JON FROSCH: As we reconvene for our annual back-and-forth about the year’s greatest film performances, I’m struck by how many of my favorites found actors playing characters who range from downright villainous to — let’s put this mildly — disagreeable. (As Carrie Bradshaw might wonder … Is likability overrated? Or: Is unlikability the new likability? OK, I’ll stop now.)
Much has been made of Annette Bening’s “fearlessness” as the egocentric eponymous swimmer in Nyad. But Diana Nyad’s story is essentially a hero’s journey; there’s a built-in arc that invites us to root for her despite, or perhaps because of, her stubborn self-absorption and brashness. I’m more impressed by performances that don’t have that crutch — that can’t comfort or inspire us with the character’s admirability or accomplishment but, through the skill and magnetism of the actor, earn our investment, making us hang on every word, glance and gesture.
I’m thinking especially of Sandra Hüller in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall and Franz Rogowski in Ira Sachs’ Passages. Both play people who are, to different degrees and in different ways, “unlikable,” though they’re on opposite ends of the ambiguity spectrum: As a writer on trial for the murder of her husband, Hüller is fascinatingly inscrutable — plausible as either a sincerely distressed, falsely accused widow/mother or a manipulative, sociopathic killer. As a flamboyantly narcissistic director stuck in a romantic mess of his own making, Rogowski is scrutability on steroids — an open book of neediness, impulsiveness and selfishness.
What the two share is a thrillingly uningratiating quality. Neither Hüller nor Rogowski panders to our sympathies or expectations; they create full, complicated, unnerving human beings rather than characters to be easily digested by the viewer. These performances make us feel multiple things, sometimes at once: repulsion, shock, attraction, compassion, pity and, occasionally, a flicker of horrified recognition. They’re born of a lack of vanity deeper than a movie star’s willingness to flaunt a makeup-free frown.
It’s noteworthy that Hüller and Rogowski are playing a novelist and director, respectively — a reminder that artists, in movies as in life, are sometimes not the, um, nicest. Two of my other faves this year were equally prickly portrayals of creative types: Michelle Williams, sublimely grumpy as a Portland sculptor prepping a new show in Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up, and Thomas Schubert as a sour, supercilious writer in Christian Petzold’s Afire. Both quietly peel back the layers of their characters without softening or sweetening them.
SHERI LINDEN: I love that you mention Michelle Williams and Thomas Schubert in the same sentence. When I was watching Afire, many months after seeing Showing Up, it crossed my mind that somebody should introduce these two suffering artists. They could scowl each other into ecstasy. Williams’ performance might be the comic gem of the year — just watch her monitor the consumption of cheese at a gallery opening. As with any brilliant clown, there’s something freeing about seeing someone who doesn’t abide by social niceties and, in this case, lets her curmudgeon flag fly. We’ve all had days — or so I’ve been told — when it would just be simpler, and truer, to snipe at everyone and skip the phony smile.
Beyond this, it’s refreshing to see that an artist’s self-involvement doesn’t have to be monstrously destructive (Rogowski’s director in Passages) or grandiose (Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein in Maestro) to hold our attention. Sometimes it’s just a steady, low-level buzz of self-involved pettiness. In both Afire and Showing Up, this snarling undertow is played to perfection. Petzold’s film leans more toward a conventional arc of redemption for Schubert’s character, but Reichardt keeps her protagonist’s irritability pure. It’s not the problem to be solved within the feature’s running time.
DAVID ROONEY: I love the thread of unapologetic self-absorption running through these riveting performances, and the questions they open up about whether a degree of narcissism, an inability to focus on anyone’s needs beyond their own, isn’t somehow essential to the creative process.
While Schubert’s writer in Afire gets a rude awakening when his book is rejected, the majority of these characters remain entrenched in their respective bubbles. The dance of showing that egotism without making the character entirely off-putting is a tricky one, pulled off with aplomb by the actors we’re talking about.
Rogowski’s filmmaker in Passages is almost endearing in his obliviousness that the emotional chaos he creates might have casualties. In Showing Up, Hong Chau’s multimedia artist is a low-key hilarious flip side to Williams’ sculptor — possibly even more self-involved though less tightly wound and spiky, perhaps because she seems on the cusp of greater success.
Cooper’s take on Bernstein is another fascinating example. No one appears more aware of his talents than Lenny himself, and he’s floating on a cloud of febrile excitement and unabashed hubris for much of Maestro. Which is what makes the blistering takedown by his wife — played with intricate layers of devotion and discontent by Carey Mulligan in one of the year’s most moving performances — so startling.
