The year is not even two weeks old but it already has one electrifyingly brilliant film to its credit.
As we do every December, we asked the writers of RogerEbert.com to pick a performance they particularly loved from the just-passed year of film. The submissions ranged from the performers who are racking up well-deserved awards this season to a group of actors and actresses who may not be getting as much as attention as they deserve. The requirement here was just to pick one performance to write about, so the feature below is in no way comprehensive. Just because we didn’t pick any performances from "The Florida Project," “Call Me By Your Name” or “Lady Bird,” doesn’t mean we don’t adore those ensembles. But what you’ll find below is nearly two dozen performances that represent the range of acting styles on display in theaters in 2017. There are living legends like Meryl Streep next to newcomers like Florence Pugh. Actors who did the best work of their career share space with the final performance of someone we lost this year. It’s a feature we love here not only because of how much it shows the range of cinema but the taste of our talented staff who writes about it. Enjoy. (Also make sure to check out Chaz Ebert's lists of the year's best films and documentaries here and here).
Does Adam Sandler’s comedy career make his performance in Noah Baumbach’s wonderful family dramedy better or is it just a coincidence? Watching Danny Meyerowitz scream that Sandler “Angry Voice” as he looks for parking or get into a physical fight with his brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), it’s hard not to consider this character in light of the man-children that Sandler has played to box office gold for two decades now. Here, he takes that archetype that made him a fortune and finds layers of emotion and truth underneath it in ways that no other actor could. Danny’s naïve optimism, sense of being second fiddle to his brother, eagerness to please—these are all elements of other characters that Sandler has played well in critically maligned blockbuster comedies, but he strips them of their clichés through Baumbach’s truthful screenplay. It’s a truly special performance that helps ground the entire film, serving as an emotional throughline to a story that could have spun out of control. It’s hard to believe that Happy Gilmore is the emotional foundation of a film that co-stars Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, but he truly is, and it only makes one wish that he took chances like this more often. Then again, maybe this performance, and this entire film, wouldn’t be quite the same without what feels like a subversion of its movie star’s persona at its center. We’ll never know.
Florence Pugh as Katherine in “Lady Macbeth” by Matt Fagerholm
There’s a bone-chilling moment in William Wyler’s 1941 classic, “The Little Foxes,” where a manipulative aristocrat, Regina (Bette Davis), watches silently as her husband (Herbert Marshall) dies of a heart attack. Rather than hurry to retrieve his medication, she remains seated, delaying her call for help until all hope has expired. I kept recalling Davis’ saucer-like eyes and frightening restraint—particular when she turns toward Marshall as if in slow-motion—while observing the equally astonishing performance of 21-year-old Florence Pugh in William Oldroyd’s galvanizing period drama, “Lady Macbeth.” Like Regina, Katherine (Pugh) is driven to commit acts that are unspeakable, but the great triumph of Alice Birch’s script (adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s novel) is in how it enables us to understand, and in many cases, empathize with her choices every step of the way. Sold into marriage to a loathsome man who treats her like his property, Katherine is kept on a suffocatingly tight leash. When a course worker on her estate, Sebastian, forces himself upon her, she responds with primal hunger to his advances.
With a smirk of defiance rippling through her composed demeanor, Pugh radiates a fierce strength that refuses to be snuffed out. “Where’s your husband?” asks her domineering father-in-law, to which Katherine responds, “Wherever you put him,” while chuckling into her drink. One could easily envision the uplifting feminist parable this premise could’ve become in the hands of Hollywood producers, but Olroyd, Birch and Pugh are unflinching in their portrayal of Katherine’s circumstances, and how her pursuit of happiness steadily pushes her over the edge of no return. The monstrous lengths she goes to secure her freedom are spawned directly from the dehumanizing forces of patriarchal oppression. As she sits on a sofa, mirroring Regina, her eyes stare straight ahead, implicating us in the process.
