Ringing in the New Year with the annual tradition of highlighting the previous year’s best performances.
The first year that I decided to supplement my Year-End (now officially titled Listmas) coverage with an unranked feature of my favourite performances in the past year of movies, I made a conscious decision to do a list solely based around female performances because I felt that 2015, shitty year for movies it was, had a number of superlative performances by women that so dwarfed those given by men it would have been unfair to steal precious real estate from the ladies in order to fill out the numbers. Three years later, after a similarly poor year for Film where outstanding female performances outnumbered outstanding male ones by a ratio of 2.5:1, I’ve refrained from pulling the same trick again. Why? Partly because I refer back to articles like these when I throw up my unasked-for commentary on Awards Season so it saves Future Me a ballache in additional work, but mainly because those male performances from 2018 that I loved, I truly loved. Much like with the movies in general.
Below, you’ll find my unranked favourite performances of 2018. Again, don’t read too much into the order of entries, my only structure in place was that I’d take turns gender-wise. One entry per film was allowed onto the main list in order to ensure some variety and keep me from needlessly repeating myself anymore than I usually do across this Listmas content. Before we get going, I have some Honourable Mentions, although unlike in previous years I did manage to limit myself to a respectable number rather than just throwing up my entire shortlist. They are, also in no particular order:
Joaquin Phoenix (You Were Never Really Here), Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8), Alex Wolff (Hereditary), Anna Kendrick & Blake Lively (A Simple Favor), Daniel Kaluuya (Widows), Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give), Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns)
Toni Colette as Annie Graham (Hereditary)
The most terrifying part of Hereditary, and there are a lot of utterly terrifying parts of Hereditary, is Toni Colette. Without question, it’s Toni Colette giving an upsettingly realistic performance of a bitter, grief-stricken, and generally unfit mother that is easily the best of the entire year. The highlight reel of her work in this one movie is greater than a career-spanning highlight reel for 95% of actors and actresses would be. The numbed confusion at herself that she displays when Annie turns up at group therapy, those soul-chilling screams of grief after the accident, the furious sputtering rage she unleashes at the dinner table, the icy death stare in said dinner scene which single-handedly makes blood curdle, the mixture of fear and relief at the séance, her slowly unravelling mind as things go from worse to irreversible, her startling confession about her true feelings towards Peter. Even if everything else about Ari Aster’s film remained unchanged, Hereditary simply would not have been this unshakeable without Colette. Nominate her for Best Actress, you cowards!
Michael B. Jordan as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens/N’Jadaka (Black Panther)
Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler have quickly turned into one of those actor/director pairings that are practically inseparable, as evidenced by the fact that the fast-rising actor puts in his best performances when he works with this one-of-a-kind director. But Killmonger’s lasting effect goes further than just the shock of Jordan’s unstoppable charisma turning out to be incredibly fitting for a villainous role, or Coogler’s writing of the character being so multifaceted, or that ribbed Jordan causes entirely justifiable reactions in the thirstier amongst us. What makes Killmonger last is how Jordan is never quite able to let go of the young Erik Stevens who first walked back into his Oakland apartment to find his father dead for no discernible reason. That raw pain of a child angry at the world for taking his father away from him which has never managed to truly heal, no matter how much a hardened Killmonger tries to brush it off with “everybody dies, that’s just how it is around here,” lashing out in all directions hoping something will bring him peace. Jordan holds onto that throughout everything Killmonger does, no matter how sadistic, and it’s what makes the character so compelling and genuinely tragic, especially in a movie franchise that by and large has trouble crafting compelling and lasting villains.
