Claire Armstrong in Dim the Fluorescents

One of the year’s best indie movies barely got a release, which unfortunately suits its tale of struggling actresses stuck in the unglamorous field of corporate reenactments. Dim the Fluorescents eyes the friendship and collaboration between the volatile Audrey (Armstrong) and the more grounded Lillian (Naomi Skwarma), who write and perform in dramatic sketches staged in sterile offices in Toronto. The city’s thriving theater scene seems frustratingly out of reach to these dedicated creators, yet, despite the mercenary milieu in which they have found themselves, Audrey and Lillian give their all to these mostly thankless pageants, with Audrey particularly willing to tap deep personal wounds in order to demonstrate to a roomful of bored suits just what might happen if somebody gets into an accident in the workplace. Frequently hilarious and touching at the same time, Armstrong navigates a sprawling script by Miles Barstead and director Daniel Warth. She owns the film from its opening scene, in which she turns a customer service call into a study of pathos and humor that seems fueled by personal demons yet hangs precariously on to a tone that’s both deadpan and hammy. As Audrey loses a tenuous grip on her psyche, Armstrong pushes the corporate envelope ever further until a volcanic closing scene proves that powerful art is wherever you find it—even at your profession’s soul-sucking annual convention. – Pat Padua

Letitia Wright in Black Panther

While Black Panther is transcendent in many ways, particularly as a black answer to both Star Wars and, more immediately, Marvel’s own slate of white male heroes, it is also a rather dour affair. Its main characters spend most of their time frowning, crying, screaming or fighting and the plot is built upon acts of betrayal rather than those of friendship. Which is, of course, to say it is rather standard for a superhero movie.

But when Letitia Wright—a relatively unknown British actress—enters the fray as the Black Panther T’Challa’s baby sister Shuri, Black Panther immediately shifts from a sad bildungsroman to spicy spy film. Wright’s Shuri is not only the smartest person in the room, but also the most fun. And, as a result, she makes the film itself fun.

The most intriguing thing about Wright’s performance is how outwardly easy it seems. By contrast, in Avengers: Infinity War, Shuri simply functions as a plot device. In Black Panther, however, all that the audience knows is that Shuri is a genius and that anyone would kill to be her friend. Her presence is so forceful that when T’Challa is incapacitated in a later portion of the film, audiences were offended by the fact that Shuri didn’t just put on his armor (which she created) herself. Hopefully Marvel will rectify this in the inevitable sequel. – Mike McClelland

Zoe Kazan in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan’s portrayal of Alice Longabaugh in the “The Girl Who Got Rattled” chapter of the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comes down to three elements: posture, voice and the way she deploys her always-expressive eyes. There is very little else for her to do, as she mainly sits at table, walks across the prairie or serves as a bystander to other actors’ actions sequences. Yet, Kazan brings a humanity to Longabaugh and a level of emotional depth that makes the character feel fully-realized even in the abortive, vignette-style film that the Coens have created.

Longabaugh starts as almost a hostage, being dragged across the expanse of the United States by her brother to Oregon so that he can marry her off to cement a business deal. But the brother dies of cholera early in the trip, which puts Alice in a precarious position both in terms of her physical safety but also in regards to her financial future. Kazan plays this insecurity masterfully, coming across as a buttoned-up maiden lacking in knowledge of the world. But, as Longabaugh’s fortunes change—she gets proposed to by the man leading the wagon train—the way the audience reads Kazan’s acting must be revised. She is not an ignorant bumpkin at all, but rather a woman with agency and a sense of purpose and far more worldly wisdom than those innocent doe eyes let on.

When “The Girl Who Got Rattled” reaches its rather shocking climax, just after Longabough is depicted giggling at prairie dogs, it brings Kazan’s performance full circle: she—and the character she has brought to life—was much more in control of her own destiny than the audience would have ever believed. – Ryne Clos

Lady Gaga in A Star is Born

No one should be surprised that the artist formerly known as Stefani Germanotta is not only a capable actress, but a very good one. Before Lady Gaga rebranded herself, she was a theater nerd who studied method acting at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. And, lest we forget, she already nabbed a Golden Globe after launching her pop stardom, for a supporting role in “American Horror Story: Hotel.” So her excellent performance in A Star is Born doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere. And yet, here’s a crucial instance where Lady Gaga can’t be called a Madonna wannabe. Ms. Ciccone is great in so many ways, but as an actress, she’s mediocre at best. Gaga, on the other hand, is a natural.

