What a great year for the form of acting. The truth is that there were just too many performances to choose from when it came to our annual look at some of our favorites. Every year, the extended staff of this site is asked to pick a performance that they feel passionately enough to write about. This should in no way be taken as a comprehensive list of the X "best" performances of the year.
We love Jeffrey Wright in "American Fiction," Emma Stone in "Poor Things," Paul Giamatti in "The Holdovers," and several more turns that seem destined for awards glory. Instead of your standard "best of," this is a broader look at the state of acting in film, a piece that's designed to be a snapshot of where we're at in 2023, placing a few obvious picks alongside ones you may have never considered. Nowhere else will you read an appreciation of Jigsaw next to one of Ken, but that's 2023.
It's also worth noting that we limit ourselves to one performance per film to allow the love to flow across more of our favorite art. Come back next week for a look at some of our favorite cinematography, costume design, and more, but just feel the love for these 21 turns first.
Erika Alexander as Coraline in “American Fiction”
Writer/director Cord Jefferson got some pushback on the casting for Coraline in “American Fiction.” She is a public defender who becomes romantically involved with the story’s lead, a college professor named Monk, played by 58-year-old Jeffrey Wright. The casting suggestions Jefferson got were all much younger women. But he said he needed someone “formidable … somebody who had her own strength, had her own life, and had her own interests to play off of and still be warm so that it felt like Monk was up against an actual person and an actual woman who had her own strength and derived her own power from her own life.”
He had been a fan of Erika Alexander since watching her in “Living Single” when he was a kid, but he said it was seeing her as herself in interviews that convinced him she had to play Coraline. This story of a professor whose satiric take on a vernacular memoir by a gangster takes some wild swings, and Coraline is the character who keeps the heightened tone grounded. One of the most significant lines in the film is her explanation of her role as a public defender. She knows her clients may be guilty of crimes, but, she says, “Nobody is as bad as their worst day.” Alexander’s warmth and sure sense of who she is engage us immediately, as they do Monk. She shows us that Coraline’s combination of kindness and moral clarity are the heart of the film. - Nell Minow
In a scene halfway through "BlackBerry," when a Bell Atlantic exec (Saul Rubinek) tells BlackBerry Co-CEO Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) he's been taken for a ride by some nerds, his eyes glaze over with the fear of seeming foolish. Once Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) enters to prove otherwise, Howerton remains silent, his eyes scanning the room, reading everyone's reactions to his partner's innovative prowess. Once he's again reassured of their soon-to-be success, there's a flash of pride, then a glance towards Lazaridis, a rare moment of mutual admiration.
The power-hungry, ethically murky Balsillie could easily have been played solely for laughs, a surface-level caricature of capitalist greed and arrogant mania, but Juilliard-trained Howerton brings a psychological depth and visceral physicality to the role, every choice purposefully calibrated to ramp up dramatic tension, while somehow remaining utterly hilarious. Balsillie is a man who thinks he's always a few steps ahead of everyone else, his eyes always searching, brow furrowed, jaws clenched, a myriad of perpetual internal calculations running through his mind. Much has been made of his volcanic tirades ("I'm from Waterloo! Where the vampires hang out!" is definitely in the running for best line delivery of the year), but Howerton knows that character is not just found in dialogue; it's also found in silence. Director Matt Johnson often films him in medium and close-up, buttressing Howerton's exquisite nuance in those moments, enabling him, as in the scene above, to speak volumes without ever uttering a word. - Marya E. Gates
It’s hard to say precisely what put Teyana Taylor on the map. Some may remember her feature on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” in 2007, but most might associate her with breaking the internet via her iconic dance performance in Kanye West’s music video for “Fade.” She also had a famously contentious relationship with her record label, and after her third album, retired from music. And while all of these lines on her resume have a legacy in their own right, I’m confident that it’s A.V. Rockwell’s “A Thousand and One” that will skyrocket Taylor’s career from here.
The film follows Inez (Teyana Taylor), who kidnaps her son from foster care after a stint in Rikers Island. It takes place over the course of more than ten years, as their relationship develops through all its pushes and pulls: moments of incredible closeness and devastating betrayals. Documenting a constantly changing city and a mother-son relationship that has to navigate not only socio-political instability, but also a fugitive-like paranoia, “A Thousand and One” requires a lot from Taylor as the glue that holds it all together.
