Oscar season has begun, so what better time to look back at last year’s best of the best? Awards season is always busy and fraught with narrative. It can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in the midst of so much noise. I always benefit from months of remove to determine what I actually prefer.
It was a good year for the movies, but a great year for performances. A few notable performances that did not make my list:
- Margot Robbie or Allison Janney, I, Tonya: I love Janney, but her character is cartoonish in this movie. Robbie is very good, but the movie and its characters didn’t resonate with me at all. I found the screenplay very surface-level and uninteresting, playing at stereotypes rather than nuance.
- Sam Rockwell or Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri: I liked both of them in this movie, but neither of their characters has that many notes to play in this screenplay. Also, they both pale in comparison to Frances McDormand, at no fault of their own.
Here are the contenders for the best performance of 2017:
10. Robert Pattinson, Good Time: If you don’t pay attention to indie cinema, you probably only know Pattinson as the sparkly Edward from the Twilight series, but Pattinson has been quietly building a reputation as a serious actor willing to take risks in collaborations with directors as varied as David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis), David Michôd (The Rover), and James Gray (The Lost City of Z). There are times in the Safdie brothers’ (Heaven Knows What) Good Time where you could convince yourself that Pattinson’s Connie truly cares about his brother, but by the end of the movie it’s hard to believe he cares about anyone but himself. Pattinson gives us a portrayal of a true con man: he’s conning himself too.
9. Colin Farrell, The Killing of a Sacred Deer: I could have easily slotted any actor from Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Lobster; they’re all that good. But Farrell is the natural choice, since the central conflict- one of his family members, his wife, his daughter, or his son, must die to save the other two- revolves around his decision-making. The impossibility of both the decision and the circumstances surrounding his family are evident in the tension in Farrell’s body and face throughout the entire movie.
8. Zoe Kazan, The Big Sick: As great as The Big Sick is, it would not work without an actress as strong as Kazan. Kumail Nanjiani is hilarious, and this role (as himself, which couldn’t have hurt) is the most natural he’s ever been onscreen, but without Kazan’s mix of confidence and doubt, The Big Sick would just feel like a showcase for Nanjiani as a comedian. With Kazan, the story feels like it’s about real people.
7. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out: When I first saw Get Out, I appreciated the movie far more than I appreciated Kaluuya’s performance, thinking of him as a cipher that the brilliant story carried along with it. But rewatching the movie, it becomes clear how much work Kaluuya is doing at every point in the movie, whether it’s to maintain his cool surrounded by weirdness or to hold on to reality before falling into the Sunken Place. Kaluuya is not an emotive actor, but that’s a good thing; his strength in Get Out is how he portrays Chris actively trying to hold up a front while his emotions burst through anyway.
6. Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled: Nicole Kidman continues to make wonderfully offbeat choices for her career, eschewing mainstream roles (which probably also speaks to the quality of the roles offered to a woman in her 50s) for prime starring roles under talented directors like Yorgos Lanthimos in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Sofia Coppola in The Beguiled. As the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school in Virginia during the Civil War, Kidman struggles to hold the school together after a Union soldier turns up wounded on the school grounds. The sexual tension that plays out after his arrival is delightful, and Kidman’s character is not immune, but it is a joy to watch her choose between her desire and her principles.
5. Meryl Streep, The Post: Oh, how original, putting a Meryl Streep performance in the Top Ten. Yes, but did you see this Meryl Streep performance? While Tom Hanks chews the scenery as Washington Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (and I mean that as a compliment), Streep’s turn as the newspaper’s owner grounds the movie in real concerns over a woman’s (lack of) power and control in a field dominated by men.
4. James McAvoy, Split: This role could have been so laughable- a multiple-personality horror-movie villain? Give this role to an actor who’s not ready for it, and it could derail the whole concept. But McAvoy is a revelation, jumping easily between personalities as varied as an uppity British woman named Patricia to a frightened little boy named Hedwig.
3. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird: Saoirse Ronan is 24 years old and already nominated for three Oscars, so she doesn’t need any praise from me to validate her talents. But I’ll do it anyway: Ronan is the best young actress of her generation. At some point they tried to make her into a young-adult star, but thank God that failed, because watching her thrive equally well as a willful Irish woman in Brooklyn and as a lost Catholic schoolgirl in Lady Bird has made Oscar season fun the last few years.
2. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name: There’s a lot to process about the quality of Chalamet’s performance in this movie. He certain doesn’t stand alone. He has a great script that provides him ample opportunity to showcase emotions and internal reactions. Chalamet also stars in the best-directed movie of the year, with beautiful shots and locations to frame his character’s coming-of-age story in the most idyllic way possible. And his costars are seasoned performers at the top of their games, so surely their presence elevated his performance.
There may be a mathematical way to separate out all these factors and truly rate a performance for what the actor does on his own, but I don’t know it. I can only report how I respond to a performance, and Chalamet’s performance moved me deeply. I saw so much of myself in his character, Elio, as he stumbled along the path to discovering a little more of who he is.
The clip in the link is a great example of how I felt much of my teenage years: struggling to project confidence while actually being self-conscious about my imperfections and body and sexuality. There is another scene in the movie in which Elio collapses in tears against Oliver (Armie Hammer) out of shame and fear that he will lose him. It’s by God’s grace alone that I don’t perpetually live in that state.
Chalamet also featured in another Best Picture contender from last year, Lady Bird, as an aloof sexual partner for Ronan’s Lady Bird. He actually has one of the best lines in the movie: “You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in in your life.” Elio could never say that line; he could never be cynical enough, and it’s a sign of Chalamet’s talent that both characters feel real. Chalamet has the potential to be a big star, an Oscar winner (this year, maybe!), and a generation-defining actor. If he does do big things, it will all have started with this simple, sad, soulful performance.
1. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water: Hawkins has impressed me before, most notably in Happy-Go-Lucky as an always-look-on-the-bright-side schoolteacher. But she reaches another level in The Shape of Water as Elisa, a mute janitor for a government lab. The Shape of Water is a fantasy movie in which Elisa falls in love with a humanoid river creature. I could write so many words about this movie and the deft way it speaks for those who are silenced by society, but I’ll focus on her performance for now.
We never find out why Elisa is mute, only that there are scars on her neck, so the movie implies her mutism is the result of some sort of trauma. Regardless, she has no voice. No voiceless performance should have the range that Hawkins displays here, giving us moments of pure bliss and then moments of desperation, such as in the clip in the above link. The intensity in her expressions and her signs in that scene are palpable, as she pleads for the life of the creature she loves. She struggles against her mutism to be heard by her best friend (Richard Jenkins), striving against hope to get through to him that they must save her love.
Most of you probably know that I’m a speech-language pathologist, and some of you are most likely aware that I have a stutter. I don’t talk or write about it much, mostly because I don’t find it that interesting. It’s been my reality for 29 years, and on top of how mundane it seems to me, it’s a pretty mild stutter. I promise that isn’t false humility or an attempt to deflect; I may be the only person you’ve come across with a speech impediment that lasted into his adult life, but so many people have much more trouble communicating than me.
That being said, because of my fluency difficulties, I have a small taste of what it’s like to have trouble communicating. The one that gets on my nerves the most is that my jokes don’t land- my stutter ruins my comedic timing. That’s small, but making your friends laugh and seamlessly working a joke into a conversation is a gift, and it’s frustrating that sometimes I just make group situations awkward. On top of that, I know what it’s like for people to make judgments of you based on one characteristic: that I’m not smart because I have trouble telling you my name, or that I’m a nervous person because I stutter when I meet you and can’t look you in the eye while it’s happening.
