One of our favorite features every year gives the regular writers and extended team of contributors here a chance to praise one of their favorite performances of the year. Much like the Sight & Sound poll refused to define “greatest” films to its participants, we simply ask our staff to pick a “great” performance. It doesn’t have to be the best. We don’t seek to fully capture the year in acting, so if an amazing turn is missing from the list below, don’t panic. (We love the entire ensembles of “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Women Talking” too, but have written about both extensively already.) In fact, this piece is designed more to show the breadth of incredible acting over a year than to be comprehensive in any way. To that end, a film can’t be on the list more than once, just to spread the wealth to a mix of the undeniable critical darlings and the acting turns that may have flown under the radar. There are over two dozen performances on the list below—and we are doing a partner piece on some of the best filmmaking craft of 2022 next week. All they have in common? At least one film critic loves them.
“Benediction,” a consideration of the life of British poet Siegfried Sassoon, is structured by writer/director Terence Davies in such an eccentric and personal way that it makes large demands on its lead actor, Jack Lowden. Davies does not dramatize Sassoon’s pivotal experiences in the trenches during World War I and chooses to begin his narrative with Lowden’s Sassoon in a psychiatric hospital, where he is tended to by a surprisingly sympathetic doctor (Ben Daniels). The camera focuses steadily on Lowden’s clear-eyed, centered, yet lightly apprehensive face in these early scenes, and he is required to draw us in and gain our sympathy even though Davies portrays Sassoon as a man who is alternately bold and meek, a man who allows himself to be swept along into situations that hurt him but also hurt others in his orbit.
It is only at the end of “Benediction,” when we have seen Sassoon grow into an older and embittered man (Peter Capaldi), that Davies returns to Lowden to provide the climax of the film, where we see Sassoon breaking down and nearly breaking open on a park bench as he remembers his war experience. Actors are always being asked to weep on screen, and so often their tears are uninteresting or somehow alienating. In the last shots of “Benediction,” Lowden opens himself up to universal grief over World War I to such an extent that the expressions on his face are like nothing I have ever seen before, on film or in life. It feels like Lowden himself might shatter into pieces in this scene, but he holds on to the enormity of the sorrow he has somehow caught and allows it to pass through him and sends it out to us. This is acting on the highest possible level. (Dan Callahan)
Not since Uma Thurman teamed up with Tarantino for both volumes of “Kill Bill” has a pairing of actor and director resulted in as exhilarating a double bill. This soon-to-be trilogy began rather unassumingly in March with “X,” a 1979-set horror comedy from subversive genre director Ti West in which would-be porn filmmakers are hunted down by a pair of homicidal geezers on an isolated farm. Among the ensemble is Mia Goth as aspiring star Maxine, whose youthfulness and sexuality draws the unnerving curiosity of Pearl, the elderly woman who lives on the grounds. Pearl was also played by Goth, yet it wasn’t just the elaborate makeup that rendered her unrecognizable. In everything from her trancelike movements to her low rasp of a voice, Goth dug deeply into the broken soul of a woman driven mad by a lifetime of alienation and illness laced with envy.
Prior to shooting “X,” Goth had already co-authored with West the script for a potential prequel set 61 years before the events of “X,” using the same New Zealand locations. Released in September and filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic the previous spring, “Pearl” is the picture that cements Goth’s status as one of the finest talents of her generation. The extent to which Goth makes her character’s plight as a quarantined caregiver relatable causes her actions to be all the more disquieting.
Pearl’s searing regret and awareness of her demons that she struggles to mask rise to the surface in an extraordinary climactic monologue she delivers to her absent husband, Howard, in the presence of her bewildered sister-in-law Mitsy. Her view of life as “harsh, bleak, and draining” has been formed by one lived strictly in service of another, while her repressive upbringing proves to be strikingly similar to that of Maxine, whose evangelist father rages on the TV screens in “X.” It all leads to an unforgettable final shot of Pearl, her face viewed in close-up, as she welcomes her husband back from the war, hoping he won’t mind the corpses propped up in the dining room. Pearl’s grotesquely strained smile was only meant to be glimpsed in a freeze frame over the end credits, yet West and Goth spontaneously decided on the shooting day to have Pearl hold that pose for as long as possible. In this moment, she channels the personal hell every woman has endured when forced to put on a happy face. (Matt Fagerholm)
What is so strange about Austin Butler as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is he does not look like Elvis at all. Luhrmann’s casting of Butler brought a lot of inevitable chatter. Butler’s body type, his bone structure—it wasn’t immediately apparent what Luhrmann might have seen in him. But Luhrmann was up to something a little bit different than your standard “and then this happened” biopic. There’s some use of prosthetics in the later sequences when Elvis is older and more chiseled, but in general, it’s up to Butler to suggest Elvis—not so much what he looked like, but what he brought to the table as a performer. And what he brought to the table was weird and alien in 1954: pink suits, eye makeup, dyed hair, jiggling body, and the primal connection he instantly had with his audiences. This type of thing is taken for granted, not just with Elvis, but with other massive superstar-like figures in the past, and it shouldn’t be. Luhrmann was interested in the larger context, how Elvis was different from the bigwig stars around him, and how he exploded the world around him.
