Around this time of year we usually post our breakthrough performances of the past twelve months, but looking at a preliminary list, we realized just about every selection could also contend for being one of the best performances of 2017, period. So, we expanded our usual count and today we present the 35 best performances in what is more strictly defined as cinema (sorry in advance, Kyle MacLachlan and the rest of the Twin Peaks cast.). Check out our selections below and let us know your favorites in the comments.
35. Ahn Seo-Hyun (Okja)
A contender for the best ensemble of the year, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja features a can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing hilarious Jake Gyllenhaal, another twintastic turn by Tilda Swinton, the cheekily liberal activist group made up of Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, and Lily Collins, and more. The buoyant, beating heart that ties them all together is newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun, who plays Mija, a South Korea farmgirl that takes a globe-trotting journey to save her super pig. Bong’s wildly entertaining tonal shifts might have proven unwieldily if Ahn’s grounded, emotionally-piercing connection with the titular character didn’t burst through every frame. – Jordan R.
34. Jennifer Lawrence (mother!)
Playing a symbol isn’t easy, and yet in a movie that’s nothing but filled with metaphors Jennifer Lawrence grounds the toughest one of all in her most nuanced performance to date. The unnamed character she plays in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is everything at once: Mother Nature, the perfect wife, a representation of the Virgin Mary, a passive aggressive host, the muse, the heart. But in a world built by men and for men, she’s also nothing. Watching her go from young bride mode into full on Medea is to watch the transformation of an actor who doesn’t always get her due credit. Sure, she’s won every award out there, but she is often praised for being a star more than an actor. In mother! she relies on her incredible instincts; her big J. Law laugh completely absent, she does magic with her eyes, a change of tone in a line reading, the tossing of a lighter. Even though her character is unsure as to what awaits her at every turn, the actor playing her is completely in control. She sets the screen on fire. Pun completely intended. – Jose S.
33. Hiroshi Abe (After the Storm)
Yôko Maki’s mournful line, “This isn’t how it was supposed to turn out,” is the most potent encapsulation of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s unexpectedly harrowing and expertly rendered family drama, After the Storm. But it’s lead Hiroshi Abe’s shambling and frustratingly human performance as a sludgy gumshoe/errant father Ryôta Shinoda, who leaves the most lingering impression. A vapor of a man who hasn’t and may never find his place in the world, Abe and Kor-eda together conjure one of the most bittersweet and fully realized losers of the year. – Michael S.
32. Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats)
The East London-born actor Harris Dickinson convincingly sports a Brooklyn accent, as well as the emotion impenetrability as formed by societal norms, in his break-out role in Beach Rats. His restrained blankness as he cruises never turns into physical delight, which renders accurate for a man who still inflicted with repression. – Jordan R.
31. Jason Mitchell (Mudbound)
Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a film both enamored with and disgusted by American’s obsession with legacies – whether it’s the country’s deep-seated racial toxicity or the cycle of fathers and sons who die working for an empire of dirt. With its criss-crossing timelines, and perspectives, Rees builds a version of the Delta that feels both poetic in its potential and completely hollow in practice. But it’s Jason Mitchell’s radiantly idealistic Ronsel Jackson, who imbues the film with a emotional reality. A soldier suffering silently from PTSD, and trapped in a world where he’s unappreciated, Mitchell’s character and his elegiac performance repeatedly magnify the film’s interests from hundreds of years of family history to single individuals in the here and now. – Michael S.
30. Lois Smith (Marjorie Prime)
Smith plays two roles in this film — first a woman with dementia, and then later a holographic projection of the same woman. Since the projection is working with incomplete information on the woman’s life, it often appears more like a dementia patient than a self-assured individual. It acts calm and confident, even as it adjusts to incorporate new “memories” on what “she” is supposed to be like, from the smallest habit to the greatest revelation of tragedy. In both roles, Smith is a reactor. As the mentally adrift Marjorie, she seizes onto whatever stimulus plants her back firmly on the ground of her identity, whether it’s something from the past or present. As Marjorie Prime, she is not a person but a physical (or, well, visual) embodiment of the past hanging over her family, their interactions with her making concrete the mental exercises we play when considering our pasts and what we have said, would say, or wish we would or could or could have said to our loved ones. – Dan S.
29. Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread)
The casting of Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread led some to believe Paul Thomas Anderson might be taking on a sprawling, character-filled Mike Leigh-esque look on London society, with a touch of inspiration from his mentor Robert Altman. However, his latest film quickly reveals itself to be a chamber drama (or comedy) and a more minor, but no less integral part of the three-way triangle is Manville’s Cyril Woodcock. Sister to Day-Lewis’ Reynolds, through no more than a few words and a penetrating glare, the true relational hierarchy reveals itself in cunning ways thanks to Manville’s icy cool. – Jordan R.
