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The Great Performances of 2018

It was a year of unforgettable faces, some we've known for decades and some we're seeing for the first time this year. As we do at the end of every year, we asked our writers to pick one performance they loved from the past 12 months. There was no other requirement or guideline. 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 and we didn't dictate certain films must be included, so the feature below is in no way comprehensive. Just because we didn’t pick any performances from "A Star is Born," “Roma” or “The Favourite,” 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 2018. 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. 

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Michelle Rodriguez as Linda in "Widows"

When I see Michelle Rodriguez now, I hear the song "Don't Forget Me." Neko Case sings about projected strength and she does it with real strength. She has a voice like a hay maze, ancient but new, for the young but older than any child. The lyric "keep your memories but keep your powder dry, too," seems to have written about her, the action hero whose inner life we've never been encouraged to find. Michelle Rodriguez, one of the most ubiquitous Latina faces in the world, for which she never receives kudos, and yet one of the most misunderstood, has been kept young by Hollywood. She's still playing gun molls, hitmen and getaway drivers but she's become herself as surely as anything. She has fire inside of her, but no flame lasts forever. 

In "Widows" we see her second great performance, after Walter Hill's "The Assignment," as she approaches middle age. Her husband dies and suddenly she doesn't even have a reliable sparring partner. Who will she love? Who will she argue with? She touches a gun and misses, like she hasn't played famous assassins, like she hasn't driven a car a thousand miles an hour against blue screens, careening towards certain death. She looks scared and lost and angry. That pout, so perfect when playing affectless anti-heroes, now means something else. It means she'll never get to tell her husband that he's ruined her life one last time. She accidentally finds herself on the couch of a widower and a rawer Rodriguez steps from shadow than we have ever seen before. The real one, the exposed nerve, the forgotten star buried under muscle shirts and masculine narratives. She packs years of anguish and confusion into those few minutes. She is the whole movie. The sight of the underrated. The smell of sweat during tasks you never thought you'd find yourself completing. "Don't forget me." Couldn't if I wanted to. (Scout Tafoya)

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe in "You Were Never Really Here"

From its first moment, in which the actor is seen with a plastic bag over his head, there is a genuine sense of palpable danger to Joaquin Phoenix's performance in "You Were Never Really Here." Writer/director Lynne Ramsay's hypnotic and elliptical take on the revenge thriller gives us a traditional hero, who saves the lives of innocents using violence, but scrapes away anything heroic about the character.

Phoenix is the epitome of stillness as Joe, a man who has been traumatized by childhood abuse at the hands of his father and now, as an adult, tries to stop other children from enduring a similar fate. There is pain and rage beneath Joe's mostly silent and stone-faced exterior, but Phoenix rarely physicalizes that inner turmoil. He and Ramsay seem in complete harmony about how Joe's back story and motives are revealed throughout the narrative. Through quick flashes of the past, Ramsay explains Joe's history. Through his visage of constant external and internal examination, almost always resulting in the threat of or actual violence, Phoenix shows us the consequences of it.

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Joe has become more machine than man, driven by a need to inflict pain. Some of it is aimed at himself (the repeated motif of a plastic bag over his head or a pair of scenes involving him nearly using a knife on himself). Most of it, though, is aimed at those who have harmed or would harm children. He kills without emotion and only possesses sympathy for those who are victims like himself (the children, of course, but also, in one of the film's most unexpectedly tender moments, for a hired goon in the man's dying moments). Phoenix's restraint pays off in a climactic moment of naked trauma in the present. Tellingly, it is not in saving an innocent. It's in being denied the ability to inflict pain. As Joe, Phoenix may not say much, but the whole of his performance—from his blank yet searching expression to his bulky yet often vulnerable physicality—provides a compelling study of a man who has become the embodiment of pain. (Mark Dujsik)

Raffey Cassidy as Celeste/Albertine in "Vox Lux"

