Michael Ward on Monday, January 01

"Art is the only way to run away without leaving home." - Twyla Tharp

Year after year, I wonder what defines a great performance in the films I watch and review and discuss with friends, family, and colleagues. Is it an actor who makes us express emotion? An actor who makes us laugh uproariously? Is it an actor we relate to? Is it a director, a screenwriter, a composer, and/or a technical crew who make the impossible possible, escapism a reality, placing us in the lives of others and allowing us to understand what it means to be different from ourselves?

I suppose the answer to all of those questions is yes. And that is what makes film, and art, such a powerful medium. We are able to project, internalize, and share our reflection and feelings and even, when reaching common ground, those reactions remain singular and wholly our own. No one finished movie, screenplay, visual effect, image, shot, or performer can make us feel the exact same thing. And that's why, among all forms of art and expression, I love film so much. Even when we agree, we agree differently. 

And now it's time for another Year-End list. And the hope we agree differently. 

Without further adieu, these are 15 "performances" that meant the world to me in 2017, and will be significant moments I carry forward for a long, long time. At one point, this list was nearly 70 items long. I pared it down to a final 30*.

*31. I just couldn't cut the Honorable Mentions from 16 to 15. So, you get a bonus selection this year! Yay! More great movies to explore, right?

The Top 15 (in alphabetical order) will be presented in the words of the artists themselves. A slideshow will give you a glimpse at 15 more outstanding performances from 2017. 

Note: Hover over the image to see more information about this particular list.

THE BEST PERFORMANCES OF 2017

1. THE CAST OF "I, TONYA" - Allison Janney, Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan. Paul Thomas Hauser and Juliette Nicholson (not pictured)

"In terms of dealing with the tone, it was one of the biggest challenges, and I didn’t want to judge the characters or just make fun of them, which would have been too easy. There’s comedy, but you also see that, with the domestic violence, Tonya’s kind of immune to it. She’s desensitized to it, and I felt that that also gave more insight into her character. I also shot those scenes both ways too, so I had a choice in the editing. And then it changes to Jeff’s point-of-view, and he breaks the fourth wall about half-way through the movie, so there was a lot to work with in the edit.

(Regarding Margot Robbie): It’s such a tightrope to walk in terms of the tone, and she ages from 15 to 46, so there are all the different ages and scenes that are absurdly dark and funny, and scenes that are incredibly emotional. It was the whole kitchen sink, but I knew that Margot could navigate that tricky dance between the humor and the drama, and also keep it grounded and not wink at the audience, and she’s brilliant in the role.

(Regarding Allison Janney): Steve (Steven Rogers, screenwriter) actually wrote the role for her. She’s so ferocious and fearless when you consider some of her dialogue is so vile. There were days when she’d say, “Do I have to say the ‘c’ word again?” And I’d say, “Yeah, you do.” But she delivered it all in a way where you still like her." - director Craig Gillespie, Randi Altman's Post Perspective, December 18, 2017

2. THE CAST OF "THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI" - Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, Woody Harrelson, Zeljko Ivanek, Frances McDormand, Sandy Martin, Clarke Peters, Sam Rockwell. Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones (not pictured).

"I’ve got American voices in my head. I couldn’t say that they’re specifically Missouri voices in my head. I know Sam went down and spoke to cops in the state and kind of recorded how they said a lot of the lines in the film. So he kind of tapped into some kind of accuracy about the dialect. But Fran isn’t from there, but she’s Ohio. And Woody’s Texas. So they’re all sort of the region, to a degree, or they understand the sensibility. And they’re all good actors, too. I mean I traveled around America; I have traveled around America a lot and listened to how people speak generally, or how I think they speak.

(Regarding Sam Rockwell's racist police officer character): None of these characters are simple heroes and villains, so there’s never a point where you’re saying he’s the hero or he’s even decent at the end. But you can say that he is trying to change and where does that leave us? And that’s all that the film is kind of doing. It’s not saying that he’s a good guy now or that this erases all the violence or any of that stuff. And I guess you also kind of question how many people who are racist wouldn’t ever call themselves racist, too." - director Martin McDonagh, Uproxx, November 7, 2017

3. TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET | Elio | CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

"It’s tough because within the context of the story this character plays all his cards and reveals his hand to the person of interest. And in this universe, it so happens the person of interest is feeling the same things. It’s tough to apply that in one’s own life because of the very real phenomenon of rejection. But I love the idea that young guys—particularly Americans because I feel the mental health dialogue is less repressed in Europe the way it is here—will see this movie and see there’s nothing wrong with being themselves. There’s nothing wrong with opening up and playing your cards. In fact, sometimes it can be an attractive and beautiful thing.

(On his potential Oscar chances): "What this movie’s been already is so above and beyond I think any of our wildest dreams. The experience of getting to shoot it was the main appeal. And the reception it’s been getting is above and beyond our wildest dreams, anything beyond that would be greatly appreciated too, but I’m really trying not to think about that too much." - Newsweek Magazine, November 24, 2017

4. JAMES FRANCO | as Tommy Wiseau and as Director and Co-Producer | THE DISASTER ARTIST

"On the other hand, once he (Tommy Wiseau, creator of source material The Room) then was in production on his movie, he was working in a collaborative medium, and he didn't collaborate. He didn't know how to collaborate. I feel like on The Disaster Artist I was sort of the opposite; what I learned on this movie was how to collaborate, as opposed to what I've been doing with my very artsy, literary projects, like my Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner projects. On this one, I actually asked for help from Seth Rogen and his production company and people that are really experienced and successful in making unique movies but for bigger audiences. We went to these great writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who weren't comedic writers but were great at relationships.

