30. John Cho as Jin in “Columbus”
To get personal for a moment, I don’t think you need to have had an Asian father who was well-respected in an intellectual field like architecture or, I don’t know, astrophysics, to relate to John Cho’s beautifully quiet, modulated performance in Kogonada‘s pristine debut “Columbus.” But I did have one of those, and can, therefore, vouch for the absolute authenticity of Cho’s portrayal of second-generation intergenerational culture-clash — that weird, rootless, abstract homesickness — that is magnified by his estranged father’s impending death. Playing off a radiant Haley Lu Richardson, Cho’s turn is more endothermic, but no less vivid and true.
29. Josh O’Connor as Johnny Saxby in “God’s Own Country”
Of all the arcs that a character can undergo, the ugly ducking transformation remains one of the most beguiling — even more so when it is as subtle, authentic and unexpected as in Francis Lee’s tough and tender Yorkshire-set love story. O’Connor had roles in “Bridgend” and “Florence Foster Jenkins” before now, but his turn here deserves to be as transformational for his career as the love affair is for his truculent, difficult character: without actually physically changing, his Johnny begins the film scowlingly angry and off-putting, and ends it lit from within with a new sense of self-worth, that makes him genuinely beautiful.
28. Andy Serkis as Caesar in “War For The Planet Of The Apes”
It looks like Andy Serkis’ performance capture turns in the recent Apes trilogy will once again be ignored at awards season time, which is a damn shame, because even more than his earlier pioneering work as Gollum, it was Serkis’ Caesar that really unleashed the potential of the technique. Thanks to WETA’s effects, Serkis has always utterly disappeared into the amazingly physical role, but it’s series closer ‘War’ that brought the most nuance and complexity into the character, thanks to Serkis making every facial movement, eye glance and strangled word count: the weight of the world feels on Caesar’s shoulders this time, and you only love him more for it.
27. Melanie Lynskey as Ruth Kimke in “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore”
Weirdly, given that she made her name playing an underage murderess, and that her great turn this year was in one of the bloodier movies of the year, few actresses inspire such warm feelings in us as Melanie Lynskey. Her presence is invariably a sign that at least one great performance will be in the movie, and the actress does some of her best work to date with a quietly demented, darkly hilarious turn in Macon Blair’s movie as an ordinary woman pushed into a darkly unfamiliar world by the petty indignities of life in 2017. Many could emphasize right now, but few aside from Lynskey could have made her both as likeable and as unhinged.
26. Michelle Pfeiffer as Woman in “mother!”
In a way, “mother!” is so much an assault on your senses rather than a chance to savor some great acting, so it’s not necessarily a showcase for acting talent (as much fun as everyone seems to be having). But the one performance we couldn’t go without mentioning is Michelle Pfeiffer, who dominates the early sections of the film. Playing a version of Eve or something, she vampirically devours the scenery, unbraced sink and all, a hurricane of bitchy glances and pure sexuality calibrated exactly to unsettle Jennifer Lawrence’s metaphorical heroine. Pfeiffer’s comeback year didn’t all work out (literally no one saw “Where Is Kyra?”), but it was justified for this.
25. Vicky Krieps as Alma in “Phantom Thread”
One does not simply walk into the fiery Mordor of Daniel Day-Lewis’ presence without getting at least singed. Some have tried and thoroughly failed (see the original Eli Sunday actor). The divine Vicky Krieps, however, is a different kind of creature and force, one that doesn’t need to go toe to toe with the actor — though she does give as good as she gets — rather like a softer amorphous spirit fluent in jiu-jitsu, she glides through scenes, calmly sidestepping DDL’s fury and fastidiousness and throwing it back at him with double the force. It’s tempting to measure her performance as it stands against DDL, but this would be a mistake as Krieps contains subtle, emotional, wicked multitudes. “Phantom Thread” is all about the dynamics of love, but also its power and control and while deceptively passive at first, when Krieps finally shows her true colors, whoo boy, watch the fuck out.
24. Claes Bang as Christian in “The Square”
50-year-old Danish actor and musician Claes Bang had a more than usually challenging role handed to him in Ruben Ostlund‘s Cannes winner. As Christian, the curator of a gallery of modern and experimental art, he is both the film’s protagonist, and in embodying the hypocrisies and delusions of the sophisticated set, its chief target. Somehow Bang walks that line brilliantly, exuding all the condescension and privilege of his rarefied position, but also just fractionally letting the mask slip at times, so we see the hesitant, frightened little animal inside, as it frantically beats against the gilded cage of his designer-rumpled suits, fancy dinners and urbane lifestyle.
23. Nicole Kidman as Celeste in “Big Little Lies”
In a year that ended in women finally getting vengeance (of a sort, with hopefully more to come) on (a tiny fraction of the) abusive men, perhaps it made sense that the first TV sensation of the year was “Big Little Lies.” And while all its women were wonderful, the most wonderful was Nicole Kidman. Her Celeste initially appeared to be the least complicated, the most surface, and the happiest of the central cast, but Kidman gradually stripped back the layers to reveal the way that she’d been physically and psychologically beaten down by husband Perry. It was a performance of almost staggering vulnerability, and the gradual strength that she managed to find to rid her life of him was one of the most moving things on any screen this year.
22. Saoirse Ronan as Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson in “Lady Bird”
It’s got to be intimidating to work for an actor-turned-director, but doubly so when you’re playing the lead in a movie that seems to be in some ways autobiographical for its helmer, or at least deeply personal. But Saoirse Ronan doesn’t skip a beat in playing the eponymous heroine of Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. Gerwig’s rhythms and tonal turns are tough things to navigate, but Ronan makes her performance feel like a dance, so effortless she is in the way she pulls it off. Few actresses have made the hormonal swings and bad decisions of adolescence feel so convincing.
21. Merritt Wever as Mary Agnes McNue in “Godless”
We never watched “Nurse Jackie,” for which Merritt Wever won an Emmy, but after her miniseries-stealing turn in Scott Frank’s “Godless,” we’d follow her just about anywhere. Wever played Mary Agnes, the new mayor of the nearly-man-free town at the show’s center, and with enormous wit and weary physicality created a woman who was at once strikingly modern — in love with Tess Frazer’s Callie, determined not to let the patriarchy get a foothold in town again — and very much a product of her time and place. She got most of the best lines, proved the biggest badass, and broke your hearts the most, and if a sequel ends up happening, it had better follow her.