For many reasons, 2017 was an important year to celebrate actresses, and there were many great women in front of the cameras. However, this year’s best performances by men also stood out for pushing against commercial standards and delivering some of the most exciting characters of the year: Men conflicted about their desires, their responsibilities, and their identities as a whole. While a few of these roles may look more traditional than others, none of them are easy, and as a whole they stand out as major accomplishments that either challenge conventional notions of masculinity or scrutinize them with renewed vigor.
Of course, many of the best male performances of 2017 aren’t great because they’re guys; they’re great because they’re memorable performances, period — loaded with intrigue, thrills, and pathos. Here’s the best of the bunch.
15. Harris Dickinson, “Beach Rats”
For his very first feature, British actor and filmmaker Harris Dickinson didn’t shy away from some significant challenges. As the star of Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats,” Dickinson appears in nearly every frame, tasked with striking a delicate balance between rough-and-tumble teen and a young man struggling with his sexuality. His Frankie lives out parallel existences that threaten to not just bump up against each other, but to utterly annhilate each other. “Beach Rats” follows Frankie over the course of one summer, a season spent alternately lazing around with his rabble-rousing pals at the beach and exploring gay chatrooms via visits that steadily go from digital-only to all-too-real. When Frankie meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein), he gets a glimpse of what his life could be like, but that’s a choice that could mean denying his real feelings. It’s a hard-hitting, truth-telling look at the pains and pleasures of an unsure adolescence, and Dickinson shines in every single scene. He’s one to watch, closely. —Kate Erbland
14. Michael Fassbender, “Alien: Covenant”
20th Century Fox
Accurately identifying David as the dark, imperfectly coded soul of this new saga, “Alien: Covenant” doubles down on the most brilliant male performance any blockbuster has seen since Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” inviting Michael Fassbender to play two different androids and serve as both sides of a probing conversation about the fundamental nature of life in the universe. As the servile, golem-like Walter, Fassbender is disquietingly empty. As the ambitious, homicidal David, he’s terrifying and strangely sympathetic. Two of the year’s best turns squeezed into the same film, the dueling Fassbenders are so rich with existential terror that they reduce the Xenomorphs to an obnoxious afterthought, rendering one of cinema’s most iconic monsters second fiddle in their own movie. —David Ehrlich
13. Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
“Darkest Hour” screenwriter Anthony McCarten accurately remembers Churchill as a man in love with the sound of his own voice, and that quality alone is enough to make Gary Oldman the perfect choice to play him. One of the few actors whose performances are regularly big enough to be seen from space, Oldman has finally met his match. Here, for the first time, the star has found a character who’s larger than life itself; no matter how much hot air Oldman breathes into this balloon, it’s never going to pop. His Churchill might be the first lead performance in film history that’s delivered entirely in shouts, but it works so well because you can hear the tinges of doubt in his voice. Barely recognizable underneath 100 pounds of jowls, Oldman disappears into the role, fashioning a fallible Winnie (can we call him “Winnie?”) who is more bark than bite, but still manages to find the words to save his country. —DE
12. Colin Farrell, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”
David Mamet famously tells actors in his plays to emote as little as possible, preferring his words to speak for themselves. It’s quite rare to find an actor comfortable being emotionless, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Colin Farrell shows up in a Mamet play one of these days. We first heard the stilted, monotone speech pattern that gives Yorgos Lanthimos movies their distinct texture in “The Lobster.” Farrell builds on his unsettling vocal techniques and blank stares for “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” ratcheting up the dissonance to a fever pitch worthy of the year’s most highbrow horror film. It’s a fine line between doing less and doing nothing at all, and Farrell performs this high wire act with a workman-like serenity. Only up against the bone-chilling Barry Keoghan does his character show a sliver of human emotion, and Farrell is a master at hiding a quiet rage beneath his deadpan delivery. He’s come a long way from “S.W.A.T.” —Jude Dry
11. Kumail Nanjiani, “The Big Sick”
Thank Nanjiani and his “The Big Sick” for reviving the comatose rom-com genre with his winning Sundance gem. Penned alongside his real-life wife Emily V. Gordon — and charmingly dramatizing their own real-life love story — the film allows the bonafide comedic breakout the chance to add drama and pathos into his toolbox. Movie Kumail lands plenty of big jokes (it’s hard to imagine a better, ballsier gag about 9/11), but it’s his hard-earned journey from confused maybe-suitor to the kind of guy worth shaking yourself out of a coma for that’s really rewarding. Adeptly straddling the fun stuff with the tougher elements of a script that also pays loving and precise attention to the tension inherent in all families (especially the well-drawn ones that populate the film), Nanjiani emerges as the year’s best, bawdiest, and more satisfying romantic leading man. Love isn’t dead! —KE