A great performance in a not-so-great movie is still a great performance. A great performance in a great movie is the kind of thing they give out gold statues for. It’s rare to have both, though one doesn’t necessarily depend on another — in fact, some of the best films made this year might not have the best performances.
In some respects, the Oscar race has caused observers and voters to lose touch with what great acting is all about. Often, charisma or star power or zeitgeist capturing is the reason an actor or actress wins, not the performance itself. The Screen Actors Guild merged with AFTRA six years ago, and though their nominating committee is restricted to performers, the expanded membership (from 100,000 to 160,000 members) has seemed to dilute, a bit, that pure appreciation for the craft of acting that used to define their nominations.
Critics seem to view acting in a different ways than actors do. Critics often like actors who seem to play themselves. They like the naturalized style of less is more. They usually chafe against scenery chewing and, for whatever reason, they seem to be especially resistant to the powerhouse performances, choosing instead the blank canvas of a face that doesn’t do much and rather lets the film’s themes and stories course through them.
But if you’re talking about full-throated full-throttle acting acting, there is still such a thing as the craft of acting which not a lot people can carry off. Not just anyone can be put in front of a camera and do it well. Often it takes a whole career to finally get to the place of being able to deliver a great transformative performance. Some actors embark on a lifetime of training, developing their skills and honing their talents. Other actors just get lucky, needing no training and barely memorizing their lines: when they get in front of a camera, the magic happens anyway. Whatever that thing is, it isn’t something you can learn. It’s something you have to be born with.
Actors see acting differently than most everyone else. I know because I once studied acting in my formative years. I took it very seriously, studying for eight hours a day. Even the most well-studied actors who do all of the work (sometimes for a lifetime) need some talent, charisma, and that thing that makes people want to watch them (good looks always help; distinctive looks are the next best thing). Great acting is often a mixture of both technique and natural abilities. But if given the choice, I’ll take the studied actor over the charismatic one any day of the week.
The performances that stood out to me this year were the ones where the actor dug deep and did the work, as opposed to the ones who turned in important performances that served the plot of the films, but didn’t necessarily seem to reach too far beyond who they are in real life. That’s my groove. It’s just a personal preference.
Again, these performances aren’t necessarily in the films I think are the best of the year — they stand out because of the work the actor did, period. It is a personal preference, for reasons I will state below.
And of course, let’s note that relatively few actors are given the chance to play the best and most versatile parts. It’s hard to get those roles in the first place.
1. Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Vice
Just watched VICE, the Cheney movie. I thought it really was Cheney and not Christian Bale. And I used to work with Cheney. An amazing job. Sam Rockwell as W was also spot on. Only a great script and acting could tell this story. #VICEmovie
— Richard A Clarke (@richardclarke) December 27, 2018
It’s true that Bale’s Dick Cheney is so good it’s almost better at Cheney than Cheney himself, but it’s also the kind of thing only a very skilled actor at the top of his game could pull off. Bale gains and loses weight for roles. He transforms himself inside and out so that the actor himself really does become an instrument in recreating a character on screen. Bale won an Oscar for his portrayal of the drug addicted mess of a brother in The Fighter, but he’s managed to top even that performance with his portrayal of Dick Cheney: a performance so good it becomes one main reason to see the film, and perhaps even highly recommend it, even if the film itself is a mixed bag. Sam Rockwell has a small but breathtaking supporting role as George W. Bush but it is, in the short amount of screen time, so dead. When an actor can do that? You know they’re at the top of their game.
2. Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Malek as Freddie Mercury is one of the biggest surprises this year. Initially panned by the critics, Bohemian Rhapsody was a box office hit, largely due to Malek. He does transform himself into the rock icon but his performance isn’t necessarily great for that reason. It’s more the emotional resonance he brings to the character that makes the film, and his work in it, exceptional.