Harry Dean Stanton's face was an inscrutable, unmappable continent because every role changed it ever so slightly. In “Alien,” it's a tired, moistened thing, an oblong plane in a ball cap, gormless and tired, only coming to life when annoyed. In “Repo Man,” it's like a nervous, scruffy frontier biscuit, eyes darting everywhere looking for the fork or finger that will deliver it to the nearest mouth. I could go on forever because every Stanton performance was a joy and a gift from a man to whom both joy and generosity seemed alien concepts. His interviews were curt; his wish to self-mythologize non-existent. He just was.
“Lucky” understands this. By placing him front and center for the first time since “Paris, Texas,” John Carroll Lynch has opened him like a book for us to read all he was capable of offering. The glee at simple things, the need to be liked by some and feared by others, the rush to anger, the fear of change, of his own understanding of the universe. Watching him in “Lucky” is watching his whole life spill like bourbon from a cracked glass. The little nod of exasperation at a couple stealing his favorite seat at a diner is beyond priceless. One little, humorous and tragic act after another making up a life drawing to a close. I'll be grateful for this dust devil of Stanton's gestures and utterances years from now when people ask why we so valued him. He simply was and was splendidly.
Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth Marston in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” by Chris Evangelista
It’s become almost commonplace for Rebecca Hall to deliver a stunning performance, only to have said performance overlooked when awards season rolls around. This year, Hall outdid even herself with her complex work in "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women." Angela Robinson’s funny, surprising, sexy biopic focuses on the birth of Wonder Woman, and the three people directly responsible for the character’s existence: Dr. William Marston (Luke Evans); his wife his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall); and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), one of William’s students who becomes the third member in a polyamorous relationship between the three. All three performers are strong, but it’s Hall, as Elizabeth, who shines brightest. Hall’s Elizabeth is in a constant state of frustration: she loves both William and Olive, but the social norms of the era the character inhabit frown upon this unconventional love. Hall, with her Katharine Hepburn-esque stature, lets her deep, dark eyes convey inner turmoil better than any words could; we watch as she struggles to both understand her untraditional love and then fights against it. At the start of the film, she’s furious and understandably bitter about her rejection from academia due to her gender. Her shared romance with William and Olive lights a spark within the character—she comes fully alive, then forces herself to snuff that spark out or risk being ostracized. This is a part that could’ve easily dipped into sharp, harsh, alienating places, but Hall finds a way to center all of it. Watching Hall, we feel Elizabeth’s pain; we understand her desire to reject her true feelings; and we delight when she says to hell with society and embraces what she knows is right.
He's the king of performance capture, of course. But it's so easy to take for granted how convincingly Andy Serkis brings fantastical creatures to life, whether it's the obsequious, untrustworthy Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" series or the commanding leader Caesar in the "Apes" movies. There is such subtlety to his slightest facial gesture, such resonance to his voice. Serkis is at the height of his powers playing Caesar in this summer’s “War for the Planet of the Apes,” revealing even further depth in the third and final installment of the most recent “Apes” trilogy. His performance is nothing short of Shakespearean in its arc and dramatic intensity, and the effects gurus at Weta Digital have brought it vividly to life. Director Matt Reeves’ film is the rare blockbuster that beautifully balances massive, dazzling action sequences with deeply moving emotional exchanges, and it’s one of the year’s best. But beneath the high-tech trickery is the well-honed craft of a gifted, veteran actor. Serkis truly makes Caesar feel like a complex, fully fleshed-out (furred-out?) character, willing to carry out great sacrifices and questionable choices on behalf of those who follow him. His presence is just as striking whether he's interacting with other apes or going toe-to-toe with human characters, especially a chilling Woody Harrelson as a mad military leader hell-bent on taking down the apes for good. Merely the way he occupies the frame—thoughtfully, commandingly—is mesmerizing to watch. It's not the kind of work that traditionally wins awards, but it should be. Honoring Serkis is long overdue.
