The 10 best movie performances of 2018
Honorable mentions: Anne Hathaway, Ocean’s 8; Sunny Suljic, Mid90s; Laura Dern, The Tale; Haley Lu Richardson, Support the Girls; Jim Cummings, Thunder Road; Elizabeth Debicki, Widows
10. Claire Foy - Unsane
I’m not a TV-watcher, so I’m late to the game on Foy’s greatness, which I hear has been on full display on Netflix’s The Crown for years now. This year was positioned to be Foy’s breakout into becoming a household name: she starred in three films, two by esteemed directors and a third in a major tentpole thriller. The thriller, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, was a total flop. Her character in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, while quite good, was not given as much screen time as a performer like her deserves. Her character in Unsane, meanwhile, is basically in every moment of the movie, which no one has seen or talked about.
With Unsane director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike) has managed to make one my of my favorite underappreciated films of the year two years running, after 2017’s Logan Lucky. Unsane is streaming on Amazon Prime, and you should check it out if you’re emotionally prepared. The film is about a woman accidentally committed to an insane asylum, which will not let her leave. It’s tough to watch, but only by its circumstances. Unsane is stressful, but it’s not self-serious. It’s a campy thriller that I found both horrifying and electrifying.
Without Foy, the movie wouldn’t work at all. Although Unsane is a low-budget genre flick, it’s a truly star-making performance. Foy is distant and quiet in some moments, but mostly she is raw and ferocious like few actresses or actors can be. Unsane is not the movie that made everyone fall in love with Foy, but it should have been.
9. The entire voice cast - Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
I’m putting the entire voice cast of the bonkers new animated Spider-Man film for this slot. This is an exaggeration, but not by much. The performances I adored in this film run into the double digits. First, briefly: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is about a boy named Miles Morales who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and has to take over the superhero mantle after Peter Parker dies but then discovers he is not the only Spider-Man because Kingpin has some giant machine that opened a portal into parallel universes and the Spider-Men from those universes enter Miles’s universe and then he has to work with them to stop Kingpin and get them back to their respective universes. Make sense? Kind of? It doesn’t really matter if it makes logical sense, because the film’s frenetic energy is so exciting that I was wrapped up in the forward momentum of it all.
Shameik Moore voices Morales, and plays him with an endearing sense of wonder and confidence. Jake Johnson voices parallel universe spidey Peter B. Parker, a disheveled, out-of-shape superhero who reluctantly still cares; it’s probably my favorite voice performance of the lot. Hailee Steinfeld is excellent as Gwen Stacy, Kimiko Glenn is full of life as the Anime spider-character Peni Parker, John Mulaney is perfectly cast as a wise-cracking Spider-Pig named Peter Porker, and Nicolas Cage was born to play a black-and-white Spider-Man in a trenchcoat who drops old-timey detective lines named Spider-Man Noir. And I haven’t even mentioned Chris Pine, who plays the original Peter Parker.
Beyond the spider-heroes, there’s also excellent voice work from Brian Tyree Henry as Miles’s strict but caring father, Mahershala Ali as Miles’s cool but morally complicated uncle, Lily Tomlin as a badass Aunt May, Liev Schreiber as a thundering Kingpin, and Kathryn Hahn as a hilarious and menacing Doc Ock. That’s 12 performances that were notable enough to call out individually, and they were all crucial to the film. Bravo to whomever cast Into the Spider-Verse; it’s perfect.
8. Tom Cruise - Mission:Impossible: Fallout
I stand by Tom Cruise as the greatest actor of our time, and Mission:Impossible - Fallout is yet another showcase for his incomparable skills. At 56 years old, nobody comes close to the level of energy and commitment Cruise brings to the screen. In Fallout he jumps out of an airplane (he actually did this), rides a motorcycle the wrong way through heavy traffic, jumps from rooftop to rooftop in a stunt that resulted in a broken ankle, learned how to fly a helicopter, and of course, runs like hell.
