The 10 Best Actors of the Year

What makes her big-screen work this year — in “The Beguiled” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” — even more astonishing is that she brought that sweet spot with her, infusing those movies with an element of vitality they would otherwise have lacked. Both of them are hothouse blossoms, exercises in sensibility for directors (Sofia Coppola and Yorgos Lanthimos, respectively) with very particular agendas. “The Beguiled” remakes a pulpy early-’70s study in sexual hysteria into an arch melodrama of beleaguered femininity. As the headmistress of a school full of Southern belles who welcome a wounded Yankee into their midst, Kidman is an avatar of Victorian womanhood. Her character is also the only one to understand how absurd the situation is and to grasp the raw currents of power and lust that surge under the decorous surface.

Kidman herself disrupts the film’s decorum, much as she complicates the mechanical allegory of Lanthimos’s film. Everyone else in “Sacred Deer” is slotted into a carefully measured box, working in the service of what is essentially a literary conceit. A young man places a curse on a modern, upper-middle-class family, who must contemplate a horrible crime if they wish to break it. While the other actors obey the director’s fairy-tale strictures, Kidman behaves like a real person. All of the film’s moments of genuine emotion, which means real humor as well as authentic terror, belong to her. A.O.S.

Tiffany Haddish

Film: Girls Trip

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Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures

Please bear with me. I’m about to use too many italics. But that’s because Tiffany Haddish is an italics type of actor. She bends every word she speaks toward her. They’re not leaning, though. They’re bowing down. Haddish is that charismatic, that alive. Dina, the party monster she’s playing in “Girls Trip,” wields that charisma to demand that you be alive, too. In the movie’s most notorious scene, she makes a case for the erotics of grapefruit that should have sent citrus stock through the roof. In New Orleans’s French Quarter, Haddish air-humps one of those live tourist-trap statues, and the statue breaks character and chases after her. He can’t help himself. Nobody can.

This is an ensemble movie with a very good ensemble, so it feels rude to single out Haddish. But she makes the singling out inarguable. As Michael Jackson once asked, “Where did you come from, lady?” Before “Girls Trip,” I’d only seen Haddish in “Keanu,” as a gun-toting drug-world thug who is mildly into Jordan Peele. We now know what false advertising this was. There’s nothing mild about her. Some of Dina’s choice lines: “It’s chlamydia, y’all! That [expletive] can be cured!” “I got drugs. In my booty.” “Who is this ratchet-ass bitch?” Black women have done top-volume vulgarity in the movies before. What we’ve never seen is vulgarity delivered with this much kaleidoscopic effervescence.

In a sequence set on an airplane, Dina takes a serving tray from the flight attendant and starts handing out cups to her fellow first-class passengers as Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” starts playing. Even though Haddish is singing along, it still seems like another soundtrack jam. But then everybody else in the cabin sings, too. Who put this song on? We don’t hear anybody request it, and no airplane speakers sound this good. As Haddish marches and shakes her way down the aisle, it’s pretty clear what happened. She willed this. To paraphrase Chaka, it really is all in her. And by the time this movie is over, whatever “it” is, Haddish has poured all over us. Wesley Morris

Jake Gyllenhaal

Film: Stronger

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Credit
Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions

What to do with an actor in a type of role you dislike that’s the centerpiece of a movie you don’t care for, in part because it’s set somewhere you wish the movies would, pretty please, stop fetishizing? Well, if the acting works, you just ignore everything else. And Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting here really works. He plays Jeff Bauman, a real-life Costco employee who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. Bauman is desperate to go back to being a knucklehead with his buddies. But he has to struggle with his family’s brew of emotions, his girlfriend’s guilty feelings and rehab. It’s the sort of bound-for-tragedy part that barely needs an actor. It practically performs itself. And yet, many actors have given it and had many a statuette thrown at them for doing so. But as the story becomes about the city’s need to worship at Bauman’s wheelchair, Gyllenhaal’s sidesteps dignity and saintliness and inhabits the horror of unsought heroism. He makes the physical challenges secondary to the psychological ones.

