by Adam Riske and Patrick Bromley
Adam: Knock knock? Who’s there? Great acting. Great acting who? I’m glad you asked! My first pick is Toni Collette in Hereditary. I’m picking performances from movies that I don’t think will make my favorite movies of 2018 list, but I wanted to use this time to praise Hereditary and especially Toni Collette’s performance as the disintegrating mother of a family under siege. Toni Collette is what Bulls commentator Stacey King might call a “hard hat, lunch pail” professional, meaning she’s always maxes out with every performance but does it in a way that doesn’t beg for your adoration. I really respect that about her, especially in her horror genre entries like this and The Sixth Sense. She creates fully realized characters that feel like real people and, even if I’m appalled by what she is doing, I understand why she’s doing it and she has my pity and/or sympathy. Ari Aster’s Hereditary is one helluva movie and a brutal experience and it’s anchored by a phenomenal Toni Collette performance.
My brain is telling me to pick Regina Hall’s career-best performance in Andrew Bujalski’s charming Support the Girls, because she’s someone who always does good work and has finally been given a role she can really run with. But because she was already given a (well deserved) major award from the New York Film Critics, I want to shine a light on my favorite performance in Support the Girls: Haley Lu Richardson as Maci, the sweetest, bubbliest, and most enthusiastic of all the servers at Double Whammies, the Hooters-esque restaurant at which the film’s action all takes place. There would be such an easy way to turn Maci into a well-intentioned ditz, but Richardson never does. She loves the restaurant and her co-workers not because she doesn’t know any better, but because she believes in all of it. As soulful as Regina Hall’s lead turn is, Richardson manages to act as the heart of Double Whammies and the heart of Support the Girls.
Adam: Haley Lu Richardson is very likable in that movie. She’s always interesting and different in each movie she’s in too. I agree with you about Regina Hall in Support the Girls as well. She was on my list later, so good call! It’s awesome to see her have a showcase after so many years of great supporting work.
My next pick is Rachel McAdams in Game Night. I’ve missed funny Rachel McAdams. Before Game Night, it felt like a long time since she’d been given latitude to be the funny person in a comedy. She was so great in Mean Girls, but after that was usually used as a romantic interest (it’s like Wedding Crashers didn’t know she was funny) or a plot driver (e.g. Morning Glory) in comedies. It was very frustrating. I think she’s a talented, dependable dramatic actress too, but she shines the most being a comedic foundation piece. In Game Night, I love that she’s a dork but in a way we don’t usually see in movies. She’s a suburban HGTV type of dork; the kind of woman who says “lovely chard” even though it’s wine she’s using to disinfect a bullet wound. McAdams has that great comedic gift where she can make unfunny lines of dialogue funny based on her delivery. It’s because she created a fully formed person to say those jokes.
Patrick: Rachel McAdams is one of those actors I’ve always said can make any material work. She was definitely Game Night’s secret weapon, because she chose to play a person who was funny but didn’t realize she was in a comedy. I like that approach to the movie overall: it’s not just a bunch of actors functioning as joke carriers, but instead tries to create actual people inside of a comic situation. I like how you point out the sort of suburban dorkiness McAdams finds, because it makes her so charming and sets her apart from the rest of the ensemble.
Adam: I agree with you on that scene in Eighth Grade. It’s my favorite from the movie. I’ve had less exposure to the work of Josh Hamilton than you, so his performance in the movie was a pleasant surprise. I realized I liked him as an actor where before I never really thought about it. Good choice!
My next pick is Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. I was thinking of just mentioning him in my honorable mentions because he’s been winning awards for his performance, but I had to write about it because it’s my favorite performance of the year. Ethan Hawke’s career has been filled with him playing men who are do-it-yourself philosophers, and in First Reformed he’s someone who realizes he has no answers -- or, even more, everything he believed is proven false or corrupted. It’s an interesting twist on his screen persona and Hawke plays this struggle very well. He’s not mopey but more indignant, and even if he’s given up on humanity in many ways, he can’t help but act on his better nature to try to help people who are even more lost than he is. Ethan Hawke rules.