Anyone can fake a blow-job. It takes a real hero to fellate a piece of fruit and make it the funniest moment of the year, especially in a time in which laughs are in short supply. “Girls Trip” isn’t a perfect movie, but Tiffany Haddish’s performance earns that particular high-falutin' adjective, balancing a ruthless instinct for nailing a punchline with some honest-to-god affecting work. If her performance was nothing but exuberance and flawless timing, that would be worth celebrating all by itself. Instead, she’s a loose cannon in more ways than one, and she hits every target. Hers is a turn in which each moment brings something new—loyalty, anger, amusement, pride, affection, and general horniness all get in the mix—but somehow, all her emotional beats tie directly to the character, a woman who places friendship, faithfulness, and fun above all. Anyone saying Haddish doesn’t deserve to be in the "performances of the year" conversation is someone who hasn’t seen the film. It’s a jubilant achievement, a bold salvo that says, all too clearly, that it’s possible that Tiffany Haddish is the funniest woman—hell, funniest person—on the planet.
A lot of reviews of the hard-boiled prison neo-noir "Brawl in Cell Block 99" understandably concern writer/director S. Craig Zahler's considerable contributions. Everything from his thoughtful slow-burn scenario to his decision to shoot the action scenes so that we see his actors' faces when their characters' limbs break, and their bones splinter. But critics' tendency of focusing on Zahler as the film's primary architect shifts the focus of any discussion of the film's many accomplishments away from one of Zahler's most important collaborators. Vince Vaughn, as Bradley Thomas, does so much heavy emotional lifting for Zahler. This is especially remarkable when you realize just how quiet his character is. Once Thomas is in prison, he shuffles around with a stiff rigor mortis-like gait worthy of Frankenstein's monster. But look at his face, or the way he rolls Zahler's flinty, Joe Lansdale-worthy one-liners around in his mouth before spitting them out like chewing tobacco. Look at the way that he, in character, licks his wounds after falling into a cell whose floor is littered with broken glass. Or focus on Vaughn's "is this guy for real" eye-rolling, and barely contained rage, all expressed through twitchy jaw muscles, restless feet, and a skeptical glare. Vaughn owns this movie, which is no small feat given that its supporting cast members include scene-stealers like Udo Kier and Don Johnson. Vaughn does something that so few dedicated action stars can simply by reacting and behaving in a way that doesn't call attention to itself. It's a real star turn, and his best work in a long while.
Meryl Streep as Kay Graham in “The Post” by Nell Minow
I know, I know, we’re all kind of over how great Meryl Streep is. She has given us so many decades of impeccable performances and inevitable awards nominations that we just take her for granted. But Streep’s performance in “The Post” is worthy of special attention because it shows us exactly what makes her the best actor of her generation. There’s nothing especially flashy about it. She did not have to learn a new language or transform herself as she has done in the past. Yet she is, as always, astonishingly precise in this film as Katharine Graham, a very private 1970’s socialite who is not yet aware of how fundamentally she is changing to become the leader of a major media outlet.
The very best actors convey a mixture of emotions. In “The Post,” the play of thoughts and feelings in Streep’s face as she seeks the courage to stand up to the men who are telling her what to do is like a master class in acting. She is nervous but resolute, insecure about her ability, unsure of her role, but certain about her commitment to the paper. We see how devoted she is to her family and her friends, the tribute she pays to the guest of honor at a cocktail party in the garden of her Georgetown mansion, her concern for her good friend Robert McNamara as he cares for his ailing wife, the way she softens in the middle of a tense conversation when a grandchild chases a ball into the room. But we also see her growing in the realization of the power of The Post and her own power as well.
In Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a talented black photographer who survives a near-fatal weekend at the suburbs with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage’s demented family. His performance is one of iconic, reflective significance and artistry that encapsulates, with precision, the internal battles and uncertainty of a modern-day black man raised in a country that sees routine racial injustice every day. So, he’s rightfully conditioned to be a skeptic for his own safety: to not challenge a white policeman’s unreasonable demands, to be polite around unbearable pretend-woke babble among ultimately clueless white people, to nervously laugh at their racist remarks. In that regard, he visibly switches on his detectors for potential trouble early on, long before the sinister intentions of the Armitage family, a pack of contemporary slaveholders, are revealed. From the moment he arrives at the Armitage house, Kaluuya’s face becomes a battleground of doubt, fear and measured endurance, hidden behind courteous manners.
