8. Yalitza Aparicio – Roma
Don’t expect anything boisterous from Aparicio. That’s not her style. In Roma, the lead actress instead chooses to do things a little quieter. Considering the more understated nature of the film, it’s fitting that Aparicio chooses to go for something a little subdued. Now, there are people out there who assume bigger is always better when it comes to movie performances. Those people are wrong. Those people haven’t sat down and watched someone like Yalitza Aparicio give insight into a character through subtle facial expressions, gestures, and vocal inflections.
Flashy performances can be really excellent. John Cho’s performance in Searching, for example, is anything but subtle. He’s successful because of his ability to aggressively emote when things get intense. At the same time, there are other performances that captivate viewers because they’re so grounded in reality.
Viewers don’t need an extravagant performance from Aparicio to figure out what’s going on inside her head. We all know how the protagonist is feeling at any given time because the subtle changes in her body language lead us to that conclusion. She goes for naturalistic, and it ultimately benefits her because it flows so well with the rest of the movie.
That is to say, the entire movie is successful because of its subtlety and realism. Aparicio blends into the background seamlessly. She feels less like an actress and more like the puzzle piece holding everything together. Everything in Roma works so well, but it feels like it would all fall apart without one talented lead actress.
7. Viggo Mortensen – Green Book
Green Book is the true story about a prejudiced white driver who takes a job driving an influential black pianist. That prejudiced white driver is played by the immensely talented Viggo Mortensen.
Mortensen’s performance borders on cartoonish, but for once, that’s part of the charm. Mortensen plays a walking, talking Italian-American stereotype. That’s because, according to everyone who knew him, the real life Tony Lip was a walking, talking Italian-American stereotype. He spoke with a thick Italian-American accent, his life revolved around food, and he loudly spoke his mind at any given opportunity. He made Joey Tribbiani look like a Victorian poet. That was Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga. Appropriately, that is Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga.
Yet, along with being brash, boisterous, and big-mouthed, Mortensen’s portrayal is oddly sweet. We’ve been given a character who is easy to fall in love with, warts and all. He’s not a college-educated pianist with a penchant for reading up on psychology. He’s a working class city-dweller with a penchant for swearing, and we accept him for that. More importantly, we accept that he was able to grow as a person both in real life and on the big screen. Mortensen’s transformation from beginning to end is the real hero of the story.
6. Toni Collette – Hereditary
People won’t stop talking about Toni Collette’s dazzling performance in Hereditary, but can you really blame them? Collette has delivered a career-defining performance in a movie that would have been perfectly fine without this kind of talent. Does she enhance the overall experience? Absolutely, but it’s hard to expect a performance this good in a movie like Hereditary.
This is no insult to Hereditary. In fact, Hereditary is a movie that somehow managed to defy all expectations despite strong pre-release buzz. Even with such a strong wor d-of-mouth, most people were aware that horror movies don’t often make great performances a priority. A lot of the best reviewed horror movies tend to put tension and good writing above excellent acting. By some miracle, Hereditary seems to excel in every area, including strong acting.
It has the so-called “prioritized elements” listed above. That is to say, it’s a well-written horror movie with tension to spare. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Collette’s haunting performance practically begs viewers to keep watching. Most of the scariest scenes involve her going out of her way to make your skin crawl. At the same time, she also brings a welcome amount of emotional heft to a performance that could’ve just been about the scares.
Basically, she’s the complete package. A lot of the scares don’t come from strong direction but rather from her haunting acting. At the same time, there are plenty of emotional moments within the film, and these moments are enhanced by Collette’s commitment to the role. This is an explosive performance that manages to keep up with every tonal shift along the way.
5. Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
In the newest interpretation of A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper plays a bumbling has-been with a drinking problem. Sound familiar? It should if you’ve seen any other version of this story. However, while his characteristics remain mostly unchanged, Cooper’s take on the character is surprisingly fresh. After four adaptations, one might suspect that innovation is an impossibility at this point. Miraculously, that turns out to be untrue. Cooper may be telling a familiar story, but he’s doing everything he can to spin it in a new direction.
Given the subject matter, there’s only so much Cooper can do to make the performance his own. Too much creative freedom would result in a performance that fails to do the source material justice. In other words, he needs to strike a balance. How can he satisfy fans of the older movies while also presenting a character that feels unique? Well, it turns out he has a few methods.
To some degree, this is the same alcoholic celebrity that moviegoers have seen three times before. This is the same man who meets an up-and-coming performer, wins her over, and eventually shows his dark side. This time around, he’s a southern rocker not completely unlike Kris Kristofferson. The difference is that the aforementioned “dark side” here is turned up a notch, especially when compared to his 1976 counterpart. There’s a new level of authenticity here we haven’t seen before. Perhaps this level of grit is just par for the course in 2018, but this take on the character just feels so raw and unhinged.
Basically, he differentiates himself in ways that count. At the same time, he still fits the bill as the male lead in A Star Is Born. He fits snuggly into an archetype while also fighting against a formula that people have come to expect. This combination results in cinematic bliss.
4. Lady Gaga – A Star Is Born
Lady Gaga has made it clear that her career as a musician wasn’t always her first priority. In fact, she often tells interviewers that acting was her first passion. She went into music because she never thought she’d make it as an actress. Well, judging by her work in A Star Is Born, it’s starting to seem like she has always had it in her.
After a solid (and Golden Globe winning) performance in American Horror Story, Gaga once again returned to music when she released her fifth studio album. While the album was definitely well received, it didn’t make up for the fact that Gaga mostly disappeared from the screen following such a sizeable role in Ryan Murphy’s hit show. We got a taste of what she was capable of as an actress, but that was all we got until three years later.
