For the last several years, we have asked the writers of RogerEbert.com to pick a great performance to write about every December. It doesn’t have to be the best performance, but one that they consider great enough to have something to say about it. The submissions typically range from the performers who might take home Oscars to those who may not be getting as much as attention as they deserve. Just pick one performance to write about and do so. We limited the entire piece to one performance per film, so the feature below is in no way comprehensive. And it excludes some performances most critics on this list probably love like Kristen Stewart in “Spencer,” Ariana DeBose in “West Side Story,” and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” and “Licorice Pizza.” What you’ll find are nearly two dozen performances that represent the range of great performances in 2021. There are legends like Nicolas Cage and Olivia Colman next to rising talents like Mike Faist and Taylour Paige. There’s even a pop legend. It’s a feature we love here not only because of how much it shows the range of cinema but the taste of our talented contributors who write about it. Enjoy. Note: the list below is presented alphabetically.
At the center of Nicole Riegel’s “Holler” stands a performance so authentically raw and revelatory as to elevate one of the year’s most vital debuts even further: that of Jessica Barden, whose Ruth carries with her the weight of her impoverished Rust Belt hometown and the hope she, in ways invisible even to her, is struggling not to let die.
A high school senior who’s lived in Jackson, Ohio, long enough to feel its desolation in her bones, Ruth knows there’s nothing left for her there, but it’s all she’s ever known. Hiding eviction notices, bracing for the next factory closure, visiting her drug-addicted mother at the county jail, Ruth’s daily grind is about staving off the inevitable—until she receives an unexpected college acceptance letter and is faced with the possibility that a brighter future awaits her elsewhere.
Hard as iron and brimming with flinty intelligence, Barden’s wide blue eyes and expressive features cut to the core of Ruth’s resilience, anger, and uncertainty. The actress has generally gravitated toward playing jaggedly complicated characters and in past roles exuded a certain defensive hauteur. There’s none of that here. Barden has never felt as cold as she does in “Holler,” but her pain is no less palpable for its internalized nature; one senses that the cruel, constant winter of this place—its absence of hope, its lack of mercy—has hardened Ruth into a survivor while stripping away whatever else she could have been.
That Barden plays Ruth with such unvarnished vulnerability and tensile strength also squares beautifully with Riegel’s decision to shoot “Holler” handheld on Super 16mm—itself one reason the film recalls Barbara Loden’s “Wanda” as much as Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone.” Telling this story of a woman fighting not to be left behind through a medium so caught in the act of fading was of course the poet’s choice. But Riegel has said—and I agree—that the specific weathering of film grain does something special to Barden’s features; it lends them a glow that has been dulled but feels all the more undeniable, and innate, for the faint light it still carries. (Isaac Feldberg)
Nicolas Cage as Rob in “Pig”
When it was announced that Nicolas Cage was going to play a reclusive truffle hunter who is forced to venture into the big city in order to track down his beloved truffle pig after it is kidnapped, many assumed the movie was going to be another one of the bizarro romps that Cage has done over the last few years in which an absurd premise grants him license to chew the scenery down to the foundation. Instead, the film turned out to be a spare, quiet, and enormously touching meditation on love, loss and the creative process and most of the success is due to Cage’s flat-out brilliant performance. Although there are a couple of moments where he goes for laughs, this is a more restrained and somber turn in which he conveys both his character’s past hurts and current determination to find his pig at all costs in a convincing and deeply moving manner, oftentimes while not actually saying much of anything at all. Right from the very first frames, it is clear that something in the screenplay by director Michael Sarnoski and Vanessa Block connected with him on a deep level and to see him demonstrating his still-considerable gifts as an actor in a film that never once threatens to devolve into self-parody is an absolute joy. The lack of eye-rolling histrionics here results in one of the very best performances of Cage’s long and curious career. (Peter Sobczynski)
Despite its questionable finale, and despite the controversies around the film’s allegedly questionable use of real-world adoption stories, it’s Justin Chon’s committed central performance that makes “Blue Bayou” hard to dismiss. Chon’s Antonio LeBlanc, is a Korean-born adoptee to an abusive white American couple who have since moved on to build his own family. Antonio is a mismatch of culture and heritage: people in his New Orleans community immediately distrust his Cajun accent which seems to them at odds with his apparent national origin. Add to this his criminal record and he’s in an impossible situation trying to find work while keeping his life on the straight and narrow.
Chon plays the part with a beautiful sensitivity. The film rests on Antonio’s relationship with his adoptive daughter, Jessie (a sweetly game Sydney Kowalske), which is put in jeopardy by the fact that he never became a full American citizen. Antonio expresses fierce loyalty to Jessie even as he’s threatened with deportation; you can feel the hurt in his voice when anyone questions the authenticity of their father-daughter relationship. As an adoptee himself, he transparently values connection, support, and love over biology.
