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Here are 30 scenes, songs, shots, looks, reactions, line-readings, gestures, dance breaks, and whatnot that have stuck with me from some — but not all — of my favorite performances from across film, television, music, and theater this year.
1. The family dinner from hell that opens the jaw-dropping finale of Sharp Objects contains two master classes from Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson in which their adversarial characters size each other up from across the table with nary an explicit threat traded between them. As Camille weighs her options, at long last understanding the full extent of her mother’s treachery, Adams turns strategic thought into an urgent yet subdued spectacle through a series of frosty, silent, and decisive stares; meanwhile, Clarkson’s meticulous micro-expressions betray Adora’s gradually dawning comprehension of her daughter’s incriminating knowledge. In one gobsmacking close-up, Clarkson’s pleasant facade slackens into a grimace at she looks at Adams head-on, her eyes dilating infinitesimally with recognition as specks of light hit her irises, the malevolence buried beneath them suddenly and unaccountably materializing. This is an effect owed in no small part to painstaking cinematographer Yves Bélanger, but even more so to the consummate Clarkson, who, together with Adams, continues to advance the art of screen acting by preserving its physical purity.
2. In Lincoln Center’s magnificent revival of My Fair Lady, Lauren Ambrose’s Eliza Doolittle sings “I Could Have Danced All Night” as though she’s nursing a fresh and private fantasy of self-fulfillment, not simply recycling the beats of giddy romantic infatuation that typically characterizes this song. She’s not envisioning a suitor but an entire world for the taking. When Ambrose steps away from this production’s mammoth and stately set mid-song, she modestly lays the foundation for Eliza’s final, breathtaking flight, showing that there is plenty of new and even radical life to be found in one of the American theater’s most venerated musical treasures.
3. In a just awards season, Sakura Andô would be a frontrunner in this year’s Best Supporting Actress race for her tender and tough-minded work in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters. As Nobuyo, the maternal figure in the drama’s makeshift family, Andô indicates the insuperable hurt in a character whose full history of pain isn’t made clear until the film's final act. This history informs every aspect of Andô’s performance, especially during an indelible heartbreaker of a scene in which Nobuyo talks to Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), an abused and neglected girl illegally taken under her wing. Sitting in front of the cathartic flames of a fire that consume the clothes Yuri was found in, Nobuyo wraps the young girl in her arms and holds her close, telling her, in the certain terms of a survivor, that no one should have to bear the violence that she has born. Andô threatens to dissolve into tears as Sasaki gently caresses her cheek, but she valiantly withstands the urge. Hers is the guarded face of a woman who will never understand why people inflict pain on one another, much less deprive those closest to them of the love and care that every being deserves.
4. No image from this year quicker imprinted itself on my heart than that of Yalitza Aparicio’s Cleo sitting upright in a hotel room bed with a coy Mona Lisa smile arched across her mouth, taking closely-guarded pleasure in her suitor’s stark-naked martial arts presentation in the beginning of Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA. This new love will soon turn against Cleo, but for now, she is just content to bask in its raw and immediate intimacy, as are we.
5. Donald Glover’s Atlanta has managed to subvert the cliché of the fed-up, put-upon girlfriend largely through the emotionally-attuned character-building of Zazie Beetz. In “Helen,” Beetz’s Van lays it out straight for Glover’s Earn: play five games of table tennis to determine the fate of their relationship; if she wins, the two split for good. The actress nails two auras at once: spiritual exhaustion and athletic drive. Every bone in Beetz’s body slumps with fatigue, but the fire of her playing clues us into the character’s mindset: Van may not want to win, but she knows she’s going to. And after years of letting Earn come first, this time, she’ll allow herself the victory — a victory that is also a kind of defeat.
6. See above. Watch it once, then watch it again and take in the full spectacle of this simple dance break set to O.T. Genasis’ “Everybody Mad” during Beyoncé’s historic show at Coachella. Now, quick: name another star who performs with this much passion and precision; who thinks this deeply about things like color, concept, and meaning, and then manifests them with rigorous organization; who inspires the same amount of vitality in her army of dancers and instrumentalists that she confidently exudes in her every waved arm, rolled shoulder, and popped knee. Name another star who does all of this with nary a bead of visible sweat. You can’t. She takes the cake, every single time. All hail the Queen.
7. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is, above all else, an enthralling showcase for the expressive power of Olivia Colman, who can wring every ounce of comedic potential out of a thin piece of dialogue and find more conflicting moods within one close-up than the average actor does in a lifetime. As Colman’s infirm Queen Anne watches Rachel Weisz’s Duchess Sarah parade around the dance floor with a young baron at a palace soirée, Lanthimos zeroes in tightly on Colman’s face, comically decked out in ghastly white powder and crimson lipstick. Without the aid of any words, the actress shows us Anne attempting and quickly failing at joviality, simmering with envy before her entire expression crumples with ungovernable rage at seeing the clandestine love of her life assign her attention to another. This miniature tour de force is funny, tragic, and illustrative of what is so astonishing about Colman’s whole performance, which unsparingly cuts a royal figure right back down to the size of life.
8. Viola Davis is a deserted island as the bereaved ringleader at the center of Steve McQueen’s Widows. In certain scenes, when the character’s sorrow can no longer be contained, it spills out overpowering fits, only to be shored back up, tears wiped away and appearances kept. There is a split-second shot that occurs midway through the movie and its sheer devastation is impossible to shake: Davis’ Veronica, her eyes frozen with dread and her face inanimate, opens to door to the bedroom in which the boy she brought into the world once rested and dreamed. To linger on this expression would probably be too much to bear. In this single moment, Davis says more about the inescapability of a mother’s grief than Martin McDonough managed to do throughout the entirety of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The shot lasts only a second, but Davis, that powerhouse, conveys the full weight of a woman forcing herself to stare into the void: an empty room where her child no longer sleeps but where her heart will always be buried.
9. Elizabeth Debicki delivered two faultless supporting performances this year that should, by all means, make this technically brilliant performer a household name. The more acclaimed of the two is in Widows, in which Debicki plays a Polish-American woman discovering a new sense of self under illicit circumstances to humorous, poignant, and endlessly alluring effect. Jennifer Fox’s filmic memoir The Tale, a far more difficult work to stomach than McQueen’s mainstream caper, is a reckoning with the director’s own past that showcases Debicki to equal perfection. The actress is a statuesque and self-possessed marvel as Mrs. G, the English wife of an older country doctor and a predatory temptress who routinizes, romanticizes, and normalizes the abuse of our protagonist’s 13-year-old self. Debicki threatens to incinerate the screen during a final, imagined interview that is played directly to camera and finds an unrepentant Mrs. G refusing to shoulder the blame for any perceived wrongdoing. In The Tale, the past pierces like shards of glass in a cracked mirror, and Debicki, who puts an unblinking human face to subhuman treachery, cuts deeper than anyone.
10. Few contemporary actors in 2018 have better embodied the idea of acting as being than The Deuce’s Dominique Fishback. Her deep-feeling performance as Darlene, a sex worker attempting to find a more gratifying life for herself outside of the trade, is a constant delight: a rounded and engrossing portrait of a woman deep in the process of self-enforced evolution. As Darlene bids farewell to her longtime pimp Larry (the exceptional Gbenga Akinnagbe) in the series’ season two finale, a beaming, unruffled Fishback radiates poise and pluck, striding into a sunny horizon that she has envisioned and achieved for herself. Darlene’s future may be uncertain, but Fishback has ensured that she is ready to face it, no matter the costs. The actress has thus given her character one of the most generous of gifts — that of fearlessness.
11. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade counts on cringes of recognition from viewers who have survived the specifically unbearable experience of middle school in America and actively avoid any return visits down this most mortifying of memory lanes. But actress Elsie Fisher widens Burnham’s lens by focusing on the emotional ramifications of the triumphs and setbacks encountered by her brave and beautiful Kayla. Of the many moments to cherish in this incandescent breakthrough, the one I keep returning to is the character’s staggering, wide-eyed, hyperventilating freakout over a new high school friend’s over-the-phone invitation to hang out at the mall. We talk a lot about the importance of universal stories in film. Fisher, however, tells a truly universal story all on her own, making Kayla's development understandable to anyone who has ever shrieked with glee at realizing their world is a little less lonely than once believed.