Kaluuya gradually brings Chris’ internal conflicts up to the surface before Chris ingeniously plans out his escape from the Armitage hell. Two noteworthy sequences (perhaps the most talked-about scenes of 2017) are especially astonishing in the way he conveys unspeakable dread through his eyes. The first one is Chris’ hypnosis session with Rose’s mother. In that scene, we observe him dig up a painful childhood memory and sink into that moment, through the trapdoor of the everlasting “sunken place." Watch as Chris’ traumatized eyes well up and beads of sweat percolate on his face fixated on a moment of shock, while his consciousness and true self become hazy and distant. It’s almost like Kaluuya splits Chris into two at that moment, separating his shell from his soul. The second one is the now infamous scene where Chris’ desperation for car keys climbs alongside his hopeless cries: “Where are those keys, Rose? ROSE! KEYS!” When Rose finally, ahem, “finds” the keys, Kaluuya’s frantic face gets taken over by an agonizing defeat and grim realization that emerge in his eyes: his worst fears have been spot on this whole time.
The principal joy of Paul Thomas Anderson's “Phantom Thread” is its constant ability to surprise; Anderson's formal prowess, which only grows with time, borders on Olympian, but were it not for his films' heart they would be things only admired, not loved. Daniel Day-Lewis' reputation precedes him, and if “Phantom Thread” is indeed his last role, Reynolds Woodcock is an elegy worthy of his career. Lesley Manville, a stalwart of the theater and Mike Leigh's repertory company, is another known quantity, albeit to perhaps not as many. “Phantom Thread,” though, is what it is, which is to say a great film rather than a very good one, due to the performance of Vicky Krieps.
As Alma, Krieps is faced with the task not only of effectively essaying her own role but of holding her ground, not only emotionally but often physically, with one of the most overwhelming screen actors of the era. Against the stylized ferocity and size of Day-Lewis' performance, Krieps pushes back not by matching him but by working seemingly within a different form. Alma is quiet, often wrong-footing Woodcock by extending pauses to the point where they seem to cause him physical pain. And when Woodcock demands silence, particularly at the breakfast table, Alma (aided by one of the only instances I can think of in film history where sound design could be described as “impish”) is loud.
Alma's role in “Phantom Thread” is to disrupt the otherwise orderly world of the house of Woodcock, and Krieps' role within the triad formed by herself, Day-Lewis, and Manville, is to present a different form of performance, and perhaps the hardest of the three. Day-Lewis and Manville come from a similar enough tradition to appear part of the same school of quality, Krieps is a wild card. Her performance, often reactive, seems to be that of a real person reacting to bespoke-tailored monsters. It would be a mistake to confuse that for “playing herself,” because if we were on the hunt for any on-the-nose metaphors for phantom threads it would be the invisible craft in Krieps' acting. It isn't clear until the very end of the film, when Alma has proven to be every bit Reynolds' other half, and Krieps has not struck a single false note the entire film, that the scale of what she's achieved becomes clear. She emerges with the upper hand against possibly the most celebrated screen actor of all time. Not to mention that, metaphorically speaking, she does it backwards and in heels.
Garrett Hedlund has almost no lines in "Inside Llewyn Davis" but I was fascinated by his character as well as him, how lazily he inhabited the back seat of that car, how comfortable he seemed, even as he was emanating a kind of dark charisma. It makes sense someone like that would have been cast as Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady in "On the Road": Cassady, muse of the Beats generation, a man Jack Kerouac described as carrying a "strange apocalyptic burst of gold he somehow always manages to produce." ("Apocalyptic" is a key word there.) Slouched in the back seat of the car in "Inside Llewyn Davis," Hedlund had that quality and he brings it with him into his magnetic and tormented performance as Jamie in Dee Rees' American epic, "Mudbound."