Her unshakeable fierceness binds together the carefully crafted intimacy of the script. Taylor juggles every emotion possible throughout the film’s run time: through moments of resilience, care, and dejection, she never falters. Yet even as she carries the weight of the world on her back, Taylor’s tenderness always makes clear that that it isn’t for herself. Inez is living for her son, and even in hold-your-breath moments of tension, when the words coming out of her mouth cut through the air, the softness in her eyes never escapes. As Inez ages through the film, Taylor adapts, still holding dear to the essence of the character while maneuvering the ways that her son’s older age, and her own, require new levels of honesty. Taking place in her native Harlem, Taylor moves through the film with a soul-shaking turbulence that solidifies that despite what you know her for, she’s completely at home on screen. - Peyton Robinson
Wes Anderson introduced film audiences to Jason Schwartzman in 1998’s “Rushmore,” in which he played a precocious but in crucial respects, underachieving private school student who proves to have a wildly inappropriate aim in love. At first, we don’t understand just what it is about Max, who’s initially shown as tidily smug but at least a little charming, drives the school’s dean practically to catatonia. As the film goes on we find out. Schwartzman’s portrayal of a genuine enfant terrible who is finally able to earn a measure of grace was indelible, and for many years, his performances in subsequent films seemed haunted by his work in Anderson’s film. That is to say, he went on mostly to play characters you could describe using the old Alice Cooper song “Eighteen:” “I’m a boy and I’m a man.”
In Anderson’s entirely splendid “Asteroid City,” in the role of Augie Steenbeck, a grieving widower who’s loathe to inform his three children that their mom has died, Schwartzman sheds the callowness of his screen persona definitively while amping up vulnerability. Steenbeck is a war photographer, a fact he announces with an affected matter-of-factness that doesn’t entirely disguise some macho pomposity. While the pipe Steenbeck stoically smokes is appropriate to the Eisenhower period in which the film is set, it’s a little silly, because even he seems to understand it's a prop—the tracks of his tears remain entirely visible.
Steenbeck likes to give the impression that he’s got everything under control, and he never really loses his cool overtly, but he’s clearly a lost and helpless man. He finds something of a lifeline via Scarlett Johansson’s equally at sea movie star Midge Campbell; the wary way the two banter with each other, making little inquisitive digs into the other’s damaged psyche, is postmodern screwball comedy at its finest and most poignant. As with every other role in the movie, Schwartzman’s role is a dual one: he also plays the actor Jones Hall, who seduces playwright Edward Norton at a home invasion cum audition, and ultimately delivers the movie’s most crucial line: “I still don’t understand the play.” - Glenn Kenny
For years, Tobin Bell’s voice was that of rusty barbed wire wrapped around wrists, of discarded hypodermics and broken glass under foot, of your own blood boiling in the vein. In "Saw X," it became something wholly different … a warm hug from an old friend. Yes, after roughly two decades and countless disembowelments in the name of a hysterically hollow moral equivalence, editor/director Kevin Greutert took a risk that we happy gore hounds in the audience might have begun to view Bell’s John Kramer not as a deathless devil, but a trickster god in the body of a kindly old man.