If Lady Gaga wins the Best Actress Oscar for A Star is Born, it won’t just be for “Shallow,” an instant, show-stopping classic. Her earthy and laidback portrayal of Ally is one for the books. This isn’t a flashy performance. Gaga shines, not as an eventual superstar, but as a conscientious daughter, one who first cleans the kitchen and then rises to greatness. Madonna, eat your heart out. Your rival may surpass you, at least in one dimension, soon enough. – Peter Tabakis

Steven Yeun in Burning

There are no heroes or villains in Lee Chang-dong’s work, only compromised people who exist in insoluble states of moral flux that are steeped in sin. Even so, it’s hard not to be immediately alienated by Ben, the wealthy trust-fund kid who emerges as a romantic rival and frenemy of the protagonist of Burning. Speaking in hyper-formal, non-colloquial Korean, Steven Yeun projects a dispassionate, emotionless vibe as Ben, who doesn’t help matters by chuckling at people who cry or looking at people with a sleepy yet unblinking gaze. Wounded “nice guy” Jong-su immediately casts the man as evil out of spite, yet slowly that judgment comes to seem sound as Ben only ever seems to grow colder and more remote the closer one gets to him. Once female love interest Hae-mi goes missing, Ben’s detachment morphs into seeming sociopathy, his blank disregard for her whereabouts driving Jong-su to madness. Rather than pit Ben as the vile foe of the protagonist, however, Yeun plays the man as more of a catalyst, an object so inert that, in a violation of Newtonian laws, he produces an opposite but vastly unequal reaction in Jong-su, whose own latent resentment and alienation bursts out of him. Burning attacks misogyny from multiple angles, but in Ben’s inscrutable façade is a haunting view of hatred that transcends emotion. – Jake Cole

Steve Coogan in Stan and Ollie

Stan and Ollie tells a tale as old as partnership. Beginning in 1937, the comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy are comfortably riding their peak, but not without some friction. Stan wants to negotiate a big new deal or take the team’s fortunes to another studio. Ollie balks and makes a film where he partners with an elephant, which acts as a metaphor for the size of the schism that erupts between the two comedians. But, 16 years later, circumstances force Laurel and Hardy to reunite, a comeback move that Stan tries to broker into a movie deal.

John C. Reilly plays Ollie and has garnered some award season attention for his transformation into the massive Hardy. An amazing makeup job adds layers of girth to his body, and Reilly plays Ollie as a fairly passive and congenial sort, despite casual addictions to marriage, the ponies, liquor and fatty foods. His physical being embodies his character. He is a careless man who believes his gifts will always be there until his body concedes to its lack of care.

Steve Coogan plays the smaller, thinner Stan Laurel as the obsessive brains behind the duo. He exhibits the work ethic of a man for whom nothing has ever come easy. A quiet rage burns below the surface of his peaceful demeanor. Coogan radiates between love of Ollie, awareness of their mutual need and a repressed fury about his partner’s betrayal. Like his Laurel, Coogan’s performance drives the movie. He is the holder of secrets on the verge of his own betrayal. Like their subjects, Coogan and Reilly form a partnership and it is unfair to separate their performances, but straight men rarely get their due. And, in Stan and Ollie Steve Coogan is a real revelation. – Don Kelly

Toni Collette in Hereditary

Always a dynamic actress, Toni Collette is an absolute force of nature (and of the supernatural) in the trauma-drenched occult horror Hereditary. As Annie, Collette opens the film by eulogizing her character’s mentally ill mother, with whom Annie had a fractured relationship. This alone is a high-wire act of conflicted emotions, but when a far more painful family tragedy rips Annie’s heart out, Collette turns in a spellbinding performance of a woman pulverized by grief, racked with resentment and, eventually, fueled by desperation. Collette deftly plays both skeptic and believer, first while trying to deal with profound loss and then in a frenzied attempt to unravel an increasingly bizarre and malevolent conspiracy. Annie’s pained interactions with her teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), who she ultimately blames for the accident that’s left a gaping hole in their family, and her initial deflection of and then impassioned pleas to her aloof husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), make for gripping drama no matter the genre. But as Hereditary begins to harken to horror classics like Rosemary’s Baby or The Shining, and as all hell (or at least some of its principal players) quite literally breaks loose, Collette embodies both victim and sinister aggressor, tortured soul and hand of Satan. – Josh Goller

Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting

In a year with several deserving performances, both Blindspotting and its star have been mostly forgotten. Daveed Diggs is best known to audiences as the gregarious Lafayette in Hamilton. But since the show’s original cast left, Diggs has been keeping people on their toes with diverse performances in comedy and drama. In Blindspotting, a film he co-wrote, his best work is being showcased and should be garnering awards.

Diggs plays Collin, a convicted felon in the final three days of his probation. He lives in a rapidly changing Oakland that’s suffering the slings and arrows of gentrification. His best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) is hot-headed, though, and threatens to ruin Collin’s final days of freedom.

