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The Best Performances of 2018

Written by on December 24, 2018 

10. Kathryn Hahn (Private Life)

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There’s a moment early on in Private Life–Tamara Jenkins dramedy about a New York couple trying to have a child by any means necessary–where Rachel (Hahn) is discussing her possibilities for motherhood when being questioned by a friend. In just one scene, Hahn runs the entire gamut from annoyance to heartbreak to shame to denial, all while standing in a kitchen having a casual conversation. Such are the gifts of Kathryn Hahn, finally began receiving the kind of work that is worthy of an actress of her caliber as someone who can walk the tightrope between raw heartbreak and zany comedy like nobody’s business. – Stephen H.

9. Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible – Fallout)

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Mission: Impossible is a tight-wire act, and its center of gravity is Tom Cruise. Fallout brings Ethan Hunt to the culmination of all past endeavors, and at 56, he is aged and exhausted. Wear and tear is on display with every sprint, tumble, and daredevil leap. While the superstar may not intend this, the film certainly does. We’re given a dive into Hunt’s inner clockwork to find a man who’s potentially lost a step whether he’d like to admit it or not. Cruise’s weathering rings true here in his best dramatic turn as the character. His Buster Keaton physicality is punching up against the public perception of him. But who else with the actor’s charisma would dare go to such feats? One is hard-pressed to think of another star maintaining a performance while falling from a plane or over a cliff face–and dammit if the results aren’t exhilarating every time. – Conor O.

8. Brady Jandreau (The Rider)

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On paper, you could describe Chloé Zhao’s The Rider as Kiarostami by way of Spielberg and Malick. She openly embraces sentimentality with a painterly gaze, seamlessly weaving non-actors into narrative roles practically reenacting moments from their own lives. The true story of Brady Jandreau’s life after he sustained a skull fracture during a bronco-riding competition inspired Zhao to craft a story using that tragedy to inspire a touching redemption story. Jandreau’s performance is achingly natural and unaffected, gaining momentum from the familiar faces and surrounding, bringing us into his world without a hint of showmanship. Make no mistake, there are indeed two distinctly different faces to Brady Jandreau: his face at home, eyes cast down in regret, and his face on horseback, his gaze fixed on the simple pleasures of the task at hand. It’s this passionately dualistic persona which helps Zhao’s film deliver such poignancy with the film’s climax, as Brady’s forced to choose between these two irreconcilable worlds. – Tony H.

7. Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)

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People often talk about the way in which the camera penetrates the soul of the actor revealing things they didn’t even know they had in them. Rarely do we hear of the process in reverse, of the camera learning about the world through the eyes of the actor. This is perhaps why Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo, the domestic worker at the center of Alfonso Cuarón’s personal Amarcord, rarely looks into the camera. Her quiet power might be too devastating, and we’re not ready to see what her eyes looking back at us would reveal. Both wise and innocent, her Cleo is a silent narrator, a figure who quietly shapes the world around her. The more Cuarón’s camera tries to pin her down, and the more we watch the film, the more indecipherable she becomes, a whole human being in all its splendor, making life-altering decisions, thinking and breathing right in front of us. – Jose S.

6. Daniel Giménez Cacho (Zama)

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It’s not inaccurate to say Daniel Giménez Cacho’s lead character functions as a straight man in Lucrecia Martel’s beguiling farce Zama, but it’s less a traditional than metaphysical representation of that immortal archetype. As the world around him reveals its faulty foundations and barely concealed illusion, Cacho’s character can initially do little more than surrender to the perfectly illogical circumstances that define his station. But Cacho’s politely indignant and spiritually scrambled performance ties that personal failing to something much larger than allegorical immovability–the inhumanity of nature. – Michael S.

5. Regina Hall (Support the Girls)

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Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls should be recognizable to anyone that’s worked an underpaid service job and Regina Hall’s performance as the Double Whammies sports bar (an overt Hooters knock-off) manager Lisa Conroy is central to that. The expectations and responsibilities expected of her by her employer (and customers) seem mundane, but Hall beautifully captures just how emotionally, psychologically and physically exhausting it is to have yourself contorted through the lens of—often undignified—workplace policy. She also expertly locates (alongside Bujalski’s sense of screwball comedy) that bizarre feeling of finding yourself caring about a place you know is abusing you (and your body) and wanting to give your all to it anyway out of solidarity with your coworkers. The final scene of Hall and her coworkers full-throttle screaming their way into a new day is one the most truthful, cathartic expressions of labor unity ever committed to film. – Josh L.