Rarely does acting of a nearly invisible nature get awards season buzz. Performances that grab voters by the lapels and sob in their faces are typically what get rewarded, and in Brady Corbet’s sophomore directorial effort, “Vox Lux,” Natalie Portman relishes the opportunity to leave her teeth marks all over the scenery. Yet it is English actress Raffey Cassidy who emerges as the film’s true lead as well as its emotional anchor. I first took note of Cassidy in Disney’s “Tomorrowland,” where she stole the show as an animatronic hybrid of “Parent Trap”-era Lindsay Lohan and The Terminator. Her deft handling of duality also proves essential during the first half of Corbet’s film, which begins with one of the most heart-stopping cinematic moments in recent memory. When a gunman enters a middle-school classroom and starts firing, Celeste (Cassidy) remains pinned to her seat, speaking to her attacker in a calm voice while the rest of her peers huddle in a corner. As her older sister observes, Celeste can simultaneously appear to be 14 and 22. She exudes the doe-eyed innocence of youth but refuses to be intimidated, even with a weapon pointed in her face.

Having mastered the power of hypnosis in “Molly Moon,” Cassidy’s eyes are no less mesmerizing here, surveying her surroundings in a way that suggests Celeste’s inclination to look at the bigger picture residing outside of the immediate present. On the night she loses her virginity to a much older man, Celeste’s formidably intelligent gaze remains fixed on the ceiling, as she delivers a melancholic monologue offering premonitions for the future. It is her hard-wired instincts as a “savvy businesswoman,” an identity affirmed by narrator Willem Dafoe, that leads the girl to seize her moment in the spotlight, penning a song in remembrance of her dead classmates that is sincere in its emotion yet calculated in its execution. Cassidy’s tender performance of “Wrapped Up,” a tune from pop deconstructionist Sia worthy of Best Original Song contention, is as haunting as her rendition of Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Corbet’s enigmatic choice to cast the actress as Celeste’s daughter, Albertine, in the film’s second half could’ve derailed the film entirely, had Cassidy been anything less than one of the finest talents of her generation. 

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Without any overt attempt made to alter her features, Cassidy masterfully convinces us that she is an entirely different person through countless subtle nuances. Now inhabiting the role of an older yet much more childish Celeste, Portman puts on a show for everyone, her daughter included. Seated opposite her mother at a restaurant booth, Albertine’s concern is palpable in its urgency. She yearns to awaken the maternal instinct burrowed within the white noise of Celeste’s hollow persona, yet can’t help rolling her eyes whenever her mom’s words reek of artifice. Still, the film’s most heartrending moment occurs when Albertine trembles with emotion after being granted a scribbled apology from Celeste. It’s a pathetic effort at best, but Albertine savors it all the same. Portman pulls out all the stops in these scenes, and Cassidy is every bit her match. Considering the challenging projects she’s taken on at a young age, Cassidy could very well have a career as sublime as that of her co-star. And never has her gift for duality been better expressed than in the finale of “Vox Lux,” where she somehow manages to embody Celeste and Albertine all at once. (Matt Fagerholm)

Steven Yeun as Ben in "Burning"

Steven Yeun doesn’t arrive until the 37-minute mark of Lee Chang-dong’s masterpiece mystery “Burning,” and he’s off screen for giant chunks of time. But his presence hovers over everything, even in his absence, as a beguiling, driving force. A wealthy, well-traveled young man living far more luxuriously than most people his age in Seoul, Yeun’s 30ish Ben is a “Great Gatsby”-esque figure, inviting us into his world yet keeping us at arm’s length. The more the aimless and envious Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) gets to his new friend, the more enigmatic Ben becomes. Does Ben just enjoy toying with people – charming them with his cool confidence and carefree sense of humor, then casting them aside? Or is he up to something more sinister?

