Thursday Ten – Best Performances of the Year So Far

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None of the performances or ensembles highlighted in this Thursday Ten are likely to garner Oscar attention. Whether considered too esoteric for conventional Academy tastes or not having a distributor willing (or capable) to campaign on the actor’s behalf, the performances I want to spotlight are some of the more adventurous I’ve seen over the course of the year. As much as I enjoy following the latest trends in Oscar campaigns, the whole thing can become dreadfully repetitive when the same five names are brought up incessantly. 

The cast of Everybody Wants Some!!

A recurring sense of discovery permeates throughout Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, where a freshman college baseball pitcher gets to know his teammates and classmates on the eve of his first day of school. Blake Jenner – as our Richard Linklater proxy – gives a soulful performance worthy of individual consideration, but it’s really the orbiting performers around him that really makes it so exceptional. Every character more or less operates as a separate cog in Linklater’s metaphysical chronometer: you have the gonzo musings of Glen Powell’s Finnegan, the hypermasculine posturing of Juston Street’s Jay, the patriarchal authority of Tyler Hoechlin’s McReynolds, and most compelling is Wyatt Russell’s Willoughby, the hippie pothead clinging to a lost era. Each performance operates on its own as thoroughly captivating, but together they find a harmony that’s a rarity considering that the film’s men and women are composed of largely unknown actors. Hopefully it doesn’t stay that way. 

Jane Levy, Don’t Breathe,

Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch

Beyond highlighting three women in three horror films, what I find so enthralling about these performances is how intensely physical they are. Horror films are so often a haven for female performers, a kind of ghetto whereby the psychological tremors of femininity are expressed in their most macabre. The three films are, to varying degrees, less concerned with the psychological as they are with the physical, expressing their ideas with tactility in a conscious effort for women to overcome nature. From the overt imagery of seeing Blake Lively combat a shark to Jane Levy fending off a Rottweiler to Anya Taylor-Joy negotiate with a goat, there’s an oddly interactive trend of woman contending with the more primal elements of the world. But it’s in their engagement with these obstacles; the three women persuasively command your attention, actively in search of agency in a world that – quite literally – looks to eat them alive. 

Vincent Lindon, The Measure of a Man

In the tradition of Oliver Gourmet in The Son or Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love, Vincent Lindon’s Cannes Best Actor winning performance is the kind of understated accomplishment of internal insecurities that is so often passed on by your typical Academy Award voter. But those willing to jibe with Lindon’s understated mannerisms and brutally true journey through anomie will be rewarded; it’s the kind of performance that you can’t help but cherish for its capacity to empathize with. And like the aforementioned performances, it’s one that immediately feels more timeless than say Matt Damon in The Martian. That was nominated last year, right?

Colin Farrell, The Lobster

Colin Farrell is an erratic and unreliable performer. For every interesting performance he submits in something like Miami Vice or The New World, there’s something irremediably terrible in the likes of the Total Recall remake and Daredevil. His performance in The Lobster, thankfully, has more in common with the former than the latter. He has a particular knack for playing defeated, impotent heroes and what he submits in The Lobster embodies that and more. There’s the obvious physical transformation, capturing the essence of portly masculinity. It’s odd to see a film that exists in a surreal and separate universe possess so many of the traits that we find in ourselves. Farrell’s a vital part in establishing that connective empathy, bridging the satirical and tonally bizarre universe of Yorgos Lanthimos’ vision with anxieties that you and I encounter on a daily basis.

Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship

The conversation surrounding Love & Friendship seems to have centered itself on Tom Bennett’s comedic supporting performance, a fairly routine Michael Scott impersonation that set in Jane Austen’s universe. It’s an amusing diversion, but when you get right to the thick of it, it’s Kate Beckinsale’s performance that makes Love & Friendship so exceptional. Her matter-of-fact, cutthroat iciness is a revelation for someone who’s accustomed to seeing her in Hollywood action vehicles. And being that it’s been nearly two decades since The Last Days of Disco, she wrangles with Whit Stillman’s dialogue better than any other actor the director has worked with. 

Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz, Complete Unknown

This selection has the benefit of being a recent viewing and may not hold up overtime, but I was certainly moved by the delicacy exhibited by both Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz in Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown. Shannon, whose default setting is typically some modulation of intense, is especially nuanced here, doing his best “ordinary man” confronted with the extraordinary. And in the case of Weisz, her capacity for restraint is also a benchmark, as her role would typically lend itself to exhibitions of histrionics. The result is seeing two profoundly gifted actors underplay the peculiarities of their plight in favor of understanding one another. With every passing sequence, the rapport and intensity shared by Shannon and Weisz inflates, to the point where but a passing glance toward the end of the film nearly obliterates you. 

Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!

Ah, Hobie Doyle. The character stands out among the hall of misfits that ornate the Coen brothers’ filmography, a compelling character made all the more interesting by Alden Ehrenreich’s performance. From playing a cowboy to a socialite, he sticks to his rigid moral code, one of loyalty to his studio and the people that made him. Not that he needs Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix or Ralph Fiennes’s Laurence Laurentz; they need him. He’s a source of unrepentant virtue and Ehrenreich toes a delicate line between caricature and a genuine human figure. Convincingly, he arouses our sympathies; he’s the only person you could trust with a secret, as Mannix soon realizes, and that goes a long way in Hollywood.

For some, Hail, Caesar! was an introduction to Alden Ehrenreich. I first caught a glimpse of the young actor in Francis Ford Coppola’s underrated Tetro, where he arguably gives an even more compelling performance. And now he’s going to be Han Solo. Here’s hoping this isn’t the end of Ehrenreich playing interesting characters in small films, because what we got from him so far has really piqued my interest in what he’s able to do.

Agyness Deyn, Sunset Song

Met with critical indifference upon its festival release at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Terence Davis’ Sunset Song has seen a measure of reevaluation since its limited release over the spring. This lush and meticulous exercise is among my favorite of Davis’ work and a primary reason why is because of Agyness Deyn’s centerpiece performance. It’s the kind of performance that fluidly evolves with the picture, a cultivated work that reveals the fruit of its harvest only at the very end. So much of the film sees Deyn navigating through a rigid patriarchal society, with Davis mirroring her travails with the tilling of Scottish soil. It’s a lyrical combination and an acutely observed one, whereby Deyn maintains a somber interior that eventually gives way to a blast of light, emerging from the culled ground. Not only is Deyn convincing, she becomes symbiotic with the formal qualities of Davis’ craft. There are moments when the film’s landscape shots become direct emotional reflections on Deyn herself and vice versa. It’s a remarkable achievement.

Jeong Jae-yeong and Kim Min-hee, Right Now, Wrong Then

Right Now, Wrong Then director Hong Sang-soo is fascinated with repetition and the idea of correcting past mistakes. His films quietly sneak up on you, each possessing a subtle whimsy that never calls attention to itself, a sort of magical realism that does its best to underplay the magic. But whereas the distinction between past and present is often blurred in his previous films, Right Now, Wrong Then is clearly divided into two halves. The result is a fascinating study on the subtle changes we make to our mood, behavior, and language. Performers of the highest caliber would be required to explicate these sort of perceptive and significant shifts in temperament without bluntly underscoring them and thankfully, Jeong Jae-yeong and Kim Min-hee are game for the task. If their conversation seems stilted at first, it’s all by design, meant to establish a feeling out process that, surprisingly, is replicated in the film’s second half. But the steady accumulation of details that compose each narrative steers the characters in a different direction and it’s a testament to the skill of both actors that they are able to keep you so vested in their afternoon and evening once and again. I can imagine this being argued as a directorial feat over a performance one, but lesser actors could not have conceivably been able to replicate this exercise with such breezy, good humor.

Addison Timlin, Little Sister

And we come to number one and it’s a cheat. Zach Clark’s Little Sister won’t see its release until later this October. But allow me to persuade you into giving it a shot by suggesting that it features the finest performance of the year. Addison Timlin, a relative unknown, plays a young nun living in NYC who returns home to confront her family. Much of this sounds familiar, in what may initially seem like an exercise in achieving catharsis by stepping back into your childhood. But there’s a kaleidoscopic quality to the feature that makes every moment of Little Sister feel lived in and experienced. There’s not a disingenuous bone in it, with Timlin functioning as the connective tissue that brings it all together. Her warmth and generosity in a film that may initially seem critical of spirituality is revelatory, turning even the most saccharine of moments into something capital T True. The compassion that Timlin, and by extension, the entire film, exhibits feels so critically informed and observed with the utmost respect. She’s terrific and so is the film.