The annual rite of best-of-the-year list-making puts me on edge, I feel my head buzzing with agitation as I write this. These lists are feverishly scrutinized and then typically forgotten in far less time than it took to compile them. To make matters worse, this year was a remarkably tepid one for film. So few movies shook me to my core, leaving me with that delirious feeling that comes after sitting in awe of greatness on screen. I want to be thrilled intellectually, moved emotionally, spoken to spiritually, and while whole movies failed to do that with regularity this year, I can’t deny that a number of performances rose above their respective stories. So instead of ranking the movies that managed to leave me feeling something other than cold, I’m reassessing the individual performances that electrified me and, if even just for a moment, the films in which they are set.
So, how am I measuring a performance? I am looking at an actor’s physicality, their ability to add layers of meaning to their line readings, and their handling of their own beauty toward creating voyeuristic pleasure on screen. Are they crafting an interior life for their character that suggests ideas and sensations beyond the boundaries of the film? Some of my choices hinge upon singular moments of exceptionalism; these performances may not have defined their films, or even led to me caring about the director’s work overall, but they have stayed with me, and challenged me to expand what I’ve seen. These ten performances come from a variety of stories, some of which I loved overall, others I didn’t, but each of these actors did something all great performers should: remind me of the thrills and pains of being alive, especially in a year that felt inert otherwise.
10. Lee Hye-Young, The Novelist’s Film
I have been wondering for a while now what it is about Lee Hye-Young’s performance as Jun-hee that affected me so deeply. Hong Sang-soo’s slim film is built on the quiet clashes of an acclaimed novelist exploring a smaller city outside the metropolis of Seoul. As the film witnesses her at bookstores or conversing over food and alcohol, we come to learn of her desire to make a short film; the spark that engenders her admission comes from bumping into Kim Min-hee’s Gil-soo, an acclaimed actress. But it’s an argument that blooms between Jun-hee and a filmmaker acquaintance, Hyo-jin (Kwon Hae-hyo) — whom Jun-hee considers creatively bankrupt, choosing riches over artistic achievement — that has stuck with me the most. In the argument, Lee appears unbending. When she speaks to Kil-soo, she leans in and her eyes go soft with passion. She lends Jun-hee a cool-eyed grace that underscores her hard-won artistic life, but it’s in studying Lee’s posture that I most marveled at her force as a performer. Her assured movements offer an image of curiosity — of an older woman brimming with life and goals, who is propelled forward by the energy of her own personality — that I have been yearning for on screen. The result is both mundane and profound, much like an artist’s life.
9. Park Hae-il, Decision to Leave
In the beginning of Decision to Leave, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is a married detective whose latest case involves a climber who may or may not have accidentally fell from a cliff and died. When the deceased man’s wife, a Chinese immigrant to Busan named Seo-rae (a luminous Tang Wei), who works as a caregiver for the elderly, comes into the picture as a suspect, I realize my love for Park Chan-wook as a director. He’s a maestro at lacing together the profane and the heavenly, the manipulations that wreck lives and the urges they’re born from. But Decision to Leave leans into a humor that tonally and stylistically distracts from rather than builds the world he’s trying to pull us into, until the last half of the film, when the performances brought me immense pleasure, particularly during its wild, gutting ending.
It’s hard to separate why Park’s performance works so well without looking at Wei’s, but Park makes my list for the way he plays with lust and longing, and allows each to break his character. What can I say? I love to watch a man completely undone by love. Director Park details the mind of his detective, how his obsession grows and soon hollows out his existence, leading him to lose so much of what once defined his life. But it is actor Park’s ability to play this consuming obsession with humanity that adds layers of intrigue. Consider for a moment his eyes, defined by utter devastation as Seo-rae holds him through a revelation about his feelings and a crucial turn in the case. Study his screams, reaching toward the dying light of the sky in the final act, as he searches for what will never be found. Where Seo-rae is slippery, Hae-join feels solid. Until he isn’t. Until all that’s left of him is raw neediness that will never be sated due to Seo-rae’s machinations, which began as a means of survival then became something else entirely.
8. Taylor Russell, Bones and All
Together, filmmaker Luca Guadagnino and his muse, actor Timothée Chalamet, spark a mixed reaction in me. But I found myself charmed by their latest collaboration, Bones and All, for who takes hold of the spotlight with soft strength and refuses to cede it? Taylor Russell. She first caught my attention on red carpets this year, particularly at the BFI London Film Festival wearing Schiaparelli couture — a champagne corset, a sharp black boater hat, a cropped black jacket with grape appliqués, a skirt draped delicately on her hips. On the red carpet she carries herself with a keen understanding of light and angles and her body’s contours. I wondered, Can she carry the energy she brings to the red carpet all the way to the big screen?