What’s really happening in Lee’s film—inspired by a Haruki Murakami short story, yet inescapably Hitchcockian in its tension—is up for interpretation. Much of the allure of “Burning” comes from its bold ambiguity, and the conversations it surely will spark afterward. But what’s undeniable is the low-key power of Yeun’s performance. He accomplishes so much with just a sly, knowing smile after he’s caught yawning at a dinner party, or the way he’ll deliver a seemingly benign line with a frightening hint of menace. Certainly it helps that he’s gorgeous, and that costume designer Lee Choong-yeon has dressed him in an array of minimalist creams and heather grays to emphasize his aura of detached arrogance. But he’s also totally seductive without trying hard to be, driving Jong-su’s innocent childhood friend Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun) around town in his Porsche, or confiding his shocking, secret hobby to Jong-su in warm, conspiratorial tones.

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“I do this and that,” the thoroughly Westernized Ben tells Jong-su in explaining what he does for a living. “To put it simply, I play.” Yeun is quietly chilling, but he makes us want to play along. (Christy Lemire)

Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan in "Paddington 2"

In “Paddington 2,” Phoenix Buchanan is an Actor with a capital A. Well, actually, he’s a has-been Actor. The capital A still applies, however, even when his thespianism has been reduced to doing stale commercials on the telly, or even worse, when it’s used to commit outright grand larceny. Because this guy lives for the performance, and he’s willing to do things the hard way simply for the sake of assuming or recreating a role. And Phoenix has plenty of former roles from which to pilfer because he’s running through the career of his portrayer, Hugh Grant. As he proved in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Grant is ripe for self-parody, especially when it involves villainy of some sort. He played a washed-up actor in that film too, but any subtlety he had there has been replaced by gloriously broad gestures. Grant’s capacity for gigantic performances seems to run counter to his sheepish romantic comedy charmer bona fides, until you recall that this guy worked for Richard Curtis, Merchant-Ivory AND Ken Russell.

Grant turns everything he’s done before up to eleven, dressing up in various guises (including a nun) and constantly drawing attention to himself even when inconspicuousness would be wiser. Marvel at the blatantly obvious, smarmy fake charm he employs when sweet-talking the location of the pop-up book-slash-treasure map out of a trusting Paddington Bear. Watch the cruel glee that crosses his face before he disappears behind the puff of smoke that will frame his nemesis. Shake your head when Phoenix, faced with capture by Paddington’s caretaker, Mr. Brown, opts for an Errol Flynn-style swordfight just to show off his fencing credentials. Grant’s wonderful, go-for-broke performance isn’t camp because camp is accidental; everything Phoenix does is on purpose and for maximum effect. I mean, his evil plan to finance a one-man show requires an entire carnival, secret codes and a runaway train! A Kickstarter would have been easier, but it wouldn’t be dramatic enough for this attention junkie.

As funny as Grant is, he doesn’t let us forget he’s the bad guy here. Insatiable ego aside, he’s formidable enough to make us fear for Paddington’s well-being. And yet, when his comeuppance arrives, it’s a win-win for everyone involved. Paddington clears his name and, in a spectacular end-credits musical number, the jailed Phoenix gets the one thing he’s always wanted: a captive audience. Hugh Grant makes us believe he deserves it. (Odie Henderson)

Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in "Eighth Grade"

A vulnerable, unselfconscious, funny performance from a young person is always worth celebrating—it's hard enough being thirteen without worrying about being thirteen on camera, and often we'll see an actor pretending to be a confident actor playing a role, and not one person trying on the life and times of someone else. Not so with Elsie Fisher. As Kayla, the insecure, lonely, loving and motivated girl at the center of Bo Burnham's wonderful "Eighth Grade," Fisher doesn't pretend to be confident. Instead, she shows us that Kayla does. The result is a performance that's both painful and painfully funny, one that explores the honesty that artifice reveals, and yanks the viewer through the movie screen, the webcam, the iPhone, and right into her life. If that alone were her accomplishment, Fisher's would be one of the best of the year. But allow us to blow your mind: every "um," every "like," every "yeah," and every awkward slip of the tongue is scripted, making Fisher's a performance of incredible technical precision as well as vulnerability. By film's end, Kayla is on the rise, and mark our words, Elsie Fisher is, too. (Allison Shoemaker)

