Critics' Debate: The Great Screen Performances of 2018

Courtesy Photos
From left: Bradley Cooper in 'A Star Is Born'; Steven Yeun in 'Burning'; Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in 'Leave No Trace'; Olivia Colman in 'The Favourite'; Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'; and Regina King in 'If Beale Street Could Talk.'

The Hollywood Reporter's film reviewers delve into a dazzling variety of first-rate female turns (all hail Melissa  McCarthy!), celebrate the John  C.  Reilly renaissance, find cause for continued Chalamania and cheer under-the-radar standouts.

JON FROSCH Last year, we championed a handful of actors we thought really rose above the rest. This time, we’re spreading the love around. I personally don’t feel as passionate about any single performance in 2018 as I did about the lightning-bolt revelation that was Timothee Chalamet in Call Me by Your NameAll the better, then, to celebrate several superb turns — some that are part of “the conversation,” as we call the annual, months-long obsessing over Oscar prospects, and others that are far, far, depressingly far under the radar.

In the former camp, there’s Olivia Colman, who tears into the role of the mercurial, ostentatiously needy, gout-ridden Queen Anne in The Favourite like it’s the last lamb chop on earth. But what lifts her often hilarious scenery chomping into the realm of the sublime is the piercing loneliness and longing she locates beneath and between all the royal hissy fits.

She’s a standout in an unusually strong field of actresses this year. Another is Melissa McCarthy as misanthropic literary letter forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Unlike many comedians who “go dark,” the actress doesn’t suppress her trademark verve or insult-comedy instincts; she rechannels them and finds new ways to explore and exploit them, using them to burrow deep under Lee’s skin and make the character fully her own. There’s no look-at-my-range pandering here — just astonishing, unshowy craft. 

SHERI LINDEN Her portrayal is one of the most exciting performances I've seen, not just this year but in a long time. Jon, you pinpoint a crucial reason it's so satisfying: McCarthy uses her take-no-prisoners comic brilliance rather than squelching it in the name of Serious Acting. It's precisely the kind of role many of her fans have long been waiting for her to tackle — an exhilarating instance of a known quantity upping their game.

Lee Israel is also a prime example of the year's profusion of juicy roles for women: characters who are as ferociously, unapologetically smart as they are emotionally messy. Knowing what they need and insisting on having it, they're departures from the classic notion of the "complex" female — i.e., difficult and therefore destined for redemption (or punishment). And yes, sharing center stage on that front are the superb Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, the deliciously twisty triangle of The Favourite.

DAVID ROONEY I’m completely on board with the love for McCarthy in the smart and exquisitely textured Can You Ever Forgive Me?. That abrasive edge she wields so knowingly in comedy — notably her work with Paul Feig (OK, except Ghostbusters) and her merciless Sean Spicer for SNL — can sometimes work against her in misfires like Tammy and Identity Thief. In Marielle Heller’s movie, an instant classic New York character portrait, McCarthy never softens her thorniness and yet her character's deep in-the-bone loneliness is as acute and painful as that of Colman’s Queen Anne in The Favourite. I’d see Can You Ever Forgive Me? again just for McCarthy’s superb delivery of Israel’s courtroom statement, which starts out brittle and unapologetic but evolves into a humbled and moving admission of career failure that’s all the more devastating coming from a character who up to that point has largely been defined by her lack of accountability. I’m also a sucker for a great cat movie, so those scenes floored me, just as the barbs and badinage between Lee and Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock were such a hoot. I don’t recall the last time we saw two such defiantly self-centered queer characters earn our affections while seeming to repel them.