Meanwhile, Antonio wrestles his own origins. Flashbacks of his Korean mother attempting to drown him as a baby and ultimately giving him up for adoption complicate his desire to understand his own identity. It is a tightrope walk to balance all of these relationships, past and present, but Chon is up to the task. He injects desperate passion and sensitivity into Antonio’s bold attempts to look after his family against almost impossible odds and finds his calling as a husband and father. (Soren Hough)
Toni Collette as Zeena in “Nightmare Alley”
There’s an early scene in Guillermo del Toro’s remake of the 1947 noir “Nightmare Alley” where Toni Collette draws us into a beautiful aura of mystery. Stan (Bradley Cooper), her future lover and betrayer, has arrived at her establishment seeking a bath. Collette’s Zeena is all business at first. She tells Stan where to leave his clothes, how much it costs, and so on. There’s a callous nonchalance in her voice, but you can see by her body language that she’s sizing this guy up. She’s also not about to give him an inch of privacy. When she boldly reaches into the tub to make her intentions known, Collette is operating in full femme fatale mode. We’re not sure what she’s up to, but we’re intrigued.
However, Zeena is not this film’s most notable noir trope, and “Nightmare Alley” shows just how much of a shape-shifter Collette is as an actor. When she’s not renting a tub, Zeena is one of the carnies working for a sinister Willem Dafoe. She’s a psychic who cold reads unsuspecting rubes with the help of her show partner and husband, Pete (David Strathairn). Zeena is one the few characters afforded any form of mercy and grace in William Lindsey Gresham’s brutal source novel, and Collette allows us to see her heart breaking under a much tougher exterior. No femme fatale would be afforded that luxury.
Anyone who has ever loved and cared for a severe alcoholic will feel Zeena’s exasperation as she deals with Pete. With minimal details, the actors ensure the shattered love story between these two comes through. Most importantly, in a cautionary tale about how the mighty have fallen, Collette brings enough elegance to the role to make us believe that she and Pete were the top draw in vaudeville before booze destroyed her partner. She’s a bellwether whose warnings go unheeded by Stan. Watch her last scene with Cooper at the carnival. She turns a simple line like “you’ve earned it” into a double-edged sword. She knows Stan has earned not just her book of secrets, but his own downfall as well. For once, the ersatz fortune teller really sees the future. (Odie Henderson)
Clifton Collins Jr. as Jackson Silva in “Jockey”
Clifton Collins Jr has always suggested an old soul. Maybe because his acting roots find life in old Hollywood (his grandfather was famous Mexican-American Western actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez). Since the beginning of his career, Collins has been a dependable, mainstay character actor in “Traffic,” “Capote,” “Pacific Rim,” “The Last Castle” (a personal favorite of mine) and so forth. But leading roles have often eluded him. That changed with Clint Bentley’s Sundance drama “Jockey.”
The veteran actor portrays Jackson Silva, a once great horse rider down to his last few races. Anyone who’s been to a racetrack before (going with my dad is among my happiest memories with him) knows the look of a jockey: They’re inquisitive, disciplined, and fearless. Many are Latinx, and the sport provides them with a chance for upward mobility. They take that opportunity by the reins. If they’re lucky, they might ride one truly great horse. But most times they’re on a nag. It’s a difficult life, and its strain can leave weary track marks across the face. With his old, restless soul, Collins inhabits all that and more as Silva.
Silva can’t whip his body into shape. A young jockey (Moisés Arias) claiming to be his son appears. And the horse he’s been waiting his whole life for shows up. A jockey’s luck is always waiting on the next turn. Collins translates those qualities with aplomb: The old soul lurking in his eyes desperately searches for another chance. His bent frame tells the story of a painful riding career. His easy charm slides over his melancholy like hoofs in the cold mud. Collins has a few brilliant scenes in “Jockey” but none are better than Silva leaving the track after his final race. There’s a quietness that most actors would’ve overplayed. But Collins ambles silently away. Like any great jockey, Collins knows when he’s run a good race. (Robert Daniels)
Olivia Colman as Leda in “The Lost Daughter”
Something wicked this way comes and it’s one of the best performances of this year, as it dares to not sanctify the act of motherhood.
There is a reason why British actress Olivia Colman, at the age of 47, is hitting her professional prime right now. Ever since she won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as England’s forlornly ditzy and rabbit-adoring Queen Anne in “The Favourite,” she’s become an English version of Meryl Streep. There seems to be nothing she can’t do. Whether it’s her unusual role as the daughter of a dementia sufferer played by the esteemed Anthony Hopkins in last year’s “The Father,” which led to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod, or her spot-on Emmy-winning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II on TV’s “The Crown.” Then there is her horridly demeaning and self-serving godmother and eventual stepmother of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character on TV’s “Fleabag,” which earned Colman a supporting spot on the 2019 Emmy ballot.
