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The 20 Best Movie Performances of 2017

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The 20 Best Movie Performances of 2017

Our picks for the best movies performances of 2017 do not include Bryan Cranston as Zordon in Power Rangers, even though the success of Bryan Cranston as Zordon in Power Rangers pretty handily summarizes the potential of what could be considered a great performance in 2017. Consider Bryan Cranston’s performance as Zordon in Power Rangers an official, unranked honorable mention: Committed to its absurdity, and somehow able to chew briskly through exposition-heavy sci-fi schmaltz, Cranston represents everything that is good about blockbuster filmmaking and film-going in 2017, in this case being a beloved character actor lending his talents to a property which doesn’t deserve him, sensing in a seemingly obligatory movie adaptation the potential for greatness. And make no mistake: Power Rangers is great. Shout-out to Elizabeth Banks too. Anyway.

Here are the 20 best movie performances of 2017:

20. Jessie Pinnick, Princess Cyd

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At the very beginning of Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd, Jessie Pinnick’s Cyd is defined by a lack of curiosity that nearly perturbs her aunt, successful writer Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence). Cyd doesn’t really read, is not especially into the philosophical or metaphysical questions of life that her aunt explores in her writing. Cyd is, in essence, uninterested in the way we narrativize our lives. But that changes when Cyd’s bond with Miranda grows closer, and she stumbles into an attraction to Katie (Malic White), a genderqueer barista. Cyd’s maturation—emotional and erotic—is astounding, and even when Cyd is unsure of herself or the scope of her life’s plot, Pinnick, as a performer, embraces that uncertainty, striking when need be with subtle offense, or exposing herself with tenderness. The camera is totally enraptured by her confidence. And, in the end, as she walks into the sunlight, we know Pinnick had control over the whole story. —Kyle Turner


19. Ahn Seo-hyun, Okja

(Photo: Jae Hyuk Lee/Netflix)

Ahn’s performance in Bong Joon-ho’s film—which arguably asserts that conscious consumerism is not a thing—is paradoxical: In how complicated are its nuances, and how simple are its pleasures, Ahn’s presence magnificently posits that the Godardian phrase about cinema should be revamped to “All you need to make a movie is a girl and her super pig.” It is no easy task to be as seemingly clear-eyed as Ahn’s Mija is, her goals totally crystallized in her mind (save Okja!), bringing the soulful connection that Mija and Okja must have to breathtaking life. Whether expressed via a burst of outsized energy, or a name (“Okja!”) screamed across a perilously jammed tunnel, the world shakes with their love. —Kyle Turner


18. Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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In his second outing as rage-driven space fascist/Jedi apostate Kylo Ren, Adam Driver proves he’s the most consistent and compelling force of the resurrected Star Wars franchise. The Last Jedi seems to strain against (if not entirely break free from) the stifling dogma of the series in every way that matters, and it seems no mere coincidence that Kylo Ren’s money line is to whisper to Rey to “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” Thus positioned as the vanguard of villainy in this revival show, Driver’s Ren brought vulnerability, inadequacy and roiling inner conflict to the table in The Force Awakens in 2015. Here, Driver builds on that foundation, portraying a baddie who is at once conniving and clever, seductive and persuasive, betrayed and wounded, and exactly the sort of jerk we love to see humbled. Here’s hoping the forthcoming Episode IX gives him the spectacular comeuppance the character demands. —Ken Lowe


17. Aubrey Plaza, Ingrid Goes West

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In her post-Parks and Rec career—wherein the crux of her performance was rolling her eyes—and relegated to typecasted roles like Life After Beth and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Aubrey Plaza has gone as far as she can with that kind of material. But in Ingrid Goes West she finds a seed of something so much more complicated, her talents are able to elevate the script to a new plane. Playing Ingrid, whose mental illness allows her social media activity to consume her life and the lives of those around her, Plaza unearths curious, complicated gradations in the character, one that could be easily written off as a weirdo freak. What Plaza senses in Ingrid, as the character desperately tries to become something else, hiding her vulnerability beneath layers of social (media) performance, is the ostensibly monstrous morphed into the deeply human. Plaza’s facial contortions alone, swooning with desperation and desire, lift her performance, and the film, to the ranks of the great queer personality-swap films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. —Kyle Turner


16. Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

A bid for a gold statue has never seemed so blatant as casting Gary Oldman to play genius wheezing statesman and iconic anthropomorphic thumb Winston Churchill, but to actually witness Oldman’s transformation in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is to behold something so much more subtle. This is due, no doubt, to Kazuhiro Tsuji’s magnificent makeup and prosthetic design, somehow transcending the sheer silliness of having Oldman look like Churchill by, from Oldman’s first gruff moments in the film, convincing the audience that Churchill has always looked like this. Still, however closely allied to the actual Churchill persona, Oldman’s performance practically, metaphysically supports the whole film’s ambitious conceit: He finds the near imperceptible balance of drama and realism, of the performative aspects of a biopic with the believable, mundane history and politics that sleep underneath all that bluster. It can be as simple as volume, Oldman knowing when to stay quiet, to communicate through the sadness in his eyes rather than through the stentorian command of his mouth. If we know anything about Churchill, we know he was a great orator—Darkest Hour knows this too. What’s so impressive about Oldman’s performance is that the actor knows the real key to the success of his part is in pulling down and piecing apart all that greatness. —Dom Sinacola


15. Adam Sandler, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

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I wouldn’t pick Sandler’s name for a list of the best performances of the year if I didn’t genuinely think his work in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is superb—but if I’m being honest, there’s a part of me that wants to highlight him out of sheer irritation. Sandler isn’t revelatory here. Playing the divorced, unemployed, sadly unappreciated Danny Meyerowitz, Sandler does audiences the favor of reminding them how good he can be when he’s engaged with his material and working under a director who actually cares enough to fucking direct him. Danny is a hard-luck kind of guy and Sandler, with his downturned eyes, his paunch, his field of stubble crying out for the mercy of a razor blade, evokes from the film’s very first frames an urgent sense of empathy in Danny that draws us into Noah Baumbach’s latest interpretation of New York City. A decent man possessed of a good heart but robbed of self-advocacy skills, Danny is immediately likable—only its the brand of likability which will make you crazy by the movie’s end. If Sandler has performances like this in him, then isn’t he depriving us of them every time he blandly fulfills his Netflix contract? Let’s just be thankful he signed on with Baumbach, if only this once. —Andy Crump


14. Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth

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Poor Katherine. This modest young lass has been forced into a marriage with an older, richer, uncaring man—she’s separated from everything and everyone she loves, filling a thankless role as wife and mother to this jerk’s children. What’s so terrific about Lady Macbeth is how director William Oldroyd sets us up to expect one kind of 19th century Gothic drama—the one in which the helpless woman is at the mercy of her cruel husband—but sideswipes us with another, better film. And Lady Macbeth’s secret weapon is Florence Pugh, who plays Katherine as a wallflower realizing that with a spine could come a sadistic streak. If revenge is a dish best served cold, Pugh (a relative newcomer who will be in The Commuter and the upcoming movie from Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie) delivers her character’s every twist with supreme chilliness. We root for Katherine to break free of this patriarchal hell, but we recoil at her ease in delivering some cruel, elegant payback. It turns out, we had underestimated her—after Pugh’s turn in Lady Macbeth, we’ll never do the same for this promising actress. —Tim Grierson


13. Jason Mitchell, Mudbound

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Mudbound is a difficult film to endure, but Jason Mitchell’s performance is nothing short of remarkable. Mitchell captivates as Ronsel Jackson, a beloved son sent off to war, who returns a changed man—though the country he returns to remains as vile and racist as it ever was. His character manages to deliver some of the most honest, poignant and devastating moments of the film, as well as some of the warmest and lighthearted, played beautifully alongside Garrett Hedlund’s Jamie McAllen, who is also suffering from PTSD, and Mary J. Blige as Florence, Ronsel’s devoted mother. Mudbound is far from a perfect film, but Mitchell’s performance is one of its highlights: an authentic embodiment of a soldier, a son and a man who refuses to be defined by his American enemy. —Shannon M. Houston


12. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Throughout her illustrious and versatile career, Frances McDormand has used her inherent charm and confidence to play characters both immediately likable and strong-willed enough to not take any shit from anybody. So when writer/director Martin McDonagh set out to cast Mildred Hayes, a fearlessly confrontational, thick-skinned woman with the dogged dedication to find her daughter’s killers despite however much her efforts might disrupt her town and ruin lives, he certainly couldn’t look for anyone other than McDormand to create instant empathy for someone so morally complex. To be sure, McDormand’s trademark in-your-face intensity creates some of the most uncomfortably funny moments in the film (her rapid-fire debasement of a local news crew might be 2017’s best movie moment), but the insurmountable sadness that boils within Mildred provides the key to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s emotional heft, and McDormand bears all of it. —Oktay Ege Kozak


11. Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

It takes a certain kind of person to manage an extended stay motel in a shithole like Kissimmee, Florida, so it stands to reason that it takes a certain kind of person to play that kind of person in a movie. Enter Willem Dafoe: no stranger to playing moral, well-meaning characters who feel a sense of obligation to the people around them—see, for starters, Platoon, or Finding Nemo, and then try to find two performances in an actor’s oeuvre with such a massive disparity between them—but as Bobby Hicks, the beleaguered manager of the Magic Castle Motel, he’s operating on a new level of selflessness. Bobby works too hard for too little pay and too much heartbreak, hustling at every opportunity to keep his business up and running and his occupants out of trouble, especially Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), The Florida Project’s six-year-old protagonist, and Halley (Bria Vinaite), her mother. If he’s not touching up paint, he’s making sure the power stays on, and if he’s not moving a bug-ridden mattress, he’s chasing off pedophiles. Dafoe’s gregariousness is a perfect fit for Bobby. So’s his innate compassion. —Andy Crump


10. Daniel Day Lewis, Phantom Thread

(Photo: Focus Features)

Daniel Day-Lewis   would choose to retire from acting by starring in a posh Paul Thomas Anderson film, wouldn’t he? Playing a character with a name like Reynolds Woodcock, a man christened with an appellation so magnificent that headstone engravers wait in giddy anticipation for his death, the kind of old school name that implies hard-nosed machismo and decorum and also endless dick jokes. Depending on your image of Day-Lewis, you may find it either surprising or expected that he came up with Reynolds’ name and not Anderson, and that indeed it’s meant as a gag. But the gag, for all its sublimely phallic implications, gives Reynolds a backbone Day-Lewis flexes to life. Reynolds is exacting, demanding, a master of his craft who (quite unlike Day-Lewis) is a chore to work with, but he’s also a walking punchline. Still, Day-Lewis makes the joke of Reynolds’ extreme childlike fussiness work through a top layer of dignity to belie his infantile qualities. Because asking audiences to laugh at an esteemed, insufferable, thoroughly callous man who treats his subordinates and loved ones like moldering garbage is a big ask, except when that man is played by Daniel Day-Lewis. —Andy Crump


9. Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip

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As free-spirited Dina, Tiffany Haddish imbues her role in the excellent Girls Trip with the same kind of completely infectious excitement she brings to her stand up. Midair on a zipline in New Orleans, Dina’s movements and excitement explode, the only character in the film who lacks an ulterior motive, whose emotional honesty completely colors every action on screen, where every joke or bombastic move is only an attempt to get closer to her friends. Haddish’s performance is something we should celebrate. —Kyle Turner


8. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out

It might seem that Kaluuya doesn’t have a difficult task in a film like Get Out. We’re already on his character’s side from the beginning; we know where things are headed and we know we want him to get out before he even gets in. But Kaluuya had far more to do than simply play a poor black guy, Chris Washington, who—in spite of his best friend’s protests (props to LilRel Howery for turning in an equally fantastic performance)—has fallen for a white girl (Allison Williams). He has to play someone with enough innocence and intelligence to convincingly be both a victim and a curious onlooker when he enters into the house of Armitage. He has to be smart enough to ask the right questions, but human enough to stay longer than he should. Perhaps most importantly, Kaluuya has to play a young man still grieving the loss of his mother, and managing the guilt that has never really left him—a guilt that the mistress of the house (Catherine Keener) exploits to send him to the sunken place. That he balances all of Chris’s aspects without overplaying his emotions is a testament to his talent as an actor, and his ability to exercise restraint in a film with so much overwhelming material already. Thank the black gods, we’ve only two more months before we get the pleasure of seeing Kaluuya bring his subdued, but powerful style to Black Panther. —Shannon M. Houston


7. Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus

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Making a movie that seems to be about America that never tells its audience that it’s probably about America can’t be easy—neither can playing the lead in that movie, either. Still, Haley Lu Richardson, in Kogonada’s debut feature, Columbus, turns in an effortless performance as Casey, a local of the title city struggling to cope with America’s foibles and flaws while basking in its quiet, small town beauty. The characters in Columbus are aimlessly moored, and Casey especially is determined to stay in Columbus to look after her mother, a recovering drug addict, pushing any thoughts of her dreams and aspirations out of her mind even as others urge her to be what they think she wants to be. Casey’s story could be about being lost in one’s hometown, lost in one’s country. It could be about the impact America’s drug addiction epidemic has not only on the addicted but on their loved ones, and what the future holds for the nation’s young people who must carry the burden of their parents’ generation’s crisis. Columbus’s subtextual concerns are numerous, and Richardson articulates each of them with a hushed, pained grace unmatched in 2017. —Andy Crump


6. Robert Pattinson, Good Time

The hero of Good Time is one of the canniest individuals in recent cinema, which might seem like an odd thing to say about a scummy lowlife who screws up a bank heist in the film’s opening reels. But don’t underestimate Connie: Several of the people who cross his path make that mistake, and he gets the better of them every time. He’s played by Robert Pattinson in a performance so locked-in from the first second that it shoots off an electric spark from the actor to the audience: Just sit back, he seems to be telling us. I’ve got this under control. Some critics, especially after Good Time premiere at Cannes, have commented that Connie is a fascinating, even funny character because he’s kinda dumb. This is an incorrect reading—and a failure to appreciate precisely what Pattinson has achieved. This Queens crook may have never cracked a book, but his street smarts are formidable. The Safdies often use nonprofessionals in their films, and the Twilight star brings a similar ratty ordinariness to his portrayal. Connie exudes live-wire danger, but his most lethal quality is his mind, which is always plotting three steps ahead, sizing up every situation. Good Time is structured like a “one crazy evening” escapade in the style of After Hours, and the Safdies send Connie on a midnight odyssey that zigs and zags with impetuous abandon. But it’s Connie’s smarts that guide the adventure. Since Twilight, Pattinson has shown his dramatic range by playing characters, in movies like Cosmopolis, who possess a dark, chilly interior life beneath the handsome outer trappings. (In a sense, he was still portraying vampires.) But as Connie, he’s shockingly vital and present, unabashedly throwing himself into any situation. And the longer the night goes on, it becomes obvious that these aren’t new abilities Connie is learning—more likely, this quick thinking and charming swagger have probably been crucial to staying alive this long. Like Connie, Pattinson and his directors thrive on their wits and endless inventiveness—the thrill comes in marveling at how far it can take them. —Tim Grierson


5. Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper

Perhaps no film has deserved Kristen Stewart’s (iconic?) lip-biting than Personal Shopper, because Olivier Assayas’s film, and Stewart’s orifice-teething, contains multitudes. Anxiety, humor, depression, terror, anticipation, seduction: Stewart is so tuned into Assayas’s constantly swerving wavelength that if we ever needed a face of grief in 2017, it would be Stewart’s, playing Maureen Cartwright—reeling after the loss of her twin brother, trying to balance her work as a celebrity assistant/shopper with more supernatural projects and, by extension, more metaphysical priorities—as a mess of sorrow struggling to escape the power of her mind’s maybe-hallucinatory grip. Stewart’s never been an ostentatious actor, and in Personal Shopper that subtlety anchors Assayas’s whims, never allowing his whimsical forays into ghost story, thriller or erotic character study to untether too hopelessly from a central conceit: Mourning is incomprehensible, scary, weird, tedious, strangely sexy stuff, the wires in our brains constantly crossed as we attempt to figure out what any of it means. What does any of this mean? The ambiguity Stewart controls so impressively makes the lack of answers we receive worth all the confusion. —Dom Sinacola


4. Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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When first we meet Martin, he’s an unassuming, charmingly awkward, even meek young man who needs to be coddled and cared for by Colin Farrell’s cocksure doctor. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to think. As writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos meticulously pulls the rug out from under The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s audience, Martin’s spine-chilling motivations come to light, our thoughts whiplashing from pity to pure terror. Across this arc, relative newcomer Barry Keoghan never loses focus of Martin’s aw-shucks façade, transforming the polite, poor urchin archetype, without winking once to the audience, into something sinister, never lapsing into a traditional, more boisterous villain. In perhaps the most haunting scene involving a plate of spaghetti ever put on film, Keoghan commands full emotional control, wielding a dead-eyed yet somehow charged monologue to reduce an iconic actor like Nicole Kidman to wordless desperation. —Oktay Ege Kozak


