These are our favorite film performances of 2017.
The Safdie Brothers’ stressful Good Time is a fine film all its own, a flawed jet propulsion machine built on sweat, neon and nihilism. But as a vehicle for Robert Pattinson’s weaponized charisma, it’s a tremendous display. With every role, the Twilight thespian moves further away from the world of sparkly vampires, growing more confident in his abilities and potent in his screen presence. In Connie Nikas, the preternaturally resourceful hood at the center of Good Time, Pattinson has found the perfect delivery system for the otherworldly It Factor that made him such a heartthrob to begin with.
Connie is an arch manipulator, a small-time criminal who dual wields matinee idol good looks and white privilege to extricate himself from dangerous situation after dangerous situation. The film begins with Connie roping his developmentally challenged younger brother Nick (Ben Safdie, pulling double duty) into robbing a bank in black face, a simple enough crime that lands Nick in jail and Connie on the run trying to hustle enough dough to bail him out. In After Hours style, Connie embarks on a night of being backed into an exponentially fucked series of corners. His scrappy, canine-like desperation is haunting, but in conjunction with his conniving ways, Connie is an underdog who terrifies us more than he elicits sympathy.
There’s a savagery to his grifting that Pattinson bravely keeps from being too likable. Connie is congenial exactly enough to get what he needs but never enough to let the audience forget what he really is. The film leaves him in a spot he can’t sweet talk or con his way out of, but the preceding events provide a strong enough argument that even that difficult fate won’t be enough to hold him down. – Dom Griffin
Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon made The Big Sick one of the most thoughtful and funny romantic comedies in years by mining their autobiography. Right when their dating was getting serious, Emily discovered that Kumail was under pressure from his family to agree to an arranged marriage with a Pakastani bride. Emily is white and ends the relationship. Not long after, she gets sick and placed in a medically induced coma. Kumail acts as her caretaker until Emily’s parents arrive. That’s when the fun begins.
The film is a showcase for Nanjiani, but the great surprise is Ray Romano playing Emily’s father, Terry. Romano obscures his familiar face behind a beard and a pair of glasses, artifice that allows the actor to vanish into character. He plays Terry as a man who is always remembering the things he should have said. He is not cool or quick-witted, just a slightly cowardly everyman. That is not an easy part to play with warmth and without irony, and Romano works diligently to invest Terry with a cluelessness that softens any rough edges.
Onscreen Romano serves as Nanjiani’s straight man, and they feed off each other’s comic timing. But Romano has another partner in Holly Hunter, who plays Terry’s wife, Beth. Hunter is a formidable presence, and Romano stands toe-to-toe with her when they battle over their daughter’s care or over his past infidelity. It’s in this more dramatic dynamic that Romano could have wilted, but he keeps Terry grounded between momentary bursts of courage. He is a man who always concedes, yet will always spin his compromising to something more gallant. Through that sort of benign egotism, Romano endears Terry to us and makes this dorky, middle-aged math teacher shine in a movie full of great comic performances. – Don Kelly
Much of what makes Norman Bates such a compelling cinematic figure is the gentle earnestness that Anthony Perkins brings to the role of a dutiful, if seemingly berated, son, which is then juxtaposed by his disassociation into the frenzied malice of his murderous Mother persona. In Kaleidoscope, Toby Jones’s downcast Carl can’t escape his own manipulative mother (Anne Reid), an overbearing woman with a hint of an incestuous streak, who shows up on his doorstep uninvited and vehemently unwelcome the day after Carl is shown to have committed an unintended murder while in the throes of a mental break. But unlike Norman, Carl’s Oedipal struggle and detachment from reality is something he’s tragically aware of and must confront without the refuge of an alternate personality.