All of this shows how smart and cagey actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was to recruit Colman as her star attraction in her directorial and screenplay debut, “The Lost Daughter,” based on Elena Ferrante’s novel that digs deep into the joy, guilt, agony and mostly pain of motherhood. At this moment, there are few leading ladies besides Colman who knows how to act spiteful, vengeful, peevish, and self-centered on screen while still allowing audiences to sympathize with her.
At the center of the complicated story that unfolds on a Grecian island, is Colman’s Leda, a middle-aged British academic taking a working holiday, as she calls it. Initially, Leda—named for the William Butler Yeats poem “Leda and the Swan”—has the beach blissfully all to herself. But soon it is invaded with a large, noisy American clan. One of the celebrants asks Leda to move, which makes her defensive. But the 40-ish woman, Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), brings a piece of her birthday cake as a peace offering and discusses her own pregnancy. She seems eager to hear some motherly advice when Leda divulges that she has two grown daughters, 23 and 25. But instead she blurts out, “Children are a crushing responsibility.” That is pretty much the theme of the film.
We then get to see Leda as a young mother struggling to raise two high-strung toddler daughters, a role neatly inhabited by Jessie Buckley, at a time when she is building a reputation as an admired academic in the field of Italian literature. But my main focus while watching the film was Colman. In real time we witness Leda eyeing Nina (an icy Dakota Johnson), Callie’s sister-in-law and the mother of a rambunctious and somewhat sad young daughter named Elena. One of the most memorable images is a close-up as the young girl cruelly bites and chews the face of Nani, her cherished baby doll. That toy will be the key to how we end up assessing the elder Leda while she ultimately gets her comeuppance. She initially is a hero after finding Nina’s daughter, who has wandered off from her family. But then Leda decides to abscond with Elena’s beloved baby, seemingly bewitched by it like some kind of voodoo doll. Not since “Rosemary’s Baby” have I been so concerned with and consumed by a non-human infant. (Susan Wloszcyna)
Roger Ebert once said, “To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.” Phil Burbank in Jane Campion’s magnificent Western (or “anti-Western”) “The Power of the Dog” exemplifies what Ebert said. While he is a deeply unhappy and miserable man, Phil is also a mean, sour, and terrifying bully who frequently ridicules and torments several other characters who unfortunately are close to him, and Benedict Cumberbatch fully embodies Phil’s aggressive and hostile macho attitude right from his very first scene in the film. While he is surely no stranger to playing anti-social heroes as shown from his TV drama series “Sherlock,” Cumberbatch ably pushes his own edgy persona into the gritty territory of western films, and his darkly compelling performance is utterly convincing.
After a crucial narrative point where something about his character is revealed to us, we come to reflect more on what Campion’s screenplay has subtly suggested up to that point, and we also come to appreciate more of the nuance of Cumberbatch’s performance. His character subsequently becomes more interesting as the situation becomes more complex. Everything in his performance eventually culminates in a rather unnerving scene where Phil opens himself up. Although he does not signify much, Cumberbatch deftly conveys to us whatever is churning behind his character’s seemingly phlegmatic façade, and we come to wonder more about Phil’s past relationship with his mentor figure, whose presence constantly hovers over the story as frequently mentioned by Phil throughout the film.
Even during the finale tinged with ironic poetic justice, we do not feel that sorry for Phil. But Cumberbatch presents his character as a fascinating prime example of toxic masculinity, and it is rather amusing to see how his character eventually turns out to be not as strong as those several figures around him. As many of you know, big macho bullies like Phil are usually the ones who are more insecure, vulnerable, and, yes, emotional than others, and he surely pays for what he has tried to hide so much for all those years. (Seongyong Cho)
In “The Last Duel,” the first of Ridley Scott’s two 2021 films, Matt Damon is tasked with effectively playing three versions of Jean de Carrouges, an ill-starred squire to King Charles VI in Medieval France. The story is told from three different perspectives: in the first, Damon’s knight is a noble defender of his wife after she is brutally raped; in the second he’s a loser mocked by all whom he once fought for and loved; and in the third, he personifies a baseline monstrousness that must have been rampant so many hundreds of years ago.
The complex power behind what Damon achieves in his performance is that by the end, the conclusion must be that de Carrouges is all of these things. If the film ultimately leans, understandably, towards an unsympathetic view of the man, Damon has played them all beautifully, without ever flamboyantly signaling that this is the one you should or shouldn’t believe. We know that de Carrouges has suffered horribly—a wife and child taken by the plague, facing poverty which is compounded by betrayal—so Damon acting each conflicting side feels right. None feels like a lie, even if the gentlest version is a lie he’s told himself.