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Russell Hornsby as Mav Carter in "The Hate U Give"

There are two wonderful gifts buried within one of the most underrated performances of the year. First, it's always so rewarding to see a great character actor get the part that allows him to shine like Hornsby does here. He's been a phenomenal character actor on television for years, particularly in Netflix's recent TV series "Seven Seconds." There's always some enjoyable in seeing potential pay off. It's also one of those performances that transcends the cliches that other actors would have so easily fallen into. We've seen Maverick Carter before. We've seen the reformed gangster and the overprotective father. We've seen the parent both proud of their child and fully aware of the dangerous, racist world into which they're sending him or her. But from the minute we meet Mav Carter, he doesn't feel like the other movie parents. He feels completely realized, three-dimensional, and the kind of character who doesn't have a past because it "fits the plot" but has a back story in a way that influences the performance and overall themes of the film. It's the kind of performance that should get Hornsby more work in higher profile projects. I have a feeling that we'll look back on this role at the end of an acclaimed, award-winning career. And we'll wonder why it didn't get more attention in 2018. (Brian Tallerico)

Madeline Brewer as Alice in "Cam"

With a red lip, a pink room and blue glow, Lola is a dream. An aspirational creation by Alice, who makes her living as a cam-girl, Lola is a vaporwave queen that women want to be and men want to be with. As Alice and Lola in Cam, Madeleine Brewer treads a careful line as she unveils the different levels of performance we bring to our online and lived experiences. The true self, rather than being buried behind a mask, is fragmented across many different identities. The challenge for Brewer was already steep, but it becomes even harder when Alice’s account is overtaken by a doppelganger. Lola 2.0. exists solely in service of likes and money, a kind of transfiguration of our online life if we acted exclusively for internet Klout.

Part of Brewer’s mastery is the focus on work and the way she utilizes body language to communicate power and vulnerability. While on camera, she has complete mastery of her environment but in the flesh her performance extends beyond a feminine ideal and becomes a negotiation of power. As she meets one of her biggest donators, Barnacle Bill, in a hotel Tex-Mex restaurant, we watch as she bridges the gap between her fantasy creation with its real-world incarnation. She says all the right things but her body language communicates more caution as she reaches out with a hand while pushing back with the rest of her being. Brewer, in the course of a single moment, projects the anxieties and desires of different levels of self, each of which acts in service of different motivations and needs. Rarely has there been a film to capture so effortlessly the experience of online lives, and Cam’s success rests heavily on Brewer’s shoulders. (Justine Smith)

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John Cho as David Kim in "Searching"

“Searching” is a family thriller that unfolds in a very familiar world—the environment of screen culture, whether that means text messaging, social media, or the strangest corners of the internet. Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian’s story (directed by Chaganty) relies heavy on one person’s emotional exploration of this world, John Cho’s David, a father who investigates his daughter Margot’s life online after she goes missing. And while the film is truly nail-biting with its mystery as to where Margot might have disappeared to, the heart of it is in Cho’s arc, and the nuance he brings to what is at times a one-man show. 

He starts the adventure as a lovable dorky dad, making way for light, warming comedy with a tinge of sadness, after it’s revealed that his wife and Margot’s mother recently passed. But once the story kicks off, Cho is a key part to building the tension of the story, his palpable desperation informing his anxious communications with Margot’s peers, and sometimes leading to very effective comic relief. The film is an excellent display for Cho’s range, but also his accessibility as a magnetic screen presence. 

