10 Top Performances of 2017

December 22, 2017
A thought by James Berardinelli


Wording matters. Please note that this column offers “10 Top Performances of 2017.” It does not present the “Top 10 Performances of 2017” nor the “Best 10 Performances of 2017.” I’ll leave it to other critics to make those lists. For my part, I simply want to highlight ten performances (without making actor/actress or lead/support distinctions) that have lodged in my memory. Are these the best? I won’t make that claim but I will argue they’re all damn good and worth seeing as examples of what a performer can do when fully committed to a role. This has been, in my opinion, a stronger year for female performances than male ones and the 7/3 split reflects that. Some of these will probably get Oscar nominations. One or two might even win. But there are at least a few offbeat choices that the Academy is guaranteed to ignore and would likely scoff at if mentioned. And Meryl Streep is nowhere to be found. These are presented alphabetically.

Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game: Chastain is a perennial finalist for anyone’s “best actress” lists and Molly’s Game is among her finest films to-date. Not since she danced topless as Salome for Al Pacino has she put this much on the line. Molly’s Game belongs to two people: Chastain and her writer/director, Aaron Sorkin. He feeds her the lines and she delivers them with gusto. She gives us one of the year’s strongest female cinematic figures and, unlike Wonder Woman, her character is real.

Rebecca Hall, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: Okay, so Professor Marston and the Wonder Women wasn’t the greatest film but inside it hides one the most incisive, acerbic performances of the year, delivered with vim and vigor by Rebecca Hall. Whatever you think of the film, it’s almost impossible to think of it and not think of Hall. (For unknown reasons, no screeners of this film were sent out so it’s a lock that 95% of the those who vote for Oscar nominees won’t have seen Hall.)

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water (and Maudie): At the recent PFCC confab where we chose winners, I lobbied hard for Sally Hawkins and she won the honor. She was also the #1 choice on my Critics Choice ballot. Hawkins, like Chastain, is one of the best actors working today. And, although most critics would prefer to forget Chastain’s “secondary” 2017 film (The Zookeeper’s Wife), Hawkins’ “secondary” representation is the very respectable Maudie. Still, I’m “nominating” her for The Shape of Water, where she has to convey tremendous depth and emotion without uttering a word. Silent films stars did this routinely but there hasn’t been a pure silent movie in more than 80 years and Hawkins succeeds with subtlety not big gestures.

Allison Janney, I, Tonya: If Rebecca Hall was acerbic in Professor Marston, what to call Allison Janney in I, Tonya? Vinegar is too sweet. Her character is one of the nastiest screen mothers since Joan Crawford and she plays the role perfectly. So perfectly that we’re tempted to wonder if Janney isn’t quite so nice as we’ve been led to believe. Of course, I joke. This is an amazing transformation and a memorable piece of work.