What makes a good performance?
It’s a question I regularly ask myself. The rubric is largely subjective. Even though there may be obvious markers of a bad performance (stilted line readings, wooden expressions), what makes one good, even exceptional, is truly in the eye of the beholder. Interestingly enough, that is where I start, with the eyes. When I look into them, what do I see? What emotions come through? Does it map back to what a character says they’re going through, or does it subvert them? Whether I believe what they’re saying or doing usually comes down to what I can glean from their eyes.
Everything else ladders back to what happens after I leave a theater or close an app or browser window. Do I remember how an actor’s performance made me feel? Does it resonate, either the character they play or how they play them? Am I impacted or changed in some small or large way? With the overwhelming glut of entertainment available to us, does the performance stand out?
The following performances did for me. I may have either loved or hated the films that accompanied them, but there is little doubt in my mind that each actor on this list achieved something profound and special on screen this year. This is not an Oscars predictions list, to be clear. (There are several Oscar contenders here, but I don’t imagine all of them making the final cut.) Rather, this list, like my best films of 2022 list, reflects the performances that surprised, challenged, educated, and thoroughly entertained me.
Austin Butler, Elvis
I mostly hated Elvis for its visual excess and narrative holes, but none of that negates Austin Butler’s Herculean performance. Even more impressive, he taps into Elvis’ raw magnetism and towering stage presence despite the insanity surrounding him. Butler fully personifies the larger-than-life rock legend, in body and especially voice, without falling into parody or caricature (like co-star Tom Hanks). Surprisingly, his greatest moments on screen are when he’s performing, with all of the electrifying charisma that drove worldwide audiences insane. Rather than offering cheap, lip-synced imitations, Butler sings and moves as Elvis did, to the point where film and real life are nearly indistinguishable. (The “If I Can Dream” performance will mess you up in that regard.) It’s a tour-de-force trapped in a film unworthy of his star-making talent.
Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
“I am Queen of the most powerful nation in the world, and my entire family is gone. Have I not given everything?” Queen Ramonda rattles the Wakandan throne room with the rage and sorrow she’s held inside to keep her kingdom together. The moment is jaw-dropping, delivered with such ferocity by Angela Bassett that it rings in your head long after the scene has passed. Even beyond this all-time great moment, Bassett arguably gives the best acting performance the MCU has ever seen. She is resplendent and regal no matter the circumstance, whether Ramonda is casually ripping the UN to shreds or debating science and faith with her grieving daughter Shuri (Letitia Wright). Through an emotionally fraught (and occasionally scattered) film, Bassett is both its beating heart and grounding force. It’s a titanic responsibility that only an actress of Bassett’s undervalued caliber could carry.
Brendan Fraser, The Whale
Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is punishing. It will either wreck you or frustrate you with its sledgehammer-like approach. Wherever you land on the film, Brendan Fraser’s soul-baring performance is undeniable. It all comes down to those eyes of his, full of wonder and kindness, which secured him a plum spot on the ’90s and early ’00s A-list. In The Whale, Fraser’s eyes ache like they never have, with terror, desperation, warmth, love, and self-destruction. Amidst the barrage of torture levied against him, Fraser’s eyes never lose their grip on you. It’s impossible to look into those eyes and not want Charlie to make it, to receive the human connection he craves and fears. Of course, Charlie doesn’t make it, but what could’ve been a numbing experience is jolted by the sheer power of Fraser’s raw emotionality. His performance, a turbo-charged engine of empathy, is unforgettable.
Cate Blanchett, Tár
Hollywood often rewards performances that wear their effort on their sleeves, but sometimes the most engaging and interesting ones seem effortless. The performance is so plugged in that you forget that you are watching a fictional character. The year’s best example is Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár. Blanchett is Tár, an orchestra conductor whose power-mad abuses lead to her spectacular downfall, full stop. She practically floats across the screen, riding the wave of Tár’s genius and arrogance so easily that a lesser director than Todd Field would lose her. That isn’t meant to discount Blanchett’s work in capturing a woman on the brink of self-destruction. Field’s sharp script and direction allow her to craft a character of remarkable depth and range, possibly the best character on screen this year. It may look easy, but what Blanchett achieves takes a lot of work and particular brilliance.
Claire Foy, Women Talking
The entire ensemble of Women Talking deserves acknowledgment. Every woman (and the sole man, Ben Whishaw) in the film does a beautiful job grappling with the life-changing questions before them. However, it is Claire Foy as Salome who leaves you truly shaken. Her fury at years of sexual abuse, religious gaslighting, and the women’s hesitance at addressing it is palpable. Foy crackles with rage and exasperation, so much so that it stuns everyone in that barn, even herself. The energy shifts when Salome realizes the (understandable) lengths she would go through to protect herself and her children. Foy powerfully communicates the conflict between self-preservation and righteous vengeance and how there is no straightforward path through horrific trauma and genuine healing.
