It’s been a banner year for movies. Putting aside the uncertainty and turmoil caused by the year’s Hollywood labor strikes, 2023 has delivered more great movies than any other year in recent memory. The same goes for the year’s screen performances — of which there have been so many that putting together a list like this feels like a bit of a foolhardy endeavor. After all, how can one talk about this year’s big-screen performances without mentioning Charles Melton’s heartbreaking, fragile turn in May December, Cailee Spaeny’s time-bending, quietly expressive lead performance in Priscilla, or Rachel McAdams’ spellbinding supporting work in Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
What about Teo Yoo and John Magaro’s dueling performances in Past Lives? They are so full of insecurity and yearning that they make the act of rooting for one over the other an impossible task. And that’s to say nothing of Adam Driver and Penelope Cruz’s colossal lead turns in Michael Mann’s Ferrari, without which the film would fizzle and fail. Suffice it to say, there were many worthy contenders left off this list. At the same time, it’s hard to think about 2023 without considering the actors and performances listed below.
Without any further ado, here are the year’s seven best movie performances.
Poor Things shouldn’t work. The Yorgos Lanthimos-directed film about a woman who is brought back to life with an infant’s brain is so odd and perverse that its tone should have eluded even someone as skilled as Lanthimos. But Poor Things has Emma Stone, whose lead performance as its central reborn woman, Bella Baxter, keeps it from coming apart at the seams at every turn.
There are so many aspects of Stone’s performance worth marveling at, whether it be the pointed yet gangly physicality she brings to Bella in the film’s first half or the way that the undying light of curiosity in her eyes never dims so much as it evolves from guileless to wise and perceptive. Like the film surrounding it, it is a performance comprised of risks, and Stone pulls off every one of them.
Like a few other films on this list, The Holdovers stands on the combined strength of its three central performances. That makes it difficult to single out just one of them. Nonetheless, as impressive as Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa’s performances are in the Alexander Payne-directed dramedy, it’s Paul Giamatti’s turn as its cantankerous high school history teacher that constantly commands your attention. Giamatti is one of those rare American actors who is so reliably good that it’s become easy to take him for granted.
Part of the joy of watching The Holdovers is seeing how thoroughly he and Payne reveal the folly of that impulse. He’s a performer capable of tapping into seemingly endless reserves of physical comedy, as well as heart-shattering emotion. In The Holdovers, he balances and bounces between all of his character’s awkward shortcomings with the same effortlessness as Gene Kelly gliding from one step to the next. To watch him is to watch a master at work.
Killers of the Flower Moon is such a remarkably clear-eyed look at the soullessness of American greed that it would have been easy for the film to turn into an emotionless exercise in historical reclamation. It doesn’t, though. The film is just as heartbreaking as it is horrifying, and that’s due almost entirely to the performance given by Lily Gladstone as Mollie Kyle, the wife of one of the very white men responsible for the heinous murders of her Osage family members.
Much has been said about how well the film does and doesn’t balance the perspectives of its white and Native characters, but repeat viewings of Killers of the Flower Moon reveal the importance and weight of Gladstone’s performance. There’s a stillness to her turn as Mollie that complements and underscores the film’s own meditative pace and a perceptiveness that cuts through the bluster of its real-life villains. Even as her character’s health fails and she’s relegated to a bed in a side room, Gladstone’s unwavering gaze is always felt — her eyes constantly searching for strength, peace, mercy, and ultimately the truth.
It’s impossible to overstate the magic of Sandra Hüller’s performance in Anatomy of a Fall. Playing a successful writer accused of murdering her husband, Hüller is magnetic and impenetrable, empathetic and cold. Writer-director Justine Triet places her at the center of a film that is, among other things, concerned with the subjectivity of truth and the world’s ceaselessly misogynistic treatment of powerful, accomplished women.
Across the film’s sizable 152-minute runtime, Hüller resists every easy instinct — refusing to portray her character as purely a victim or a monster. She is soft and yet hard-edged, expressive and yet indecipherable. Hers is a performance of contradictions — of dueling impulses and seemingly incongruous emotions — and what’s truly impressive about Hüller’s work in Anatomy of a Fall is how she creates a complete human being without ever giving you the keys necessary to unlock her fully. It’s about as close to a cinematic magic trick as you can get.
Jason Schwartzman has been a recurring figure in Wes Anderson’s filmography since his iconic turn as Max Fischer, the ultimate quirky teenager, in 1998’s Rushmore. However, in their latest collaboration together, this year’s Asteroid City, Anderson finally gives Schwartzman the chance to grow up. The film places Schwartzman at the center of its star-studded dollhouse and asks him to play two immensely difficult, perfectly Andersonian roles: a grieving, emotionally stunted father and an endlessly inquisitive, impulsive artist. To say that Schwartzman rises to the occasion would be an understatement.
In a film overflowing with note-perfect performances, his double-sided turn as Augie Steenbeck, war photographer, and Jones Hall, up-and-coming actor, makes the most lasting of marks. The actor’s work in Asteroid City is simultaneously confident and unsure, grounded and yet unmoored. He takes the film’s intellectual ideas about the power of art, science, and curiosity and transforms them into identifiable feelings. The film may be about the importance of getting lost, but by embodying the emotions lurking beneath the surface of Asteroid City’s story so deeply, it’s Schwartzman who keeps us and it from ever drifting too far away from the Earth.
Picking just one performance from writer-director Celine Song’s Past Lives is, to put it lightly, a difficult thing to do. As unforgettable as Teo Yoo and John Magaro’s performances are in the romantic drama, though, the film wouldn’t work without Greta Lee’s turn as Nora, the woman caught between her American husband and the South Korean man whom life has always kept her from. Whether she’s falling in love with Yoo’s Hae Sung over Skype or sitting uncomfortably in between him and Magaro’s Arthur, Lee always comes across as inquisitive but guarded, lovestruck but hesitant. Unlike Arthur and Hae Sung, Nora never gets the chance to articulate her feelings out loud, so it falls entirely on Lee’s shoulders to communicate the emotions clashing and storming inside of her. The actress does so without overplaying a single moment, and it’s impossible to look away whenever she’s onscreen.
Of all of the images and details that Past Lives has to offer, none ultimately stick around longer than the sound of Lee’s heartbroken gasp in its closing minutes and the knowing, faraway look she gives in its prologue, which haunts and hangs over the film as a human expression of all of its difficult, unrequited emotions.
Call it a cheat if you want, but it feels insufficient to spotlight just one performance from a film that features four of the year’s best. Beyond that, it’s impossible to discuss Andrew Scott’s vulnerable, raw lead performance in director Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers without also mentioning Claire Foy’s turn as his character’s long-dead mother, whom he is reunited with via a series of inexplicable ghostly encounters. Together, Scott and Foy perfectly embody their respective roles, and the film mines most of its considerable emotional power out of the prickly yet tender dynamic that the two actors establish between their mother and son characters.
This year hasn’t been lacking in emotional onscreen moments, but none match the few seconds in All of Us Strangers in which Foy’s mother discreetly sings several lines of the Pet Shop Boys’ Always On My Mind to Scott’s Adam. It’s an apology and an assurance, and there are worlds of emotion contained within Foy’s eyes as she tries to communicate the things she herself can’t verbalize — and just as many are present in Scott’s expression of recognition and understanding.
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