David Cronenberg’s films don’t age. This is incredible when one considers the range and speculative nature of the material that often attracts the director, particularly during the first half of his career. Many low-budget 1970s and 1980s genre films are quaint now, but the years haven’t diluted Cronenberg’s early “body horror” films one iota, and, in many cases, time has intensified their outrage, which mixes the visceral with the cerebral in a fashion that’s distinct to the filmmaker. Cronenberg has subsequently worked in every genre, save, arguably, for comedy, though his films are reliably informed by a subterranean strain of mordant humor. He’s adapted a handful of notably subjective novels thought to be “un-filmable,” and he’s consistently wrestled with defiantly alienating subjects, often associated ambiguously with unconventional sex.
This agelessness springs from an uncommon authorial focus, directness and clarity, which is reflected by the films’ deceptively unfussy, nearly sculptural mise-en-scène (honed in significant part with a group of longtime collaborators). Cronenberg rarely strains for melodrama, never leans too heavily on the score when silence or diegetic noise will more effectively establish emotion or mood. The director never approaches shocking material as if it’s shocking, and this casually intellectual need to explore something, while reserving judgment in a manner that’s analytical yet human, is the very center of his cinema. Cronenberg’s greatest accomplishment, though, may be the mystery that tinges all of his films, which still, for all their thematic ambition, ultimately possess an element of unknowability. The weird pull of these films can be attributed to a contradiction: They’re the work of a literalist who’s determined to plumb the figurative.
21. Stereo (1969)
Even the director’s most rabid fans will find Cronenberg’s debut to be a tough sit. The film is an abstract and bone-dry collage of images and sequences of young telepaths interacting in a vast corporate building, while disembodied narration tells us of the experiments that are being performed on them. The similarly themed Scanners is vastly more accessible, but Stereo evinces a compassion for its characters that’s lacking in the former, and there are a number of sophisticatedly lonely images that pave the way for memorable moments in Shivers and The Brood, among others.
20. Fast Company (1979)
Cronenberg’s weirdest movie bar none. The talking assholes of Naked Lunch have nothing on the reality of a drag-race movie as directed by the king of body horror. The film is diverting, but the director’s discomfort with the uplifting platitudes of the good-old-boy narrative prevent it from taking off. Cronenberg savors the processes of maintaining the dragsters, which is to say that the non-action scenes are characterized by a sense of bracing visual tactility that’s missing from the theoretical high points of the film: the racing sequences. Fast Company’s characters are flat where they should be rowdy, and the atmosphere is intellectualized, chilly, and self-conscious where it should be unpretentious and fun-loving. A cruel and unceremonious ending, which might fit a characteristic Cronenberg film, exacerbates the tension between the essentially pat, assuring nature of the story and the anti-authoritative sensibility of its teller. The director’s interest in the potentially alluring textures of cars would find a far more distinct expression years later with Crash.
19. Crimes of the Future (1970)
Expands on Stereo’s chilly sense of personal discombobulation, reaching toward a macabre deadpan aesthetic that would find fruition in later films. As in the similarly inchoate Stereo, detached voiceover supplies a horror story overtop images of people who’re doing vaguely defined things in existentially anonymous office buildings. Gradually, Crimes of the Future becomes a surprisingly thorough and anticipatory working draft of the prototypical Cronenberg body-horror film, dramatizing, with characteristically repulsed fascination, a series of biological mutations that usher in a micro-culture given to cannibalism, pedophilia, and other practices that indicate a looming erasure of personal identity.
18. M. Butterfly (1993)
Awfully stodgy and theoretical. Cronenberg’s aversion to sentiment and overstatement often scan as bracingly disciplined, unblinking, and un-self-conscious, but this film is pared down to the bone. The director wisely downplays the overt French-Chinese politics of David Henry Hwang’s play, allowing much of the “Oriental” obsession that blinds Jeremy Irons’s diplomat to assert itself physically through his affair with John Lone’s gender-masked opera singer. But the relationship, as dramatized, is too cold and abstract to take hold in the imagination, and Irons and Lone are poignant individually, but have no chemistry with one another. That’s partially the point, as their relationship is built on a series of false cultural bottoms, but this divide also fosters an almost contemptuous “who cares?” reaction within the audience that’s compounded by the disastrously anticlimactic staging of the diplomat’s discovery that his lover is really a man. The images are ravishing, suggesting a China that only exists in a white man’s dreams, but this tale of sexual obsession is dead from the waist down.
17. Maps to the Stars (2014)
Cronenberg is a peerless orchestrator of chic metaphorical chamber dramas, but Bruce Wagner’s script encourages him to operate almost too comfortably within his hermetic wheelhouse, which favors characters who undergo vicious alterations or transformations that embody their succumbing to obsession. Perhaps it’s the satirical Hollywood Babylon milieu, which recalls too many films and scans as smug and obvious. With the exception of Mia Wasikowska, a remarkable actress who appears incapable of a false gesture, the actors are unconvincing and occasionally disastrously over the top, particularly Julianne Moore, who proves again that she’s tone deaf in roles that require a sense of humor. There’s a metaphysical horror motif that connects the film explicitly to Cronenberg’s body of work and literalizes the governing theme of incestuous, walled-off alienation, but nothing adds up to anything. Maps to the Stars is the rare Cronenberg film that actually is what its detractors claim it to be: a stylized bauble in love with its own hollowness.
16. Scanners (1981)
Angry, narratively efficient, and memorably lit in shades of industrial fugue-state gray by cinematographer Mark Irwin, Scanners certainly fulfills Cronenberg’s narrow design, which is also partially the rub. The film is surprisingly routine and emotionally drab for the director, particularly compared to the tragic familial intimacy of his prior film, The Brood. The telepath story often appears to be at odds with the actual plot, which is a stalk-and-run narrative that reduces the power of the best scenes. The characters are interchangeable, and that’s more noticeable than usual because the film doesn’t quite have a governing metaphor. The car chases and gunfights are disappointingly ordinary considering that the principles can mentally connect to supercomputers or other humans’ nervous systems. This film ends at a point where Cronenberg’s subsequent Videodrome would just be getting started: with identities mooted and the new flesh beginning to emerge.
