The Best Film Performances of 2018
Without further ado,
1. Toni Collette as Annie Graham in Hereditary
It’s easy enough to underplay a performance and have it work, particularly if you are operating in the right genre and have the right look. Clint Eastwood, Keanu Reeves, and even Meryl Streep have gained plenty of mileage out of underplaying. But to overplay a performance, to take your acting up to an 11 and still have it be credible and believable? That’s superhumanly difficult. Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary would almost certainly grace Youtube compilations of bad acting (cue the montage of her shrieking and bug-eyed) if it wasn’t so fucking great. It is the thinnest of tightropes Collette’s performance treads on, to fully convey the extreme state of mind brought on by grief, mental illness and a crazy demon cult without falling into unintentional comedy. It is one of those portrayals where the actor is in such a heightened state that you can feel each molecule of their body hum with raw, unadulterated emotion. Through the strength of her performance, Collette makes overacting feel not just real, but necessary.
2. Madeline Brewer as Alice Ackerman / Lola in CAM
Prior to CAM, Madeline Brewer was well on her way to becoming a ‘hey-it’s-that-girl’ kind of actor, thanks to supporting roles in Orange Is The New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale. You know, the performer you are always happy to see in a TV show or a movie because they are so goshdarned reliable, always getting steady supporting character work with the occasional lead in an indie. If there is any justice (and there usually isn’t, sadly), CAM will be the film, and the performance, that breaks Brewer out of that path and into more lead roles. Fittingly for a film all about the curation of an online personality, Brewer plays at least four different variations of Alice/Lola, a camgirl whose URL persona begins to cannibalise her IRL identity, and does so with aplomb. Rather than just play Alice and Lola as two completely separate people, the subtle skill in Brewer’s performance is how you can always see a little bit of one in the other – a flash of panic in Lola’s eye or when Alice turns on the vamp to get what she wants from a creepy admirer. It is a brilliant performance, and hopefully a star making one.
3. Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in Eighth Grade
Roger Ebert famously called movies ’empathy machines’, and the work of director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher makes Eighth Grade a sterling example of Ebert’s point. The trials and tribulations of Kayla, so universal and yet so specific, are rendered to such an exact degree by Fisher with a capability that belies her years. It’s in the too-obvious faux-nonchalant way she talks about sending nudes in front of her crush to attract him. It’s in the full-body shudder that envelops her when she has to walk amongst her peers in a bathing suit. And above all, it is in the fireside conversation she has with her father, a dialogue that rings with heartfelt honesty, a dialogue whose entire emotional resonance is carried on the narrow shoulders of a fourteen year old who puts up a performance so natural, so real, that it is sometimes difficult to remember that she is acting. Elsie Fisher will break your heart.
Honourable Mention: Lady Gaga as Ally Maine in A Star Is Born
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, it’s very good. No, it is not remotely close to being the best performance of the year. It kind of sucks that what should be a paragraph of praise has to begin with a string of caveats, but such is the ridiculous hype around Gaga’s performance that just saying it’s not ‘OMG YASSS THE BEST THING EVER’ feels like it’s an attempt to be deliberately contrarian and provocative, when in reality, it’s just, well, I thought it was very good, but not, y’know, ‘OMG YASS THE BEST THING EVER’. Perhaps it is because I did not have the same lowered expectations that so many seemed to have of Gaga before the film, so the fact that she was capable of a great performance was not a shock to me. Or maybe it is because, as I alluded to in my review, I cannot help but feel that so much of the emotive power of Gaga’s performance comes from that magnificent singing voice, which does so much of the heavy lifting in the ‘big’ scenes that the acting becomes almost unnecessary. But, again, in all fairness, this is a great performance, with pop icon and global superstar Lady Gaga pulling off a lovely, subtle, naturalistic performance as a normal girl who finds herself as famous as, well, Lady Gaga. It’s just not that bloody amazing when you come down to it, and if I had not cheated on The Favourite (more on that later) or gotten around to seeing films with lauded female lead performances like Roma or Cold War, I might have just saved myself a lot of pain in trying to justify why this is ‘merely’ an honourable mention.
1. Joaquin Phoenix as Joe in You Were Never Really Here (Performance of The Year)
With the retirement of St. Daniel of Day-Lewis, is there any doubt that the best actor in Hollywood is Joaquin Phoenix? Over the course of his career, the former child star has transformed into a chameleonic and riveting onscreen presence*, as evidenced by turning in two of the finest lead performances of the decade (The Master and Her). The new notch on his list of wounded, broken men is the mononymous Joe, who Phoenix plays like a child soldier granted the use of a rocket launcher, with his hulking frame barely hiding the abused son within. Phoenix gives a total full-body performance (one of his specialties), not just in the bulk and the scraggly beard, but in the posture, the gait, hell, even the way he holds the hammer (Joe’s killing weapon of choice) tells the story of a man who has seen things that you people wouldn’t believe. You Were Never Really Here is deliberately elliptical and evasive in its storytelling, choosing to coyly hint at past traumas instead of spelling them out for the audience. In less capable hands, this decision might be a disaster, but thanks to Phoenix’s towering performance (and Lynne Ramsay’s superb sense of direction and editing), we never question for one second the emotional truth of the film nor the oceans of barely repressed pain surging underneath Joe’s haunted eyes.
