Performances are often the first thing singled out about a film — a tossed-off “she was good in it” or a vague “he didn’t really seem right for the role” can typically be heard while walking out of a theatrical viewing experience — but judging the merits of an actor in any given project requires a lot more than that. The best actors go beyond the boundaries of traditional acting to deliver a wholly unique experience.
This year has played home to a number of performances that go the extra mile, including roles that run the gamut from lead to supporting, from blockbusters to arthouse offerings, from some of the biggest films of the year and offerings that are still trying to find their audience, and everything in between.
Ahead, IndieWire breaks down 16 of the best male performances of the year.
16. Ryan Gosling, “First Man”
The most irritating criticism tossed about this awards season is that Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” is somehow cold — perhaps proof that displays of emotional excess are required for a film to feel “warm.” Gosling’s Neil Armstrong is, in every respect, deep feeling. The fact he doesn’t put those feelings right on the surface allows Gosling to draw the audience in and inhabit this character’s rich interior life. So much of his performance derives from Chazelle’s repeated shot/eyeline-match shot editing around the character: he presents intense close-ups of Gosling’s face, sometimes just his eyes, and then cuts to what he’s seeing — whether its his daughter’s baby bracelet, the seagull he glimpses outside his capsule while awaiting liftoff, or the surface of the moon itself — so the audience is on this journey with him every step of the way. It’s hard to remember the last film that was this intensely focused on the power of looking, and that Gosling was able to give himself over so completely to Chazelle’s direction is actorly humility at its finest. Gosling’s achievement in “First Man” is not unlike that of Armstrong himself: to be the public face of a heroic collective achievement. —CB
15. Steve Buscemi, “The Death of Stalin”
“Veep” goes to the Soviet Union in Armando Iannucci’s brilliant satire, which is hilarious and disturbing at once. While the entire ensemble of scheming would-be despots deliver the comic goods, it’s Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev who remains the most endearing punchline throughout. He’s an evil man, but his commitment to the absurd task of fighting for power is just a few steps shy of adorable. Buscemi is always a smarmy delight, but he really delivers the goods this time around. Consider the moment he arrives late to evaluable Stalin’s death, in his pajamas (“Because I act!”) or explaining why he’s written out the words “Malenkov K-K-K” in his journal, a slapstick reveal that simply doesn’t translate to the written word. Buscemi doesn’t, either. You have to experience his darting eyes and futile gestures to truly experience the magic of a man who excels at blowing his top and slipping on the banana peel. This new context for experiencing Buscemi’s talents — as a horrible power-hungry monstrosity, spouting foul-mouthed orders in every direction — gives the actor one of his most enjoyable roles in years, a salty riff on the corruptive nature of governance that feels especially timely and timeless at once. —EK
14. Michael B. Jordan, “Black Panther”
Michael B. Jordan’s electrifying performance as Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther” positions him as one of the greatest movie superhero villains, right up there with Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto in the “X-Men” franchise. Already undeniably magnetic on screen, Jordan devours every scene his character is in, realistically channeling Killmonger’s fury by rooting it in childhood betrayal and racial injustice. The role provided an opportunity to portray a troubled character that’s miles away from Jordan himself, and unlike any other he’s played. His intense preparation for the role has been well-documented: digging deep into the character’s history, keeping daily Killmonger journals, and staying in character throughout production, isolating himself from the rest of his cast. He gets entirely lost in the role — a decision that sent the actor into a very dark place in order to convincingly deliver a performance that ensured audiences empathized with Killmonger’s plight. The best villains are those who see themselves as heroes of their own stories, and Jordan’s embodiment of the character’s personal stakes justifies Killmonger’s wrath — making an already good movie, with present-day thematic resonance, into a great one. —TO
13. Alex Wolff, “Hereditary”
By the end of the first act of Ari Aster’s revelatory and unsettling feature filmmaking debut, Peter Graham’s (Alex Wolff) fate is sealed, he just doesn’t know it. A family drama trussed up in horror tropes, “Hereditary” follows the fractured Graham family in the aftermath of their grandmother’s death, their grief and shared secrets leading to some shocking, but inevitable conclusions. Just a sad-eyed teenager when the film starts, it’s Peter who finds himself most transformed by the terror that seems to follow the Grahams like death, kickstarted by a frantic, heart-pounding sequence that turns the entire film on its head before it even reaches its halfway point. It’s clear from the start that Peter’s fickle attempt at normalcy by way of a high school party won’t end well — his mom (Toni Collette) has forced him to take his weird little sister (Milly Shapiro), and she soon ingests a cake filled with an allergen — but the fallout is beyond anything, even reason. As Peter careens down the highway, desperate to get his choking sibling to safety, Aster zeroes in on Wolff’s expressive face, which cycles through every emotion and fear with startling believability. The car ride doesn’t end as he’d expect, and Aster never pulls away, forcing Wolff-as-Peter to continue acting out feeling after horrible feeling. Things will only get worse for Peter from there, but Wolff has never been better. —KE
12. John C. Reilly, “The Sisters Brothers”
As the softer half of the titular Sisters Brothers, assassins working during the height of the Gold Rush, John C. Reilly has the more complicated role in Jacques Audiard’s contemporary take on the classic American Western. Through the eyes of this Frenchman, American masculinity is in crisis, and Reilly’s Eli Sisters is the perfect embodiment of the stifling conflict between male hardness and human sensitivity. The film offers gunfights as comical as any Quentin Tarantino bloodbath, but Eli’s slow awakening to a simpler life is its own little tragicomedy. The way Reilly examines a toothbrush, then awkwardly pushes it around his mouth in awe, is a master class in physical humor. He has an excellent scene partner in Joaquin Phoenix, who as the hard-drinking Charlie makes the perfect foil to Eli’s sensitive hit man. But, this being the Wild West, things don’t always go as planned. The script asks a lot of Reilly, and delightfully but not surprisingly, he delivers. —JD
11. John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”
Tonally, “BlacKkKlansman” walks a bit of tightrope. There’s an absurdity – as Spike Lee likes to highlight – built into its six-word premise: “A black cop infiltrates the Klan.” And while Lee joyfully plucks the satirical cords, there’s also the horror of it all, a horror Lee keeps us constantly aware is outside the walls of our 2018 theater as much as it is up on the screen. Anchoring virtually every scene of this see-saw is John David Washington, who has an ease that rivals his father’s intensity, as his character navigates three opposing worlds, all of which he doesn’t quite belong in. And yet he finds genuine chemistry with a partner (Adam Driver) who doesn’t want to help, love from a black empowerment student leader (Laura Harrier) who can’t respect his profession, and admiration from the Klan leaders who (literally) can’t see his skin color. Underneath the earnest charm, Washington gives us glimpses of how uncomfortable and lonely it is for Ron Stallworth – a character he and Lee beautifully explore as Stallworth wakes up to the reality of burning crosses outside the window. —CO
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