Throughout “Searching,” Cho is often in camera by himself, reacting to text or videos that his character is seeing on a screen, creating our best surrogate into the experience. The calibration behind his reactions, whether of outrage, fear, desperation, becomes a type of glue that holds everything together. With an actor as talented and charismatic as Cho, it’s almost easy to take for granted, but his work signifies that while modern filmmaking progressively requires actors to act more opposite technology—like in front of green screens or on motion-capture stages—immediately connective performances like Cho’s will guarantee that we never lose the human factor. (Nick Allen)

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Regina Hall as Lisa in "Support the Girls"

Even the title of the film is a leering reminder of the perpetual indignities in the life of Lisa, played with grace, wisdom, sensitivity, and humor by Regina Hall in “Support the Girls.” Lisa is a manager at a “boobs, brews, and big screens” restaurant called, ahem, Double Whammies. It presents itself as “a mainstream place,” with skimpier clothes and bigger tips. “Manager” goes well beyond her job title; it is what she does in every aspect of her life.  She never has the luxury of losing her temper or showing her exhaustion. Every interaction is a problem to be solved by conciliation, courtesy, and misdirection. Over the course of one day, Hall is a marvel at showing us Lisa’s constant tiny calibrations as she manages everyone around her, from the hapless would-be robber who gets stuck in a heating vent to the waitress who insists on going back to her abusive boyfriend to the restaurant’s owner, whose racist “rainbow” policy means no more than one black waitress on duty in each shift, to the husband she cares about but can no longer care for. Lisa always has to be the grown-up in the room, except when she is crying in her car before her shift or, in the film’s cathartic last scene, allowing herself the release of a primal scream.  Lisa understands that the world is not fair but she always is, to everyone but herself. Hall has been a reliable if underused utility team player for many years, mostly in light comedies, but her roles in “The Hate U Give” and “Support the Girls” this year show the strong, versatile, deeply lived performances she is capable of. (Nell Minow)

Henry Cavill as August Walker in "Mission: Impossible - Fallout"

It was the moment everyone fixated on in the “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” trailer. It wasn’t a huge stunt but a gesture from Henry Cavill. The scene was some kind of fight in a restroom and he shrugged his shoulders, almost looking like he was reloading his arms before charging in for another round of blows in whatever brawl this was.Gifs of that moment appeared almost immediately after the trailer and people said explicitly they were looking forward to seeing that movie to see that scene in context. When too many films, not just action ones, forget the importance of the body in getting across information and fixate either on CGI spectacle or info dumps of lines delivered in close ups, Cavill’s performance in “Fallout” was a thrilling reminder of the tension that can uncoil just watching somebody walk across the screen. His ramrod straight posture, piercing eyes, and yes, that amazing mustache slightly twitching in contempt at the group of spies he’s been assigned to monitor puts the viewer immediately on edge. The “Mission: Impossible” series is about the various identities we slip on in our personal and professional lives and how blurry the line can be between the two. Cavill’s performance was a canny mix of his square jawed good looks and volcanic bursts of rage so that when it’s finally revealed where his allegiances lie the viewer is terrified of the threat his strength and the willingness to have his body destroyed by pieces will mean. The final fight between Cavill and Tom Cruise features some first rate location and stunt work, but it leaves an impression because it’s undergirded by being a battle between two people who have given far too much to the causes they identify themselves by. Causes that have more often than not given them little in return, but it’s too late to turn back now. Cavill refusing to stop, eyes burning with fury, gasping in choked breaths from his ruined face is the holy hell of the zealot that’s causing all sorts of damage now. The “Mission: Impossible” films are delicious escape in a lot of ways, but their effectiveness lies in never forgetting that the body is the first battlefield. Cavill’s clear understanding of that made for one of the most exciting performances of the year. (Jessica Ritchey)

Ethan Hawke as Toller in "First Reformed"

Though he's showed great range over the course of his career—from laid-back, freewheeling charm in his films with Richard Linklater to everyman in way over his head in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "Training Day"—it's genuinely startling to see Ethan Hawke as tightly wound as he is in "First Reformed." As Rev. Ernst Toller is a pastor dealing with the lingering guilt of his son's death, the concerns of a troubled congregant and his wife, and the specter of a world being destroyed by climate change, Hawke's body seems weighted down with spiritual and physical pain; as Toller, Hawke's movement is slower and more arduous than we've ever seen, his bodily pain clear even before we know what his maladies are. 