And I suspect a lot of admirers of Colman’s brilliant work on British TV — I’m thinking about The Night ManagerBroadchurch and Fleabag in particular — have been waiting for her to land a movie that makes full use of her protean talents.  And boy does The Favourite deliver. Her Queen Anne is presented as the unwitting protagonist of her own farce, the classic bumbling authority figure whose daffy eccentricities and infantile self-pity allow her to be manipulated by Rachel Weisz’s cleverer and more calculating Lady Sarah. But what’s great about Colman’s performance, as Jon suggests, is how she subtly peels back the pomposity to reveal the yearning for an emotional connection not contingent on her position. That makes her vulnerable both to Sarah’s political opportunism and the laser-focused campaign of Emma Stone’s fallen aristocrat Abigail to scramble back up the social ladder. How often do we get to see a film led by three layered roles for women, all of them twisting and turning against the constraints of a society that seems surprised to find them shaping their own futures rather than sitting by being decorous and compliant?

TODD MCCARTHY We all seem to be pretty much on the same page so far, because my two favorite performances of the year are McCarthy (no relation, or at least not that I know of, Irish genealogy being what it is) and Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? I could watch the scenes with those two together in the bar every day just for pleasure and nourishment. This is the gear-switching performance we've been waiting to see if McCarthy could deliver, so hopefully she'll be able to find future roles that allow her to continue expanding beyond her outright comic turns.

The choices for the other standout female performances of the year are pretty obvious. There's no not loving everything Olivia Colman does in The Favourite; Bette Davis would be green with envy if she could return to witness this turn. Joanna Kulig is mesmerizing, the heart and soul of the tortured, decades-spanning Polish romance Cold War. Glenn Close is damn good as the long-suffering but steely spouse in The Wife (although I have problems with the film). And Elizabeth Debicki manages to stick out among all the other fine actresses in Widows. No, I haven't forgotten Lady Gaga, who's everything she needs to be and more in A Star Is Born; she has not only the voice but the emotional accessibility to be very effective in this performance in this particular story. But I'll want to see more to be convinced that she wasn't the fortunate Cinderella whose foot just happened to precisely fit this particular shoe.

ROONEY I agree that as much as Lady Gaga pulled her weight dramatically in A Star Is Born, I want to see more evidence before deciding whether or not she’s an actor with range. (We’ve been fooled before by music stars in form-fitting breakout roles — I’m looking at you, Jennifer Hudson.) As great as she is in the early establishing scenes, I felt Gaga was somewhat shortchanged by the synthetic development of her character in the later action.

And while I found it more enjoyable in the moment than memorable, Todd, I also second your praise for Debicki. I’ve been fascinated by her, her angular beauty and rangy physicality, since she quietly walked away with her every scene in Baz Luhrmann’s otherwise gaudy gloss on The Great Gatsby. I only wish she’d had more scenes in Widows with fellow Australian Jacki Weaver as her nightmare mother. That pair practically demands their own spinoff movie.

FROSCH Colman, McCarthy, Gaga and Close have a good shot at landing in the nominees’ circle when the HFPA, SAG and Academy weigh in in the coming weeks. But what about the performances, both male and female, that are bound to be overlooked? One of my faves is Steven Yeun, a former star of The Walking Dead who tackled his first Korean-language role in Lee Chang-dong’s slow-simmering stunner Burning. As a wealthy ladies’ man who may have some, um, skeletons lurking in his closet — and who competes with the less flashy protagonist for the affections of a troubled young woman — Yeun exudes a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him charisma that’s menacing in its inscrutability.

Then there was Julianne Nicholson, quietly ferocious as an ex-convict scrambling to get her life back together in the practically unseen indie Who We Are Now (a scene in which she downs drinks with her idealistic young lawyer, played by an excellent Emma Roberts, was one of the most pleasurable of the year). In Night Comes On, another tiny gem of a movie about someone — in this case, a black lesbian teenager — navigating post-incarceration life, Dominique Fishback conjured a storm of furious feeling with little more than a change in posture or an askance look. In a meritocratic awards universe, these women would be contenders.

Perhaps my favorite under-sung performance of the year was by Ben Foster as the PTSD-afflicted vet in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace — a loving but stubborn man whose iron-clad grip on the physical and ideological worlds of his teen daughter (the equally wonderful Thomasin McKenzie) gradually comes loose. Foster is known for going big and manic, but this is a masterfully contained piece of acting, and all the more moving for it.