12. It is obvious from the beginning of Amazing Grace, when Aretha Franklin takes her seat behind the piano in Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church to record her titular gospel album in January of 1972, that she was not singing for the ecstatic crowd gathered to watch a monument in the making, but singing for the music, pure and simple. What makes this long-withheld documentary so indispensable is the unobstructed view it provides us of a genius in the throes of her difficult but necessary process. As Franklin surrenders herself to song after song, we see the physical strain and uninterrupted focus that were vital in fulfilling her artistic perfectionism: clamping her eyes shut during her cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and for many numbers thereafter; gripping the pulpit for strength as she wails to the heavens on “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” her mascara running, beads of sweat studding her face and glistening in the light. She is plumbing the depths of these songs and it shows. When Franklin allows herself the occasional smile, it is only because she has come across a pocket of spiritual nourishment within a note or lyric that no other artist in this or any era will ever uncover again. Aretha Franklin was born with a voice that occurs not so much once in a lifetime as once in all of creation. Franklin was given this talent; her mastery, on the other hand, is something she refined, reworked, and bestowed upon herself.
13. Just months after making an electrifying New York stage debut in People, Places & Things, Denise Gough brought her masterful deadpan and surfeit of creativity to the pill-addicted, self-deluding Mormon housewife Harper in the first-ever Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s landmark Angels in America. There is no more perfect piece of writing in Kushner’s mammoth play than Harper’s final monologue in Perestroika, a transcendent address to the audience about the “painful progress” of the troubled world that makes and takes us. Placing full trust in Kushner’s spectacular, aching words, Gough diminished her own presence in order to foreground the hope and despair that are inextricable across the span of existence. Gough sealed this monologue by blowing a tiny, farewell kiss to the audience, solidifying our connection to the character with the loveliest gesture imaginable. If true actors prioritize meaning over the self-serving need to impress then Gough is one of the truest we have working today.
14. Sara Colangelo’s remake of The Kindergarten Teacher is yet another announcement that few actors working today are more adept at penetrating the surfaces of difficult, even polarizing, women than Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose titular character Lisa finds a new motivation in life — and subsequently abandons reason and sanity — when she discovers that her student Jimmy (adorable Parker Sevak) is a poetry prodigy. The languid, lived-in quality with which Gyllenhaal uses her body and voice always appears to entrench the actress in her characters, leaving little distance between the two. In one of her most thrilling scenes, Lisa brings her own poetry teacher (Gael García Bernal) to his knees, quite literally, in one doozy of an office hours session that foregrounds Gyllenhaal’s gift for subtle, instinctual, and layered portraiture. Who’s really seducing who here? The mercurial emotions that play across Gyllenhaal’s face refuse to resolve the matter, instead keeping all options and motivations enticingly open.
15. There’s a shot in Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls in which Regina Hall’s Lisa, the overwhelmed breastaurant manager at the center of this workplace comedy, has a long-overdue moment of clarity: she realizes that she is at long last done with the drudgery and disrespect of this job and walks out for good shortly thereafter. Hall, who continues to peel back layer after layer of her versatility, plays this shift with pinpoint exactness. Something plainly changes in Lisa when she actually speaks the idea of leaving out loud. As she takes off the appeasing mask of her position, Hall’s body loosens, her eyes grow limpid, and a tranquilizing relief seems to wash over her. The actress plunges into this state and stays there, simultaneously allowing the viewer to experience the moment with the same breath-catching surprise that suffuses her character.
16. Glenda Jackson bit into her Tony-winning role as A, the dying yet iron-fisted woman at the center of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, with the ravenous ferocity with which a starving woman might attack a bloody steak. Jackson took such visible relish in enacting this imperious creature’s outbursts and reproaches, using her rail-thin body with a vigor that could wipe out a battalion. But the moment in Jackson’s performance that remains clearest in my mind is one of quiet reflection, as Jackson's A, clasping hands with costars Laurie Metcalf and Allison Pill, playing younger versions of the character, comes to the stark realization that one only achieves true happiness in life when it’s over, when the suffering and striving comes to an end and one finally has permission to stop. Jackson’s serene body, at times maintaining the stillness of a perished heart, will haunt anyone who had the privilege to witness this galvanizing theatrical event.
17. Regina King embodies the very soul of support as Sharon, mother-in-law of a wrongfully incarcerated black man, in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. Whenever DP James Laxton casts his poetic light across her impossibly eloquent face, King seizes the attention as a means to expand and deepen the character’s inner life. In one knockout shot, the camera is a mirror that King courageously and speechlessly confides in; donning then removing a wig with palpable heaviness and sadness etched in her eyes, the actress reminds us anew of Sharon’s profound love for her children, as well as the paralyzing fear that there is nothing she can do to shield them — nor those they love — from the harm and hatred of others.