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His solitary nature is similar to that of previous Paul Schrader characters (Travis Bickle of "Taxi Driver," John LeTour of "Light Sleeper"), but his existential despair seems more total, both because of the character's vocation and because we're so used to seeing Hawke more animated and gregarious. The same intelligence of his earlier performances is there, but it's shackling rather than liberating, the sign of a man wholly aware of his inadequacies and the limits of faith in tackling some earthly ills. A confrontation with a callous industrialist sees Hawke on his game, pointedly dismantling the man's dismissive arguments ... until his own failures are brought up, and we see a man break, his voice cracking, his face falling. Even his moments of respite with Amanda Seyfriend's faithful Mary are few and fraught with the knowledge that her child is entering a ruined world. The actor conjures up a man who is, as a friend says, "always in the garden," constantly torturing himself with the belief that if man and earth is to be saved, "somebody has to do something." Even if that something is an act of madness. (Max O'Connell)

Sakura Andô as Nobuyo Shibata in "Shoplifters"

I sometimes feel uncomfortable applauding an actor or actress for a performance without also complimenting the writer(s) or director(s) that helped them to realize that performance. Usually, I just let that feeling pass, since it's hard to definitively say who did what behind the scenes of a film. Luckily, "Shoplifters" was officially written and directed by the singular Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. So commending Kore-eda alongside actress Sakura Andô makes sense (for now). Kore-eda gave Andô her character's (strictly metaphorical) dance steps, but she realizes and owns every maneuver she was asked to (and then some). That's no small feat (sorry about the pun) given that Nobuyo, Andô's character in "Shoplifters," is constantly showing us that she's just as capable of being cynical as she is of being open-hearted, even as she and immature would-be patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky) struggle to provide for their patchwork family. 

Kore-eda gives Andô time enough—both the scenes and the pacing of those scenes—to establish that her character genuinely loves her fellow family members, especially older mother figure Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) and young castaway Yuri (Miyu Sasaki). That's not nothing given that Nobuyo is, for a while, defined by cool, standoffish quips. So in order to care about Andô's character, you also have to believe—thanks to Andô's pregnant pauses, her physicality, and the way she races through some lines but takes a while to lean on others—that while she obviously disbelieves Osamu, she also wants to trust him. Kore-eda helped Andô to get her character there, but Andô does all of her character's fanciest emotional footwork. No small feat (Sorry, again) given how subtly complicated her dance steps are. (Simon Abrams)

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Rafael Casal as Miles in "Blindspotting"

When I saw "Blindspotting" earlier this year, I was blown away by it. The movie is pure perfection, blending social commentary with the lyricism of hip-hop; a quasi-musical commenting on the world we live in. All the actors in it are brilliant, and to separate one from the pack seems wrong, but considering the absence of his name from the Indie Spirit Awards this year, I had to take time to praise Rafael Casal’s performance as Miles.

Casal’s performance evokes memories of seeing Burt Lancaster play Elmer Gantry, a fast-talking bullshitter who can sell anything to anyone so long as he makes it “sound pretty.” On the surface he provides comic relief. He causes trouble by screaming at people and generally inserting himself into every situation. Collin is right to worry, but at the same time there’s a relatable quality to Miles: he’s the friend who irritates you to no end, but you definitely have some crazy stories to tell. Casal makes Miles’ hotheadedness and danger silly, attractive, and frightening.

His relationship with Daveed Diggs’ Collin is described as akin to “Calvin and Hobbes,” wherein Miles is the Calvin who believes he’s special because he understands how fake the world is, refusing to drink green juice and trying desperately to hold on to an Oakland where he feels like, despite being an outsider, he can pass. The movie tackles race from so many different angles, and when Collin finally lays things out to Miles, there’s a unique discussion presented about the commodification of blackness and how decades of it creates an otherness for white people in gentrified cities. 

