Our favorite performances of 2017

1. Cynthia Nixon- A Quiet Passion- “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”  Emily Dickinson speaks these lines from one of her poems not in voiceover, as is often the case in A Quiet Passion, but to a newborn baby the first time she holds him.  Staring directly into the infant’s eyes, Cynthia Nixon’s delivery is a gentle whisper that, like many other moments in Terence Davies’ extraordinary film, caught me off guard. Her performance creates an expansive emotional landscape within Dickinson’s small, increasingly reclusive world. Traditional happiness is nearly always out of reach for the poet, something that Nixon displays on her endlessly crumpling face. It’s an unforgettable blend of quick wit and despair, a performance that is more important to the overall success of a film than any other this year.

2. Timothée Chalamet- Call Me by Your Name- One of the most powerful images in a movie this year was an extended shot of Timothée Chalamet staring into a fire at the end of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. In this scene, his character Elio is replaying his unforgettable summer with Oliver, a graduate assistant who stayed with his family as a sort of understudy with his academic father.  The expansive range of emotions that Chalamet displays here are astounding, as is the rest of his performance.  He imbues the 17-year-old with a lanky restlessness that comes out when he plays the piano, or stalks the edges of the many different social gatherings at his parents’ luscious Italian home.  Chalamet’s physicality, his cautiousness mixed with abrupt bursts of confidence, gives Call Me by Your Name a crucial sense of spontaneity.

3. Kim Min-hee- On the Beach at Night Alone- Kim Min-hee gives a commanding performance in Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone, playing Young-hee, an actress trying to bounce back after an affair with a married director. (The movie is a personal reckoning of sorts about the star and director’s real-life affair). On the Beach at Night Alone plays out in a series of extended conversations in cafes, at dinner tables and, yes, on beaches. In one striking dinner scene, Young-hee’s composure crumbles after she’s had a bit too much to drink, and she awkwardly lashes out at her happily dating friends before abruptly changing the subject. This scene, like many others, is shot with a minimal of cutting, and Hong relies heavily on Kim’s nervous energy. It’s a performance filled with intense, shattering vulnerability.

4. Saiorse Ronan- Lady Bird- Since her breakout performance a decade ago in Atonement, Saiorse Ronan has continuously proven herself one of the great actresses of her generation. That continues in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a lovingly tumultuous mother/daughter story wrapped up inside a coming of age tale. As the title character, Ronan is a winning blend of youthful uncertainty and matter-of-fact wit.

5. Robert Pattinson- Good Time- The relentless momentum of the Safdie brothers’ latest movie wouldn’t work without an uncompromising central performance. Good Time finds that in Robert Pattinson, who plays a frantic New Yorker trying to bail his brother out of prison after a botched escape from a bank robbery. Pattinson gives Connie Nelson a manic energy that lends the movie an ‘anything goes’ volatility.

6. Tiffany Haddish- Girls Trip- Tiffany Haddish steals the show in Malcolm D. Lee’s buddy comedy Girls Trip, which is saying something in a movie where Queen Latifah’s character has sex with a lamp during an absinthe hallucination and Jada Pinkett Smith gets stuck while zip lining and pisses all over an unsuspecting crowd below. Haddish plays the hard-partying wild card Dina, who reunites with a group of college friends for a weekend in New Orleans. Haddish gives a performance of jaw-dropping comic ferocity, pushing her friends, and the movie, to hilarious extremes.

7. Adam Sandler- The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)- Adam Sandler is often trapped in movies that impede the explosive anger at the core of his comic persona, but that’s not the case here. As Danny, one of three siblings who are the focus of The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler strikes a perfect balance of mumbling discontent and barely contained rage. We first see him trying to park in New York City, a casual conversation with his teen daughter erupting in fits as he yells at other drivers. The scene made me long for a frequent collaboration between him and Noah Baumbach, a director truly in tune with Sandler’s comedic sensibility.

