Hollywood Reporter Film Critics Pick the 30 Best Performances of the Year

6:00 AM 12/17/2018

by THR Staff

Exciting newcomers, scenery chewers going subtle and a wide range of brilliant work by actresses both famous and little known — here, in alphabetical order, are the most indelible turns of 2018.

An actor might be a seasoned pro or a nonprofessional first-timer, an up-and-comer or someone hitting their midcareer stride — whatever the case may be, when the performer and role click, there's a mysterious alchemy.

This year's feats of actorly alchemy on the big screen run a breathtaking gamut. We've been knocked out by the artistry of famous stars playing famous people (Christian Bale, Rami Malek), character actors claiming center stage (Olivia Colman, John C. Reilly) and experienced performers working in a new key (Melissa McCarthy, Ben Foster) — or a new language (Steven Yeun). An inspiring new generation of actors that includes Dominique Fishback, Timothee Chalamet and Elsie Fisher has etched charged and illuminating visions of teenage experience.

But whether the characters are camping it up in a British royal palace, shoplifting on the streets of Tokyo, pining for middle-school acceptance or battling to survive the hell of prison, they're unforgettable because the actors make them live and breathe. They delight us, perplex us, break our hearts and nudge us to new vantage points.

  • Chante Adams

    'Roxanne Roxanne'

    Courtesy of Sundance

    Outside the thrum of awards-season machinery is one of the year's most eye-opening feature debuts: Chante Adams' lead turn in writer-director Michael Larnell's biopic of Queens rap prodigy Roxanne Shante. Against the film's kaleidoscopic backdrop of New York's 1980s music scene, she's the personification of outer-borough moxie. Adams makes every twinge of hurt and vulnerability as intensely felt as the character's fierce instincts. From a mouthy 14-year-old laying down rhymes between loads of laundry to a young mother breaking free of a menacing abuser (Mahershala Ali), her metamorphosis is sometimes harrowing and often exhilarating, Adams' performance nuanced and propulsive. — SHERI LINDEN

  • Sakura Ando

    'Shoplifters'

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    There's more than a touch of the mighty Stanwyck in Ando's gripping, finely shaded portrayal of the de facto matriarch of a ragtag and scrabbling Tokyo clan. The richly drawn characters in Hirokazu Kore-eda's sublime ensemble piece take turns at its center, but with her offhand grit and humor, Ando's street-smart Nobuyo is particularly riveting from the get-go. What makes the performance not just heart-wrenching but unforgettable is the way the hard-bitten character responds to a little girl in need. As self-knowing as Nobuyo may be, she's lost sight of her own capacity for kindness and joy; rediscovering it, she becomes heroic. — SHERI LINDEN

  • Christian Bale

    'Vice'

    Greig Fraser / Annapurna Pictures

    An actor known for his physical transformations pulls off yet another extraordinary one in Adam McKay’s tragi-comic biopic of Dick Cheney. But that’s not all there is to this turn. You make note of the weight gain and disappearing hairline for a while, but before long you feel like you're watching the real guy. Even in Bale’s best past work, there’s always been a certain nagging self-aware stealth. Not this time. The actor digs deep inside the man and his ever-accumulating malevolence — and when his Cheney begins manipulating George W. Bush without the latter at all minding, it's a psychological spectacle to behold. — TODD MCCARTHY

  • Juliette Binoche

    'Let the Sunshine in'

    Curiosa Films

    In Claire Denis’ darkly comic tale of thwarted desire and disastrous dates, Juliette Binoche shines as a Parisian woman “of a certain age” looking for happiness, or love, or sex, or all of the above. That she often winds up with none of the above, yet defiantly holds her head high from one calamity to the next, is what makes this hopeless film surprisingly optimistic, and, even romantic. And after Clouds of Sils Maria and Certified Copy, it’s another prime example of Binoche’s evolution over the past decade into roles of profound despair, wisdom, beauty and mystery.  —JORDAN MINTZER

  • Timothee Chalamet

    'Beautiful Boy'