18. “Shallow” is the undeniable peak of Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, but “Always Remember Us This Way” is the number in which Lady Gaga’s Ally actualizes the declaration of the title. At the tail-end of a performance that approximates the closeness of the piano moments in Gaga’s own shows, Ally disrupts the person-to-person intensity of the love song she’s penned for Cooper’s character to face their rapt public, rousing them through simple acknowledgment of their existence. Her voice climbing an octave, she converts them into disciples in one fell swoop by including them in the memory she’s currently making.
19. The 86-year-old Elaine May, comedy pioneer and undersung titan of the New Hollywood era, didn’t need to prove a single damn thing in her eagerly anticipated return to the Broadway stage after over half a century in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery. And yet the unsparing, vanity-free performance that May delivers eight times a week announces itself like a revelation, an act of total submersion that finds the actress burying herself within the traumatized body of Gladys Green, an elderly, straight-shooting Manhattanite unforgivably betrayed by the vagaries of time and the mind in her later years. In the final, horrifying scene of Lonergan’s drama, May is wrenchingly undetectable as Gladys’ dementia finally consumes her whole, her parroting voice trying and failing to articulate scattered memories and retrieve long-gone loved ones, her frail body little more than a draining vessel, unable to be salvaged by the family members attending to her. May didn’t need to remind us of her rare theatrical genius; that she continues to do so with such selfless virtuosity is a feat of no small heroism.
20. Melissa McCarthy does some of her most moving work in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? when allowing her ever-crusty Lee Israel to let her guard down in front of the kindhearted bookstore owner played by Dolly Wells, who delivers such a genuine and truly underrated performance in a handful of scenes. When Lee and Wells' Anna sit down for what seems like dinner among friends but could potentially be a first date, the two actresses give every beat in their shared dialogue its due consideration, gauging the tenor of the other’s words, gestures, and silnces, vacillating on whether or not to act on their inchoate attraction. Wells’ sensitive reserve gives such dignity to the act of opening one’s heart, while McCarthy unsentimentally forces us to recognize the tragedy in Lee’s decision to keep hers shut.
21. At one point in Theresa Rebeck’s new play Bernhardt/Hamlet, the legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt rails against her lover, the playwright Edmond Rostand, for making her the inspiration of a subpar role in his latest work, Cyrano de Bergerac. As Bernhardt proclaims that ingenue roles are not only beneath her but beneath all women, I momentarily forgot that this is a highly fictionalized account of Bernhardt’s preparation for her historic turn as Hamlet, that she and Rostand were never lovers, and that this sentiment is very much a modern-day writer’s glorified notion of a nineteenth-century mentality. There’s one reason I forgot all of this, and that reason is the mighty Janet McTeer, who singlehandedly made this statement authentic through the thunderous conviction of her playing; her formidable bellow smacked the rafters and quaked the very stage upon which she stood. Despite her decades of compelling and chameleonic work across mediums, McTeer is never mentioned during conversations about our greatest living actors. It is about time we remembered her name.
22. The myriad ways that Mitski enunciates, elongates, and toys with title word of “Nobody,” a standout, clap-along banger from Be the Cowboy, are like a glorified act of hypnosis. In the chant that ends the track, the word suddenly becomes a medium and the song something like a seance. As the beats accelerates and her voice rises with insistency, Mitski conjures a dreamlover’s ghost with the eerie cool of a disco queen trying to dance away the yearning for just one more night.
23. Janet Mock’s spoken-word interludes are the glue that binds together Blood Orange’s majestic Negro Swan, on which the artist and activist provides narration for five songs, culled together from actual conversations with mastermind Dev Hynes. Mock’s bright and grounded truth-telling is a clarifying tonic for the mind in these dismal times, never more so than when espousing the values of being extra in a society that continually seeks to diminish the shine of LGBTQ people. At the end of “Orlando,” Mock announces, “You know what, my resolution, my eternal resolution will be to do too much,” and her laughter resounds like the call of a herald announcing the coming of a better day.
24. Janelle Monae’s soaring and pliable voice is the engine that powers “Pynk,” the artist’s joy-inducing ode to gender-busting fluidity, a track as politically resonant as it is immaculately constructed. Whenever Monae lifts her vocals from the lilting near-whispers of her verses to the clarion call of her celebratory, polyphonic chorus, she sends this irresistible anthem straight into the stars, mapping out a utopia unbound by patriarchal norms with a voice both rich with hope and as clear as a bell.
