Adonis “Donny” Creed, Creed II
Meinhard Neumann as Meinhard, Western
5. John C. Reilly as Eli Sisters / Oliver Hardy
The Sisters Brothers / Stan & Ollie
Leading man may not be the first term associated with Mr. Reilly, but if you’ve followed his impressive career, you know he’s always been up to the task. As a notorious gunslinger in The Sisters Brothers, he develops remarkable chemistry with co-lead Joaquin Phoenix, and brings a quiet, ineffable sadness to the realization of his badass assassin’s mortality. And as one half of the comedy duo Laurel & Hardy, Reilly perfectly conveys Hardy’s comedic performances and easygoing off-stage persona. He wears the entirety of years in his physicality, and all the joys and regrets that implies. If there’s anything Reilly has proven over his career, it’s that Mr. Cellophane he isn’t.
4. Daniel Giménez Cacho as Don Diego de Zama
Cacho’s interpretation of the infamous literary character relies primarily on his reactions, which may falsely suggest a passive performance. But as a mid-level magistrate within the Spanish Empire, Don Diego exhibits an extensive range of reactions, defying any notion of passivity. Within the remote colony he governs, crime, bureaucracy, and general absurdity lend themselves to many a hilarious, bemused expression. And Cacho digs deeper, as those reactions become a full realization of his powerlessness and complicity within an imperial system. He depicts the malaise of bureaucratic yes-men, who can only look on in horror at the fates they’ve dealt themselves.
3. Paul Giamatti as Richard Grimes
Giamatti spends much of Tamara Jenkins’s film in a state of quiet exasperation, prone to Richard’s catalog of daily stressors. And because he’s Paul Giamatti, he makes it absolutely compelling. He communicates so much through subtle cues in body language: a sense of relief in lowered shoulders, or the sense of betrayal in an eyelid flutter. While his character may not be dealing with the physical side effects of fertility (that would be his wife, played wonderfully by Kathryn Hahn), he still assumes some of the mental burdens, both real and self-imposed. Giamatti even manages to make an impromptu freakout, and near-instant apology, totally relatable.
2. Joaquin Phoenix as Joe
You Were Never Really Here
It kills me that Phoenix is currently garnering attention for his role in Joker and not for his remarkable turn here. Playing a deeply guarded enforcer and sometime assassin, Joe has a suspiciously casual demeanor most of the time. But when he goes into professional mode, everything else drops away; he doesn’t so much wield a hammer as become one. Phoenix thrusts us so deep into his character’s trauma, the film around him feels like a natural extension of it. He plays that heaviness so convincingly, yet also earns the film’s few moments of levity. He makes a sudden pause, as he sings along with a dying thug, feel completely right.
1. Tim Kalkhof as Thomas
Kalkhof moves carefully, unassumingly, as the talented baker of the film’s title. His Thomas is a gentle but incredibly secretive man, channeling his feelings not in huge emotional shows but rather in the indulgent desserts he creates. We can sense his longing in the way Thomas precisely grazes his confections with icing, or firmly rolls out baking dough with his powerful arms. With his youthful face and deliberate physicality, Kalkhof pitches Thomas somewhere between child and adult, allowing Thomas’s logically incomprehensible decisions to make real emotional sense. He lets us decide for ourselves about Thomas, even as I couldn’t help but love him.
My Favorite Leading Actresses
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Sakura Andô as Nobuyo Shibata, Shoplifters
Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Roma
Viola Davis as Veronica, Widows
Kathryn Hahn as Rachel Biegler, Private Life
Charlize Theron as Marlo, Tully
5. Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet
Bad Times at the El Royale
Already a star on Broadway, Erivo looked poise to earn raves in her cinematic debut…if only more people had seen it. Never once do you deny Darlene’s talent, even if her career hasn’t exactly made her the next Diana Ross. Erivo’s a capella rendition of “You Can’t Hurry Love” certainly dazzles, but her interpretation (along with the context of the scene) adds power and vulnerability to the song not previously rendered. When she isn’t singing, she brings a quiet sense of command and an undeniable chemistry with Jeff Bridges. Lady Gaga may have helmed A Star Is Born, but it’s difficult to watch Erivo here and not think she’s truly fulfilled that film’s title.
4. Jessie Buckley as Moll Huntford
A delicate, naive innocent? Or a psychopath masquerading as one? Buckley navigates between those two extremes with ease, her sudden moves of passion feeling spontaneous and utterly natural. Whether dealing with Moll’s exacting family or the mystique of a handsome stranger, we’re with Moll even if we can’t pin down her exact intentions from scene to scene. Buckley lets us observe Moll’s reckoning with her past, but also her reckoning with the present and future, as she finds herself constantly tested by the people around her. Buckley’s performance is a fascinating moral odyssey, subtle but palpable in its evolution.
3. Ruth Wilson as Alice Bell
As the newly-appointed caretaker of her family farm, Wilson plays a convincing farmer and businesswoman. But she must also deal with a delinquent brother and the specter of sexual abuse within her family. Wilson makes Alice a symbol of strength even as she jousts with the parts of herself she hasn’t yet bested. Look at her face as she sees the family farm for the first time in years: her mind pits the promise of a new domain against the phantoms that still haunt it. And Alice’s often volatile, lived-in history with Mark Stanley’s Joe only adds more layers to Wilson’s performance. We see proof in the old adage about courage: acting in spite of fear, not its absence.
2. Olivia Colman as Queen Anne
Reader, I will freely admit: Colman’s victory at the Oscars made me literally jump for joy. And not just because I’ve been a fan since her British sitcom days (though it doesn’t hurt), but because of how perfectly cast she is as the eighteenth-century monarch. Colman navigates so many complicated tones, from broad comedy to alluring sensuality to pure and utter tragedy. Watch as she transforms after observing a courtly dance, seeing beyond her immediate settings and into the dark reaches of her mind. Colman captures the contradiction of wielding ultimate power and conforming to the strictures of one’s royal obligation. She plays the ruler with sympathy, yet never absolves her of personal responsibility.
1. Toni Collette as Annie Graham
I usually cringe at the term “tour de force”, but what else can you call this performance? It’s devastatingly raw, a mesmerizing feat of physical and emotional endurance. Collette matches the heightened, operatic tone that director Ari Aster demands and keeps ratcheting up the energy until the climactic final ritual. Her intense focus in each scene clarifies Annie’s every feeling and action; we never lose her character’s intense grief and unconditional love even as she stalks the shadows and crawls on ceilings. Collette gives terrifying, heartrending form to the inevitability of family ties, including an image of Annie, err…sawing something…that I still haven’t expunged from my mind’s eye.
With that, I’ll leave it there. Next up will by my Top 10 Films of 2018. Stay tuned!