LINDEN I share your admiration for Foster's taut performance, one that finds him working in a new key, to shattering effect. And as you say, Yeun is especially riveting as the least transparent character in the trio occupying the center of the ineffable Burning. In a single wordless reaction, he can look both sinister and vulnerable or, more frequently, something unsettlingly beyond definition.

There were also several actresses who did low-profile but electrifying work this year: Carey Mulligan, an actress whose performances I've long considered efficient rather than moving, delivers a heart-stoppingly eloquent portrait of domestic dissatisfaction in Wildlife, one that refuses to settle into ennui. It's a marvel of high-alert, pulse-point vigilance, a turn that takes more chances than does the sensitive but gingerly film around her. Like Todd, I’m a fan of Cold War’s Kulig. In the elliptical splendor of that film’s fractured love story, she’s nothing short of incandescent. And Danish actor Trine Dyrholm, best known stateside for her work with director Thomas Vinterberg, is a revelation as past-her-prime rock chanteuse Nico in Susanna Nicchiarelli's Nico, 1988. Putting her musical background to work as well as her acting chops, Dyrholm commands the stage and every room her character enters, casting a spell both hypnotic and off-putting, terrifying and tender.

ROONEY Another terrific under-the-radar female turn was from Maggie Gyllenhaal as the single-minded, increasingly unhinged title character in The Kindergarten Teacher. I’ll also second Jon’s appreciation for the tiny unassuming jewel that is Night Comes On, and for the hauntingly internalized work of Dominique Fishback, who uses a similar economy of means to great effect in her role as a Times Square sex worker steadily taking control of her life on HBO’s addictive The Deuce. The pickings among the guys this year seem comparatively slim, don’t they?

MCCARTHY Well, the actor who really popped with two wonderful performances in substantial roles — a guy we've always known was really good but seemed destined to be stuck in colorful supporting parts — is John C. Reilly. He's wonderful as Oliver Hardy in Stan & Ollie, and if you rewatch even a few minutes of a Laurel & Hardy film, you'll see that he really nails Hardy's mannerisms. It's a beguiling turn. In addition, he carries Jacques Audiard's very good Western The Sisters Brothers. Lifelong character actors rarely get a shot at leading roles, but he's outstanding in this revisionist saga that has Jake Gyllenhaal and Joaquin Phoenix in somewhat subsidiary parts. And, speaking of Westerns and actors we're accustomed to seeing in smaller roles, Tom Waits is great in his episode of the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Then there’s Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice. The film is a nervy high-wire act of a very tall order, the odyssey of a thoroughly mediocre young man who slowly but surely thrust greatness (in his own mind) upon himself by very cagily playing his cards over many years. Adam McKay runs riot through a grab bag of storytelling and cinematic techniques — in one of his most inspired ploys presenting the Cheneys as a conspiratorial Shakespearean couple — and has expertly cast nearly every part in ways that make all of them shine at least as brilliantly as they ever have. Amy Adams is wonderful as complicit, enabling wife Lynne, but Bale's performance here is extraordinary, to the point where you mostly forget the actor and essentially believe you are beholding Cheney. You make note of the weight gain, disappearing hairline and general physical transformations for a while, but before long you feel like you're watching the real guy. Even for his best performances in the past, I've nearly always held back a bit due to a certain self-aware stealth in his work, but this time I got past all that and entirely bought the man's life story, as well as his ever-accumulating malevolence. When his Cheney begins manipulating George W. without the latter at all minding, it's a psychological spectacle to behold — heightened by Sam Rockwell's wonderful portrait of a doofus-in-chief who appreciates the fact that someone brighter than he is willing to take some of the responsibility off his hands.