Watching Bones and All, I realized the answer was “yes.” But she does so in ways I wasn’t expecting. She plays Maren, a teenage girl who happens to have a compulsion for eating human flesh, leading her and her former protector and father (André Holland) to move around under assumed last names. In the wake of her father’s departure, Maren finds herself mired by the forces of other cannibals, whether it’s the ever-present Sully (a creepy as hell Mark Rylance) or the young man she falls in love and travels with, Lee (Chalamet). Her chemistry with Chalamet isn’t the consuming, heated kind. Instead, it has all the trepidations and safety concerns that mark a romance between the young and deeply traumatized. Russell creates a picture of a girl adrift, searching for answers for who she is and how she became that way. After tracking down her grandmother, she’s finally found her mother, Janelle (Chloë Sevigny), who is a cannibal too, albeit one who has committed herself to a state-run facility and eaten off her own hands. Maren gets answers, but not the kind she’s wanted to find her entire life. In this scene — one of, if not the best in the film — Russell’s sweet face travels from pining to cognizance to outright fear, and just like that, Russell cements herself as a star in the making.
7. Jake Gyllenhaal, Ambulance
To understand the register of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in Michael Bay’s relatively focused, outright propulsive action flick Ambulance, one must understand what cocaine can do to a personality. As I wrote at the top of my review, “Ambulance, the latest from director Michael Bay, is a film powered by the jittery force of will and blissful confidence that comes with doing cocaine. Lots of cocaine. If you told me that before every swooning shot setup or bombastic line reading from co-lead Jake Gyllenhaal, people on set dived into mountains of cocaine, I would thoroughly and utterly believe you.” Bay introduces Gyllenhaal, who plays a dashingly unhinged career criminal named Danny Sharp, with a total understanding of Gyllenhaal’s impact as a star: a garage door flutters upward, light glints on the pavement, and we are finally met with his visage. He slowly takes off his sunglasses, spouts some curse words (but charmingly), and embraces Yahya Abdul-Mateen’s Will Sharp.
This is a film that requires a willingness to look ridiculous, a boisterous bravado, and sincerity (given the harsh upbringing Danny and Will had as brothers). Gyllenhaal delivers a swagger of a man who is used to sizing others up for his own gains. There’s a ragged eroticism within this performance, born of the allure that comes with a star willing to play with their own image. But what led to Gyllenhaal’s performance rooting itself in my mind is a single line reading, spoken after Eiza González’s kidnapped EMT tries to escape from her ambulance ride from hell by using a fire extinguisher. Covered in a film of white, Gyllenhaal, machine gun cocked in one hand and a scowl etched in his face, screams pointedly, “It’s cashmere!” It would be all too easy for an actor to get swallowed up in Bay’s trademark bombast, but with this single line reading — straddling the line of unhinged hilarity, as if he’s a high school mean girl whose outfit has been marred — Gyllenhaal easily exceeds what the film requires of him.
6. Lashana Lynch, The Woman King
The Woman King is a film both thrilling (for its action) and frustrating (for the history about Western Africa and slavery it fails to properly thread). But Lashana Lynch is such a force I didn’t give a damn what else was going on when she was onscreen. Her character Izogie is powered by fierce energy and a touch of sensuality that comes from a bad bitch knowing her worth. She reminds me of one of Martin Scorsese’s blonde dames, like Sharon Stone in Casino: eye-catching, electrifyingly charming forces of nature who only cede attention when they want to. Most importantly there’s something about how Scorsese’s blondes and Lynch in The Woman King wear clothing; they’re weaponizing femininity.
The way Lynch’s Izogie weaponizes her femininity has bloody results. In the opening battle sequence of the film alongside her Dahomey warrior sistren, Izogie moves differently than anyone else around her. She looks at a man who cuts her back with the aggrieved annoyance of a human being swatting away a gnat. Later she subdues this combatant while straddling him, and plunges her sharpened talon-like nails into his eyes. Her movements are swift, precise, elegant. While other characters fight primarily out of duty or pain or trauma — or fueled by a mix of all three — Izogie is powered by the pleasure of battle. Even outside of action sequences, Lynch imbues her physicality with an elegant ferocity and charisma. Early in the film while imparting wisdom on Thuso Mbedu’s yearning, traumatized lead Nawi, her walk has a certain dramatized vitality. She doesn’t so much walk as she strides with the force and sensuality of a woman of undeniable confidence who refuses to take up less space than she deserves.