2. Franz Rogowski as Georg in Transit
Where the hell has this guy been? And yes, that’s a rhetorical question, because the answer is almost certainly ‘acting in German cinema, you uncultured schwein‘. Still, no ‘unknown’ this year impressed me more than Rogowski, who gave a performance so impressively layered that it simultaneously clarified and muddled his motivations in every scene. Georg is a man who has had to bury his emotions out of necessity, for what good are they to a fugitive fighting for survival? Yet, the depth of Rogowski’s performance reveals itself in the fleeting look on his face every time he makes a connection that is both longed for and unwanted – with an immigrant child or with the ex-wife of the man he is pretending to be. It is a deeply emotional performance that conveys itself through how outwardly unemotional it is, and it is this dissonant ambiguity that gives the final shot of Transit – a close up of Rogowski’s face with a half-smile – such a lingering power. Here’s hoping that this is his ‘Christoph Waltz’ role.
3. Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green in Sorry To Bother You
If only for the rapping scene alone. In all seriousness, though, Stanfield has always had charisma oozing out of every pore, with his languid stoner wisdom a consistent highlight of Atlanta. With Sorry To Bother You, however, he proves there are far more dimensions to him than just being easygoing and funny. One highlight? How well Stanfield sells desperation, the flop sweat of the ‘fake it till you make it’ economy and the existential terror of struggling to simply eke out a bare life. That’s the best part in a performance that is full of ‘best parts’, such as the way Stanfield perfectly changes his physical posture every time he uses the ‘white voice’, or his (hilarious) befuddlement at everything that takes place in Armie Hammer’s mansion. And of course, the rapping scene. The rapping scene is everything.
Honourable Mention: Ethan Hawke in First Reformed
Ethan Hawke has certainly had an interesting career, evolving from the early 90s it-boy of the alternative scene to what he is now, which is essentially part slumming-actor in B-movies and part muse for high-calibre auteur indies. First Reformed clearly falls in the latter, and Hawke’s performance is masterful throughout as a priest who begins the film by losing his faith only to find it again through the possibility of a violent act of terrorism. First Reformed is clearly director Paul Schrader’s tribute to a specific type of European film (Bergman’s Winter Light and Bresson’s Diary Of A Country Priest), which means that Hawke has very big robes to fill. Yet fill them he does, as he delivers a magnificent portrayal of a fundamentally good man confronting and struggling against the amorality of the universe. The way Hawke’s cool emotional control transmutes into an icy, violent fury at mankind’s abuse of God’s creation is a sight to behold, and this role is a more than worthy addition to his impressive 21st century resume (largely comprised of Linklater films).
1. (in no particular order) Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as Abigail Hill in The Favourite
Told you I would be cheating. It really is next to impossible though, to separate a trio of performances that are not only equally incredible, but so finely calibrated in tandem and in opposition to each other. At first glance, Colman’s volcanic performance as the spoilt, mentally addled Queen Anne seems to be the standout, but that would give short shrift to the way which Rachel Weisz injects each cool clipped syllable with sardonic venom, or how Emma Stone weaponises her doe eyes and husky voice into a simpering scheming sweetness. In the end, in a field that was less than impressive this year, I decided to just split the difference and say that these are clearly the three best female supporting performances of the year by a long distance from the pack, and considering how much of the strength of each performance relies on the way the actors work with each other, it is only right that I consider them as a trio. There is, perhaps, an argument that one of the performances counts more as a lead, but I’m not sympathetic to it. This is the rare film where all three main characters have fully realised arcs and roughly equal screen time, and besides, considering how well they play off each other, with each raising the level of the other, the word ‘supporting’ is extremely apt.