15. eXistenZ (1999)
Suggests what Total Recall might’ve been like if Cronenberg had directed it as originally planned. Also the closest the filmmaker has ever gotten to staging an outright farce, as the plot is composed of a purposeful chain of convoluted absurdities that collapse in on themselves, especially in a meta ending that bluntly parodies not only gaming, but filmmaking along with any other endeavor that might supplant reality, assuming that anyone can agree on what the term means to begin with. Video-game consoles are imagined, in one of the most powerfully irrational images in the director’s oeuvre, as fleshy quivering bladders with umbilical cords that connect to gamers via artificially fashioned openings in the spine (which, surprisingly, aren’t vaginal in appearance). eXistenZ is a greatest-hits party for Cronenberg: The lost-in-La-La-land narrative is reminiscent of Naked Lunch, right down to the preponderance of squishy mutants, and there’s also the anxious, quasi-invasive, yet erotic sexual imagery that surfaces in every other film. eXistenZ doesn’t have much tension until the ending (it lacks the snap of a classic), but it abounds in the vivid textures and grossly tactile objets d’art that have understandably rendered Cronenberg a museum darling.
14. Shivers (1975)
Shivers features the first Cronenberg monster: a phallic slug that anticipates the stinger under the woman’s arm in Rabid and proceeds to destroy a tony living complex, and perhaps all of Canada, by turning people into uncontrollable sex zombies. It’s impossible to miss the filmmaker’s contempt for a certain sort of permissive 1970s high life, though the film’s reservations appear to be less with sex itself than with the misguidedly smug assertion that “free love” isn’t ultimately another embodiment of insidious mass ideology that compromises the populace’s capacity and respect for intellectual rigor. (A theme that would be refined in Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ, among many others.) In other words, most rebellion is yet another incarnation of conformity. The atmosphere, an extension of the chillingly antiseptic realms of Stereo and Crimes of the Future, is dank, luridly yellow, anonymous, and impossible to shake. The swimming pool climax is one of the most unsettling sequences in horror cinema.
13. Rabid (1977)
Essentially a sequel to Shivers that dramatizes the mass destruction implied in that film’s conclusion. Rather than slugs, the carrier of a deadly disease is a gorgeous sort of Typhoid Mary (played by adult film actress Marilyn Chambers with a hesitancy that’s oddly moving) who infects people with a phallic stinger that emerges from a vaginal opening under her arm. A jokey but pointed reference to Freud early on encourages a read of this film as a gallows parody of penis envy. Rabid lacks the concentrated, streamlined containment of Shivers, but it’s funnier and more assured, with set pieces that astutely connote a collapse of infrastructure (such as the often cited shot of a department-store Santa as he’s accidentally gunned down by a police officer). As in Shivers, a public body of water, in this case a spa, is memorably used as a troubling setting for rape-as-casual-sex that serves as either a perversion of individuality, the ultimate ironic embodiment of freedom, or both. An image of a female corpse frozen solid, loneliness personified, is echoed by the film’s unexpectedly mournful conclusion, which would appear to pave the way for the emotional intensity of The Brood.
12. The Dead Zone (1983)
Cronenberg’s first adaptation (of one of Stephen King’s best novels), The Dead Zone displays a working philosophy that will characterize his future interpretations of “difficult” books by William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Don DeLillo: He finds the thematic center of the source material, pruning or changing whatever’s necessary to heighten it. In this case, Cronenberg softens King’s kink and gore, honing the narrative to entirely reflect the yearning for “normalcy” that hounds Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) as a car accident and prolonged coma transform him from a meek, gawky schoolteacher into a tormented, decidedly Walken-esque eccentric who resembles a rock star and proceeds to alter people’s futures. Walken’s playing a classic Cronenberg protagonist: a gifted, temporarily empowered man who’s altered in a fashion that allows him to wrestle, tragically, with the differences between his internal and external selves. There’s a memorably lonely, unsettling image of a long, gray tunnel that encapsulates Johnny’s straddling of two worlds: the conventional world, and the “dead zone” that he accesses when calling on his new power.
11. A Dangerous Method (2011)
It’s amazing that it took Cronenberg this long to make a movie concerned, at least partially, with the life of Sigmund Freud, as his films are informed by an intense occupation with Freudian notions of sexual repression. When Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and protégé Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) discuss their blossoming psychoanalytic theories, they could just as easily be deciphering the symbolism of David Cronenberg films, particularly when “the self-annihilating tendency of the sexual drive” is mentioned. Written by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure, A Dangerous Method is concerned with the war between the mind and the id, which is appropriate given its subjects and obviously resonant to Cronenberg’s work at large. Few directors are his peer in realizing films in which ideas are embedded with the vitality of discourse and its attending suffering and uncertainty. The film is moving, inventively performed (particularly by Mortensen, who plays Freud as a sly, tragic blowhard whose genius is obviously inspired by suppressed, prejudicial urges), and visually astute, most notably in its use of vertical planes to compress close-ups of performers together so as to heighten a sense of emotional claustrophobia.
10. A History of Violence (2005)
The first of Cronenberg’s fruitful collaborations with actor Viggo Mortensen is the work of an exacting formalist who no longer requires elaborately literal creatures to fashion his tales of evolution. A History of Violence is another Cronenberg monster movie about the physicalizing of the internal, though the monster is the free-floating principle of violence itself. Violence is constantly sensed throughout this film as a palpably invasive force that can seemingly grab bodies and alter them, should the owners of those bodies lose emotional control. This effect is achieved by Mortensen’s subtle differentiation between the two roles he’s playing, which collectively embody a traditional contrast between an “ideal” good citizen and a man of the shadows who ruthlessly quells his hungers and protects his interests. Major sequences are pared down to a few shards of fleeting incident, which intensifies a sense of violation that’s further affirmed by unexpectedly stylized effects. Also key to the film is its very Cronenbergian understanding of sex as an ungovernable, mutable assertion of power and, unexpectedly, of love.
