Split Decision: Best Performances of 2018
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
What is your favorite acting performance in a film from 2018?
Oddly, or maybe not, the two best performances I saw this year were by actors playing real people--a journalist and an artist--whose passion for their work drove them to greatness.
The best female performance this year, hands down, was Rosamund Pike's portrayal of the late Marie Colvin in A Private War. Damn, if she doesn't inspire viewers to read about the war zones and the lives of those suffering she wrote about in Syria and elsewhere. Pike's acting here is so astounding that she conveys fear and daring just with Colvin's one good eye when she is stopped at a checkpoint in one intense scene. Her voiceover narration is affecting, too. But this tough woman is most compelling when she's vulnerable. She talks about her PTSD with her photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan). She flirts with a man (Stanley Tucci) who will become her lover. Pike keeps viewers engaged because she reveals Colvin, warts and all, and still maintains enough of a mystery that we can't take our eyes off her. It's fascinating to see how she copes with personal trauma considering her reporting on the suffering women and children. The actress so fully disappears into her role that when I saw the companion film, Under the Wire, a documentary about her photographer, Conroy, I thought Pike was playing Colvin again. Her performance is that spot on. Colvin was always looking for a great story. Pike found a great role in A Private War.
The best male performance I saw this year was Willem Dafoe's astonishing turn as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate. Dafoe looks so much like Vincent that he's perfectly cast--and I'm not bothered by the 60-something actor playing 37. It didn't even occur to me watching the film; I was that mesmerized. Scenes of Dafoe as Van Goh painting and communing with nature were transcendent. Director Julian Schnabel presents Van Gogh as a man whose madness may or may not be part of his genius, and Dafoe incorporates that ambiguity. When he paints a pair of shoes, it's transfixing in the same way I thought Clouzot's Mysteries of Picasso was--I held my breath waiting to see where the next stroke of paint would go on the canvas). Dafoe is great in Van Gogh's head; we understand his thoughts and feelings when he's not saying anything, but then there's a scene where a group of children frustrate him and he reacts all shouty and angry. Dafoe captures it all with tremendous aplomb.
So, truth time. I thought I saw a decent amount of 2018 releases but if my Letterbox diary is to be believed I didn't see much that came out this year. I DID, however, see a lot of old movies on the big screen which seems to have taken up all the free time I had this year to see new stuff. Boo hoo, right? There aren't many performances from what I did see that stand out to me, but I did enjoy the understated work by Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace, the types of performances that never get recognized because of their simplicity. Other than that father/daughter duo, I guess I would go with Blake Lively in A Simple Favor. I never had a strong opinion either way on Lively, but was thoroughly surprised at how she was able to double down on her good looks and deliver a performance that was nuanced in its shrewd sexiness and vulnerability. That was a really fun movie.
There are three or four performances in Widows that I could safely call my favorite of the year, but at 9:25 AM on Monday, December 10, I'm singling out Viola Davis. Ask me later this morning and I might tell you Elizabeth Debicki is better. Maybe if you asked me five minutes after I walked out of the theater, I'd tell you Daniel Kaluuya. Maybe the more I think about the movie, the more I'll be convinced Colin Farrell was the subtle leader of the pack.
But Viola Davis. My god.
Whenever Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts or George Clooney star in a movie now, you see all this mention that these people are Movie Stars. These people have a gravitational pull that's just inherent to them, and that only a few people have ("Fewer every year!" yell people who aren't paying attention). And we can talk about whether that's true, in general or for these specific actors (I don't love Roberts, maybe more for real world things than for her acting choices, and while I appreciate that the older Tom Cruise gets, the more buildings he wants to jump out of, that's all he's done for a decade). But Viola Davis absolutely has the power that only a few others have. Every time she moves, even if she's just sneering at another character, you pay attention. Her work strong ethic means she's in a lot of movies, which means she's in a lot of just-okay movies, and so it's become easy to take her for granted. But when she's putting this much violence and hurt into every word she says, you remember that Viola Davis is a master.
And if we're doing "One Man, One Woman," I'd like to give a shout out to Tim Blake Nelson, for his work in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. During the first short in the anthology, where Nelson stars as the title character, he's so good he tricks you into thinking this isn't the worst Coen bros. film since Burn After Reading.
I am going to go with a tie- McCaul Lombardi in Sollers Point and Logan Marshall Green in Upgrade. I have a soft spot for the sort of understated performance of barely contained masculine pain bubbling up to the surface.