Greutert treats Kramer’s sadism alternately as an impulse not unlike a man making a grocery list and adding the Heath Bar his dentist told him can’t have any more out of impish self-regard (“Hey, don’t I deserve to live a little?”) or a dad catching his son smoking weed and winking as he looks the other way. "Saw X" is the first "Saw" movie to trade in outright comedy and Bell is more than up to the task of walking that particular electrified tight rope. His weathered looks fly more in the face of his body count than usual and Bell all but looks to camera and shrugs, knowing we have bought into the silly illusion, and soldiers on to deliver his next magnificent monologue. A more fun culture would include him in Oscar buzz, in valediction for a life of thanklessly adding character to movies great and small if nothing else. Still, we got "Saw X," in which we are invited at long last to applaud psychopathic John Kramer literally riding off into the sunset. That’s fun enough. - Scout Tafoya
Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”
A storm is brewing within 11-year-old Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) as she sits in bed, riddled with nerves about what she’s intending on mentioning to her mother. “I want to get a bra!” she suddenly exclaims, the words leaping from her mouth as if eager to evaporate as quickly as they materialized. This is one of many moments in Fortson’s performance—my favorite of 2023—that brought down the house in Kelly Fremon Craig’s masterful Judy Blume adaptation, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”, with its relatable, richly textured humanity. The perfect beat she takes between her motor-mouthed prayer of jealousy and her grave punctuation of “Amen,” not to mention the speed with which she hurls Tic-Tacs onto a box of sanitary napkins if only to ease the awkwardness caused by an excruciatingly slow grocery store conveyor belt, are marvels of timing informed by the performer’s vivid understanding of her character’s inner life.
Yet what truly makes Fortson’s performance a great one is her refusal to overplay a single note of Margaret’s emotional journey as she navigates the minefield of pre-adolescent angst and spiritual bewilderment. Her one-way conversations with God have a grounded, natural flow to them, and when I interviewed Fortson, she told me, “I think what Margaret is really looking for is a friend, someone to talk to, instead of trying to label herself as a member of a specific religion.” The weariness that registers on her face and in her voice as she grows disillusioned with the very concept of God is devastating, and like the equally riveting Peggy Ann Garner in 1945’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” it’s only in the privacy of a bathroom where she can finally let her pent-up tears flow. It all culminates in the film’s soul-cleansing final shot sublimely lensed by Tim Ives, a close-up of Margaret as she exudes newfound relief, gratitude and perhaps even faith, which she has found entirely on her own terms. What Fortson delivers here is a cinematic gift for the ages that will continue to keep on giving for generations to come. - Matt Fagerholm
Talk about understanding the assignment. In fact, Jamie Foxx always understands the assignment. An actor who can work equally in comedy, drama, or action, he legitimately feels like one of the few multi-talented Movie Stars we have left. And he's having an absolute blast in Juel Taylor's fun Netflix sci-fi/comedy as Slick Charles, but it's not just the infectious hilarity that this performance sometimes strikes. It's how he adds layers and nuance to a part that other actors might have phoned in and let the costume do the work.
Foxx plays a pimp who has seen a thing or two, but nothing compared to when his buddy Fontaine (a great John Boyega) returns from the dead. Instead of just going with a wide-eyed shock at the events that unfold around him, Foxx imbues Charles with something that's more akin to sadness at learning how much the deck has actually been stacked against him. And then he finds the hero he always had in him. It's such a fun movie that the performances from Boyega, Teyonah Parris, and Foxx haven't been given enough attention. It's one of my favorite casts of the year, and a reminder that Jamie Foxx is a tough performer to copy. - Brian Tallerico
The Cast of Silent Night
John Woo's revenge thriller "Silent Night" is unique in the history of movies. It's not a retro-silent film like "The Artist," "Silent Movie" or the films of Guy Maddin, where the story and characterizations are communicated by wordless emoting plus the occasional printed cards. There are sound effects throughout—ordinary noises as well as gunshots, explosions, squealing tires and other "action movie" noises—and we hear people breathing, crying, and so on. But nobody speaks. Not a word. It's a strange, seemingly arbitrary aesthetic restriction that could prove to be a dealbreaker for some viewers (Why don't they just speak? This makes no sense!). But it's the reason the movie has a unique identity and energy that forces the audience to react to the movie entirely on its own terms. And it places extraordinary demands on the film's cast, which includes Joel Kinnaman and Catalina Sandino Moreno as Brian and Saya Godluck, parents whose only son is killed by a stray bullet during a shootout between members of rival gangs; Harold Torres as Playa, the glowering gang boss responsible for the tragedy, whom Brian, who is remaking himself as a one-man army, targets for death; Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi, as a police detective to whom Brian feeds evidence of Playa's crimes; and the performers cast as gang members, cops, and regular citizens caught up in the melodrama.