9. Eastern Promises (2007)
Steven Knight’s script could’ve been a relatively routine bit of fish-out-of-water business about Russian mobsters in London, but Cronenberg shapes it into a sharp, ambiguous story of a cultural intersection as an embodiment of conflicts between inner and outer selves. In a commanding, iconic performance, Viggo Mortensen is a stranger in a strange land who’s a reverse of the character he played in A History of Violence: an outwardly evil man who’s revealed to contain reservoirs of decency. Like all Cronenberg films from The Fly on, Eastern Promises is formally faultless; there isn’t a wasted or indifferently rendered image, or a superfluous beat or gesture. Cronenberg’s succinctness as an artist isn’t simply for economy, though that’s its own reward; it also establishes a tension between the moments that are actually on the screen and those that are pointedly elided so as to trump audiences’ expectations of the genre (in this case, the mafia crime film). Mortensen’s nude knife fight with a pair of goons in a bathhouse, a kind of love scene that relieves the film’s escalating homoerotic tension, is a classic sequence of action filmmaking, and it’s amazing what Cronenberg can get away with as a filmmaker by this point; the climax, featuring a stolen baby, is so old-hat it could’ve been swiped from Griffith.
8. Cosmopolis (2012)
Cronenberg adapts Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel as a present-day story of capitalist apocalypse. The director casually finds a film language for expressing wealth (and even the generally isolating properties of contemporary Internet-enabled society) that has eluded nearly everyone else save for Martin Scorsese. The film is awash in a sea of purples and blues; it’s a noir with a truly relevant millennial edge. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is a billionaire watching his wealth rapidly bottom out from the vantage point of his plush limousine, which suggests an animate high-rise apartment that floats over the city’s miserable, mocking their dire straits. Like the cars in Crash, this limo simultaneously suggests the comforts and dangers of constriction. It also conjures thoughts of a metallic placenta, empowering Eric’s refusal to emerge from his cocooned stasis; his fantasies of destruction are what the ultra-rich might take for fantasies of freedom. The incantatory dialogue, often straight from the novel, intensifies the atmosphere of surreal detachment until its purposefully disrupted by a long, comparatively conventionally emotional sequence with a proletariat citizen (Paul Giamatti) that resembles an isolated one-act play. Cosmopolis’s intensity is head-spinning.
7. Spider (2002)
Another story of an addled mind attempting to make its way back to “reality,” or at least to a place where it might enjoy the company of others. Adapting Patrick McGrath’s novel, Cronenberg fashions a prismatic series of planes that visually literalize the spider motif, which embodies Dennis Cleg’s (Ralph Fiennes) struggles to work through the cobwebs that are spun from the tragedies that have distorted his perception of the present. For Cleg, events tend to collapse on themselves, stranding him in a timeless realm that suggests a less ostentatiously fantastical version of Naked Lunch’s Interzone. Spider’s accomplished aesthetic isn’t the only reason it’s one of the better films about mental illness. Cronenberg adamantly refuses to condescend to his hero with pity or strained pathos, instead fashioning a kind of process film that honors the physical specificities of Cleg’s struggle to decipher himself. The filmmaker understands that the tactility of Fiennes’s extraordinary performance requires no fake sentimentality as enhancement.
6. Naked Lunch (1991)
Cronenberg’s chilly aesthetic isn’t an intuitive fit for William S. Burroughs’s scorching, obscene prose, and that unlikely contrast renders a film that often operates as an implicative dialogue between the director and the writer. William Lee (Peter Weller) functions as a surrogate for both artists: His detachment mirrors the misleading aloofness of Cronenberg’s artistic temperament, while his unresolved hungers hauntingly correlate with Burroughs’s tormented obsessions. The film is about Lee’s attempts to know himself in the face of disaster, just as it’s about Cronenberg’s attempt to capture Burroughs. The filmmaker’s resolutely un-cowed by the demanding, legendary source material; he straightens it out, slows it down, and lends it a comparatively conventional narrative structure that serves to subsume the author’s outrageousness and self-loathing into the film’s astonishingly beautiful formal fabric. Like any other film Cronenberg has made, Naked Lunch doesn’t appear to break a sweat; it’s at ease with its ambiguities and wild-and-wooly monster symbolism, yet it still somehow captures the chaos of Burroughs’s writing. It also manages to be one of the best and most emotionally devastating films ever made about a variety of notoriously difficult subjects: writing, addiction, closeted homosexuality, and the jagged contours of a brilliant, troubled, possibly unreachable mind.
5. The Brood (1979)
Cronenberg’s first masterpiece. The longing and the sense of tragedy that were beginning to peak through at the end of Rabid are allowed to blossom in this profoundly moving film. Cronenberg’s interests aren’t quite as explicitly psychosexual in nature as usual, as he turns instead to the cycles of damage, repression, and abuse that originate in the nuclear family. In other words, he’s relaying an origin story of psychosexual tension. The images are notably more pared and efficient than in prior Cronenberg films, and the director especially favors close-ups that trap you in the claustrophobic environments with the characters. The Brood marks the beginning of Cronenberg’s career as a significant formalist, though this film is also as raw and primal as anything he’s made. The pent-up emotional turmoil suggests at times what Bergman might’ve done with a horror film, and it features one of Cronenberg’s most audacious metaphors: a group of vengeful mutant children who’re conjured from the rage of a deeply troubled woman. This woman passes her psychic torment on to everyone even peripherally in her path, most devastatingly of all to her young daughter, who may soon begin to grow her own creatures, born of inescapable, inexpressible anger that’s provoked by the seemingly predestined trauma of life with family.
