The 20 Most Memorable Performances of 2018

Most average moviegoers look to the Oscars and Golden Globes for a ranking of the best movies of the year—and which performances are must-sees. But what does the Academy, let alone the Hollywood Foreign Press, really know?

While the inevitable nominees will largely be deserving, there are plenty of amazing performances that go largely overlooked each year—often because the movies themselves are overlooked, underappreciated, or just not all that good.

I don’t separate performances by lead or supporting (the studios confuse these categories often enough), gender (how sexist!), or genre (the Golden Globes clearly don’t know the difference between a drama, comedy, or musical anyway). With that in mind, here are the top 20 acting performances of 2018:

20. Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

Ethan Hawke lays every emotion on the line in the raw drama First Reformed, a film I respected more than enjoyed. Regardless of the film’s quality, Hawke is terrific in this exploration of faith and exploitation.

19. John C. Reilly, The Sisters Brothers

John C. Reilly delivered a great performance in Stan & Ollie, but it was his turn as the more optimistic and friendly of the two brothers in the criminally overlooked The Sisters Brothers that deserves top honors.

18. Joaquin Phoenix, Everything

Everything isn’t a movie. Everything is what Joaquim Phoenix did in 2018. I normally hate giving “ties,” but Phoenix delivered three fabulous performances in 2018—as a reckless drunk in The Sisters Brothers, a snarky quadriplegic in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, and a mumbling hitman in You Were Never Really Here.

17. Jon Hamm, Bad Times at the El Royale

Almost no one saw this star-studded whatever-it-is (my reviewer called it a love letter to the 1960’s, I’d call it a Tarantino-wannabe crime-comedy-thriller), but despite great performances throughout, Jon Hamm’s deliciously devious performance stands out among the rest, his energy and charisma undeniable.

16.  Saoirse Ronan, Mary Queen of Scots

The modernistic themes injected into Mary Queen of Scots don’t work quite as well as intended, but ever-reliable Saoirse Ronan is a mesmerizing force on screen, her patient yet subtly fierce delivery a force to be reckoned with.

15. Jonah Hill, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Jonah Hill, in a supporting role, gives what could be the best performance of his career, playing the protagonist’s slightly flamboyant AA sponsor who somehow is able to tackle serious topics while seemingly not having a care in the world.

14. Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher

One of the most unsettling performances of the year, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a schoolteacher who becomes obsessed with a student she believes to be a genius. It’s hard to picture many other actresses able to portray the nuanced slide into uncomfortable and even criminal territory so perfectly.

13. Olivia Colman, The Favourite

In a movie full of juicy performances, Colman is fantastic as the sickly and oft-delirious Queen Ann of England, her twisted wit and precocious eccentrics treats in their own right.

12. Emma Stone, The Favourite

Fans of Rachel Weisz will be disappointed to find her missing from this list; while she is terrific, her turn isn’t quite as memorable as Colman or her on-screen competitor played by Emma Stone, who delivers an against-type turn as a satisfyingly manipulative and power-hungry young woman.

11. Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace

Not enough people watched Leave No Trace to see the absolutely amazing debut of young Thomasin McKenzie, who gives one of the year’s best leading performances. McKenzie guides the audience through her character’s personal journey of discovery as she must decide between her mentally scarred father and society at large.

10. Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther

Up until 2018, Marvel was notorious for its lack of memorable or even interesting villains. That all changed with the introducing of Killmonger, played with rage and passion by Michael B. Jordan (who was also excellent in Creed II). Jordan gives audiences a villain that you can both hate and love, who you can relate to and even understand his motivations, even if he’s ultimately in the wrong.

9. Zain Al Rafeea, Capernaum

Sometimes the best performances come from non-actors. Young Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee plucked off the streets of Lebanon, carries the incredibly moving drama Capernaum, in which he plays a boy who has such a crappy life he sues his parents for giving birth to him.

8. John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman

While BlacKkKlansman isn’t quite the masterpiece some claim it to be, John David Washington is the perfect man for the role. He brings a natural charisma to the screen and is able to find the proper balance between humorous charm and disgusted seriousness that even director Spike Lee doesn’t nail.

7. Jesse Plemmons, Game Night

Comedic performances often get overlooked when it comes to acting achievement, and while some may look to John Cena (Blockers) for such an exception, the real scene-stealer this year was Jesse Plemmons, who plays an awkwardly disturbed police officer that embodies every neighbor you’ve ever tried to avoid in your life.

6. Rafael Casal, Blindspotting

Star Daveed Diggs almost made this list, but when I think of Blindspotting years from now (and I guarantee I’ll be thinking about this massively overlooked film years from now), I’ll first look to co-writer and co-star Rafael Casal, who plays the oft-well meaning but maniacally off-kilter friend who reacts with his emotions well before his brain ever kicks into gear.

5. John Cho, Searching

It’s not easy to make a movie set entirely on a computer screen, let alone it be entertaining. It’s even harder to be the sole actor on said screen most of the time. And yet, John Cho delivers one of the more emotionally powerful and entertaining performances of the year, an achievement that has both sadly and unsurprisingly gone overlooked.

4. Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

Say what you will about Bohemian Rhapsody, but Rami Malek is dynamite throughout, immersing himself in the eccentric role that is Freddie Mercury.

3. Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade is one of the best movies of the year—in large part thanks to its star Elsie Fisher, who with amazing nuance and depth draws us into the world, emotions, and challenges of an eighth grade teenage girl.

2. Toni Collette, Hereditary

Collette won’t get the recognition she deserves because, you know, she gives an absolutely mind-blowing performance “wasted” in a horror movie of all things (don’t forget, she was nominated for The Sixth Sense), but make no mistake: she gives us an absolutely mind-blowing performance in Hereditary.

1. Charlize Theron, Tully

No one saw Tully, shame on you. But Charlize Theron is absolutely stunning in it, portraying the life of a downtrodden and ultimately mentally fractured mother who seeks relief in the form of a “night nurse.” Theron’s performance is equally humorous and one of nightmares, at least for any expecting parent (as my wife and I were at the time of first watching this overlooked stunner).

Yep, that’s right. No Lady Gaga. No Bradley Cooper. No Glenn Close. That’s just how it is.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Top 10 Movie Lists