2017 in Review: The Best Performances of the Year

Margot Robbie, Gary Oldman, Allison Janney, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett,
and Frances McDorman give 2017's best performances
We continue to reflect on the year in movies. The third segment of “2017 in Review” salutes the actresses and actors who stood tallest this year. The choices in the list reflect a very strong year for substantial roles for women in film—a notable improvement over recent years—and probably the most competitive field yet for the top ten lead performances. On the other hand, this year marks the first instance in the seven years this blog has been running that a list failed to include a performance from a Canadian film. That’s disappointing, although there are a few in the honorable mentions, but let’s appreciate the cream of the crop in acting talent this year:

The Best Supporting Performances of 2017:

10. Wes Studi, Hostiles

Hostiles isn’t perfect, especially in terms of the dimensions afforded to the white characters versus the Indigenous ones, so it’s a credit to Wes Studi’s authoritative screen presence that he brings so much to this role. His defiantly compelling turn as Chief Yellow Hawk, a prisoner in his own land, elevates the film with its quietly captivating power.

9. Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

Laurie Metcalf gives an affectionately endearing movie mommy as Marion, the selfless and devoted mother to Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird. I imagine many people see something of their own mothers in the push-and-pull dynamic between Marion and Lady Bird. Every year features a handful of characters that make a moviegoer want to reach into the screen and offer a hug. Metcalf inspires one of the warmest embraces.

8. Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

To be honest, I really struggled with The Florida Project—I found it was like being trapped in a room with three screaming kids and three bags of sugar—but Willem Dafoe is a life raft as Bobby, the manager and guardian of the film’s sleazy motel. He provides a level-headed beacon of sanity in an exasperating environment and his rapport with the young stars of The Florida Project is nothing short of breathtaking.

7. Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Harrelson has mastered the art of playing the doofus. He is utterly winning as the simple, kind, and slightly bumbling Sheriff Willoughby who becomes the target of Mildred’s frustration in Three Billboards. This performance leaves an impact that one doesn’t truly appreciate until Willoughby exits the film. It’s like a loss of innocence within this dark and tragic tale.

6. John Lithgow, Beatriz at Dinner

If Salma Hayek embodies the plight of the marginalized and voiceless in Beatriz at Dinner, then John Lithgow gleefully puts a face on the privileged white male destroying America. He is fearlessly funny as a loud and obnoxious dinner guest who pours a gravy boat of ignorance and entitlement all over the table. The scenes in which he and Hayek trade barbs offer some of the most potent exchanges this year.

5. Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name

Armie Hammer’s performance as Oliver, the desirable Ken doll who stirs the attention of young Elio (Timothée Chalamet), finds its seductive power in reaction shots or images where the camera lingers after a few lines. Hammer does so much in these extra seconds of Call Me By Your Name as Oliver confronts the same passions that stir within the young man who wants him. It’s a delicate balancing act of denial and desire.

4. Julianne Moore, Wonderstruck

Julianne Moore has two brief but memorable roles in Wonderstruck: in one thread of the film, she plays Lillian Mayhew, a star of the silent era. In the other, she’s Rose, a deaf curator at a New York museum. Both characters let Moore offer wonderful feats of silent acting as Lillian’s silver screen pantomimes and Rose’s expressive and compassionate gestures evoke a range of emotions that need nary a subtitle. It’s yet another hit in Moore's string of collaborations with director Todd Haynes.

3. Rosamund Pike, Hostiles

Rosamund Pike gives a ferocious performance as a mother driven wild by grief in Hostiles. She guides the film through its challenging emotional shifts, offering its moral centre while donning a hat and picking up a rifle. The film opens with a brutally violent massacre of which she is the lone survivor, and while that scene foreshadows what utter hell Hostiles can be to sit through, Pike makes it all worth it by the end with a speech about rejecting romantic notions of violence and death on the frontier.

2. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is the heartbeat of BPM. This invigorating ensemble film about the Paris faction of ACT UP dramatizes the efforts of activists in the AIDS epidemic by emphasizing life over death. The pulse of the film comes from his performance as Sean, a member of the group who brings revitalizing spunkiness and spirited energy to their cause as he raises awareness while having one last fling at passion. Sean fights with his whole heart and as the life slowly fades from the character as illness takes its toll, the palpable sense of loss is devastating.

And the best performance in a supporting role of 2017 is…

1.       Allison Janney, I, Tonya

I generally dislike seeing archival footage at the end of a drama to show how well a recreation mirrors the original, but thank goodness for that shot of the mom at the end of I, Tonya: it just shows how much Allison Janney knocks it out of the park playing a larger than life baddie. Tough love is personified in Janney’s scene-stealing performance as LaVona Golden, the crass and cruel mother of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie). The film straddles a high-wire feat balancing black comedy and unflinching violence, and Janney’s acerbic, wryly funny take on the monster mommy is the piece that makes the whole operation work. (That and the parrot that sits atop her shoulder for some hilarious banter.) She is terrifyingly funny, but there’s also a heart somewhere within her terrible character. Maybe, like her cheap shoes, it’s just two sizes too small.

The Best Lead Performances of 2017:

10. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

It’s been a wonder to watch Saoirse Ronan evolve as an actress in the decade since her auspicious breakthrough in Atonement. From The Lovely Bones to Brooklyn and now to Lady Bird, she’s grown as an actress and star without losing the character with which she made such a strong first impression. She’s the Jennifer Lawrence of the arthouse, really, and her performance in Lady Bird proves that she possess an effortless air unlike few actresses of any age. Even better is how she finally shows off her funny side after a decade of serious but endearing turns.

9. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

Here is another performance wiser beyond years! Timothée Chalamet is the breakout star of 2017 after memorable supporting roles in Lady Bird and Hostiles, but his performance as Elio, a 16-year-old boy encountering first love and a sexual awakening in Call Me By Your Name, is the one that will forever write him in the history books of cinema. Expect this stirring performance of longing, love, and self-doubt to linger far after the film ends: Chalamet’s reflection during the film’s final long take is a revelatory feat of silent acting as he conveys how it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.

8. Salma Hayek, Beatriz at Dinner

“You don’t know me,” remarks Beatriz to her host late in Beatriz at Dinner. Salma Hayek delivers the line without the slightest hint of trepidation or  emotion, and her lucid turn as Beatriz, in a way, gives voice to Americans who struggle to be heard and find a place in the country’s increasingly fractured identity. Hayek gives one of the best performances of her career in this awkwardly funny and tragically poignant turn as Beatriz, who simmers with the rage, restlessness, and above all, fatigue over passively accepting the status quo.

7. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

The playful musicality of this performance is an utter delight. Hawkins plays mute cleaner Elisa Esposito as if she were Amélie doing a Broadway melody. The bouncy timing of Hawkins’ movements gives a spring to each step and injects her hands with joie de vivre as she communicates with a range of fellow outsiders, played by Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and Doug Jones in memorable supporting roles. But Elisa’s lust for life is most evident in Hawkins’ expressive face—eyes constantly a-twinkle and in awe of life’s wonders.

6. Trine Dyrholm, The Commune

There’s a scene very late in The Commune where Dyrholm’s character Anna, a news anchor, freezes during a routine broadcast. She holds her composure as she realizes that her plan to save her marriage by exploring communal living has utterly backfired. Then something cracks in Anna’s face and Dyrholm is a flood of emotions that erupts through a dam as Anna loses all she holds dear through a small fissure she tried to repair. Few scenes have haunted me and affected me so much this year.

5. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

A few corners of the film industry say that an Oscar for casting is long overdue and Three Billboards is a strong example to support this cause. I simply can’t imagine anyone other than Frances McDormand playing Mildred Hayes, a tough momma who rides into town like John Wayne and demands justice. She is deadpan hilarious playing an oddball character brought to life by dry humour and a big warm heart that she keeps in check like an expert poker player. What a perfect marriage between actor and role.

4. Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman is Meryl Streep level good in his performance as Winston Churchill. He disappears beneath gobs of make-up to find the soul of this leader and he uses every ounce of Churchill’s portly passion for his country to create a flawed, but respectable man who navigates the tricky balance between pragmatism and popularity. The theatricality of this performance is rightly larger than life and helps make the leader likable, fallible, and surprisingly relatable.

3. Cate Blanchett, Manifesto

Thirteen of the twenty slots on these lists could easily be occupied by the baker’s dozen of characters that Cate Blanchett plays in the non-fiction performance piece Manifesto. The hardest part, however, would be ranking them. As Blanchett dons a wide range of guises and acting styles to deliver monologue-like renditions of artistic and political manifestos, she uses the full spectrum of an actor’s assets to create a dramatic manifesto in her own right about the lengths to which one must commit herself in the name of art.

2. Meryl Streep, The Post

Meryl Streep is a regular on these lists and she reminds me why she’s the best actress of all time with this impeccably downplayed performance as Kay Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post. Streep gives one of her most natural performances in The Post and meshes perfectly with the A-calibre ensemble. It’s like she’s been inhabiting this character’s skin for years and the fruition of her fiery publisher makes The Post so urgent as a parable for the importance of the free press—and resilient leaders—in uncertain times.

And the best performance of 2017 is…

1.       Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

I love when an actor does something completely unexpected and floors you. Margot Robbie has quickly become one of the hottest stars in Hollywood despite only hitting the radar with The Wolf of Wall Street four years ago. She came closest to becoming the next big thing with her off-the-wall performance in the misfire of Suicide Squad, but, oddly enough, her take on notorious ex-skater Tonya Harding is in many ways the fully realized counterpart of Harley Quinn. What a riot it is to watch Robbie dive into Harding’s deeply troubled past and deliver an empathetic performance that creates a character who is a victim of circumstance, but also one of her own making. There is a great arrogance that underlies Robbie's Harding in her refusal to hold herself accountable for her actions in the pursuit of Olympic gold. One must admire Robbie’s ability to handle the demanding tonal shifts and mood swings of I, Tonya just as nimbly as she whizzes around the ice. It’s easily the most fascinating, complex, and surprising performance of 2017.

Honourable mentions: Claire Armstrong, Dim the Fluorescents; Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game; Bryan Cranston, Last Flag Flying; Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip; Catherine Keener, Get Out; Diane Kruger, In the Fade; Michele McLeod, Don’t Talk to Irene; Jeremy Renner, Wind River; Matthias Schoenaerts, Racer and the Jailbird; Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck; Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water; Harry Dean Stanton, Lucky; the cast of The Post.

Previous in 2017 in review: 
The Best Canadian Films of 2017
The Best Documentaries of 2017
The Worst Films of 2017

Up next: The Best Films of 2017!