28. Adam Sandler (The Meyerowitz Stories)
Adam Sandler has already proved himself as a dramatic actor in works such as Punch-Drunk Love, but his turn in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is absolutely wonderful, largely because of its unassuming nature. As a father of a daughter about to enter college, he shines with a genuine sense of intimacy and lightness, which only makes his conflicts with and resentment of his own pompous father and distant brother more resonant. – Ryan S.
27. Salma Hayek (Beatriz at Dinner)
Scripted by Miguel Arteta collaborator Mike White, Beatriz at Dinner is not so much a comedy of manners, but a drama of classism with seemingly polite degradation turning into something more menacing. Salma Hayek weathers it all in one of her better performances in some time, providing a genuine horror and fury as the various atrocities of her foe come to light. – Jordan R.
26. Teresa Palmer (Berlin Syndrome)
Teresa Palmer, with her sullen eyes, gives a miraculous performance in Berlin Syndrome, weaving between a layered emotional spectrum of outright physical hostility to veiled acceptance in hopes for an escape. Often unable to articulate the horrors of the situation, her subtle glances and gestures speak volumes to her determination for freedom by any means necessary. It’s no easy task for an actor to give range when inflicted by dominating hideousness for nearly two hours, but Palmer is thoroughly mesmerizing in conveying both her emotional and physical pain. – Jordan R.
25. Jessie Pinnick (Princess Cyd)
Stephen Cone’s protagonists are often defined by an inquisitiveness, whether it pertains to faith, sexuality or maturation in general. In Princess Cyd, Jessica Pinnick captivatingly embodies these concern as her Cyd is the ying to the yang of her aunt Miranda, played by Rebecca Spence in an equally great performance. As the two delicately spar during a warm Chicago summer, Cone has carefully crafted another world bursting with humanity that any viewer would want to live in. – Jordan R.
24. Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)
The subtle genius of Willem Dafoe’s performance in The Florida Project is precisely what he doesn’t bring to it. Known for his rather exuberantly theatrical characters throughout his varied career, Sean Baker understood that no one on screen could match the energy of his young ensemble. Rather, hotel manager Bobby Hicks is an upright character figure defined by exhaustion. He’s certainly not the best in the world at his job, but he does his duties–including being a de facto parental figure–with a determination and open-heartedness that is impossible not to conjure sympathy with any viewer. – Jordan R.
23. Agnès Varda (Faces Places)
A collaboration between master French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda and graffiti artist-cum-photographer JR, Faces Places as often feels like an incidental monument to the many incarnation of Varda as an attempt to celebrate the anonymous. That’s rarely more evident than through Varda herself who returns to the wide-eyed melancholy of The Gleaners and I, bringing a duality of nostalgia for her (and others’) creative past and a hunger to understand the hidden beauty of labor. It’s a persona that’s equally built on genuine humanism and a love of artifice. – Michael S.
22. Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick)
Kumail Naniani has been a reliably excellent bit player in the alt-comedy scene for years – stealing scenes in everything from Adventure Time to Silicon Valley – but it was still hard to predict his effortlessly complex performance as…well, himself, in his feature writing debut, The Big Sick. Guided by Michael Showalter’s direction through chameleonic tones, Nanjiani’s performance is the stabilizing center – bringing numerous stories together, but never threatening to turn the movie into a vanity project. Delivering his dialogue in his signature deadpan absurdism, Nanjiani’s performance becomes as sneakily emotional as the movie. – Michael S.
21. Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird)
Christine McPherson refuses to abide to her parents’ rules and has become convinced she’s much too good for the life she’s been given. She goes as far as changing her name to Lady Bird. Her plight is known to anyone who’s been a teenager, and yet, as played by Saoirse Ronan, she could easily fool us into thinking this is the first time these feelings have been felt. As writer/director Greta Gerwig’s surrogate, Ronan takes hold of the screen with all the confidence her character lacks. Watching her fight with her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf), because the two of them know of no better way to show their love, feels as if someone stole your journal and put it onscreen. This isn’t the first time Ronan has played an instantly iconic character; her breakthrough in Atonement in a way serves as a perfect spiritual companion to Lady Bird. Like Briony, Christine is eager to enter adulthood, she’s too impatient to enjoy and accept the moment she’s in. The actor playing her couldn’t be more present and alive in each frame if she tried. – Jose S.