As a returning WWII vet who befriends Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), Hedlund has a laconic old-fashioned brand of masculinity which he wears as easily as his fedora, his suspenders. I can't better my Ebert colleague Odie Henderson who, in his review of "Mudbound", compared Hedlund to Errol Flynn. That is exactly right. Hedlund has an intensity in his behavior with Ronsel, an intense carelessness, an unusual insistent intimacy. The scenes between Mitchell and Hedlund are nothing short of amazing: they have the intensity of a forbidden love affair, with the same sense of freedom and danger. There are times when Hedlund listens to Mitchell talking, and it's an object lesson in the truth all good actors know: Listening is never ever passive. Good listening is always active.
Jamie is a heavy drinker, and Hedlund is believably soused 98% of the time, but he also shows—without "indicating it"—what the alcohol is designed to hide. It's all there: the reckless gleam in his eyes, the guttural laugh in his throat, the small winces of trauma flashing over his face, gone as quickly as they came. (It makes me think he would be absolutely brilliant as Brick in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.") Jamie is easy in his skin in many respects, a quality reflected in how he carries himself, in the opening pre-war sequences of course but also in the darker post-war scenes. He is easy with women, a compulsive and generous flirt. He is easy with children, who gravitate towards him for obvious reasons: he treats them kindly and with respect. But he is not at ease with most men, and he is not at ease in the world he was born in. War probably made more sense to him than peacetime. The enemy was clear, and how one fought the enemy was clear. And so on a much darker level this is a man who doesn't feel at home. Anywhere. That's really what you see in Hedlund's gleaming tragic eyes. It's a strange apocalyptic burst of gold.
Sally Hawkins was born to play the heroine of “Maudie,” a small but lovely biographical film based on the humble life and career of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. With her natural mix of meekness and quirkiness, Hawkins does a fabulous job of bringing life and personality to her fragile but undeniably persistent character, and we gradually come to sense Lewis’ warm, gentle artistic soul behind her seemingly meek appearance. Her life is not very pleasant due to many depressing things, including her uncaring family, her illness, and her callous husband. But Lewis continues to find joy and happiness as she keeps drawing as before, and it is touching to see how she comes to be a little happier and more active in her shabby daily life.
Hawkins effortlessly embodies her character’s good heart and irrepressible charm, and there are a number of small wonderful moments in the film to be cherished. Although her performance in “The Shape of Water” received more attention during this Oscar season, what she achieves in “Maudie” deserves to be mentioned as her another excellent performance of this year. I hope there will be more appreciation of the plain but haunting beauty of her unadorned acting here in this rather underappreciated gem.
In “The Big Sick,” Ray Romano plays a part in the best joke of 2017. Kumail Nanjiani gets the cathartic release of the punchline (“We lost 19 of our best guys that day”), but Romano is the one who dials up the tension with his awkward, stumbling set-up (“So, 9/11 … what’s your stance?”).
That his contribution to that joke remains under-appreciated is emblematic of his performance in the film. He is the under-the-radar MVP in one of the year’s biggest surprises. In the film’s first half, Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan get all the comic glory, but once the latter’s character Emily goes into a coma at the midway point, Nanjiani mostly goes dramatic (or at least becomes more subtle in his mirthmaking), and it’s up to Romano, as Emily’s father Terry, to keep the laughs going. Consider his ace delivery of non-sequitors. I’m partial to his defense of ordering a tuna sandwich in a hospital cafeteria—“I rolled the dice”—but his defense of Chicago tap water is also comically robust. These one-liners bring levity to the life-and-death narrative, but they also reveal much about his character, showing how Terry runs his mouth off to fill the awkward silent space between him and his wife, not to mention his comatose daughter’s ex-boyfriend.