Gyllenhaal has found a way to play a part that can only be described as charismatically unremarkable; except he doesn’t just play it, he disappears within it. The bombing in the film happens sooner than you want it to. The minute you hear the first boom, you start wondering about what’s going to happen to Bauman, obviously. I worried about what would happen to Gyllenhaal’s acting. He works here with remarkable restraint. The character struggles with leglessness and unceasing adoration. The actor doesn’t appear to struggle with anything. He’s playing the shock of attention, the suffocating embarrassment of pity, and rage at how the bombing forces Bauman to take greater responsibility for his choices.

This fictional Bauman seems fine with the wheelchair. It’s adulthood and celebrity that leave him feeling confined. There’s a scene in which the character is wheeled onto the ice before a Bruins game, where the crowd smothers him with hero worship. Rather than exude gratitude, Gyllenhaal goes for something far more original and distressing in its direness: claustrophobia. W.M.

Daniela Vega

Film: A Fantastic Woman

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Michelle Bossy/Sony Pictures Classics

“A Fantastic Woman” is set in Chile, but its star, Daniela Vega, practices a kind of naturalistic, European mode of performance. It’s acting that’s more like being: She makes her way through the film as she might go about her actual day. If you’re a transgender woman, as Vega is, the day might entail enduring the hateful harassment of your dead boyfriend’s ex-wife, his son and his son’s friends. It might include a medical examiner’s gratuitous request that you disrobe, not only because you’re the suspected cause of the boyfriend’s death but, you know, just because.

Vega plays Marina, a waitress and a nightclub singer, for whom a version of widowhood immediately sinks in, meaning she spends most of Sebastián Lelio’s film in a state of shock. Everyone who comes into contact with her insinuates something. How did Orlando really die? And where are you taking those suitcases? With each new confrontation, Marina has to reexplain herself and therefore relive the trauma of her man’s death. She’s insulted, nagged, disbelieved, denied, wrapped in packing tape, at some point, and dumped out of a truck. The tension here is between the necessary wariness of Vega’s acting and Marina’s being so hideously acted upon. Dignity is overrated as a performance strategy. Usually, it works against an actor because it bumps her up to saint before she’s finished being human. But the longer this movie goes on, the clearer it becomes that Marina is all dignity. Under the circumstances, it’s all she has.

The “fantastic” of the title might be a kind of built-in accolade for its star. But it also implies the state of the character’s imagination. Anytime we’re allowed into Marina’s head, it’s for something like a nightclub dance sequence in which she becomes a human pompom. Vega has Marion Cotillard’s enormous eyes, some of her sense of sadness and a whiff of her glamour. She’s Cotillard before putting on layers of emotional makeup. Her work here builds slowly. But it builds up high. Vega’s triumph is moving for its absorptive anti-drama. Her body tells you where she stands. But that face tells you what she has withstood. W.M.

Brooklynn Prince

Film: The Florida Project

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Credit
A24

Has any movie actor conjured as much surprise as this little girl? Maybe “Annie Hall”-era Diane Keaton or 1980s Goldie Hawn. But Brooklynn Prince is playing a 6-year-old impoverished urchin named Moonee, not a bourgeois, hopeless romantic. Moonee zooms around a shabby motel near Disney World, looking for excitement that most adults would classify as trouble.

There’s a scene in which she tries banging the back of her head against a concrete mural and registers real alarm at how it kind of hurts. It’s cute yet sums up her acting challenge here: Where does cute go after it hits a wall? Typically, the answer would be “on your last nerve.” But Moonee’s misbehavior abuts tragedy. Even though she’s a child who instigates arson and licks ice cream as a comic means of torture, Sean Baker’s movie has pulled back far enough for her mischief to make psychological sense. Her young mother is messy and wild — and, emotionally, also 6. Moonee learned brattiness and cluelessness at home.

