2017 was a year filled with idiosyncratic performances drawing on autobiographical, political, and emotionally resonant influences. Narrowing things down to 15 key players (with no distinction between male and female, lead and supporting) was a difficult task, but in keeping with the social themes of 2017, women dominated the list. Hopefully, 2018 will bring even more defiantly personal and challenging works of thespian brilliance to the table.
Kristen Stewart dominates every scene as a young woman dealing with the loss of her recently deceased brother in Olivier Assayas' haunting Personal Shopper, It's a richly nuanced performance; observational and heartfelt, inward yet expressive, with the best text messaging acting ever put onscreen.
I, Olga Hepnarova
In Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb's remarkable film about a sociopath, I, Olga Hepnarova, Michalina Olszanska's brilliant central performance resists easy clichés Through slouched posture, deadpan line deliveries, and just a hint of vulnerability beneath the surface, Olszanska crafts a mesmerizing portrait of youthful narcissism that lingers.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker's deeply humanist The Florida Project may center on a group of children running around a purple-colored budget motel near the Magic Kingdom, but it's soul resides in William Dafoe's work as a kindly motel manager. Though outwardly a father figure, Dafoe layers his performance with hints of disappointment as a man stuck in life who still hasn't lost his ability to care.
Jena Malone and Riley Keough play longtime friends who experience non-platonic feelings while on a road trip in So Yong Kim's beautifully wrought Lovesong. Through expressive glances, both actors create fully realized women caught in contrasting directions by the pull of time. Rarely has chemistry between two leads been this naturalistic, and ultimately heart-breaking.
A Quiet Passion
In A Quiet Passion, filmmaker Terence Davies and star Cynthia Nixon's sensibilities merge so fully that 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson emerges as a flawed and deeply complex woman forced by her society to retreat from reality. Nixon's performance is a transformative high-wire act which modulates between wry humor, defiant rage, deep sadness, and finally; physical and mental deterioration.
Kôji Fukada's masterful Harmonium is a parable about the consequences of past sins, but it's Mariko Tsutsui's shattering performance as the long-suffering wife, Akié, which grounds the film. There's a naked fragility coupled with pent-up desire and anger which Tsutsui allows us to glimpse gradually, until it may be too late.
Joshua and Ben Safdie's grunge neo-noir Good Time hurtles forward at a breakneck pace, and Robert Pattinson keeps up by drawing on his natural charm as low-rent criminal Connie. There's scruffy bravado and amped-up intensity here, but also a lonely self-awareness which gives the film its wounded heart.
Ingrid Goes West
As a millennial take on 90's female revenge noir Single White Female, Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West is thoughtful and disturbing, but the real star here is Aubrey Plaza; whose usual sharp-tongued sarcasm is tweaked slightly to allow for more layers. Plaza invites us to peek behind the facade and see the sadness inside Ingrid in a way which feels revelatory.
Dee Ree's ambitiously mounted epic, Moundbound, is full of great performances, but its Jason Mitchell's turn as a young black man sent home after fighting in the war which really haunts. Cocksure yet sensitive, playful but brimming with indignation, Mitchell's multi-faceted work here reveals the hypocrisy of 1940's America, which sadly still exists today.
Haley Lu Richardson gives the year's most warmly empathetic performance in South Korean-born writer-director Kogonada's remarkable feature debut, Columbus; nailing the feeling of being young, aimless, and curious as she crafts a tentative friendship with Jon Cho's visiting stranger.
The brittle bond between Saoirse Ronan's titular 17-year-old and her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, is the backbone of Greta Gerwig's winning Lady Bird. Metcalf's shows us various sides of a woman struggling to provide for her family while balancing her contradictory feelings towards her daughter; raising a seemingly typical coming-of-age story into something more deeply felt.
Daniel Kaluuya uses deliberate facial gestures and dumbfounded double takes as a man trapped inside a mansion full of Obama-voting whites in Jordan Peele's genre-hopping debut feature, Get Out. Kaluuya's role is so central to why the film works and his acting so underplayed here that it may well get overlooked, but he's nonetheless unforgettable as a black man standing up to 21st-Century racism.
On the Beach at Night Alone
Hong Sang-soo’s stripped-down On the Beach at Night Alone might initially appear to be yet another variation on the public/private emotion story he's dabbled in before, but Kim Min-hee's tremendously subtle performance casts this one in a different light. As a woman reacting to a failed romance with a married older filmmaker (aka Sang-soo), Min-hee is both enigmatic and empathetic; someone with outward self-confidence who is also shrinking away from life.
The Death of Louis XIV
Jean-Pierre Léaud delivers an astonishing performance as a dying king in Albert Serra's procedural-like drama. Completely immobile; with an unwieldy Old English wig and velvet comforter, Léaud's specific gestures, facial movements, and rigorous breathing is highlighted as doctors and clerics flood into the room tending to his every need. Never before has wasting away been this eccentrically fascinating.
As Georgina, the black housekeeper living on a white liberal estate in Jordan Peele's socio-thriller, Get Out, Betty Gabriel delivers a tour de force with only a handful of scenes. At first disorienting in her politeness before becoming deranged with intensity, Gabriel somehow captures the raw emotions of a soul trapped inside someone else's body.