What's most extraordinary about all the performances upon rewatch is the way that every performer, including bit players, somehow manages to seem both plausibly human and operatically heightened, like characters in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western who've been transplanted into a modern-day American city and told that they can only act and react but never speak, even when another character is threatening their life or driving a knife into their flesh. When the plot is at its most melodramatically punishing, "Silent Night" wrings its characters out emotionally, twisting them into such tight knots of desperation and anguish that they seem to be on the verge of passing out from the sheer intensity of what they're being asked to feel. Woo and screenwriter Robert Archer Lynn have created a one-of-a-kind film for which there was no precedent for the actors to draw on in designing their performances. To their credit, they seem of that world, as if they were born there, and will die there, possibly sooner than later. - Matt Zoller Seitz
John Wick dispatches countless enemies in four movies, but none are his equal until Donnie Yen’s Caine. Yen provides all the gravitas the character needs to succeed. Even though “John Wick: Chapter 4” acts as the last act for Keanu Reeves’ tired assassin, Yen demands a shared spotlight. Like Wick, Caine has given everything to The High Table and wants to get out to save his daughter. Wick can appreciate that. Yen brought a great breadth of cinematic experience that helped him build the character as he appeared in countless martial arts films and multiple entries in the acclaimed “Ip Man” series. His commitment to martial arts and stunts over the past four decades is as impressive as Reeves.
Given his history, it’d be easy to stick Yen into “John Wick: Chapter 4” and expect that to be enough, but Yen’s Caine goes a step further by channeling the essence of the classic Japanese hero, Zatoichi. The Blind Swordsman is one of Japan’s longest-running film series that features a swordsman whose blindness lulls his enemies into complacency. Similarly, Yen’s hitman utilizes his blindness in many unique ways—carrying over tropes from other blind heroes—his blindness amplifies his other senses but he also has numerous weapons and gadgets to help him conquer his foes. The character of Caine feels lived in and becomes an antagonist that’s difficult to root against. In a series known for its collection of trained assassins, Donnie Yen’s Caine stands above them all as the most memorable. - Max Covill
To say that Ryan Gosling is “Kenough” as Barbie’s de facto love interest would represent an oversimplification of the actor’s luminous and hysterical embodiment of the plastic male doll. It’s the utmost sincerity he imbues into the seemingly preposterous role, rather than a tongue-in-cheek “I’m too cool for this” attitude that someone else might have approached it with, which enshrines this as one of Gosling’s most remarkable performances to date.
It takes an actor with a particular sensibility, a “blonde fragility” if you will, as well as a proven track record in tonally complex comedy, to portray this Ken. There’s an excitable innocence to the performance that makes the sentient toy prone to become dangerously misguided by patriarchal ideas—and his love of horses—in his search for purpose. The trick is that Gosling brilliantly convinces us that even when clad in faux fur and multiple pairs of sunglasses, there’s nothing inherently malicious in Ken’s “villainous” actions.
Instead, there’s heartfelt sorrow in how the actor plays the adrift hunk’s realization that it’s not Barbie’s responsibility to solve his existential troubles, and that he must build the Mojo Dojo Casa House of his self-worth from the ground up, maybe with the help of the other equally lost Kens. Furthermore, when Gosling belts out the lyrics to the comically self-serving power ballad “I’m Just Ken” with a joyful conviction (let’s call it “Kenergy”), he leaves no doubt that here, in fact, he’s definitely a ten. - Carlos Aguilar
Rumor has it that if you search the term "booked and busy" on Google Images, an endless stream of Ayo Edebiri pictures appears. Nobody had a hustler-type summer more than Ayo Edebiri.
In the charming “Theater Camp,” by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, Edebiri shines as Janet, a camp counselor who had fibbed about her theater experience on her resume. Edebiri's past as a teacher adds an extra layer to her interaction with the children, enhancing the film's delightful energy. The same sentiment is also presented in her vocal performance as the career-oriented April O'Neil in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Mutant Mayhem," where she shares a terrific natural camaraderie with her teenage voice actors, portraying the iconic turtle brothers as they do with each other. As if writers modeled April's character in this iteration after Edebiri, she's a relatable underdog committed to her craft and unable to give up on chasing her dreams.