4. The Fly (1986)
Proof that Cronenberg can do anything, including fashioning a surprisingly rich and intimate love triangle from a hokey Vincent Price film. Despite the provocative symbols of decay and mutation as simultaneous enablers and imprisoners, which are common Cronenberg concerns at this point, The Fly is most unsettling for its operatic poignancy (Cronenberg and composer Howard Shore subsequently spun the film off into an opera). The irony of this film is that it’s a remake of a fun but trivial monster movie that further personalizes its distinctive creator’s obsessions. Like The Dead Zone before it, The Fly features intense yet remarkably engaging performances, the best of its respective actors’ careers, and their likeability releases Cronenberg’s kinkiness, rendering it more intimate and relatable, which is to say that The Fly, for its “mainstream” virtues, is as disturbing as anything the filmmaker has made. It sheds light on his work’s troubled relationship with sex, highlighting sexual alienation as springing from profound self-loathing. The hero’s attempts to correct that self-loathing, with exertions of intellectual control, lead to physical changes that only ironically embody and embolden it. It’s the Raging Bull of nerd-centric horror movies.
3. Dead Ringers (1988)
Feels authentically dangerous, as if some sort of often deeply submerged social tension between the genders is reaching an unlikely artistic exorcism. All of Cronenberg’s films are neurotic about sex, though Dead Ringers is most explicitly concerned with the resentment that brilliant, accomplished, socially awkward men can nurse toward attractive women that they feel they’re privileged, yet unfairly unable, to enjoy. This subtext fueled The Fly too, but here there’s no charm or genre-film gratification to dilute the bitterness of the brew—yet there is a deep well of tenderness that prevents the film from becoming monotonously cynical. (The gynecological torture instruments—the scariest props in any Cronenberg film—embody feelings of desire that are warped by bitterness and isolation.) As the doomed twin doctors who eventually succumb to their internal sickness, Jeremy Irons gives the two most strikingly intimate and imaginative performances of his career. You forget the stunt of a man playing his own brother, and come to accept both siblings as the most complicated human creations of Cronenberg’s career.
2. Videodrome (1983)
This hard, sleazy riff on a famous Marshall McLuhan quote (“the medium is the message”) is one of the great visionary horror movies, and potentially the most prescient. It marries disconcertingly erotic images with Cronenberg’s great theme of misleadingly frivolous technology as an insidious initiator of ambiguous new evolutions. Though TV is the medium under consideration, all of the film’s observations can be adapted, with chilling ease, to suit the ongoing proliferation of laptops, cell phones, the Internet, you name it. Dialogue regularly appears to be piped in from the future, such as an observation—that we will all have special names for our personas on television—that bridges Warhol’s “15 minutes” quotation with the rise of a multiple-username culture that renders specificities of identity and humanity moot. The ghastly, daringly sexualized special effects are, eerily, Videodrome’s one quaint gesture, as they imbue technology with a disgusting yet comforting tactility that’s rapidly disappearing from a culture that’s slipping into a cloud of ever-shifting soft data.
1. Crash (1996)
Cronenberg’s most amazing achievement, Crash is nearly dialogue free, except for the utterance of a few purposeful banalities and a pointedly self-parodic sentiment: A character reasons that an interest in how “technology changes the body” is juvenile stuff, though he initially says this so as to gradually prepare new associates for the intensity of his automobile-erotic fixation. (Obviously, technology’s alteration of the body has been a presiding theme of the director’s, from Stereo on.) Largely, though, Cronenberg no longer needs words, exploring the consumptive properties of obsession in purely aural/visual terms. A long scene in a car wash is the finest sequence of the director’s career—a formal symphony that contrasts the simultaneous comforts and imprisonments of social luxuries (the car, the car wash) with an unusual desire to sate a fetish for sex that’s wedded to the threat of a particularly heightened kind of death. (The notion of sex as self-annihilation hasn’t been this pointed in the director’s work since Shivers and Rabid.) The remainder of Crash is similarly intense and controlled, as the images flow together with an intuitive ease. If there’s such a thing as “fatalistic ecstasy,” this film captures it with unsettling definitiveness. Throughout it all, Cronenberg remains characteristically unflappable while looking into the abyss of unconventional yearning and self-loathing; his sobriety as a filmmaker, his willingness to go anywhere without losing his cool and succumbing to melodramatics as self-justification, is the highest hallmark of his great, unyielding empathy.
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.
There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.
Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.
Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.
Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.
Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)
The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.
Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.
It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.
The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use, the power we wield, and the places we carve out for ourselves.
The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use (“Vince Staples’s “Fun!”), the power we wield (the Carters’ “Apeshit”), and the places we carve out for ourselves (“Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over”). They also acknowledge the state of the world, from systemic racism (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”) to institutional corruption (Jack White’s “Corporation”). Notably, a clear majority of the videos on our list were created by or for artists of color, whose stories serve as an act of resistance against a racist regime. The year in music video wasn’t all gloom and doom, though, as both identity and resistance manifested in profoundly joyous ways in Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” and Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm.” And Bruno Mars and Migos embraced playful, nostalgic visions of the past—though it’s hard not to question whether even those ostensibly frivolous throwbacks are rooted in self-care and a need to romanticize a seemingly simpler time. Sal Cinquemani
20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”
There are no guns or mass shootings in the clip for Prince’s posthumously released “Mary Don’t You Weep,” but their absence isn’t conspicuous. Gun violence is, more than anything else, about the aftermath—the loss, the grief, the haunted lives left in the wake of a fleeting shot. Amid politicians’ perpetual handwringing over when the “right” time is to talk about solutions to this epidemic, Salomon Ligthelm’s exquisitely lensed video testifies to the notion that, at least for tens of thousands of Americans this year, it’s already too late. Cinquemani
19. Rosalía, “Malamente”
Barcelona-based collective Canada marries the traditional with the modern—as in an eye-popping freeze-frame of a bullfighter facing off with a motorcycle—in this spirited music video for Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s flamenco-inspired hit “Malamente.” Alexa Camp