5. Paul Mescal, Aftersun
I have never wanted to be a parent. I have no strong attachment to my own father or images of father figures. But Aftersun wrecked me. Writer/director Charlotte Wells’s debut concerns Sophie (played as an adult by Celia Rowlson-Hall and as a kid by Frankie Corio) who is reflecting upon a trip she took with her father to Turkey at 11-years old. The film is dotted with scenes of adult Sophie at a strobe-lit club where she’s forever out of reach of Calum (Mescal). But the bulk of the film are Sophie’s memories of this time in Turkey, when she’s just starting to realize the humanity and complications of her parents. In camcorder videos of their time together, we can glean a sort of strain thrumming beneath the story. Calum is a man struggling under the weight of the present. He deeply loves his daughter but he is not who he thought he’d become, and this — being a father at a young age, separate from Sophie’s mother — is clearly not the life he desires to lead. He’s tense over matters financial, like when Sophie loses her expensive scuba mask. He carries around books on Tai Chi, which isn’t a passion so much as a futile way of exorcizing his inner conflicts — conflicts his perceptive child is catching onto. Mescal plays these contradictions with a melancholic hum, bolstered by the comfortable, authentic rapport he builds with Corio.
What struck me in rewatching the film is how Mescal acts so marvelously with his back. In two crucial moments of the film we bear witness to this. In the first, just after Calum and Sophie have checked into their noisy Turkish hotel, Sophie sleeps, her breath bringing a sonic dimension to Calum’s presence on the balcony, where he’s clumsily trying to light a cigarette with his arm in a cast. In his back can be found tension, and then the release that comes from a good, heavy drag. The second instance comes toward the very end, after Sophie rallies some tourists into singing happy birthday to her father. Wells and her editor superimpose two images: as Calum watches the singing from above on some steps, his naked back comes into view. He’s sitting on the bed, alone and naked and crying. His body shakes with regret. His back curls and bends as if it’s an errant question mark. He’s not just overcome with sadness but sick with sorrow. We never see his face in the scene, but we don’t need to. His back tells us everything. After all, great actors use every inch of themselves.
4. Colin Farrell, After Yang
Colin Farrell has arguably had the best year of his career. Maybe you’re drawn to his wicked, unrecognizable turn as Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot in the noir-inflected The Batman; or, perhaps his highly acclaimed turn reuniting with writer/director Martin McDonagh and fellow actor Brendan Gleeson in the Irish period piece The Banshees of Inisherin lights your fire. But it’s his gently evocative work in After Yang that has remained with me most. The futuristic sci-fi film revolves around a family — Jake (Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and their adopted daughter, Mika (a delightful Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) — who are reeling after their A.I. robot, played with startling curiosity by Justin H. Min, malfunctions and effectively shuts down, revealing the fissures within their familial dynamics. For Mika, Yang was a lifeline to her own Chinese culture as well as a friend who had maybe more of a hand in raising her than her parents would like to admit.
What does it mean for an actor to create an interior life for a character? For Farrell that amounts to steadying himself within minute gestures and moments, especially those associated with his job/passion of making and nurturing tea. But what’s especially fascinating about this performance isn’t just the methodical movements therein, or how Farrell stirs together conflicted emotions in his eyes — it’s the fact that no matter his scene partner, and despite being the star of a film, Farrell never sucks up oxygen. He carefully calibrates himself toward his scene partners. About half-way through the film, Jake is in the kitchen when Yang asks him why he’s given his life to tea. The scene that develops is one that on its surface seems simple, but beneath it flows a torrent of questions that have no easy answers. Farrell matches Min’s curiosity with a world-weary softness. Their bodies are open to various degrees, and they move around each other with the natural stillness that comes with living with someone. Farrell moves with particular care in the conversation, as if his words were made of glass. It’s gentle, but it’s capable of piercing the soul.
3. Nina Hoss, Tár
In Tár, Cate Blanchett intentionally sucks up all the oxygen in the room, and in any conversation surrounding Todd Field’s triumphant return to cinema. It’s understandable. Blanchett is in top form crafting an egotistical, exacting conductor-composer named Lydia Tár who seemingly experiences a great downfall in the wake of a former paramour’s suicide, which brings up questions of power, manipulation, and Lydia’s own obsession with refusing to look at the politics of things. Blanchett is clearly building on the cool, powerful characters she’s crafted before. But in watching Tár, while I was enamored with her work, the person I became obsessed with exists in the margins of her volcanic performance: Nina Hoss, playing Lydia’s wife, the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster and talented musician in her own right. When Sharon is introduced she seems tightly wound, with all the anxiety of a champagne cork about to pop off. But as the film progresses Sharon develops into more than just the put-upon wife tolerating the cheating and indiscretions of her “great” partner. Her facial expressions — often in the periphery of the frame, or framed within the frame by instruments — speaks to the prickly dynamics of the story. Sidelong glances, cocked eyebrows, everything brutally drawn with a knowing bent. I’ve always been intrigued by the women behind great artists. They’re often more valuable, more talented, more cunning than their partners are willing to see.
