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The Best Performances of 2018

Written by on December 24, 2018 


Following our top 50 films of 2018, it’s time to zero in on the best performances of the year. Rather than divide categories into supporting or lead–or even male or female–we’ve written about our thirty favorite performances, period. (A few more, if you add some pairings we couldn’t leave out.) Check out our countdown below and start watching the ones you’ve missed here.

30. Michelle Pfeiffer (Where is Kyra?)


A pervading sense of isolation and despair runs through Where is Kyra? and Michelle Pfeiffer carries it all with an emotionally resonant performance of subtlety and deep ache. The story of a woman struggling to make ends make following the death of her mother, Andrew Dosunmu’s drama is keenly attuned to the pressures of living in a city that doesn’t care whether you’re there or not. Bradford Young’s distinct eye for solitude also painstakingly paints Pfeiffer’s character into the desolate corners of her locale until there’s no route to take except for the most difficult one possible. – Jordan R.

29. Blake Lively (A Simple Favor)


So far the movies haven’t known what to do with Blake Lively. They either obsess with her beauty (The Age of Adaline) or try to make her “unattractive” for capital-a-“acting” purposes (The Town). They either see her as a damsel in distress (Green Lantern) or a destructive femme fatale (Savages). But Lively contains all of those and all at once, as she reminds us in A Simple Favor, where she plays Emily Nelson, the sardonic, mysterious working mom who becomes the object of craft vlogger Stephanie’s (Anna Kendrick) devotion. Clad in tuxedos that she turns severe or disarming with a glance, Lively’s Emily is the embodiment of creepy chic and modulated warmth. She’s the woman everybody wants to be. She’s Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich, Lucille Ball, and Eartha Kitt, Garbo and Marilyn… you get the point. – Jose S.

28. Claire Foy (Unsane)


Released early in 2018 and seemingly forgotten, Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot horror film Unsane was one of the year’s best offerings, and in huge part due to the wide-eyed anxiety of Claire Foy. The fuzzy, deep depth-of-field of the iPhone combined with stilted framing/cutting and sudden camera moves follow Foy through her descent into the hell that is the American privatized healthcare system as she’s involuntarily held in a psych facility so that they can profit of her workplace insurance plan. Foy transitions with ease from understandable paranoia/panic to playing the agreeable roles expected of her while she’s being gaslit and stalked within the narrative (and the subjective, voyeuristic style) to a full-blown combination of the two as she works her way through physical/emotional assaults of her abuser and claustrophobic headspace he put her in, and eventually overcomes that monster only to have the lasting psychological consequences of the experience linger. – Josh L.

27. Laia Artigas (Summer 1993)


Preternaturally talented is a praise that gets sung a little too often that it should, but there could be no better way to describe the extraordinary 10-year-old newcomer Carla Simón has cast as the lead actress in her riveting debut feature, Summer 1993. As Frida, a 6-year-old who suddenly loses both parents to an unspeakable tragedy and leaves native Barcelona to settle with her uncle, aunt and little cousin in the Catalan countryside, Artigas handles a harrowing material with an endearing mix of intelligence and grace. Watching her “play the adult” with her younger cousin, instructing her to “call her mum” only to ask not to be bothered in a typical parent lingo – “I’m too tired to play, darling” – is a miracle of stage chemistry, and one of the most poignant scenes of the year. – Leonardo G.

26. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster (Leave No Trace)


Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s first narrative film since Winter’s Bone, finds Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie at the heart of a subtly calibrated tearjerker on finding bonds (and communities) of support that exist outside the norm. Foster’s performance as a rugged, introverted veteran—cast aside by civilized society and living an ostensibly feral lifestyle with his daughter—is a layered one, filled with pain and heartache at the idea that he might be imposing his own inadequacies on her. Meanwhile McKenzie has an even trickier job of balancing her curiosity (that eventually gets them both into trouble with the police and children’s aid) and desire for change/growth with her deep-rooted affection for her static father. The cumulative effect of the two being a heartbreaking catharsis at the idea that your kids will be better than you; and that that’s okay. In fact, that’s how you know you did your job. – Josh L.

25. Meinhard Neumann (Western)


In a year filled with films led by non-professional actors, one of the most distinctive performances came from one such performer: Meinhard Neumann, the lead of Valeska Grisebach’s Western. His presence, founded largely upon the weathered stoicism of his physical bearing, is key to the film’s transplant of the eponymous genre’s tropes onto a story of garbled communication between German workers and Bulgarian villagers. As he attempts to bridge this divide, Neumann’s quiet confidence radiates outwards, instilling the film with its own odd, palpable sense of urgency. – Ryan S.

24. Hugh Grant (Paddington 2)


There’s an abundance of glee in Hugh Grant’s mustache-twirling Phoenix Buchanan, the narcissistic has-been actor behind all of Paddington 2’s mischief. Writ large, the self-parody inherent in the casting is its own treat, but ingrained in Grant’s bonkers dramatist, ever the chameleon, is an unhinged egomaniac. Traversing London’s landmarks as a tramp, a knight, or an unusually attractive nun, Buchanan is a conspiracy of one, with only his bygone roles for company. Whether in earnest or self-mock, Grant makes a meal out of it, leaving teeth marks all over the scenery, and immense delight in his wake. – Conor O.

23. Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)


In a way Lady Gaga has been building to this moment her entire career. Musicians have been moving into the shimmering glow of cinema for nearly the entire history of the medium, and for the last great MTV music video icon the move was seamless. Playing a struggling musician whose career explodes through a viral video is essentially a mirror. What truly made her stand out, however, wasn’t the musical performances, it was the dynamic physicality she shared with co-star Cooper. They were beyond just chemistry. They sold the idea of love. The entire movie hinges on her ability to convey her deserved stardom and their unstoppable love for one another, and Gaga? Well, she did both better than anyone would have rightly expected. – Willow M.

22. Adriano Tardiolo (Happy as Lazzaro)


While we teach our children to be virtuous, honest and kind, these traits are far too often misread or exploited as weaknesses in adulthood. In Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, a saintly and pure-hearted peasant works tirelessly, completing any orders barked at him without complaint, until fates outside of his control conspire to reshape his world forever. As Lazzaro, first-time actor Adriano Tardiolo projects heartfelt sweetness with a boyish charm and sincerity, a divine man of few words. What is most remarkable about Tardiolo’s performance, and the fact that we view certain plot reveals from Lazarro’s point of view, is the way it helps the rather shocking narrative twists to impact with such resonance, all the while remaining grounded in a tangible emotional reality. – Tony H.

21. Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)


The pairing of Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant is not the first one that would immediately come to mind, which is precisely what makes watching them spar in Marielle Heller’s chilly but surprisingly tender Can You Ever Forgive Me? so mesmerizing. They have a natural comedic energy, landing hysterically acidic one-liners and barbs at each other’s expense. But the real joy of watching the two of them together is seeing them try and mask the hidden pockets of loneliness and sadness that plagued McCarthy’s Lee Israel and Grant’s Jack Hock, right up until their final stunning scene in an empty bar room, where it dawns on them how they just might be the only two people in the world who actually understood one another. – Stephen H.

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