18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”
The music video for Ariana Grande’s sultry, subtly reggae-infused slow jam “God Is a Woman” finds the pop princess bathing in a milky swirl of vaginal water colors, fingering the eye of a hurricane, and deflecting misogynist epithets, a visual embodiment of her declaration that “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing/And he sees the universe when I’m in company/It’s all in me.” Directed by Dave Meyers, the video mixes animation, digital eye candy, and references to classical artwork, as well as a few WTF moments, like a set piece in which a group of moles emerge from their holes and scream bloody murder. Pointed metaphors abound, from scenes of Grande walking a tightrope to literally breaking a glass ceiling. At one point, pop’s original feminist queen, Madonna, makes a cameo reciting the Old Testament by way of Pulp Fiction—with her own characteristic twist, of course, swapping “brothers” for “sisters.” Cinquemani
17. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix)”
Bruno Mars directed the video for “Finesse” himself, and its note-perfect homage to the opening sequence of In Living Color shows him to be as adept a visual pastiche artist as he is a musical one. As with the song, however, it’s guest Cardi B who steals the show, dominating every second she’s on camera as the flyest of Fly Girls in tube socks, cutoffs, and larger-than-life hoop earrings. Zachary Hoskins
16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”
Featuring masterful performances by Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn, LCD Soundsystem’s “Oh Baby” is a stirring saga of lovers venturing into the unknown. Directed by Rian Johnson, the video follows an aging couple who build a set of strange, inter-dimensional doorways. Enter one, and you can exit out of the other, but it’s never clear what reality exists between them. Simple, cinematic, and heart-wrenching, the clip is the perfect accompaniment for James Murphy’s ponderous, uplifting electro-pop. Paired together, Spacek and Strathairn convey love’s capacity to obliterate all barriers: loneliness, old age, even death. Pryor Stroud
15. Migos featuring Drake, “Walk It Talk It”
Migos’s “Walk It Talk It” takes place on a fictional television program called Culture Ride—a clear homage to the iconic show Soul Train. This isn’t the first music video to conceptually riff on the vintage variety show format; both OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and the Strokes’s “Last Nite” are set in Ed Sullivan Show-style sound stages. But the video is still a triumph of flashy, vintage style. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff surround themselves with dancing spectators and major stars, notably Jamie Foxx and Drake, all of whom are transfixed by the music they’re hearing. And just as they are today, Migos is the center of attention. Stroud
14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”
Yes, those really are Azealia Banks’s nipples. At least according to the New York singer-rapper-lightning-rod’s perennially deleted Twitter account. But the music video for Banks’s single “Anna Wintour” is striking not just because of the artist’s ample bosom. Directed by Matt Sukkar, the clip was filmed in an empty warehouse using understated faux-natural lighting, an apt visual milieu for Banks’s declaration of independence: “As the valley fills with darkness, shadows chase and run around…I’ll be better off alone, I’ll walk at my own pace.” Shots of a scantily clad Banks strutting on a metal catwalk, posing in a full-length mirror, and striking a pose in front of a backlit gate pay homage to Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” an iconic video by another female artist who was once determined to assert control. Camp
13. Flasher, “Material”
The internet has rendered media consumption so isolating that it takes a work of profound ingenuity to remind us that art is inherently a shared experience—even if that experience is one of infuriating data buffering, inescapable clickbait, and micro-targeted advertising. Directed by Nick Roney, Flasher’s meta visual for “Material” proves that YouTube has become so engrained in the fabric of modern life that the simple action of clicking out of a pop-up advertisement is now part of our brains’ cache of muscle memory. Though the video isn’t actually interactive, you just might find yourself unconsciously reaching to take control of what’s happening on your screen. Cinquemani
12. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”
The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Camp
11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”
One of the most ambitious music video projects of the year, “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Hoskins
10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”
Every segment of the “emotion picture” released by Janelle Monáe to accompany her third album Dirty Computer is visually striking and thematically rich in its own way. But it’s the segment for lead single “Make Me Feel” that arguably stands best on its own. Directed by Monáe’s longtime collaborator Alan Ferguson, the video features the singer and 2018 It-girl Tessa Thompson at what may be the year’s coolest party captured on screen. Widely viewed as a coming-out moment for Monáe—her pansexuality is dramatized in her interactions with both Thompson and co-star Jayson Aaron—the clip is rife with references to two recently canonized icons of sexual fluidity, Prince and David Bowie. Monáe’s choreography with Thompson and Aaron echoes Prince’s with dancer Monique Mannen in the video for “Kiss,” while the dynamic of a bold, flamboyant alter ego performing for the singer’s more reserved self is borrowed from Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” As with her music, however, Monáe is capable of wearing these influences on her sleeve (and her silver bikini top) while still making them wholly her own. Hoskins
9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”
The music video for R&B legend Chaka Khan’s first single in five years giddily foregrounds a multiplicity of black bodies via vibrant, kinetic montage. The joyous clip represents a celebration of identity and persistence in the face of adversity, a thread that shoots through many of the year’s best videos. Camp
8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”
The music video has always sat at an awkward intersection of art and commerce, having originated as short film clips serving quite literally as “promos” for new singles. It’s thus only a little strange that Spike Jonze’s video for Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over” isn’t a conventional one at all, but rather an extended commercial for Apple’s HomePod smart device. In the short vignette, FKA Twigs comes home from a long work day and asks Siri to play something she’d like. After a few seconds of .Paak’s voice coming out of her HomePod speakers, she discovers that her dancing can make the physical properties of her apartment stretch and shift. Both the simple, human joy of Twigs’s movements and the technical wizardry of the expanding room are so arresting that you’ll almost forget you’re being sold something. Hoskins
7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”