April wasn't her only teenage underdog with a desecrated locker role in cinema this year, Emma Seligman's "Bottoms" sees Edebiri invoking her vast comedic skills alongside co-star/friend Rachel Sennott as a butch, anxiety-riddled lesbian who creates a high school fight club in hopes of hooking up with her cheerleader crush. As Josie, Edebiri reminds audiences that improv is an art form when done by inherently hysterical people. Early into "Bottoms," after fumbling her chances to flirt with her cheerleader crush, Isabel, Josie goes on a long tangent to her reckless best friend PJ, hypothesizing her bleak future as a church wife to another gay student. Edebiri delivers that speech with effortless confidence and conviction, cementing the film's strictly silly tone and a character that will avoid buddy comedy archetypes. You can see Sennott using every fiber of her being not to break on camera.
In one of the best breakthrough years in a generation, Edebiri's natural charisma and sharp, quick wit always made her stand out across every role she played. She's an inspiration for hustlers everywhere. - Rendy Jones
There are two Jeans. There's the public Jean. She teaches physical education at a girls' high school. You can see why she's popular with her students. She's alert ... hyper-alert if you look closely. Then there's Jean after-hours, when she puts on lean, sexy clothes, and goes to hang out at the lesbian bar. There, she's a languid, almost intimidating figure, playing pool, a little aloof from the group dynamic. She's still hyper-alert.
As played by Rosy McEwen in Georgia Oakley's "Blue Jean," the gap between the two Jeans is obviously unlivable. Rightfully terrified of being "outed" and losing her job, due to the homophobic Section 28 legislation banning the "promotion of homosexuality" in schools (and the wider culture), Jean must keep her worlds separate. Her alertness, then, is a survival skill. McEwen's hyper vigilant eyes assess the threat level of seemingly casual events: a family gathering, a conversation in the teachers' room, the sight of a new face at the gay bar. Catastrophe looms.
McEwen's nervy body language, her tightly-coiled posture, her distinctive stride, show a woman performing a self for the outside world. The moments of relaxation with her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) are always threatened by exposure.
It is through a performance like McEwen's that we see and feel the cost of being forced to hide not just a huge part of your life, but who you are. Jean's fears are not irrational. She really is under attack; she really could lose everything. But there are people—like Viv—whose attitude is, "Screw them, I'm gonna be me." Jean can't get there. Until she does.
One of the best acting moments in 2023 is McEwen's, after Jean says the words "I am a lesbian" for the first time to a random stranger. A lifetime of tension deflates in a single moment, and her emotions ambush her. She physically collapses with the disappearance of all that fear, laughing, crying, shivering with the exhilaration of feeling—for the first time—what it is to be one Jean, not two. - Sheila O’Malley
In “Napoleon,” a hilariously snotty portrait of a deluded tyrant (Joaquin Phoenix), inconstant lover and muse Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) has to suggest a lot about the movie’s unstable post-historic reality. Kirby has the unenviable task of indicating, in a short amount of time on-camera, that it was possible to be both seduced and appalled by Napoleon’s oafish swagger and naïve megalomania. She does, and often without saying so aloud. That’s especially impressive in a black comedy that some have received as a one-man showcase for a typically commanding Phoenix.
Kirby provides one of a few keys to the movie’s intentionally uneasy combination of drama and humor. She runs a gamut of compound emotions as Josephine falls for and then (maybe) distant from a self-styled demagogue. Because it’s one thing to watch Phoenix woo a crowd of French soldiers after his exile at Elba, but another thing entirely to see him first conquer and then quickly submit to a wife that he will also very publicly divorce because she supposedly couldn’t bear his children. It’s a pleasure to see Kirby snicker and cry helplessly when her character performs a joint speech announcing her separation from Napoleon.
As Josephine, Kirby points to the elusive truth at the heart of “Napoleon,” namely that history’s great men always sound more ridiculous and tragic when you imagine how their pathological behavior was initially received by everyone they trampled on the way up, especially their loved ones. - Simon Abrams
No longer just the European arthouse’s best-kept secret, Franz Rogowski mesmerized the masses this year in “Passages,” Ira Sachs’ intoxicating and brutal romantic drama. Charting the combustible passions, sexual and emotional, that flare between filmmaker Tomas (Rogowski), his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw), and teacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), three Parisians at turning points in their lives, the film is above all else a showcase for its magnetic young stars—none more than Rogowski, who fully and fearlessly captures the inner cross-currents of pleasure, pain, and confusion at the molten core of Sachs’ ménage à trois.
