SIMPLY THE BEST
The 20 Best Movie Performances of 2017: A Year of Black, Gay, and Trans Excellence
This ain’t no Los Angeles Times cover.
Despite the raging fire that has swept through Hollywood since Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous behavior finally came to light, if you managed to escape to the cinema this year you may have found more hope for Hollywood’s future. As new sexual misconduct cases arise—and our memories flood with the realization that this industry we celebrate so often has victims whose artistry will never be realized because of the iniquitous systems in place to keep their voices quelled—it’s a wonder that anything actually moving, anything with a soul manages to reach the silver screen.
But 2017 flourished with performances that highlighted what it means to to be a gay man, a trans woman, a black woman, an immigrant who specializes in holistic medicine, an HIV-positive activist, a struggling mother or even a fallen Valkyrie. This week, a Los Angeles Times cover celebrating actresses calling for “a change in the way many stories are told” featured only white actresses on the cover: Margot Robbie, Diane Kruger, Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening, Kate Winslet, and Jessica Chastain. When called out on it, Chastain responded, “It’s a sad look that there’s no WOC in this pic of us promoting our female lead films. The industry needs to become more inclusive in its storytelling.”
It’s absolutely true: there’s much work to be done in this industry for more inclusion in front of—and even more, behind—the camera. But we as an industry also need to look beyond the Chastains, the Meryl Streeps, etc. when we celebrate the actors who illuminate our spirits. With that in mind, I found a selection of twenty performances this year that bewitched me, made me cry, made me laugh, made me struggle with my own identity or simply made me want to stand up and cheer.
20. Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Nicole Kidman’s best performance this year was in HBO’s Big Little Lies, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t also deliver in Yorgos Lanthimos’ chilly, terrifying horror film The Killing of a Sacred Deer. We’ve seen Kidman portray a mother desperate to protect her children at any costs, but never has she seemed so broken down, so utterly defeated. Kidman giving a handjob in a hospital parking lot is perhaps the darkest scene she’s ever performed.
19. Hong Chau, Downsizing
Downsizing is a horrific movie and honestly, Hong Chau deserves accolades for acting against Matt Damon in yet another role as a clueless white guy who somehow gets it right in the end. Her performance as a Vietnamese immigrant could’ve been hackneyed and offensive, but Chau brings a sentimentality and humanity to the character that the script doesn’t seem to care about that much.
18. O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Ingrid Goes West
O’Shea Jackson, Jr. can do so much with a smile. In the little-buzzed-about Ingrid Goes West, which admittedly collapses into a bit of a mess in its third act, Jackson is a breath of fresh air among a slew of characters who are absolute psychopaths. A bright spot of 2017 has been the deepening of depictions of black men we see on film, and Jackson’s cool, aloof, Batman-obsessed Venice dweller is the best part of Ingrid.
17. Salma Hayek, Beatriz at Dinner
Salma Hayek is almost unrecognizable as a working class healer who practices holistic medicine in Beatriz at Dinner. It’s some of her most moving and emotional work and it’s a shame that such a strong and confident turn from a frequently stunning actress has been lost amid some of the more flashier performances of the year.
16. Josh O’Connor, God’s Own Country
Taking cues from Brokeback Mountain, Francis Lee’s directorial debut manages to expand on what we think about gay romances. At the center of this deep, character-driven drama is Josh O’Connor depicting a farmer who’s closeted and comes to realize what he needs to sacrifice in order to have love in his life. It’s an incredibly stirring performance in one of many beautiful additions this year to the queer cinema canon.
15. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Get Out is one of the year’s most important films—and one of its best. Years from now, we’ll look back at Jordan Peele’s movie as the beginning of an onslaught of thought-provoking horror films about the black experience in America, and at its center, Daniel Kaluuya holds it all together. Look no further than when Catherine Keener places him in “The Sunken Place,” a scene which requires all of Kaluuya’s skill as an actor as he performs against a CGI backdrop. It’s thrilling and unlike anything that’s ever been put on film before.
14. Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread
Where the hell did Vicky Krieps come from? Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t usually great at female roles, but there’s something about Krieps in Phantom Thread that makes you want to inhale her intoxicating performance.
13. Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
I’m hopeful that The Big Sick will usher in a new era of romantic comedies that depict their lovers like real human beings. Even more refreshing than Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani’s realistic romantic journey is Holly Hunter’s performance as Kazan’s mother. Often, the secondary characters in rom-coms—and especially parents—turn into ridiculous caricatures but Hunter’s character feels real and lived-in. It should be remembered as one of her finest performances.
12. Kelvin Harrison Jr., It Comes at Night
Amidst the fervor for Get Out this year, not much attention has been paid to another black horror film: It Comes at Night. The post-apocalyptic saga manages to be horrifying and thought-provoking all at once and Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s quiet, intimate performance is one we rarely see afforded to young black men on film.
11. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Despite finding Three Billboards nauseatingly tone-deaf when it comes to its depiction of race, there’s no denying Frances McDormand is a force of nature in this film. An actress of that caliber is expected to rise above the material, but it’d be nice if the material put as much into McDormand’s character as she put into the film.
10. Tessa Thompson, Thor: Ragnarok
There’s so much to love about Taika Waititi’s take on the Thor mythos, but the addition of Valkyrie—and casting her with Tessa Thompson—made it that much more magnificent. Thompson’s beer-swilling, joke-cracking, punch-throwing Valkyrie is the best part of the film. When she puts on her Valkyrie swag at the film’s conclusion and sashays down Bifröst, Asgard’s rainbow bridge, you’ll stand up and cheer and demand we get a solo Valkyrie film immediately.
9. Michelle Williams, All the Money in the World
It’s been years since Michelle Williams found a melodrama like Brokeback Mountain to truly sink her teeth into. In a perfect world, Douglas Sirk would still be alive to cast her as the lead in one of his lush dramas (or Todd Haynes would find a better way to serve her talents than he did in Wonderstruck). All the Money in the World is a magnificent drama, dizzying caper, and taut thriller but at the center of it lies Williams, who drives it forward with verve.
8. Timothée Chamalet, Call Me By Your Name
As much as Michael Stuhlbarg may be the MVP of Call Me By Your Name, the film doesn’t work without Timothée Chamalet’s performance. He absolutely lives in Elio’s body and carries the vivid Italian fantasy from the first frame to the last, which is a fucking knockout of a shot. In my review of the film, the description of Elio could double as a description of how Chamalet seduces the audience. His seduction is in his movements: how he wriggles his hips like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, or Madonna in their early ’80s videos, how he keeps his bedroom door open at night to let the moonlight suggest his intentions, how he darts around Oliver’s body during conversations like an archaeologist examining an unearthed statue.
7. Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Laurie Metcalf’s best performance is obviously Debbie Salt in Scream 2, but seeing as how it went woefully unrecognized by the Academy, here’s hoping they celebrate her nuanced and emotional turn as the mother of a rebellious teenager in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.
6. James Franco, The Disaster Artist
I disliked I, Tonya, which felt tonally all over the place and at the end managed to make its subject a punchline. On the other hand, The Disaster Artist avoids those pitfalls by finding the humor in The Room director Tommy Wiseau’s absurd personality while also peeling that persona away to examine the human underneath. James Franco has never been better.
5. Daniela Vega, A Fantastic Woman
If Daniela Vega makes history as the first transgender woman to be nominated for the Academy Award nominee for Best Actress, it will be wholly earned. Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s portrait of a trans woman who loses her partner and fights for the right to mourn him succeeds thanks to Vega’s bold and confident performance. More than a film that depicts the difficulty of asserting your trans identity in this world, it also shows a trans woman’s journey to finding her voice as an artist and leads to a beautiful, stirring conclusion. Vega is an actress we deserve more of.
4. Betty Gabriel, Get Out
In a year where black women have been celebrated for showing up at the ballot box to save America’s slide into moral corruption, there should be much more attention paid to Betty Gabriel’s stirring performance in Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out. Depicting a black woman trapped in her own mind and held prisoner by white captors, there’s no character that resonates more when it comes to the erasure of black women’s voices in America—and the industry at large—than Gabriel’s, and her performance is truly the most unsettling of the film’s barrage of horrors. Naturally, she’s the one who tries to save Daniel Kaluuya’s character Chris Washington. Leave it to black women to try and save the day, as usual.
3. Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
Michael Stuhlbarg has been one of my favorite actors since A Serious Man, but for most of the runtime of Call Me By Your Name you might feel like he’s being underutilized. No, that’s just because director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory were saving his skills until you weren’t prepared for Stuhlbarg to utterly devastate you. Much has been said about Stuhlbarg’s monologue at the conclusion of this gorgeous romance, but it’s probably all understatement. Not since Viola Davis in Doubt has a master done so much with so little.
2. Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip
To describe how shocking it was that Tiffany Haddish didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in Girls Trip is to be rendered speechless. Haddish’s performance was self-assured and infectious and the main reason Girls Trip was the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year. Thankfully, Haddish herself is just as endearing, and America seems to have fallen in love with her. There’ll be more performances from Haddish in the future, but now that we know how magnificent she is, there’ll probably be none as surprising and lightning-in-the-bottle as this.
1. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) sadly didn’t make the shortlist for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming 2018 Academy Awards, which is why I will spend every chance I get next year championing the best film I saw this year. This French drama captures the story of Paris’ ACT UP activists fighting for recognition from the government in the 1990s, but it’s not just a film about how devastating the AIDS crisis was and is, it’s a film about what it means to truly crave life. Biscayart’s lively performance as passionate activist Sean Dalmazo, whose body begins to fail him, embodies this year perfectly. Despite his condition, he never stops fighting for others and for his own life. Take for instance a poignant backlit scene in a hospital room, when Biscayart’s character is given a handjob by his boyfriend. It’s a beautiful scene where Biscayart, even as a disease ravages his body, is still given a chance to experience the humanity in sexual intimacy. What a stunning thing to behold, and just one reason why Biscayart gives the most beautiful performance I saw all year.