Baker carefully turns this kid’s depressive, uncouth world into a wonderland. Her tasks might seem like nothing special (she does lots of yelling and galloping around). But that’s an actor’s job — to turn nothing special into something. For one thing, she has a firm grasp of sarcasm. (“Yeah, Mom, you’re a disgrace,” she says when someone chastises her mother about Moonee’s latest misadventure.) For another, she holds her own with Willem Dafoe, who plays the motel’s manager and is the only veteran actor in the movie for miles. She doesn’t seem to know or care that she’s acting with Dafoe. He becomes another game to play, his patience another button to push.

Prince is at her comical best when the movie needs her face to do what a screenplay can’t. That fire Moonee helps start lures eager spectators, including her mother, who proceeds to take her daughter’s picture in front of the burning building. Prince’s expression — a rictus of embarrassment, confusion and guilt — belongs in a gallery. It’s a masterpiece of remorse. W.M.

Timothée Chalamet

Film: Call Me by Your Name

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Sayombhu Mukdeeprom/Sony Pictures Classics

Elio, the teenage protagonist of “Call Me by Your Name,” may not be a prodigy, but he’s a serious musician, spending part of each summer day in intense concentration as he transcribes what he hears on his Walkman onto staff paper. It’s 1983, a blissfully analog time to be 17. Sometimes Elio’s parents persuade him to perform for guests at the rambling villa in Northern Italy where they live during school vacations. One guest in particular — an American graduate student named Oliver, who is with them for six weeks — sparks Elio’s interest. As their initially tentative friendship evolves into something more intense, Elio engages in some musical showboating for Oliver’s benefit. He plays a bit of Bach on the guitar and then moves to the piano, banging out the same passage in the style of Liszt and then in the manner of “Busoni playing the way Liszt would have done it.”

Timothée Chalamet, the 21-year-old actor who plays Elio, demonstrates similar virtuosity, but with nothing like Elio’s level of needy display. Luca Guadagnino’s film, one of three movies in which Chalamet appeared this year (the others are “Hostiles” and “Lady Bird”), is lush, sensual and elusive, driven less by plot than by mood. The moods that keep it in motion — languorous, horny, impatient, ecstatic — belong principally to Elio. Or, rather, he belongs to them.

The conventional way to deal with a young man’s first sexual experience involving another man is as a coming-out story in which an unacknowledged but pre-existing identity is brought to the surface of consciousness and experience. What happens to Elio is a more ambiguous and open-ended process of self-invention. Every aspect of his life — erotic, domestic, intellectual, social — is like that Bach medley. He tries out various styles with flair, irony and a kind of amazed delight in himself and his awakening appetites. Chalamet seems to match Elio’s exuberance, to share his devotion to experimentation and limit-pushing and, before our eyes, to evolve from precociousness to mastery. A.O.S.

Andy Serkis

Film: War for the Planet of the Apes

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20th Century Fox

Here’s the short, incomplete explanation of how performance-capture works: An actor puts on a contraption that helps record the contortions of his face and body. That recording is then used to animate a creature whose movements have a peculiar lifelikeness. To play Caesar, the president of the apes in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Andy Serkis had to wear such a get-up. He’ll never be sufficiently lauded for the grace and solemnity of his performance as Caesar. His mastery of this wing of acting might always be perplexing. How do you know what we’re seeing? But if Caesar moves you, the experience beats seeing Serkis. You’re feeling him. He so harmonizes with the technology that he manages to transcend it. It’s tempting to say he is the Daniel Day-Lewis of performance-capture acting. But what if Daniel Day-Lewis is really the Andy Serkis of regular acting?

By this third installment of the latest “Apes” series, Caesar is a being of fury, grief and purpose. He speaks in low, oddly elegant grunts. For stretches, he does a lot of crouching, standing and watching. There’s barely any of his motion to capture. And yet he remains the movie’s emotional center of gravity. This beast couldn’t be more dissimilar from Serkis’s Gollum, from the “The Lord of the Rings” movies — a tinier, hairless, lizardly villain. His hissed speech was a kind of demonic possession. The inner conflict Serkis evoked as Gollum becomes grand yet wary rectitude with Caesar.

