2018 in Review: The Best Performances of the Year

Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Tilda Swinton, Carmina Martínez, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz,
Rosamund Pike and Nicole Kidman are among 2018's top stars.
2018 might not have been a so-so year for movies, but it’s hard to find a year with a stronger list of acting credits. The films of 2018 excelled in large part by the quality of the performances that fuelled them. I could easily have limited the list of the top lead performances of 2018 to Best Actress contenders and still omitted worthy names if I capped it at 10. Not even Meryl Streep made the lists this year, the acting was so good!

I’ll admit that I shuffled these lists too many times to try to account for great work and powerful ensemble casts, and in some cases a performer might be doing double duty for a co-star who was equally great. The list of honourable mentions is off the hook, so let’s get right down to business!

The Top 10 Supporting Performances of 2018

Rémy Girard and Denys Arcand are one of the best actor-director teams in this country. They are in top form once again in this thematic continuation of The Barbarian Invasions, which arguably remains the best work of their careers. But Girard’s performance as Sylvain ‘The Brain’ Bigras gives his work as Rémy a run for its money. Girard totally gets the pace and humour of Arcand’s film. He relishes the opportunity of making a streetwise and booksmart biker gang accountant, mixing prosaic philosophy with slang and mannerisms learned from the slammer. His performance makes the film click.

Jack Hock
9. Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Is there a better example of the perfect fit between actor and role than Richard E. Grant landing the part of Jack Hock? He has played characters like Hock before, but never this well and never with this much depth. Beyond being flat-out brilliant as a feat of comedic timing, his fabulous sidekick to Melissa McCarthy’s letter forging cat lady Lee Israel is sketchiness personified and a tragic downfall of his own joie de vivre. Even on repeat viewings, it amazes me how he conveys Jack’s homelessness long before the script puts it into words. 

Celeste Pop Star
8. Natalie Portman in Vox Lux

Portman’s performance as Celeste, a pop star who made a deal with the devil to ensure her place in the spotlight, is definitely of the love-it-or-leave-it variety. I personally love how fearlessly she pushes the character and creates a hot mess of a self-absorbed celebrity who constantly captivates no matter how obnoxious she may be. The grand finale of Celeste’s concert is a triumph, not simply for Portman’s overly synthesized vocals and dance moves, but for the unabashed pride, confidence, and vanity that radiates from the star on stage. BDE in a nutshell.

sharon beale street mom
7. Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk

While reading the book for If Beale Street Could Talk, I could just imagine Regina King bringing her character Sharon to life with such rich heartfelt emotion that it would land her an Oscar. Seeing the film, and seeing the film again, she surpassed expectations even if Barry Jenkins abbreviated the great sequence in Puerto Rico that conveyed her character’s warmth, compassion, and devotion to son-in-law Fonny (Stephan James) like he is her own child. There is just such pure love and strength in King’s Sharon. Like Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased, Regina King’s performance in Beale Street is a tribute to mothers everywhere.

Nicole Kidman bad wig
6. Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased

Nicole Kidman is on both lists this year (see below for Destroyer) and she couldn’t have created two more dissimilar performances as mothers going to extremes to relearn what it means to love. In Boy Erased, she plays Nancy, the conservative Christian mother who agrees to send her gay son to “conversion therapy.” The mother’s love radiates strongly as Kidman portrays a woman struggling to reconcile her faith with her devotion to her son. Despite being the heart of the film, Kidman’s empathetic performance never overtakes her co-star Lucas Hedges and ensures Boy Erased is first and foremost Jared's story. Bonus points for the wig!

Madame Blanc Suspiria
5. Tilda Swinton in Suspiria

Playing not one, not two, but three characters in Suspiria, Tilda Swinton again proves herself a risk-taking chameleon. Her stern and enigmatic ballet teacher/Witch Supreme Madame Blanc is a devilishly delightful take on an enigmatic shapeshifter, while her turn as the jovial and elderly psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer contains more psychological layers than the coats of latex used to transform Swinton into an old man. The casting coup ingeniously creates parallels and contrasts between supernatural evil and everyday horror as Swinton finds shared likenesses to each vastly different personas. (We won’t name her third character to avoid spoilers!)