Only a supremely confident onscreen presence can make one-liners feel natural, and the film showcases Romano’s naturalism in a long, confessional scene between Terry and Kumail. In relaying the details of the one-night stand that crippled his marriage, he maneuvers quickly from tender vulnerability (“She just smelled so good”) to comic self-immolation (“What did you just do?”). By day, he cracks jokes, but with the protection of the moonlight, he reveals himself as a middle-aged father still trying to figure out life and love. This is not the work of an average ex-sitcom star. It’s a magnificent film performance.
Since “Parks and Recreation,” Aubrey Plaza has become one of those “character actors” frequently accused of playing the same role over and over again, with deadpan cynicism and some degree of internal darkness becoming synonymous with her demeanor on- and off-camera. While these characteristics are certainly present in her portrayal of the mentally-ill Ingrid Thorburn, to say this is just another variation of April Ludgate does a disservice to both the film and to Plaza’s remarkable work in it. Whether hunched by the window with fast food in her lap and binoculars over her eyes, hysterically pepper spraying a bride, or roleplaying as Catwoman for her Batman-obsessed “boyfriend,” Ingrid is active and extreme, and Plaza pulls it off at every turn.
Her best moments as Ingrid, however, are the nearly motionless ones. For each real-life encounter which forces Ingrid to adapt to a human form that might be considered socially acceptable, there’s an iPhone exchange revealing what’s really going through her head. The smallest but most significant physical changes in Plaza’s Ingrid are exquisite: when Taylor Sloane (an equally outstanding Elizabeth Olsen), the Instagram idol Ingrid has conned into being her friend, asks someone to take a picture of the two of them, you can practically see the dopamine spreading through her body. There are many moments like this, and though Ingrid is the absolute darkest caricature of the average social media user, it’s a little heartbreaking how relatable it is to see just how profoundly something as small as being tagged in a photo can affect your entire demeanor. As the story continues, we can actually see the wheels turning in her head as Ingrid plots the next move in her quest to figure out how to be a human by way of imitation. It’s an incredible role, and Plaza plays it with unnerving ease.
The finest comedic performance of the year came from a breakout role from Kyle Mooney, in a story about a being a geek so much that you don't see the world around you. In “Brigsby Bear,” which he co-wrote, Mooney plays a young man who has grown up with the title kid’s show about an intergalactic space bear, viewing every episode countless times, owning every piece of merchandise. When it’s revealed early on that James has been in living in captivity by people who are not his parents (blissfully unaware), and that no one has seen “Brigsby Bear,” the movie takes on two different concepts that create a large tonal challenge for any actor: a fish-out-of-water story as he reacclimatizes into society, learning slang and social cues, and a brilliant arrested development metaphor as his maturity has been stunted by lack of interaction with others. In this sense, Mooney is playing a mix of “E.T.” and a Judd Apatow character who is experiencing a type of trauma, with plenty of opportunity to overplay the childish fear and wonder that comes with James seeing what else is out there.
Mooney's work becomes so comedically successful because he the darkness of James’ trauma, and the lightness that eventually comes from him learning about storytelling and making friends, with emotional precision and heart. It makes for very funny, dry scenes in the very beginning, but “Brigsby Bear” becomes equally endearing as James brings his own passion to the world, in which any geek can recognize the moment they loved their own fictional universes beyond words. Mooney uses a bizarre blending of tones to make James a reflective character of utmost sincerity, dedicated to the truth underneath every beat whether funny or sad, leading to an impressive, wondrous comedic balance.