25. One of the many crowning glories of FX’s Pose is Indya Moore’s subtle and self-assured naturalism as Angel, a ball-walker and sex worker in 1980s New York. Pose may only be Moore’s second project, but their talents are evident from the start, in the character’s first encounter with Evan Peters’ Stan, a married suburban upstart who seeks out Angel’s services in the show’s pilot and eventually makes her into his live-in mistress. From the pier where Stan nervously picks up Angel to the motel room where the two carefully begin to open their hearts to one another, Moore magnetizes our gaze and the camera’s by living completely in the moment. They actively listens to their fellow actor, free of the stress that tenses his body, and peers at him with a stare so kind and curious that Peters looks as though he could reside in their wonderstruck eyes forever. Angel and Stan’s fateful courtship is aided immeasurably by a brilliant, recurring use of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God),” a masterpiece whose genius requires no further endorsement. Moore’s performance here never denies the financial security that Angel seeks to gain from this relationship, but it also acknowledges a greater, more important need. The performer embodies the bottomless empathy that Bush begs for throughout her finest song, cutting straight to the feeling of the words “Let’s exchange the experience” with a grace entirely their own.
26. Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour is an album we’ll return to for succor and solace for years to come, an infectious and uncompromised collection of shimmering country-pop gems whose lyrics knowingly oscillate between cheek and earnestness. Musgraves finds a happy blend of the two in her gorgeous album opener, “Slow Burn,” a languid, enveloping, open-eyed tribute to free and easy living that is an unbridled pleasure to get lost in. As the singer-songwriter tokes up and gazes at the world around her with contemplative, unhurried wonder, her calm and crystalline vocals demonstrate that there is still such splendor to be found when one holds fast to artistic sincerity.
27. Eve and Villanelle’s inevitable meeting on Killing Eve produces a corker of a conversation that is elevated, like the whole series, by the outstanding and psychologically astute turns of Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. As their characters share a tense and uneasy dinner, these commanding actresses momentarily slink away from their roles as predator and prey, unmaking personal intimidation with a dry swallow or noticeable blink. Their characters are still obsessively on the hunt for one another, but they’re also occupying a zone that is disquietingly and often amusingly human. As performers, Oh and Comer keep upping the stakes of this encounter with redoubtable commitment and individual invention that dares the other to match or surpass her costar’s ingenious choices. In short, game recognizes game, and raises it.
28. Even when singing about heartbreak, Robyn’s voice is a one-way ticket to the sublime. The synth-heavy production on Honey’s title single is as impeccable in its understated construction as Robyn’s pop tends to be, but it’s the sheer human warmth of her straightforward delivery that makes this song truly sing. When Robyn drags out the final word in the line, “But down in the deep the honey is swee-ter,” her joy is practically tangible, capable of cheering even the loneliest of hearts. It may last for a matter of seconds, but it’s an instance of bliss one could live in.
29. Has any performer in recent years implied more by doing less than Keri Russell on The Americans? As Elizabeth Jennings, Russell’s minimalist triumph hinged upon a deft ability to signal decades of buried trauma and accumulating regret within actions as muted as a flick of the eyelids or a narrowing of the gaze, each one timed for maximum impact. Russell hews so close to her chosen form of painstakingly-calculated restraint throughout the bulk of the drama’s six seasons that when Elizabeth breaks down on a train in the series finale, the effect is like that of a pin being pulled from a grenade. The shellshocked look that sweeps across Elizabeth’s face devastates all the more because it emanates from a character so self-controlled in all her choices that she forgot she was incapable of controlling the choices of others. That Russell plays even this moment with relative delicacy is a testament to her own unabated control.
30. Those who missed or skipped Antonio Méndez Esparza’s exquisite neorealist drama Life and Nothing More during its limited theatrical run this fall should rectify the situation immediately, if only to witness the stupendous, no-frills performance of nonprofessional actor Regina Williams in her screen debut. Playing a struggling truck-stop waitress and exasperated single mother of two in Tallahassee, Florida, Williams galvanizes by playing the truth of each scripted situation, shading her reactions with hard-hitting subtext that remains emotional without growing sentimental. In a late scene, Williams’ character, also named Regina, asks a judge for clemency on behalf of her teenage son (Andrew Bleechington), who has run into trouble with the law. Whereas a lesser actor might have been tempted to embroider the moment with teary-eyed hysterics, Williams keeps her appeal direct, measured, and matter-of-fact. The actress knows the quiet power that her character evinces by simply holding her head high and unbowed in the face of a prejudicial body of power that would like nothing more than to break her down.
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