    Courtesy of TIFF

    The Call Me by Your Name phenom dazzles again with his wrenching, beautifully controlled turn as Nic Sheff, a child of privilege who dove headlong into drug experimentation, and then addiction. Felix Van Groeningen’s biographical drama is cool and slippery, but Chalamet gives it a much-needed jolt of deep, vibrant, anchoring feeling. His voice dipping into a whisper, then catching, as he tells fellow addicts at a 12-step meeting, “I want my family to be proud of me,” is just one example of the kind of breathtaking nuance and intuitiveness — the ability to slip not just into a character’s skin, but get into his guts — that sets this actor apart. — JON FROSCH

  • Glenn Close

    'The Wife'

    Sony Pictures Classics/Photofest

    Playing the devoted wife of a celebrated novelist, and the keeper of his deepest, darkest secret, the born scenery chewer reins it way in and comes up with one of her richest, most riveting and complicated portrayals. Without an ounce of distracting grandness — just a flash in her eyes or the slightest flicker in her unyielding smile — Close lets us in on her character’s long-wounded pride, and also a new, slowly dawning horror. It's a silent scream of a performance that leaves a lasting echo. — JON FROSCH

  • Joe Cole

    'A Prayer Before Dawn'

    Courtesy of Cannes International Film Festival

    There are ferociously committed physical performances, and then there's Cole's barnstorming breakout turn as a battling British boxer behind Thai bars in Jean-Stephane Sauvaire's gruelingly nightmarish film. A disturbingly convincing evocation of unbridled machismo and bruising brutality, the picture plunges us into a hellish dog-eat-dog environment where only the toughest can survive. A five-season regular on the small screen in Peaky Blinders, Cole first nabbed stateside attention in Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room and in November landed the British Independent Film Award for best actor — beating out You Were Never Really Here’s Joaquin Phoenix, no less — just days after turning 30. Further heavyweight roles now surely beckon. — NEIL YOUNG

  • Toni Collette

    'Hereditary'

    Courtesy of A24

    An incandescent screen presence ever since her breakthrough in the Oz comedy classic Muriel’s Wedding, Collette navigates whiplash turns from fear to rage to hysteria and madness in writer-director Ari Aster’s assured horror debut. There’s a taut line linking Collette’s nuanced work as the emotionally frayed mother in The Sixth Sense to her operatic crescendo here, in one unforgettable scene at the dinner table ripping into Alex Wolff as her teenage son with an unmaternal ferocity that takes your breath away. — DAVID ROONEY

  • Olivia Colman

    'The Favourite'

    Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox

    All hail! Colman’s tottering, gout-stricken Queen Anne comes on like some demented escapee from a campy royal farce, nailing the comedy in every petulant tantrum, self-pitying squawk and snippy retort whenever her unpredictable behavior prompts a lack of respect. But searing pathos ultimately is the takeaway in a characterization built out of complex layering, steadily revealing the desperate need for love and approval that binds her to the two manipulative adversaries competing for her affections, played with equal incisiveness by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. — DAVID ROONEY

  • Bradley Cooper

    'A Star Is Born'

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    Sure, there’s an unmistakable vanity to how Cooper directs himself in his big, beautiful remake — lots of steamy shirtless shots — but also a soulful authenticity in how he plays his character’s physical and emotional states: his barely functioning alcoholism, all slurry stupor and mumbly charm, and, even more impressively, his feelings for Lady Gaga’s Ally. When Jackson asks Ally, in that swoony famous line, to turn around so he can “take another look” at her, Cooper’s face is that of a man deeply in love. Screen romances are a dime a dozen; actors who can convince us their characters are actually head over heels for each other are — surprisingly — pretty rare. — JON FROSCH

  • Elizabeth Debicki

    'Widows'

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    Steve McQueen’s female heist thriller boasts a full cadre of talented women etching distinctive characterizations, but the gazelle-like Australian actress quietly slinks away with her every scene. Her angular beauty and rangy physicality, along with her air of cool disdain, have made her a magnetic screen presence ever since Baz Luhrmann’s otherwise gaudy gloss on The Great Gatsby. She’s long seemed poised to become the next Cate Blanchett, just waiting for the right breakout role. In the meantime, her limited scenes here with compatriot Jacki Weaver as her nightmare mother are sly dark-comedy gold. — DAVID ROONEY

