A list of the ten best performances of 2018 needs to begin with a disclaimer: It might have had 50, even 100 names, and still not done justice to the breadth and daring of acting in 2018. This is not an accident but a happy outgrowth (there are a few) of so many studios going nearly full time into the “universe” or “franchise” business. Actors in the other 1,000 or so movies that opened in the U.S. this year — in tiny budgeted indies or modestly budgeted features (made with U.S. and non-U.S. money) from companies like Annapurna or Killer Films — have permission (if not a mandate) to go where they’ve never gone before. Which changes the stakes. You can feel the joy in their work as well as the cost, insofar as most great acting exacts an emotional price. I give a lot of credit to two major stars not on this list: Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman. Whatever my reservations about their work in, respectively, Destroyer and Vox Lux, they’re putting themselves out there in ways that used to give ulcers to play-it-safe agents and managers, and their decisions mean a lot to actors coming up. With the old-style star system in tatters, this is the kind of work that reminds performers why they wanted to do this peculiar thing in the first place.
One further note: I begged my editors to let the three central actresses in The Favourite count as one choice and to declare a tie between the unheralded Rupert Everett and much-heralded Christian Bale in the heavy make-up biopic category won last year by Gary Oldman. I also felt that, say, declaring a tie between Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn in Private Life would be fair since their scenes are all together, and ditto Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace. Then I could make Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette co-winners for elevating the horror genre with their deeply moving portraits of traumatized people in Halloween and Hereditary. In such a way, I hoped that my editors would miss that my 10 Best List actually contained 20 actors. But my editors were on to me. And so, ten:
10. Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Lady Gaga gets the pedestal in Cooper’s remake (the third) of the 1937 weeper, a Cinderella tale in which Cinderella then gets to watch her Prince Charming fall apart. But even behind a beard, a squint, and Sam Elliott’s voice, it’s Cooper who dominates, evoking the manic exhilaration, the helplessness, and the terror of an addict-celebrity whose home base is the high wire.
9. Christian Bale, Vice
Twisty-mouthed, rasping, Bale is an uncanny Dick Cheney — he could maybe even fool Cheney’s daughters. We watch his hair fall out, his jowls deepen, his head sink into his large torso; and we see him go from a man entranced by the powerful to one who wears his power so frighteningly that you understand why the person he accidentally shot in the face would make a public apology to Cheney. Once or twice, Bale suggests that there’s a soul inside this morally blinkered authoritarian monster. But what comes through most forcefully is Cheney the Edifice, barely permeable, and in many way with its mysteries intact.
8. Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
As an ingenuous young woman en route via wagon train to California, where her overbearing brother plans to marry her to a rich older man, Kazan is lightly stylized, her voice just a little breathier, her eyes a little rounder than realism dictates. Her heightened style fits beautifully inside Joel and Ethan Coen’s purposefully stilted Old West with its recognizable archetypes and adds something more: the kind of raw emotion that this cold but brilliant film needs.
7. Rupert Everett, The Happy Prince
As Oscar Wilde in this story of the dramatist’s excruciating final, post-prison years in France, Everett (who also directed) has been affixed with jowls and a pointy nose, but after a millisecond you stop seeing the prosthetics and register a great man whose face is incapable of handling the weight of his terrible fall. Everett’s Wilde looks mercilessly brutalized — and yet still capable of supreme sexual self-indulgence. Given the supremeness of the self that Everett creates, it’s hard to pass judgment on him, only to fear for his physical and emotional safety. But then, he was Wilde.
6. Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther
Has any Marvel supervillain been this charismatic? Jordan’s Erik Killmonger wants nothing less than a full-scale, global race war, and his riveting purity and vaulting life force evoke Shakespeare’s Hotspur. If Chadwick Boseman had any less stature as the African king T’Challa, Jordan would blow him off the screen; as it stands, the pair are a good match. They embody the tension between politicians who preach gradual, peaceful change and those who favor violent rebellion — the MLK and Malcolm X of the Marvel universe.
5. Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
As the 13-year-old Kayla, Fisher records her YouTube episodes at a rapid, even desperate pace, as if to keep people from turning her off — glancing down from time to time at a paper, saying “like” a lot, wanting everyone to know that although people think she’s quiet she’s really “funny and cool and talkative,” and that the message she wants to share is how important it is not to “change yourself to impress someone else.” In nearly every frame of the film, Fisher gives the impression of a young girl who has been thrown into the middle of a movie without a script and forced to improvise while tremulously keeping her head above the surface. Which is how almost everyone feels in eighth grade.
4. Lakeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You
A huge star in the making, Stanfield plays a business opportunist with just the right amount of wariness and hesitation — hilariously evidenced when the character’s white employers insist that he must know how to rap. (He doesn’t, but his attempt to sound like a gangsta rapper brings down the house.) The center of a madcap fantasy, he gives a straight-man performance with a marvelously farcical swing.
3. Carey Mulligan, Wildlife
It’s the screen performance we’ve been waiting for from this always first-rate stage actress. In Paul Dano’s superb 1960’s drama based on a Richard Ford novel, Mulligan plays a mother who’s forced back to work when her husband enlists in a firefighting brigade. First, she’s a well-coiffed ’50s-style homemaker — it’s as if the character is playing a part. Then, as the character becomes unglued, Mulligan executes hairpin emotional turns that leave you agog — and unnerved. When her character is drunk and dancing seductively before her horrified son (Ed Oxenbould) and smugly lecherous employer (Bill Camp), Mulligan lets you feel the inner chaos, the mixture of abandon and self-disgust. She’s amazing.
2. Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
As the engine of this delicious Machiavellian war of wills, Weisz is a technical virtuoso with a fierce emotional purity: Without breaking tempo, her Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough goes from crisp condescension to icy malevolence to heartbreaking bewilderment. And how she wears clothes! You’ll envy the jacket, breeches and plumed hat she wears shooting pigeons — and then wheeling on Emma Stone’s Abigail, barrel high.
1. Olivia Colman, The Favourite
As the gouty, early 18th-century Queen Anne, she’s all childlike discombobulation as well as a ripe target for the predations of both Rachel Weisz — as her best friend, lover, and the head of the royal household — and Emma Stone as a young lady in waiting who’s increasingly crafty behind a mask of blue-eyed guilelessness. All three make beautiful, barbed-wire music together, but it’s Colman who gives the film its tipsy center, pushed to and fro by warring Tories and Whigs and her own hapless emotional and physical needs. A widely admired actress, it’s time Olivia Colman was suitably worshiped.