Rewinding 2018 (Part Three): Ten Memorable Performances

December 28, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

In recent years, when asked for a list of top performances, I no longer differentiate between the genders. Splitting the field into “actors” and “actresses” is an antiquated and unnecessary affectation and, if the Academy is serious about equality, a good first move would be to merge the categories. (I’d be open to doubling the number of nominees to compensate for the loss of slots.) That’s not going to happen anytime soon. For my list (which focuses on lead performances), I have arrived at ten names. 2018 hasn’t been the Year of the Great Male Performance – eight of the ten are women. These are presented alphabetically (by last name). I have embedded either a clip or a trailer highlighting the performance in question. (Even in these short snippets, you can get a sense of what impressed me.)

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma: An amazing debut for a non-professional actor, Aparicio’s turn in Roma is one of the reasons the film works as well as it does. Since it’s presented from her perspective, she shoulders a lion’s share of the responsibility and never falters. She is especially good during the “signature” scenes late in the production.

Christian Bale, Vice: Great acting or a near-perfect imitation? Does it make a difference? When it comes to abusing his body in service to a performance, no living actor is more dedicated than Bale and he does it again here, effectively becoming Dick Cheney. It’s just too bad the movie isn’t better…

Olivia Colman, The Favourite: This isn’t the first time Colman has played a queen but it’s her best turn as one. One of the U.K.’s best character actors, she shines here with a performance that requires a dose of wit to go along with a dollop of poignancy. The blend is perfect and the result is beguiling.

Viola Davis, Widows: Many “serious” lists of Oscar contenders are ignoring Davis. Perhaps that’s because she won a couple of years ago or perhaps it’s because she gave this performance in a genre (heist) film. Overlooking her, however, is a mistake – this is of the most arresting and forceful examples of acting from 2018. And she hasn’t been entirely dismissed. The Philadelphia Film Critics Circle gave her the Best Lead Actress citation.

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade: Some ceremonies are pointing to Elsie Fisher’s flawless turn in Eighth Grade as worthy of a “best newcomer” award but, in my opinion, she’s good enough to deserve recognition in the major leagues. She’s no less creditable than Colman, Davis, Bale, and Kidman. Just because she’s young and doesn’t have a long list of titles on her resume doesn’t diminish what she has accomplished here.

Ben Foster, Leave No Trace: Foster is the second (and last) male to make this list. In a year when men have frequently been upstaged by special effects, Foster had made his mark in this quiet, deeply introspective drama. He is in the process of putting together an impressive resume (comprised primarily of small, indie titles) and, now that Sam Rockwell has graduated to a more visible status, Foster could replace him as one of the most reliable and versatile talents in the industry.

Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born: When discussing Lady Gaga’s turn in A Star Is Born, virtually every write-up is going to say something that includes a version of the caveat “…for a singer.” Regardless of her experience (or lack thereof), this dramatically solid performance gives the movie the emotional core it needs to work. She is hands-down the best thing about this remake.

Nicole Kidman, Destroyer: Destroyer isn’t a Top 10 movie (or, for that matter, a Top 20 movie) but Kidman is nothing short of riveting. Undergoing a Bale-like transformation, she becomes a gaunt, ugly woman whose physical appearance is a manifestation of the state of her soul. There are other reasons to see Destroyer other than Kidman but she is the main draw and this is the best she’s been in years.

Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Melissa McCarthy could easily appear on both a “best of” and “worst of” list for the year (the latter for Life of the Party). In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she gives up trying too hard to be funny. She gets in touch with her dramatic self. She doesn’t mug for the camera. She doesn’t do pratfalls or funny faces. She acts and the result is stunning.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Leave No Trace: I could make similar statements about Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as those I made about Elsie Fisher. She and Ben Foster combine to make Leave No Trace a remarkable experience; it wouldn’t be the same without either of them. In a year when there have been numerous strong performances by under-20 actors, hers is one of the most natural and compelling. Comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (from the same director) are warranted.

Tomorrow: Wrapping up the 2018 Year in Review with the annual Top 10.