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The 16 Best Film Performances by Actresses in 2018

In a year filled with extraordinary performances by some of our best actresses, rising stars, and fresh faces, these stood out.

10. Michelle Yeoh, “Crazy Rich Asians”

“Crazy Rich Asians”

The last many of us saw Michelle Yeoh before the romantic comedy broke box-office records and became the smash hit of the summer was as the wildly over-the-top Emperor of the Mirror Universe in “Star Trek: Discovery.” So needless to say, her role as Eleanor Sung-Young in “Crazy Rich Asians” was a palate cleanser. Her Eleanor is the absolute embodiment of dignity, grace, and sophistication — rarely virtues that come with wealth, but certainly ones that are necessary to command respect. And she’s a little scary too — at least to Constance Wu’s Rachel, the young Chinese-American economics professor who’s been wooed by her son. Yeoh’s skill as an actor is to make Eleanor so much more than a parental plot hurdle for our young lovers on their path to romantic bliss: from the striking opening scene, a flashback in which Eleanor buys a London hotel after its racist desk clerks deny her family a room, she makes you realize that this is someone whose steeliness comes from living in a world where she has to be better than everyone else just to be treated like everyone else. Killer Mahjong skills don’t hurt either. —CB

9. Natalie Portman, “Vox Lux”

"Vox Lux"

“Vox Lux”

Venice Film Festival

Writer-director Brady Corbet’s eerie, innovation meditation on pop stardom takes several turns in its first hour, long before Natalie Portman shows up — but once she does, the movie belongs to her. As the adult Celeste, a woman catapulted to stardom under tragic circumstances and devoured by the commercial infrastructure of modern fame, Portman throws all her energy into playing the dyspeptic, jaded outcome of the 21st century’s bumpy road. Yet this extraordinary embodiment of celebrity excess truly takes shape once Celeste takes the stage, in an acrobatic performance of original Sia songs that say more about the empty rage of a society high on its own supply than anything else out there today. Portman rises to the challenge — and exceeds it. —EK

8. Elizabeth Debicki, “Widows”

“Widows”

Steve McQueen’s most “commercial” offering yet — a meticulously crafted heist film about wily, wary women — is packed with uniformly excellent performances from its talented cast, including Viola Davis as the unlikely group’s steely leader, Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry as a pair of brothers who might not be as different as they seem, Lukas Haas in a tightrope supporting role, and continual breakout Cynthia Erivo who all but bursts out of the screen, but it’s Elizabeth Debicki who turns in the most finely tuned work of all. Debicki is one of those actresses who is consistently the best thing about any project she’s in, from the sublime (“The Tale”) to the at least partially ridiculous (“The Great Gatsby”), and “Widows” is no exception. There’s not a weak link in McQueen’s knotty thriller, but it’s Debicki who walks off with the film’s most emotionally resonant moments, playing even the most wrenching bits with her understated grace. Major revelations about her Alice are doled out through the faintest of glimpses and grimaces, and Debicki builds an entire backstory with a flick of her eyes. —KE

7. Tilda Swinton, “Suspiria”

Tilda Swinton, "Suspiria"

“Suspiria”

Amazon Studious

The avant-garde queen reunited with Luca Guadagnino for his remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, proving why the two are a match made in heaven. Swinton plays not one, but three parts in this contemporary witchy nightmare, set in a divided 1970s Berlin. As Madame Blanc, she is enigmatic, demanding, and bewitching, extracting a killer performance out of her fresh young pupil, the cornfed American Mennonite Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson). Tall and lanky, Swinton floats through the halls of her dance academy, her modern clothing hanging off of her, as if she is hiding something underneath the plumes. She’s the picture of fascism, all angles and curtness, doling out the flattery only when reeling Susie into her web. As the benevolent psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer, a role for which she is credited as Lutz Ebersdorf, Swinton is hidden behind a sheath of prosthetics. Creaky-voiced and weak, Klemperer is all physicality, as Swinton couches her considerable height behind the old man’s hunching shoulders. Still, in his final moments onscreen, you can see her emotions through the make-up, as she faces off with her other onscreen self. If anyone can pull it off, it’s Swinton. —JD

6. Elsie Fisher, “Eighth Grade”

“Eighth Grade”

A24

There’s no single scene in which Elsie Fisher suddenly becomes awkward middle schooler Kayla in Bo Burnham’s feature directorial debut “Eighth Grade.” It’s there from the start, fully formed. Burnham’s film debuted at Sundance in January, where the timely (and timeless) story of Kayla’s final weeks in the unique hell of eighth grade captures the full spectrum of modern middle-school life. Fisher, who had just finished her own middle-school years when the project filmed in summer 2017, brings a natural veracity to the role — here’s an actual kid, playing a kid, and bringing all that fresh experience with her — but her performance isn’t a shallow aping of her own life. Kayla’s initial introduction to the audience is a disarming one, a portent of the open and honest work to come. She stares straight into her computer, delivering a motivational speech about “being yourself” that she will upload to her YouTube channel, where it will languish alongside dozens of other cheery-faced pieces of footage that no one will ever bother to watch. She ends her video, like all the others, with a single word: “Gucci.” It’s a cool-kid thing, hip slang that the youngsters are using these days, and in Kayla’s voice, it sounds terribly wrong. It hurts. Within mere minutes of “meeting” Kayla, Fisher has delivered not just important information about her character, but actual emotions and a glimpse at the personal history that will influence her future. —KE

5. Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born”

"A Star Is Born"

“A Star Is Born”

Lady Gaga/YouTube

A lot of people may think this role wasn’t a stretch: one of the world’s most famous pop stars plays someone who becomes a world-famous pop star. But as Lady Gaga herself told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show” recently, her character, Ally, is considerably different. “She’s someone who’s given up,” Gaga said of Ally’s earliest moments in the film. Gaga’s drive led to her banging on doors asking for tryouts all over New York City when she was starting out. Her Ladyship is a force of nature, quite unlike the far more vulnerable and uncertain Ally, so the fact that she is able to let down and present a vision of a more fragile artist is itself a remarkable achievement. Unlike most actors who have to learn something in order to play their character, Gaga had to unlearn what she already knows in order to play Ally. This is a character built from the ground up, one who feels less like she was created and more like she was born. —CB

4. Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma”

“Roma”

Netflix

Some performances are so realistic they transcend the boundaries of acting altogether. Yalitza Aparicio’s mesmerizing turn as the domestic houseworker in Alfonso Cuarón’s intimate drama falls into this rarified category. The newcomer radiates with wide-eyed curiosity and determination throughout this wrenching journey, and even as she lacks the words to express the various challenges that complicate her life, her face radiates with profound wonder and sophistication. There are devastating moments where Cuarón didn’t brief his actress about the events transpiring onscreen, and Aparicio’s extraordinary reactions show just how much she was able to live in the moment. Some of the bigger twists of the movie could easily cascade into soapy melodramatic territory if Aparicio didn’t excel at transforming them into poetic meditations on the resilience of a difficult life. She’s the great survivor of 2018 in cinema, and in that regard, a true face of the times. —EK

3. Toni Collette, “Hereditary”

“Hereditary”

It speaks to the number of memorable performances we were gifted this year that Jamie Lee Curtis returning as the original scream queen in “Halloween” wasn’t even the best turn in a horror movie. That honor belongs to Toni Collette, who anchored 2018’s best genre offering while simultaneously exemplifying how absolutely insane it was. Many, if not most, great horror films are steeped in grief; Collette proves this as woman who loses both a mother and daughter while struggling to keep her remaining family intact (not to mention build those creepy dollhouses). Beset on all sides by evil forces, she goes through hell both figuratively and literally — all while remaining the most magnetic presence onscreen, which is saying a lot given her human and demonic co-stars. Restrained when she needs to be and all-out unhinged when she really needs to be, Collette is the matriarch we deserve. Hail Paimon! —MN

2. Helena Howard, “Madeline’s Madeline”

“Madeline’s Madeline”

With “Madeline’s Madeline,” writer-director Josephine Decker is creating a new kind of emotionally direct cinema that explores the limits of control and questions how — in an age when identity has become a veritable bloodsport — movies can reconcile the seemingly incompatible forces of empathy and representation. First-time film actress Helena Howard, who Decker discovered at a high school acting competition, is the engine that makes all that possible. An unstoppable force of nature from the moment that she appears on-screen, Howard doesn’t star in “Madeline’s Madeline” so much as the rest of the movie orbits around her. Her gravity, in the role of a neurologically fraught teen girl who finds some peace of mind in the experimental theatre troupe that starts creating a piece around her life, is what holds the entire thing together. Howard’s vital and reactive performance allows every scene to feel newly discovered, but not quite improvised; she’s as exposed as a heart on a hospital table, but also so powerful and expressive that the rest of the film and everyone in it seems to bend to her will. Impassioned monologues, interpretive dance sequences, improv in the middle of Times Square… Howard can do it all, her performance blurring the line between empathy and expression until it’s no longer possible to tell if you’re watching her act, or actually feeling her experience first-hand. —DE

1. Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”

Olivia Colman in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“The Favourite”

Atsushi Nishijima

Folks in Britain know Colman as the three-time BAFTA winner for TV shows “Accused,” “Twenty Twelve,” and “Broadchurch.” She also took home a Golden Globe as a (really) pregnant sleuth in “The Night Manager.” Colman can do comedy, tragedy, drama — whatever you throw at her — so it’s really no surprise that she steals “The Favourite” out from under two wily Oscar winners, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, as conniving courtiers in the 18th century court of Queen Anne. They have deliciously wicked showy roles, but Colman’s Queen Anne is an amazing character. She’s an imperious monarch who is gout-ridden and weak, a spoiled brat who plays with bunnies as replacements for 17 lost children, a volatile lover who is sexually and intellectually dependent on her Lady of the Purse. Colman’s accomplishment is bringing pathos to her ruthless, ailing, and impulsive Queen, who can seem on the verge of madness. “You look like a badger,” barks Lady Marlborough, as Queen Anne’s powdered face crumples. She doesn’t know herself at all, but Colman’s face shows us everything. —AT

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