1. Juliette Binoche- Let the Sunshine In- The key to Juliette Binoche’s performance as Isabelle in Let the Sunshine In is in the way she and director Claire Denis show us the character searching; searching for love among a group of less than stellar contenders, searching for meaning in the space between those affairs, searching for the right emotion in any given moment. Several sometimes wash over Binoche’s face within the span of just seconds. That her performance seems so natural amid such a rapidly shifting emotional landscape is a testament to her brilliance.
2. Helena Howard- Madeline’s Madeline- Easily the year’s great breakout performance, Helena Howard is front and center in Josephine Decker’s swirling fever dream of a movie. Howard and Decker thrust viewers into the head of Madeline, a teenager battling mental illness who is also part of an experimental theater troupe. Howard’s rapid shifts in mood within scenes is astonishing, and much of the movie’s energy is built around the risk of her throwing any given moment into chaos.
3. Regina Hall- Support the Girls- Lisa is tired. The compassionate, intuitive general manager at the Hooters knockoff bar Double Whammies, she is tasked with passing down the vision of the restaurant owner to the staff while also mediating conflicts between them and the sometimes insulting, sometimes worse customers. Regina Hall’s performance in Andrew Bujalski’s poignant workplace comedy shows us the toll all of this takes on Lisa. You can feel her exhaustion, but more importantly, Hall shows us that her resilience and warmth haven’t worn out yet.
4. Ethan Hawke- First Reformed- Paul Schrader’s tale of faith in the face of looming environmental doom quietly chips away at its main character’s soul.The leader of a small, mostly symbolic historical church, Reverend Toller finds himself butting heads with his supervisor, the leader of a mega-church, over a local chemical company’s monetary contributions to their congregations. Ethan Hawke’s extraordinary performance as Toller gradually unveils his sense of despair and madness. His initial appearance of calm during the movie’s chronicling of his everyday routines eventually unearths deep swaths of sadness and anger.
5. Melissa McCarthy- Can You Ever Forgive Me?- I have been waiting for a Melissa McCarthy performance like this one since she catapulted to movie stardom on the heels of her Oscar-nominated turn in 2010’s Bridesmaids. That’s not to say she hasn’t displayed flashes of brilliance in the numerous studio comedies she’s headlined this decade, it’s just that the directors she works with can rarely keep up. Not so in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Together with director Marielle Heller, McCarthy brings the writer-turned-literary forger Lee Israel to bitter, mischievous life.
6. John Huston- The Other Side of the Wind– John Huston’s performance is one of many reasons to be grateful that Orson Welles’ long-uncompleted film The Other Side of the Wind finally saw the light of day in 2018. As the drunken, disillusioned movie director Jake Hannaford, Huston brings wry humor to the role as he navigates Welles’ cynical, death-stalked vision of Hollywood.
7. Kathryn Hahn- Private Life- Kathryn Hahn and director Tamara Jenkins are a perfect blend of actor and directorial sensibility. Hahn gives the role of Rachel, a New York author trying to have a baby with her husband (Paul Giamatti), a crucial blend of wit and disillusionment. Her yearning for motherhood keeps her going through one humiliating and exhausting experience after another.
8. Regina King- If Beale Street Could Talk- Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is a movie full of disarming close-ups, though none of them are more disarming than one of Regina King’s character Sharon. On an impromptu trip to Puerto Rico in an attempt to clear her daughter’s fiancé’s name after he was falsely accused of rape, she stands in front of a mirror and gets ready for the day. Cutting to a shot of her looking directly into the camera, Sharon’s quiet resolves simmers. King steals nearly every scene she’s in, but this detour without the other main characters is a remarkable showcase in its own right.
9. Clint Eastwood- The Mule- The elderly horticulturist Earl seems to come upon drug muling almost by accident. His home foreclosed on, his family split and alienated by his work-comes-first lifestyle, he approaches the illicit new job as a way to buy back a little bit of what he’s lost, and maybe more. Clint Eastwood plays him at first as a man skating by on charm, though Earl’s knowing air of naivety eventually gives way to a man irreparably scarred by regret.
10. Olivia Colman- The Favourite- Olivia Colman tears into the role of the illness- and tragedy-plagued Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ sinister 18th century palace comedy. As two other women engage in an increasingly demented contest for her favor, Anne delights in the increased attention. Colman herself delights in the role’s broader emotional outbursts, but she also gives Anne an undercurrent of intense sadness.
11. Jun Jong-seo- Burning- When Jun Jong-seo’s character Haemi vanishes about halfway into Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, her absence haunts the movie. That’s because the woman we’ve been watching up until then is given such a volatile sense of life. Haemi at first seems set up to be caught between the affections of two men: her shy childhood friend Jongsu and a wealthy man named Ben she met while traveling. However, Lee and Jun pull the rug out from under this dichotomy. During almost every scene she’s in she becomes distracted them and drifts into her own headspace, whether it’s falling asleep at a bar or performing impromptu dances. She is a source of obsession for Jongsu, though she remains detached from him and the world, a mystery Lee leaves unsolved.
12. Daniel Giménez Cacho- Zama- Colonel Zama is a man caught up in the bureaucratic machinations of colonialism. Daniel Giménez Cacho’s portrayal of him as a frustrated cog lends Lucrecia Martel’s mercurial vision an increasing sense of hopelessness.
13. Richard E. Grant- Can You Ever Forgive Me?- Marielle Heller couldn’t have asked for better sparring partners for Can You Ever Forgive Me? Matching Melissa McCarthy’s acidic performance blow for blow, Richard E. Grant is a delightful menace as Lee Israel’s (reluctant) friend. Their bond is the movie’s true emotional core.
14. Claire Foy- Unsane- One of the great scenes of the year happens late in Steven Soderbergh’s nightmarish thriller Unsane, when Claire Foy’s character Sawyer dresses down her stalker in a padded room. After getting a job at the mental institution where she’s being held against her will he finally has her alone, and Foy unleashes an unbridled display of rage that makes him regret every second of it.
15. John David Washington- BlacKkKlansman- As a black police officer who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, John David Washington anchors Spike Lee’s latest with determination and bewildered outrage. This is most evident in his phone conversations with Klan leaders, where he takes pride in pulling one over on them while also being confronted head-on with their blind hatred.
Tom Cruise- Mission: Impossible- Fallout
Shayna McHayle- Support the Girls
Haley Lu Richardson- Support the Girls
KiKi Layne- If Beale Street Could Talk
Miranda July- Madeline’s Madeline
Molly Parker- Madeline’s Madeline
Joaquin Phoenix- You Were Never Really Here
Sakura Andô- Shoplifters
Thomasin McKenzie- Leave No Trace
Tom Waits- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Bradley Cooper- A Star is Born
Elizabeth Debicki- Widows
Stephen Yeun- Burning
Michael B. Jordan- Black Panther
Yalitza Aparicio- Roma