20. Paul Hamy (The Ornithologist)
João Pedro Rodrigues’ drolly surreal travelogue The Ornithologist is filled with unexpected narrative nooks and thematic alliteration, but none of the phantasmagoric imagery would land without Paul Hamy’s slyly involving performance as the cursed lead. Driven by an humble goal of finding a mysterious bird, Hamy’s performance is a fantasia of panic, pleasure, and serenity that makes the film’s quixotic journey as much about being lost as found. – Michael S.
19. Harry Dean Stanton (Lucky)
While the legendary Harry Dean Stanton’s passing is more than heartbreaking, his final film, Lucky, stands as a glowing testament to his capabilities as an actor. Along with a towering performance in a career full of towering performances (no matter how small the part), the film feels fitting for the final work of Stanton. Stanton commands the film in a quiet way, something which most Hollywood actors can only dream of accomplishing during the length of their careers. It’s a spiritual journey. It’s a physical journey (landscape is key and something that director John Carroll Lynch uses masterfully). It’s a relational journey. Put precisely: it’s many things. His performance comes across so authentically that one’s heart is bound to break when his does. The assuredness of his script, the fragility of his movements, and the thoughtfulness of his character make for a performance that feels like a culmination of his weathered essence. – Chelsey G.
18. Brooklyn Prince (The Florida Project)
As Moonee, the pint-sized livewire of Sean Baker’s alternately splashy and hard-nosed The Florida Project, Brooklynn Prince is an instantly memorable presence. But not in the usual way that child performers are discussed. She has a raucous energy, but she’s not a precocious construction clearly written by adults. And while she can sell emotional urgency, Prince isn’t performing with an “uncommon maturity for her age.” Instead, it’s the rare child performance that feels completely synchronized with the needs of the film without compromising the completely unbridled nature of the performer. – Michael S.
17. Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth)
There are few things greater than watching the emergence of a bold new talent in cinema. Lady Macbeth brings more than one as it’s both a directorial debut for William Oldroyd and a breakthrough performance for Florence Pugh. They are the perfect match for this austere, yet vicious adaptation of the Nikolai Leskov novella. As she’s confronted by isolating boredom, new romance, and sinister machinations, Pugh has a fierce presence that bewitches with every gesture and line. – Jordan R.
16. Jean-Pierre Leaud (Death of Louis XIV)
“Gentleman, next time, we will do better.” On his deathbed, even a mighty king is of best use as a medical test subject. Jean-Pierre Leaud gives a riveting impression of agonizing disintegration, giving a landmark performance without raising his body beyond a 120-degree incline. At the same time that Louis XIV implodes, director Albert Serra keeps a precise grip on the proceedings, observing all with a detachment that’s at turns grim, somber, or morbidly humorous. It’s like a rotting face going through different “emotions” as the skin husks out, but in cinematic form. – Dan S.
15. Rooney Mara (Song to Song and A Ghost Story)
Leading the latest films from two Texas-based filmmakers, Terrence Malick and David Lowery, Rooney Mara’s performances in both are a difficult task. As Song to Song and A Ghost Story deal with fractured, but elegantly constructed narratives, Mara becomes much more than a cipher for grander themes of loss and love. Seemingly bringing forth the entirety of the human experience in these two roles–whether it’s watching her dance to various rendition of “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” or witnessing grief-stricken moments of pie eating and moving on–she further proves to be one of our generation’s greatest actors. – Jordan R.
14. Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip)
Imagine stealing a movie from Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, and Jada Pinkett Smith–three of the funniest people in the world–and making it seem like a walk in the park. That’s what Tiffany Haddish does as Dina, the larger than life, loudmouth who joins her college BFFs on a trip to New Orleans. At first, Dina seems just like the potty-mouthed, sexually adventurous stock character comedies use as the sassy sidekick. Their inner lives rarely are developed, and every time you see them onscreen you know you’re in for a treat. But in between STD confessions, public urination, and “grab my earrings” moments, Haddish reveals a woman who has learned to laugh to keep from crying. She doesn’t necessarily have a “big moment” where we suddenly realize she’s more than a sidekick, but through a series of cumulative bits, watch the way Dina listens to her friends, or how her body language affirms she’s the protector and defender of the group, and it’s evident she glues this group together, in the same way Haddish anchors the film. Though Dina is too good a friend and Haddish too generous an actor to let them/us be aware she’s in the know. – Jose S.
13. Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)
Laurie Metcalf is a titan of theater, but she’s best known to Americans for portraying working class women. On Roseanne, she played Jackie Harris, sister to Roseanne Conner, who yo-yoed throughout the series because she couldn’t hold down a job. In this year’s Lady Bird, Metcalf plays a spiritual sibling (of sorts) to Jackie. Marion McPherson, matriarch of a dysfunctional family and mother to Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), is the primary breadwinner and works in a psychiatric hospital but never experiences relief of her own. Her dignity is constantly put to the test; a lack of money drives Marion’s decisions and frustrations, complicated by a strained, but no less loving relationship with her daughter. Gerwig carefully constructs Marion’s arc, leading to a moment of regret layered with a tinge of hope. – Josh E.
12. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (BPM (Beats Per Minute))
Robin Campillo’s thrillingly microscopic social advocacy drama BPM takes what should be on paper an almost defiantly un-cinematic approach to a usually blustery sub-genre. Filled with scene after scene of alternately agonizing and energizing inner-circle conversations about an AIDS awareness group’s attempts to be heard – there’s almost none of the passionate grandstanding or “right side of history” pandering that define films about movements. But that lack of narrative grandeur only makes Nahuel Pérez Biscayart’s fiery, sweet, and unraveling performance as the ailing Sean all the more powerful. True to the character’s nature, Sean refuses to become a prop, underpinning the film’s larger academic/emotional theses about the short-term hollowness of advocacy and the inhumanity of having to watch the people closest to you die for no reason. – Michael S.
11. Kim Min-hee (On the Beach at Night Alone)
The particular qualities of a recurring Hong Sang-soo repertory player – the ability to quickly memorize lines, the knack of nailing incredibly quotidian yet meaningful dialogue, the execution of at least one soju-sodden scene – have reached some kind of zenith with Kim Min-hee, who has now worked with the auteur on four films and counting. In On the Beach at Night Alone, the only one of these to feature her as the sole protagonist, she turns in something of a monumental performance, excavating her own romantic history with Hong for ends both somber and defiant, all under a veneer of gentleness. – Ryan S.
10. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out)
Jordan Peele has rightfully been earning praise since Sundance for his nerve-striking satire Get Out, and one of the smartest choices he made was the casting of Daniel Kaluuya as Chris. On his weekend getaway to cinema’s most frightening place since Carnival of Souls, his character goes from apprehensive to bewildered, then is consumed by fear before fighting back. Kaluuya subtly grounds this journey with the smallest of brilliant touches to keep us tied to every step of the horror. – Jordan R.
9. Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman)
A bolder more progressive awards season might have looked to Daniela Vega among Best Actress contenders, an event that would’ve hit front pages as the first time a transgender actress had been so considered. And Chilean Sebastián Lelio’s film can’t be faulted for not being upfront about sexuality. Unlike some of this year’s other great performances in LGBT movies – in Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country, for instance – Vega’s Maria doesn’t hide her sexuality, but sometimes she might want to. Despite a proud, passionate performance, Vega is able to deliver scenes of aching fragility, such as one devastating sequence when she’s casually assaulted at her boyfriend’s funeral by his own family. And somehow, every time, Maria gets back up again. Vega is, well, fantastic. – Ed F.
8. Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread)
If Phantom Thread is truly Daniel Day-Lewis’ final role, as the actor has stated, one might imagine a physical and mental strain rupturing across the screen the likes of which we haven’t seen since Daniel Plainview. That Reynolds Woodcock exudes anything but those qualities is one of the many surprises Paul Thomas Anderson has in store in his sumptuous period drama. Although there’s an egomaniacal vein that runs through his character of an elite fashion designer, there’s also a sly tenderness and comedic warmth that gives startling life to this shape-shifting relationship drama. – Jordan R.
7. Haley Lu Richardson (Columbus)
John Cho’s wayward professional, Jin, is arguably the driving narrative force of Columbus, Kogonada’s assured meditation on place and its meaning (or lack thereof), but it’s Haley Lu Richardson’s Casey who draws the film into a place of greater clarity and vulnerability. Casey is a familiar archetype to independent coming-of-age films – the young individual waylaid by life on the way to the next step – but Lu Richardson infuses her with an unexpectedly energizing melancholy to the point where even an extra long drag on a cigarette can signify a lifetime that passed her by. – Michael S.
6. Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper)
Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria led to Kristen Stewart being the first American actress to win a César Award and in her second collaboration with the director she is now the lead, and gives an even greater turn. A ghost story set in the world of haute couture, Stewart plays the titular shopper, who is also a medium hoping to contact her recently deceased brother. Exploring this thin line between communicating with the dead and communicating through technology–in both instances, someone is not physically present–Assayas camera tracks Stewart as if she’s always one step ahead. The direction and central performance are feats of alluring magnetism in both the mundanity of modern life and the tease of the unknown that lurks both behind the walls and in our protaganist’s fractured heart. – Josh E.