And in all the moments between the action he maintains the sly discontent for rules but deep empathy for others that makes Ethan Hunt such a compelling hero. I look forward to ten more Mission:Impossible movies, as long as Cruise is at the center of them.
7. Regina Hall - Support the Girls
In Support the Girls, Lisa (Regina Hall) is having one of those days where nothing is going right. Lisa is the manager at Double Whammies, a local Hooters-like sports bar in Texas, and her personal and professional life is coming unraveled all on this single day. The question of the film is how she will handle it.
The answer, it turns out, is with an admirable level of understated resolve. Hall deftly avoids the frazzled-career-woman-who’s-too-busy-working-for-a-personal-life trope. Lisa genuinely loves her employees but always remains in charge, and they love her right back for it. She hides her pain in moments of solitude, but remains upbeat enough to plaster heart stickers all over the restaurant. Lisa is a lot of things: selfish, determined, and just plain tired, but above all else she was one of my favorite characters on screen this year because in the face of bullshit, she finds comfort in spreading the love.
6. Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman - The Favourite
This one is a cheat, but I don’t see any way around anointing all three of these performers. The Favourite truly does not have a single leading actor, with these three serving on equal ground as a multi-headed monster. And their collective performance truly is a monstrous thing. Director Yorgos Lanthimos has a penchant for exploring the lowest behaviors of humanity, and Stone, Weisz, and Colman each deliver this vision in unique ways.
I’ll start with Colman, the petulant queen whose growing health problems are only matched by her impatience and need for adulation. Colman’s Queen Anne is multiple characters at once. In some scenes she is a dunce played for laughs. Other times she is a child: she casts a self-satisfied gaze when she earns attention to her propensity for abrupt outbursts. Still in other scenes, she is a lonely, emotionally vulnerable, isolated leader akin to King Lear. That Colman prevents these different facets of Queen Anne from becoming inconsistencies and creates a unified character is a true feat.
Competing over Queen Anne’s good favor are Lady Sarah (Weisz), Queen Anne’s longtime confidante, and Abigail (Stone), a down-on-her-luck newcomer who seeks power beyond her initial lowly rank. Weisz is the character more in control, or so it seems; Stone’s ambition is more improvisational. The two juxtapose each other nicely: Weisz, stoic and composed, tries to hold onto the power that she has, while the ever-spunky Stone tries to take it away from her.
No matter how the three performances differ, it is clear they are codependent. I don’t know who will get nominated for this film, but someone must. If forced to choose I might pick Stone, for this moment alone:
5. Michael B. Jordan - Black Panther
Michael B. Jordan is an absolute ham as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. It’s a performance defined by a sauntering walk, barked one liners, and brute force. It’s also exactly what the movie needs.
The brilliance of Black Panther largely hinges on its depiction of its antagonist as an enemy within. Killmonger is not an opposing force to Wakanda. He is a challenge to the idea of what Wakanda should be. And ultimately, his villainy is a function of a lack of representation. In a crucial moment between Killmonger and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Killmonger laments his American upbringing and his vague conception of Wakanda: “Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland walking around and believing in fairy tales.” It’s a painful moment, because it’s apparent that with a Wakandan upbringing, he would have been a different person. It’s a layered character, and easily the best Marvel villain ever. Jordan gives a very comic book performance, snarly and full of pulp in all the right ways.
4. Daniel Kaluuya - Widows
“I want your eye, man,” Jim Hudson (Stephen Root) tells Daniel Kaluuya’s character Chris in last year’s Get Out. “I want those things you see through.” In the context of the scene, the request is horrifying. But it’s a good descriptor of what makes Kaluuya such a compelling screen presence. In Get Out, Kaluuya’s eyes were skillful; his character was a talented photographer. But they also serve an ironic subtextual purpose: as much as Chris can see, he misses the unfathomable terror right in front of him. In the “Sunken Place” scene tears stream down his wide-open eyes, and they make him a crushingly vulnerable character.