As with Gollum, one key to the “Apes” performance is in the eyes. They’re not roiled here. They’re pebbles. You’d never think anything so tiny could be so mesmerizing, but they’re essential to the moral seduction of these new “Apes” movies and maybe even to the performance-capture enterprise as practiced by Serkis: They make man root against mankind. The perverse empathy we feel for the apes comes from how thoroughly awful humans are made to seem. The rest comes from what a convincing leader Serkis makes Caesar. You really would follow him to paradise, to war and even to your death. W.M.

Cynthia Nixon

Film: A Quiet Passion

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Credit
Seacia Pavao/Music Box Films

I’ll confess that I am biased both for and against literary biopics. For, because I worship writers; against, because I hold to the unfashionable belief that all we need to know about them can be found in their work. What was Emily Dickinson like? The jagged lines, slanting rhymes and metaphysical drama of her poems should be sufficient to bring you into her mind and world.

But it’s also true that the meeting of that mind and that world — a mind that seems as bracingly modern as its environment seems quaintly antique — is an endlessly fascinating subject. “A Quiet Passion,” Terence Davies’s restless and lyrical chronicle of Dickinson’s life, poses apparently guileless questions: Where did this poet come from? Who was she when she was at home?

The answer is supplied by Cynthia Nixon, who faces the challenge of filtering Dickinson’s obscurity through the inevitable lens of her own celebrity. If anything is the opposite of “Sex and the City,” it is surely the life of Amherst’s most famous recluse. She’s all about chastity and the countryside. While Nixon’s Emily is no Miranda, she is smart, silly, sociable, principled and above all engaged with everything and everyone. She gossips and giggles with her beloved sister, defers to her fearsome father and rolls her eyes at dull visitors. When she learns that her brother has been unfaithful to his wife, she reacts with the fury of a woman betrayed. The solitude of her poetic labor is balanced and fed by the richness of her domestic surroundings. At home and on the page, she is the same person: quizzical, mercurial, terrifyingly perceptive.

“If your nerve deny you,” Dickinson wrote, “go above your nerve.” At times in “A Quiet Passion,” Nixon is nothing but nerve, abuzz with thoughts and sensation that can hardly be contained by the sober, Christian, patriarchal society she lives in. But as Emily accepts those constraints, enclosing herself within an ever-narrowing circle of activity and acquaintance, Nixon’s voice and body vibrate at a higher frequency, and we find ourselves beholding one of the most plausible and powerful depictions of genius ever committed to film. A.O.S.

Saoirse Ronan

Film: Lady Bird

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Credit
Merrick Morton/A24

It has been apparent for at least a decade — let’s say since “Atonement,” which you may have forgotten had anyone else in it — that Saoirse Ronan can do anything. Even as a young teenager, she clearly possessed Streep-level discipline and versatility and also the kind of relentless, fearless, unshowy honesty most often associated with great French actresses like Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert.

In “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, Ronan proves she can do anything by doing something that may sound easy: playing an ordinary American high-school student. “Ordinary” is hardly fair, though. Lady Bird McPherson (also known, to her great annoyance, as Christine) is typical only by virtue of the circumstances over which she has no control. She has parents who love her and drive her crazy, a school that is neither paradise nor prison, a loyal best friend and various other romantic and social temptations. She is in no way exceptional and in every way unique — a marvelous paradox that has rarely been captured with such wit.

In the course of a little more than 90 minutes of screen time, Lady Bird fights with her mom (the astonishing Laurie Metcalf), loses her virginity and applies to college. She auditions for the school musical, goes to prom, dabbles in pretentiousness and stands by her dubious musical taste. She is intelligent and thoughtless, timid and defiant, generous and mean. She grows like an artichoke thistle: spiky and layered and aware, even if no one else is, of her inner radiance.

Ronan navigates each swerve in Lady Bird’s story with an uncanny combination of self-confidence and discovery. She is as spontaneous and unpredictable as an actual 17-year-old — someone you know, someone you were — which suggests an altogether stupefying level of craft. You could say she makes it look easy but being young is never easy. Better to say that Ronan makes being Lady Bird looks exactly as hard as it is. A.O.S.

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