Patrick: I just rewatched First Reformed and was once again blown away by just how good Ethan Hawke is in it. He is so human and conflicted and keeps it all below the surface. I think it might be the best acting he’s ever done, and such a mature performance from an actor who still seems known for being perpetually boyish.
I’ll show some love to Chloe Levine as the Final Girl in The Ranger, a really fun punk rock slasher movie I saw at Cinepocalypse (and which is now available at Redbox and soon on Shudder). It’s natural that Jeremy Holm be getting most of the attention as the titular Ranger because he gets to be demented and funny, but for me the movie works because Levine creates such a sympathetic and believably resourceful character. She’s got the deck stacked against her, too, because a number of the people in this movie are obnoxious and annoying and it would be easy to write off the whole lot as awful, but Levine digs beneath all of the archetypal sneering punk stuff and finds a young woman who is vulnerable and wounded but capable of great strength if ever she should be fucked with. The Ranger makes the mistake of fucking with her.
Adam: Sounds interesting. I haven’t seen that one yet.
My next pick is a bit of a cheat, but why not? They’re all from the same movie. It’s Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, and Daniel Kaluuya in Widows. I like the movie (it’s one of those 3.5/4-star movies I don’t really care about that much), but these three performances are most of the reason I like it. Brian Tyree Henry is a new discovery for me as of late (he’s great on FX’s Atlanta) and I’m happy that he’s becoming a character actor of choice recently in Widows and Hotel Artemis or movies I’ve yet to see like Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and If Beale Street Could Talk. I like his energy. His character is the most interesting to me in Widows and the one I wish the whole movie was about. I want to see a full story about this criminal turned hopeful alderman. Daniel Kaluuya has the role actors dream of, where he is tasked with being terrifying, charismatic, and chewing the scenery of every scene he’s in. He has the presence to pull it off and his scenes in Widows are among the most memorable. For me, the heart of the film is Elizabeth Debicki. I’ve seen her in other movies, but this is the first time she’s not playing undercard to the genre of film she’s in. I really cared about her character and I love her willingness to remove any actor vanity and play her part as an impressionable woman who will put up with a ton, but still has a line she won’t let people cross. It’s a star-making performance. She’s great.
I’ll go with Andrew Dice Clay in A Star is Born. That movie is getting a ton of (well-deserved) attention for its music, its direction, and the performances of Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Sam Elliott, all of whom I sort of suspect will get Oscar nominations in a few months. Lost in that conversation is Dice, who I’ve always really liked as an actor but who never quite got a fair shake because of his admittedly lame persona and raunchy stand-up act. I love the way Bradley Cooper uses him in the movie -- he and his limo drivers are a kind of Greek chorus and function as the comic relief -- but his characterization and the way he relates to Lady Gaga tells us so much about who she is and how she lives. He feels authentic and their relationship is lived in enough that while she may not love where she’s at in life, she definitely has something to lose by walking away from it. Dice is charming and funny for most of the film, but later on gets a moment of anger and hurt that is so real and full of genuine love for his daughter that we feel the sting just as much as Jackson Maine. I remember there being possible awards talk for Dice back when he did Blue Jasmine; maybe this time it will happen for him. Let’s not kid ourselves, though; this is all just deferred praise for The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. Glad to see that movie getting its due.
Adam: Andrew Dice Clay is an amazing choice. It would be great for him to get recognized during awards season for his performance. He was a revelation in Blue Jasmine and similarly strong in A Star is Born for the reasons you just described. You really get a sense from the way he talks to his friends and to Lady Gaga of who this guy has been his whole life. My favorite bit is when he brags about how many views on YouTube his daughter’s video got (and that he’s 200 of those views). It’s a sentimental moment of a dad being proud of his kid, but it also doesn’t betray the fact that the character Dice is playing is a total stargazer. I love Bradley Cooper’s use of comedians in that movie. It’s unexpected and very wonderful. Also, thank you for mentioning The Adventures of Ford Fairlane because I just now remembered the Koala Bear stuff and it made my day.
