The difficulty in providing an intro to our (unranked) list of the best movie performances of 2018 is that, ostensibly, any intro must somehow encapsulate the many varied and heartbreaking and troubling and clear-minded and kind and despicable and absolutely wrecking achievements made by actors in what we can all agree has been a pretty stellar 12 months of film. So, rather than try, we present the following joke, which indelibly achieves what we cannot:
Erik Estrada who?
Erik Estrada from CHIPs.
Here are the 25 best performances of 2018.
Yalitza Aparacio, Roma
(Image via Netflix/YouTube)
Alfonso Cuaron’s film tells many stories, but at the center of the frame is the story of his childhood maid, Libo, translated into Roma as Cleo and played by acting novice Yalitza Aparicio, who auditioned for the film almost on accident. Casting her seems a neo-realist move for authenticity, and for the most part it plays out like that: Cleo is quiet, reserved and submissive when in her servant role, somewhat more expressive when interacting with her fellow servants or with her aloof lover—but those revealing moments are fleeting. The film is composed primarily of wide shots, so each medium frame of Cleo’s face is its own gift wherein you go looking for an interior life that you—like Cuaron, knowingly—can’t quite reach. Still, Roma has some weighty demands on Cleo in its final act, and Aparicio’s performance extends, reaching without ever breaking. Tasked with playing both a real woman and a figure of memory, someone disenfranchised but also cherished (to a certain limit) by the family she served, Aparicio finds a perfect balance. One scene demonstrates just that: A multitude of others flounder as Cleo’s spirit points straight up and unwavering. The clarity of her love and kindness holds her in place. —Chad Betz
Nicolas Cage, Mandy
(Image via RLJE Films/YouTube)
Like so many of the viscous, crimson wonders Mandy has to offer, Nicolas Cage’s performance is a precise distillation of something outside itself, a simultaneously unhinged and perfectly calibrated bit of nostalgia for an experience we forget has been right in front of us this whole time. Cage’s Red Miller is part mullet’d Joe from Bangkok Dangerous, part mouthful of fire Johnny Blaze from Ghost Rider 2, part sadly recovering scumbag Terence McDonagh from Bad Lieutenant—shades of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the way he wields an otherworldly arbalest and ungodly battleaxe—the character and Cage’s heroic performance a survey of the actor’s work (some 50-plus movies) post-Oscar win. He weeps and hollers and freaks out and bludgeons the world around him indiscriminately, massaging his throat to get down most of a bottle of liquor, fuel for his rage against “crazy evil,” an anger so pure one can feel it emanate from the screen, directed at nothing except for everything. By the time we reach the end of the night of Red’s long journey, Cage saturated with blood and guts, save the unending white of his eyes and teeth, hallucinating his Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), we feel as if his whole career has built to this, a moment of bowel-clenching melancholy at what’s behind him, for it’ll no longer look like anything to come. —Dom Sinacola
Toni Collette, Hereditary
(Image via A24)
One of the most relentlessly harrowing films in years hinges mostly on an exhaustive performance from Toni Collette as Annie, a woman assaulted from all sides by grief and guilt grounded in decades of abuse—abuse which she has both given and received. We watch as Annie questions how her late mother’s treatment of her has in turn invested her with the potential to harm her own children, instilled in her a violence she is terrified that she may be completely unable to control. We watch as another tragedy drags her into a deep, unfathomable well of pain, all while director Ari Aster spares the audience nothing and Collette gives the camera everything. Hereditary is without question a horror movie, but it’s also a deeply sad one—its sadness rooted in Collette’s totally committed performance. —Ken Lowe
Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
(Image via FOX Searchlight/YouTube)
A voice can be both weapon and armor, the key to unlocking a performance and its red herring. For Yorgos Lanthimos, disaffection is everyone’s shield, a deadpan delivery the perfect method of eschewing feeling while revealing a vulnerability at one’s core. Though, for The Favourite, Lanthimos has distanced himself ever so slightly from his previous approach to blank line deliveries, the ladies of the film are no less sardonic, no less cutting than Lanthimos’s characters from before, perhaps allowing themselves to grasp a sense of vulnerability in an even more confrontational way.