  • Trine Dyrholm

    'Nico, 1988'

    Courtesy of Lorenzo Piermattei

    Best known stateside for her work with Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Dyrholm is a revelation as past-her-prime rock chanteuse Nico in Susanna Nicchiarelli's formula-resistant biopic. Whether it's the matter-of-fact way she excuses herself from a social setting to shoot heroin, the brutal rages against fans and friends alike, or her newfound urgency regarding the son she barely knows, her Nico is a woman refusing to go gentle into that good middle age. Putting her musical background to work as well as her acting chops, Dyrholm commands the stage and every room the broody singer enters. She's off-putting, terrifying, bewitching — all the more involving for not playing on audience sympathy. — SHERI LINDEN

  • Dominique Fishback

    'Night Comes On'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    In Jordana Spiro’s tiny gem of a movie about a black lesbian teenager navigating post-incarceration life, the actress (also known for her supporting turn on HBO’s The Deuce) conjures a storm of furious feeling with little more than a change in posture or an askance look. It’s a minimalist performance, but hauntingly rich in unfussy empathy and pent-up feeling — proof that Fishback has already mastered the skill of knocking us sideways without breaking a sweat. — JON FROSCH

  • Elsie Fisher

    'Eighth Grade'

    Linda Kallerus/A24

    Bo Burnham's wry middle-school drama strips away the faux veneer of Hollywood teendom, and Fisher, in her first major film role, is its tender, spunky heart. At the center of every scene as the stumbling but determined Kayla, the young actress reveals new layers of emotion with each exchange, whether she's talking to mean-girl classmates, the asinine object of her adolescent crush or the unseen audience for her motivational YouTube videos. Like teenage girls from time immemorial, Kayla feigns experience and suffers excruciating parental embarrassment, but she also navigates a device-tethered world where self-invention is a full-time job. With gutsy earnestness, Fisher pierces the shiny Insta surface. — SHERI LINDEN

  • Ben Foster

    'Leave No Trace'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Playing a PTSD-afflicted vet in Debra Granik’s stealthy knockout, Foster creates an authentically complex figure: a gentle and sensitive but also rigid man, whose melancholy constantly threatens to submerge him — and the teen daughter (a wonderful Thomasin McKenzie) he’s raising far off the grid in the Oregon wild. As his character’s grip on the person he loves most in the world slowly comes loose, the actor’s performance grows softer and sadder. Only in retrospect do we realize we’ve been watching not just a young woman’s gradual declaration of independence, but also a heart-piercing, up-close portrait of a parent letting go. Foster is mainly known for going big and manic, but this is a masterfully contained piece of acting, and all the more moving for it. — JON FROSCH

  • Ryan Gosling

    'First Man'

    Courtesy of Universal Studios

    American moviegoers generally like their heroes to be square-jawed, take-charge types, relishing their achievements with a self-satisfied grin. It seems a radical, almost ballsy choice for Gosling and director Damien Chazelle to portray Neil Armstrong not as a standard-issue rah-rah superman but as an ordinary guy doing a job, aware of his minute place in the cosmos and as a cog in the larger machinery of a crew. Whether suited up for space travel or back home in Houston responding to the anxieties of his wife (an affecting Claire Foy) and kids, Gosling’s internalized performance quietly invites you into the thoughts of a man both private and humble. — DAVID ROONEY

  • Kathryn Hahn

    'Private Life'

    Jojo Whilden/Netflix

    You might think you've seen the story before — a couple in desperate pursuit of parenthood — but never with such ruefully wise comic observations as those of writer-director Tamara Jenkins. And never with the indispensable Hahn inhabiting the role of hell-bent yet conflicted potential mom. As a boho Manhattanite whose every sigh suggests wanting and doubting in nearly equal measure, she's in perfect sync with Paul Giamatti, as her no less fazed husband. So believably connected are their characters that each time they warily hold their tongues, you can practically hear their entwined thoughts. The latest in a movie lineage of exquisitely sharp, neurotically funny dames (Hepburn, Keaton, Eve Arden), Hahn delivers a delirious and devastating portrait of middle-aged angst, procreational and otherwise. — SHERI LINDEN

  • Ethan Hawke

    'First Reformed'