But the ultimate toxic artist onscreen this year may have been Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, the stealth monster of Todd Haynes’ May December. An actress shadowing Julianne Moore’s Gracie while preparing to play her in a biopic, Elizabeth is an apex predator, at first nibbling around the edges of her prey with an ingratiating smile (and a regifted bottle of wine), then feasting with a ruthless disregard for human feeling once she gets a taste of the meat she’s after. Portman’s thrilling performance steers a movie that toys with melodrama and arch comedy almost into horror.
LINDEN: In a perverse way, May December is a tribute to the alchemy of screen acting. Performance is the explicit purpose of Portman’s character. Elizabeth is an actor, after all, and both Portman and Haynes position her research project as vampiric, feeding on the life of the woman she’s about to portray. Yet Moore’s character, Gracie, is also delivering a performance, as the perfect suburban wife and mother, a façade she can barely maintain as the story progresses. The two women, as flip sides of a damaged mirror, are often outrageously funny in their utter inauthenticity. Their off-putting chill is tough to pull off — it’s all about holding the audience at arm’s length rather than drawing us in, as the superb Charles Melton, as Gracie’s husband, Joe, does.
LOVIA GYARKYE: Melton has come a long way from Riverdale! He brings an aching sensitivity to Joe, a 36-year-old man whose relationship with Moore’s Gracie — which started when he was in middle school and she was more than two decades older — effectively stripped him of a childhood. There’s a loss of innocence coupled with an almost unnerving naiveté. Melton teases these two modes throughout the film, but the performance really soars during the awkward postcoital moment with Portman’s Elizabeth and the wrenching scene in which he bonds with his son over a joint on the roof of the family house. Melton plays Joe like a sensitive plant whose leaves fold inward when touched by enemies. With Elizabeth, Melton recoils and maintains a self-protective position. The opposite is true with his children: The rooftop scene offers a rare moment when he seems relaxed, uninhibited and at ease with himself.
Melton’s Joe is a reminder that while there have been plenty of enticing villains this year, there were also standout turns that added depth and nuance to “good guy” roles. Lily Gladstone, in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, imbues Mollie Burkhart with a moral and emotional three-dimensionality, pushing us to see the character as more than just someone to be pitied. It starts with her resolve and seeming unflappability. When we meet Mollie, she appears unimpressed by the men throwing themselves in her direction — including Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest. It’s not aloofness; it’s self-defense (of a different kind than Melton’s in May December).
Mollie eventually opens up, and we watch her boundaries dissolve before our eyes. Gladstone’s performance implicates the audience, allowing us to relate the root cause of her withering to the broken promises that make up American history. But even as we make these connections, the actress ensures that we never lose sight of Mollie as a person. As her body fails, she tends to her heart, shattered by the loss of her mother and sisters, the violent ruptures to her community and the devastating betrayal by the man she loves.
ROONEY: What I find most striking about her performance is how much she can communicate through stillness and calm self-possession. Whether it’s initial amusement at DiCaprio’s Ernest or lacerating sorrow at the violations committed against her family, her community and, ultimately, herself, it’s all there in her expressive eyes or the slightest shift of her mouth.
In a similarly measured vein, I found the internalized work of Caelee Spaeny in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla highly affecting. She persuasively traces an arc from age 14 to 28 — no easy feat — and the awakening of a young woman from what seems like a fairy-tale marriage to a disturbing reality of isolation and curtailed freedom, with Graceland becoming a gilded cage from which she needs to escape in order to carve out any kind of life. I really responded to the way Spaeny quietly removes the barriers to take us inside the character’s head in what becomes basically a waking nightmare alongside a man she never stops loving.
FROSCH: I wish I shared your experience of Spaeny taking us “inside the character’s head.” But I basically felt as excluded from her thoughts and feelings as she did from Elvis’ life. I usually respond to Coppola’s sensibility — her uncanny gift for bringing tedium to visual and emotional life — and the corresponding delicacy of the performances she coaxes from her leads. In this case, I found both movie and star recessive to the point of listlessness. The tedium was just … tedious.
ROONEY: Well, to return to performances I think we can agree on … Greta Lee’s playwright in Celine Song’s exquisite three-hander Past Lives was a wonderfully complex exception to the insensitive-egomaniac artist roles we discussed. Her Nora is a writer so in control of her feelings and yet so attuned to those of the two men who have converged in her life that her ultimate moment of raw emotional release is shattering.