Butler has said when he started the process of “becoming” Elvis, it felt at first like being a little kid and trying on his father’s suit. The suit was way too big, he had to work to fill out the suit. The persona is so imitated, the posthumous fame so bizarre and unconnected from reality … it was Butler’s job to somehow bring it down to earth, keep us emotionally connected, and yet still be able to fill out those jangling shimmering white jumpsuits. You try to move around like Elvis in a jumpsuit. Report back how silly you feel doing it. But on Butler, it didn’t seem silly.
When footage of the real Elvis shows up at the end, it’s a reminder that what we have just seen is a performance, a sensitive and insightful one, yes, but a performance nonetheless. There is still something un-capturable about the actual person. But that’s true of all of us, isn’t it? This is why biopic focus on prosthetic noses is misguided and unnecessary. What matters is the attempt to get at that thing with no name, even if we all can feel it, in ourselves and others. We all know it when we see it. (Sheila O’Malley)
Jordan Peele’s “Nope” is crammed with ideas—the joy of filmmaking, the experience of people of color and below-the-line workers in Hollywood, and the commodification of trauma, to name just a few. At its heart, however, the movie is a balance of two performances: Daniel Kaluuya’s taciturn horse trainer O.J. Haywood, and his sister, Keke Palmer’s live-wire Emerald. The two portrayals complement each other perfectly and are vital to “Nope”‘s success. Without O.J.’s stoicism, Emerald’s scheming would be too much. Without Emerald’s infectious energy, O.J.’s journey might not resonate. Kaluuya’s restrained work is impressive in its own right, but Palmer’s Emerald is a true revelation, a comet blazing across the Agua Dulce sky.
Palmer has worked in entertainment since childhood, but “Nope” finally gives her the opportunity to stretch her wings as a seasoned performer. Her hunger to do that is evident the first time we meet Emerald, barging in late to an on-set safety meeting where O.J. is struggling to get the spiel started. The energy in the room switches the moment Emerald appears, as she introduces the family business to the assembled crew with an eager-to-please grin on her face as O.J. rolls his eyes. This comic moment efficiently introduces the siblings’ dynamic. O.J. is a hard worker who’s better with animals than people. Emerald is a charismatic dreamer, great in a room but lacking discipline.
Palmer’s Emerald radiates an endearing, disarming confidence that reflects the actor’s own public persona. More than that, however, Palmer’s clear enthusiasm draws audiences into a complex story that uses her sense of delight to keep us invested in the Haywood siblings’ quest to photograph the alien floating outside their house. “Nope” feels like Palmer’s calling card, a challenge for Hollywood to notice her obvious star quality and put it to good use. (Abby Olcese)
Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”
Although he returned to the cadences of Obi-Wan Kenobi for Disney+, Ewan McGregor uses his natural voice to marvelous effect as Sebastian J. Cricket, the fussy novelist, raconteur, and reluctant conscience for Papa Geppetto’s magical wooden son. His affecting range gives this poignant retelling depth and heart—appropriate since he lives in a knothole where Pinocchio’s heart would be. The story’s narrator, Sebastian hops onto the screen as a self-absorbed traveler years after Geppetto’s only child, Carlo, has died. He moves into a pine tree next to Carlo’s grave, ready to set his “illustrious, fascinating life to paper,” right before Geppetto (David Bradley) chops it down in drunken grief. One moment McGregor puts a flourish in his voice as Sebastian describes his adventures with a barrister, a sailor, and a sculptor; the next, he gasps in hilarious horror as Geppetto shapes this new home into something resembling his beloved boy.
Although the filmmakers clearly relish squashing, squeezing, and zapping the poor bug, he’s more than comic relief. Once the Wood Sprite brings Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) to life, McGregor’s tender counsel, such as how fathers feel despair that makes them say things they don’t mean, matches the soothing chirps of Sebastian’s wings, and he flutters with indignation when insisting Geppetto embrace this inquisitive boy who loves him just as he is. McGregor shows he still has his charming “Moulin Rouge!” singing voice whenever Sebastian bursts into (often interrupted) song, but he’s delightful throughout, conveying the cricket’s introspective growth. Although Sebastian promises to look after Pinocchio in exchange for a wish, by the film’s end, his mantra that he’s done his best becomes a desperate prayer, proof that this imperfect father and son have nestled into his heart, too. (Valerie Kalfrin)
Janelle Monae as Andi Brand in “Glass Onion”
I would love to say more but I have to tiptoe around the spoilers here. To be extra safe, read this after you’ve seen the film. But I promise I will reveal no details past those in the first 30 minutes of the movie. Though surely it is not too spoilery to say that characters in a murder mystery may be hiding various secrets and thus present a challenge to actors.
In “Glass Onion,” we are introduced to most of the other main characters on a Zoom call, working together as they carefully open the intricate puzzle boxes sent to them by an eccentric billionaire. We then see Janelle Monae as Andi, smashing her box with a hammer. We know she is an outsider and that she does not mess around when it comes to going straight to the heart of things. In the midst of a high-energy group of characters who like to be the center of attention, Monae’s Andi has a quiet, knowing reserve that is intriguing to us and unsettling to others.
