Here are the acting performances which I appreciated most this year. I don’t limit the number of performances on my list, rank them against each other, or subdivide them by gender, leading or supporting roles. I list these actors grouped by films alphabetically.
At Eternity’s Gate
Mr. Dafoe plays Vincent van Gogh brilliantly, and director Julian Schnabel keeps the camera fixed on his face through all his emotions, to great effect. There is also a fine supporting cast, each of which do not have a great amount of screen time, but are used well – Oscar Issac as Paul Gauguin and Rupert Friend as Theo Van Gogh are especially noteworthy.
Tim Blake Nelson
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The opening chapter of the film features Mr. Nelson as the titular character, a singing cowboy with a Coen twist, and the film couldn’t have a better launch. As with most Coen films, it is stocked with great performances, but Nelson coming out of the gate so strongly stood out for me.
A deeply moving story of a son’s struggle with addiction and his father’s attempt to cope, based on the paired memoirs of Nic and David Scheff. Chalamet is startlingly fantastic as the drug ravaged Nic, bringing depth and nuanced emotion to the portrayal. This actor is far beyond most anyone in his generation. Steve Carell is also good in his restrained depiction of David.
Mr. Malek owns the lead role so much it’s eerie, and he has a nice cast around him, even though the film is formulaic and cliché. If you are new to Malek, please check out his TV series Mr. Robot.
Ms. Melander is hidden beneath prosthetics which make her appear troll-like, but her acting ability shines powerfully through and there is never a sense of caricature. That she crafted such a real character despite the challenges is praiseworthy.
Richard E. Grant & Melissa McCarthy
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Both performances are note perfect and worthy of their Oscar Nominations. I especially liked Mr. Grant’s work here in crafting a character which is pretty much a loser but does it with such pizazz that it’s great to watch. His scenes brightened the film.
Joanna Kulig & Tomasz Not
Both actors deliver as the lead characters, a hot and cold couple with far more than romantic issues to deal with as artists in Cold War Poland. Ms. Kulig is especially powerful and luminescent.
Jonah Hill & Joaquin Phoenix
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Cast against type, Mr. Hill is quietly strong in a supporting role as the 12-step sponsor for Joaquin Phoenix’s addicted lead character. It took me several minutes to realize it was in fact Hill, a testament to how different he looks and acts compared to previous roles. Mr. Phoenix is strong, as always, and his performance here and in You Were Never Really Here makes for an especially noteworthy year.
Ms. Fisher carries the film appearing in virtually every scene, and her work makes the film hum. A performance which reminded me of other great embodiments of the teenage experience, like Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, Ellen Page in Juno, and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird.
Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz & Emma Stone
The three lead performances are absolutely great, worthy of their respective Oscar noms, and Ms. Colman as Queen Anne tops them all. She plays ridiculous to sublime with equal grace. Masterful work.
Mr. Hawke’s performance is at the center of the film and reflects the conflicting, confusing and disturbing state of the character and theme. Whew! Listen to the Podcast
Ms. Collette excels in her role in this disturbing horror film, always keeping us guessing as to the authenticity of her character’s reality.
Kathryn Hahn & Paul Giamatti
Mr. Giamatti and Ms. Hahn are the leads in this fantastic cast which also includes fine performances from John Carroll Lynch, Molly Shannon and Kayli Carter. This is an uncompromisingly authentic depiction of a marriage at the center of the agonizing mess of trying to become pregnant, and these two performances couldn’t be more real.
A Private War
Ms. Pike gives a great performance as war correspondent Marie Colvin in a film from which I was left wanting. The film might be overlooked, but I can’t do the same for Pike. And yes, she is a badass in that eye patch.
Don’t let the fact that Mr. Jandreau’s performance is due more to his real life as a rodeo cowboy rather than an actor fool you. His work is perfect for the film and goes beyond just being himself. Director Chloé Zhao cast some of Landreau’s family, friends and fellow cowboys, and it all works really well. Read the Full Post
Ms. Aparicio gives the signature performance in one of the finest films of the year. Nominated for a Lead Oscar, along with costar Marina de Tavira for her supporting work, Ms. Aparicio is the first indigenous person to achieve that nomination, and being first should take nothing away from her powerful work.
Sakura Andô & Lily Franky
Ms. Andô as the ‘mother’ and Mr. Franky as the ‘father’ are my two favorite performances in a film for which the entire acting ensemble playing the family should receive praise. Just an exquisite subtlety in the work that I will not soon forget.
Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga
A Star Is Born
Mr. Cooper’s acting is really brilliant and evidence of his impressive range. His drink and drug torn musician could have been played as cliché, but there is real depth and humanity to the portrayal. Gaga is also very good, but suffers a bit from the weaker writing of her character.
Another incredible performance by Ms. Theron as she dives deep into her character’s struggle with motherhood, marriage, self worth and reality. I’m pretty sure there is no role Theron can’t play, and do it really well.
Spanning the life of Dick Cheney from young man to his retirement was no small task, and doing it so faithfully that I forgot Mr. Bale was behind the prosthetics is impressive. Bale’s is the definitive performance in a handful of noteworthy ones, especially Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as President George W. Bush.
Another outstanding Lead Oscar nominated performance from Ms. Close as the woman behind the man having reached her tipping point. Jonathan Pryce is also very good, but this is her film.
Ms. Mulligan’s portrayal of a woman’s growing dissatisfaction with her life and the stumbling steps she takes toward fulfillment is at the heart of this family drama that also has great performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould and Bill Camp. Co-writers Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan have crafted complex characters in real situations, and Mulligan makes her Jeanette an authentic character. Read the Full Post
You Were Never Really Here
Another chilling character for Mr. Phoenix who brings his vast skills and sensibilities to the role. He crafts a man who is difficult to embrace and whose actions are horrifying, yet couched within the complexity of a multi-dimensional person who has a good side. Is there anyone who plays brokenness as effectively as Phoenix?
Here are other worthy performances that just missed making my list:
Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
The ensemble in A Bread Factory, Parts One & Two
Ben Foster & Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk
The ensemble in The Death of Stalin
Rachel Wise & Rachel McAdams In Disobedience
Geoffrey Rush & Armie Hammer in Final Portrait
Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place
Regina Hall in Support the Girls
Olivia Cooke & Anya Taylor-Joy in Thoroughbreds