A few months ago, Lady Gaga appeared in her first theatrical starring role in A Star Is Born. The movie’s title is fitting considering the fact that, in the role, Gaga asserts herself as a multitalented performer. We knew she was a star in the music world, but now we have definitive proof that she’s an all-around gift.
Gaga’s work in A Star Is Born can be described using terms from a perpetual list of positive adjectives. It’s poignant, charming, game-changing, heartfelt, passionate, and beautiful. Seriously, the list goes on and on. To add to that, her chemistry with co-star Bradley Cooper is undeniable. The two have a bond that feels almost inhuman. Other actors need to take note.
This amount of acclaim should hopefully convince Lady Gaga to stick around. Her musical talent is deserving of praise, but it would be great to have the best of both worlds. With this performance, it seems hard to imagine anything better coming from her, but this is a promising start from a celebrity who continues to surprise us.
3. Olivia Colman – The Favourite
The Oscars love when actors and actresses completely change their body image to successfully portray a character. Maybe that’s why she’s a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination. Then again, that’s a little too easy. She gained almost forty pounds for the role, but Jared Leto put on plenty of weight for Chapter 27 and we all know how that turned out. Colman’s dedication to her physical transformation is great and all, but there’s so much more to talk about.
A lot of the charm comes from the humor. The Favourite is a dark comedy, and most of the jokes come from Olivia Colman. They’re definitely well-written jokes, but it’s easy to imagine a less talented actress flubbing her lines and causing the jokes to land flat on their face. Well-written dialogue can only help a film so much. For the most part, you’re going to need somebody to deliver well-written dialogue in a way that resonates. Colman does the trick.
Praising her performance as simply “funny” would be akin to praising her performance solely because she gained weight. There’s more to it. She is very funny, but she also shows a range of emotions throughout. She plays a needy, borderline insufferable human being. The insufferable part is fun to an extent, but there are plenty of other emotions you’re liable to feel. Similarly, there plenty of emotions she showcases through her acting talent.
The point is, Colman earns a spot on this list for too many reasons to count. It’s not just that she’s funny. There’s a lot going on that proves she can act her socks off. There’s only so much film critics can do to detail why this is one of the greatest performances from last year. At some point, it’s best to just tell people to see for themselves, so do it.
2. Mahershala Ali – Green Book
There has been a lot of talk about how safe Green Book feels. While reception has been positive overall, critics can’t help but dig at the film for feeling a little straightforward. To be fair, they’re kind of on to something. Peter Farrelly’s latest movie does very little to innovate. It’s a charming but safe movie that tackles race relations in a way that’s easily digestible for just about anyone. It’s not as heavy-hitting as Blindspotting, If Beale Street Could Talk, or The Hate U Give, but it’s not trying to be. Green Book is so successful because it’s an accessible movie that also happens to be incredibly well-made despite an overall lack of groundbreaking material.
“Incredibly well-made” is the most important thing to keep in mind. The story being told isn’t revolutionary, but everything in Green Book just works. It’d be easy to talk about the sharp dialogue, beautiful music, and skillful direction, but that’s not the point of this list. The goal here is to highlight strong movie performances, and this movie happens to have two of 2018’s greatest.
In terms of quality, the two leads are neck-and-neck, but Mahershala Ali’s take on pianist Don Shirley is just a bit more engrossing. To be fair, Shirley may be the more complex character here. Ali gives viewers a character who can only be described as a “wounded soul.” He plays an immensely talented musician who can’t spend a day without facing some form of discrimination. The audience always knows what’s around the corner, but Ali’s acting is thankfully less predictable. We’re lucky enough to get a character who’s anything but one-note, and we can thank Mahershala Ali.
Ali seems like a lock for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at this point, and it’s hard to argue with the voters. Say what you will about the predictable script, but the acting is first-rate. Truthfully, there are scenes that could have been ruined by apathetic actors, but the casting choices are just right.
1. Ethan Hawke – First Reformed
First Reformed functions primarily as a character study, which means we need a character worth studying. The first step to giving people that character comes from a nuanced script. When it comes to that, Paul Schrader has all of his bases covered. Step two is casting an actor who can convincingly play this complex character. That turns out to be Ethan Hawke’s job.
The story is about an alcoholic minister whose worldview is challenged when he meets the wife of an unhinged environmental activist. The film mostly revolves around the protagonist’s crisis of faith, which is made more difficult following this encounter. Hawke never presents us with a happy-go-lucky character, but there’s obvious growth from beginning to end. The growth isn’t always fun to watch, but it’s always rewarding. The character’s descent into a new breed of depression is in itself depressing, but it nevertheless captivates thanks in large part to the tremendous work done by Ethan Hawke.
First Reformed asks unanswerable questions about human nature. It asks these through the events of the story, yes, but Hawke is always the one reinforcing these big picture questions. He’s able to say things that the script can’t. Nothing is said outright in the entire movie, but Hawke does his damndest to clearly spell things out. You could say the movie is open to interpretation to some small extent, but there a lot of obvious messages told through one actor’s excellent performance.
Again, this film is hard to watch due to the the grimness of it all. Don’t go into First Reformed seeking an optimistic, feel-good movie. This won’t fit the bill. Instead, it’s a movie that presents a bleak look into the less cheery parts of society. It’s important to note, however, that these things are presented in a brilliant manner through both a strong script, and more importantly, an exemplary performance from Ethan Hawke.