Balancing Bong Joon-Ho’s usual blend of black comedy and bleeding heart social commentary is a tough act to pull off, but Tilda Swinton in “Okja,” her second time around with Bong (after playing a villainous bureaucrat in “Snowpiercer”) does it gracefully, playing both agrochemical CEO Lucy Mirando and her ousted sister Nancy with the perfect combination of absurdity and menace. As Lucy, Swinton seems like she’s barely holding it together as she tries to put a cute, wholesome façade in front of a massive machine of death and despair, and the fact that this is both completely dishonest and probably futile causes her deep mental anguish. But when her sister, Mirando’s former CEO Nancy, shows up to take over after Lucy’s PR blitz goes awry, she shows the true power of a multinational CEO who isn’t at war with her nature. Nancy is all business, a sanguine butcher who sees no purpose in even the illusion of altruism. Her sister may call her “boring,” but Mirando’s bottom line speaks for itself. Swinton, an actress of incredible range, is often cast as ethereal or reserved characters, but no director lets her go as joyously, profanely broad as Bong. Even the transparently amoral Nancy commands the screen, warping reality around her as she makes deals and rasps out commands to underlings. Swinton’s performance is essential to driving home Bong’s point: Whether you try to deny the brutality of your global slaughterhouse, or have it internalized deep in your bones, the game is still the same.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a case study in how to build a dream team of an ensemble cast. There’s Frances McDormand as Mildred, a small-town mother avenging her daughter’s unsolved murder with the aid of a trio of billboards. Woody Harrelson plays the town’s police chief, who would like to do more to help Mildred find the culprit but is struggling with cancer. Then there is Sam Rockwell, character actor supreme. Just when you think you’ve got his Dixon pegged as an obnoxious racist cop with a violent streak, he makes a stunning yet somehow believable emotional U-turn mid-movie and leaves you amazed.
But as much as I got a kick of seeing this trio go at it with one another, along comes wily and witty Tyrion Lannister from “Game of Thrones,” Peter Dinklage. His James describes himself as “a dwarf who sells used cars and has a drinking problem.” He knows exactly who he is, unlike some locals such as Dixon, who belittles him as “the town midget.” James also knows what he likes. With a barroom pool cue in hand and awe on his face, he fixes his gaze upon the estimable Mildred. He tells her he saw her on TV doing an interview, adding, “You looked good.” Sensing that might not have come out quite right judging by her sour look, he awkwardly tries again: “I mean, y’know, you came across really good, in the things you were saying.” But he isn’t too shy to remind Mildred with a glint in his eye that she is his next opponent at billiards.
Little does Mildred know that soon she will need James as an alibi after she maliciously sets the police headquarters on fire, unaware that Dixon is caught inside. After an ambulance takes the injured cop away, the pair strikes a deal to go out to dinner. But James’ dream date quickly goes south after Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie strolls by with his vapid 19-year-old girlfriend, Penelope. That is when Dinklage delivers one of the best slow-burn laugh lines ever when he announces to Mildred, “Gotta use the little boys’ room.” In my packed screening, it took all but a second before nervous giggles quickly erupted into full-on belly laughs.
Ever since I first spied Dinklage as a self-regarding writer of children’s books in the 2003 movie “Elf,” I admired how he was determined to not let his height or size of his role define his impact in a movie whose title suggested otherwise. In “Three Billboards,” filmmaker Martin McDonagh employs James’ outward lack of physical stature as a sly if unnerving litmus test for the rest of the cast and the audience. Dismiss him at your own peril.
In “Menashe,” director Joshua Z. Weinstein has remarkable access to Brooklyn’s community of Hasidic Jews. Weinstein also used amateur actors within the community, which only adds to the film’s sense of authenticity. But for all that makes “Menashe” unique, the lead performance from Menashe Lustig has a lot in common with another singular performance from a lovable oafish type: Ernest Borgnine in “Marty.” Like Marty, Menashe (the character, not the actor) is aware of his limitations, his stance within his family, and his quiet fight for basic dignity. There is no romantic sub-plot, although failed relationship are the source of drama: Menashe cannot be the primary caretaker of his son, since he is a widow and Hasidic custom dictates that children must be raised in homes with mothers. Menashe does not rage against his leaders, nor does he ever dream of leaving his community. Instead, his rebellions are smaller-scale, with humor and kvetching as his primary deflection tools. In scene after scene, Lustig acts without artifice or self-awareness (according to Weinstein, Lustig never set foot in a movie theater until the premiere). It is a refreshing performance, charismatic in an understated way, while humanizing a people who are defined by their insularity. By the time Menashe shares a 40oz with his colleagues, he’s more than our entry point into Hasidism, and we want nothing more than to join him for that beer.