As we learn more about the history, there are a few big surprises that require an exceptional juggling act of performance. Monae’s Andi encompasses each new revelation, even in retrospect. She effortlessly keeps every one of those balls in the air until exactly the moment when they need to be caught. I have a theory that singers are often exceptional actors. They know timing, they know audiences, and they know how to tell a story. Monae, who came to our attention first as a distinctive musician with a remarkably singular persona, brings to her performance a sense of assured presence that invites us in, exactly what every twisty puzzle box of a movie needs at its center. (Nell Minow)
“Right from the first moment, I know exactly what time it is … and the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together,” is what Cate Blanchett conveys within the first ten minutes of “TÁR,” during an exquisitely riveting monologue outlining what makes her Lydia Tár one of the best conductors on the planet. It’s a moment that haunts you throughout the film and long after the credits have rolled due to the spectacular prowess of Blanchett, one of those tone-setting monologues that marks the beginning of a historical performance.
Cate Blanchett is a character chameleon, an actress whose look, vibe, and speech pattern melt into her habitat like no other actor we have seen recently outside of Meryl Streep. She possesses the uncanny ability to make you believe she is not a character, but a real flesh and blood human being whose life is being shaped before our eyes.
Her portrayal of Lydia Tár provides all the complexities and strengths that women are required to possess while being a working mother, a partner, and a sexually charged human being—even if that sexual attraction is misplaced and used as manipulation of others. With bated breath, we witness Lydia completely become undone, holding onto a persona re-invented for the purposes of professional ladder climbing. Finding the interiority of a monstrous, manipulative predator who is devoid of remorse, Cate Blanchett once again delivers a layered performance that sears into our subconscious. (Carla Renata)
The last decade worth of Oscar results has increasingly driven home that people distinguish two different kinds of acting: creating original characters and recreating real people. But Gabriel LaBelle crafts a fascinating middle-ground in “The Fabelmans”: he’s playing a real person, but at an age in which society has no memory of that person. He’s creating an original character out of our cultural idea of who that person was, and our evaluation of that performance is not based on whether LaBelle matches the evidence (like, for example, Rami Malek’s move-by-move mimicry of Freddie Mercury at Live Aid), but in whether his performance matches our collective fabrication. We never knew Young Spielberg, but LaBelle makes it feel like we did.
Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, and Judd Hirsch are all wonderful in “The Fabelmans,” and one or more of them may find themselves with Oscar nominations for their work. But LaBelle’s performance is the one that really should be a sure thing for an Oscar nomination (not the least of which is because it’s a weaker-than-normal Best Actor field). Everything in “The Fabelmans” is almost entirely predicated on LaBelle’s performance. He’s required to play off the emotional burden of three major things—his parents’ impending divorce, antisemitic bullying, and falling in love with making movies—often simultaneously.
The two best scenes in the film hinge on LaBelle’s face at a moment of self-discovery. First, during the wordless sequence of him editing the footage from the family camping trip and discovering his mother’s emotional infidelity. Then second, and climatically, during the hallway confrontation over how he portrayed his tormentor in his Senior Ditch Day movie. In both scenes, LaBelle’s performance shapes and contextualizes the emotional origins of pop culture’s greatest mythmaker before our eyes. And he makes all the pieces fit. (Daniel Joyaux)
The best comedic performance of 2022 belongs to Regina Hall. And the best drama performance of the year belongs to … Regina Hall. Both occur in the same movie: “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,” where Hall plays the matriarch of a Black Southern Baptist church beset by a sex scandal caused by her philandering closeted husband Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K Brown). What makes Hall’s performance so enrapturing is her interplay with several levels of meaning—through her physical acumen, varying deliveries, and colorful facial expressions—to impart the difficulties of fulfilling the proverbial “good wife” role: being a Black woman, and a Black Southern woman, within the tragicomedy of Blackness.
Adeptly mixing pathos with humor is what Hall does best. A throwback to the classic screwball actresses of the past, Hall has played with her manner and movements to explicate the inner lives of her characters throughout her career. In “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,” she takes the lessons she learned in her previous roles to code switch and doublespeak, and to evoke empathy for a woman trapped in an impossible situation: To forgive her husband or to give up the faith, church, and followers that has imbued her life with meaning.
Hall’s performance is contextualized by the mockumentary format chosen by director Adamma Ebo, whereby a documentary crew follows her character around. Sometimes her character plays or evades the camera, and sometimes she doesn’t know when she’s being filmed. In one scene, she avoids a major confrontation with a former parishioner by saying “bless your heart,” in another scene, she ecstatically raps to Crime Mob’s “Knuck Til You Buck.” In another, she laments to her mother about her plight and even dresses her husband down for flirting with a cameraman.
Fascinatingly, Ebo filmed every scene as a mockumentary and a straight-up drama at the same time. It’s Hall’s actorly choices that shaped Ebo’s editorial decisions, allowing the film to switch between different modes of comedy to speak to different audiences. Hall’s performance fittingly culminates with a dramatic moment involving praise mining, in which Hall imparts more emotion in mime makeup than most actors could hope to do in a prestige drama. (Robert Daniels)
With his turns in projects like “Atlanta,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Widows,” and more, Brian Tyree Henry has quickly become one of those performers whose very presence in a cast list makes a project more interesting. If he’s drawn to this movie, it’s probably worth your time. What’s been so fascinating to watch over the last few years is how each new film seems to reveal a new layer to his deep skill set. His career-best work came this year in the underseen “Causeway,” now on Apple TV+.
Lila Neugebauer’s drama is the tale of two fractured souls who heal through their unexpected friendship. It’s nice to see Jennifer Lawrence break free from flashy blockbusters to do grounded character work again, but Henry is the revelation, playing a man who carries grief and regret in every ounce of his frame. We have seen so many actors lean on crutches when they play painful emotion, relying on a heated monologue or fake tears to sell the pain of their characters, but Henry understands that grief doesn’t go away just because someone isn’t talking. It’s in his downcast eyes or the way his posture changes when the subject gets to his past. You can see the weight of his emotion in his body in a way that never calls attention to itself but only feels 100% genuine. Not only does the actor fade away, but we completely feel the truth of what’s happening. Henry makes so many subtle choices throughout “Causeway” that it’s the kind of acting turn that often gets ignored in favor of flashier ones. And yet it’s these performances that we remember. (Brian Tallerico)
Never looking away from the atrocious horror within the tragic story of Emmett Till, Chinonye Chukwu’s latest film “Till” works as a thoughtful examination of his mother Mamie Till-Mobley’s resolution to find justice for her dead son. Danielle Deadwyler is simply unforgettable as Till-Mobley. From the beginning to the end, her remarkable acting holds the center with subtle grace and quiet intensity, and it is inarguably one of the best performances of this year.
There are several expected big emotional moments in the film where she pulls out all the stops for aching dramatic effect, but Deadwyler is also wonderful in a number of quieter private scenes where she imbues her character with more life and personality. During the prologue, we can instantly sense Mamie’s strong and loving relationship with Emmett, and this effortlessly establishes the emotional base for the following drama to be unfolded. In the case of a small conversation between Till-Mobley and the wife of a prominent civil rights activist, Till-Mobley simply listens to her, but Deadwyler tinges the scene with a real sense of empathy and understanding, and that makes this scene less perfunctory than it seems at first.
When Till-Mobley finally sits on the witness stand, she has to endure a lot as expected. Curiously, the camera just focuses on her face without any interruption. Although we do not see anything besides that on the screen, that is more than enough because Deadwyler’s expressive face acting goes through the whole gamut of strong emotions ranging from sadness to indignation, without losing any of her character’s grace and dignity. (Seongyong Cho)
With the grace and precision of a ballerina, Hong Chau sets the tone of Mark Mylod’s “The Menu.” She’s strict with herself and others. The sharp dialogue is double-edged in her delivery, as Chau understands the intention of the text implicitly to offer up on a silver platter to the restaurant’s entitled guests an experience befitting of their status and one intended to put them in their place. Every polite gesture and agreeable note she strikes feels equally contemptuous, particularly in the strong and deliberate lines of her physicality contrast with their guests’ nervous hunching and macho posturing. She is the image of the worker’s strength; intelligent, sturdy, and proud.
In Darren Aronosfky’s “The Whale,” Chau plays Liz, a different kind of worker. Her strength remains palpable, but not in the strict deliberateness of her posture, but in her fluidity. Liz’s center of gravity is low because she’s on her feet all day. Her nursing work is physically demanding and intimate. As she cares for her friend, Charlie (Fraser), how she manipulates his body is dispassionate but attentive. She becomes a grounding force in a film filled with so much ugliness (Aronofsky loves the grotesque, but his point of view often lacks compassion). While the character could easily be reduced to a “chip on your shoulder” nurse clichés, she finds so much humor, interiority, and love in a film sorely lacking on all counts.
The film’s best moment for her performance, as well as Fraser’s, is a brief moment where they’re both seated on the couch. In the crook of his shoulder, her body melts into him. Her exhausted smile lit up by the tv screen. In a film weighed down by guilt and loathing, we feel their love for each other. (Justine Smith)
When I first read that Brad Pitt had signed on to play a role inspired by silent film star John Gilbert in Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” I admit, I was dubious. Gilbert’s illustrious career has long been reduced to a footnote in the history of that transitional period where Hollywood films moved on from silents to talkies. The myth that Gilbert’s voice was the nail in the coffin is one of the most pervasive myths of the era. The idea of Gilbert as an archetype has made its way into several films, including Jean Dujardin’s Oscar-winning role in Best Picture winner “The Artist.” Yet, the role of Jack Conrad, as written by Chazelle and brought to life by Pitt, is perhaps the first I’ve seen that actually understands both his singular screen appeal and treats him like a human being.
Pitt’s effortlessly charming performance captures the indescribable “it” that not only made matinee idol Gilbert such an alluring star but also caused many of his leading ladies to fall in love (or at least lust) with him. It takes a movie star to play a movie star. Pitt brings the kind of quiet gravitas that befits a star of Conrad’s stature, one who could command a top salary, but still know the name of every crew member and be the biggest tipper at every party. This part of Conrad’s personality never wanes. No matter the situation, Pitt’s Conrad holds his body tall with dignity, a gregarious smile perpetually plastered across his face, even when a melancholic pathos creeps into the edges as his star begins to wane.