FROSCH Bale was great — though not even his fully immersed and immersive performance could really make Dick Cheney come alive as a character for me. Maybe it’s because the man’s Machiavellian machinations and endless thirst for power are by now so familiar, so deeply ingrained in recent political history and imagination. 

His main rival for an Oscar will probably be Bradley Cooper, who, in A Star Is Born, gives a performance I did love. Sure, there’s an unmistakable vanity to how he’s directed himself — 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.

ROONEY I agree that this is very much Cooper’s movie, and his fully inhabited, gritty portrayal of a hard-drinking rocker with a tortured inner life rang true at every turn, giving an oft-rehashed showbiz story its bruised, beating heart. 

I’d also like to offer some praise for First Man’s Ryan Gosling. I think the reason it underperformed at the box office is the precise reason I admired it so much: Gosling plays Neil Armstrong not as a banal, flag-waving American hero but as an honest, hard-working, ordinary man very much aware of his minute place in the cosmos and as a cog in the larger mechanism of a crew, both on the ground and in space. To me, that’s the fascination of Damien Chazelle’s stirring drama — that it portrays a standup guy simply doing a job. The restraint and humility of Gosling’s performance make it something quite rare.

LINDEN: I have to say that like Todd, I was surprised and delighted to see John C. Reilly step into the lead for The Sisters Brothers, anchoring the unorthodox Western with his rich and nuanced portrait of a hitman who envisions a gentler life. To watch his character discover the wonder of teeth-brushing is to see an actor turn a moment of gentle physical humor into the point where the hardened shell of a life might just crack open. Any other dudes do it for you all this year?

MCCARTHY Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are wonderful in Green Book — they're the whole movie and carry it beautifully together. I wasn’t too hot about the film but there's no denying Rami Malek nailed it in Bohemian Rhapsody and, yes, Yeun is awfully good in Burning.

And then in a film that's fine, if minor, there's no one else around who could do what Robert Redford does in The Old Man & the Gun. This is movie-star acting of a sort that only very self-aware and self-confident performers can pull off, keeping it small but knowing precisely the effect that every slight gesture, glance and movement will have and delivering them in the most precise ways. He knows the impact he's having on the Sissy Spacek 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 in this film.

LINDEN Todd, when you talk about Spacek and Redford, it reminds me of another thread connecting many of 2018's indelible big-screen performances — the alchemy of two (or three) actors in perfect, vibrant sync. The chemistry between McCarthy and Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dynamic: You can see that something is happening on a cellular level as these two margin-dwelling, hyper-caustic New York wits recognize each other as kindred spirits. And while the subject matter of Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life — a middle-aged New York couple in desperate pursuit of parenthood — might sound like something we've seen before, its wise observations and the indispensable Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as the boho Manhattanites bring it to life in utterly unexpected ways. Giamatti and Hahn are well practiced at playing "real" people — as opposed to glamorous movie characters — but here their agility with the quotidian reaches high-wire heights. So believably connected are their characters that you can practically hear their entwined unspoken thoughts each time they warily hold their tongues.

On another note, young actors this year upped the ante in inspiring ways. Charlie Plummer puts youthful resilience in an affecting new light in the beautifully understated indie Lean on Pete, playing a kindhearted teen enduring exceptionally hard knocksAnd although Beautiful Boy is a movie that doesn't quite work for me, Chalamet's lead performance amply demonstrates that his work in last year's Call Me by Your Name was no fluke. I can't recall a screen actor of recent vintage who so achingly yet effortlessly embodies the ethereal and the earthbound.

FROSCH Sheri, my fellow Chalamaniac! I, too, was thrilled to see young Timothee dazzle once again with his wrenching, beautifully controlled performance in Beautiful Boy, giving that rather cool film a jolt of deep, vibrant 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,” was an 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 Chalamet apart from his peers.