“Passages” introduces us first to Tomas, a German living in Paris, on the set of one of his films, where he’s directing an actor in English to convey the body language and emotion most organic to someone walking down a set of stairs, anticipating what awaits him at its landing. As the impulsive, insatiable Tomas, who sabotages his marriage not by seducing Agathe after meeting her at a wrap party but by exploring the new relationship further, even as he continues to seek Martin’s affections, Rogowski plays a character in constant pursuit of some elusive personal truth. In that, he’s a force of nature: selfish, spontaneous, incapable of acting otherwise, yet oddly pure and vulnerable in the honesty of his surrender to a forward motion he feels, however destructive, is the essence of his being.
Tomas is slippery and alluring, in the throes of inspiration, beholden to unpredictable desires; his inner fluidity—which Rogowski embodies in gestures, glances, and scenes of intimacy as scorchingly sensual as they are emotionally reckless—is one with the raw creative energy that seems to course through the film’s every scene. Beloved for his collaborations with Christian Petzold, in “Transit” and “Undine,” Rogowski has a background in dance and carries in his lithe frame a seductive kind of presence; Sachs discovered Rogowski in Michael Haneke’s “Happy End,” performing Sia’s “Chandelier” at karaoke in an unbroken two-minute take, violently cartwheeling around and stumbling through the triumphant chorus. In “Passages,” the actor is just as daring and acrobatically poised, not navigating love and lust so much as colliding with these emotions head-on, ever expectant that something real will come of the wreckage. - Isaac Feldberg
Sandra Huller as Hedwig Höss in “The Zone of Interest”
There’s a sad coda at the end of the film “Quo Vadis, Aida,” where the protagonist is at a school concert and she sees the man who murdered her family years earlier, just casually sitting in the crowd and living his life. Sandra Hüller’s performance in “The Zone of Interest” manages to stretch the spine-chilling feeling of that moment into 100 minutes of quiet devastation. Hüller plays Hedwig Höss, the wife of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, and the mostly plotless film sees Hedwig and Rudolf living their idyllic family life just outside of the death camp’s walls. Christian Friedel is frightening as the commandant, but his performance doesn’t even approach the detached monstrosity of his wife, who proudly shows her garden off to visitors as the sounds of genocide waft over the camp walls just a few yards away.
There’s nary a moment in the film where Hedwig conveys real awareness of where she is and why her family is there. Hüller’s other great film this year, “Anatomy of a Fall,” makes pivotal use of her subtle unknowability, but it’s deployed so differently. Hüller’s character in “Anatomy” strives to display her humanity for those who doubt it’s there, while her character in “Zone” never shows the faintest trace of it. And the moment she asks her husband to take her back to a spa they once visited is the purest representation of the “banality of evil” (Hannah Arendt’s description of the Nazis) that I’ve ever seen. - Daniel Joyaux
In Laurel Parmet's debut feature, "The Starling Girl," Eliza Scanlen moves with unrepentant emotion. Scanlen plays Jem Starling, a 17-year-old girl living in a Christian fundamentalist community who begins to reckon with her beliefs and the expectations she's facing when she meets and begins to have an affair with the youth pastor, Owen (Lewis Pullman).
Similar to how she approached her raw performance in "Babyteeth," Scanlen moves with the force of a young woman used to repressing her innermost desires and impulses. Her emotional responses are tumultuous and ugly as she cries out of anger and embarrassment, yearning for the attention of the married Owen. As Jem moves through the film, slowly growing uninhibited by the beliefs of her tight-knit and judgmental community, Scanlen's physicality dominates the screen. Her movements are driven by purpose from the freedom expressed in her dancing, the glee in which she devours sweets, to the assertive way she stands against the other girls in her church group, and the rigid set of her shoulders when she stomps with furious, jealous intent.