    A24/Photofest

    In Paul Schrader's comeback, Hawke dives deep within, playing a priest whose concern for others is genuine but compromised by cosmos-sized doubts. Often unable even to pray, the character does most of his speaking to a diary that reads like a meticulous suicide note; it’s an atypical role for an actor whose characters' desire to be understood often keeps them talking, and talking. Arriving the same year as his excellent (and, sadly, nearly unseen) directorial outing Blaze, the film reminds us how much Hawke has to offer beyond his fruitful collaborations with Richard Linklater. — JOHN DEFORE

  • Zoe Kazan

    'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'

    Courtesy of Netflix

    As a timid young woman facing the Old West alone, Kazan is the heart of the Coen brothers’ latest in an affecting segment of their mostly comic anthology. Her perfectly nuanced performance is poignant but unsentimental as her character confronts a fearful, and briefly hopeful, future. “What is your Christian name, Mr. Knapp?” she asks the man soon to be her fiancé in one of the year’s least likely, most touching love scenes. The actress eloquently proves that a performance can be great without histrionics. — CARYN JAMES

  • Regina King

    'If Beale Street Could Talk'

    Annapurna Pictures

    When the young female protagonist of Barry Jenkins’ bluesy, beautiful James Baldwin adaptation informs her mother she’s carrying the child of her incarcerated boyfriend, the ineffably grounded older woman reacts with neither surprise nor alarm. She simply breaks the news to the rest of the family with calm control, then sets about providing whatever practical or emotional support her daughter needs. Casting King, whose backbone and intelligence have made her a stealth powerhouse in so many great TV roles, was a masterstroke. How wonderful to see her estimable gifts utilized again on the big screen. — DAVID ROONEY

  • Joanna Kulig

    'Cold War'

    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    Playing a Polish chanteuse with a shady past, a smoky voice and sex appeal to burn, Kulig is incandescent as the love of Tomasz Kot’s life in Paweł Pawlikowski’s exquisite study of toxic passion in the time of socialism. First introduced as a girl fresh out of prison for trying to kill her own father (“He confused me with my mother, and I showed him the difference”), Kulig’s Zula is a survivor, but one whose emotional scars compel her to keep making bad choices. The scene where she flits from stranger to stranger in a Parisian nightclub, jiving to “Rock Around the Clock,” drunk on booze and spite, is a master class in acting through dance alone. — LESLIE FELPERIN

  • Rami Malek

    'Bohemian Rhapsody'

    Courtesy of Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

    Malek has won awards and acclaim for his TV series, Mr. Robot. But he’s made a big leap to movie stardom with his portrayal of Queen front man Freddie Mercury. Of course the makeup helps transform him, but Malek goes way beyond these external trappings to incarnate the vibrant and (dare we say) mercurial singer. The actor captures the mixture of bravado and insecurity that defined Mercury when he was offstage — but it’s his onstage performances, especially in the LiveAid concert that concludes the film, that represent one of the most electrifying explosions of energy seen on screen this year.  — STEPHEN FARBER

  • Melissa McCarthy

    'Can You Ever Forgive Me?

    Mary Cybulski/20th Century Fox

    The abrasive edge that McCarthy wields so knowingly in comedy has occasionally worked against her in curdled misfires like Tammy and Identity Thief. Playing jaundiced literary forger Lee Israel, she never softens her thorniness and yet her character’s deep in-the-bone loneliness pulls you in to this uncompromising, quintessentially New York character study. A repudiation of every easy stereotype of the eccentric cat lady, McCarthy’s Lee may be brittle and bitter, but she’s also a brilliant, proudly independent woman who finds fresh spark in an unlikely connection with the invaluable Richard E. Grant’s louche opportunist, a friendship drawn without an ounce of sentimentality. — DAVID ROONEY

  • Carey Mulligan

    'Wildlife'

    Courtesy of IFC Films

    Domestic discontent is hardly novel among big-screen female characters, but Mulligan strikes new chords of aggrievement with her electrifying portrayal of a wife and mother in 1960 Montana. Refusing to settle into the default mode of ennui, her performance is heart-stopping in its unapologetic emotional messiness, and the nerviest thing about Paul Dano's sensitive but gingerly directorial debut. As Mulligan's Jeanette makes her teenage son an unwilling accomplice of sorts in her extramarital affair, every agitated twitch of her pulse threatens something even more cataclysmic than a family's unraveling: a woman's freedom. — SHERI LINDEN