Yet there is an undercurrent of violence that seeps into Conrad’s personal life as he desperately tries to hold onto his career, at first throwing emotional barbs at his theater actress wife Estelle (Katherine Waterston), before unleashing an unbridling rage, which later dissipates into a consigned passivity. That both stars’ struggles with alcoholism cost their personal lives dearly creates a fascinating collision of dueling star biographies in the film’s bleak third act. This along with Pitt’s status as one of the last true movie stars playing one of the last silent movie stars in a film made while the industry is once again in flux adds a bittersweet meta-textual layer to the whole affair. But as the film’s final montage reveals, out of the ashes of one art rises another. That’s what makes this performance, and this film, so powerful. They’ve remembered to appreciate what makes any of this mercurial art so timeless: the people who created it. (Marya E. Gates)
In David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future,” a new phase of human evolution has emerged from a period of environmental decay. New organs grow inside certain members of the population, while people have lost their sensitivity to pain. For performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), whose partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) surgically removes his growths before a live audience, his body’s the canvas to her brush, the ultimate medium for two tortured artists. Caprice’s excavations produce in Saul feelings of immense pleasure, contributing to the innate romance of their art—and to the seductive “meaning, very potent meaning” it holds for observers like Timlin (Kristen Stewart). Based in the derelict offices of the National Organ Registry, a shadowy vestige of bureaucratic control, Timlin is introduced as a repressed pencil-pusher, tasked with monitoring Saul and Caprice’s performances. After witnessing one, she’s obsessed, undone by arousal. “Surgery is the new sex,” she whispers to Saul, breathless at the revelation.
In a film that interrogates the human condition through its relationship to the body, Stewart’s performance—one of shivering erotic and existential frisson, stimulated mainly across three scenes—makes for a sharply comic crystallization of hidden forces compelling these characters. Biological, administrative, voyeuristic, performative—such imperatives war inside Timlin, though the carnal nature of her awakening makes it clear urges erupting from deep within have the edge, at least initially, on any imposed by an external authority. Fixated on Saul, Timlin later pries loose his jaw and works her fingers into his mouth, longing to feel his insides, before plunging her tongue inside to caress the orifice. “You can be open with me,” she pleads, every word delivered from the edge of either orgasm or nervous collapse.
This is as absurd as it sounds, yet convincing. In her “Twilight” days, when those lip-biting and hair-twirling tendencies were decried as awkward tics, Stewart was already a physically agitated performer. Since then, her style of full-body immersion has uncovered psychic vulnerability through neurotic tension and uncanny gesture. “Body is reality,” Cronenberg announces early in “Crimes of the Future,” a concept Stewart seems hungry to explore. As Timlin, she steals every scene, desire resisting suppression with an urgency that’s hilarious, uncomfortable, and sincere. (Isaac Feldberg)
The genre-busting “Bones and All” is another smash hit from Italian film director, Luca Guadagnino. A coming-of-age love story set in the 1980s between two cannibal youths as they struggle to sustain their hunger and live normal lives, it’s a very heartfelt and disgusting story with phenomenal performances from Timothée Chalamet as Lee and Taylor Russell as Maren. However, one of its most haunting performances comes from Mark Rylance, of “Bridge of Spies” fame, as the unforgettable Sully.
Sully is the boogeyman and Rylance plays him to perfection. His presence radiates an unease you can feel in your seat. With a quiet and childlike-yet-menacing stare, Rylance becomes the embodiment of stranger danger even as his choices draw you closer to the character. His seeming innocence makes you want to trust him despite the apprehension. On paper, Sully should feel warm and inviting but Rylance’s performance makes that warmth feel like the hottest pits of hell.
Within moments of meeting Sully, the audience shares Maren’s dread. You don’t know if Sully’s obsession with her comes from a search for a genuine connection or a weird sexual desire. During the AFI Fest Q&A, Rylance stated that he played the character like a childless father looking for a child to nurture. That nuance adds an unexpected depth to the character. It is a mindset rooted in misogyny because to Sully, Maren cannot provide for herself. Only he can be the one to provide for and nurture her. Only his love is absolute, and when that love is rejected then Sully does what all bad men do. He destroys her and everything she loves. (Brandon Towns)
For far too long, the unmistakable visage of Tennessee-born character actress Dale Dickey has mostly conveyed the innermost conflicts of rugged women. Their façade of fortitude leaves little room for outward tenderness (think “Winter’s Bone.”) But in first-time director Max Walker-Silverman’s delicate humanist portrait, “A Love Song,” she found a vehicle for sharing other lesser-seen nuances to her immense capability for affecting renditions.
As Faye, a widow who patiently waits on a campsite for an old classmate to visit, Dickey often communicates in silent moments charged with profound longing. While reminiscing about her youth with Lito (veteran actor Wes Studi), it may seem that all her better days are now in the past. Yet, in the vulnerable exchanges with her co-star, Dickey convinces us that Faye’s quiet ebullience hasn’t completely faded. Hers is a performance of small behavioral details—her reading habits or how she eats her ice cream—and of a contemplative search for purpose in the aftermath of sorrow. “A Love Song” includes Dickey’s first on-screen romantic kiss, a fact that speaks about what type of characters, and in turn what type of actors, are allowed to experience that kind of love in our fictional narratives.
Visually, Walker-Silverman seems to compare Faye, and Dickey, to the sturdy flowers that manage to survive on arid terrain. And he makes an even stronger point about how Faye gets to see her beauty through another person’s eyes when Lito takes a photo of her. This is the mark of a filmmaker with a full understanding of the emotional intersections between his character and his actress. Later, when Faye climbs a mountain to reconnect with nature, with something greater than herself, Dickey allows us to share in that epiphany with a tranquil expression that radiates a powerful peace from within. (Carlos Aguilar)
Conflicts abound in Sebastian Lelio’s “The Wonder”: English vs. Irish, faith vs. science, outsider vs. local. The embodiment of all these conflicts is in Florence Pugh herself, who plays an English nurse named Elizabeth Wright. Hired by a rural Irish village council to observe Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), an angelic 11-year-old who hasn’t eaten in four months but appears healthy, Wright travels to and confronts the skepticism of a dogmatic community. There is something almost supernatural about Pugh’s performance, which traffics in devastating vulnerability in quiet scenes and steely, ramrod-stiff devotion to objectivity and science when she argues with Anna’s family and the village council. Her dialogue delivery, formal and removed with adults, changes when she’s with Anna, becoming gentle and loving, but also firm. When Pugh invokes Wright’s self-loathing the effect is nauseating in the best possible way; the revulsion rises to the surface and cracks her restraint when Wright speaks cruelly to journalist William Byrne (Tom Burke) or forces a feeding tube down Anna’s throat.
