I thought I had something interesting to say for the introduction to this yearly feature of mine, but I don’t. These performances come from many different corners of the globe and don’t seem to reflect any emerging trends. They’re just worth savoring on their own, and many of them show new sides of actors we thought we knew.
Foxtrot begins with his middle-aged architect receiving the news of his only son being killed while serving in the Israeli army. Then there are some astonishing plot twists that transform the movie from a close study of grief to something altogether weirder and more ambitious. The film leaves him for long stretches, but you won’t forget the early one-take scene when he sits in his bathroom, trying to process the terrible news until he turns violently on himself.
Thing about characters who are psychopaths: The more screen time they receive, the less interesting they tend to become. Cooke is on the screen a lot in Thoroughbreds, and yet her psychopathic teenager never ceases to be fascinating. Maybe it’s the funny lines she fires off (“Wear a hat.”), or maybe it’s her fleeting appreciation of beauty and compassion, or maybe this British actress is that good at giving this emotionless killer an unflinching assessment of herself.
Last January, people were floating the idea of him giving one of the best supporting performances of the year in Paddington 2. I thought that was amusing, then I gradually left the idea to one side. Now I’m back where I started. The movie itself is somewhat overrated, but everything with Grant’s vain, unhinged, washed-up actor is pure gold, whether he’s doing character voices alone in his attic, starring in a dog food commercial, or leading prisoners in a Stephen Sondheim number. He has never been funnier, and that’s saying something.
Michael B. Jordan
Now I want someone to cast him as Hamlet, because his role in Black Panther gives pretty clear evidence that he can play the melancholy Dane. After all, Erik Killmonger has had his uncle murder his father and take over the throne. Jordan raises this villain to tragic heights, a man who could have been a great asset to his country, only his childhood trauma made him so twisted and angry that he vows to take it over and conquer the world. On top of all that: Hey, Auntie.
We’ve seen her in a whole bunch of places, yet somehow it took this long until someone gave her a showcase part. That’s the case in If Beale Street Could Talk, where she plays the protagonist’s mother, trying to help her 20-year old-daughter have a baby with the father in prison. As she travels to Puerto Rico to try to free her future son-in-law, King makes gripping viewing of a simple scene when she tries on a Rita Moreno wig to blend in with the local women.
I have to recognize her comic performance in Game Night (because I still crack up over her reading of “Oh no, he died!”), but she earns this spot on my list for her role in Disobedience. As a rabbi’s wife, she’s torn between the love of another woman and the support and structure provided by the London Orthodox Jewish community where she lives. Watch her pausing outside the classroom where she teaches to hear the girls singing in Hebrew, and you’ll see how powerful that last part is.
Debra Granik just keeps finding these girls who can act the living crap out of their roles. Following in the footsteps of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, this 17-year-old New Zealander co-stars in Granik’s Leave No Trace and will make you believe she’s a girl who has spent a good portion of her life surviving in the forests outside Portland with her PTSD-suffering dad. What will she do next? Who will Debra Granik find next?
“I find myself capable of much unpleasantness,” says her Abigail Hill in The Favourite. She ain’t kiddin’. What better way for this beloved actress to extricate herself from the America’s Sweetheart box than to play a cold-eyed seducer who manipulates a queen into giving her everything she wants without asking? Just check her look of bemusement at the Tories’ pomegranate fight, then the way she strongarms their leader into cutting a deal immediately afterwards. She makes a delicious bad girl, too.
It takes a lot for a male actor to be noticed in a lesbian film, but West actually dominates long stretches of Colette as the famous novelist’s hard-partying, womanizing publisher husband who signs off on his wife’s affairs with women to justify his own. His room-filling bonhomie helps explain why Keira Knightley’s Colette finds him irresistible, and his spendthrift ways show why she needs to be free of him.
If you liked him as the upstanding and brave Glenn on The Walking Dead or as the doughty labor organizer in Sorry to Bother You, you should see his Korean-language performance in Burning. His Americanized businessman is richer, better-looking, and more socially adept than Yoo Ah-in’s antihero. He is also a major-league creep, never more so than when he casually tells the protagonist about the pleasure he derives from setting things on fire. This year’s movies had some memorable toxic male villains, but this one took the cake.
Honorable mention: Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians; Mackenzie Davis, Tully; Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman; Cynthia Erivo, Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale; Jonah Hill, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot; Russell Hornsby, The Hate U Give; Daniel Kaluuya, Widows; Joshua Leonard, Unsane; Blake Lively, A Simple Favor; Tessa Thompson, Sorry to Bother You; Michelle Williams, I Feel Pretty.