By contrast, the screenwriter played with transfixing grace and sadness by Andrew Scott in Andrew Haigh’s masterful All of Us Strangers is nothing but raw feeling. His efforts to develop a script based on his parents, who died in the 1980s when he was just 12, open such a bottomless well of yearning it’s hard for the viewer not to be pulled in, to experience the character’s pain with almost overwhelming force.
GYARKYE: The gentleness of those performances brings to mind one of my other favorites of the year: quietly stunning newcomer Tia Nomore in Earth Mama, Savanah Leaf’s delicate portrait of a Black mother and recovering addict, Gia, trying to shape a meaningful life while pregnant with her third child. Gia’s got problems, so it can be easy to forget that she’s also an artist. Her job at a mall photo studio, where she takes portraits of people to celebrate their big and small moments, requires patience, skill and a discerning eye. Some of my favorite scenes are of Gia at work — changing photo backdrops, ambling around subjects with her bulging belly, repositioning an infant’s arm or an older woman’s collar. Nomore’s attunement to her character helps us see Gia as more than the sum of her struggles.
Another relative newcomer who left a lasting impression is Teyana Taylor in A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One. Her Inez, like Nomore’s Gia, is a young mother battling a racist and sexist system. She’s also struggling to anchor herself to the shifting landscape that was New York City in the 1990s. Taylor finds tenderness in Inez’s steely exterior and tendency to self-isolate. We care about her because Taylor cares about her.
“Care” is also a word I’d apply to the performances by Soya Kurokawa and Hinata Hiiragi in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster, as school-aged boys whose relationship is obscured and obstructed by the adults who surround them. Regardless of whether you think Monster succeeds as a film — I do — there’s little doubt as to how authentic and impressive they are.
FROSCH: Monster’s contrivances and convolutions didn’t all work for me, but the scenes the boys share in the final third are magical. There’s a moment so pure, so tender — Hiiragi stroking Kurokawa’s hair — that I actually gasped. The pair conjure a tricky pre-adolescent bond — the boys’ innocence sporadically shadowed by a dawning awareness of deeper, more destabilizing longings — that I found much more believable and moving than a similar relationship in last year’s Belgian Oscar nominee Close.
Another performance that proved decency can be just as fascinating as dysfunction was from Virginie Efira in Rebecca Zlotowski’s perceptive take on the Parisian rom-com, Other People’s Children. Rachel, a 40ish high-school teacher whose attachment to her new beau’s daughter stirs her own frustrated maternal desires, is constantly navigating and negotiating her innate kindness, figuring out how to stay true to her selfless nature while also affirming her needs. As played by Efira, with an aching wistfulness beneath her breezy, blond radiance, the character is far from a pushover; there’s strength in Rachel’s softheartedness. It’s palpable in the firm but tender way she turns down a kiss from a smitten colleague; in her impassioned defense of a struggling student at a faculty meeting; in the self-awareness underlying her frustration during a fight with her boyfriend. This is a gorgeously shaded portrait of a good person finding — or trying to find — a measure of meaning and contentment in a life that may not offer everything she had hoped for.
LINDEN: It’s true that some of the loveliest, most indelible turns this year involved characters who quite simply open the heart with their sincerity. I’m thinking of Teo Yoo in Past Lives, and his character’s courageous grappling with unrequited love. And Ben Whishaw in Passages, quietly navigating a devastating marital landscape of betrayal. In Rustin, an admiring biopic that mostly avoids pitfalls of the genre, Colman Domingo transcends hagiography, his portrayal alive with a breathtaking sense of self-understanding and righteous fury; he’s a man who says — and does — what he means. Another accomplished actor playing a real-life figure, Gael García Bernal, hits new heights in Cassandro. As a luchador whose business is to be sequined and showy, he couldn’t be more down-to-earth, his guileless sweetness and thousand-watt smile as genuine as his wrestling moves.
But beyond likable/unlikable or good/bad dichotomies, the characters who stay with me most are mysterious, un-pin-downable from moment to moment. The goal of the main character in Lola Quivoron’s exhilarating Rodeo might be clear from the get-go — she demands a place in the Paris suburbs’ brotherhood of outlawed dirt bike “rodeos” — but she’s a figure beyond category, in ways that reach well outside the “nonbinary” label. Julie Ledru, a biker acting for the first time, inhabits the role with a take-no-prisoners toughness but also a heart-stopping vulnerability.
I watched with fascinated horror as another young protagonist, the newbie middle school instructor in İlker Çatak’s German drama The Teachers’ Lounge, is drawn into a divisive culture of suspicion and recklessly turns her idealism into a weapon. As she faces increasingly absurd consequences, her defiance and exasperation register in every breath and glance and tensed muscle of Leonie Benesch’s performance.
