The 20 Best Performances of 2017

Each year, I select the top 20 performances of the year. Unlike the Academy Awards or just about any other award process, I don’t categorize by gender or supporting/leading roles.

This year proved to be especially difficult, with several great performances (by great performers) just barely missing the cut. But below are definitively and without question – just don’t ask me tomorrow – the 20 best acting performances of the year.

20. Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok

Yes, I realize this list is off to an inauspicious start when I kick things off with the star of a comedic Marvel comic book movie who hasn’t even remotely been in end-of-year acting conversations, but for years Hemsworth has hinted at a largely untapped comedic brilliance (Vacation, Ghostbusters, unintentionally in Blackhat) and director Taika Watiti finally unleashed him to spectacular results.

19. Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

As the younger half of the blossoming gay couple in Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet caps his already terrific “I hired the right agent” year (which also includes another Oscar hopeful, Lady Bird, and Hostiles) with an incredible and nuanced performance that has him balancing typical teen angst with longings for an older male. Frankly, I don’t blame him for falling in love with Armie Hammer, either.

18. Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

Day-Lewis won Best Actor at the Seattle Film Critics Society Awards, and for good reason: the male version of Meryl Streep delivers another finely tuned and emotionally complex performance as an emotionally abusive dressmaker in Phantom Thread, which reunited him with director Paul Thomas Anderson (whose work together resulted in the best performance of all time in There Will Be Blood).

17. James McAvoy, Split

McAvoy is a terrific actor to begin with, but give him a chance to play 20 odd characters in a genre film about split personality disorder and you get to see him go to a whole new level, in which he relishes in the absurd and strange and everything in between. This is the kind of role(s) that will never get attention come award season (except, he did win Best Villain at the Seattle Film Critics Society Awards), but is deserving nonetheless.

16. Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game

The Aaron Sorkin drama-thriller is pretty good, but there is little denying that Molly’s Game is Chastain’s game. The talented actress chews threw Sorkin’s meaty dialogue to serve up a riveting and fierce performance as a poker madame who reaches amazing heights and hits incredible lows.

15. Robert Pattinson, Good Time

In Good Time, Pattinson, still best known for being awful in the awful Twilight series, shows that when given good material he can shine… or, as a low-level criminal on the run from authorities, immerse himself so deeply in the grit, grime and sweat of his character that he’s nearly unrecognizable.

14. Danielle Macdonald, Patti Cake$

Despite solid reviews, the female version of 8 Mile came and went with a flash over the summer, which makes it very easy to forget or overlook the incredible performance that Macdonald brings as wannabe white rapper Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Killa P, a.k.a. Patti Cake$ to the stage.

13. Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

Metcalf, who plays the title character’s loving but has-a-major-stick-up-her-ass mother, still is Jackie from “Roseanne” to me (or, hell, the killer in Scream 2). But in Lady Bird, she ratchets things up a notch to give one of the most splendid and emotionally complex performances of the year.

12. Bria Vinaite, The Florida Project

Do you think trained actors who have put in blood, sweat and years for their craft hate people like Bria Vinaite? As one of the stars in the Oscar contending film, in which she plays an emotionally, morally and maturity stunted (yet still sort of loving) mother, you’d probably be surprised to discover that a) those body tattoos are real; and b) she’d never acted before in her life. If I were an actor, I probably would.

11. Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

Dafoe stands out like a sore thumb in The Florida Project, not just because he’s the only recognizable face in the film but because his character, whose sole job is to keep the hotel he manages and its inhabitants from tearing everything apart, is the only form of rationality and calm you’ll find. Dafoe nails the role, a man who seems content with a thankless job.

10. Meryl Streep, The Post

It has essentially become cliché to give Meryl Streep awards or put her on lists such as these, but then again, she continues to crank out amazing performances. In The Post, she spends most of her time dropping her eyes and stammering as the men around her tell her to stay in place, and then she drops the mic with a simple line such as “I’m going to bed” and all is good in this world.

9. Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant

Fassbender isn’t going to get any major awards this year for starring in a movie such as Alien: Covenant (which was just OK), but then again, there aren’t a lot of movies where an actor gets to play two different characters and make out with himself, either. Fassbender’s David is an incredibly fascinating and disturbed character, one whose story I hope continues in the future.

8. Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

You know what they say: for a beautiful actress to win big, she has to go ugly. And I, Tonya is sort of an ugly movie, intentionally so, with Robbie, uglified or at least neutralized to play infamous Tonya Harding, leading the pack. Robbie is fantastic in the lead, to the point that you may not even realize how good she is at first (seriously, I had to watch the film twice to figure it out).

7. Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip

Comedic performances often don’t get a lot of attention, and certainly not by me. But when forming lists such as this, I usually think about who stood out over the course of 365 days, and who I’ll remember years from now… and Haddish’s turn as a raucous and ridiculous friend gives us, by far, one of the most memorable and funniest characters of 2017.

6. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Saoirse “How the Hell Do I Pronounce Her Name” Ronan has already been nominated for two Oscars, and a third is likely in the cards after her turn as the title character, a pretty typical teenage girl (other than opting to go by the name Lady Bird) with typical teenage girl problems. Ronan is fantastic, elevating the material to new heights.

5. Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Oldman is expected to win his first Oscar for his immersive, scene-chewing turn as Winston Churchill, which immediately should make any rational being immediately ask, “How the hell has Gary Oldman not won an Oscar before, let alone only been nominated once before?” He deserves it, and better win.

4. Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Few characters evoke as much emotion – especially hatred – as Barry Keoghan’s sociopathic and emotionless Martin in the disturbed thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Keoghan methodically lays the foundations of his characters before unleashing the true darkness within, and while most people will never watch (nor appreciated) Sacred Deer, his performance is one to be reckoned with.

3. Patrick Stewart, Logan

Patrick Stewart is an odd duck, because he’s one of those actors who everyone acknowledges is a great performer, and yet when you question why he’s never even been nominated for an Oscar, all you have to do is look at his filmography to see that he has largely stuck to genre fare – Star Trek and X-Men – and villain roles for whatever reason. In Logan, he returns to his Professor X role once more, but finally breaks down and unleashes a performance worthy of true recognition. Sadly, he won’t get it. Except here.

2. Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Few characters have been so divisive as Sam Rockwell’s Dixon, a racist (and idiotic) cop who is being investigated for beating a black man but who doesn’t get taken off the force until he beats up a white guy–yet who is given a redemptive arc nonetheless. But regardless of what you think of how his character is handled, there is little denying that Rockwell, who has always excelled at quirky, offbeat characters, is at his very best here.

1. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

When looking back over this list, there were few performances that, at the end of the movie, made me go, “wow.” McDormand, as the emotionally fragile yet fiercely determined protagonist in Three Billboards, had me go, “wow.” Her character is no saint, has a mouth like a sailor, is tough as nails, and yet is so empty inside that she could collapse into nothingness at the slightest touch. McDormand seems a perfect fit for the role and nails it, giving us what, in my mind, is easily the best performance of 2017.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Top 10 Movie Lists