Overall, though, like David, I think it’s pretty clear that 2018 has been a richer year for actresses than actors. We’ve mentioned some notable exceptions, to which I’d add Ethan Hawke’s tormented priest in First Reformed and Willem Dafoe’s Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate — both exciting performances in which you can sense these guys pushing themselves, exploring new corners of their talent, but never, ever falling into the trap of demonstrating rather than inhabiting. And a shout-out to Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan for giving us the rare gift of a superhero movie villain with urgent-feeling human dimension and motivation in addition to scene-stealing magnetism. 

But the variety of fantastic female performances this year was really something. Like Sheri, I adored Kathryn Hahn in Private Life. As she’s proved in her work with Jill Soloway, though perhaps never to this extent, she has a gift for swinging seamlessly between comedic and dramatic registers — but also for blending them, creating a continuum of reactions that feels so recognizably, complexly, contradictorily human (we giggle at her pain and wince when she’s cracking wise) that it’s almost anthropological. And what about the sensational Toni Collette, going from clenched grief to shockingly vivid, gargoyle-like terror as a disturbed mother in Hereditary?

ROONEY I’ll jump on board the Toni Collette bandwagon. She’s been an incandescent screen presence since her breakthrough in the Oz comedy classic Muriel’s Wedding, and there’s a taut line linking her work as the fraught mother in The Sixth Sense to her operatic turn in Hereditary, bouncing from fear to rage to hysteria and madness. The scene where she rips into her teenage son (Alex Wolff) at the dinner table with decidedly unmaternal ferocity was one of the year’s most indelible acting moments.

As very different matriarchs, there was the always tremendous Regina King, bringing such backbone and resourceful intelligence to her ineffably grounded character in If Beale Street Could Talk; and Michelle Yeoh, who just exudes poise and wisdom born of bumpy experience in the hugely enjoyable Crazy Rich Asians.

It’s also been a remarkable year for emotionally transparent screen performances from non-actors — Yalitza Aparicio as both the spine and silent witness of the fractured-family household in Alfonso Cuaron’s ravishing Roma; the kids in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, so affecting in their responses to an ad hoc family environment that’s both shady and fiercely bound; the three boys in gifted first-timer Jeremiah Zagar’s Malickian mood piece We the Animals, knotted together in a tight physical unit that loosens as the central figure stumbles toward a pre-sexual understanding of his burgeoning queer identity (a sidebar word of praise here for the brooding charisma of Raul Castillo as their dad); and Parker Sevak as the 5-year-old poet prodigy, whose balance of disarming innocence and preternatural depth of understanding made you want to draw a protective circle around him in The Kindergarten Teacher.

LINDEN Thank you, David, for the shout-outs to some extraordinary turns by untrained actors — to which I'll add the charismatic ensemble who play a group of futbol-loving, hardworking Mexican immigrants in Jim McKay's lovely Brooklyn-set En El Septimo Dia. Their every interchange is radiant with a lived-in familiarity and communal shorthand. And there were two other wrenchingly beautiful portraits of matriarchs aside from those we’ve mentioned: As a single working-class mother in Life and Nothing More, Regina Williams (a nonprofessional actor) is a fascinating combination of tough-as-nails guardedness and openhearted hope. Her performance taps into a specifically black American reality, yet it's not worlds apart from Sakura Ando's deft work as Nobuyo, the de facto mother of the ragtag clan in Shoplifters. With Nobuyo's grit, self-awareness and unsung heroism, there's more than a touch of the mighty Stanwyck in this gripping and finely shaded portrayal.

A couple of newcomers also made strong impressions: Elsie Fisher strips away the faux veneer of the teen realm with unfussy gutsiness in Eighth Grade, delivering a performance that has rightly received a good deal of attention. But well beyond the thrum of the awards-season machinery is one of the year's strongest movie debuts: Chante Adams' in Roxanne Roxanne. In this biopic of Queens rap prodigy Roxanne Shante, she is the personification of outer-borough moxie. And like many of her more experienced counterparts in this year's movies, she's a girl talking back to the boys. If that’s not 2018 in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.