The album cover for Travis Scott’s Astroworld painted a vivid picture of the eponymous theme park as a psychedelic, vaguely sinister landscape, dominated by a giant inflatable model of Scott’s head and decidedly not to be confused with the real-life (and long-defunct) Six Flags AstroWorld. But it’s the video for single “Sicko Mode,” directed by Dave Meyers, that really brings the place to life, turning the bleak landscape of Houston’s inner city into a post-apocalyptic playground of talking train graffiti and video vixens on bicycles while Scott rides past a prowling police cruiser on horseback. Much like the multi-part song, the clip isn’t cohesive, as the scenes during Drake’s guest verse almost seem to be cut in from an entirely different video. But the abundance of bizarre imagery, both menacing and absurd, ensures that it’s never boring. Hoskins
6. A$AP Rocky featuring Moby, “A$AP Forever”
The camera is the star of Dexter Navy’s video for “A$AP Forever”: whirling in dizzy circles above A$AP Rocky’s head and pulling in and out of a seemingly endless series of television monitors, street signs, smartphone screens, and other images within images. In the final sequence, the camera moves one last time into Rocky’s eyeball, revealing a reflected image of the rapper rotating in an anti-gravity chamber. Also, Moby is there. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but the trippy effect is a perfect complement to the strain of 21st-century psychedelia in Rocky’s music. Hoskins
5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”
Directed by Calmatic, the video for Vince Staples’s “Fun!” is both an astute condemnation of racial tourism and a (perhaps unintentional) auto-critique of hip-hop’s exportation of the black experience to middle America. Like Flasher’s “Material,” it’s also a bleak commentary on the ways technology—in this case, satellite mapping—has simultaneously united and divided the human race. Cinquemani
4. Jack White, “Corporation”
Jack White’s “Corporation” is just as oblique, ambitious, and political as the artist himself. Over the course of seven minutes, a series of surreal, seemingly disjointed events occur: a cowboy puts on lipstick, a rave starts in a diner, a little boy steals a car. By the end, you learn that all of the characters are simply different manifestations of White himself, revealing the alt-blues pioneer as someone we already knew him to be: a complex, multifaceted artist whose neuroses are intimately tied to his genius. Stroud
3. Kali Uchis featuring Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”
Like the contemporary surrealist photos of its director, Nadia Lee Cohen, the video for “After the Storm” pairs a rich Technicolor palette with a playfully elastic approach to everyday banality: bringing P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins to (animated) life as a cereal box mascot and making rapper Tyler, the Creator grow from a garden like a literal “Flower Boy.” That these whimsical images appear alongside shots of singer Kali Uchis, dolled up in mid-century attire and staring blankly into the distance, suggest that they’re meant to dramatize the daydreams of a bored 1950s suburbanite. This makes the video’s final image, of Uchis and a fully sprouted Tyler acting out an idyllic nuclear family scene while their own disembodied Chia-pet heads look on from the window, as vaguely disquieting as it is humorous. Hoskins
2. The Carters, “Apeshit”
The Carters’s Everything Is Love may not have achieved the same cultural ubiquity as Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, or Jay-Z’s 4:44, but it spawned one of the year’s most poignant videos. In “Apeshit,” the power couple performs in a vacant Louvre, commandeering the world’s most famous museum without breaking a sweat. It’s a radical testament to their influence as artists, business people, and political players, as well as a bold statement about the overlooked primacy of blackness in the Western canon. Stroud
1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
Surprise-released to coincide with Donald Glover’s double duty as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live in May, the provocative video for “This Is America” was already inspiring breathless think pieces by the following morning. Directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s principal collaborator on FX’s Atlanta, “This Is America” shares with many of that show’s best episodes a knack for getting under viewers’ skins, presenting highly charged images with just enough ambiguity to encourage social media reactions of the “WTF did I just watch” variety. But if the last seven months of critical dissection and memetic recycling have inevitably dulled some of its shock value—and, by extension, its power as a political statement—the video remains an astounding artistic achievement. In a series of long shots cleverly disguised as one uninterrupted take, Glover pulls dances and faces from the intertwined traditions of pop culture and minstrelsy, seamlessly juxtaposed with eruptions of sudden, graphic gun violence. In both extremes, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him—which is, of course, the point. Like the never-ending train wreck that is American history itself, “This is America” offers entertainment and grotesquerie in equal measure. Hoskins
The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018
These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary.
This year offered a feast of cinematic acting that pivoted on surprise, in terms of unconventional casting that allowed performers to add new shades to their established personas, as well as in blistering work by newcomers. These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary, shattering the banality of expectation to elaborate on universal feelings that are too easily submerged by us on our day-to-day toils. Which is to say that the finest film acting of 2018 was less indebted to the representational “realism” that often wins awards than to fashioning a bold kind of behavioral expressionism. Like many of their filmmaker collaborators, these actors are master stylists. Chuck Bowen
Sakura Ando, Shoplifters
As Nobuyo, the default “mother” of an informal family of hustlers on the margins of present-day Tokyo, Sakura Ando enriches Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle social drama with her bracing articulation of her character’s self-discovery. Nobuya’s melodramatic arc—a woman with dark secrets whose hard-won redemption is inevitably undone by higher forces—culminates in an agonizing one-shot unraveling, but what makes her fate so devastating is the sense of surprise and liberation that Ando brings to Nobuya’s acceptance of new responsibilities, passions, and her own self-worth. Christopher Gray
Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In
For all of her versatility, Juliette Binoche has never particularly been noted for her comic skills, but she displays a subtle wit as the middle-aged and single Isabelle in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, often dismissing petulant, needy men with scarcely more than a mocking glance or a passive-aggressive comment. Binoche truly shines, though, in scenes that play up Isabelle’s feelings of panic and loneliness over having to date again, such as when Isabelle reminisces about her ex-husband and, in the process, a whole panoply of emotions, including resentment and wistfulness, flit anxiously across the actress’s face. Most moving of all is the outright panic that Isabelle betrays when a wonderful date urges her to take things slowly, triggering an existential attack over her perceived lack of time to find another partner so late in life. Jake Cole
Emily Browning, Golden Exits