In Sollers Point, Lombardi (the young hunk from Andrea Arnold's American Honey who is all too eager to show off his, um, endowment) plays a young ex-con in Baltimore trying to live his life right, coming up on a year of house arrest, and living with his father (Jim Belushi). Appearing in every scene of the film, Lombardi is reactive and impulsive despite his best efforts to keep on the straight and narrow. Successful reintegration into society after prison counts on the hope that you were ever properly integrated in the first place- throw on that the expectations of local gangs who helped protect you while you were inside, the family and friends who are expecting you to fail, and the people who enable you despite their best attempts not to, well...it gets hard. Lombardi communicates all of this through a mesmerizing performance made up of almost entirely actions. It doesn't hurt that he is extremely likable, and just oozes a kind of working class charisma. It's the rare movie about the down and out that avoids any moralizing, while remaining deeply empathetic.
In Upgrade, Logan Marshall Green continues his mission to not be thought of as a Tom Hardy doppelganger- which is already very much accomplished in my mind. He brings loads and loads of dramatic presence to deeply thematic genre films, like The Invitation, as well as this one. As a grieving widower parapalegic implanted with STEM, a device that controls his physicality and can access his mind functions upon permission, Green turns in what must be the physical acting performance if the year- with his body fighting off attackers despite his mind and face remaining absolutely still, essentially terrified of what he is capable of doing. I hope that Green gets several more opportunities to carry a movie like this one, throughout his career.
I sincerely mean this - my favorite performance in any movie this year is Jake Ryan as Gabe in Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade. It's the most genuine performance by and depiction of a 13 year old boy I've ever seen on screen, and in particular his physicality and use of his hands brought an immense amount of joy to me as a viewer. He is hilarious and charming in the role, displaying a kind of confidence that can only come from the seemingly eternal anxiety of being a teenager. He is so painfully awkward and so acutely aware of it that he ultimately overemphasizes it and somehow comes out the other side as a confident motor mouth. There were many, many great performances in many great movies this year, but Ryan's delightful performance in this movie is what immediately jumped to mind when I read this question, which is a huge compliment in a year that is so full of cinematic excellence.
When it comes to Oscar worthy performances that the Academy would never have the balls to recognize, I've gotta give it to Olivia Colman whose Queen Anne was the highlight of Yorgos Lanthimos' excellent comedy of no manners, The Favourite. As a woman of power during an era when women typically had none, Queen Anne switches from proper to crass to helpless to capable to power-drunk in the blink of an eye. She's a tragic character, but she's also hilarious. When the Queen suffers a horrific stroke (which this viewer believes occurs in conjunction with late stage syphilis) Colman's performance captures mental and physical degradation in a way that puts Eddie Redmayne's Stephen Hawking to shame.
I'll throw one out for the boys too. Duncan Jones' Mute is criminally underrated. It was released earlier this year to reviews ranging from lukewarm to ice cold, but what can I say? I loved it. But even those who don't care for it have to agree that Paul Rudd puts in a hardcore, intense performance that defies his typical good guy persona. In Mute, he plays Cactus Bill, a black market surgeon. He's slimy, pigheaded, and absolutely disgusting to spend time with, but when he shoots the shit with fellow surgeon Duck (Justin Theroux), their chatter is an antagonistic delight. I could watch an entire series based around this scummy duo. In one powerhouse scene, Bill discovers that Duck is into very very young sexual conquests, and with the thoughts of his own young daughter in mind, Bill gives him the business. It's terrifying and cathartic the way the Bill tells Duck that he does not approve. Sure, they can still be friends, but if Duck shows even the slightest inkling of impropriety towards Bill's daughter, Bill makes it very clear that it's the last thing Duck will ever do. Rudd's monologue is downright scary — a tough vibe to conjure when squaring off against a monstrous pedophile.
Ethan Hawke in First Reformed is my favorite performance of the year. There are some other really memorable ones like Jesse Plemons in Game Night, Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade, Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo - but Ethan Hawke really just got the perfect script and found something for him in it. He's incredible.
While Can You Ever Forgive Me? didn’t wow me when I saw it at the Philadelphia Film Festival (it was like the 18th film I saw in a matter of days), it has nonetheless stuck with me since seeing it. And that is certainly directly related to Melissa McCarthy’s performance as Lee Israel. I lament that we don’t get more films about female criminals (shout out to Ocean’s 8 and A Simple Favor, though) and this is one that truly unpacks what it means to actually have a break in your own moral code. As portrayed by McCarthy', Israel is more desperate than Walter White or any number of male anti-heroes, as emotionally and spiritually destitute as she is financially.
Jakob Cedergren is one of the only actors we see in The Guilty. And while it would be easy to overlook the amazing voice acting happening on the other side of the phone, Cedergren still carries the whole film with his face. His performance has a huge range over the course of the film, and we learn tons about who Asger (his character) is as a person.