Maxine Peake as Funny Cow (Funny Cow)
Unsparing and unsentimental. Those are the words that best describe Maxine Peake’s revelatory work in Adrian Shergold’s similarly unsparing and unsentimental (and also kind of messy) stand-up comedy drama Funny Cow, which was my favourite performance of the year for the longest time primarily because it barely feels like a performance at all. The power of Funny Cow, both the otherwise-unnamed protagonist and the film at large, comes from a refusal to slide neatly into any expected categorisations of Northern working-class characters and life. Peake’s performance can be abrasive and it can be warm, it can be genuinely funny and it can be coldly mean, it can sizzle with palpable pride for her environmental upbringing and it can bristle with a deep-seated shame over how little she fits in outside of that circle, it can demonstrate a deep misery over being trapped in abusive relationships and a greater dissatisfaction when instead in a loving relationship. She fully embodies those contradictions, the contradictions of many people raised in a difficult working-class environment, in a manner that’s natural and, speaking from personal experience, painfully real for one of the most incredible character performances I’ve experienced in years. It’s accurate, it’s brutally honest, it’s real.
Marcello Fonte as Marcello (Dogman)
It is incredibly easy to sympathise with poor old Marcello, the meek and easily-swayed but fundamentally decent protagonist of Matteo Garrone’s bleak drama Dogman. Fonte just has such a casually likeable presence to himself that makes the character with which he shares a first name so empathetic, and therefore the constant bullying and abuse all the more heartbreaking as Marcello gets led further down a dark path despite his protestations. There’s so much life and kindness in Fonte’s eyes, his smile is so charming, the slight hunch he has around pretty much everyone who isn’t his daughter that indicates a quiet desire to crawl inside his own skin and never come out, a burning desire to be liked but also to avoid rocking the boat as much as is humanly possible. When Marcello finally stands up for himself around the film’s climax, Fonte manages to make the moment satisfying but ultimately hollow as the minor pride in seeing Marcello hold firm against the abuse inflicted on him is chased by the realisation that he’s ultimately a changed man from when we first met him and not particularly for the better.
Constance Wu as Rachel Chu (Crazy Rich Asians)
I kinda just want to copy-paste the stretch of my review I spent stating my instant adoration with Constance Wu and desire to see her toplining movies for as long as she wants to keep acting because I really don’t know what else I could possibly add here. Wu lights up the screen with star wattage strong enough to power entire cities by herself, becoming an instant Movie Star in her first shot at a theatrical lead role with a winning screen presence, impeccable comic-timing and straight woman instincts, adorable chemistry with Henry Golding – who apparently had never acted before Crazy Rich Asians, a fact that would have secured him a slot on here were Wu not JUST THAT GOOD – and expertly communicated dysphoria over Rachel’s identity as a Chinese-American that makes Crazy Rich Asians’ third act soar majestically. Again: ALL MOVIES FOREVER FOR CONSTANCE WU, PLEASE THANK YOU.
Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius “Cash” Green (Sorry to Bother You)
Fun Fact: Donald Glover was originally cast in the role of Cash but had to drop out due to Solo filming being a goddamn mess, so recommended his Atlanta co-star Lakeith Stanfield to Boots Riley as a replacement on his way out the door. The rest is history. Like, I think Donald Glover is an inordinately talented actor whose work on Atlanta has revealed a greatly expanded range to his acting abilities, but can you envision just how different Sorry to Bother You would have been with Glover in the lead role instead of Stanfield? Stanfield’s often-lackadaisical and permanently tired energy is pretty much integral to Cash’s entire character, it’s what makes him so enjoyable and sympathetic a presence in the early going, what makes Stanfield’s increasingly confrontational attitudes as the system digs its claws into him so disappointing (even before his Dad’s photo starts openly facepalming the Green child), and its what makes the transition into the batshit final third so smooth because Stanfield is about as ready to break down in anger and horror as the audience. I genuinely can’t envision anyone other than Stanfield in this role, he truly makes it.
Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlings (Widows)
Viola Davis has been one of our best working actresses for years now. Regardless of the quality of the films she’s appeared in, she brings the commanding screen presence every single time and refuses to let lesser works drag her down, especially when she’s in a take-no-shit role – Suicide Squad is one of the worst films of the decade that nobody was good in, yet Davis’ Amanda Waller was easily the closest thing to a redeeming aspect. Still, I don’t think I ever fully appreciated just how incredible she is at this until the ending of Widows. No spoilers, cos this is one of the few Listmas pieces where I try and go spoiler-free, but it’s just her face at the end of the movie, the shot which McQueen chooses as the last cut to black, which breaks me in the best possible way. The moment where the guarded and dour hostility Veronica puts up across the rest of the film, in a conscious effort to avoid letting anyone in and pretending that she is capable of going on despite having lost both the closest loves of her life, crashes down in such a heart-swelling fashion. The emotional release that McQueen has spent the entire movie denying (one of his favourite tricks) resting solely on Davis’ shoulders… and she just smashes it out of the park like it’s no big deal. She’s great in the rest of the film, of course she’s great in the rest of the film (she’s Viola frickin’ Davis), but that last shot sees her ascend to an entirely different level.
