Saturday, January 6, 2018

Noteworthy Performances of 2017

Of course, there is some fluidity between leading and supporting roles, and between casts and individual performances (but not, at least here, between actors and actresses). That said, here, in chronological order, is what I wrote about some of the especially memorable performances (mostly by women) given in the films of 2017.


"In 'Burning Sands,' special mention should be made of Nafessa Williams as Toya, a sexually self-determining young woman and the sort of strong yet soft female character more movies could use." ... "It's a joy to witness Bill Nighy's performance in 'Their Finest,' which if there were any justice in the world would win the Supporting Actor Oscar. Even if you don't know Nighy by name, you'll probably know him by face. I've been waiting for years for the movie in which his obvious comic talent would finally pay off, and it's arrived. As the vain actor Ambrose Hilliard, unwilling to concede that his career might be on its downslope, Nighy gets big laughs out of almost every line he delivers, and he's got lots of lines. It's a performance so good I found myself shaking my head, sure it would fizzle at some point. It doesn't. The rest of the cast - Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, the insanely appealing Jake Lacy - are competing for crumbs. Nighy's the one." ... "The passable custody drama 'Gifted' is elevated by the nuanced performance of Lindsay Duncan as the young math whiz's less-villainous-than-you-first-think grandmother, who bears her own crushed dreams of mathematical greatness." ... "In Terence Davies' Emily Dickinson biopic 'A Quiet Passion,' Cynthia Nixon gives a nomination-worthy performance as the Belle of Amherst, devoted sister and daughter. From Nixon's work - and the poems selected by Davies - emerges a portrait of a brilliant mind that rarely failed to get in the way of its owner's happiness." ... "Stephane Brize's 19th-century character study 'A Woman's Life' features a deeply felt performance by Judith Chemla as Jeanne, whose youthful marriage to a viscount proves to be a trap from which she struggles all her life to extricate herself." ... "Paolo Virzi's 'Like Crazy' stars Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in a hilarious, nomination-worthy performance as Beatrice, a patient at a laughably 'progressive' mental clinic who claims to be an aristocrat on a first-name basis with the president. Nobody does psychiatric comedies like the Italians." ... "'The Hero' was made as a showpiece for Sam Elliott, but the discovery here is Laura Prepon as his new, much younger girlfriend. When Elliott's on the screen and I'm watching someone else, you know they're commanding, and she is." ... "In "Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,' Zweig is well played by Joseph Hader, whose background in comedy imbues the performance with a Chaplin-esque blend of humor and pathos." ... "Profoundly moving without a hint of the maudlin, Aisling Walsh's 'Maudie' stands on the shoulders of Oscar-worthy performances by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. What a daring part for Hawke to take: there is nothing warm or fuzzy about this manimal, but Hawke maintains his integrity and locates his well-hidden humanity. The film, though, ultimately belongs to Hawkins, who has been very good for a very long time but has finally - God willing - found a vehicle to stardom. Her work here surprises and delights at every turn, bringing out Maud's humor and her indomitable spirit." ... "In the kinetic 'Baby Driver,' Ansel Elgort gives a star-making lead performance that calls to mind a young (and more baby-faced) Tom Cruise." ... "'Girls Trip' announces the arrival of Tiffany Haddish as a major comic talent. Her hypersexual, tell-it-like-it-is Dina takes the movie to the next level." ... "The abductee/fanboy comedy 'Brigsby Bear' mostly sustains its daffy tone on the strength of a guileless lead performance by Kyle Mooney." ... "The French import 'The Midwife' circles the airport a few times too many but ekes out a recommendation for the pleasure of very different performances by a subdued Catherine Frot and a game, mischievous Catherine Deneuve." ... "The talented Linda Cardellini gives a fully committed performance in the otherwise cable-ready comedy 'Austin Found,' as a mother who plots her daughter's kidnapping hoping to become a rich celebrity." ... "A vintage supporting turn by a tightly clenched Holly Hunter is just the bracing tonic the otherwise bland warmedy 'The Big Sick' needs." ... "Austin Abrams as Ben Stiller's piano-prodigy son Troy - already more comfortable in his own skin than Dad - is easily the best, most honest thing about the college-trip warmedy 'Brad's Status.' Like Troy, I wanted to get some distance from Brad and spend time with this smart, sensitive, living, breathing human." ... "Melissa Leo - who was exceptional as a Mitzi Shore type in Showtime's 'I'm Dying Up Here' - remains in good form as the Reverend Mother of an American convent in 'Novitiate.' A climactic scene in which Leo is forced to accept, and apprise her nuns of, radical changes in papal doctrine is not to be missed." ... "The PTSD drama 'Thank You for Your Service' comes to life in the performance of Haley Bennett as Miles Teller's wife Saskia, who tells Mr. I've-Got-This she can handle anything except his silence. A scene in which she stumbles upon his answers to a VA psychological questionnaire is the movie's most memorable." ... "As the curator of a cutting-edge Stockholm modern art museum, stunning newcomer Claes Bang is the center of Ruben Ostlund's deliciously discomfiting satire 'The Square.'" ... "'Lady Bird' stars the always impressive Saoirse Ronan as the titular high-school senior. It's her show - she's in almost every frame - and this gifted actress delivers the powerhouse performance she may have needed to start landing major American leads." ... "As Mila Kunis' hyper-critical mother in the unaccountably funny 'A Bad Moms Christmas,' Christine Baranski gives a nomination-worthy performance that had me applauding during the end credits. A comic tour de force." ... "The woman in Sebastian Lelio's 'A Fantastic Woman' is Marina, a trans woman played by the trans actress Daniela Vega, who appears in virtually every frame and commands the screen. She walks a tightrope throughout, never making Marina a doormat even as she reacts to continual attacks on her dignity with remarkable equanimity and, despite the raw emotions in play, only rarely shows the full force of which she is capable." ... "Timothee Chalamet's huge-star-making lead performance in Luca Guadagnino's poignant and haunting 'Call Me By Your Name' is fifty decibels softer than Gary Oldman's in 'Darkest Hour' yet infinitely truer, more penetrating and more memorable. Chalamet is fascinating to watch. There's a feral quality to him; at any moment you don't know what physical movement he'll make or impulse he'll follow. His Elio is not a movie character waiting for cues to act in scripted ways, but an exquisite young man alive with organically human unpredictability. I also hope Michael Stuhlbarg will receive Supporting Actor consideration as Elio's father, who confides not only his support for Elio's summer romance with his male graduate assistant but envy: 'I never quite had what you had.' It's an almost embarrassingly progressive speech, but as delivered by Stuhlbarg it's exactly what this particular man would say." ... "The ending of 'Wonder Wheel' hits with unexpected force, and the strength of Kate Winslet's performance as Ginny - the beleaguered waitress wife of a Coney Island carousel operator, and a hot mess of hyperacusis and frayed nerves - reveals itself." ... "Together with her first-rate work in 'Maudie,' 'The Shape of Water' marks 2017 as the Year of Sally Hawkins. As the mute cleaning lady Elisa Esposito, Hawkins again demonstrates an unparalleled capacity to convey the deepest of feelings without words, with just those infinitely expressive eyes and that sly, wry brain. We feel not only her empathy for the Amphibian Man, but how she receives what he sees in her." ... "Diane Kruger is the face of grief as a woman whose husband and young son are killed by neo-Nazis, and whose quest for justice takes multiple turns, in 'In the Fade." ... "The great Annette Bening gives her all as late-in-life, cancer-stricken Gloria Grahame, in 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool." ... "The strong if not especially nuanced lead performance of Jessica Chastain centers 'Molly's Game'; it's a good fit for her natural stridency."