And even though Scott and his screenwriters (Ben Affleck, Nicole Holofcener, and Damon himself) make it clear which version of the story is the truth, only one character comes off as truly lost. Adam Driver’s Jacque de Gris is scum who doesn’t even believe his own self-delusion; Jodie Comer’s Marguerite is a furious and righteous victim demanding justice. And Damon’s Jean de Carrouges is the dope, weak-willed, a man worse than he thinks he is, a man not strong enough to resist the time in history he has no choice but to live in. (Bill Ryan)
It’s a shame that Fran Kranz’s “Mass” will be missed by many. It’s too cerebral a premise to be truly popular, too morally complex to be rallied for by those either on the left or right of the political spectrum. It eschews easy answers, existing in an increasingly polarized culture and nation where questions of morality and compassion have descended into team-sport dichotomies, and where those who champion free expression close themselves off to confronting works that challenge their own prejudices and beliefs. With “Mass” we find artists brave enough to demand recognizing shared humanity in the face of utmost despair. If Ebert’s edict about the nature of film stands, this is a titanically successful work, one devoted entirely to exploring empathy.
Anchored by an ensemble that includes astonishing portrayals by Reed Birney, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton, it’s Ann Dowd’s role as Linda that towers above all. Her take as a grieving mother unable to come to terms with the circumstances of her son’s actions is delivered with such impeccable taste, subtlety and skill that it may leave you breathless.
Dowd is no stranger to stealing the show, but her balance of rage, suspicion, and despair, combined with anger, fear and the love of her child, results in a volcanic yet somehow relatable, immensely human take. In a career that has spanned decades she has consistently provided a unique blend of hard and soft, and there’s no role that has demanded this navigation of these contradictions more than here. This is a storyline that demands the paradoxes of life be portrayed in all their complexity, and there’s no talent more capable, no instrument more finely honed, than the treasure that is Ann Dowd. (Jason Gorber)
The brilliance of Winston Duke’s stunning performance in Edson Oda’s masterful debut doesn’t really reveal itself until the final scene. As Will performs a monologue he’s known forever, he comes alive. His voice booms and his face contorts with joyful expression. And you realize what Duke has been doing for the last two hours by the absence of that in what came before. Oh, here’s the charismatic scene-stealer of “Us” and “Black Panther.” I almost didn’t recognize him. Until then, the Will of “Nine Days” is imprisoned by grief in every muscle of his body. Duke conveys that prison without ever resorting to melodrama. When he allows Will to break out in that moving final scene, it only works because of the contrast of what came before, and it allows us to see Will’s journey and that of the other characters in a different light. “Nine Days” is about what it means to be alive and it ends with the kind of passionate expression of joy that we all seek in our short time on this Earth, and Duke doesn’t just meet the challenge of that defining moment; he reshapes everything that came before and how we feel as those credits roll, carrying the life and energy of his expression back into the real world. (Brian Tallerico)
It takes a lot of presence and skill to share a screen with Will Smith as Richard Williams, the outspoken father and trainer who cold-called potential coaches and who did not take no for an answer—but did not hesitate to say no himself. Aunjanue Ellis more than holds her own as Oracene, Venus and Serena Williams’ mother, from her earliest scene tending to her husband’s wounds, then with increasing willingness to insist on what is best for her daughters, and finally what she deserves for herself. Smith is showier because Richard is so far from the cheerful action hero-style roles we are used to seeing him in, but letting us see the passion and the pain beneath Richard’s quirks. It would not work without the grounding by Ellis, as Oracene has the most significant character arc in the film. Even in the early scenes, Ellis shows us the fierce courage and determination underneath her quiet demeanor. Later, when Richard fires a coach, she says her faith requires her to be silent in front of others but insists he consult her in the future. “Don’t mistake my silence for agreement,” she says firmly. Oracene begins to speak out, first overruling Richard when he rebukes the girls, and finally, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, she has an incendiary confrontation with Richard about his arrogance and the pain he has caused. At every point, Ellis is precise in showing us Oracene’s strength as she learns to own her voice. The way she moves has the confident grace of an athlete, showing better than any dialogue how her coaching is fundamental to her daughters’ success. When Oracene is finally ready to speak her truth, Ellis is in complete control, just like the character she is playing. (Nell Minow)
Mike Faist as Riff in “West Side Story”
Mike Faist’s introduction as Riff, the leader of the Jets in “West Side Story,” feels like a classic “who is that?” moment. As the Jets assemble in the film’s opening sequence, they stop by a demolition site. Faist unfolds himself from the cab of a bulldozer, a feral king smiling down at his loyal subjects. He’s charismatic and confident, but there’s a dangerous, unpredictable gleam in his eye. Like the wrecking equipment he’s just emerged from, this guy is an unstoppable force (or at least he clearly thinks he is). The shot lasts maybe 15 seconds, but you could watch him for hours.
“West Side Story”‘s most impressive performances—Faist’s included—have the energy and complexity of an Olympic athlete performing a gold medal-winning feat in real time. The combination of dancing, singing, expression, and charisma are astounding in how physically demanding they are and how effortless they look. The physicality alone is incredible, but Faist’s Riff also balances a sense of frightening intensity and a lifetime of heartbreak that make it difficult to take your eyes off him whenever he’s onscreen.