Honourable Mention: Elizabeth Debicki in Widows
It takes a lot to steal a bank vault of cash, but it takes even more to steal an entire movie from a supporting role, especially when it’s from Viola Davis of all people. In Widows, however, Elizabeth Debicki pulls off this double act of thievery with aplomb. Of all the numerous character arcs in the film, hers is certainly the most audience-pleasing – abused trophy wife learns to be independent badass woman (yas kween slay etc etc), but there is nothing wrong with a little pandering, especially when it is handled so expertly by Debicki, director Steve McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn. The thing that I love most about Debicki’s performance and her character arc in general is that the film intelligently does not make her a secret badass hiding in plain sight. No, Debicki’s Alice Gunner starts the film as a violet more inclined towards wilting than shrinking, which is what makes the growth of her character so immensely satisfying. As well-crafted as the script is, Debicki deserves all the credit for making this transition believable, and the scenes where she learns to scheme are some of the best in Widows, largely due to the look on her face after each successful plot – a look of bright-eyed, infectious optimism that says “hell yes, I got this.” And got this she certainly does.
1. Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria in The Death Of Stalin
To be in an Armando Iannucci production, one must be adept in two languages – English and swear. The actors most commonly associated with Iannucci – Peter Capaldi, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Steve Coogan – are expert swearers, and to that list, we can now add Simon Russell Beale. Unlike the loud bluster of the other actors in Stalin (who are all equally brilliant, but one is just more equal than the others), Beale’s cursing is either hissed or whispered, as befitting the man who secretly runs the farcical show that is the USSR – at least, until he is not. By being soft where others are loud, Beale stands out as an omnipresent force of malevolence throughout the movie, manipulating the rest to do his bidding and hiding his evil in plain sight. By all accounts, Beria was a piece of work, and Beale’s performance does him ‘justice’, his face barely moving every time he orders a new set of dissidents to be executed using the most milquetoast of language. What pushes Beale to the top of this list, however, is the execution scene, where he finally gives full voice to the caustic bile of hate churning within. It is a masterclass of (theatrical voice) ACTING, and by god, does Beale sell it with those decades of treading the boards.
2. Michael B. Jordan as Eric ‘Killmonger’ Stevens in Black Panther
It only took a decade, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally coughed out not one, but two villains in 2018 that were as rich, detailed, and complex as their heroes.** Josh Brolin’s Thanos barely missed the cut, but no such doubt exists for Jordan’s revelatory Killmonger. Working with his longtime directorial partner Ryan Coogler, Jordan is nothing less than a force of nature, owning every second he is on screen with a mix of righteous fury and psychopathic charm. The deluge of ‘Killmonger was right’ memes is partially due to how well-shaded (and politically convincing) his arguments were, but a great deal of that credit goes too to Jordan’s performance, be it the cold anger in his eyes when he claims his birthright, the vulnerability he exudes in a dream sequence with his dead father, or (in a personal favourite) the sheer perfection of the way he languidly drawls ‘hey Auntie’, a two-word dose of reality into the candy-coloured MCU and an unforgettable introduction of an indelible character and actor into popular culture.
3. Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning in Widows
As a fan of Daniel Kaluuya’s since his time on British telly (I never watched Skins, but loved him in Psychoville and the ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ episode of Black Mirror), the last few years have been good ones. Kaluuya has always been a real duck of an actor – able to project a total sense of prenatural cool while emotions race madly beneath the surface, which is a pretty good summary of his breakout role in Get Out. In Widows, however, that effortless cool is still there, but this time, there is nothing remotely human beneath, only an almost childlike glee at heaping violence and misery onto others. Kaluuya and McQueen do an amazing job at transmuting the former’s calmness into a terrifying psychopathy, turning those usual sleepy eyes and beaming smile into a chilling rictus. It’s often a slightly cheap tactic to take a beloved onscreen presence and make him an ax-crazy villain***, but one reason why it is used so much is because when it works, as it does in this case, it really, really works.
Honourable Mention: Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade
Lost in all the acclaim (including my own) for the two ingenues involved in Eighth Grade (first-time director Bo Burnham and fifteen-year-old star Elsie Fisher) is the fantastic performance from long-time character actor Josh Hamilton. As Kayla’s haplessly uncool father Mark, Hamilton has a rather immense task – to be both part of the problem and part of the solution when it comes to his daughter’s teenage anxiety. In this, Hamilton completely nails it, giving a richly textured performance of a man who is trying so hard to understand his daughter but is always unable to because, well, he’s not a teenage girl. Still, Hamilton gives Mark Day a real sense of morose dad-dignity, and he always exudes a sense of care and concern. The fireside dialogue scene between Mark and Kayla is one of the finest scenes in film this year, and Hamilton’s warm, steady performance is one of the many reasons why it (and the rest of the film) feels so empathetic and real. It is a supporting performance in every sense of the word, quietly subtle and unshowy, but the whole movie would collapse without it.
Sometime next week – The Top 20 Movies of 2018
*And the only reason why I think that new Joker movie might actually turn out to be any good.
**We all love Loki, but complex he is not.
***Off the top of my head – Tom Cruise in Collateral, Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, Albert Brooks in Drive, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, and of course, the O.G., Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West.