Danielle Deadwyler, Till
Mamie Till is trapped in a nightmare. It is 1955. Her beloved son Emmett (or Bo) leaves the relative security of Chicago for the South, where being anything but submissive as a Black person is a death sentence. She fears for his safety; her fears are quickly realized. What follows are some of the most devastating moments captured on film this year. Danielle Deadwyler fearlessly conveys every emotion that a grieving mother trapped in an unconscionable nightmare would experience. It’s difficult to fully regard her performance without getting emotional, but it’s worth it. The moment she sees Bo’s brutalized body for the first time, the way her eyes shift from unspeakable pain to quaking fury and, finally, to steely resolve is one of the history books. It is impossible to see Deadwyler in Till and not be changed by her performance.
Gabriel LaBelle, The Fabelmans
It can’t be easy to act in front of the man whose life you are loosely inhabiting. And yet, Gabriel LaBelle did just that, spectacularly. He perfectly captures Spielberg’s diligent attention to detail and how that remarkable skill carries incomprehensible emotional weight. Sammy Fabelman sees like no other, and watching LaBelle’s face shift in wonder, contort in horror, and crack in heartbreak is an often revelatory experience. He stands out, even amongst a treasure trove of talent, including Judd Hirsch, Paul Dano, and, of course, Michelle Williams. His chemistry with Williams is one of The Fabelmans’ many highlights, the pair presenting a mother-son relationship of creative kindred spirits marred by personal failings. LaBelle bears a heavy load on his young shoulders, and the grace with which he does makes him an actor to watch.
Jeremy Pope, The Inspection
Burying Jeremy Pope’s sparkling charisma beneath a spackling of military-grade stoicism feels wrong at first blush. The gifted actor can’t help but exude warmth, charm, and some mischief, a forever glint in his eye. The Inspection, the story of French, a gay Black man entering the Marines to change the trajectory of his life, presents Pope with a steely challenge. Can he batten down his screen presence to reflect the repressive “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era? He does something even better. Pope’s performance is defined by French’s proactive stifling of his true self, how unnatural it is for him. He practically tears at his skin dealing with the artifice. You get a sense that French can only hold up the charade for so long, and Pope keeps you on tinder hooks waiting for those bursts of freedom. As riveting as those moments are, Pope’s gentleness and empathy stick with you, as French finds that the absolution he seeks comes from inside.
Luke MacFarlane, Bros
Don’t write Luke MacFarlane off as just the hot muscular guy in Billy Eichner’s raunchy gay rom-com Bros. (Although I understand the inclination. He’s played that role very successfully as part of the Hallmark holiday movie machine.) Beneath the healthy tan and CrossFit is a tender, vulnerable performance of a man waking up to his life’s discontent by the sheer volume of Eichner’s voice. MacFarlane is funny as a stabilizing force, but he’s even more effective in dramatic moments where he grapples with his internalized homophobia and discomfort with his wants and needs. He powers the film’s romantic core, which is lesser when it doesn’t tap into his potent charm. While Bros wasn’t the rip-roaring success many might’ve hoped for, MacFarlane showed that he has the chops to the kind of rom-com lead Hollywood has been sorely missing.
Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once
I wrote a similar line in my review of Everything Everywhere All at Once, but it still holds. It should shame Hollywood that it took decades for Michelle Yeoh to get a starring vehicle when other actors get more with considerably less. Nonetheless, Yeoh makes a meal out of the opportunity the Daniels give her. She expertly navigates the chaotic scenarios across several universes while never losing the thread of a deceptively simple woman on the path of healing and empathy, especially for her queer daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). The film might’ve overwhelmed another actor, but Yeoh’s powerful screen presence and skill make the reverse more likely. This performance would be a worthy capstone to a remarkable yet underappreciated (by Hollywood) film career. However, Yeoh conveys that EEAAO is only the beginning for her.
Paul Mescal, Aftersun
Since his Emmy-nominated performance in Hulu’s Normal People, Paul Mescal has become a poster child for aimless young men struggling with mental health issues. Aftersun, then, is his first masterpiece. Mescal plays Calum, a young father on vacation with his daughter Sophie (the splendid Frankie Corio). Try as he might, Calum can’t escape the depressive thoughts in his head that can turn an innocuous question from Sophie into a tail-spinning emotional crisis. Mescal navigates Calum’s internal torrent beautifully, figuring the turmoil and pain into his every movement and action. He knows precisely the right moment to let his façade crack, and when he does, it jolts you out of director Charlotte Wells’ Turkish idyll. Mescal’s performance is subtle, but its revelations leave an indelible mark that confirms that he may be one of the best actors of his generation.