Whether he’s leaping balletically alongside his fellow Jets, dance-fighting with the rival Sharks at a school gym, or playing keep-away with a pistol, Faist exudes the lived-in comfort of a performer fully at home in his character. That commitment, and the meticulous research it required, reflects a creative integrity that’s in keeping with “West Side Story”” layered interest in its period, setting and themes. It’s apparent that Riff carries a novel’s worth of untold backstory in every frame he occupies. (Abby Olcese)
In between the warped edges of the thrillingly exhausted cinemascope frame lies a cool, dying Detroit suburb stuffed with faces you couldn’t dislike for money, some of the very finest shapes American cinema has to offer. But in the thicket of enveloping curlicues of stylized dialogue and solid gold images is suddenly, unmistakably the jutting unselfconscious face of Brendan Fraser. The prettiest man that Hollywood slammed the door on in living memory has grown into its best character actor. The eyes are pure Peter Lorre, the heft Sidney Greenstreet, and he’s doing an accent worthy of Orson Welles, who underwent the same dispiriting arc at the hands of psychopathic executives except Welles never returned. Fraser is back, and he’s the best he’s ever been. “You work for Frank?” Asks Don Cheadle probingly. “I’ve done work for Frank.” Is the croaked answer. He indicates himself with a flared hand and his chin flares with it. He’s the movie’s gravity load, the thing that makes it feel like the antique it’s meant to be, as much as the cinematography and the costumes. He’s the reality. He’s it. Fraser’s about to have the year of his career if I don’t miss my guess. It’s good to have him back. (Scout Tafoya)
Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani in “House of Gucci”
If Lady Gaga were to retire from acting tomorrow, she would have one of the most significant filmographies of any actor in the 21st century. Her sophomore performance in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” as Patrizia Reggiani is like the dark flip side of her luminescent work in Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born,” which announced her as a singular on-screen presence who could give us a movie star’s mega-wattage presence, and also a completely unpretentious portrait of someone who still lives with their parents. She explores these qualities again with “House of Gucci” on a grandiose and darker scale—she is completely at ease with eager, fidgety energy, the look of falling in love, just as much as when she is masking her desperation for security with an ice-cold glare against her husband Maurizio Gucci’s new lady friend. Her presence is classic and singular at once: the impossible-to-break gaze of eyes that cameras are made for, whose emotional calibration always makes sure we never forget where a character has come from, what they are truly fighting or. While “House of Gucci” lets other actors splatter paint over the Gucci logo, Lady Gaga’s authenticity reckons with nothing less than the phenomenon of passion.
Lady Gaga gives us so much to see; as a stage performer she knows how to use her body to take you even deeper, and when to do it so it shows you just how alive the soul is on-screen. In “A Star is Born,” it is the eureka moment when she is pushed to introduce “Shallow” on stage—the words of the chorus escape from her, she’s crossing the threshold into being a music legend, and suddenly her hands raise to cover her eyes. In “House of Gucci,” it’s at a moment when her persona of humility has now transformed into desperation to keep the sense of security she has fought for since trying to win a date with Maurizio. Baited by her co-star Jared Leto in a hammy scene, he tells her to cross her heart and hope to die. She does, with dialogue that perfects her character’s allegiance: “Father, Son, and House of Gucci.” It’s the movie’s best line, and its most sincere and revealing moment, and it’s the movie’s title, and apparently she made it up. Up to that point, Lady Gaga had given us a rich, compassionate arc to show how Patrizia got to this cult-ish, gaudy point of no return, and she still moves and surprises us, though it’s obvious she always will. In the wise words of “House of Gucci”: she will be queen. (Nick Allen)
Troy Kotsur as Frank Rossi in “CODA”
Sian Heder’s marvelous “CODA” is a breakthrough for Emilia Jones as Ruby, a child of deaf adults who chafes at translating for her family once she embraces her love of singing. Yet this story is about a family’s change, too, and Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s working-class dad helps it resonate. He subtly segues from trepidation to empathy, his daughter’s growth spurring him to find his own voice.
Kotsur is impish and funny as Frank, a trawler who likes the vibrations of gangster rap, cracks fart jokes, and has the hots for his wife, Jackie (Marlee Matlin). Frank signs more graphically than Ruby might like at the doctor’s office or to her potential boyfriend. Yet Kotsur, who is deaf, also conveys anger and frustration at feeling misunderstood and ignored in the hearing world. Frank hatches a business plan to be paid better for his daily catch just as Ruby’s college dreams bloom, to Jackie’s dismay. “I can’t stay with you my whole life,” Ruby protests, and while Frank says no one expects that of her, Kotsur registers his surprise at realizing that maybe they have.
If she gets into school in Boston, Jackie frets, our baby’s gone. She was never a baby, Frank replies.