4. Steven Yeun (Burning)

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“It’s interesting to see a person cry,” proclaims Ben (Steven Yeun) to the weeping Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a smug grin spread across his face. “I’ve never before cried in my life. I must have when I was a child, but I don’t remember.” Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s first film since 2010’s Poetry, boasts a trio of truly tremendous performances, with Yoo Ah-in’s subdued ire and newcomer Jeon Jong-seo’s tragic loneliness, however the standout is Steven Yeun as the mysterious Ben, an attractive and affluent acquaintance whose charisma and arrogance could belie more sinister motivations. Emphasis on “could,” which is vital to Yeun’s brilliance in the role: he plays the psycho killer part perfectly straight, almost too-perfectly, lending unnerving credence to the number of ambiguities surrounding his character. Is Ben secretly a murderer or some creepy, Tom Ripley-esque alpha with a penchant for torching greenhouses? Or is he just all talk? In a Q&A, Yeun confessed he knows “which kind of person he is,” but that he’s never told anyone, not even director Lee Chang-dong. Ben’s enigmatic nature is part of what makes his every mannerism and gesture, his very presence, chilling—you’re never sure if he’s really a wolf in sheep’s clothing or not. – Kyle P.

3. Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)

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In the early minutes of First Reformed, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller counsels a parishioner: “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously. Hope and despair.” It’s both a mission statement for the film and the heart of Hawke’s performance. A man embattled with irreconcilable piety and existential dread, he oscillates between sincere belief in his Church and lamenting its glaring moral hypocrisies. Hawke’s canny juggling of Toller’s constant internal tension is the screw that twists these two contradictions into unison, culminating in First Reformed’s harrowing, or hopeful, conclusions. – Conor O.

2. Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In)

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The problem with being stellar in every performance is that they can often become overlooked. Juliette Binoche raised the bar once again in Claire Denis’ tender, humorous exploration of the yearning for connection. More or less a string of encounters with increasingly disappointing men, Binoche plays off each of them in subtly riveting ways. Shot while Denis and Binoche were waiting to film High Life, her character in the forthcoming sci-fi film also plays like the inevitable result of the years of romantic frustration found in Let the Sunshine In. – Jordan R.

1. Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline)

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The debut performance of the year is also 2018’s best performance. Helena Howard’s lead turn in Josephine Decker’s look at the blurred lines of artistic boundaries hooks one from the first frame and only grows more impressive, leading to the jaw-dropping finale. If the greatest actors drop all artifice, Howard goes another level in this regard when it comes to her incredibly assured, emotionally bare breakthrough turn, one which also doubles as a  deeply affecting portrait of mental illness. At any moment, one can’t predict the reactions to what’s thrown at her and the veil behind Decker’s directions versus those of the controlling women her life becomes lifted in captivating ways. What a thrill it will be to see Howard ascend in the years to come. – Jordan R.

Honorable Mentions

As one could imagine, it was difficult to trim this list to just thirty. We also adored the ensemble of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (particularly Liam Neeson and Harry Melling). Robert Redford in perhaps his farewell performance The Old Man & the Gun (the same goes for Clint Eastwood in The Mule).

Andrea Riseborough was a triple threat in the severely overlooked Nancy, as well as Mandy and The Death of Stalin. As usual, everyone in Hong Sang-soo’s films were stellar. Eva Melander transformed with a break-out ferocity in Border. Charlize Theron bravely went for broke in Tully, Esther Garrel was great in Lover for a Day. Joanna Kulig impressed in Cold War.

Michael B. Jordan was Marvel’s best villain yet in Black Panther. Matt Dillon proved to be a worthy Lars von Trier surrogate in The House That Jack Built. We already mentioned If Beale Street Could Talk leads, but Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry deserve credit for a pair of great supporting turns. Following last year’s placement on this feature of Mudbound, Jason Mitchell nearly made it again for Tyrel. And, of course, Tilda Swinton times three in Suspiria deserves ample credit.

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