8. Kirsten Dunst- The Beguiled- Kirsten Dunst quietly steals nearly every scene she’s in in The Beguiled. As the repressed school teacher Edwina, Dunst exudes the character’s longing for a life beyond the gates of the secluded Confederate boarding school. The arrival of a wounded Union soldier gradually disrupts her and everyone else’s routine, driving subtle wedges between them as the movie wears on. The explosion of ecstasy (and pearls) when Edwina breaks from the group to go after the soldier gives her and the movie a brief but much needed moment of exhilaration.

9. Laurie Metcalf- Lady Bird- Perhaps the greatest thing about Lady Bird is its generosity, which enhances the push/pull dynamic at its core relationship between stubborn high schooler and her stubborn mother.  Laurie Metcalf plays the latter, a nurse named Marion who unexpectedly becomes her family’s sole breadwinner.  Her exhaustion is evident in nearly every scene, and often gets mistaken for casual cruelty. Director Greta Gerwig structures Lady Bird so that Marion’s actions late in the movie deepen everything Metcalf does with the role early on.

10. Aubrey Plaza- Ingrid Goes West- With tears streaming down her face, Ingrid sees a perfect wedding on Instagram, then gets out of her car and walks into the actual ceremony, where she maces the bride and unleashes an expletive-filled tirade.  This is only the beginning of Ingrid Goes West, a movie that moves away from easy laughs and creates an uneasy portrait of a mentally ill woman consumed by the instant gratification and possibilities of fame that define social media.  Much of the movie revolves around Ingrid’s abrupt decision to move to California to infiltrate into the life of an Instagram star. Aubrey Plaza is astonishing in the role, giving a performance that resists demented caricature at every turn and infuses the movie with raw, squirm-inducing humanity.

11. Michelle Pfeiffer- mother!- Michelle Pfeiffer is the second in a series of uninvited house guests plaguing Jennifer Lawrence’s character in mother! The wife of a doctor who arrived at the secluded house the night before, Pfeiffer (none of the characters are named) shows up at the door with luggage and a sly smirk. It’s not long before she probes her host about her sex life and why she and her writer husband don’t have children. Pfeiffer gives a gleefully invasive turn here, adding to the movie’s increasing sense of unease and discomfort that director Darren Aronofsky abruptly turns into an unhinged nightmare.

12. Harris Dickinson- Beach Rats- Harris Dickinson’s performance as the closeted New York teenager Frankie in Beach Rats is filled with jittery anticipation. He captures Frankie’s desperate duality as he attempts to keep his sexuality separate from the rest of his life. His awkward encounters with older men are the result of them not running in the same social circles as him. As that separation becomes increasingly impossible and his two lives unavoidably overlap, Dickinson and director Eliza Hittman expertly tap into the character’s nervous performativity.

13. Daniel Kaluuya- Get Out- Reaction shots of Daniel Kaluuya are key to the increasing sense of dread and paranoia that fuels Jordan Peele’s hit directorial debut. Kaluuya plays Chris, a black man with a growing suspicion that there’s something sinister going on while he’s visiting his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend. His skepticism proves more than warranted, and Kaluuya thrillingly realizes Chris’ increasing desperation to er, get out.

14. Kristen Stewart- Personal Shopper- Kristen Stewart’s beguiling screen presence is at the core of Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper. As Maureen, a personal shopper mourning the death of her twin brother, she creates a portrait of internalized grief that adds a devastating emotional core to this sleek Parisian ghost story.

15. Salma Hayek- Beatriz at Dinner- One of the great cinematic pleasures of 2017 was watching Salma Hayak’s holistic medicine woman go toe-to-toe with John Lithgow’s arrogant millionaire in Beatriz at Dinner. Hayak gives Beatriz a serene confidence, never hesitating to challenge the endless swath of unchecked entitlement when she becomes stranded at a wealthy client’s dinner party.

Runner-ups:

Elizabeth Marvel- The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Armie Hammer- Call Me by Your Name

Rebecca Spence- Princess Cyd

Lykke Li- Song to Song

Daniel Craig- Logan Lucky

Elizabeth Olsen- Ingrid Goes West

Carla Juri- Blade Runner 2049

Don Johnson- Brawl In Cell Block 99 

Barry Keoghan- The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Buddy Duress- Good Time

Note: I was unable to see The Post, Phantom Thread and many other films with performances that would be considered for this year-end list.

 

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