"Bill Condon's live-action 'Beauty and the Beast' is impeccably cast. Emma Watson makes a radiant and full-throated Belle, Dan Stevens pulls off the difficult task of bringing genuine human emotion to the Beast, and Luke Evans is sheer perfection as the narcissist Gaston. The part of Le Fou is tailor-made for Josh Gad, and all of his laugh lines scored big with the packed house. Kevin Kline always makes lovely company, here as Belle's father, Maurice. The voices of the fixtures at the Beast's castle have been chosen so thoughtfully: Ian McKellen as Cogsworth (his last line, in the come-to-life epilogue, will have you laughing for days); Ewan McGregor as Lumiere and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette; Audra McDonald an inspired Garderobe and Stanley Tucci as Cadenza; young Nathan Mack as Chip and the nonpareil Emma Thompson a worthy heir to Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts."

"'Chuck' - about Chuck Wepner, the 'Bayonne Bleeder' whose life story Sylvester Stallone mined for the character of Rocky Balboa - is consistently watchable thanks to a superb cast: Liev Schreiber as the ne'er-do-well Chuck; Elisabeth Shue as his put-upon wife, Phyllis; Jim Gaffigan and Michael Rapoport as, respectively, his best friend and brother; Morgan Spector as Sly, who wants to give Chuck a shot in pictures but winces through his coke-fueled audition; and especially an unrecognizable Naomi Watts as Linda, the bartender who sees through all his bullshit from the jump (and ends up the love of his life)."

"David Leitch's 'Atomic Blonde' stars a kick-ass, super-sexy Charlize Theron as MI6 superspy Lorraine Broughton, sent to Berlin to infiltrate an espionage ring and procure a vital information database. James McAvoy - in his best performance in years - is the station chief who alternately helps and hinders her. There's also good work by Sofia Boutella (whose erotic scenes with Theron are only enhanced by the latter's real-life lesbianism), Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, German vet Barbara Sukowa and the redoubtable John Goodman."

"The soulful, feather-light 'Person to Person' features quietly melancholy performances by Abbi Jacobson as a cub reporter and Michael Cera as her metalhead mentor; Tavi Gevinson as a (by her own admission) overly quirky teenager and cute Ben Rosenfield as the boy who's fine with it; Philip Baker Hall as an horologist whose new customer's watch may hold the key to a murder; the adorably hapless and put-upon George Sample III, who engenders as much sympathy as a character can who put pictures of his ex-girlfriend on the Internet; and especially newcomer Bene Coopersmith as a jazz lover with an unwavering moral code."