Golden Exits sustains a lingering aura of futility that’s counterweighted by the film’s beauty and by the exhilaration of seeing Alex Ross Perry realize his vast ambitions, as he’s made a modern film about relationships and social constrictions that clears the bar set by the work of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Perry also ultimately empathizes with Naomi, who’s paradoxically diminished by her status as the narrative’s center of attention. Regarded by her American acquaintances as a barometer of their own personal failures, Naomi is never truly noticed. She’s the gorgeous woman as specter, played by Emily Browning with an ambiguity that carries a heartbreaking suggestion: that Naomi’s unknowable because no one wishes to know her. Bowen
Nicolas Cage, Mandy
Mandy‘s smorgasbord of indulgences is held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Bowen
Toni Collette, Hereditary
Flashes of insanity and malaise factor into Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, yet Annie cannot be defined by such traits often linked to the trope of a hysterical woman. Instead, Collette’s glares of frustration suggest a world of complicated emotions that extend well beyond pain. Terror and intense focus become indecipherable in Collette’s eyes as Annie, a diorama artist, is torn from her profession by conspiring forces, making the film’s outcome feel even more like a cross between a cruel joke and a rebuke of society’s stacking the deck through maternal guilt and shame against Annie’s aspiring career. Clayton Dillard
Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
As Queen Anne and her rival sycophants, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, respectively, establish a delicious series of manipulative, barbarous, and poignant emotional cross-currents throughout The Favourite. Stone and Weisz verbally parry and thrust at lightning speed, one-upping one another in an escalating series of duels that inspire the actresses to give among the finest performances of their careers, while Colman expertly operates at a slower, daringly draggy and exposed speed, painting a portrait of a woman imprisoned by entitlement. Collectively, this superb acting also achieves the near miraculous feat of rendering a Yorgos Lanthimos film authentically human. Bowen
Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built
It’s no secret that Jack (Matt Dillon), the viciously misogynistic serial killer at the heart of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, is at least partially a stand-in for the director himself, and the genius of Dillon’s interpretation of the character is that he never seems to be sucking up to the man who created it. He plays Jack as ruthless, self-pitying, and disturbingly empty—Hannibal Lecter without the wit or charm. No mere pawn of the Danish provocateur’s autocritical schema, Dillon both deepens and challenges von Trier’s intended self-portraiture with the uncanny blankness of his performance, creating in the process an absolutely chilling embodiment of evil. Keith Watson
Adam Driver, BlackKklansman
Though BlackKklansman was marketed as the story of an African-American police officer impersonating a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, it also concerns a Jewish cop’s efforts to do the same by offering a white face to accompany a vocal charade. As said cop, Flip Zimmerman, Adam Driver deliriously plumbs head-first into a disturbing irony, acknowledging the catharses that can be had by indulging in disgusting epithets secretly at one’s own expense. Or, simply: Flip insults himself, and those close to him, and Driver elucidates the character’s disgust as well as the weird spiritual purging that can occur by indulging one’s basest instincts. One of America’s best and most sensitive actors offers perhaps his finest portrait yet of a soul twisted in contradictory knots. Bowen
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
It’s a testament to the authenticity of Elsie Fisher’s performance in Eighth Grade that you’d never have guessed she’d been in front of a camera before, much less that she’s been acting consistently for years. As Kayla, the awkward, unpopular tween protagonist of Bo Burnham’s film, Fisher infuses every stammered “umm” and stumbling “like” with a palpable sense of self-loathing and social anxiety. For anyone who ever felt like Kayla in middle school, Fisher’s painfully real performance is liable to induce PTSD. Watson
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Finally shedding his tick-laden parlor games, Ben Foster comes to life as an actor, connecting with Will and giving him a fearful thickness of being that’s only occasionally leavened by Tom, whom Thomasin McKenzie invests with the trembling, negotiating intelligence of an unformed prodigy. Will and Tom and Foster and McKenzie’s energies are beautifully in and out of sync, simultaneously. Foster confidently cedes the film to McKenzie, which parallels Will’s gradual relinquishing of authority to Tom. Both characters know that it’s unfair to expect Tom to inherit Will’s alienation, as she has the right to give this potentially doomed society a chance, to fight for it as well as herself. In Leave No Trace‘s heartbreaking climax, a relationship dies so that an individual, and maybe even a society, may be reborn. Bowen
Hugh Grant, Paddington 2
Hugh Grant may well be more cartoonish than the animated bear protagonist of Paddington 2. As the film’s villain, a has-been thespian with the world’s most convoluted scheme to finance a one-man show, Grant can scarcely utter a syllable without throwing his head back and exclaiming it to the rafters, and the actor’s body language—a series of shocked gasps, wild-eyed stares, and manic grins—is similarly absurd. As Phoenix dons a series of ever-more elaborate disguises throughout the film, Grant’s acting somehow gets even broader, resulting in a work of giddy panto and one of the finest comic performances in recent memory. Cole
Regina Hall, Support the Girls
It’s not often that we see decency and level-headedness radiated on screen as convincingly as it is by Regina Hall in Support the Girls, much less a film centered around such a performance. As Lisa, a put-upon restaurant manager enduring a particularly hectic day on the job, Hall suppresses the comic histrionics that she’s become known for in mainstream comedy movies in order to inhabit the delicate naturalism that writer-director Andrew Bujalski consistently cultivates in his casts. Slipping into this mode with grace, the actress conveys the sheer exhaustion and frustration of nine-to-five existence with just the subtlest of disruptions to an exterior of buttoned-up professionalism. Carson Lund
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
As the great blackness of night swoops in, we reach for assurances of “the everlasting arms,” as sung about in First Reformed‘s concluding hymnal. Ethan Hawke’s staggering performance is one of Ecclesiastian sympathy, with watchful longing and hungry silences in between reminders of Toller’s own impotence to change the world. The man’s face suggests a tragic predicament that the only ark to save us from an impending flood is in our illusions. Niles Schwartz
Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Nearly every actor in the Coen brothers’ newest anti-western is remarkable, but Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are particularly heartbreaking, partly because the audience has been so expertly rendered vulnerable to the vignette in which they appear. By the time that we get to “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’ve seen so much brutality and cynicism that we’re hardened for more of the same only to encounter tenderness. As potential lovers who never get to be, Kazan and Heck dramatize the unmooring vulnerability of feeling attraction just when you suspect that you’ve aged out of it, informing the Coens’ florid, beautiful dialogue with trembling pathos. Bowen
Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk
For this critic, the lovers at the center of Barry Jenkins’s newest parable of racism are too gorgeous, primped, fawning, symbolic, metaphorical, and seemingly straight out of a coffee-table book. As a man recently out of prison after serving a stretch he didn’t deserve, Brian Tyree Henry does for If Beale Street Could Talk what he did for Widows and continues to do for Atlanta: informing potentially self-conscious conceits with a jolting burst of common-sense machismo. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s most haunting scene is a monologue that’s hypnotically uttered by Tyree, allowing this film, for a few minutes, to actually capture the brutal poetry of the James Baldwin novel that inspired it. Bowen
Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline
The center of a film about commitment and disassociation, Helena Howard’s Madeline evidently relishes the opportunity to change identities in the blink of an eye. Director Josephine Decker contrasts the aspiring actress’s easy mastery of improv exercises with Madeline’s harried life outside of rehearsal, where she’s regularly manipulated by her mother and an overeager director as she struggles to control her mental illness. Decker’s film is willfully alienating in its commitment to Madeline’s tortured interiority, but Howard steers it with an undeniable power and confidence, making Madeline’s rootless chaos feel entirely legible. Gray
Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf
Werewolf belongs to the extraordinary Bhreagh MacNeil. The film derives quite a bit of its power from allowing Vanessa to unceremoniously wrest the spotlight away from Blaise (Andrew Gillis), a lost and bitter man whose quest for recovery is probably hopeless. MacNeil doesn’t project Vanessa’s determination in a manner that’s familiar to rehabilitation fables, but rather physically embodies it, and McKenzie doesn’t mar her with any screenwriterly speeches. We see Vanessa’s strength in the steel of her eyes, in her willingness to ask family for help, and in her ability to get a thankless job at an old-fashioned burger and soft-serve ice cream joint, in which she grinds imitation Oreo cookies into pieces with a machine that resembles a sausage grinder. The fierceness with which Vanessa grinds these cookies—or attempts to master an ice cream machine that resembles a liquid methadone dispenser—is haunting. Bowen
Rachel McAdams, Disobedience
Esti (Rachel McAdams), at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion. Ed Gonzalez
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The pairing of Melissa McCarthy, a Hollywood A-lister, with Richard E. Grant, a sublime arthouse presence, is one of the most invigorating surprises of this year’s cinema. McCarthy avoids the pitfall of comic actors appearing in unusually dramatic material. Rather than restricting her emotional catalogue to a few grim gestures of purposefulness, McCarthy expands her repertoire, elaborating on the sadness that’s inherent in even her blockbuster roles—a sadness that also fuels her comic virtuosity. And Grant is complicit with McCarthy’s tonal dexterity in every way. Together they offer an irresistible portrait of a bittersweet paradox of companionable alienation. Bowen
Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits
The Land of Steady Habits benefits enormously from the casting of Ben Mendelsohn as an unexceptionally tormented upper-middle-class guy. Here, the actor submerges the aggression that’s often closer to the surface of his sleazy villain roles, giving Anders a mysterious internal tension that’s compelling and often funny. When writer-director Nicole Holofcener follows Anders around as he drifts in and out of the lives of Helene (Edie Falco) and his grown son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and their various friends, the film has a free-associational piquancy. Bowen
Jason Mitchell, Tyrel
Sebastián Silva tasks Jason Mitchell with carrying the weight of Tyrel on the actor’s face; he’s asked to project toughness in reaction shots to aggressions both micro and macro from Tyler’s white bros, then later vulnerability as he steals away for moments of quietude to escape the ambiguous pain of social discomfort. While the scenario and performance is comparable to that of Daniel Kaluuya’s in Get Out, Mitchell’s Tyler isn’t given a catharsis of violent retribution. Mitchell’s expressions and gestures convey the betrayal of a daily life that never lets Tyler feel at ease, let alone at home. Dillard
Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?
Michelle Pfeiffer’s ferociously vulnerable and intelligent performance elucidates the pain, resentment, and fear that springs from escalating disappointment. Pfeiffer informs Kyra with a fragile mixture of empathy and rage, which is particularly on display when Kyra cares for her mother, Ruth, who’s played by Suzanne Shepard with a wily and commanding dignity. Kyra is understood by Pfeiffer to be taking qualified pleasure in her own effacement, as it implies an escape from a world that has rejected her. Early in the film, we see Kyra preparing a bath for Ruth, and a mirror fashions a prism in which mother and daughter are cordoned off from one another yet simultaneously visible, evoking the punishing intimacy, and the comfort, of caring for a dependent. Bowen
Meinhard Neumann, Western
Casting is everything, the saying goes, but that’s especially true when filmmakers elect to use nonprofessionals, in which case ineffable factors such as “presence” and “authenticity” become paramount. Meinhard Neumann, the grizzled, mustachioed brooder at the center of Western who director Valeska Grisebach came across on a whim at a horse market, has these qualities in spades, in addition to a seemingly preternatural capacity for playing to Grisebach’s roving handheld camera and finding his light. His taciturn, repressed Meinhard doesn’t have a wide expressive range, but when the character does undergo a few emotional breakthroughs in the latter half of the film, Neumann seems to be genuinely accessing reserves of pain and regret deep within himself. Lund
Jesse Plemons, Game Night
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein assembled one of the strongest comedic ensembles in recent memory for Game Night, but a single performer still managed to steal the show: Jesse Plemons as the weirdo Gary, a sad-sack cop with a broken heart whose self-pitying glumness could ruin anyone’s vibe. Pitched perfectly at the intersection of creepiness and pathos, Plemons earns big laughs without really seeming to try. The hilarity arises instead from his expertly discomfiting embodiment of one of those off-putting personality types we’ve all unfortunately encountered: the guy you feel bad for but desperately want to get away from as fast as humanly possible. Watson
Steven Yeun, Burning
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is driven by a central mystery of purpose. To what genre does this film belong? Is it a horror film, a romantic triangle, a class critique, or a beguiling fusion of all of the above? Much of this mystery is embodied by Steven Yeun’s performance as a rich smoothie who’s far more appealing than the floundering hero, which strikes up a crisis in the audience’s empathy that resonates with our romantic preferences in real life. Turns out there’s a reason that confident people get all the lovers, because they are, well, confident. Yet Yeun laces his sexiness with the subtlest tint of passive aggression, so subtle that one wonders if it’s even there, investing Burning with a fleeting malignancy that’s worthy of Claude Chabrol. Bowen
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