As Kaleidoscope’s timeline fractures and reassembles, characters shapeshift, with Carl’s mother interchanging with Abby (Sinead Matthews), the vulgar woman whom he met online and appears to strangle at his flat after an awkward first date. Jones, like Perkins before him, deftly oscillates along a spectrum from dewy-eyed to sinister. But Carl’s self-awareness drains his worldview into a cynical one. After all, he’s spent much of his adulthood behind bars for an unspecified crime that likely has something to do with his dead father. He doesn’t indulge in a shred of denial, which makes his mental unraveling—just as he’s attempting to open himself up to the remote possibility of joy, or at least a casual human connection—that much more poignant. In borrowing heavily from Hitchcock’s playbook, Kaleidoscope may titillate with mind-bending thrills and a carefully crafted atmosphere of suspense and dread, but the film transcends mimicry of its influences thanks to the mesmerizingly complex performance by Jones in a role that evokes a dynamic mix of intrigue, revulsion and pity. – Josh Goller
Few actors have enjoyed such dynamic, mutable longevity as Jean-Pierre Léaud, who debuted as the sullen 14-year-old Antoine Doinel in 1959’s The 400 Blows. Léaud eventually became perhaps the most consistent public face of the French New Wave, growing up on screen as a dual analogue for Truffaut and later Godard, his jittery energy defining the antic spirit of the movement. Having long since segued into more mature roles, he reaches what’s perhaps the peak of his elder statesman period with his splendid manifestation of Louis XIV, a largely stationary performance whose subtle dynamism is consistently extraordinary. Making the most of his now-aged face, its sunken qualities exaggerated by pallid makeup and a grotesque Spector-ian wig, Léaud conveys the torment of the Sun King’s final days through an increasingly crumpled demeanor, bearing the pain of a hunting injury and its subsequent progression into a fatal bout of gangrene with beleaguered exhaustion. Cloaked in ridiculous finery and swaddled in his massive bed, Louis gradually devolves from the living embodiment of majestic royal power – feted, coddled and protected by all the amassed authority of the state – to a ceremonial sacrifice to the ritual transfer of that command. As his medical case becomes a lost cause, the veteran actor masterfully expresses a growing of awareness of oncoming doom, all while his character still clings to the fading fantasy of his own immortal omnipotence. He transmits the internal effects of that transformation of status with a silent succession of pained whimpers and forlorn glances, steadily turning an insufferable tyrant into a figure of empathy and anguish. All this without ever getting out of bed. – Jesse Cataldo
A sense of inevitability separates a good performance from an iconic one. Any number of A-list actresses could have played Wonder Woman in Patty Jenkins’ sensational superhero origin story. That Gal Gadot – once a relative unknown, despite appearances in the Fast & Furious franchise – is now synonymous with such a legendary character brings to mind the beaming visage of Christopher Reeve, whose Superman will always epitomize the Man of Steel (with all due respect to those who’ve worn the tights, from Henry Cavill on down to Kirk Alyn).
Gadot is such a revelation because she grounds her goddess with a mix of awkwardness and conviction, depending on the context. No man is an equal. But for much of Wonder Woman, Diana exists as a warrior alien, at once an embarrassment in a department store and a natural on the battlefield. It’s a tightrope act Gadot traverses with aplomb, nimbly shifting from screwball comedic situations to grand WWI set pieces. With the crook of an eyebrow, the flash of a million-dollar smile and the delivery of a well-timed bon mot, her Diana is both human and wondrous.
Like Superman, Wonder Woman is a stranger in a strange land. When Gal Gadot finally throws off a woolen cloak, unveils her character’s armor and bounds toward machine gun fire, we witness something extraordinary: the long-overdue representation of a woman starring in a superhero blockbuster, played by an actress whose physical might matches her boundless charisma. – Peter Tabakis
In Split, the spirited horror-thriller from director M. Night Shyamalan, actor James McAvoy plays Kevin, a former victim of child abuse whose painful upbringing has resulted in an extreme (if decidedly unrealistic) case of dissociative identity disorder. More than 20 distinct personas reside within Kevin, crossing boundaries of age, gender and, crucially, morality. The role requires the protean McAvoy to bounce around an array of characters—among them are the good-natured Barry, the nefarious Patricia and Dennis and the precocious child Hedwig—at a moment’s notice, and during one particularly memorable sequence, he manages to do so within the space of a single sentence. The actor’s bald head doubles as a blank canvas: each identity has a distinct and unique presence, right down to the accent, speech pattern and facial tics. To be sure, nothing McAvoy does in the film is subtle. He’s chewing up the scenery at every turn. But that’s precisely what makes the performance so exceedingly indelible. His excitement spills off the screen, and for the first time in what seems like forever, an actor appears to actually be having fun in a Shyamalan movie. Indeed, despite his penchant for fanciful premises, Shyamalan is a detrimentally self-serious filmmaker, and he often directs his actors to grave and brooding performances that don’t exactly gel with his comic book sensibilities. McAvoy, with his busy gesticulations and unbridled approach, completely embraces the kind of madcap energy that the director has spent his entire career resisting. By indulging the actor at nearly every turn, Shyamalan takes a much-needed step forward in his often-maligned career. – Drew Hunt