When Ruby sings a duet of “You’re All I Need to Get By” at the high school, Heder drops the sound as Matlin and Kotsur study the audience’s faces. Kotsur’s eyes brim with Frank’s ache to understand this beautiful, intangible gift his daughter has. The scene afterward, where he asks Ruby to sing for him, crushes in its tenderness. He places his hands against her throat, closing his eyes to feel the music and wrap his mind around this talent that came from God knows where. By the film’s end, he speaks one word—“Go”—but his performance has said so much more. (Valerie Kalfrin)
Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in “Dune”
Denis Villeneuve’s stirring adaptation of Frank Herbert’s source novel Dune reclaimed innumerable tropes that George Lucas exuberantly stole from it way back in 1977, including the defining relationships between an earnest-yet-cocky Chosen One hero, Luke Skywalker, and a pair of colorful supporting characters, Han Solo, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Virtually alone among recent modern action heroes, Jason Momoa is both actor enough and movie star enough to recombine those characters into its original inspiration, Duncan Idaho, a swordmaster in the service of House Atreides who mentors Paul, gives him the big-brotherly love that an only child needs, and dies heroically saving him and his mother from an attack by their enemies, taking out 19 highly trained imperial stormtroopers in the process.
You’ve seen this character’s arc a zillion times—it predates Herbert by centuries, probably—but Momoa makes it seem fresh and affecting by underplaying in the manner of the great hardboiled-yet-unfussy action stars of yore. There’s a bit of Burt Lancaster in his gregarious, shoulders-first walk and infectious laugh, and a bit of Toshiro Mifune in the way that he lope-runs into battle, seeming to glide panther-like through mayhem that would unbalance almost anyone else. First into the breach, last to leave the battlefield, never leaving a man behind that’s Duncan, and Momoa infuses him with a true warrior’s spirit. He’s like one of those ex-Special Forces guys that you know actually saw some shit because he’s not constantly preening about his exploits and bragging about his firepower and accuracy. You just know from the way he carries himself that he’s great at what he does (killing and saving people) and that he has a good heart and would lay down his life for his people without a second thought.
It’s only when you get some distance from the film that you realize just how affecting this performance was, and why. Momoa doesn’t just satisfy the requirements of the job here: he brings a special Old Hollywood magic to it, and takes care to delineate Duncan from all the other badasses he’s played. He’s not broodingly magnetic in a fratbro drama queen way, like Aquaman, and he’s not rock-like and inaccessible like Khal Drogo from “Game of Thrones.” He’s as real-seeming as the ornithopters with their insectile wing-beat rotor blades, and the sand that cakes the characters’ robes and cassocks. You can’t even call him a scene-stealer because stealing scenes would be contrary to the whole idea of Duncan Idaho. A more perfect populist blockbuster supporting performance is difficult to imagine. (Matt Zoller Seitz)
Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yûsuke Kafuku in “Drive My Car”
“When you don’t have a real life, you make do with dreams. It’s better than nothing.” – Vanya, Uncle Vanya (1896)
When actor and theatre director Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) works with the cast of a new production of Uncle Vanya, he has them read the script in a monotone. He doesn’t want them to make hasty emotional choices. He wants the entire play to flow through them, not just their specific role. This is a piercing metaphor for Yûsuke’s journey over the course of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” and illuminates Nishijima’s sneakily powerful performance. Just like the character of Uncle Vanya, whom Yûsuke played many times, Yûsuke lives a life that doesn’t seem “real.” He’s haunted by what might have been, the loss of his wife, his child. The good things in life are in the past. Yûsuke has much to grieve, but Nishijima, in a performance of great control, shows a man who is—at first—frozen in time, wounds cauterized, unable to feel much of anything at all.
When asked why he won’t take on the role of Vanya in the current production, Yûsuke says starkly, “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines, it drags out the real you. I can’t bear that anymore.” It’s a breath-taking admission. Over the course of almost three hours, “Drive My Car” shows the process of the “real him” being “dragged” out of him. In the company of Misaki, his deadpan chauffeur (Tôko Miura), on the rides to and from rehearsal, listening to a cassette tape of Uncle Vanya’s dialogue, Yûsuke begins to thaw. It happens by stealth, and almost against his will. When the “real him,” his anguish and loss, finally emerges into the cold air, the catharsis is extreme, even more so because of Yûsuke’s reserved and even stern persona in the first half of the film.
In 1901, Anton Chekhov wrote to his wife, Olga Knipper, about her performance in The Three Sisters, reminding her: “Don’t pull a sad face in the first act. Serious, yes, but not sad. People who had long carried a grief within themselves and have become accustomed to it only whistle and frequently withdraw into themselves.”
So many actors hint at “third act” emotions in the “first act.” Nishijima does not. When the cracks begin to show, he is helpless to stop the emotions pouring out. This is only possible because Nishijima had the patience to create a character so reticent that you might not even perceive just how wounded he is.