There is a single scene that cinched Hoss’s placement on this list. There’s only twenty minutes left in the film and Lydia’s life is going tits up. “Millennial robots trading in lies,” as Lydia puts it, are feasting on the mistakes of her life, the allegations her former paramour left behind, building into a deep crescendo. Sharon is rightfully pissed, but for reasons Lydia refuses to understand; she’s too wrapped up in her own tumbling career to give a damn about her family. When Lydia returns from a trip, Sharon appears behind her in the dark at home. At the beginning of the scene, as Lydia busies herself getting comfortable at home, trying to brush off Sharon’s prodding and what is clearly the beginning of a breakup, we see Hoss ripe with tension in a white, pinstripe, unstructured button-up shirt and slacks. Arms folded, leaning against the wall, Sharon is the strongest she’s ever been in the film. “There are many things I accept about you. And in the end I’m sure I could get over something like this,” Hoss says with steely conviction, applying each word with a scalpel’s precision.
“What could you possibly do to make things better?” Lydia asks dismissively.
“You are to ask for my fucking counsel, like you always have,” Sharon responds, her voice finally revealing the totality of Sharon’s role in the relationship. “The way you did when you first arrived here as a guest conductor looking for a permanent position.” As Hoss says in a Deadline interview, “Sharon is part of this institution more than Tár. Tár is much more of a guest. But Sharon sits in this institution, she made her way through the German classical music world, she knows it inside out. She knows all the politics and she can make it work. And the drama for this relationship is, I think, that Lydia, at a certain point, thinks Sharon can’t do anything for her, and she doesn’t let her in.” With Sharon, Hoss creates, with much less of the runtime than you’d expect, a portrait of a woman who may work in the shadows but refuses to be pushed into the margins of her own marriage and life.
2. Rebecca Hall, Resurrection
Rebecca Hall has been building an oeuvre of women at extremes in films like The Night House and Christine. Resurrection as a film doesn’t live up to the tremendous force of Hall’s performance abilities, but it gives her ample opportunity to penetrate the viewer. The horror film, of sorts, centers on Margaret (Hall), an exacting professional single mother who controls her life and teenage daughter with an iron grip that blooms into obsessive zeal when an older man, David (Tim Roth), who deeply traumatized and took advantage of her during her youth, ominously reappears. In an eight minute monologue — in which the camera tracks closer to her mercurial face until it occupies the entire frame — Hall distills exactly what happened between Margaret and David to an unsuspecting underling one evening after work. Hall capably sustains our focus and so fully realizes the thorny interiority of her character it’s easy to swallow the arch narrative dynamics powering the script. But her performance is more than just a strong monologue. Within Hall’s body we can see the tension and pain that Margaret walks with everyday. Her eyes growing wild with anger and vengeful desire, her body as tight as a tuned piano string. There are some things you don’t get over. And those are the very things that can be your undoing.
1. Park Ji-Min, Return to Seoul
Representation is often discussed in the narrowest and depthless of ways in criticism and fandom. But there is something to be said about seeing a part of you in an unexpected place, within a character that doesn’t resemble you in race, culture, gender, sexual expression, or even the constitution of your personality, but feels true to your experiences all the same. This is partially why Park Ji-Min lands at the top of my list.
In David Chou’s film, Park Ji-Min plays Freddie, a 25-year old French adoptee who returns to Seoul in search of not just the parents that let her go, but herself. The film and Park’s performance provide no easy balms for the scars parents leave behind on their children, unwittingly and not. Park immediately establishes Freddie as wild to the point of selfishly propelled toward destruction. When her gaze goes sharp or she casts a sideways look, she makes evident the manipulations that will follow. She carries herself with a thirst in every step that she hides with a tough, sexually charged exterior. She’s charismatic to be sure, but it’s a dangerous charisma.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single scene that shows the true artistry of her performance, because Park makes every scene a meal. Is it in the scenes where she stumbles, barely trying to acquaint herself with her father’s family — the boundary of language between them? Is it when she goes to kiss a female friend (not out of lust, so much as distraction) only to be rebuffed, leaving devastation on Park’s face? Is it on a date with an older man where she lets her most devilishly charismatic side rise to the surface, her body in black leather as if she’s not just trying on a new style but a new self? Is it in the quiet ending of the film when all that Freddie is left with is her own ragged self? I knew I was watching the rise of a great actress when Freddie is on screen dancing. In the chaos of the dance floor, Park reveals it isn’t joy Freddie is consciously searching for, but obliteration.
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