Ari Wegner’s haunted palette and Matthew Herbert’s chilling score, both more common to horror film aesthetics, infuse the film with a menace that Pugh uses to inform her own performance. No matter how forthright Wright is, no matter how passionately she defends her honesty, she cannot win against centuries of distrust of strangers, of science, of education, of reason.
It’s a credit to Lelio and Pugh’s collaboration that a pivotal conversation with Anna about the truth of her fasting doesn’t cause her to scream, flail, or become more unstable than she already feels. That would be easy, the easy artistic choice of an ordinary Hollywood period melodrama. Instead, Pugh invokes a drive akin to religious fervor, but in the service of saving a child rather than trying to rationalize her slow, horrible death. The quiet ferocity with which Pugh marches through the film’s fourth act is more righteous and convincing than anything I’ve seen this year. Pugh’s performance is an excellent reminder that when confronted by the immovably stubborn and close-minded, we, in order to create change, must change tack too. (Nandini Balial)
Kate McKinnon as Lulu in “DC’s League of Super-Pets”
“Never test a guinea pig,” growls the evil naked rodent, stabbing Superman with kryptonite. As the arch-nemesis of “DC’s League of Super-Pets,” Lulu is one diabolical rodent, thirsty for the “cold steel straw of power.” In Kate McKinnon’s paws, her character chirps to life and floats above an already talented voice cast, which includes Vanessa Bayer, Natasha Lyonne, and Keanu Reeves. Where her costars nail the few notes they’ve been given to play with, McKinnon gets to go fully off-leash. Though she’s tried her hand at voice work before, she’s found her match in Lulu.
Once an abandoned lab rat, now a Grand High Villain with a singular drive for domination, she requires a delusional self-assurance that we’ve seen McKinnon deliver. Yet McKinnon finds new registers for her voice, adding conniving consonants and slippery syllables to articulate her schemes and sexual desires for Lex Luthor. Director Jared Stern and co-writer John Whittington have filled their script with wry self-effacing humor, but McKinnon still finds delightful places to improvise. Her brain wheels from joke to joke yet always knows when to land. “I am Lulu! And I said kneel!” she thunders, a large crimson cape floating behind her tiny pink body. Kate McKinnon clearly has superpowers because I would do so gladly. (B.L. Panther)
Idris Elba is a fascinating conundrum that has become common in this current iteration of Hollywood: The grade-A movie star potential with the filmography of a B-movie star. This particular struggle is very particularly (though not singularly) the struggle of many Black stars in the current iteration of Hollywood, and this is what makes “Three Thousand Years of Longing” such a great project for Elba. As a heartbroken Djinn, Elba’s known qualities emerge unstifled—charm, presence, rage, but now with new additions like desperation, longing, and the tenor of an engrossing storyteller.
There’s a shade here of the same power that made Tony Leung so irresistible when he was in some form of desire or longing, reinforced by the strong beams of vulnerability achingly present in lines like “How can it be a mistake to love someone entirely?” Standing at a window that seems to sit just outside of the Jinn’s accessible memories of a love long since lost, the six-foot-two man becomes a pitiful figure and a pitiable figure all at once. His powers laid down and his humanity laid bare, we see for the first time since “Beasts of No Nation” an example of a range of powers yet to be explored by a very talented actor who, much like his magical character here, will soon be free of the bondage of the bottle that Hollywood has selected for him. (David Moses)
Zach Cregger’s “Barbarian” is one of the most devious horror surprises of the year, not the least of which is due to its twisty structure and outrageous premise. But its more interesting questions revolve around the nature of monsterdom, and who we should really be worried about. Is it the seemingly nice guy (Bill Skarsgard’s Keith) who’s endlessly respectful of his unexpected female companion’s boundaries?
As act one crashes into act two, we learn the answer: No, it’s Justin Long’s dipshit failed actor AJ, who considers himself a ‘nice guy’ but who we learn slept with a female castmate in less-than-consenting circumstances. It’s a role that plays perfectly to Long’s strengths; where Skarsgård lures us in with his Pennywise rep, Long riffs on the charming, befuddled underdog he’s spent a lifetime cultivating. But his menace is more mundane, his petty selfishness proving more outright evil than any inbred monster. (When he finds the creepiest hallway in real estate history, his first thought is to Google whether he can count it as extra square footage.)