For “Logan Lucky,” his first theatrical film following his much-ballyhooed 2013 “retirement,” Steven Soderbergh was able to recruit a typically eclectic cast to take part that included a number of familiar faces (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Katie Holmes), an Oscar-winner (Hilary Swank) and the current James Bond himself (Daniel Craig). They were all good, but the cheerfully goofy heist film, sort of a southern-fried riff on Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise, was itself stolen by Keough, whom you may recall from her appearances as one of the escaped women in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and as the lead in the television series based upon Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience.”
As Mellie, a gearhead hairdresser who always takes it upon herself to save the day, whether it is by getting her niece to a pageant rehearsal when her brother forgets or playing a crucial role in his plan to rob the Charlotte Speedway during the biggest NASCAR race of the year, she so thoroughly commands the proceedings with her good cheer and undeniable screen charisma that every time she turns up, you pay attention because you know that her live-wire presence is going to goose things a little further. Of course, this is not the kind of performance or film that is likely to receive loads of accolades and awards. But Keough’s work is such a delight that if Soderbergh were to devise a spinoff vehicle centered solely around Mellie, I would look forward to it with the kind of unreserved anticipation usually reserved for “Star Wars” films and I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t be the only one.
In "Good Time," Robert Pattinson imbues his character Connie, amateur bank robber and wannabe savior, with unbridled arrogance and streetwise charm. Connie weaponizes both of those traits against the larger Queens area so he can scrounge up enough bail money to save his mentally challenged brother from Rikers. He schemes his way into every potentially advantageous situation imaginable, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. But Pattinson’s best ploy is to never once project doubt or hesitation as his character digs himself a deeper hole; Connie never once believes he’s ever going to get caught, even though the audience instinctively knows that there’s only one way for his story to end. Thus, Pattinson’s performance and "Good Time"'s anxious tone are completely in sync—he brings a high-wire energy that directors Benny and Josh Safdie capitalize on from the moment he springs on screen. Pattinson also leans into his star power just enough for a certain political reading of Connie’s exploits to emerge: only a good-looking white kid could use his innate privilege as a tool to con so many unsuspecting people for so long. As Connie becomes more desperate and more sleep-deprived, he rapidly loses the thread of his poorly woven plan, but Pattinson conveys an inner calm that’s deceptively trustworthy the entire time. He wants you to believe that he knows exactly what he’s doing, even though he’s just making it up as he goes along.
Brooklynn Prince as Moonee in "The Florida Project" by Pablo Villaca
"The Florida Project" is the kind of movie that we desperately need in a year like 2017. In any year, actually, but in a period in which hate, lack of empathy and a seeming need by the powerful to obliterate the poor, it’s something of a miracle to follow the humble lives that Sean Baker presents to us in his best work so far. By leading the audience to share those spaces with his characters and to witness their difficulties, their solidarity with each other and the happiness they can conjure just by virtue of their love, The Florida Project is Humanist in its soul—and that soul can be personified by the adorable Moonee, the little protagonist portrayed by Brooklynn Prince. What the actress does in the movie is much more nuanced and complex than what we’ve come to normally expect from a child actor in a drama such as this—a cute, impossibly mature and full of wisdom kid that teaches everyone around her WHAT REALLY MATTERS. No, Baker and Prince do something much more interesting than that: they create a real child, someone who can still see fun in a trip to dilapidated houses, who thinks of getting a stranger to pay for her ice cream as a game and who turns the poor substitute of a project in which she lives into a playground. The wonder in Prince’s performance is her authenticity: the way she bangs her head against a wall as a little game until it hurts (which catches her by surprise); the pure glee in her eyes when she’s allowed to stuff herself with a feast that’s a rarity in her life; the love in her smile when she plays with a mother whose youth is what makes her such a poor parent, but also a good one; and the tears she can’t contain when the world finally catches up with her and bursts the bubble of her infancy. This little girl is a gift to cinema. I hope she has a long a fertile career.
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