Hollywood Reporter Film Critics Pick the 13 Best Performances of the Year

6:00 AM 12/13/2017

by THR Staff

Dazzling newcomers, seasoned vets exploring fresh facets of their talent, ferocious scene stealers and more — here, in alphabetical order, are the most indelible turns of 2017.

'Call Me by Your Name,' 'I, Tonya' and 'Good Time'
'Call Me by Your Name,' 'I, Tonya' and 'Good Time'
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics; Courtesy of NEON; Courtesy of A24

 

  • Mary J. Blige

    'Mudbound'

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Stepping out of the R&B spotlight for her highest-profile screen role to date, Blige delivers a performance that's riveting in its stillness. As Florence Jackson, the matriarch of a family of tenant farmers in 1940s Mississippi, she's the embodiment of practical wisdom, forbearance and vigilance. And yet, presented with a gift by her worldlier son (Jason Mitchell), she can melt into girlish modesty. Florence first appears five minutes into Dee Rees' ensemble drama, listening impassively to a white man's urgent request, and in that moment the story's weight shifts, its moral center revealed. Without uttering a word, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses, the set of her jaw tensing imperceptibly, she signals a response to her husband (Rob Morgan) and, to us, communicates a life's story — one constrained by a nation's poisoned history but not defined by it. — Sheri Linden

  • Timothee Chalamet

    'Call Me by Your Name'

    Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

    Chalamet's breakout lead turn in Luca Guadagnino's masterpiece is a devastating sneak attack: so subtle and unfussy, so startlingly free of the kind of mannered, Method-y intensity that often dooms the work of young thesps, that you don't see it coming straight for your gut. As Elio, a brainy, brooding boy of 17 who falls in love with his father's 24-year-old research assistant (Armie Hammer) in Italy during the summer of 1983, he pulls you far into the churning depths — the lust and longing, self-loathing, zigzagging intellect and abiding goodness — of his character's inner world. No performance this year felt as emotionally, physically and intellectually alive, or so thoroughly collapsed the distance between actor and viewer — though you may not fully realize it until you're watching the final shot and Elio's tears become your own. — Jon Frosch

  • Richard Gere

    'Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer'

    Photofest

    Gere has said in interviews that he's not being cast in big Hollywood movies anymore because of his advocacy for Tibet. But his loss is our gain, since he has taken to appearing in such thoughtful indie films as Time Out of Mind, Arbitrage and this year's Norman. He gives perhaps his finest-ever performance in the dramedy written and directed by Joseph Cedar about an endlessly conniving, self-proclaimed "consultant" who finds his fortunes suddenly improved when he befriends a low-level Israeli politician turned prime minister. His still handsome looks minimized by unkempt hair and protruding ears, Gere delivers a slyly brilliant turn that makes his character simultaneously off-putting and sympathetic. — Frank Scheck

  • Tiffany Haddish

    'Girls Trip'

    Michele K. Short/Universal Studios

    If you're going to get trashed on 200-year-old absinthe, it's hard to imagine a more liberating partner in reckless revelry than Haddish's Dina in this raunchy comedy about sisterhood and self-worth. Recalling the electrifying unpredictability of vintage African-American standup comics like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy when they transitioned into movies with rule-breaking irreverence, Haddish is crude, shameless and utterly irresistible. Whether Dina is steamrolling the boss intent on firing her or demonstrating the dubious sexual technique of "grapefruiting," she's a volcano whose lava flows right over the movie's formulaic weaknesses. One of its strengths, however, is watching screen vets Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith step back to make space for the newcomer's fearless badassery as Dina proves herself the most fiercely loyal of the story's four reunited friends. — David Rooney

  • Sally Hawkins

    'The Shape of Water'

    Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival

    The defiant positivity Hawkins has brought to a number of roles reaches spellbinding depths with her portrayal of laboratory janitor Elisa, the dark, bright center of Guillermo del Toro's Cold War fairy tale. Mute, orphaned, accustomed to the shadows, she ticks off the calendar days, caught between romantic yearning and night-shift drudgery. Only a few souls, lonely like her, recognize her light. When one of them, a strange amphibious creature (Doug Jones), turns out to be the love of her life, Hawkins spins tenderness, sensuality and Old Hollywood dance moves into a new language. The fury and physical grace of her performance crescendo with a heart-stopping monologue-for-two, Hawkins signing and Richard Jenkins, as her neighbor, speaking. "What am I?" Elisa asks, pounding her chest. The answer, in Hawkins' turn, transcends categorization as powerfully as the film's bold meld of genres. — S.L.

  • Allison Janney

    'I, Tonya'

    Courtesy of NEON and 30WEST

    Sometimes, a supporting actor sneaks into a film and steals it. Other times, the filmmakers leave keys dangling in the lock with a note taped to the front door: "Please leave us something when you're done." That was the case with Craig Gillespie's movie about the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, a Margot Robbie showcase in which Janney gives the only kind of performance anyone could reasonably have expected: caustic, heartless, and ruthlessly entertaining, forcing viewers to want more. Playing a hyperbolic example of the Overbearing Showbiz Mom archetype, Janney nails the narcissism of a woman who had no concern for her daughter beyond the money she could make, yet knew how to employ the language of maternal protectiveness when backed into a corner. — John DeFore 

  • Cynthia Nixon

    'A Quiet Passion'

    Courtesy of Seacia Pavao/Berlin International Film Festival

    Nixon has done most of her work on television and in the theater, but burnishes her cinematic reputation with her evocative, multi-layered portrayal of Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies' unusual biopic. The usual picture of Dickinson is as a frail, reclusive poet who was completely unrecognized during her lifetime. Nixon complicates and explodes that image; whether Emily is boldly defying a local pastor or nervously awaiting his response when he reads one of her poems, Nixon etches a wholly original character. Dickinson’s most famous poem begins, "I'm nobody! Who are you…" No one who sees the actress' fierce and humane performance is likely to think of Dickinson as a "nobody" ever again. — Stephen Farber

  • Robert Pattinson

    'Good Time'

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    With his pretty-boy looks muted by a scarecrow hair-do, a scabby beard and a sweaty complexion exposed by relentless close-ups, one-time pin-up Pattinson finally finds a role that truly shows his mettle and his range. In this low-budget, high-octane thriller from New York co-directing brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, the actor stars as Connie, a criminal desperate to free his mentally challenged brother from jail after their bank robbery goes wrong. The English-born star nails Connie’s outer-borough vowel sounds and caged animal twitchiness. But perhaps even more impressive is the way he finds a physicality that suits the character, right down to the rolling, loping gait, expressive of both cockiness and hesitancy. It’s an electric performance. — Leslie Felperin 

  • Sam Rockwell

    'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

    Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

    While Martin McDonagh's corrosive retribution drama belongs to Frances McDormand, another performance sneaks up on you in different ways. Officer Dixon at first glance seems a classic mouth-breathing doofus with a comic malevolence that is vintage Sam Rockwell. The dim-bulb deputy is a spineless mama's boy given to spouting offensive epithets, his worst tendencies encouraged by a crone with all the maternal tenderness of an alligator. When Dixon suffers a devastating loss, it breaks him in ways that allow the resourceful Rockwell to rebuild him piece by piece. This happens not with ennobling speeches or moral epiphanies, but via foolish mistakes, an outburst of stunning violence, crippling fallout and mind-expanding examples of forgiveness, exposing a damaged core of human vulnerability and an eventual bid for absolution that's surprisingly affecting. — D.R.

  • Saoirse Ronan

    'Lady Bird'

    Courtesy of Merie Wallace/A24

    In Greta Gerwig's instant teen classic, the astonishingly talented actress plays a self-nicknamed Catholic high school senior who must summon the fortitude to unshackle herself from her family ties in boring Sacramento and plunge into post-9/11 New York and college and whatever that may bring. One of the keys to the Ronan's superb lead turn is how astutely she mixes sure-headedness with uncertainty; she makes you feel the agitation, the anxiety of Lady Bird's situation, without ever losing sight of her confidence that she'll get out and on with her life. Her performance contains the multitudes, the many fleeting moods and charged emotions of adolescence on the brink of independence; the cusp between teenage immaturity and aborning adulthood has rarely been so shimmeringly caught. — Todd McCarthy

  • Lois Smith

    'Marjorie Prime'

    Coourtesy of FilmRise

    In Michael Almereyda's elegiac sci-fi chamber piece, Smith movingly reprises a role she originated on stage as two versions of the same woman: the fading Marjorie, reaching for lost shards of memory; and, after Marjorie dies, her brand-new holographic facsimile (or "prime"), building connections from the information she's fed. The result is perhaps her greatest big-screen performance. Playing opposite Jon Hamm as the digital rendition of Marjorie's husband and Geena Davis and Tim Robbins as her daughter and son-in-law, Smith makes each interaction revelatory. But what's most staggering about the actress' work here is how on each side of the human-tech divide she embodies something ghostly yet pulsing, and all of it is bracingly real. — S.L.

  • Kristen Stewart

    'Personal Shopper'

    Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

    Stewart can be earthy yet detached, completely transparent while intriguingly opaque. This quicksilver quality is what makes the Paris-based personal shopper Maureen such a rich and complex character in Assayas' slow-burn thriller. Since the death of her twin sibling she's been only half a person, a spectral shadow of her former self, her grief a raw and open wound. To counter her sorrow, Maureen unwittingly transforms and transcends herself — nominally trying to contact her brother in the afterlife, but really looking inward to find the strength to become twice the woman she was to make up for the loss of her twin. Stewart's performance is a psychological high-wire act that’s as hypnotic as it is miraculous. — Boyd van Hoeij

  • Daniela Vega

    'A Fantastic Woman'

    Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

    A powerful star turn from a young screen novice, Vega's emotionally wrenching performance in Chilean director Sebastian Cielo's festival hit A Fantastic Woman charts the journey of a recently bereaved transgender woman from brutalized, ostracized victim to defiant survivor. With forensic subtlety, Vega conjures something akin to the defensive armor of an exotic hunted creature accustomed to living every day in a hostile urban jungle. It's a beautifully observed portrait of shattering loss, queer pride and grace under pressure. — Stephen Dalton