A star-making revelation in a swoony gay romance, career-topping work from an 87-year-old stage vet, a Chilean transgender actress' tour de force and more — THR film critics choose their favorite turns of the year as awards season kicks into high gear.
A version of this story appears in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
You don't immediately notice how extraordinary Timothee Chalamet is in Luca Guadagnino’s playful and profound coming-of-age masterpiece Call Me by Your Name.
As Elio, a brainy, brooding boy of 17 who falls in love with Oliver, his father’s 24-year-old research assistant (Armie Hammer, tremendous), in Italy during the summer of 1983, the actor at first comes off as an affably precocious but low-key teen. He toggles casually between English, French and Italian; plays piano with ironic panache; looks natural lolling about with a book in his hands, sunglasses and headphones on, or hunched over, pencil pressed to paper. Just wait: This is a performance 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.
The moment Chalamet’s greatness might begin to register comes 30 minutes in. Oliver has recently arrived from the States, and he, Elio and some friends are at a nightclub. Whatever attraction exists between the two young men is, at this point, unacknowledged, though their exchanges have been tinged with erotic tension, as well as rivalry and misapprehension. Elio, sitting at a slight remove from the others, suddenly leans forward, watching Oliver intently as he dances. He chews his lips, drags on a cigarette. In Chalamet’s gaze is a gathering storm of conflicting impulses: desire, defensiveness, fear, fascination. Elio shakes it off, chugs his cocktail and hits the dance floor — swinging his hips, rolling his shoulders … and ignoring Oliver completely. Rarely has the tug of war between a teen’s inner and outer selves been conveyed with such exhilarating immediacy.
From the moment her character, Mildred Hayes, strides into a local advertising agency with a plan to shame the town sheriff over what she sees as his department's inaction in the investigation of her daughter's rape and murder, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri belongs to the magnificent Frances McDormand. She's a vengeful figure out of Greek tragedy by way of America's Old West. But another key performance in Martin McDonagh's corrosively humorous drama sneaks up on you in different ways, wrapping dim-bulb ignorance, intolerance and hostility around a damaged core of human vulnerability and an eventual bid for absolution that's surprisingly affecting.
Officer Dixon at first glance seems a classic mouth-breathing doofus with a comic malevolence that is vintage Sam Rockwell. A clueless deputy who sings Marty Robbins cowboy ballads, listens to Abba and reads robot comics, he casually spouts epithets offensive to an impressive assortment of minorities within his first scene or two. Dixon is also a spineless mama's boy, his worst tendencies encouraged by a hardened crone with all the maternal tenderness of an alligator. Having lost his father at a young age, he looks up to Woody Harrelson's Chief Willoughby with an admiration bordering on worship. But even his best efforts to be a good cop butt up against the wall of his stupidity.
When Dixon suffers a devastating loss, it breaks him in ways that allow the resourceful Rockwell, 49, 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. The ache of grief and the sorrow of difficult reckonings ripple through this movie even as it continues to yield dark tragicomedy and invigorating hints of the absurd. Nowhere are those forces more at play than in Rockwell's layered performance.
Maybe because you can only lose your virginity once, it's always seemed somehow implicit that a performer could, or should, only be allowed to star in one great coming-of-age film: Carey Mulligan in An Education, Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows, Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse, Ellen Page in Juno — the list is long. But someone has now broken that rule. Two years ago, Saoirse Ronan reduced many of us to blubbering idiots with her intensely moving portrait of an Irish teenager in early-1950s New York in Brooklyn, and now she's back superbly playing a very different kind of adolescent on the brink of independence in Greta Gerwig's instant classic Lady Bird.
By nature, era and circumstance, Ronan's character in Brooklyn was proper and correct in language and behavior, and was faced, in the end, with a choice between two men and two countries. In Lady Bird, Ronan's self-nicknamed Catholic high school senior, who has been severely let down by two guys (they can hardly be called men), 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.
“I wish I could live through something,” Lady Bird states to her mother (Laurie Metcalf) at the outset, and indeed she does. Nothing is more daunting to her than her mom's smothering negativity, the latter's fear of losing her only daughter expressed in the most suffocating manner, which only further ensures the baby will run as far away as possible. Any conversation between this mother and daughter can go from zero to sixty on the hostility scale in no time, and one of the film's many wonders is the complicit skill with which Metcalf, superb as the overburdened, guilt-inducing mom, and Ronan pull off these fraught exchanges.
There is no "Lois Smith type." That's the crucial beauty of her half-century of category-defying work. As a performer she's not easily summed up, and neither are most of the characters she's brought to thrilling, unpredictable life. From '70s classic Five Easy Pieces to this year's Lady Bird, Smith inhabits her roles so fully — and yet without a hint of actorly affectation — that she can infuse the simplest gesture with deep feeling, making each instant spontaneous and ephemeral.
There's a paradox in the fact that Marjorie Prime, the film that has given this character actor arguably her greatest big-screen role, rests on the concept of replication. It's an elegiac chamber piece you might call the flip side of Blade Runner 2049, tackling similar themes — artificial intelligence and memory — but from a place of subdued intensity.
Smith plays two versions of the same woman: the fading Marjorie and then her brand-new holographic facsimile, or "prime." Created for her by playwright Jordan Harrison, the role is one that Smith originated onstage. But while Marjorie might have been second nature to her when she stepped before the cameras for Michael Almereyda, the lyricism and intimacy of his adaptation gives Smith the room to ply her magic on the atomic level, drawing us in with each flicker of light in her eyes.
Daniela Vega’s career-making performance in A Fantastic Woman is something rare: a wondrously mature and sophisticated star turn from a young screen novice. Thanks to her, Chilean director Sebastian Cielo’s stylish thriller about the ostracism suffered by a recently bereaved transgender woman (getting an awards-qualifying U.S. run in December before its February release) blossoms into a shattering and intimate portrait of loss, queer pride and grace under pressure.
Vega plays Marina, a lounge singer and waitress whose blissful romance with middle-aged divorcee Orlando (Francisco Reyes) is cruelly curtailed when he suffers a fatal aneurysm. Viewed as a gold-digging freak and potential murder suspect by medical staff, police and Orlando’s family, Marina is forced to maintain a facade of composure in the face of crushing grief. Tragic but beautiful, emotionally wrenching yet visually ravishing, both film and star touch the operatic heights of vintage Pedro Almodovar.
Vega’s performance is mostly a solo affair. She's present almost every scene, usually alone, frequently in distress. Mostly framed in close-up, her face becomes a mobile canvas of minute gestures, microscopic flinches and wary sideways glances. 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.