What Nishijima shows in his beautiful performance in “Drive My Car” is that Yûsuke thinks he is “working on” a production of Vanya, when in reality the production of Vanya is working on him. (Sheila O’Malley)
Taylour Paige as Zola in “Zola”
When Taylour Paige opens “Zola”—patiently, with practiced hands, perfecting her image, adjusting her hair, smoothing out the ruby paint across her lips—with the first line, or tweet, of the real Zola, it’s sharp and seductive, pointed and plush, performed and authentic. Paige, comparably speaking, doesn’t say much in the film next to jabbering Riley Keough as Stefani, the white girl who leads her, Eurydice-like, to Florida, at least not verbally. The mastery of Paige’s performance, though, is her expressive face, her ability to saddle single lines with complexity and contradiction, making a side-eye textured in its guardedness and sense of protections or a blisteringly dry “word” take on as many facets as a gem. Paige’s eyes, too, glow, one moment, vast, cool marbles; and in another, slits, irises whipping to the right, dressing down the person or situation the way a dagger would.
Zola’s hall of mirrors bend and refract in different ways for different characters, and if a kind of masquerading as copy with no original hovers at the core of Stefani, Paige’s precisely modulated performance functions, conversely, to retain a core sense of self possibly, definitely under thread. Identity play is fun, is work, is survival, and Paige sifts through these sheaves of self with entrancing reflexiveness, clawing instinctually into the ideas and internalizing them into her character, such that she (pole)dances on the knife’s edge between the film’s both deconstructionist aesthetic and its full-bodied, emotional, and intuitive love for its source material. Zola’s origins may have been in, so to speak, a thread, but Paige’s performance is a tapestry. (Kyle Turner)
Renate Reinsve as Julie in “The Worst Person in the World”
With her long limbs and wispy bangs, Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve stands in for a generation in Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World.” As Julie, Reinsve has to ground the viewer in a worldview that embodies cool detachment and twisted irony. By her nature, Julie seeks to define herself by things and people around her; she often seems to be a void ready to be filled. Every new relationship, every spark of inspiration becomes an opportunity to rebuild herself. Reinsve’s performance reflects on the limits of self-centered interiority and how it stops us from seeing the world around us and living an authentic life. The film captures a stagnant generation’s specific trials and yearnings shaped by uncertainty and hopeless ego-centrism.
While Reinsve channels this profound need to overcome her meaninglessness, she also foregoes blankness. Julie has a sparkle of curiosity that carries her through the most difficult or emotionally heavy situations. Her smile shines through nearly every interaction—it’s bright and wide, transformed by glances that are hungry or self-pitying. It’s a performance that lies in a look more than anything else, where the unspoken landscape of repressed feelings and meaningless words take precedence over sincerity and connection. Reinsve perfectly encapsulates a character that seems to be living an eternal youth, a wholly unsustainable and ultimately self-destructive reality. (Justine Smith)
Rachel Sennott as Danielle in “Shiva Baby”
Amidst the sadness of missing extended family gatherings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Emma Seligman’s masterful debut feature, “Shiva Baby,” emerged as an unexpected source of comfort food, reminding us of the social anxiety that can accompany such oft-chaotic events. As a comedian, Rachel Sennott is uproariously frank in her stand-up sets while detailing embarrassing sexual episodes, earning laughs when acknowledging that her father is in the audience. Danielle, the anti-heroine of Seligman’s film, proves to be the perfect star-making role for Sennott, forcing her to bottle up her boundless exuberance during a Jewish funeral so fraught with tension, Hitchcock would’ve loved paying it a visit. All Seligman and her ace cinematographer Maria Rusche have to do is hold their camera on Sennott’s mesmerizing face, and we are immediately hooked.