That’s about as hard as it gets for me though. So many of our patients at the J.D. McCarty Center are essentially trapped in their bodies without a voice or even a functional way to communicate. I’ve had students with debilitating stutters, where they can barely get through one word without stuttering. I’ve worked with stroke patients who will never get their original communication skills back, and the best I can do is tell them we’re going to our best to help them. Their stories are hard when you consider their disabilities alone. Their stories get harder when you realize that some of them have no one advocating for them.
The Shape of Water is a movie, not real life. But I believe stories have power, if not to change the world or change lives outright, then at least to provide the initial push toward that change. Sally Hawkins’s performance as Elisa is speaking for all those people who cannot speak for themselves. The Shape of Water extends this outside of those who truly cannot speak to those who are too marginalized within society to be heard, whether because of their sexuality or their race or their gender.
The movie is great, but it hinges on Hawkins’s ability to communicate that desperation to be heard. I cry thinking about that above clip, because she’s so successful. My hope is that people who have been hardened to the needs of others are softened by her portrayal of the voiceless. I have been.
Another Fifteen Contenders (alphabetically)
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, BPM (Beats Per Minute): Watching a character suffer through AIDS is always tough, but before Biscayart begins his descent, he gives us a man so vibrant and passionate that it makes watching him fade all the more difficult.
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project: As the beleaguered manager of a motel near Disney World, Dafoe has never been warmer or more lovable.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread: Day-Lewis needs no more accolades, but it must be said that this may be his most delightful performance.
Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant: I’ve loved the past two Alien movies, even if they didn’t quite reach the heights of the original, but I have to admit that Fassbender is the main reason for any non-fan to watch either Prometheus or, especially, Covenant.
Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread: As delightful as Day-Lewis is, he is nearly outdone by Krieps, in her acting debut, as an ingenue who proves to be every bit Day-Lewis’s designer’s match.
Jennifer Lawrence, mother!: mother! is better experienced than described, but Lawrence deserves more attention than she received for carrying such an ambitious movie.
Sophia Lillis, It: Lillis’s Beverly could have easily been the Losers Club’s manic pixie dream girl, but she breathes more life into the movie than the rest of a very good cast of kids.
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Frances McDormand is a national treasure, and she deserved this Oscar, for all the curse words, yeah, but also for the rare moments in Three Billboards when she lets her guard down.
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird: Portraying motherhood in cinema can be a thankless task, even when the role is as well-written as Metcalf’s is here, but her warmth would have lifted any role.
Carey Mulligan, Mudbound: Mary J. Blige got the Oscar nomination, and she is good in Mudbound, but I came out of Mudbound most impressed with Mulligan’s mix of resilience and desperation.
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour: This is the kind of performance that the Academy drools over, but Oldman, for all his scenery chewing, gets at the quiet moments in Churchill’s everyday life as well.
Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project: It’s difficult to judge child actors, because they’re often doing something very different from adult actors, but it’s impossible not to recognize how brilliant Prince is in The Florida Project, because most child actors have a hard time balancing petulance with legitimate feelings, and she seems to have no trouble at all.
Patrick Stewart, Logan: Stewart must have had so much fun making Logan, more than the other X-Men movies, and not just because he got to curse, but because he got to do more than be concerned about the fate of his students or play at the stern father.
Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name: The performance on the whole is too slight to be in my Top Ten, but his end-of-the-movie monologue alone deserved an Oscar.
Izabela Vidovic, Wonder: Wonder is obviously Augie’s story, but my heart went out to Via as his caring sister, who understands why she doesn’t get as much attention as Augie, but still longs to be noticed.
Past Top Tens
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Amy Adams, Arrival
Colin Farrell, The Lobster
Sasha Lane, American Honey
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Emma Stone, La La Land
Andrew Garfield, Silence
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq
Brie Larson, Room
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Maika Monroe, It Follows
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Edward Norton, Birdman
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Emma Stone, Birdman
David Oyelowo, Selma
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond the Lights
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Dane DeHaan, Chronicle
Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises