The 10 Best Performances of 2017

As is my New Year’s tradition, let’s ring it in with a celebration of the finest performances from the previous 365 days.

On Boxing Day, after failing to gain admittance to The Greatest Showman at my local cinema due to people not doing their goddamn jobs – it was a VUE, and it’s shit like this that makes me a loyal Cineworld-er despite the nearest being 45 minutes and £3 bridge toll away – I scrambled over to Failed Critics to input my end-of-year nonsense before their polls closed, since I’d been waiting until I saw Greatest Showman to lock it all in (Boxing Day releases are still 2017 releases).  I’d already prepped my Top 10 Films through pre-Showman drafting (that turned out to be for naught), I already knew my Bottom 3 Films by heart (that’s coming along on Friday), and the other categories merely involved adapting various aspects of my lists through various filters.  Performances, however, was something I mindlessly threw together with the deadline looming, because I started thinking but quickly realised that I’d have to, like, put actual effort in to find my genuine favouritest performances of the year because there were SO GODDAMN MANY!

The unranked list you’ll see in this here article, therefore, was the result of a good 40 minutes of deliberations; a full, awkwardly-split side of my notepad; and an initial shortlist of about 45 individual performances painfully culled down to just 10.  Some performances I highlighted in entries for my Top 20 Films are only Honourable Mentions, only one performance from each film is allowed for variety’s sake, and there’s an even gender split despite the fact that I could have made full lists solely using either.  Ah, what a year for Film this indeed was.  Honourable Mentions, then, before we get going proper:

Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), Jon Hamm (Baby Driver), Dafne Keen (Logan), Jason Mitchell (Mudbound), Allison Williams (Get Out), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), Tessa Thompson and Cate Blanchett (Thor: Ragnarok), Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth), Kurt Russell (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2), Anne Heche and Sandra Oh (Catfight).

Andy Serkis as Caesar (War for the Planet of the Apes)

There are a tonne of people who will want to start shit over how much one can consider a digitally-aided motion-capture-based performance to be “acting,” and all of those people are so wrong that they probably also believe that the Earth is flat or something equally as dumb.  Caesar has been Andy Serkis’ finest role in a career so filled with iconic performances that it honestly starts to look a little greedy, and in the finale to the trilogy he rises to career-best heights.  It’s a performance of enrapturing physicality and pained intensity, vital for a film all about the battle for his soul in the face of an equally-forceful cult of personality, and even before WETA start doing their magic on the facial expressions (although they too are mo-capped), you can still tell so much about the loss and conflict raging within Caesar just from the heavy and tired way that Serkis speaks.  If anybody wants to start those long-overdue conversations about Serkis being one of his generation’s finest actors, this is the performance that they should point to.

Tiffany Haddish as Dina (Girls Trip)

Want to witness the textbook definition of a breakout performance?  Put on Girls Trip and watch Tiffany Haddish ascend to stardom in real time.  I was aware of Haddish from her appearances on @midnight (R.I.P) and the underappreciated Keanu, and even I was blown the fuck away by just how much she goes for it here, committing so completely to every single line, scene, action, anything that the film throws at her.  It’s just a full-bore, charisma-filled, charm offensive of the highest order, an actress determined to steal the film at any cost, whether that be from calling Stewart’s whole bloodline “nasty,” to the complete brushing off she displays over getting fired, to the infamous grapefruiting demonstration…  Haddish gets more iconic comedy sequences here than most actors do in their entire careers.  What’s best about it, though, is that her performance is also perfectly representative of Girls Trip as a whole, so it’s the rare break-out performance that encapsulates the film rather than overshadowing it.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington (Get Out)

Daniel Kaluuya should be in serious awards consideration for the “I am so fucking done with all of this” face he pulls during much of the closing 15 minutes of Get Out alone.  I’m serious.  It’s difficult to talk about in detail because this is one of the few articles during this series where I don’t get into spoilers, but a good percentage of why that finale is so satisfying comes from the way Kaluuya pitches his performance.  He’s spent so much of the movie being unnerved, suspicious, full-on terrified, and being confronted with his worst fears as a Black man, that his tranquil “fuck all of this shit” during the finale is a thousand times more befitting than any amount of desperate scrambling screaming would be.  Chris, and Kaluuya thanks to his performance, is equal parts his own character and an audience surrogate, and the way that the two intersect with each other is just one of the many reasons why Get Out became one of the crowdpleasing zeitgeist films of the year.

Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson (A Quiet Passion)

A lot of actors and filmmakers do a very poor job of communicating depression in film, largely because creating an accurate portrayal of the illness (and especially one as paradoxically universal yet personal as depression is) involves a willingness to make a character who can, at times, be genuinely unlikeable to be around, and lots of actors and filmmakers bristle at the prospect.  Fortunately, Terence Davies and Cynthia Nixon are more than willing to dive completely into those less-savoury aspects, and the results are a revelation for Nixon.  Her Dickinson is one possessed of a rapier wit that she is not the slightest bit hesitant to weaponise against everybody, regardless of whether or not they deserve it, including herself.  Racked with deep-rooted self-loathing over her appearance, her standing as a woman in Civil War America, and how her personality drives away most everybody else, Nixon demonstrates in splendid detail just how completely depression can overtake somebody, to the point where they can’t even fantasise of a life better than the one they currently have because they are genuinely incapable of doing so.  She’s not always pleasant to watch, but she’s always fascinating and, for those who can relate, always sympathetic.

Jason Sudeikis as Oscar (Colossal)

OK, this one is DEFINITELY near-impossible to talk in any particular detail about, given the nature of Colossal and my pre-stated belief that you should go and see it blind without having assholes like myself give the game away.  As vague as possible: Sudeikis is a full-on revelation in Colossal.  Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99 was on my initial shortlist for his, quote my-own, “career-redefining” work there, but that came from the film drawing attention to a fact about him you typically overlook and realise that he is incredible as.  What Sudeikis does in Colossal is, on paper, the archetypal Jason Sudeikis character you’ve seen in films like Sleeping with Other People, Mother’s Day, and (to a lesser-extent) Drinking Buddies, except that he twists and heightens certain little aspects of that character so that, when Colossal unveils its true game-plan, he turns out to be exactly what was needed to make that shift work.  He never overplays anything, not even after the reveal, and the results are low-key the finest work of his career and one of the most memorable characters of the year.  Who knew he had this in him?

Seriously, watch Colossal already.

Ellie Kendrick as Clover (The Levelling)

Similar to Cynthia Nixon, Ellie Kendrick is wholly unconcerned with the concept of “likeability” in The Levelling, only with what feels emotionally true.  The Levelling is a difficult, gruelling, raw depiction of grief in the wake of a suicide, and Kendrick’s performance is right there every step of the way.  Clover is having to process a cacophony of conflicting emotions – grief at the loss of her brother, shame and guilt over the thought that she might have been able to prevent it, anger at her father for transgressions both old and new, defeat at the sight of what’s happened to the family farm whilst she was away, and so much more – and constantly on the verge of falling apart.  But Kendrick herself is always in control of those contradictions.  It’s a brutal performance that goes to some incredibly difficult places but never rings anything less than honest, and it’s one that I was able to find a lot to relate to given recent events in my own life.  A commanding turn.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi)

Adam Driver is currently on the kind of hot streak that makes careers, and also makes one a teensy bit jealous of just how much talent one man has.  Over the past twelve months alone: he’s returned as Kylo Ren, given a funny and soulful supporting turn in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, and (if you stretch it back to Christmas 2016) stolen Martin Scorsese’s Silence out from everybody else.  But, for me, it’s his shockingly layered Kylo Ren that’s stuck with me.  Partly aided by the fact that he’s been saved from J.J. Abrams’ Mystery Box bullshit by Rian Johnson, Driver now gets to demonstrate the fascinating contradictions, nuances, and extremities raging inside of the new Star Wars’ big iconic villain and the results are fascinating to unpack.  I have called The Last Jedi an unofficial adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender – Book 2 and Driver manages to take the Prince Zuko role and branch it off into legitimately surprising new directions, even refusing to ever let you just full-on hate the guy despite everything because he’s just so damn pitiable.

Wu Ke-xi as Lien-Ching (The Road to Mandalay)

Because they were basically all we watched in the East Asian Cinema module I took in University, I have seen a lot of “restrained” performances in “realist” Asian dramas, but Wu Ke-xi is the real deal in Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay.  In a subset of films that tout a realist nature but end up only being frustratingly empty, distant, and artificial, Wu manages to inject some silent humanity into the character of Lien-Ching.  In the way that she carries herself, in the subtle changes in her facial expression or posture, in the noticeable weariness she projects, Wu adds additional character to what could otherwise have been another prop for suffering to happen to.  The slowly-extinguishing hope in her demeanour, coupled with the smidgen of pride buried deep within, and the way that you can tell she is just barely hanging on is all down to her actress, who locates the soul in Lien-Ching and never lets the viewer forget it.  The moment when she finally breaks is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes I saw in all of 2017, and that’s on Wu’s impeccable performance.

Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington Brown (Paddington 2)

My Mum, who has yet to see either of the Paddington movies, likes to complain that they’ve screwed up the character because Ben Whishaw doesn’t sound like the voice she heard in her head whenever she read me the stories at bedtime.  And whilst I have to agree that Whishaw is perhaps completely incapable of sounding dopey, he absolutely nails the other vital part of the character: his well-meaning polite kindness.  Paddington was taught to be polite and courteous no matter what by his Aunt Lucy, and that kind of sincerity flows effortlessly from Whishaw’s vocal performance, which is what gives Paddington so much of its charming power.  But he’s also capable of communicating pure childlike wonderment and surprisingly heartbreaking emotional depth, facets that help make Paddington feel even more like a real character instead of the embodiment of the virtues of kindness.  Never before have I so badly wanted a bear to get his Aunt a pop-up book.  Whishaw may not be the Paddington my Mum hears, but he is absolutely my Paddington.

Aubrey Plaza as Ingrid Thorburn (Ingrid Goes West)

Right, I said that I don’t rank my final 10, but Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid was the best performance I saw in a film this year out of all of them.  Akin to Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, hers is a performance of almost gleeful anti-sociality and awkwardness, although where Gyllenhaal embodied the extreme end point of sociopathy in an unsettlingly understated way, Plaza embodies the extreme end point of crippling loneliness skewed by an unspecified mental disorder in a manner that’s always slightly off-putting but never once veers towards hamminess or demonization.  There’s always something deeply pitiable in Ingrid and, whilst Matt Spicer’s script puts that kernel in there, it’s Plaza who consistently draws it out, never letting Ingrid slip into a cartoon character, never letting her become an object of scorn and ridicule, but also never one that’s fully sympathetic either.  She’s a painfully relatable character in ways that people may not care to admit, and the almost unbearable uncomfortableness of Ingrid Goes West is largely down to Plaza.  It’s her show and she absolutely kills it.

Tomorrow: The obligatory “Is Netflix killing movies” opinion piece.

Callie Petch, never let me down gently.

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