5. Vince Vaughn (Brawl in Cell Block 99)
If True Detective and Hacksaw Ridge were Vince Vaughn’s attempts to shed his comedic persona for something more intense, then Brawl in Cell Block 99 is where those efforts pay off. Standing at 6 foot 5 with a shaved head, tattoos, and a whole lot of muscle mass, Vaughn towers over every cast member he shares a scene with, as if every frame emphasizes his capability for brutal violence. His character is a brute, but he’s one with a sensitivity that gives him a moral code to live by, and it’s in that area where Vaughn elevates his role into something more than fists and fury. He convincingly shows a vulnerability and sensitivity lurking underneath his hardened exterior, giving his character’s fights a strong emotional and logical motivation behind them. By the time Brawl transitions into the absurdly violent final act, Vaughn sells the material so well he becomes a bridge joining the film’s tonal shifts. When he stomps on a man’s face so hard their jawbone literally explodes off of their face, we wince at the horror of what’s on screen, but we don’t blink at that plausibility of such an act from a character perspective. That’s how you know it’s a great performance. – C.J. P.
4. Robert Pattinson (Good Time)
One of the year’s most engrossing and kinetic performances comes from Robert Pattinson as Connie, a sociopathic New York street hustler, in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time. While the film overflows with lucid and grounded performances, Pattinson is the standout as he utterly vanishes into the role, evoking the feel of a living and breathing flaming car wreck: too shocking to ignore and too dangerous to touch. Pathologically manipulative, Connie uses and reuses everyone he encounters for his own selfish needs, abandoning them after he’s eaten his fill. He epitomizes King Midas in reverse. Yet, Pattinson endows the conman with burning charisma and fiendish imagination, morphing his every move into a fascinating dance from which we cannot look away. We loath Connie, but still find ourselves gob smacked with curiosity to see just what he will do next. How low will this scumbag sink? Connie’s only signs of emotional sincerity, faint as they are, connect to his mentally disabled brother, who he genuinely loves, but still employs to help pull off a daylight bank robbery which goes horribly wrong. Pattinson breathtakingly navigates a towering balancing act, bringing to life an unforgettably repulsive and morbidly captivating pulp character. – Tony H.
3. Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name)
It’s been a great year for performances characterized by physicality, but perhaps no other felt more defined by boundless energy than Timothée Chalamet’s role as the shiftless Elio in Luca Guadagnino’s seductively dense Call Me By Your Name. Chalamet’s acting isn’t broad or based on tics, but it’s consistently overwhelming – a current unleashed without a conduit in sight. Nudged by director Guadagnino’s uncharacteristically lighter hand, Chalamet channels that energy inward, creating a character whose self-doubt, burgeoning fluidity, and fierce intelligence build into their own kind of romance with the potential of personhood. – Michael S.
2. Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread)
Vicky Krieps has been acting for the last decade–one might have seen her brief supporting turns in Hanna and A Most Wanted Man–but her tremendous breakthrough performance comes with Phantom Thread. In the 1950s-set relationship drama set in the world of fashion, the Luxemburg-born actress plays Alma, a new muse of designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). While a new film from Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t need a selling point, there’s been no shortage of discussion about it featuring the final performance from his There Will Be Blood star. However, as the film cunningly shapeshifts, it becomes clear that Alma may have the upper hand in this union, yet saying much more will take away from the film’s many luscious pleasures. Rest assured, Krieps is magnetic from her first appearance to the finale frame, going toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis in a simply astounding performance — and one of the best of the year. – Jordan R.
1. Cynthia Nixon (A Quiet Passion)
Historians remain in controversy over the exact nature of Emily Dickinson’s infamous seclusion. A Quiet Passion is disinterested in “answering” this riddle, simply taking for granted that Dickinson withdrew from the world and focusing instead on her doing so. In this, the film lives in Nixon, who plays out the pleasures of solitude and the pains of isolation in the rigid cord of her back or the tightenings and loosenings of her lip. The movie approaches the life of the mind as largely inexplicable, and Nixon perfectly captures the frustrations of living at the mercy of mental shifts that her character can only articulate in the abstraction of poetry. Her performance is itself another abstraction, ripe for varying interpretations as to what’s playing out in Dickinson’s head without ever losing her center. – Dan S.