In Widows Kaluuya is the terror, and his eyes are used to the opposite effect. He plays Jatemme, brother/hit man to local aldermanic candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Jatemme’s eyes are lifeless. When you looked into Chris’s eyes you saw everything, but when you look into Jatemme’s he betrays nothing.
Jatemme is a violent goon, but not unintelligent; as he hunts down his enemies, he can be seen reading a book, or trying to learn Spanish. Jatemme is a personified distillation of the corruption on display in Widows: he knows what he’s doing is wrong, and he charges forward without hesitation. And unlike Chris, he sees everything. It’s fitting that his most menacing moments are wordless stare-downs, and his downfall comes when he’s not looking where he should.
3. Elsie Fisher - Eighth Grade
It’s difficult to praise Elsie Fisher’s leading performance in Eighth Grade: her turn as Kayla, a struggling, socially awkward middle-schooler, is so familiar it often feels more like documentary than dramatization. This is not necessarily what separates Fisher’s performance from past cinematic adolescents, though. Plenty have portrayed convincing figures of pubescent clumsiness.
What elevates Fisher’s performance is the convincing duality of her outward lack of confidence and inner self-assurance. Unlike other teenage protagonists, Fisher isn’t lacking self-confidence, per se. Her struggles all come in social situations, like a (frankly terrifying) birthday pool party. But when she’s recording advice videos alone in her house, Kayla performs the motions of confidence with ease.
Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton), much to her horror, says he’s proud of how clearly she expresses herself in those videos, and he’s right. She may be presenting an alternative, more confident version of herself, but using the videos as an outlet to express herself might be helping her become that confident person she’s performing as. The multitudes in Kayla’s personality are distilled in the moments when she records these videos: she lights up when the camera is on, and the second it’s off she despondently scrolls through her phone. Many other actors have accurately captured the behaviors of teens, but Fisher is more than accurate. She becomes the totality of the internal and external struggles of adolescent life, and it’s what makes her so sympathetic and inspiring.
2. Ethan Hawke - First Reformed
In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) serves as a spiritual guide for his congregation. But when he’s not counseling his parishioners, he struggles to follow his own guidance. He has little social interaction outside the church, and rarely strays far from it; his sparsely adorned, dimly lit home is adjacent to the chapel. Toller spends his time journaling about his insecurities and drinking a gruesome mix of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol. For a man whose job is to help others find their way, Toller is a tortured soul. As he grimaces through another drink, he wonders if Jesus worried about being liked as he does.
Hawke, so often wily and condescendingly intelligent on screen, is stoic and self-pitying. The role is a departure for him, but it may be his best performance. Toller is a tortured soul, but Hawke brings a puppy-dog lovability to him with the warmth and fervor of his line readings. At the end of First Reformed it seems that the world may be falling apart, but Hawke’s presence alone makes it feel like human connection might make it all worthwhile.
1. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga - A Star is Born
I had problems with the runtime, plot, and the transparent emotional manipulation in A Star Is Born, and after the first 45 minutes the movie is kind of a mess. I walked out of A Star Is Born thinking about all of these issues, but I still found myself thinking it was pretty good overall. How is this possible? Mostly because of Lady Gaga. Cooper may be the lead actor and director, but in her first lead film performance, this is Gaga’s movie. Her face is intensely expressive in every shot, and she grounds the movie in authentic emotion when it strays too far into extreme sentimentality.
The writing in A Star Is Born often doesn’t do Gaga’s character justice. The pacing of Ally’s transformation sometimes doesn’t make sense, and she has to spend a lot of time care-taking for Jack. Even in these moments Gaga shines. She’s both confident and unsure of herself, totally powerful and completely broken. Count me in on the Gaga for Best Actress bandwagon.
Cooper is excellent as well. In a role that could have easily devolved into a stilted southern accent and a bad Eddie Vedder impression, Cooper is genuinely charming and empathetic throughout. He’s particularly good in the quieter moments he has with Gaga, and I hope he focuses more on those sorts of scenes in his next directorial effort.