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The Best Performances of 2018

Written by on December 24, 2018 

20. Nicolas Cage (Mandy)

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In Mandy, Nicolas Cage may just break your heart. He manages to display anguish in all its forms–utter heartbreak, confusion, hysteria, fury–with grace and complete commitment. Like the film around him, Cage is equal parts tender and savage, and his performance beautifully contextualizes his signature rage into something far beyond a meme-worthy freakout. Instead, his performance is the portrait of a man channeling every fiber of his being towards anger, so he can forget or postpone or obliterate his immense sadness. But in the end, all you have is memories and the things you consider home; so Cage accents his bellows of rage with a dash of melancholia, and bursts into tears when there’s nothing else to do. Bikers and gnarly psychos may have ripped his favorite shirt, but he ripped our hearts. – Mike M.

19. Severine Jonckeere (Milla)

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Director Valerie Massadian’s intimate and honest depiction of poverty distances itself from conventional Hollywood theatrics–these are not “movie protagonists” as we know them, they just are–particuraly the affecting lead performance from Severine Jonckeere. Both stunningly ethereal and brutally real, Milla patiently earns every one of its emotions. Comparisons to the work of Barbara Loden and Chantal Akerman are apt, but don’t be mistaken–this work is still startlingly unique. – Jason O.

18. Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz (The Favourite

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

It’s true that we don’t often get to see movies where women get to interact much with other women. And we definitely don’t get to see movies where women interact with each other like they get too in The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ royal drama about two women (Stone and Weisz) vying for the affections of a sickly, unraveling Queen Anne (Colman). The hilariously foul language coming out of the mouths of these corseted players makes one howl with laughter, but it’s the rage and desperation of this power trio that lingers long after the movie is over. With each passing year, Stone continues reveal shades and depths we didn’t know she had in her, this time trading in her signature sunny presence for a cold, calculating menace, while Ms. Weisz expertly shows the struggle between power and true love her Sarah Churchill must contend with. At the center of all this royal madness is Olivia Colman, who goes for broke, turning in a performance that is at times equally hilarious and depressing, grotesque and glorious. – Stephen H.

17. Toni Collette (Hereditary)

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In 1999’s The Sixth Sense, Toni Collette turned in a supporting performance that grew major acclaim and a surprise Oscar nomination based on her devastating work in one scene where she is confronted with the possibility her son is communicating with her dead mother–it infused psychological horror with the painful reality of human loss. In this year’s Hereditary, Ari Aster gave her the opportunity to do that in almost every scene of the movie, playing a mother’s who’s ever-mounting grief and trauma begins to impact her family in increasingly bizarre ways. Since it debuted this January at Sundance, critics and audiences alike have continued to rave about the horror movie, as known for its ghostly thrills as it is for it’s probing psychological look into a family coming apart. At the helm of all of this is Collette, delivering a true tour-de-force and reminded audiences just how simply astonishing she can be. – Stephen H.

16. Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade)

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Despite seemingly being an endless fount for comedy these days, cringe comedy is still a hard art form to make feel genuine. As the besieged junior high student in Bo Burnham’s finely calibrated Eighth Grade, Elsie Fisher gave plenty of audiences second hand trauma with her tongue-tied awkwardness around long-time crushes and aspirational role models. But it’s less the content of those well-written conversational fiascos than Fisher’s sense of being as each sentence and fumbled word reverberated with a new spectrum of terrifying sensations that made Fisher an instantly relatable star. – Michael S.

15. Carey Mulligan (Wildlife)

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Jeanette Brinson (Mulligan) is so used to shaping her life according to her husband Jerry’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) needs, that when she’s out in the streets trying to find him a job, she doesn’t stop twice to think how absurd the situation is. In what turns out to be the best thing to happen to her, Jerry takes off on a whim–he’s off to help put out wild forest fires and reinforce his toxic masculinity–leaving her alone with their teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). In earlier scenes, Mulligan embodies the ideal late 50s wife sold by the movies and fashion magazines, but the further Jeanette goes from caring what Jerry thinks, the more she blossoms, eventually becoming a figure that’s modern but never anachronistic. – Jose S.

14. John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich (The Other Side of the Wind)

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Whether because J.J. “Jake” Hannaford was an alcoholic or out of some belief the booze would help his friend bring out darker tones, Orson Welles had John Huston drink a bottle of vodka a day all throughout the shooting of the director’s posthumous The Other Side of the Wind, a maddening and confounding farewell 48 years in the making. Notwithstanding the logistical troubles the exorbitant amounts of liquor chugged presented (understandably, Huston was barely able to function past 6 pm), the constant state of intoxication did bode well with the cantankerous, bilious Hannaford. Starring opposite him, Peter Bogdanovich’s Brookes Otterlake is hashed out as the auteur’s protégé, and if Huston was meant to serve as a stand-in for Welles, the intricate father-son relationship entangling the two ought to be read as a comment on Bogdanovich-Welles’ own, one fraught with jealousy and envy. In Bogdanovich’s own words, “the only direction Orson gave me was: it’s us.” – Leonardo G.

13. Joaquin Phoenix (You Were Never Really Here)

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Like its protagonist, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here boils with intensity and rage. The film’s lead character, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), takes no pleasure in his work or life, save for a tender moment or two with his mother. He works privately as an enforcer, saving trafficked girls with utter ruthlessness, punishing their exploiters with the swing of a hammer. Phoenix delivers a surprisingly quiet and inwardly focused performance, a man imprisoned by his past as he tries desperately in vain to do the right thing in the present. But of course, Joe cannot see the future as he accidentally stumbles out of one horror show and into another one, all the while plagued by suicidal thoughts, memories of irrevocable tragedies he could not fix and lives he could not save. Even as Joe rescues one girl from the jaws of the beast, another girl is forgotten at the end of a hallway. Why didn’t Joe save her, as well? A question Joe may very well ask himself one day, plastic bag pulled tight over his head, suffocating the world away: why couldn’t you save them all? – Tony H.

12. Laura Dern (The Tale)

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To play the part of someone investigating their own history of trauma and childhood sexual abuse–and do it well–is a near impossibility. It is like trying to grasp your hands around a ghost. The performer in question would need to display in their own body language a movement that was defined in part by the past without the knowledge of actually understanding how her body came into motion. It is the full realization that something you always considered yours belonging to someone else, and the slow madness of memories twisting into truth and the safety of those compromised images falling away into a new reality. Laura Dern’s performance in The Tale is extraordinary because she manages to do all of this with a level of skill and grace that only the very best actors in the world are capable of creating. – Willow M.

11. Stephan James and KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk)

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There are sterling performances throughout Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, and awards talk has justifiably swirled around Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry. Just as powerful and worthy of praise, however, is the work of stars Stephan James and KiKi Layne. Both are young-ish performers, and this lends a real freshness to the roles of Fonny (James) and Tish (Layne). Their love feels genuine and joyful, a testament to Baldwin, Jenkins, and, especially, James and Layne. When Beale comes to its sad but inevitable conclusion, the scenes that linger most are those featuring Fonny and Tish, alone together. These sweet moments—of the couple finally landing an apartment or sharing a dinner together—are acted with sublime subtlety. There is no greater filmmaker at capturing faces than Jenkins, and in James and Layne, he has two that are utterly compelling and dense with emotion. If Beale Street Could Talk is an extraordinary film, and Stephan James and KiKi Layne are tremendous actors. – Chris S.

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