At the onset of our 2018 Rewind, we named Tessa Thompson the 2018 Performer of the Year. As is custom, we always choose one performer whose work feels emblematic of the year itself. And while Ms. Thompson was the most obvious and perfect choice for the big prize, there were many passionate cases made for others. To say the least, 2018 was a great year for performances. We’d be doing a disservice to our readers if we didn’t mention a few more…
Jesse Plemons has been a scene stealer for years, but his performance in Game Night just can’t be ignored. When many actors could have chosen to play a character over the top as many do in comedies these days, Plemons’ straight performance only makes his character more hilarious and surprising throughout the movie. His performance as Gary in Game Night should be proof to everyone that Plemons needs to be the focus of films and TV more often, instead of just a supporting player. (Emily Kubincanek)
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I’ll write about it every chance I can get. But while I’ll always sing the praises of the cast, even I had no plans to stump for any of them on the Best Performer list… until the season finale aired. Rob McElhenney’s onscreen performance in “Mac Finds His Pride” is enough to warrant a spot here, but his commitment extends so much further. On top of getting into phenomenal shape and having his iconic terrible tattoos removed (both, presumably, for the visual spectacle of those final five minutes), McElhenney learned how to dance, and to dance well. He trained for seven months and even, near the end, opted to perform in water, an added element that, according to stunningly good and professionally trained dance partner Kylie Shea, makes a scene wildly more difficult. (Vulture did an excellent piece on all the logistics that went into the dance, and it’s really worth reading). But perhaps even more impressive is the creative audacity it takes to pull something like that final scene off. (Maybe showrunning doesn’t fall under the purview of “performing,” but bear with me). Some people come to Always Sunny for the satire. Some come to it for the raucousness. Pretty much everyone comes to laugh. Rob McElhenney decided to blindside all parties with something no one expected: a deadly serious, beautiful, and emotional art piece. And just to raise the stakes higher, he devoted seven months of his life to hard physical training for that one scene… And then he pulled it off. It was far from a given that he would, but he did, and the sheer amount of dedication to an undertaking that’s so uncertain makes for an achievement that’s undeniably impressive and laudable. (Liz Baessler)
How high can a bird count anyway? I have had a fascination with Tom Waits for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure where it comes from. I don’t even love his music (though about once per year I make a concerted effort to do so, for his sake). His role in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, however, as an aging prospector patiently certain he’s going to strike it big, comes the closest I’ve ever seen to expressing this cult of personality I’ve for some reason been in all my life. Buster Scruggs is, technically, a comedy. Netflix says it is, anyway. But so much of its humor comes from our knowing familiarity with the violence of the Old West. We laugh at the weirdness within the violence and misery, and then we trail off when the misery gets to be too much…. except with Tom Waits. The weirdness is still there in his performance, sure. How could it not be? But he also embodies an optimism and a vitality that’s missing from every other scene. All alone (mostly), going through the methodic motions of hope, he’s a joy to watch. Whether that’s a testament to his performance or his character is hard to say… because he simply is his character. When he wanders onscreen, singing in that beautiful, guttural, unmistakable baritone wail, it feels half likely that Tom Waits himself is out meandering in the wilderness, looking for Mr. Pocket. We just stumbled across him while he was going about his business.