It's a fearless performance that embodies both the uncertain nature of a teenage girl and someone who feels with her entire self even if she can't yet reconcile those emotions. As Jem, Scanlen visualizes a woman who has so long been told to make herself small who can’t help her innate instincts to fill up space. - Ally Johnson
Sydney Sweeney as Reality Winner in “Reality”
“Reality” marks an unconventional choice for Gen Z's sweetheart, Sydney Sweeney. This dramatic biopic stands in stark contrast to the fictitious and glamorized roles we've grown accustomed to seeing Sweeney portray. The “Euphoria” starlet is often typecast as just another pretty face; however, this role serves as a poignant reminder of the raw talent that Sweeney possesses. "Reality" finally provides her with the opportunity to spread her wings as a performer. No longer the hyper-feminine blonde bombshell in "Euphoria," Sweeney now embodies Reality Winner, an NSA whistleblower similar to Edward Snowden, leaking information to the media.
Reality isn’t hyper-feminine. Her voice is lower. Her hair isn’t perfectly placed. Her clothes are worn and comfortable. She’s everything that Cassie Howard is not, and Sweeney plays her perfectly. This becomes evident the moment her character encounters FBI agents portrayed by Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis. Their interaction is unsettling and awkward, leaving us as confused and distraught as Reality in that pivotal moment.
What starts as a routine day of commuting home from work quickly transforms into a gripping fight for survival and freedom. Sweeney's physicality in this role is a major standout—every subtle cheek quiver, twitch, blink, sigh, and breath feels deliberate. The real-time film unfolds in a long emotional close-up, and Sweeney propels the narrative forward with each passing moment. The tension finally reaches its peak towards the end of the film when the FBI agents reveal that they are aware Reality released the documents and inquire about her motives. We watch Reality as she unravels at the seams upon learning this information. Observing her, we see her gradually losing all semblance of control as she persistently denies their allegations. She collapses to the floor, her eyes welling up with tears, and her voice trembling. Sweeney's eyes skillfully convey the gravity of the scene, encapsulating the weight of Reality's actions. - Brandon Towns
Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb in “The Holdovers”
The role of the grieving mother has given so many mediocre actresses a chance to pull every melodramatic trick out of their playbook. It's a part that is loaded with obvious crutches and easy emotional manipulation. What's so breathtaking about Da'Vine Joy Randolph's performance in Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers" is how remarkably internal it is. This phenomenal actress discards every simple choice, never once succumbing to melodrama. She understands that people don't express their grief in loud declarations, they do so in silent moments of loss. It's in her eyes, her body language, and her tone instead of in tear-filled speeches. She so deeply understands the life of Mary Lamb, a woman who has no choice but to move forward in a world that's no longer what she wanted it to be. The title of Payne's film refers to the students stuck at a prep school over holiday break, but Mary is stuck too, held over in a reality that rips young men from their mothers.
There's not a single false beat in this performance, but Randolph's mastery of her craft really comes through in the party scene. When we are in lengthy emotional states, keeping up that facade of normalcy becomes a literal task to maintain. When Mary's defenses are weakened by alcohol and holiday revelry around her at a party, Randolph allows us to see the pain that this woman manages like people manage a disease. The loss of a child is something that's unimaginable for most of us, but Da'Vine Joy Randolph allows us to feel the pain of it in a way that feels more grounded than almost ever before. She doesn't ask for sympathy as much as understanding that there are people out there in every walk of life who are forced to hold their pain. - Brian Tallerico
Hollywood films are no stranger to melodramatic depictions of alcoholic parents, but there is something unique about Shea Whigham’s darkly comic portrayal of an abusive father in “Eileen.” Eschewing the broad strokes approach, Whigham imbues forcibly retired cop Jim Dunlop with a disconcertingly perceptive humanity. Jim drinks daily till he nods off on a chaise lounge in the dark, dank house he shares with his adult daughter Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie). Occasionally, he points his gun at passing schoolchildren; in the middle of the night, he stomps about the neighborhood, ranting and raving.
