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.
20. Nicolas Cage (Mandy)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
10. Kathryn Hahn (Private Life)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
“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)
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)
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)
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.
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.