Diggs is just so compelling as Collin. He’s a man with a history—he has an ex-girlfriend he’s stuck working with, for starters—yet Diggs has Collin grin and bear it. His chemistry with Casal has been described as akin to “Calvin and Hobbes,” which seems apt. He’s the guy trying to hold it together while Miles is constantly one step ahead, leaving Collin holding the bag. The film’s final scene sees Diggs rap and cry in a way that punches you straight in the heart. – Kristen Lopez

Sakura Ando in Shoplifters

A smile. A look. A tear. Regardless of its nature, to see it on Sakura Ando’s face in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is to see it on our own. As Nobuyo Shibata, the unofficial “Mom” to a handmade family of hustlers in contemporary Japan, Ando delivers a performance for the ages. She’s always a thematic mystery, yet we begin to understand her soul more and more as the film progresses. We know she has felt pain and experienced loss. We know she can feel love, and it’s exemplified like a choir of angels when she lays her eyes upon the newest addition to the clan — a young girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) who left behind a broken home. Ando’s expressions are quietly devastating in every on-screen moment, both solo and those shared with the amazing ensemble cast. Her maternal nature— an unyielding need to protect, love and nurture those around her—permeates the character. And as the film progresses into more desperate territory, we see her passion transform into anger and despair. Sitting across a table and answering questions, much like the subjects of Kore-eda’s masterful After Life, Ando aggressively justifies her life decisions and challenges the notion of what it means to be a family. Her performance is heartbreaking, raw, all-around remarkable and one of the year’s best. – Greg Vellante

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

For much of his career, it seemed difficult for Ethan Hawke to shake the boyish, Gen-X slacker heartthrob image he so exemplified in ‘90s flicks like Before Sunrise and Reality Bites. His years-spanning performance in 2014’s Boyhood went a long way to bridging this particular gap, but even as he aged and developed his abilities to express a certain kind of weariness, his face struggled to match his skill. But in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Hawke’s mature visage, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes and the terse way he forces a smile, are finally up to the task at hand. It’s a case of the right man for the right role at exactly the right time.

Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller with the same undeniable intensity Robert DeNiro brought to the similarly-disaffected Schrader protagonist Travis Bickle, but where Bobby D’s taxi driver was a barely-hinged sociopath with delusions of grandeur, Hawke’s clergyman harbors no misconceptions of the world he lives in. If Bickle was a mask painted from Schrader’s youthful alienation and misplaced rage, Toller is a realization of a long life lived and the uncertain future that lies ahead for a potentially doomed civilization. There’s something metatextually stirring about a performer we’ve seen pantomime through various permutations of the same navel gazing, art-house monologues about the state of the world quietly grow into a laconic distillation of regret, the after-picture of a certain kind of failed proselytizing.

As emotionally complex and daring as the film’s plot turns out to be, the magic is all in Hawke’s face, as Schrader’s claustrophobic framing forces us to interrogate every wrinkle in his stoic expression, searching for meaning as his dry and calloused voiceover narration plainly states thoughts Toller tries so hard to mask. – Dom Griffin

Whole Cast in Support the Girls

Focused on the messy juncture between labor and life, Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls gives its mostly-female main cast a heavy task, expressing the daily toll of a specific strain of service work. Perfectly delivering a series of tart two-tiered performances, they communicate the performative exhaustion of long days spent at a family-friendly breastaurant dubbed Double Whammies, where a hands-off, kvetchy owner and troublesome clientele make for constant complications. Any hint of unease at work must of course be glazed over with the bubbly bonhomie required for a restaurant catering to men who want to be coddled and doted upon while they scarf down reheated chicken fingers. Leading the cast is Regina Hall as Lisa, the general manager pinned between both sides, a people person for whom work has seemingly expanded to fill every facet of her day. Haley Lu Richardson bolsters her boss as the irrepressible Maci, a natural extrovert whose affection for the customers may also be pushing it a bit too far. Rapper Junglepussy (aka Shayna McHayle) does strong debut work as the fiery Jennelle, and Lea DeLaria rounds out the cast as Bobo, the lone female regular, who mixes low-key leering with genuine protectiveness, serving as a mascot and bulldog against more aggressive male attention. Representing a roster of women chosen for the way their bodies intersect with an imagined version of their personalities, the ensemble cast does a fantastic job of capturing all aspects of this complicated charade, providing highly physical performances that throb with real emotional resonance. – Jesse Cataldo

Jesse Plemons in Game Night

American cinema doesn’t lack for interesting character actors, but even in a contemporary field crowded with capable performers, Jesse Plemons has carved his own unique path. His versatility is key. He’s leaned into his hayseed, ultra-Texan demeanor when necessary (NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” FX’s “Fargo” and The Master) and subverted it, brilliantly, for more malevolent and sadistic roles (Black Mass, “Breaking Bad” and “USS Callister” episode of “Black Mirror”). In Game Night, he’s somewhere in the middle, utilizing everything in his toolkit and absolutely stealing every scene in which he appears, like all good character actors do. He plays Gary, an always-in-uniform cop who, following a messy divorce, has been ostracized from the title get-together with his former friends. But apparently he’s always been kind of an oddball: monotone, socially awkward and constantly carrying around his little West Highland terrier, Bastian. He’s intimidating but not exactly threatening, and Plemons toes the line nimbly; each line is a masterclass in dry, deadpan delivery. But like any good comedic performance, it’s all in his face, which doesn’t betray a single emotion throughout, remaining fixed in the same semi-dopey, semi-scary look. You never quite know where you stand with Gary, an element that plays beautifully into Game Night’s broader themes of misdirection and disillusion, but with Plemons, you know you’re getting some of the highest caliber acting you can find today. – Drew Hunt

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