Regina Hall, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul
Regina Hall is one of the funniest women alive without trying, so it’s easy to ignore her brilliant dramatic abilities. Blessedly, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul leverages both sides of her coin. As megachurch first lady Trinitie Childs, Hall is hilarious trying to claw her way back up to the economic pearly gates after a spectacular fall from grace precipitated by her husband’s (Sterling K Brown) infidelities. As reprehensible as she is, comically so, Hall doesn’t let the heavy satirical bent keep her from tapping into Trinitie’s humanity and victimhood in her own right. It is genuinely sad to watch the realization that she is nothing more than a doll in a farce slowly creep onto her face as the film unfolds. Even though Trinitie deserves accountability, Hall’s layered and detailed portrayal reminds us to keep sight of the bigger picture.
Ryan Reynolds, The Adam Project
You can see a Ryan Reynolds role coming from ten miles away. He is nearly inextricable from his sarcastic wiseass persona, perfectly crafted in Deadpool and transmuted into near-parody. The Adam Project is a delightful surprise in his recent canon because it requires more than quipping at the audience for two-plus hours. While his impeccable comedic timing remains intact, Reynolds plays in murkier emotional territory, stemming from his character’s surprisingly complex relationships. His scenes with Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo rank amongst his finest moments on screen, with him carrying gentleness, melancholy, and seething rage so well that it’s frankly disarming. While the script doesn’t entirely trust him, falling back onto his action-comedy bonafides, The Adam Project was a much-needed reminder that Ryan Reynolds could do much more than quip.
Sebastian Stan, Fresh
Sebastian Stan has quietly become of the most interesting actors apart of the MCU. Away from his vibranium arm, he has traveled the off-beat path, picking roles that offer a more substantive creative challenge. 2022 saw those efforts pay off, with the Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy landing him Emmy, Golden Globe, and Critics Choice nominations. As great as he is there, his performance in Fresh is his greatest achievement this year. With Mimi Cave and Daisy Edgar-Jones as collaborators, Stan delivers a stunningly complex performance as a cannibal who makes a career and sport of pursuing and kidnapping women to satiate his hunger. It’s Patrick Bateman on steroids, but Stan digs deeper to craft a rich identity, whose winking charm is his greatest asset and the key to his downfall. Fresh also allows Stan to get really freaking weird, dancing around a kitchen while chopping up body parts that would be laughable were it not for his bone-deep commitment to the bit. His Marvel obligations will ensure that Stan will be on the Hollywood A-list for the foreseeable future, but it’s roles like Fresh that will mean more to his career in the long run (and potentially land him an award).
Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once
What else is Stephanie Hsu capable of if she could do that with an audition tape? In case you might have forgotten, since EEAAO’s release in the spring, Hsu is a supernova who nearly steals a film that would’ve been excellent solely as a Michelle Yeoh showcase. Instead, the actress bursts onto the screen in a blaze of glitter and anarchy as Evelyn’s universe-hopping nemesis Jobu. And that is only one character she plays, the other being Joy, Evelyn’s daughter, who bristles under her disapproval and perpetuation of generational pain. Whoever she’s playing and whatever she’s wearing, Hsu commands your attention without apologies. She moves with the presence of someone who isn’t a relative newbie to film. If she can do what she does in EEAAO elsewhere, there’s no limit for her.
Thuso Mbedu, The Woman King
The idea that anyone could pull focus from the Viola Davis should be heresy. In that case, Thuso Mbedu does witchcraft in The Woman King. The actress, who made an incredible impression in the criminally underrated series The Underground Railroad, further exerts her star power as Nawi, a young woman in the Dahomey Kingdom who joins the Agojie, a revered all-women military regiment. Mbedu is a force from the start, fearlessly testing the boundaries of the Agojie’s hard-forged rules and her own limitations. She comes alive, however, when she’s face-to-face with Davis’s Nanisca, the Agojie’s extraordinary leader. Mbedu meets Davis beat for emotional beat, never once folding. Mentee, sparring partner, long-lost child, love interest; Mbedu does it all with killer charisma and confidence.
Val Kilmer, Top Gun: Maverick
When Val Kilmer appeared opposite Tom Cruise in Top Gun, he was the ice-cold sneer to Cruise’s warm-eyed, mischievous smirk. They were opposing compliments, although the film never quite dug into the possibilities. Among its substantive list of accomplishments, Top Gun: Maverick builds on the promising Maverick-Iceman dynamic in a thematically rich, heartbreaking way. The film includes Kilmer’s real-life battle with throat cancer in Iceman’s arc, which concludes with one final scene between him and Maverick. It is the film’s emotional touchstone, a powerful moment about letting go of guilt and moving forward. While Cruise is the primary focus, Kilmer’s generous partnership in the scene is vital, even though he is mostly silent. When he does speak, in short sentences, the power behind his words will take your breath away. Maverick would not have worked without Iceman, and Kilmer’s bravery in closing out his story deserves every commendation.