Whigham’s body language—languid, diffident—conveys the frightening banality of a man who has lost his mind and has no plans to try and find it. His gin-soaked voice dripping with disdain, Jim verbally abuses Eileen, not because she’s a poor caretaker, but because she is the child who stayed; he has far more respect for Eileen’s sister, who is estranged from her father. As Eileen stalks up the stairs he bellows, not entirely unkindly, “Get a life, Eileen!”
The film hints that Jim molested one or both daughters, but Whigham underplays this villainy so profoundly that the audience’s disgust is coupled with pity. After Eileen meets Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), her affect changes, and while Jim may be mentally ill, perpetually plastered, and on the brink of liver failure, he notices the shift. “You’re different these days,” he says, with an air of something resembling approval, his eyes wider and brighter, as he opens a Costco-sized box of beer. “You’re almost interesting.” If only he knew. - Nandini Balial
As kids, there's always one who permeates our young heart and often leaves an open wound, one that begs to be healed with just one more look or one more glance. As much as this describes the premise of "Past Lives," it can also describe the pinpoint precision to which Greta Lee thrives in the creation of Nora. Lee’s nuanced and transformative performance sears the soul and shatters the heart into millions of tiny particles with just one glance into the lens. She effortlessly annihilates each scene she inhabits solo or with leading man Teo Yoo or supporting John Magaro. The final moment between Lee and Yoo left me in an ugly cry, reminiscing about my own lost loves, making time stand still if for only one single moment. That is a definitive earmark of not only great storytelling, but superb acting.
As a woman of color imported into cinema from the Broadway stage, Lee has never succumbed to being stereotypically cast, while thriving in off-kilter characterizations for TV series like "The Morning Show" and "Russian Doll". Greta Lee possesses an inherent beauty and grace that leaps off the screen, enhanced with skill and love for a craft that makes audiences fall in love with her repeatedly as a woman with lived experience not defined by ethnicity. – Carla Renata
“Priscilla,” Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s memoir chronicling her 14-year relationship with Elvis Presley (which began when she herself was only 14) was, at least to these eyes, the best film of 2023 and a good portion of the credit for that goes to Cailee Spaeny and her knockout performance in the title role.
Unlike most biopics of late, what Spaeny (who won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival) does is much more than mere impersonation—she brings such insight and understanding to Priscilla that, despite her undeniable fame, it almost feels as if we are getting to know her for the very first time. Throughout the course of the film, we watch Priscilla evolve, both physically and emotionally, from an ordinary and unformed teenager to a grown woman with the courage and backbone to leave a seemingly storybook existence that has long since curdled into a lavishly appointed nightmare and there is not a single moment during that journey where she is ever less than fully convincing. Throughout her career, Coppola has landed breakthrough performances from any number of young actresses on the rise—Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning—but in the way that she allows us to, perhaps for the first time, get a genuine sense of what the real Priscilla must have experienced and felt during these decidedly unusual times, Spaeny not only equals but surpasses them with a turn that should hopefully supercharge what is already shaping up to be a potentially extraordinary career. - Peter Sobczynski
Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” takes its time to reveal where its heart ultimately lies, in the frame of Lily Gladstone, who is absolutely stunning as an Indigenous woman who finds herself trapped inside a very tricky and dangerous situation thanks to her spineless white husband and his greedy, evil uncle. At first, she simply seems to occupy the space between her two more famous co-stars at first, but her unadorned graceful presence gradually comes to function as the moral center of the story, and it is interesting to observe how her restrained but nuanced performance suggests whatever her character has kept to herself behind her seemingly docile appearance.
Mollie Burkhart clearly sees and knows what is happening to her and her family and people, but Gladstone signifies this awareness through subtle choices instead of broad ones. Somberly but powerfully depicting the growing fear, desperation, and conflict inside her character, Gladstone steadily maintains her low-key acting to the end, and we can only imagine how much Mollie feels bitter and angry when she gives her husband one last chance near the end of the story. When he expectedly disappoints her again, Mollie finally decides that enough is enough, and her following wordless response is as cold and unforgiving as that of Anna Paquin’s character in the last act of Scorsese’s previous film “The Irishman”. In short, this is one of the finest movie performances of this year. - Seongyong Cho