  • Julianne Nicholson

    'Who We Are Now'

    Courtesy of TIFF

    The freckle-faced beauty might not be the first actress you’d imagine as a wary, tough-as-nails ex-convict scraping together broken bits of a former life. But her quietly ferocious, completely convincing turn in Matthew Newton’s little-seen indie Who We Are Now is the latest evidence of her ability to disappear into a role without making a spectacle of it. Whether her character is confronting her sister for custody of the son she left behind, going to humiliating extremes to secure a waitressing job or knocking back drinks with her idealistic young lawyer (an excellent Emma Roberts), Nicholson pulls you into the tense, sometimes terrifying, occasionally hopeful moment-to-moment reality of a woman struggling to trust the world again. — JON FROSCH

  • Robert Redford

    'The Old Man & the Gun'

    Photofest

    There's no one else who could do what Redford does as an elderly bank robber in David Lowery’s minor-key latest. This is movie-star acting of a sort that only very self-confident performers can pull off, keeping it small but knowing precisely the effect that every slight gesture, glance and movement will have. He knows his impact on Sissy Spacek’s character, and subtly calibrates how much charm to turn on, when to speak, when to pause, when to smile, when to look a certain way. He's a great minimalist actor in complete control of his toolset, and it's pure pleasure to see him show his stuff. — TODD MCCARTHY

  • John C. Reilly

    'The Sisters Brothers'

    Courtesy of TIFF

    It's an unaccustomed position for character actor Reilly, but as the lead in Jacques Audiard's unorthodox Western, a picaresque tale set against California's 1850s gold rush, he rides high in the saddle. Reilly's Eli, half of a sibling team of murderers for hire, is the introspective yin to Joaquin Phoenix's hair-trigger yang, a hitman who dares to envision a gentler life. Among the many striking moments in Reilly's enthralling portrait is Eli's discovery of the wonder of toothbrushes and dental hygiene: With consummate goofy grace, he turns a bit of physical humor into the instant where the hardened shell of experience cracks open. — SHERI LINDEN

  • Regina Williams

    'Life and Nothing More'

    Courtesy of Film Constellation

    Antonio Mendez Esparza cast his documentary-style drama with an exceptionally compelling group of nonprofessional actors, led by the spellbinding Williams. As a working-class single mother, she's a fascinating combination of tough-as-nails guardedness and openhearted hope, particularly when it comes to men. Her performance, like the film itself, expresses a specifically black American reality: Raising a teenage son means trying to keep him not just out of trouble but out of a voracious penal system. She's working against the odds, moment by moment, a formidable survivor and a vital vision of inseparable love and rage. —  SHERI LINDEN

  • Michelle Yeoh

    'Crazy Rich Asians'

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    As the hyper-vigilant matriarch-in-waiting of an obscenely wealthy Singaporean real estate dynasty in the hugely enjoyable rom-com smash, the luminous Yeoh brings elegance and charm with a sharp sting. She takes what could have been a one-dimensional dragon lady and molds her into a smart woman fiercely protective of her family, mindful of the responsibility that comes with power, money and class. Her character’s own uneasy entrée into the clan years earlier eventually helps soften her stance toward the terrific Constance Wu’s perceived interloper, but even while conceding with a gracious smile, Yeoh is no pushover. — DAVID ROONEY

  • Steven Yeun

    'Burning'

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Tackling his first Korean-language role in Lee Chang-dong’s slow-simmering stunner, the former Walking Dead star plays a wealthy ladies’ man who competes with the less flashy protagonist for the affections of a troubled young woman — and who may have some, um, skeletons in his closet. Yeun exudes a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him charisma that’s menacing in its inscrutability (those yawns!), underplaying so shrewdly, with such expert modulation and sly humor, that you never stop trying to read the character. Every time you think you have him figured out, he slips from your grasp, but rarely has not fully “getting” someone felt so thrilling.  — JON FROSCH