It’s the little things—the way Long modulates his aw-shucks persona depending on who he’s talking to, his false bravado, the glimmers of self-awareness when he opens up to Tess that he “might be a bad person.” But Cregger, and Long, understand the plight of the blinkered douchebag: He can talk a big game, but soon as he sees an out for himself, he’ll take it. It’s pitch-perfect work from Long, modulating the chill vibes we associate with him into something delightfully new. (Clint Worthington)
Ana De Armas’s Melinda Van Allen isn’t a character in “Deep Water”—she’s a fate, a harbinger of the apocalypse. She storms from room to room in her Louisiana fiefdom leaving either destruction or idolatrous panting and sighing in her wake. She’s forced her husband (Ben Affleck, so cowed he’s barely a movie star) into a position of permanent supplication. He’s become a shell only capable of delivering pleasantries or apologies. What else is there to do when de Armas is sitting to your left, trying to ooze, scream, and wiggle her way out of her human form and into pure energy? She hisses and pouts with a face full of toothpaste; she makes her husband eat out of her hands; she talks with her mouth full; she struts around drunk and naked in front of shocked onlookers; she’s apparently taught the whole town an Italian pop song so they can act as her back-up band, or maybe it’s that her charm imparts it to them telepathically. She’s the most unselfconscious woman in the world and the world seems to just acknowledge that she’s beyond control.
Ana de Armas puts nothing between her and this woman’s impulses. Her fearlessness is incendiary, and you laugh with her as she puts on her burlesque. De Armas got the press for “Blonde,” but this is the modern-day glamor girl performance we should be feting. Rita Hayworth would have applauded. Anita Ekberg would have been jealous. (Scout Tafoya)
In the African kingdom of Dahomey, the commoners are not allowed to look upon the Agojie woman warriors. Yet one of the first things we see in “The Woman King” is a little boy peeking at their impressive military procession. It is Lashana Lynch’s Izogie, who breaks formation to come over and intimidate the child before smiling broadly and patting him on the back. The moment is an early but characteristically warm and compelling choice from Lynch, who from that moment through to her character’s final scenes solidifies herself as the film’s emotional core.
For the audience and for new recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), Izogie is Morpheus, slowly introducing her to the strange new world of the Agojie warriors. She quickly takes Nawi under her wing and teaches her not only how to be a warrior but how to carry herself with dignity in the spartan world of soldiering. Lynch is immediately believable as a veteran Agojie and as a mentor; through Lynch’s world-weary eyes, Izogie’s gruff treatment of Nawi is rooted in a clear sense of sisterhood. These hints at a sibling-like connection are conveyed indirectly through sly glances and amusement at Nawi’s early helplessness, and through quiet bonding scenes between Lynch and Mbedu.
Lynch imbues Izogie with magnetism as a cold and deadly warrior, and empathy as a young woman thrust into Agojie life by difficult circumstances, just like Nawi. It’s hard not to fist pump as she takes on her male warrior counterpart in a heart-pumping endurance competition, only to be moved by Lynch’s subtle allusions to her torturous past. When she does finally open up, the beautiful moment sees Izogie tell Nawi about her painful childhood and how she fought to escape her oppression. “It is enough to make you cry. But it is better to laugh,” she concludes with a painful smile. Watching Lynch, I did both. (Soren Hough)
The reporters of “She Said” are played by Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan in roles that should, in a just world, garner them Academy Award nominations. But the movie failed to connect with audiences, perhaps because people don’t find fictionalized investigative journalism narratives as seductive as they once did. Samantha Morton, Jennifer Ehle, and Ashley Judd (playing herself) are all heartbreaking without playing scenes in the manner we are used to seeing Great Acting represented in the nominee montage on Oscar night.
But the performance I couldn’t stop thinking about is Andre Braugher as Executive Editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet. If you read a synopsis of “She Said,” chances are Braugher’s Baquet will not even be mentioned. Baquet doesn’t even get the kind of stirring speech about the Fourth Estate the way Ben Bradlee does in both “All the President’s Men” and “The Post.” But what Braugher’s Baquet does is put Harvey Weinstein in his place. I’ve never felt like applauding at the end of a speakerphone business call scene but I almost did while watching “She Said.” And it isn’t because Baquet tries to match Weinstein’s bully-boy tactics. Quite the contrary, the more Weinstein growls threats, the more matter-of-fact Baquet becomes. Weinstein’s game usually works like a charm, but Baquet’s sang-froid neutralizes his attack. He refuses to let Weinstein dictate the rules of engagement and he simply sticks to the facts of the situation: We are running a story, so do you have a comment? The end.
Andre Braugher doesn’t overplay one note. He delivers every line with an elegance that only at times approaches the vague irritation one reserves for a misbehaving toddler. He gives the heroes of the story the support they need to slay the dragon. And he gives us all a timely masterclass on how to handle narcissists who try to steamroll anything in their path. Braugher won’t be nominated for an Oscar in January, but his authority and moral clarity make his Baquet one of the great performances of (unsung) heroism in an American cinema overloaded with the cheapest kind of heroics. (Brandon Wilson)
Léa Seydoux as Sandra in “One Fine Morning”
The notion that Léa Seydoux is one of the most accomplished and mesmerizing actresses to come out of France in the last decade should not be that outrageous of a preposition—she has demonstrated this time and again in films ranging from “Blue is the Warmest Color” to the last two James Bond epic to this year’s “Crimes of the Future.” In most of her performances, she has specialized in playing alluring enigmas of one sort or another. But in Mia Hansen-Løve’s “One Fine Morning,” she has been tasked with dialing that aura of mystery way down in order to play an ordinary everyday person. Not only does she pull it off beautifully, it might just be her finest performance to date.