Whether she’s unexpectedly faced with the married sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), who has agreed to sleep with her in order to “help female entrepreneurs,” gulping down pain as a screw grazes her leg or frantically searching for an incriminating phone found by her ex, Maya (Molly Gordon), Sennott is able to convey a symphony of conflicting thoughts with a single tilt of her head or a shuddering breath between words. In a shot that has become one of the year’s most iconic, Danielle munches on a bagel while eavesdropping on Max, choking at the precise moment he utters words that are difficult to swallow. The power she finds in utilizing her sexuality as a money-making tool, the life raft that materializes in the rekindling of her frowned-upon relationship with Maya and the kinship she feels with Max’s wailing toddler—voicing the raw agony she strives to suppress—are articulated not through generic exposition but the intricate nuance of Sennott’s extraordinary performance. She is a marvel and so is this movie. (Matt Fagerholm)
Madeleine Sims-Fewer as Miriam in “Violation”
Few films have hit me as hard as this year’s rape-revenge film “Violation.” It’s a film that wants to not only portray the horrors of sexual assault, but the horrors of actually enacting your revenge, as well. And at the emotional core of this story is co-director Madeleine Sims-Fewer in the leading role of Miriam. Sims-Fewer plays our unreliable narrator who isn’t exactly the most lovable. She travels to a family cabin and is subsequently raped by her sister’s husband. So, yes, she is sympathetic, but she doesn’t always make the right choices or say the kindest things. Sims-Fewer captures this humanity as if she is Miriam herself, a sad, lonely woman who craves connection. You feel her hurt simply through a glance as she processes her trauma, her guilt, and her betrayal all at once. It’s also through Sims-Fewer that “Violation” captures one of the most realistic portrayals of PTSD and dissociation I’ve ever seen in a rape-revenge film. Her vacant stares and cold demeanor reject the catharsis so often found in this subgenre. But not here. Sims-Fewer does not want the audience to feel good at the end of this film. She doesn’t want them to cheer for her. Instead, she wants them to sit in silence and weep. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
Tessa Thompson as Irene in “Passing”
There are many masterful aspects of Tessa Thompson’s performance in Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing.” From the way she holds her body tight as if she were literally crawling in her own skin, to the mannered way she examines herself in mirrors. But for me, her greatest feat is the work she does with her eyes. From the opening sequence as she “passes” for white in an upscale boutique, her watchful eyes are filled with both fear of discovery, but also the jubilation of pulling the ruse off. We see the whole film through the eyes of Thompson’s Irene. They’re always searching, discerning, connecting. In them we see Irene’s longing, her stifled joy, her melancholy. The subtle shifts in her face as she watches Clare (Ruth Negga) at a dance in Harlem while discussing with intellectual interloper Hugh (Bill Camp) the allure of exoticism belies her real desires. In Clare, Irene sees both the freedom and the cage she’s found while passing for white, but also a lust she had not known before. Is it a lust for life? A lust for change? A lust for Clare? As all of these possibilities swirl inside Irene, the emotional wreckage plays out on Thompson’s face, and in her hunched frame, a soul waiting to burst from its seams. Descending a long staircase at the film’s denouement, all the repressed emotions have boiled over, leaving Irene an empty husk, her eyes fixed on the vast nothingness left to her. Much (warranted) praise has been heaped on Negga’s buoyant turn as Clare, but to reach those soaring heights we need the weight of Thompson’s anchor to keep us on course. (Marya E. Gates)
Kuhoo Verma as Sunny in “Plan B”
The teenage sex comedy is a versatile thing, adaptable to all manner of ambition and desire. In “Plan B,” Kuhoo Verma, a nimble and expressive Indian-American actress, plays Sunny, a wide-eyed high school cynic facing a couple challenges. First, she wants to lose her virginity. Then, after a comically unromantic hookup with the class goober, she needs to get an abortion pill. Stat.
On a quest with her best friend Lupe (Victoria Moroles), Verma’s Sunny constantly finds the humor in a dire situation that continues to get worse in the real world. There’s a fearlessness to both of these performances, capturing a sense of disbelief that something so essential could be that hard to track down, and a determination to never back down. Verma’s energy never flags as Sunny confronts an uncooperative pharmacist, a crazy convenience clerk, a feckless drug dealer, and a world that is generally hostile to her aim of controlling her own body.
This kind of thing has been done before, most recently in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Test Pattern,” but not as a comedy. Verma and the filmmakers here (including director Natalie Morales) pull off something difficult and unique. They find the absurdity in the situation, and they bat the traditions of the teen sex comedy around like a cat with a ball of yarn. Verma is a natural comic performer, willing to stretch a moment past the point of comfort until the laughter comes raining down. Verma, who also appeared in “The Big Sick” with Kumail Nanjiani, is our guide to this middle-American underworld. Her disbelief is ours. So is the pleasure. (Chris Vognar)
Alicia Vikander as Essel/The Lady in “The Green Knight”
Talking about Alicia Vikander’s performance in “The Green Knight” is talking about more than one performance. In keeping with director David Lowery’s phantasmagorical version of the ancient epic, where time and reality are slippery and refuse to flow neatly, Vikander appears twice in two crucial but wildly different roles. We met her as Essel, the sex worker Gawain is sleeping with and who he is fond of in the callow way of his youth and privilege. She loves him more than he deserves in return and her longing for him to claim her officially as his lady, and the impossibility of that, Vikander sells instantly in longing glances and carefully worded questions. We meet Vikander again as the enigmatic lady of a castle that is the last stop on Gawain’s quest to find the Green Knight. Wrapped in emerald silk and speaking in riddles, in a mesmerising monologue she twines the green of youth with the green of rot. In these scenes Vikander is beguiling and dangerous by turns. Her keen understanding of how desire can be used as a weapon infuses every scene between her and an increasingly tempted Gawain.
In the vision Gawain sees of his life should he run away from his destiny at the Green Knight’s hands, he sees Essel again. He sees Essel’s despair when the child they have is taken away from her at birth. He sees her look of weary reproach as an older woman when that child has grown to be killed in battle. He finally sees the harm he’s capable of doing to her, along with the harm he’ll bring to everyone else by running away. Both roles highlight the voices often left out of myths and legends, and how much richer those stories become in return when they are included. (Jessica Ritchey)
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