3. Glenn Close, The Wife
You don’t get to where Glenn Close is without being one of the best actors of hers or any generation. She’s been through it. She’s played such an array of characters, developing her range and craft over decades. She knows what she’s doing. Every blink, every gesture, every facial expression has a reason behind it. She must play two things in The Wife: who she is to her husband — and who she is to herself. Since we know who she really is, we can see how she must suppress that in the company of her husband. And that is how you know you are in the presence of great acting.
4. Nicole Kidman, Destroyer
One of Kidman’s gifts as an actress has been her willingness to go deep and dark. She can go there. She can really go there, and go there she does in Destroyer — one of the harder, braver, more unflinching performances she’s ever given. It’s raw, brutal, unlikable, and at times ugly. Audiences now probably aren’t really up for what Destroyer is, considering people (as of late) seem to want only films that mostly take them to a happier place. All the same, Kidman’s work is astonishing, even for an actor who has made a career of challenging roles, to say the least.
5. Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Watching Green Book again for the third time last night, I was reminded how brilliant both of these actors are. Viggo Mortensen’s Tony is so specific, down to hand gestures, speaking tempo, how he eats, how he smokes. Though this is an actor known for disappearing into roles often dark and commanding, Moretensen’s work here shows that he can be funny, disarmingly sweet, and charming.
Ali won an Oscar for Moonlight in a role that, though wonderful to watch, did not showcase what the actor is really capable of doing. Green Book gives him a chance at some deeper character work. His Don Shirley alternates between being closed off to people like Tony and to a world not ready for him yet, and to letting his guard down and warming to his new friend. Yes, the knives are out for Green Book. It surely won’t satisfy everyone. But the one thing you can’t deny about it is that the acting is great.
6. Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me
McCarthy started out her career as a serious actor before transitioning into comedy, which is funny considering the press around her performance seems to see it in reverse. She knows what she’s doing. Here she has built a character who puts on a tough front but is so fragile, in fact, that her cat’s illness nearly destroys her. McCarthy is brilliant in the role and easily gives one of the best performances of the year playing yet another character based on someone in real life. Richard E. Grant goes toe to toe with McCarthy – both are so funny yet really adept at diving into their tender, vulnerable sides. It is one for the ages, these two in the same film playing these parts. Hats off to director Marielle Heller for finding exactly the right balance.
7. Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
We covered Hawke yesterday, but just to say that in First Reformed, Hawke has suddenly become someone whose life experiences show on his face. That has really been one of his challenges as an actor with a perpetually youthful, angelic face. Finally, in this role, he’s able to show outwardly what’s going on inwardly. He’s great throughout in this, but particularly in the scenes he must play alone, when he is doing something no one else can know about, like drinking, or pissing blood, or witnessing a suicide. Or finally, trying to kill himself. It’s a haunting performance.
8. Julia Roberts, Ben Is Back
Julia Roberts has always been good. Most of the time, though, she’s played some version of herself — while always being good, of course. She’s dabbled here and there with accents and period pieces but her biggest successes have come from giving the audience what they want: that smile, that laugh. But with Ben Is Back she shows her range at last, her ability to carry an entire movie with just the expressions on her face.
9. Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
So much has been written about this ensemble such that their extraordinary mix of scene-stealing and generous ensemble interplay doesn’t really need more ink. Why these are great performances doesn’t require an explanation. Anyone can plainly see. All three of these actresses are perfectly cast to dive into these specific characters. What a delight.
10. Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh is another great example of the way some actors really do get better and better, role after role, movie after movie. You will never see specific choices made more clearly or deliberately than you do here. He had to go deep to bring Van Gogh to life. In so doing, he delivers arguably the best version of the painter — a man in love with the colors and movement of the natural world but who could not really connect to people.
11. Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga – A Star Is Born
It’s weird that the best performance in A Star Is Born is the guy who directs himself, and yet, that is how it turned out. Cooper has found in this character a way to really sink into someone else. While he’s good at character work, he’s probably not ever gone to quite this level in his career before. You can’t take your eyes off him, not just because of his obvious beauty but because his character is always wrestling with internal conflict. Lady Gaga has a ways to go yet before she can be considered at the top of her game as an actress. She knows that. But what she’s done with this role is impressive all the same. She has something enigmatic about her that translates. Bradley Cooper figured out how best to showcase it.
12. Toni Collette, Hereditary
Collette was a critics darling for her work as a beleaguered mother trying hard to figure out what’s going on with the crazy shit happening in her home. Why it’s a great performance is how far Collette takes it. She didn’t have to, by any means, thus elevating the film from horror film to something that will stand the test of time.
13. Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Some of the comments around King in Beale Street early on was that she was playing the same character she always plays. But it just is not even close to the truth. Compare her work here alongside Jerry Maguire. That is how you know in Beale Street she is delivering deep character work of the kind we’ve not really seen from her, at least not in her film work. King is the kind of actress who is always good, always a standout, yet never gets the credit she deserves for carving out nuanced, diverse characters. Her work in Beale Street is the best in the film and one of the best performances of the year.
14. Charlize Theron, Tully
It’s unfortunate that Theron’s work in Jason Reitman’s Tully has been mostly forgotten in one of the most competitive years for Best Actress contenders. After Monster, we knew what she’s capable of as an actress, but here she plays a mother who has lost touch with herself, with her body, and is in the throws of depression. It’s such a good performance, with fantastic dialogue from Diablo Cody and Reitman’s careful attention to this character study, so completely opposite these three’s last collaboration.
15. Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy First Man
I’ve already written so much about First Man that this will end up being repetitive, but one thing to note about Gosling’s work here is that it’s a carefully studied portrayal of the nerd that was Neil Armstrong. The more you know about the man himself, the more you know about his outlook on life, the better Gosling’s performance will be to you. It’s by far the best of his career. It’s just that only some of us know this. And of course, lending onscreen support, Claire Foy is magnificent, as always. She’s playing “the wife” but she also plays her as she likely was in real life, nerdy, and a little like Armstrong.
16. Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians
True confession: I’m not the biggest fan of Crazy Rich Asians. What did surprise me about it was Constance Wu’s lead performance. She has the mostly thankless role of playing the wide-eyed girl in a romantic comedy but she balances so many different conflicts at once, and nails the harder emotional scenes involving her past. She gives the film its emotional heft and indeed, a star should be born with this performance.
17. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Widows
For whatever reason, Davis has not been making the cut in any of the major contests for Best Actress so far. That’s probably due to the film being primarily an ensemble piece. And truth be told, I wish Davis had really dominated the whole thing because she was the best part of it, along with Elizabeth Debicki. Davis is a magnificent actress who is always good but as the badass in this film she takes it to a new level.
18. Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Elsie Fisher jokes that her work in this film is only good because she was an eighth grader at the time. She is being far too modest. While it’s true that she and the character Kayla are similar, clearly, she is doing some hard work as an actor here, with body language specifically but with also how she speaks, how she plays the many faces required of her so well: her video self, her real self, her high school self. She nails it.
19. Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Private Life
In a year with so much great work all around, it’s not easy to remember everyone who did good work. When we only focus on the top fives or top tens, all of the praise and rewards seems arbitrary. But do not miss the chance to watch these two absolute masters tackle this work with wit, insight and precision.
20. Ben Foster, Tomasin MacKenzie, Leave No Trace
Ben Foster is one of those actors who really can do anything, go anywhere, play anyone. As father and daughter, he and MacKenzie as partners living in the wilds of Oregon is great because there isn’t a single second where you don’t believe that this is real, that they are real. Great work all around in this fine film.
And there you have it. Acting at its absolute best. Are there many people I have not added? Oh yeah. Many. This is a personal subjective list of the best work to my mind. It’s not meant to be definitive.