Toni Collette’s turn in Hereditary is the kind of character-driven horror spectacle film dorks lose their heads over. And with good reason. Collette plays Annie Graham, a recently bereaved miniaturist coping with the death of her mother while trying to finish an exhibition of dioramas depicting her family and fragile inner state. The emotional gambit Collette traverses is nothing shy of an Olympic event. She is ashamed (and bemused) at her numbness to her mother’s passing. She vibrates with a rage that contorts her face into a wild-eyed mask of indignation and grief. There’s determination too, a strong-armed resolve typical of Collette, that here, feels terrifying in its white-hot precocity. Annie is like an animal caught in a trap: furious, vulnerable, confused, and terrified. Like a 21st century Medea on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Collette nabbed the Best Actress trophy at The Gotham Awards, effectively guaranteeing her an Oscar nomination. We’re rooting for you Toni. (Meg Shields)
Michael B. Jordan
If Tessa Thompson is our Performer of the Year, Michael B. Jordan deserves some sort of anciliary hustle award. Right alongside his Creed II co-star, he was out there delivering through the entire year. Which actually means he had a very busy 2017 — for all we know, he spent 2018 on a well-deserved vacation (he didn’t). And while the aforementioned Creed II is one example of where he delivered another strong performance, it was his work in Black Panther that really bring 2018 home as a great year for Mr. B. Jordan. As Killmonger, he disregarded all the lines between hero and villain, tugging at our heart strings while literally killing a bunch of people. If you’re going to build a great hero, they need a great antagonist. Someone who not only seeks to do harm or seize power, but who tears away at the fabric of who our hero is. Killmonger didn’t make it, but he’s certainly left his mark on a franchise that appears to have larger ambitions in the future. (Neil Miller)
One of 2018’s most mesmerizing performances comes from one of its most criminally underseen films, Madeline’s Madeline. In her first role on film, 20-year-old Helena Howard delivers pure energy and originality as a prodigious high school theatre student in New York City (a role she is able to relate to quite well as a prodigious theatre student born and raised in New York City herself). After her acting coach/mentor Evangeline (Molly Parker) develops a fascination with her life outside the theatre, Madeline becomes the muse for Evangeline’s new experimental project. Incessantly annoyed by her helicopter mom (Miranda July), Madeline gives her whole self to the project, perhaps out of a mixture of spite and genuine professional drive. Writer/director Josephine Decker deserves ample credit for discovering Howard at the Union County Teen Arts Festival in 2014, where she reportedly wept after Howard performed a monologue. Her screenplay gives grounds for Howard to explode onto the scene. It’s an enveloping meta-narrative experience that is truly one of the 21st centuries most compelling and unique, and Howard is its shining star. You’ll probably walk away with equal parts concern and bewilderment, but I can guarantee that you will be glad you witnessed this soon-to-be star’s first groundbreaking performance. (Luke Hicks)
Sakura Ando’s role in Shoplifters as Nabuyo, a level-headed, confident mother of outcasts with a great sense of humor, even greater sense of ethical conviction—regardless of how it pertains to law—and an all-consuming humility does everything a great performance possibly could, and more. I could rant and rave about her ability to bring you to tears and induce sweet contentment in your soul, but there’s something more singular about Ando’s performance in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece. She’s completely given to her character. It doesn’t seem like a performance. It’s real, like you’re watching a documentary and she is the beating heart at its center. She could run a masterclass on subtlety in film. Her every little tick and her ability to emote without putting on a show shines. I left the theatre both times with the urge to find and help her, to start a petition, to do something for this poor mother who faces injustice. Alas, it was not real, just one of 2018’s most unforgettable performances.
Paddington 2 is one of 2018’s best movies, and that is due, in no small part, to the presence of Hugh Grant, who does some of his finest work (no, really) as the villainous washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan. In some ways, the role seems almost made for him. Grant’s reputation has become somewhat tarnished over the years, and the rom-com star that once burned so brightly, much like Phoenix’s, has dimmed somewhat.
In the film, Grant’s Phoenix is a formerly-respected thesp now reduced to opening steam fairs and starring in dog food commercials. Desperate to secure funding for his comeback one-man show, Phoenix discovers the perfect opportunity in an antique pop-up book (which doubles as a treasure map) that the film’s furry hero, Paddington, is planning to buy for his Aunt Lucy. Phoenix uses the myriad of costumes he has stashed in the attic to steal the book and frame Paddington for the crime. That means Grant gets to give not one great performance, but several, all of which are the perfect amount of impressive and over-the-top. It’s clear he’s having the time of his life here, and that energy only serves to elevate an already delightful film. (Abby Olcese)
Emily Blunt’s 2018 consists of a story of two bathtubs. In A Quiet Place, she is a mother trying to survive the extinction of mankind. Of course, her movie husband (played by real life husband John Krasinski) decides that impending doom and harsh quality of life is the perfect time to increase their family by one. Pregnant and terrified, Emily Blunt faces the impossible challenge of giving birth silently in a bathtub and the anguish of stepping barefoot on a nail. A Quiet Place is a vast contrast of her other bathtub sequence.