4. Bryan Brown in Sweet Country

An old salty villain fuelled by anger, colonial conquest, and whisky, Brown’s Sergeant Fletcher is a nasty man—yet not the most unlikable character is the visionary western Sweet Country. As the leader of a posse on the hunt for an Aboriginal man who killed a white fella in self-defense, Fletcher is a hardened racist driven by his desire to preserve the frontier in the face of change. However, Brown plays Fletcher like the salty old cuss that he is, a lawman with an indefatigable streak of honour who submits to the rights of the trial and sees the violent ways of the west as a well that’s quickly running dry. It’s a performance of great ferocity and humility.

old man crying
3. Sam Elliot in A Star is Born

Sam Elliot has only a few scenes in A Star is Born, yet they all deliver a punch to the heart that hits harder than Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s captivating love songs. His deep and gravelly voice has as much force as Lady Gaga’s and he isn’t afraid to use it to show emotion. However, Elliot’s Bobby is a man of few words, that strong and silent type, and in a film so highly attune to expressing emotions through music and language, his hushed expressions inject the drama with raw power. That scene where he cries while pulling out of the driveway alone merits an Oscar nomination.

Lady Sarah Churchill
2. Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

I might be drinking the PR Kool-Aid since Weisz’s turn in The Favourite might only be a “supporting” role by, like, two minutes. None of the trio of performances by Weisz and her co-stars Emma Stone and Olivia Colman would be complete without the other, though, and her distinction as a “supporting” player only speaks to the quality of her work. Her take on Lady Sarah Churchill is one of under the radar brilliance as the Queen’s favourite schemes slyly and subtly, making Machiavellian moves without being detected. Lady Sarah uses her charm and distinguishing characteristic to stand above Stone’s vulgar Abigail for the Queen’s affection—but Weisz’s shrewd take on the character also turns a beloved English figure inside out like the airing of a nation’s dirty laundry.

And the best supporting performance of 2018 is…

Birds of Passage Ursula grandmother
1. Carmiña Martínez in Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage reinvents the cartel drama by interpreting its bloody violence and power struggles through an Indigenous lens. Central to the film’s success is the sensationally good Carmiña Martínez as Úrsula, the matriarch of a Wayuu clan fallen on good fortune and cruel fate as the temptations of the drug trade overwhelm her family. She is a figure of towering strength as Úrsula holds onto her authority with her life as the tribe faces its downfall at the hands of greedy men. Navigating the roles of The Godfather and the wise old grandmother, Martínez portrays Úrsula as a woman at a crossroads and as an elder fighting for the continuation of her people in the face of their imminent demise. She is intimidating and heartbreaking, often with the same direct gaze that commands every frame in which she appears.

The Top 10 Lead Performances of 2018:

Dick Cheney
10. Christian Bale in Vice

I’m generally not a fan of Christian Bale, but his bold interpretation of Dick Cheney is one of the most audacious feats this year. He pulls off the tricky feat of creating a man who resembles a monster, yet doesn’t feel like a cartoon caricature. He makes audiences understand Cheney’s ambitions and motivations, yet plays the role so wickedly that one can “get” Cheney without empathy. He is the best villain of the year and Bale’s darkly funny powerhouse of a performance is the only tribute that Cheney deserves.

9. Sheila McCarthy in Cardinals

A masterclass in subtlety and restraint, Sheila McCarthy created one of the most puzzling characters of the year with her poker-faced turn as Valerie, a woman who returns home after spending years in prison for killing her neighbour. Cardinals reveals little about what happened on that fateful night and everything plays out on McCarthy’s face as Valerie confronts her new life with resigned acceptance. Her behaviour upon leaving prison insists that the vehicular homicide was a one-off, and McCarthy constantly invites us to make sense of Valerie as she tries to convince others, and herself, that her actions do not make her a bad person.

8. Timothée Chalamet in Beautiful Boy

Timmy doesn’t “support” his co-star Steve Carell in Beautiful Boy—he completely steals the film from him. Simply seeing his dramatic range outmatch Carell makes the film so compelling with its tale of a young man fighting to feel alive. Playing Nick Sheff, a young man struggling with drug addiction and sharing the story of his recovery with the world, Chalamet delivers on the promise of his breakout year in 2017 that culminated with an Oscar nomination for Call Me By Your Name. There is something in this performance that reminds me of a young Marlon Brando when Chalamet invests such natural power in his character—and, like Brando’s hot mess in A Streetcar Named Desire, Timmée’s turn in Beautiful Boy asserts the actor as a born talent.

