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.
2018's Best Actress Performances on Film
IndieWire Best of 2018

In a year in which one of the best, buzziest, and most lauded films is a three-hander starring some of Hollywood’s best actresses (the film is, of course, “The Favourite,” the stars are the peerless Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone), it’s only fitting that a list of best performances by women be deep. From indie stalwarts to rising stars, fresh faces to some of Hollywood’s most reliable performers, 2018 has played home to a wealth of films ruled by women (again, “The Favourite”), and compiling a list of the best of the bunch proved to be easy (so many choices) and difficult (so many choices).

As with the year’s best film performances by men, the best of the bunch hailed from a variety of films and genres. For every massive blockbuster like “Crazy Rich Asians,” there’s an indie dark horse like “Hereditary,” and that each kind of film could include work worthy of inclusion on any best-of list speaks to the strength of this year’s picks.

Ahead, IndieWire breaks down 16 of the best female performances of the year.

16. Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Just how revelatory is McCarthy’s performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” really? To some degree hasn’t she shown us glimpses of all these skills before? Is it a surprise that one of the most gifted physical comedians of her generation is able to redirect that external energy inward, bottling herself up in paralyzing discomfort? Is it a surprise that the rage and cantankerous wit that was always just below-the-surface of even in her sweet-as-pumpkin-pie roles, was yearning to be set free? Certainly you would expect her to nail the cadence and comedic timing of a beautifully written script, or find chemistry with a compelling partner like Richard E. Grant. That McCarthy could more than handle the type of role Jack Nicholson has been hitting out of the park for decades should have been expected, the only real surprise is that someone wrote this role for a woman and it (finally) got produced. —CO

15. Rosamund Pike, “A Private War”

“A Private War”

Rosamund Pike’s range cannot be overstated. The British actress first entered Hollywood’s consciousness with the kind of role that’s easy to dismiss: she was a Bond Girl in 2002’s “Die Another Day,” but her subsequent choices showed off a depth of feeling and a desire to branch out that such a boxed-in role could never fully capture. She’s done charming in “Pride & Prejudice” and “A United Kingdom,” tough action sidekick in “Jack Reacher” and “Beirut,” and quirky in “Hector and the Search for Happiness” and “The World’s End,” though nothing could prepare audiences for her revelatory work as the deeply clever (and deeply disturbing) Amy Dunne in “Gone Girl.” Her starring role in documentarian Matthew Heineman’s first narrative film is that exact same kind of revelation, a fully formed, wonderfully complex woman whom Pike mines for a blazing humanity. As war correspondent Marie Colvin, Pike is tasked with playing a real-life woman who was literally battle-tested and battle-scarred, and willing to go through hell again and again to tell a story she hoped would change the world. Pike gets as gruff as she’s ever been in Marie, but she also digs to find the real woman underneath all that bluster and pain, unearthing her most wide-ranging work yet. —KE

14. Joanna Kulig, “Cold War”

“Cold War”

In Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” breakout Joanna Kulig plays a gorgeous, sensual survivor — with just enough musical smarts to learn to sing and dance as a member of a Polish national dance troupe — who becomes involved in a passionate romance that waxes and wanes as impediments are thrown in its way. As she crosses borders, learns languages, drinks, and performs, she finds ways to flourish, even as the romantic flame flickers. Not since Julie Christie in “Doctor Zhivago” has a woman been so beautiful, elusive, and captivating, seducing us with her mystery, pushing us away, and pulling us back in for more. —AT

13. Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Regina King stars as Sharon in Barry Jenkins' IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.
“If Beale Street Could Talk”Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture

An Oscar frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actress category for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which would be her first-ever nomination, Regina King gives a passionate, gut-wrenching performance. Becoming one of the most respected actresses in Hollywood today, as evidenced by her three Emmy wins in the last four years, King, whose resume is heavy on the TV side, demonstrates that she can also deliver on the big screen. Most notably, in “Beale Street,” the scenes that follow her character’s trip to Puerto Rico to find the woman who could exonerate the father of her daughter’s child afford her some of the most poignant moments audiences would have seen her in, her face capturing a simultaneous quiet strength and compassion, in a performance that reveals character complexities that go beyond the layers James Baldwin’s words give her. It’s the kind of skill that comes with dedication and experience, which she has honed over a career that spans 30 years. —TO

12. Kathryn Hahn, “Private Life”

This image released by Netflix shows Paul Giamatti, left, and Kathryn Hahn in a scene from "Private Life." (Jojo Whilden/Netflix via AP)
“Private Life”Associated Press

In a just world, Kathryn Hahn would be getting her first Oscar nomination next year for her marvelous turn in Tamara Jenkins’ brutally honest and brutally funny “Private Life.” Hahn has spent the last several years adding dramatic layers to her iconic comedic chops (her small role in “Step Brothers” remains a highlight of comedy this decade) with roles in “Transparent” and “I Love Dick,” but in “Private Life” she unleashes a remarkable depth that makes you relish the highs and crash in the lows of her character’s journey. Hahn stars as Rachel Biegler, a New York City writer struggling to have a baby through IVF. The attempts to get pregnant mask Rachel’s own insecurities about her marriage, career, and overall life, and it’s in every inch of Hahn’s face where those vulnerabilities live and knock the viewer off his/her feet. —ZS

11. Carey Mulligan, “Wildlife”

Carey Mulligan appears in <i>Wildlife</i> by Paul Dano, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
“Wildlife”Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Most good actors can reveal their character’s interior, but few can fine tune that access quite like Carey Mulligan. Seen through the point of view of her character’s big-hearted 14-year-old son (Ed Oxenbould), the emotional complexity of Mulligan’s character is there, always three-dimensional, but our vantage point is obscured. Director Paul Dano giving us that through-a-door-crack access a child has when seeing, for the first time, a parent as being flawed, is only possible with a collaborator like Mulligan. Yet with this remarkable subtly, Mulligan brings an uncompromised and unvarnished truth to a character limited in her choices, but who refuses to react passively, inviting us to empathize rather than judge. —CO

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