"Blindspotting," in general, deserves to be seen by more audiences. It’s exciting to see where Casal goes from here, because it’s hard to get his performance as Miles out of my head. (Kristen Lopez)

Helena Howard as Madeline in "Madeline's Madeline"

When I first sat down to watch the trippy indie drama “Madeline’s Madeline,” I had never heard of Helena Howard, the young actress making her screen debut as a troubled but talented teenager whose gifts as a performer are both given a chance to flower and ruthlessly exploited when she joins an experimental theatre company, but as I was viewing it, I quickly realized that I was observing the birth of what could be a truly extraordinary career. 

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In a film that rests almost entirely upon her shoulders, she responds with the kind of knockout turn that even the most celebrated of actors would find difficult to equal. Much like the character she plays, Howard embodies her character so completely that she gives the story a veneer of authenticity that is almost unnerving at times. Her performance is so good and striking that not only does she more than hold her own against the likes of co-stars Molly Parker and Miranda July, no slouches themselves, she all but forces them to step up their own games as well in order to keep up. This is not just one of the best debut performances of recent memory, it is one of the best acting turns of any sort to hit the big screen in a long time. I can only hope that Howard continues to find roles that allow her to further demonstrate the incredible gifts that she displays here. (Peter Sobczynski)

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"

Joel and Ethan Coen's Western anthology is a showcase for a dazzling ensemble of actors, including Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tyne Daly, and Stephen Root. All give performances that rank with their best work, and whether they're playing demonically impish cartoon characters (Root) or tragic figures (Kazan), they're convincing. But Tim Blake Nelson deserves a special citation because he plays the title character and appears in the first episode, which puts a frame around the whole thing, and he's the only performer in the movie whose performance is also an idea. You could even call it a proposition. 

Scruggs is a singing cowboy in the mold of Roy Rogers who's first seen cantering through Monument Valley, the site made famous by many a John Ford Western. Nelson is a deadpan marvel right from the start, breaking the fourth wall and acting as if the entire story is for the benefit of an audience of one. The filmmaking poses him somewhere between the mythological and the real, treating him to luminous closeups but also pulling very far back to diminish him into a speck against the landscape. His songs become less audible the farther away from him we get, an odd directorial decision that no other musical has ever made because it makes us question whether we're supposed to accept what we're seeing as "real" even though, obviously, people didn't go around singing cowboy songs at top volume in the Old West while making eye contact with an invisible moviegoer. 

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The trick in a performance like this is to just plow ahead and act as if everything you're seeing is perfectly ordinary. That's what Nelson does, though with faint gleam in his eye that could be delight or malice, depending on how you look at the character and the story. That's the most unsettling and effective way to play it, and the best way to keep the viewer off-balance while the filmmakers execute one brazenly unrelated flourish after another, from Buster's many spectacular and improbable trick shots to the way he dispatches the glowering Curly Joe (Clancy Brown, in a marvelous one-scene cameo) with a tactic that Daffy Duck or Porky Pig might've have used against Nasty Canasta. This character is a psychopath who thinks he's a good-hearted songbird of the prairie, bringing joy and dispensing justice. He confronts and kills many people in the course of this brief story, always in circumstances where you could mount plausible arguments for his being either innocent or an instigator, the wronged party or the troublemaker who escalates situations while pretending he had nothing to do with their creation. 

It's not a stretch to say that Buster, in a variety of senses, is America, historically, militarily and mythologically, and that you can read his actions depending on your own political or aesthetic sensibility and either condemn or praise him. He's a hilarious and terrifying force of nature, rearranging the world until karma finally catches up with him. Nelson unites it all with his wicked intelligence. Like Buster roaming through a lawless landscape, he provokes while seeming as if he's just looking to make friends and entertain us. (Matt Zoller Seitz)

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Tom in "Leave No Trace"

Although it received heaps of positive reviews at the time of its theatrical release in US, Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” did not receive as much year-end attention as her previous film, “Winter’s Bone.” That is really a shame, considering the remarkable performance from young New Zealander actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. In early scenes, Granik shows us her characters going through a number of daily activities in and around their camp, but we slowly come to sense how closely they have lived together for years. McKenzie effortlessly conveys to us her character’s deep emotional bond with Foster’s character via her natural interactions with him on the screen.   