In Mary Poppins Returns, Blunt’s Mary Poppins uses a bathtub to travel into a beautiful underwater world, complete with a musical number and dolphins. Dolphins make every scene better. A Quiet Place showed the depths of her despair, while Mary Poppins Returns allows Emily Blunt to smile. She’s delightful in the picture, singing and dancing up a storm. One of the highlights includes her performing on a stage during the Royal Doulton Bowl sequence, which sees Poppins, Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda), and the Banks’ children going into a fantasy world. She also exudes that tough nanny demeanor, perfect for putting the Banks’ children in their place. Whether terrified or delighted, Blunt continues to showcase her immense talent in these two features. (Max Covill)
Dakota Johnson is frequently underestimated based on her presence in a wildly successful romantic franchise, as people assume that no serious actor could take on a starring role in such a silly set of films. Yet she has proven herself to be a deeply interesting, electrifying performer. This year she lit up the screen in Fifty Shades Freed (and now she herself is freed from the franchise!), Bad Times at the El Royale, and Luca Guadagnino’s witchy epic Suspiria.
Dakota Johnson is an expert at playing characters who are constantly on the verge of smirking or laughing about a withheld secret. One is never quite sure what she is thinking, and what she knows that we don’t know. Her range is magnificent and on full display in this year’s films: she can go from lighthearted and sweet, to murderously angry, to forcefully seductive. But perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she is lowkey incredibly funny – just watch her laugh in Christian (Jamie Dornan’s) face whenever he is being unreasonable or overly serious, or conspire with her fellow dancers at the Markos Academy in Suspiria. She is, for lack of a better word, bewitching. (Angela Morrison)
If any actor effortlessly stole our hearts this year, it was Noah Centineo. The internet’s new favorite heartthrob made us believe in the power of sappy love again thanks to his undeniably charming roles in this pair of feel-good romantic comedies for Netflix which turned him into an overnight success story. The rom-com experienced a strong resurgence in 2018, and Centineo was its poster boy. It would take a real cynic not to gravitate towards the burgeoning megastar after his turns in those movies as well, and I’m all here for his ascent to future leading man status.
Here’s the thing: Centineo has the “it” factor. The special something that makes an actor stand out from the pacK and attract the interest of the masses for all the right reasons. Maybe his movies don’t appeal to you right now because they’re too corny and sweet. One day, however, he’s going to grow a beard and star in edgier movies you do like. And when that day comes, you’re going to revisit this article and say “Hey, I get it now.” Most of us see that magic right now, though, and we’re counting the days for that To All the Boys sequel to arrive. (Kieran Fisher)
In Netflix phenomenon GLOW’s first season, producer Bash Howard had little screen time compared to most of the gorgeous ladies of wrestling, so it was a surprise this year when he became the character whose each and every scene hit with a resounding emotional impact. This season sees Bash looking for his MIA friend Florian before ultimately learning that he has died of AIDS. This revelation and the moments leading up to it which hint at Bash’s own repressed sexuality are gently but thoroughly heartbreaking, and also some of the best-internalized acting I’ve ever seen. Lowell imbues the character with a dopey sweetness that becomes muted in the face of this crisis, replaced with a sense of guarded grief–for both Florian and the part of himself he hides away. At one point, Bash walks into a bar, and as he realizes it’s actually a gay club, the camera comes back to him again and again. In the span of about fifteen seconds, a half-dozen emotions flitter across his face, from fear to unease to timid excitement. It’s both a near-microscopic private moment and a coming out to the audience, and thanks to Lowell, it’s also unforgettable. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
Thunder Road tells the story of Jim Arnaud, Austin police officer, who’s dealing with a midlife crisis as he loses his wife, access to his daughter, and his belief in his job. We meet Arnaud at his mother’s funeral. As she was a dancer, he’s chosen to honor her by way of an interpretative dance to her favorite song, the titular “Thunder Road”. He fails spectacularly.
From line to line, Cummings found the hinges to believably accommodate Arnaud’s coughing fits of emotional expectorate. It is no easy feat to take a character from despair to laughter, to stone-faced determination and back again in a single scene. Through practically scientific attention to detail in the execution of his scenes, Cummings maintains the mania for a feature film. Rather than mockery, Thunder Road becomes a deeply felt representation of the problems with masculinity and the programmed inability of men to process emotion. It is a phenomenal performance in every way. (William Dass)
John Cho has been in the acting game for more than a decade, but often times he has been stuck with supporting roles. This all changed recently after starring in 2017 drama Columbus, in which the 46-year-old actor proved that his acting has aged like fine wine. 2018 was no exception, as his role in the powerful thriller Searching might be his best performance yet. Cho plays the perfect film dad in Searching, with such a nuanced performance you can’t help but think he was made for this role. We are sold on his character just through facial expressions alone, and when he talks you feel the vulnerability in his voice. John Cho is deserving of any award nomination that comes his way for a performance that will move you to your core. (Carl Broughton)