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Colman Domingo wins praise for playing an overlooked civil rights hero in "Rustin."

Whether they’re actually new faces or just new to this list, it’s good to see some people on this feature of mine who haven’t made it into my good books before. Let’s run through the best lead performances of 2023’s movies.

Annette Bening

I’ve never been the biggest fan of hers, but her lack of charisma fits her role in Nyad so beautifully. It takes a single-minded, self-obsessed, truculent individual to try to swim from Cuba to Florida, and this longtime icon of American cinema gives a career performance as a senior endurance athlete running away from an abusive past while trying to pull off an unprecedented feat.

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan

They provide the beat for Maestro as a gay celebrity and his wife, whose marriage both is and isn’t for show. The way they navigate this unorthodox and psychologically treacherous arrangement gives Cooper’s biopic its emotional weight. They are both quite good individually, but together they make this examination of a half-open marriage into a compelling duet.

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Colman Domingo

He is quite good in The Color Purple, but he saves his greatest-ever performance for Rustin as the 1960s civil rights leader who has to hide his homosexuality not just to protect himself (from enemies outside and inside the civil-rights movement) but also to protect Martin Luther King and the work they’re doing together. As a keen logistical mind and a man who finally comes clean about his sexuality to King, he gives us Bayard Rustin in full.

Paul Giamatti

Somehow this guy remains underappreciated after decades of good work. (Granted, he’s spent much of the past few years on Billions, the show that wishes it were Succession.) Anyway, it’s good to see him in the spotlight once again and being tipped for an Oscar nomination as the lonely and curmudgeonly history teacher in The Holdovers who’s noble enough to give up his job for a student and sneaky enough to steal the headmaster’s cognac on his way out.

Lily Gladstone

It takes a lot to hold the screen with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, but Gladstone does more than that in Killers of the Flower Moon. She projects a sense of life that’s wholly independent of the murders going on around Mollie Kyle in her Osage community. The inner life she puts across will stand her in good stead when she moves on from this.

Sandra Hüller

She’s perfectly chilling in The Zone of Interest as a Nazi commandant’s wife who casually threatens her Polish servants, “I’ll spread your ashes all over our backyard.” Still, she makes this list for her performance in Anatomy of a Fall, where she plays a celebrity author in a remorseless spotlight as she stands trial for murdering her husband. Take her stoic bearing as dignity or a sign of homicidal psychopathy, she’s absorbing either way.

Barry Keoghan

Some great performances terrify you, move your heart to pity, or make your spirit soar. Then there’s Keoghan’s turn as a murderous, quasi-queer social climber in Saltburn, which makes you want to jump in the shower. Whether he’s having sex with a freshly dug grave or inspiring a TikTok meme with his naked dance, he makes a home in your memory that you won’t be able to evict him from.

Florence Pugh

Everyone else has forgotten about A Good Person because it doesn’t deserve the performance that she brings as a woman who spirals into opioid addiction after a car accident that kills her fiancé’s family. I haven’t, though, because she gives an astonishing performance even though I’m used to being astonished by her work. The self-loathing and sorrow shooting through this performance feels so tangible. She also writes her character’s songs.

Margaret Qualley

Admittedly, I hadn’t seen her do much other than look hot in the likes of The Nice Guys and even Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. So I was blindsided when I saw her navigate the verbal thickets of Sanctuary as a dominatrix who grabs her CEO client by the short and curlies (figuratively, not literally). She is revelatory as a woman who has to fight for control, and she does it while wearing a blonde wig that would be too loud for most drag queens.

Margot Robbie

How on Earth do you play Barbie? She starred in the biggest box-office hit of the year, and I’m not sure most of the audience appreciated just how easy it would have been to come up short as a character that most girls have made their own. Robbie’s masterclass in physical comedy is impressive enough, but she also conveys someone who’s making her way through a reality that’s scary sometimes. What a turn.

Emma Stone

Other actors win an Oscar and stop taking all risks. She just gets more interesting (and Taylor Swift wrote a song about her this year). Starring in Poor Things — or “horny steampunk Frankenstein,” as Slate called it — would be too daring for many actresses, and the utter conviction and crazed movement that Stone brings to the role is crucial to the film’s success.

Jeffrey Wright

We probably should despise his character in American Fiction for being so willing to pander to white readers’ worst stereotypes of Black people, yet somehow we go along with this intelligent and discerning literary man as he sorts through his family’s affairs 3,000 miles away from home and struggles to tell his new girlfriend the truth about the novel that he wrote under a fake name. Wright has said that this character is particularly close to his actual self, and you can feel it.

Kōji Yakusho

Perfect Days doesn’t work without his performance touched by heavenly grace as a man with the least glamorous of jobs. As a public toilet cleaner who still looks up at the sky every morning and sees something new, this 68-year-old star of such different films as Shall We Dance? and Cure projects an exalted state that all of us could aspire to.

Honorable mention: Timothée Chalamet, Wonka; Jessica Chastain, Memory; Adam Driver, Ferrari; Zac Efron, The Iron Claw; Jennifer Lawrence, No Hard Feelings; Greta Lee, Past Lives; Joaquin Phoenix, Beau Is Afraid; Mark Ruffalo, Poor Things; Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One; Sophie Wilde, Talk to Me.

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