But no character held me more spellbound than Benoît Magimel’s in Pacifiction, Albert Serra’s astute and eye-popping anti-colonial vision. As De Roller, the top French politician in Tahiti, Magimel is someone who wandered out of a Graham Greene novel and into a Polynesian fever dream. Moving around the island, mixing with high and low, he’s at once elegant and shady, his allegiances an ever-shifting mystery. The chemistry between him and the ultra-compelling Pahoa Mahagafanau, as an islander who becomes his unofficial assistant, and more, is especially inscrutable, deliciously so. When the movie takes a turn into Lynchian territory in its final section, if there’s a confounding sense of letdown, I think it’s because De Roller has moved to the sidelines and the riveting performance that has held Pacifiction together is gone.
FROSCH: I agree that there’s greatness in Magimel’s turn, even as the film — for me, at least — gradually breaks its own spell.
Our favorite performances of the year are frequently in our favorite movies of the year — a testament to how crucial acting can be to the power and effectiveness of a film, its capacity to connect. But there are also performances that outshine or outlast the movies they’re in, often staying with us in bits and pieces — specific scenes, expressions or line readings that we recall with a shiver of emotion or an inconvenient guffaw while in line at the pharmacy.
I’m thinking of Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s Isabel in Origin, bracing for impact before entering a cocktail party full of well-intentioned white people, her weary, grief-stricken face suddenly morphing into a mask of good cheer and charm. It’s a chilling, almost Jordan Peele-esque moment that captures the horror of racism in America more potently than anything else in Ava DuVernay’s admirable but overstretched film. There’s the lunch scene in Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings, with sisters played by Julia Louis Dreyfus and Michaela Watkins facing off against their mother (a divine Jeannie Berlin) over whether a nice shirt should be donated to the homeless. It’s a master class in comic timing and passive-aggressive parent-child dynamics that I could watch over and over. Or Adèle Exarchopoulos and Swala Emati’s awkward, drunken, intensely intimate karaoke duet to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in Léa Mysius’ The Five Devils, one of the weirdest, most poignant romantic reconciliations I’ve seen in a while.
GYARKYE: I’m glad you mention performances that linger even if their films don’t quite work for us. One of those for me this year was Clare Perkins in Thomas Hardiman’s Medusa Deluxe, a jittery murder mystery that takes place during a hairdressing competition. As Cleve, a stylist who treats the death of her colleague as an inconvenience, Perkins is mesmerizing, her delivery barbed (the way she says the word “fontange” needs to be studied) and her disposition steely. Cleve is not one to be fucked with, and Perkins does an excellent job shaping a person from a character who could easily be one-note.
I also want to shout out Jeffrey Wright in Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, an adaptation of Percival Everett’s satirical novel Erasure that I’m still of two minds about. Wright plays Monk, a middle-aged Black professor struggling to publish his next book and weighed down by multiple kinds of grief. His rounded shoulders, shuffle and deadpan manner convey the gravity of Monk’s disaffection with the world. But there’s also tenderness and joy underneath the character’s shield — especially during the scenes in which we experience Monk’s writing mind.
ROONEY: We haven’t yet talked about the widest and wildest spectrum played by any actor this year, which has got to be Emma Stone’s reanimated Victorian woman, Bella, in Yorgos Lanthimos’ insanely brilliant Mary Shelley riff, Poor Things. No disrespect to Barbie, but this is a much sharper depiction of a woman rejecting patriarchal dogma and reshaping her own destiny, and Stone hurls herself into that reinvention with a gleeful abandon that’s exhilarating. Her early scenes where she’s still assimilating basic language and movement are genuinely fearless, to use a term too often applied to performers — particularly women — for the wrong reasons. Her rude adventures and accumulation of knowledge become the kind of bawdy picaresque we rarely get to see with a female protagonist, and Stone bites into it all with a voracious appetite in what’s inarguably the most outstanding work of her career.
GYARKYE: On a totally different note — I’m a sucker for films about mother-daughter relationships — Rachel McAdams and Abby Ryder Fortson tackled their roles in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret with an understated charm that brought Judy Blume’s classic to life and gracefully introduced it to a new generation. Their performances, especially when they’re onscreen together, nail the peculiarities of puberty as both an individual experience and a communal one. Margaret doesn’t want to need her mother, but she does, as captured most vividly in the last scene, when she calls for her upon discovering that she has her period. McAdams races up the stairs and waits outside the door, on the verge of tears as she realizes her girl is growing up. It’s a beautiful moment — and a tonic for these troubled and troubling times.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.