It is most evident through the performances of Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill and Emma Stone as Abigail Hill that this film is fundamentally about power and love as objects to be manipulated, used, given to, taken away from. Not to be glib, but the film can be read as about two tops fighting over a bottom, and to frame the performances as such gives insight into the way that power is used throughout. Who puts the “power” in “power bottom”? The anachronistic touches in both Weisz and Stone’s performances—thrilling freedom in a breakdance, or a conniving handjob reminiscent of The Master—give both a kind of clever narcissism, an assumption of who controls the game and what the prize is. But while Colman’s Anne presents herself as selfish, helpless, willful child, moaning on the floor or vomiting up cake, isn’t she the one who created the game in the first place? The three women collectively swing effectively between guardedness and exposure, testing just how much they’re willing to lose in order to win. —Kyle Turner
Jim Cummings, Thunder Road
(Image via HereToWin LLC/YouTube
As a man in the midst of a nervous breakdown—finally broken by the recent death of his mom—Officer Jim Arnaud can’t quite keep his shit together any longer. As played by writer-director Jim Cummings, he’s not only a man untethered, he’s a man flummoxed by the sheer inexplicability of human existence, far from equipped, as we all aren’t, to face whatever conflagration of cosmic coincidences that have conspired to ruin him—to make his ex-wife such an asshole, his daughter so aloof, his mother so dead. Cummings is an exceedingly likable presence, and Jim Arnaud is, for lack of a better descriptor, a good person, but Thunder Road is about how being a good person hardly matters when the hidden rhythms and equations of the quotidian do nothing to make life fair for those who seemingly play by its rules. And throughout, Cummings carries an intensely beleaguered good nature about his misfortune, willing to challenge everything unfair in his life if only he knew how, stymied to the point of apoplexy. No other actor this year could best summarize this year with an unintelligible stammer, his words not quite able to catch up with his brain, but only because he has no words, because his brain can’t quite catch up with the purposelessness of all the mundane shit he’s got to suffer. —Dom Sinacola
Viola Davis, Widows
(Image via 20th Century Fox)
Amidst Widows’ tension and twists, there is also a story of profound grief. Viola Davis is superb as a bright, organized woman who’s learned to cope with loss—Veronica has absorbed other heartbreaks in her life—and what’s profoundly moving about Widows is how little sadness the character has room to reveal: There’s simply no time as she’s trying to stay alive and also pull off an impossible robbery. Davis holds Veronica’s tension beautifully, connecting with director Steve McQueen’s previous films in their close study of the pain we carry around, and the spiritual cost it demands. —Tim Grierson
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
(Image via A24)
Elsie Fisher’s take on a socially awkward eighth grader who struggles to make friends in the cruelest of all pubescent years is the kind of performance, typically from some luminous newcomer, absorbing in how instinctive it is, how easily it sheds artifice. As soon as Eighth Grade begins, we see Fisher’s Kayla through her low-resolution webcam, talking about her solid self-esteem while every pause and crack in her voice clearly shows the opposite. I was instantly transformed to when I was 15; a flurry of nostalgia and sadness enveloped me. It was as if I was Anton Ego, and Fisher’s performance of the life of a self-conscious and constantly discomforted teen was my first bite of the ratatouille made by a newcomer chef. Fisher’s been appearing in fairly small roles for almost a decade, mostly in voice-over work for animated fare, but this is the kind of breakout screen presence that hopefully kickstarts a formidable career. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Kathryn Hahn, Private Life
(Image via Jojo Whilden/Netflix)
Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life explores the difficulties of infertility with deft wit and observation, as well as with an excellent Paul Giamatti, but first and foremost with the piercingly vibrant performance of Kathryn Hahn. She embodies a legion of adjectives in this film: strong and weak and brilliant and vulnerable and hilarious and heartbreaking. At one point she, surging with injected hormones, delivers a brief tirade while nude from the waist down; it’s probably the funniest half-minute of the year. In another scene she tears down her husband in a way that only someone who deeply loves another person can. And in the quiet moments she gives us her character’s wisdom. Her fearless performance never feels like showmanship or awards-bait (and, tellingly, the awards aren’t biting). Credit Jenkins for creating a fully realized and dynamic character, but credit Hahn for nary a misstep, making every single moment land like an anvil, be it to bust the gut with laughter or break the heart with empathy. —Chad Betz
Regina Hall, Support the Girls
(Image via Magnolia Pictures/YouTube)
In retail and service work, the myth of co-workers/employees as family is nearly a necessary coping mechanism—bonds are fostered mostly out of hardship—but the idea of a “clan” is not really sustainable unless someone believes in it. Regina Hall’s Lisa Conroy, the manager of a highway-bound breastaurant, believes it. She has to in order to keep the ship running. As she runs around Support the Girls, putting out fires, she encapsulates the strangely familiar and yet hierarchical nature of service work: the reality that even the most intimate of relationships are effectively transactional. Regina Hall pairs toughness with maternal warmth, both because the traits seem embedded in Lisa’s personality, and because being tough and maternal is simply the most effective way to do her work. She is allowed to be vulnerable in Support the Girls, certainly, but the most striking thing about Hall’s performance, how it works within the film, is that it suggests the gendered connotations of managerial duties are not so different from those of domestic labor. —Kyle Turner
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
What makes a man start fires? What if that person were a man of God? Paul Schrader, now 71, has perhaps spent his entire career as a filmmaker attempting to ask that question, to breach the impenetrable truth of whatever that question’s answer could be. With First Reformed, Schrader’s 20th feature as director, that question absorbs the whole film—not through cries of nihilism, as in his previous, garbage Dog Eat Dog, but as a sustained act of faith: What must the devout do for a world God has abandoned?
The question lingers wetly in Ethan Hawke’s eyes as he carries every frame of Schrader’s film. Playing Father Ernst Toller—a minister who in a former life had a wife and a son and a military career, an end brought to all three by that son’s death in Iraq—Hawke has spent the past 20 or so years sublimating the radical tendencies of his iconic slackerdom into a fiercely simmering anxiety, as if the purposelessness of his past malaise has left him stewing on how little he can or could do to change anything in this world. Hawke, of course, haunts every single moment of the film, so gentle that his brief outbursts seemingly foretell apocalypse, and so troubled that his saving feels futile. Who better to play a minister ineffectually shepherding a tiny, practically non-existent congregation than Hawke, a symbol of outrage gone to pasture? —Dom Sinacola