Daveed Diggs as Collin Hoskins (Blindspotting)
I debated making this a two-hander and including Rafael Casal’s hot-tempered and perpetually-boiling-over turn as Miles as well, since Blindspotting is effectively a buddy movie whose central dynamic between Diggs and Casal is largely why the film works so well. But then I keep thinking back to the climactic garage scene, where Diggs unleashes a backed-up torrent of hurt and hatred towards the corrupt racist police force that so many innocent Black people have had to spend decades living in petrified fear of whilst putting the fear of God into one such officer on the other end of the gun barrel, and I know it has to be Diggs alone. For that scene by itself, where the film’s musical-theatre undertones sprout forth to consume the climax in gutting fashion, because anybody else delivering the spoken-word monologue would likely have caused the sequence to vault straight over the line into corny. But Diggs sells it. Actually, no. “Sells it” is understating the raw power and emotion he brings to that scene; a performance so good that we don’t actually need to see Miles discovering the identity of the portrait in order to know why Collin has gone back downstairs with a face of pure anger. It’s truly something special.
Charlize Theron as Marlo Moreau (Tully)
The light steadily dims in the eyes of Theron throughout the first third or so of Tully. Marlo may blow up spectacularly at one point of that opening third, but even then said blowing up is a barely coherent and utterly exhausted sputter more than anything else. Theron’s gutting work across the (infinitely) better of Jason Reitman’s two 2018 films comes from the aura she gives off throughout the story, one of absolute and total exhaustion. Seemingly always on the verge of mentally snapping but for the fact that said snapping would constitute an energy and effort Marlo simply doesn’t have. Even when Marlo seems re-energised after Tully arrives to cover the night shifts, there’s something all too… off about her, a leftover tinge of sleepwalking through life that might curdle into mania at any point. If Theron ultimately makes the twist too easy to guess, that’s only because she’s refusing to reign in the emotional truth (and the emotional toll) of her performance in order to preserve a secret that’s not even intended to be a big twist anyway. She’s overstressed, overworked, over-exhausted and undersexed in such a believable way that I spent a fair bit of the evening after I first saw the film apologising to my Mum for all the shit I most definitely put her through when I was a child.
Ethan Hawke as Rev. Toller (First Reformed)
Ethan Hawke constantly seems about ten seconds away from a nervous breakdown throughout the entirety of First Reformed, so convincing is his performance of a depressed, alcoholic priest caught in an existential crisis of faith. The trick, though, of writer-director Paul Schrader’s script is that Toller is actually quite an unpleasant man in spite (and in many ways because) of that fact, so caught up in his spiral that he is completely blind to the bitterness and damage he is inflicting upon both himself and those around him. Hawke, therefore, manages to locate that sweet-spot between gradual reveal of an insidious, low-key loathsomeness – a man so enthralled to despair and completely unwilling to do anything to change that fact besides moping ceaselessly in a pool of self-pity, that he starts to come off as quite insufferable – whilst remaining compulsively watchable. Even without the aid of Toller’s omniscient voiceover, we can get a sense for the aimless way he drifts through life, how the radicalisation he gives himself over to comes from having his most despairing “what’s the point of anything” thoughts confirmed rather than a desire to set about inspiring real change, and his conflicted-yet-still-uncomfortable infatuation with Mary entirely from Hawke’s tone of voice and sunken conflict-riddled face. Self-loathing Catholic guilt giving way to misanthropy.
Tomorrow: The 4th Annual Callum Petch Awards, Part 1.