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McKenzie is also excellent when her character later comes to experience more of the outside world. As her character goes through a series of small but crucial moments, she subtly presents her character’s gradual change and growth, and we are not so surprised by the growing gap between her character and her character’s father, played by Ben Foster. In the end, there comes a sad, inevitable scene where their characters have to make a choice respectively, and McKenzie deftly handles her character’s conflicting emotions while steadily supported by Foster. The result is one of the most poignant moments I have seen this year. McKenzie has already worked with David Michôd and Taika Waititi, and I am surely looking forward to watching more of her considerable talent. (Seongyong Cho)

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger in "Black Panther"

For the first half of the film, he coasts as an assistant to Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue. Then, he takes over the film as one of the most fierce, complex villains of any of movie of the genre. Erik Killmonger is the Frankenstein monster created by the United States, first through the Slave Trade and its legacy, then formed from his Wakandan family with his father’s killing, and then reshaped through our modern war industry as a super soldier. He compensates for the global abandonment of people of color, of African Americans, and of his young self, with focused, unstoppable rage. 

Jordan’s disposition has a strength and comfort that he inserts into each of the characters he plays. Killmonger’s fury becomes even more frightening. His snark even more biting. While many could play T’Challa, there is no other actor who could play Erik. Others would have reduced Killmonger to a schizophrenic supervillain. Jordan merges all of Killmonger’s sides into one humanity, as he does in his ending.

In Killmonger’s final scene, he looks out at the sprawling land of Wakanda, commenting in tears “It’s beautiful” like a child fulfilling a long time dream. But, he refuses medical care, opting to be thrown into the seas with his ancestors “that jumped from the ships ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” At his core, he is a little boy longing to see a beautiful sunset, longing for a home, longing for family, longing for reunion with his murdered father. He is the child of our Michael Brown, our Trayvon Martin, our Tamir Rice, our Sandra Bland, our Oscar Grant. Yet, he would rather die alone than live robbed any further of dignity. (Omer Mozaffar)

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John Huston as Jake Hannaford in "The Other Side of the Wind"

Within "The Other Side of the Wind"'s circus-like production, orchestrated by Orson Welles, John Huston represents the “high striker”—the strength tester, the strongman. As Jake Hannaford, the iconic actor-director punctuates each mini-monologue with good ol’ boy machismo, tinged with a bit of sexual innuendo. Is he playing himself? Is he playing his version of Welles? 

Without any context about Welles’ infamous mockumentary (aimed directly at Hollywood and pretentious cinematic figures), and without viewing Netflix’s fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary "They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead," one might view Huston’s performance as a reflection of outdated Golden Age posturing. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine Hannaford saying, "Step right up! Test your strength! "Who are the men out of the boys?" 

But just as Welles satirizes Ernest Hemingway’s bravado with the Hannaford character model, Huston channels the writer’s “Iceberg Theory,” allowing him to project all the recognizable traits of an overconfident Hollywood figure while keeping details beneath the surface. The film’s first act establishes Peter Bogdanovich’s Brooks Otterlake as the comedic foil, a hype man of sorts for the enigmatic Hannaford, who doesn’t make a proper entrance until the 27-minute mark. To be fair, Bogdanovich does indeed steal many scenes, but Welles’ unorthodox directorial approach and changing intentions makes Bogdanovich’s Otterlake the joker to Huston’s King.

And Huston brilliantly balances old school machismo with wink-of-the-eye camp. It’s in the cigar puffs and the verbal cadence; it’s in the domineering stares and performative scene exits. With each spoken word, Huston utilizes every lip muscle; Leonardo da Vinci would be proud. And Welles, along with cinematographer Gary Graver, knows exactly how to light and frame Huston. 

Just as Welles’ subtly jabs Bogdanovich in "The Other Side of the Wind" by satirizing his growing ego and then girlfriend Cybill Shepherd, I’ll reference her "Taxi Driver" character for a description of Huston’s Hannaford: "He's a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.” Long live the Kings. (Quinn Hough)

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