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The 16 Best Film Performances by Actors in 2018

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.

10. Hugh Grant, “Paddington 2”

“Paddington 2”

As washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan — an aging legend of the West End reduced to hosting carnivals and starring in dog-food commercials — Hugh Grant not only gets the best role of his career, he gets several of them. When Phoenix discovers that a young bear named Paddington Brown has found a pop-up book that doubles as a treasure map, he busts out his old costumes, dons a number of ridiculous disguises (a knight, a hobo, a very attractive nun), and puts on the performance of a lifetime in order to steal the book and frame Paddington for the crime; it’s like watching all six of his characters from “Cloud Atlas” squeezed into a single preening narcissist with a dastardly plan. The villainous part does a brilliant job of playing up Grant’s slightly misanthropic reputation, and the former rom-com star (himself a few years removed from his heyday) seems to be having the time of his life. He relishes in every ridiculous moment, radiating the self-obsessed desperation of a faded star who’s desperate to return to the limelight. Of course, all Phoenix really wants is a captive audience, and the mid-credits scene in which he finally gets one makes for the year’s greatest showstopper; in the world of “Paddington 2,” even the most selfish of people can redeem themselves by spreading the love. —DE

9. Daniel Kaluuya, “Widows”

Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in “Widows”

Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth

Watching Daniel Kaluuya in Steve McQueen’s “Widows” is like watching the actor for the first time. Channeling his inner Anton Chigurh, Kaluuya plays a sociopathic gangster with such a calm remorselessness that the film becomes a white-knuckle thriller every time he’s on-screen. The performance is miles away from Kaluuya’s American breakthrough in “Get Out,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor earlier this year. The actor removes every trace of empathy to play a stone-cold killer who relishes in the opportunity to simply create violence. In one of the film’s standout scenes, a long take that spirals around Kaluuya’s character as he taunts two men, the actor comes alive in a way that shocks the viewers to their core. McQueen’s movie is led by women, but it’s Kaluuya who walks away with every scene he’s in. —ZS

8. Brady Jandreau, “The Rider”

"The Rider" Score Composer Nathan Halpern

“The Rider”

Sony Pictures Classics

In Chloe Zhao’s naturalistic tale of a South Dakota rodeo rider whose head injury comprises his future, Jandreau more or less plays himself. The Chinese-born Zhao’s ability to burrow inside her leading man’s world is a feat unto itself, but Jandreau — a modern-day James Dean, with a distinctive mug that’s both sensitive and rugged — is so comfortable in front of the camera it’s almost as if he were born there. At no point does it seem as Jandreau is trying to “act,” and yet he’s fully believable in the confines of a scripted movie that makes him the center of slow-burn emotional journey. With the riveting finale, a final reckoning on par with “The Wrestler,” Jandreau becomes a true creature of cinema. Here’s hoping it gets to use more of him. —EK

7. Josh Hamilton, “Eighth Grade”

CGITW-8-3-17-488.RAF

“Eighth Grade”

Linda Kallerus

The epitome of a character actor, Josh Hamilton is one of those people that casting directors and filmmakers want to work with, on stage or screen, but who many of us don’t recognize from role to role. Hamilton is a shape-shifter chameleon who gets the job done without calling attention to himself. This year, he was extraordinary in two very different films, Ethan Hawke’s little-seen biopic “Blaze” (as a Texas musician) and Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” (as Kayla’s father). In “Eighth Grade,” he’s the parent we all wish we’d had: not intrusive or hand-wringing, but there to lend support and guidance. He knows Kayla has the right stuff, he has all confidence in her, but he also knows that while she’s got vlogging down, she’s struggling to make social contact. And at the end of the movie, he gives his daughter the all-time pep talk that a loving parent could ever give. —AT

6. Stephan James, “If Beale Street Could Talk”

"If Beale Street Could Talk"

“If Beale Street Could Talk”

Annapurna/YouTube

Roles for young black actors that require this kind of vulnerability are very rare in Hollywood, and Stephan James seizes the opportunity, stripping layers to reveal the humanity that lies inside all the Fonnys of the world. His work in Barry Jenkins’ loving adaptation also offers a rare depiction of tender love between a young black couple, thanks to the beautiful words of James Baldwin and the filmmaker’s skillful direction. James’ task was made even more challenging, given that the bulk of his scenes require him to perform seated behind a wall of glass, filmed in extreme close-up, looking directly into the camera. The expressiveness of his face tells a thousand tales, ensuring that every scene is kept alive, even when he must remain silent. Fonny’s journey from a naive hope and vitality, to the realization of his drifting away from his own dream, is captured in a nuanced, standout performance from a star very much on the rise. —TO

5. Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”

“At Eternity’s Gate”

CBS Films

Vincent van Gogh died at 37; Willem Dafoe is 61. Despite that age gap, Dafoe portrays the seminal artist in Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” with a physical and spiritual power not unlike his transcendent portrayal of Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” If eyes are windows to the soul, Dafoe’s gaze is the center of the film. As van Gogh looks at fields and trees and sky, he paints the vivid beauty he sees in a state of bliss. But he’s tongue-tied in front of a pretty French woman, and the local townspeople mock him, pushing him toward isolation and despair. He seeks comfort from his brother Theo, who supports his art, and fellow artist Paul Gaugin, who argues aesthetics with him. This performance marks a career best. —AT

4. Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" and Richard E. Grant as "Jack Hock" in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Photo by Mary Cybulski

After witnessing his performance as inveterate layabout Jack Hock, you might be surprised to learn that Richard E. Grant is not gay. (Though he is, reportedly, a massive Barbra Streisand fan.) Grant embodies Jack’s queerness from a cool remove, as evidenced in his deadpan delivery of this gutting line: “I have no one to tell. All my friends are dead.” There’s no swishy wrists here, just the playful cynicism of a man with nothing to lose. In a felt fedora and silk button-down, his Jack Hock is exactly the kind of sidekick every bitter lesbian writer needs. He’s quick-witted, drinks like a fish, and is of questionable moral character. Grant can access a deep well of sadness, too. He softens when his friend, the writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), won’t let him into her apartment because she’s embarrassed of how she lives. The kindness with which he promises her, “Lee, I don’t mind,” is a heartbreaking display of the dirtier parts of friendship. From his breakout role in “Withnail & I” to memorable turns in “Gosford Park” and “Jackie,” it’s high time this great talent is given his due. —JD

3. Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”

"A Star Is Born"

“A Star Is Born”

Warner Bros.

In a series of magical scenes in the first hour of “A Star Is Born,” we meet Jackson Maine, someone who may not be based on anyone in real life, but who feels utterly lived in all the same. He’s handsome but beat up. He’s a smooth, authentic performer and musician, but he drinks way too much. He stumbles into a drag bar and swoons when Ally (Lady Gaga), singing “La Vie en Rose,” lays down on the bar and looks him in the eye. Soon, Jackson is in her dressing room removing a plastic eyebrow, trying to see under the mask. Then, he is hearing her sing a song on the spot in a wee hours parking lot, a song he later drags her onstage to sing at a gigantic arena concert. Jackson falls for Ally, the real girl and the humongous talent, fresh, unsullied. But not for long. In the second half of Cooper’s remarkable directorial debut, we see married Jackson on the decline, succumbing to his insecurities and his demons, all while watching the rise of his wife, not unhappy for her success, but sorry to lose the pure talent he fell in love with. Cooper gives us every nuance of Jackson’s love for his gruff brother (Sam Elliott), his intimacies with Ally, his clear-eyed healthy sobriety, his despair and loss of hope. -AT

2. Steven Yeun, “Burning”

“Burning”

For all the terrifying moments we saw onscreen this year, nothing was more unsettling than a brief monologue in which Steven Yeun indirectly explains what “burning” truly means in Lee Chang-dong’s masterful thriller. That revelation won’t be spoiled here, but suffice to say that there’s more to his strange hobby — “sometimes I burn down greenhouses,” he says; “you can make it disappear as if it never existed” — than it seems. Yeun, best known for his work on “The Walking Dead,” is hauntingly understated in a role that requires him to be nothing less than a slow-burning fuse threatening to engulf everyone around him at any moment. It’s on the strength of his performance, as well as those of Yoo Ah-in and Jeon Jong-seo, that “Burning” lights up the screen so vibrantly. —MN

1. Ethan Hawke, “First Reformed”

“First Reformed”

Ethan Hawke is such a reliable force in American cinema that moviegoers often take him for granted; fortunately, Paul Schrader’s riveting meditation on dark times and one crazed man’s call to action is such an intense snapshot of Hawke’s skill that it forces viewers to pay attention. At the center of every scene, Hawke’s Reverend Toller suggests what might’ve happened if Travis Bickle went through a midlife crisis and found God, then receded into the darkness of his paranoid obsessions. As he narrates the proceedings, the Reverend grapples with how to help the young parishioner who comes crying for help, while contemplating a corrupt world and contending with his own church’s compromised position within it. Hawke’s deep, troubled gaze conveys the psychological instability of a man with the potential to save the world or destroy it, depending on how you choose to see things. The brilliance of this performance is that he lets you see it both ways. —EK

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