Couple in diner booth
7. Kathryn Hahn in Private Life

Hahn is both heartbreaking and hilarious in this bittersweet dramedy from Tamara Jenkins. She’s consistently been stealing films in relatively minor supporting roles and, like Olivia Colman in The Favourite or Julianne Nicholson in last year’s Who We Are Now, Hahn’s beautifully layered turn shows what greatness occurs when the right character actor lands the right meaty role. Playing Rachel, a middle-aged writer desperate to have a child, Hahn alternates between comedic and tragic beats as hormones and heartaches put the mother-to-(may)be through an endless cycle of ups and downs. It’s as wild a rollercoaster ride for us as it is for her.

Priest in window
6. Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

Is Ethan Hawke enjoying his McConnaissance? That doesn't seem fair since despite his recent hot streak, he never really had a lag to come back from. After giving some of his best work in relatively under-seen Canadian films like Born to Be Blue and Maudie after his 12-year journey with Boyhood and decades-long adventure in the Before Trilogy, he delivered the performance of his career in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Playing a priest grappling with his desire (or lack thereof) to save humanity when the world is in peril, he pushed himself to dark corners few actors are willing to explore.

Queen Anne
5. Olivia Colman in The Favourite

Hail to the Queen! It is such a treat to see Olivia Colman devour a role worthy of her talents. Her performance as the mercurial Queen Anne is a masterful coup of tragicomedy. The histrionic royal turns on a dime as her mood swings just as easily as her favour does for co-stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, and while the two actresses are equally fine points to the dramatic triangle, Colman is firmly on top using the energy that each of her co-stars creates to gain the upper hand in each scene. Please, please, please give her more roles like this one!

Marie Colvin
4. Rosamund Pike in A Private War

Pike’s turn as late journalist Marie Colvin is truly an immersive inhabitation of a character. Her commitment to the reporter’s mannerisms, speech, and, most significantly, spirit echoes in every word and gesture. Stripped of one of an actor’s greatest asset—her eye—Pike uses every aspect of Colvin to convey her fight and her determination from her frazzled hair to oft-wavering hands that shake with an alcoholic’s tremors as she wrestles with the stress of her career. One feels the fatigue in Colvin’s eyes, the weight on her shoulders, and the fire in her belly as Pike heroically honours a woman who gave everything in pursuit of the truth.

A Star is Born Shallow
2 and 3. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born

Watching A Star is Born might be the most emotionally gruelling and rewarding experience of 2018. Bradley Cooper delivers his best work yet as the down and out alcoholic/fading country star Jackson Maine, while Lady Gaga makes an astonishingly good feature film debut as up-and-comer Ally. Cooper’s Jackson is a rugged man’s man, yet the star has never been this raw or vulnerable on screen while delivering some impressive vocals that hold their own with the hottest pop star on the planet. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, uses her stage presence to ensure that the songs of A Star is Born are true dramatic performances as Ally takes the leap towards stardom and captivates audiences with the palpable heartfelt emotion with which she creates each song. This film might be the fourth rendition of A Star is Born, but the screen chemistry between Cooper and Gaga makes the latest take the most bittersweet one and easily the best.

And the best performance of 2018 is…

Nicole Kidman Erin Bell
1. Nicole Kidman in Destroyer

There is a late moment in Destroyer where Nicole Kidman unleashes a piercing guttural wail from the belly of her character Detective Erin Bell. It is a devastating sound that brings chills and evokes the sensation of Bell’s soul escaping her body. As the film cuts between past and present, Kidman shows us two sides to a hot mess of a cop with a death wish out to avenge her partner’s killer. I love how Kidman conveys her hardened character’s absence of humanity as she trots around the streets of Los Angeles like a coyote hunting for prey. Compare these scenes to the warmth and naïveté with which she carries herself in flashbacks as rookie cop eager to make the world a better place, and Kidman powerfully conveys how hate consumes and overpowers us. This transformative performance is unlike anything Kidman has done before and I am consistently amazed by this actress who keeps challenging herself and taking risks in an industry that isn’t kind to actresses as they age. Erin Bell is Kidman’s best risk yet and she makes Destroyer the best dramatic coup of 2018.

Honourable mentions: Zain Al Rafeea in Capernaum, Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In, Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns, Glenn Close in The Wife, Toni Collette in Hereditary, Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate, Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting, Ryan Gosling in First Man, Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Brigitte Poupart in Les Salopes or the Wanton Pleasure of Skin, Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here, Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots, Julia Roberts in Ben is Back, Emma Stone in The Favourite, and the casts of If Beale Street Could Talk and Widows.

Also in 2018 in review:

Up next: The Best Films of 2018

What were your favourite performances of the year?