My next choice is Blake Lively in A Simple Favor. The movie is a mixed bag (Paul Feig bothers me), but I was really impressed with the command and charisma of Blake Lively in that movie. She’s playing a woman people are intimidated/fascinated by and I think that’s challenging for an actor. They must prove worthy of those feelings in every scene and I think Lively does that. She’s so good at playing that kind of person who draws out your dirty laundry because you think it will impress their “bad boy/girl” way of life. It’s the person you are in a relationship/friends with where you forgive all the horrible things they do because they’re cool and they make you feel important by being in their orbit. I’ve liked Blake Lively before in movies like The Town and The Shallows, but this was something new for me. Maybe she was just like this on Gossip Girl and I just never knew, but regardless she’s such a movie star in A Simple Favor and you know how much I love good movie stars. Despite how I feel about A Simple Favor overall (Paul Feig bothers me), every scene Blake Lively is in is elevated by her performance. Did you know Rob likes Anna Kendrick?
Patrick: This Rob/Anna Kendrick stuff is news to me. Were there telltale signs I missed? I haven’t seen A Simple Favor. It seems super Redbox to me, so that’s how I’m going to enjoy it.
Adam: I haven’t heard of that one. Sounds cool! My next pick is one I might have trouble defending, but I like it regardless. It’s Tom Hardy in Venom. You’ve talked in the past about actors like Tom Cruise who drag a movie to success. In Venom, Tom Hardy drags the movie to being watchable and that’s maybe just as impressive, because Venom is terrible and a case study for all that is wrong with movies. For years I never understood the cult of fanboys who thought Tom Hardy was a great actor. I didn’t dislike Tom Hardy or anything, but there were a lot of people who were saying, for example, “He’s amazing in Warrior” and my brain couldn’t compute that because I thought he was doing a weird fake Brando when he just needed to act like a person. Then something happened (around the time of JB's and my beloved The Drop) where I became all-in on Tom Hardy New Yawk guys. I think they’re so ridiculous, and every time I see him playing one in a movie, I want the movie to be five hours long. He really commits and there’s a lot of joy to his performance. He’s all sweat and rabies in Venom and the performance works somehow. I’m not there yet with “Tom Hardy is a great actor,” but he is a great hammy actor and that’s pretty cool too. Most actors wait until their lean years for their “fuck it” period and Tom Hardy decided instead to do that in his prime.
Patrick: I literally watched Venom just so I could have a response to your pick. I can’t argue that Tom Hardy appears to be trying really hard to entertain himself; I just had a hard time seeing past everything else I couldn’t stand about Venom (which deserves to be put into a time capsule and shot into space) to get to a place where I could enjoy any of it. How nice that Ruben Fleischer gets to continually fail upwards, because the only beats in the movie that provided me any entertainment were of the unintentional variety, like when Michelle Williams says with a straight face “I’m sorry about Venom.” Me too, Michelle. Me too.
For my next pick, I’m going with Keanu Reeves in Destination Wedding. As a fan and ardent defender of Keanu Reeves since the late 1980s, it has been rewarding to see the tide of public opinion turn to the point that everyone now (rightfully) loves him and doesn’t have to get in some stupid “Whoa” dig every time his name comes up. While he has proven his action bona fides over the last 20+ years, Keanu’s name is not often associated with romantic comedy, making his casting opposite Winona Ryder in this year’s Destination Wedding an appealing stunt that’s also a giant risk. The movie’s dialogue and structure are stylized in such a way that Keanu makes a very specific choice about how to approach his performance, and it’s one that I could see rubbing some people the wrong way or dismissing as being “bad,” but I cannot agree. What he does is so interesting and funny and unlike anything I’ve seen in another romantic comedy that I found myself in a state of heightened awareness for the entire film, wondering if the high wire act would make it to the end or result in disaster. I like how Keanu trusts enough in his chemistry with Winona Ryder being a given that he’s willing to take a chance and do something unexpected with the part.