As Sandra, a young widow who is trying to juggle being a single parent to her young daughter, being the primary caregiver for her beloved father as he begins to succumb further to a neurodegenerative disease, working as a French-English interpreter, and tentatively beginning a romance with an old friend of her husband who also happens to be married, Seydoux plays a character who could have easily be played in a broad and outwardly emotive manner. But she smartly goes the other way, emphasizing the character’s gentle resilience as she tries to juggle it all while still demonstrating some degree of hope and vulnerability at the same time. She slips into it so convincingly that it is almost like seeing her for the first time.
Like the film as a whole, the performance hits in a quiet and direct manner that is so understated at times that it takes a while to recognize just how strong it is. A scene in which she patiently and gently talks her impaired father through the formerly simple act of opening the door is one that will especially touch a nerve with anyone who has to bear witness to a loved one struggling with the most ordinary of acts while knowing there is only so much they can do for them. Seydoux transforms what could have been an overblown melodrama into something far trickier and ultimately more powerful. (Peter Sobczynski)
Park Hae-il as Jang Hae-joon in “Decision to Leave”
Park Hae-il’s performance makes for the perfect film noir protagonist in director Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave.” It’s not exactly a showy role, but there’s much more to discover behind the silences that Hae-il portrays. As Detective Jang Hae-joon, he’s highly dedicated to his work, so much so, he continuously takes the night shift with its long hours and tedious stakeouts. His work ethic could be the cause of his insomnia, as it’s likely that his work poisons his sleep—the photos of the unsolved murders that plaster his walls. His relationship with his wife is more cordial than romantic, but he seems at peace with the monotony of his chosen profession.
That makes his interest in Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei) all the more peculiar. His life is a no-frills affair until he becomes entwined with the prime suspect in his latest case. When a retired immigration official, Ki Do Soo, was found dead at the foot of a cliff it’s presumed that his wife, Seo-rae might be connect to the crime. Although Hae-joon shouldn’t get involved with her, the attraction is obvious from the start, as he gives his suspect special treatment and gets pulled into her orbit. He’s smitten with her due to her charm and perceived innocence. Even as the circumstances surrounding her innocence begin to decay, Hae-joon has become infatuated with this woman, leading to a decision that might threaten his sense of justice.
Eyes have a pivotal role to play in “Decision to Leave.” Whether they be the eyes that are investigating possible subjects, the glazed-open eyes of the corpses, or Hae-joon’s eyes on Seo-rae as the police officer responsible for uncovering her secrets. It helps Hae-il’s performance that he has such captivating eyes–ones that can seemingly bore into your soul. With his gaze locked on Seo-rae, he’ll discover that innocence may be in the eye of the beholder. (Max Covill)
Guslagie Malanda as Laurence Coly in “Saint Omer”
Silence and pregnant pauses foster an incredible tension in “Saint Omer,” a French courtroom drama based on the 2016 court case of Fabienne Kabou, who, in 2013, drowned her infant daughter. Writer/director Alice Diop attended Kabou’s trial when she was pregnant with her first child and “Saint Omer” reflects her attention to both the charged mood and unspoken tension during a trial that, as she observes, was largely attended and presided over by women.
Lead actress Guslagie Malanda plays Kabou’s stand-in, Laurence Coly, with a poetic and unusually thoughtful emphasis on the space between her verbal testimony. Diop often films Malanda in unbroken takes, with her piercing eyes staring up and off-screen. Through her speech, Coly struggles to articulate her meaning, but in her silences, Malanda and Diop suggest an interiority that cannot be so easily accessed.
“Saint Omer” is ultimately more than a drama about mothers and daughters and the ineffable weight of cultural assimilation. Diop’s movie is also about the act of looking and the hope of either seeing or being seen by others.
In “Saint Omer,” we see Diop and her audience surrogate protagonist, the pregnant novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame), sit with troubling emotions, whose complexity is often more powerful because they’re indicated rather than neatly detailed and prescribed. Malanda’s restrained body language suggests a lot without reducing her character to trite mannerisms or tacky histrionics. Her amazing performance is even more remarkable for the precision and depth of her expression. (Simon Abrams)
Andrea Riseborough doesn’t usually do transformative or “chameleon”-type roles where she radically transforms her face or body in some extreme way. Yet every time you see her, it takes a moment to register that you’re seeing Andrea Riseborough playing a character, and not simply That Person. It’s a rare, upper-echelon actor’s gift (Olivia Colman has it, too), and it’s on vivid display in “To Leslie,” a drama from director Michael Morris and writer Ryan Binaco about an alcoholic former lottery winner named Leslie who burned through her winnings and has been reduced to a nomadic, haphazard existence, living in dread of interacting with all the people she’s wronged.
Riseborough nails the body language of desperately spiraling substance abusers: alert yet dissociated; energetic and focused when the goal is to gain advantage or money, but otherwise flaky and self-infatuated; always slightly overdoing everything, even when they think they’re being subtle. She captures Leslie’s attempts to regain control of her life with just as much precision (every step is a baby step). And she does it all without help from special makeup effects or subjective camerawork or an editorializing, sentimental score. It’s just somebody inhabiting a fictional construct so completely that you feel as if you’re watching a talented unknown mixed in with such established character actors as Allison Janney, Marc Maron, Andre Royo, and Stephen Root (who also have their own version of Riseborough’s gift). Riseborough is so real in this movie that the viewer is torn between wanting to look away—because so much of the character’s predicament is so painful—and peering into every part of every frame, to better absorb the psychological journey that the actress captures in totality. (Matt Zoller Seitz)