3. James Franco, The Disaster Artist

What truly separates a role like James Franco’s in The Disaster Artist from the sort of “disappearing act” pulled by Daniel Day-Lewis? When Day-Lewis slaps on a beard and makeup, immersing himself in method to pull off a role such as Abraham Lincoln, the praise flows for the actor’s dedication to his craft, the willingness to suppress the self in order to let the subject completely take over. And that’s exactly what James Franco has attempted via The Disaster Artist, with great success. Don’t let the fact that the film is peppered with jokes and punchlines distract from the Herculean task that Franco was presented with when he first decided to attempt to get within the mind of Tommy Wiseau. To play a guy like this is to play the unknowable—we can scarcely understand the brain of Tommy any better than we can understand how a crocodile or a shark thinks. We can only assume, then, that Franco put forth an incredible effort to commit every little one of Wiseau’s tics to memory. He sways, he repeats himself, he laughs or grimaces at times when it absolutely does not make sense to do either of those things: He successfully evokes both Wiseau’s hopeless optimism and the man’s darker undercurrent of jealousy and simmering animosity he possesses toward a world that shuns his idiosyncrasies, that has never given him a fair chance. I defy anyone to do a better job at being Tommy Wiseau—other than Tommy. —Jim Vorel


2. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Presenting Sally Hawkins’ character in The Shape of Water is a delicate thing. It would be all too easy for the audience to classify Elisa Esposito, the silent janitor, as a character distinctly “less than” when we first meet her, owing to the mute condition she’s been stricken with since childbirth, to see a character like her as almost subhuman, not in her rights but in her agency: “lucky” to choose a life for herself as a functioning part of society despite not being “whole.” But in the opening scenes of The Shape of Water, Hawkins quickly dispels us of any such notions. Elisa lives alone. She walks to the beat of her own drum. She masturbates in her tub every morning. In this routine, it’s impossible for the audience to not consider that this is someone with an entire lifetime of wishes and desires bottled away, never needing to vocalize them give them validity. We may question why she’s so immediately drawn to the sea creature “Asset” so deftly played by Doug Jones, but the answer isn’t all that complicated: It’s because she wants to be, and she’s a woman distinctly unafraid of making waves and taking chances. Hawkins portrays Elisa as a warm, expressive soul with empathy and imagination to spare, a woman of remarkable assertiveness in an era when such determination is wholly unexpected of her. She uses the low profile that society forces on her to pursue personal fulfillment and her moral imperative without hesitation. Both the performer and the character are fearless. —Jim Vorel


1. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

One wonders if Greta Gerwig or Saoirse Ronan reflected on the latter’s starring role in the 2015 film Brooklyn (which earned Ronan her second Oscar nomination) while considering the characterization of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. They’re both roughly the same age—late teens, young women entering a wider world, one in 1951 and one in 2002—but my, how societal demands and expectations have changed in that half century. Where Brooklyn’s Eilis Lacey has had responsibility and emotional maturity thrust upon her as she travels alone to find independence, Lady Bird has been conversely sheltered from the realities of the world. She’s self-absorbed, judgmental, flighty and occasionally lacking in empathy, which causes her to clash with her equally antagonistic mother (Laurie Metcalf). She’s blind to the suffering of those around her, whether it’s her overworked and badly stressed mom, clinically depressed father or emotionally vulnerable friends. It’s a more challenging role than that of Lacey, on nearly every level for Ronan, to play someone who is not the kind of character the audience aspires to be—rather, one to wonder about: Just how naive is this young woman? Ronan captures that combination of innocence, pluck and capacity for growth beautifully, feeling every bit the part of a self-absorbed teenager whose fixation on the mundanities of high school life is gradually replaced by an awareness of everything outside Sacramento, her hometown. She learns to simultaneously care less and more about what others think—less about what they think of her social standing and musical taste, and more of what they think about her actions and values. Ultimately, Ronan’s performance is one of hope—the hope that we can all become a little more self-aware, empathetic and keyed in to the world around us. —Jim Vorel

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