My next pick is another one I’m slightly embarrassed by and that’s Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 2. Somewhere between the original and the sequel, Washington figured out who this guy was and made him into a human being and not just a stoic action figure. As a big fan of Denzel Washington, The Equalizer 2 hits the right buttons for me. It’s a very Denzel performance. I love his ability as an actor to really connect with his co-stars and give & take or get a seemingly natural reaction from them with a weird choice. Denzel has many weird choices in The Equalizer 2 and those are the moments that make me sit up in my seat. My two favorites are when he’s all “So you’re a killer, huh? C’MON KILLER! SHOOT! ME!” with Ashton Sanders and when he’s chatting with all the bad guys at the boss villain’s house about he’s going to enjoy killing all of them and then escapes the situation by carpooling with the guy’s wife and kids. That movie has some fun moments.
Patrick: I’m with you that The Equalizer 2 is better than the first and much closer to what I want an Equalizer movie to be (based on the premise alone; I’ve never seen the show and have nothing to compare it to). It feels like Denzel coasting in a good way, as opposed to him coasting in a bored, grumpy way like he did the first time -- it’s the kind of performance he gets paid for giving.
Deadpool 2, a performance I remember very fondly in a movie I’m unlikely to revisit. Not since Thor: Ragnarok has an actress of color completely walked away with a big, colorful, expensive superhero movie simply by being cooler than everyone else on screen. There’s no reason Beetz’ character should work -- Domino’s big power is that she’s lucky, of which the movie makes a running joke -- but she sells it by just letting everything roll off her shoulders. You know, the way you might if everything always worked out for you because your mutant power is luck. It was the kind of performance that makes you stand up and take note not because it offers any sort of award-caliber acting, but because it announces an actor of major charisma and presence. I came away from Deadpool 2 not needing to see any more Deadpool movies but for sure needing to see Zazie Beetz in more stuff.
Adam: I like her on Atlanta. When’s that show coming back on?
I have a double pick for my last one, and that’s Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I could easily watch an entire movie about these two quiet people slowly falling for one another while on the trail out West. Kazan is an actress that’s really grown on me over time (she keeps adding more to her range every time out) and Bill Heck worked for me in a John Corbett way as this sensitive, decent, gentleman cowboy. I really wanted these two characters to live happily ever after. Grainger Hines (as Mr. Arthur) is also great in that amazing standoff sequence. Overall, I thought the movie was very solid, but that stretch of “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in particular, is some of the best cinema I saw all 2018.
Patrick: Bill Heck was totally going to be my last pick. He’s one of the actors with whom I’m least familiar in that whole giant cast but he’s the one who made the biggest impression on me. Such a good call.
I guess for my last pick, I’ll mention Logan Marshall Green in Upgrade. I’m sure I’m responding to his performance for all the reasons you cited Tom Hardy’s work in Venom (because the two movies are very similar, only one of them is good and one of them is one of the most successful movies of the year), though what impresses me about Green -- himself a kind of JV Tom Hardy, at least as far as success and recognition (not talent) are concerned -- is the physicality of his performance. His characterization of a guy who doesn’t fully understand what’s happening to him is fine and all, but it’s all the amazing stuff he does with his body that makes him so memorable in the movie. There’s stuff he does in Upgrade that reaches Buster Keaton levels of greatness. Between this and The Invitation, it turns out I like LMG a lot more than I realized I did back when he was doing stuff like guest spots on The O.C.
Avengers: Infinity War, Letitia Wright in Black Panther, Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Kurt Russell in The Christmas Chronicles, Rachel Weisz in The Favourite, Rose Byrne in Instant Family, Andrea Riseborough in Mandy, Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible: Fallout, Anne Hathaway in Ocean’s 8, Matilda Lutz in Revenge, Regina Hall in Support the Girls, Charlize Theron in Tully, and Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here.
Patrick: There are still a few of those I haven’t seen (cough Instant Family), but I totally back all the others you name there. To that list, I might add Claire Foy in Unsane, Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, John David Washington in BlackKklansman, Geraldine Viswanathan in Blockers, Millie Simmonds in A Quiet Place, Teyonah Parris in If Beale Street Could Talk, John Cho in Searching...I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting.
Thanks for writing this with me again. It’s always fun to think back to these performances, because sometimes it makes me like movies I like even more and sometimes it’s nice to think about the things I liked from movies I maybe otherwise wasn’t crazy about.