"The Safdie Brothers' 'Good Time' stars an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson as a hood who enlists his slow younger brother (Benny Safdie) in a botched bank robbery, then tries to break him out of Rikers, eventually plucking the wrong handcuffed guy (Buddy Duress) out of a hospital. The cast, featuring the terrific Barkhad Abdi and Jennifer Jason Leigh in small supporting roles, is uniformly excellent, led by the chameleonic Pattinson, a serious and thoughtful cineaste who's going to be around for a long time."

"Steven Soderbergh's 'Logan Lucky' stars Channing Tatum as a West Virginian miner who plots with his one-armed bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and imprisoned explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The first-rate cast also includes Riley Keough (fast becoming a major talent), Hillary Swank, Katherine Waterston, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, and a delightfully unexpected Dwight Yoakam as the warden who, no matter what goes wrong, insists 'We don't have a _____ (fire, flood, etc.) problem at Monroe.' Driver and Craig have never been more fun onscreen - it's nice to be able to root for Driver for once - and while the dependable Tatum sadly remains fully clothed, I still almost had to excuse myself once or twice."

"'Ingrid Goes West' gives Aubrey Plaza a chance to branch out from the offbeat, eye-rolling drollery she perfected in 'The To-Do List' as Ingrid Thorburn, a disturbed young woman with few friends who heads to Cali to insinuate herself into the lives of Instagram star Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen, much more effective here than in 'Wind River') and her boyfriend Ezra (having-a-moment Wyatt Russell). Plaza delivers the goods with a performance that straddles the edge of psychopathology and sociability, also abetted by cute O'Shea Jackson, Jr. as her L.A. landlord and an effectively annoying Billy Magnussen as Taylor's brother Nicky, who's onto Ingrid's scheme from the start."

"The globetrotting CIA actioner 'American Assassin' stars sexy Dylan O'Brien as black ops recruit Mitch Rapp. Sanaa Lathan lends superb support in the well-developed part of deputy director and Rapp's handler. And Michael Keaton just lets loose as Rapp's antagonistic, off-the-grid trainer Stan Hurley; he has the movie's funniest line, and his grizzled veteran/young hotshot interplay with O'Brien defies cliché."

"Jonathan Dayton's and Valerie Faris' 'Battle of the Sexes' is a triumph of casting at every level that just works from the moment you hear 'Emma Stone as Billie Jean King' and especially 'Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.' The latter perfectly captures the late showman's larger-than-life, anything-for-a-buck hucksterism, and almost every scene with Riggs in it is hilarious. Stone has the more dramatic part - King must not only dispose of this "clown" and his antediluvian chauvinism but come to terms with her nascent lesbianism and the balance between her professional and personal lives - and she's as delightful as ever. Down the line there's Sarah Silverman as WTA matriarch Gladys Heldman, Bill Pullman as the smug sexist Jack Kramer, Alan Cumming as Ted Tinling, Andrea Riseborough as King's hairdresser and love interest and Elisabeth Shue as Riggs' wife. I also want to make note of Australian actress Jessica McNamee, note-perfect as King's rival, the judgmental Margaret Court."

"'Only the Brave,' the story of the elite firefighting crew the Granite Mountain Hotshots, stars Miles Teller as Brendan 'Donut' McDonough, a recovering addict upon whom superintendent Josh Brolin, who has his own skeletons, takes a chance. Teller is proving a reliable lead actor, one with a sufficiently substantial presence as well as the ability to bring nuance and a point of view to a part. Brolin's already there. Jeff Bridges, as usual, makes any movie at least a half-star better, while Jennifer Connelly as Brolin's wife brings defiant dimension to a traditionally supporting role, culminating in a moment of grief not quite like any other I've seen onscreen."

"Martin McDonagh's witty and funny black comedy 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' stars Frances McDormand in a deservedly Oscar-buzzing performance as the bereaved mother of a raped and murdered teenage daughter. She takes out the title ads, calling out the well-liked police chief (Woody Harrelson, showing range) for failing to identify the perpetrator. Mildred Hayes is a foul-mouthed, steel-eyed force of nature with a singleness of purpose, and McDormand's best role since 'Almost Famous.' But the movie ends up belonging almost as much to Sam Rockwell's hapless Officer Dixon, an unreconstructed racist and loose cannon who undergoes a late reckoning that puts him and the movie in a becoming light. Peter Dinklage gets the best and funniest part of his film career, Lucas Hedges continues to deliver on his promise, and a word must be said about Sandy Martin as Dixon's overbearing Momma, a deliciously amoral piece of trailer trash. As Margaret Bowman's waitress was to last year's four-star 'Hell or High Water,' so Sandy Martin is to this richly conceived and filled-in ensemble gem."

"Margot Robbie takes on the role of Tonya Harding - a daring choice - in 'I, Tonya,' and does it proud, with able support from Sebastian Stan as the perfectly named Jeff Gillooly, Allison Janney as the mother from hell, Julianne Nicholson as the coach and Paul Walter Hauser - for whom a supporting nom would not be inconceivable - as the hilariously inept bodyguard and self-labeled 'counterterrorism expert' who set history in motion."

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