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The 15 Best Acting Performances of Sundance 2017

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The 15 Best Acting Performances of Sundance 2017

How good was the acting at Sundance 2017? The immortal Cate Blanchett played 13 different characters in one film, and she only made it to #15 on our list. From a confused and mysterious Soldier home from Iraq to a man convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, great characters were everywhere. But our favorite was brought to us by a forty-year veteran of the business in his first true lead role. Here are our 15 favorite performances of Sundance 2017.

15. Cate Blanchett, Manifesto

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The only question regarding Blanchett’s turn in Manifesto is which performance to honor. She plays 13 different characters in this exuberant interpretation of 20th century manifestos—everybody from Karl Marx to Lars von Trier gets a shout-out—and Blanchett gives a master class in how to let it rip on screen. Portraying schoolteachers, choreographers, homeless men, puppeteers, news anchors, scientists and businesswomen, she delivers her “dialogue” (text from the manifestos) with unerring precision and spirit, letting the words jump and twirl. Along the way, the two-time Oscar-winner doesn’t just make the words resonate—she brings them to captivating life. —Tim Grierson


14. Jason Ritter, Bitch

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Jason Ritter is convincing as Bill, a working father of intense loyalty. It’s just that his dedication is devoted to the six-figure income stream he’s earning and the socially acceptable family life it affords. His familial obligation thereby accomplished, Bill feels himself immune to other duties and free to pursue any whim that strikes his fancy. It is no surprise that his loved ones, his wife Jill in particular, bear the heavy burdens of Bill’s selfishness. It is the transformative emotional arc that Ritter’s Bill travels that distinguishes this performance. Genuine and devoid of any tinge of cliché, Ritter delivers in this creative and piercing look into twenty-first century American family life. —Gordon Hight


13. Alden Ehrenreich, The Yellow Birds

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The comic relief of Hail, Caesar! toned down the aw-shucks charm for this bleak portrait of an Iraq War soldier falling apart back home. Alden Ehrenreich will soon be known as the young Han Solo, but in The Yellow Birds, he’s just a Virginia kid in over his head once he enlists in the army. The movie recycles familiar war-movie tropes, but Ehrenreich puts plenty of heart into the clichés, making the mental trauma of combat ripple through every scene. He’ll probably be a terrific Solo—but The Yellow Birds will be here as a reminder of what else he can do. —T.G.


12. Mark Hamill, Brigsby Bear

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Photo: Gordon Hight

Honestly, I thought it was stunt casting. The actor best known as Luke Skywalker, playing a man who’s raised a kidnapped boy on a steady diet of science fiction television? It just seemed a little cute. Oh boy, was I wrong. What’s needed in the character of Ted Hope (surely a nod to the head of Amazon Studios, right?) is, believe it or not, an innocence, an earnestness, a real sense of caring for James, the main character. And Hamill’s innate goodness and decency shine through and make the audience not only sympathize with a child kidnapper, but make his actions seem completely logical and even benevolent. If it is possible to be a revelation forty years and a full career after playing one of the most famous characters in movie history, Hamill most certainly is. This isn’t stunt casting. It’s perfect casting. —Michael Dunaway


11. Adam Pally, Band Aid

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Adam Pally’s Ben is a perfect counterpoint to Lister-Jones’ Anna. There is none of the “you complete me” Jerry Maguireishness that appealed to ’90s audience. Instead, Ben and Anna are equally “alpha,” and just as adept at speaking their minds as they are at absorbing blunt criticism. Pally gives Ben a principled honesty and an unashamed self-confidence that acknowledges personal shortcomings, but isn’t deterred by them. His comedic delivery and guitar chops are delightful, too, and give entertaining breadth to a character who is emotionally deep. —G.H.


10. Zoe Lister-Jones, Band Aid

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Like her for her ability to slay on the bass guitar; love her for her determination to make marriage work in ways however unconventional. Writer and director Zoe Lister-Jones stars as Anna who takes to the garage to hash out her marital dissonance with husband Ben (Adam Pally). Hilarious at times and equally touching, too, Lister-Jones creates a character willing to confront the failures she finds in life for which Anna, Ben and misfortune share the blame. Refreshingly, there is no hint of spousal disposability here, nor any looking away from the deep-seated reasons of dissatisfaction. Anna represents all the best qualities of the modern, American woman: strong, committed, and faithful chiefly among them. —G.H.


9. Olivia Cooke, Thoroughbred

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It’s not an easy task to play a character who “has no feelings.” How do you, as an actor, motivate that and, as an audience, still find watching that performance interesting? Cooke manages to accomplish this task, leaving you perplexed, intrigued and even, in a way, in love with the character. In Thoroughbred, Cooke plays Amanda, a teenage girl who, after a gory incident with her family’s horse, has been declared mentally unstable. When she re-connects with her childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), an odd relationship is re-kindled and a plot to kill Lily’s stepfather birthed. The film, from writer/director Cory Finely, was first a play, and the dialogue isn’t an easy task. Cooke nestles pitch-black humor into every other emotional beat of her interactions, giving levity to an otherwise bland and boring character. Although Amanda continually tells Lily that she feels nothing, has even been medically diagnosed, Cooke’s eyes are big, vulnerable and full of depth. They leave us wondering what lively young girl lurks behind years and years of repression. She’s funny, she’s dark, and we’re left wanting to know more about a character that tricks us into believing she’s shallow. (She’s not.) —Meredith Alloway


8. Jason Mitchell, Mudbound

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One of the highlights of Straight Outta Compton, playing Eazy-E, Jason Mitchell steals Mudbound from his far-more established costars. He’s Ronsel, a young black man living in Mississippi who goes off to fight the Nazis, finding a more accepting society in Europe for people of color than in the America he returns to after the war. Mitchell is quickly becoming one of those actors who feels a little more electrified than everyone around him—as if he’s operating on a higher frequency. He makes Ronsel’s coming-of-age feel heartening and hard-earned—right before the character is waylaid by a tragedy that the actor crushingly conveys. —T.G.


7. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name

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Timothée Chalamet’s performance contains a blend of whip-smart brilliance and masked vulnerability that perfectly sums up young adulthood. As a 17-year-old who can’t ignore his attraction to his father’s older pupil (Armie Hammer), he’s equally adept at firing off witty dialogue and communicating many shades of emotion without a word. Director Luca Guadagnino’s film takes place in the Italian countryside in the early 1980s, when homosexuality was more closeted, but Chalamet helps make it about so much more than a specific time, place or orientation. His performance captures universal feelings of excitement, confusion and everything else that comes with young love. —Jeremy Mathews


6. Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus

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Playing a librarian who’s scared to go off into the real world, Haley Lu Richardson conveys copious sweetness, but her character is also a smart, ambitious young woman who feels an obligation to an addicted mother who’s always chasing the wrong guy. Columbus’ Casey might sound overly adorable—maybe even Manic Pixie Dream Girl-like—but Richardson grounds her in the everyday, letting us see how Casey’s niceness is a way to delay her ascension to an adulthood that scares her. Richardson has stood out in films like The Edge of Seventeen and Split, but here she finally gets a role that suggests the promising career that awaits the 21-year-old actress. —T.G.




5. Woody Harrelson, Wilson

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Woody Harrelson  credits his thorough understanding of the title character in Wilson to the descriptive work of graphic novelist and screenplay writer Daniel Clowes. Harrelson’s graciousness notwithstanding, it is his ability to balance curmudgeonry and tenderness, physical comedy and sincerity that make his a standout performance. In Harrelson’s words, Wilson is a “people person” who is plagued with “a stark inability to connect with people because he is so honest.” It is his brutal honesty and tendency to over-share that has caused Wilson to repel strangers and loved ones alike. Harrelson shines in his performance of a character that on the surface seems unloveable, but who actually possesses a rare capacity for love that ignores even the deepest of human flaws without flinching at the vulnerability that comes with it. —G.H.


4. Lakeith Stanfield, Crown Heights

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Some of us have loved him since Short Term 12, many discovered him as Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton, and some didn’t know him until his hilarious, thought-provoking Darius in Donald Glover’s Golden Globe-winning series Atlanta. But Lakeith Stanfield’s massive talent is not a secret any more, and he turns out to be the perfect choice to play real-life Colin Warner, a man wrongfully convicted of murder in Brooklyn. Stanfield’s Colin isn’t a wild-eyed maniac, but neither is he a shrinking wallflower when it comes to proclaiming his innocence. He is, in the final reckoning, a man in full, steadfast and determined, and Stanfield imbues the part with soulful passion. At the end of the film, we see footage of the actual Colin upon his release, and both the tone and content of his first words as a free man are stunningly inspirational. But by then we already know that about him; Stanfield has shown us. —M.D.


3. Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name

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Not since Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley has an actor so perfectly captured the sense of watching a golden god walk the earth. Armie Hammer’s Oliver is brilliant, funny, charming—not to mention unexpectedly alluring to teenager Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who tries to resist a growing passion for the visiting scholar in Call Me by Your Name. But Hammer transcends his handsome visage in this exquisite love story, giving us a touching vulnerability that suggests all the unhappiness coursing beneath the surface of this seemingly perfect human specimen. The performance is passionate but also reserved, nicely capturing a character full of feeling but uncertain how to go about finding his happy ending. —T.G.


2. Michelle Pfeiffer, Where is Kyra?

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Let the Pfeiffer comeback talk commence. The thrice-Oscar-nominated actress is stunning in this dark drama of a woman who loses her mother, startled to learn that she can’t collect her mom’s disability checks after her death. Where Is Kyra? is a jittery portrait of a life in free fall, and Pfeiffer makes us feel her character’s every terror. As gripping as a horror movie—which, in a sense, it is—Where Is Kyra? laments the people who fall between the cracks of society. With her drawn face and twitchy eyes, Pfeiffer gives us a performance of a woman’s who drowning—try to help her, and she’ll drag you down, too. —T.G.


1. Sam Elliott, The Hero

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According to IMDB, Sam Elliott has played just barely shy of 100 roles in film and television over his 48-year career. None of them are better than this career-defining one. In a part that Elliott himself admits has echoes of his own life, he plays Lee Hayden, an aging character actor best known for playing a cowboy gunslinger in a decades-old film called The Hero. His growing sense of alienation from the world and from the box it’s put his identity in recalls nothing less than Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock in The Graduate. There’s no bus trip with a wedding dress-clad Katharine Ross waiting at the end of this story, but he does manage to find himself, like Ben, in an age-inappropriate affair. Brett Haley is proving himself to have an especially poignant voice in sensitively exploring the process of approaching the end of one’s life, and both of his films have starred the wonderful Elliott. But as good as he was in I’ll See You in My Dreams, it’s in The Hero that Elliott truly shines. It’s arguably his first true lead performance in a film, and like Hal Holbrook in 2009’s That Evening Sun, it’ll leave you wondering why it took so long for him to get it. —M.D.

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