And so every step of the way on this movie, I feel like I was going in the opposite direction from Tommy. He wouldn't listen to anybody. Like, dude, you don't need to shoot on 35mm film and HD at the same time. There's no point. He wouldn't listen. “Well, nobody's ever done it before, so I'm going to do it.” Like, Tommy, there's no reason. Why are we shooting green screens for a rooftop in a parking lot when you own the building in San Francisco? We can just go up on the roof of your building. It will be cheaper, and it will look better. "No, this is real Hollywood movie, I have to shoot green screen." He wouldn't listen to anybody.

So I feel like in that sense, I was the opposite of Tommy. This was, like, such a huge learning experience for me, because I did want to listen. I did want to be responsible and a team player." - Vox, November 29, 2017

5. GRETA GERWIG | Writer and Director | LADY BIRD

"I don't know any woman who has a simple relationship with their mother or with their daughter. It has a tremendous amount of love — and a tremendous amount of angst. 

"I'm always interested in how people use language to not say what they mean. I think in so many of the fights with Lady Bird and her mother, what her mother wants to say is, "I'm terrified." And she can't say it because it feels too vulnerable for the myriad of reasons that you can't say you're scared." 

(On coming up with 'Lady Bird'): "I had been writing all these other scenes and I couldn't find exactly how it all fit together. I felt like I kept hitting a wall. And then I put everything aside and I wrote at the top the page, "Why won't you call me Lady Bird? You promised that you would. And I have no idea where it came from. And I looked at it and I thought, "What's this and who is this person who makes someone call her that?" And then I kept pressing on it and I found this character behind it."

"I never really thought about [women's fighting] being different until I had the script for the film and I was going around and I was talking to different financiers about putting money into the film and making it. And most of those people are men. And if they were raised with sisters or if they had daughters, they knew what it was. But if they didn't, they had no idea that that was how women fought — and how they loved, too. I think it was kind of like they were getting to look into a world that they didn't know existed." - NPR, November 16, 2017

6. EMILY V. GORDON and KUMAIL NANJIANI | Screenwriters (and Nanjiani as Kumail) | THE BIG SICK

Gordon: "I think what helped us partially is that we had worked together before on a couple of other projects, so we had a pretty good working relationship. I think the thing, especially for me, that I had to adjust to is that in our personal lives, I expect my husband to kind of have my back no matter what, to always support me and be lovely; and then when you go into a business meeting with a spouse, I kind of went in with that same expectation of Oh, whatever I say he should definitely agree with it and be like, "What a great idea."

And what's amazing is that my co-worker Kumail has every right to disagree and think that this idea is not great and we need to tweak it, and vice versa. I think that took a little bit of adjusting for both of us to remember that...they are your spouse, of course, but kind of emotionally they aren't. We set up some boundaries, we set up some rules around the house for when and how we can talk about work, but we mostly work really well together. We like making each other laugh."

Nanjiani: "I feel like it really brought us together closer partially because what we were writing about was so personal to us but also because reading someone's writing can be a very intimate experience and reading someone's rough drafts can be a very intimate experience. And I would see her typing away at something and then she would send me the file and I would read it, and it just was like a really special, intimate feeling to be like, Oh, she was just sitting there writing it and now I get to read it. Nobody else in the world has read it! I'm the first person in the entire world to read it! And she's such a remarkable, wonderful, empathetic writer. I think it just really made me fall in love with her more." - NPR, July 12, 2017

7. REBECCA HALL | Elizabeth Marston | PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN

"It's a film full of a lot of hope and good feeling toward the whole endeavor of Wonder Woman and what she represents. I think that is a welcome film right now, a film that roots her in her pacifist, feminist origins and talks about a group of people who were idealistic and hopeful and trying to make the world better, and who against all the odds lived their truth. It’s really resonant and wanted right now. There’s a real desire for a film like this.

When I read (writer and director Angela Robinson's) script, I was really astounded by her interpretation of the Marstons. Because I’d spent time thinking about it, and thinking how is it even possible to weave all of the broad and sprawling elements of these extraordinary people’s lives into a film? And also, how do you make the film that we need now? How do we make the film that is going to be the most positive now? It would’ve been very easy to make the film that is, you know, salacious. Or, for want of a better phrase, ‘male-gazey?’ And I think there are many many ways for us to incorporate the facts that we have about the Marstons. There are some facts that we know, and there are some facts that we don’t. Which is the case for any group of people who’ve led hidden, secret lives. When I read Angela’s script, I just thought this is it. This is the interpretation that is pure and hopeful and sex-positive and correct for now." - The Mary Sue, October 11, 2017

8. JAMES MCAVOY | Dennis & The Horde | SPLIT

"The thing that was different was the amount of work I had to do. I got the role quite late in the day, so I didn't have a lot of time to prepare, but I had to do nine times the amount of preparation in really less than half the time that I would usually get to prepare one character. Apart from Kevin, all the other personalities that lived within the same body, they had a different kind of genesis than you or I. You know, you or I are born because our parents did the do, and they're born out of a necessity and to perform a pretty specific function within the larger group. That's because they each personify a certain quality or qualities that Kevin has or had.

Dennis is the only one that really talks about it. Dennis actually articulates why he came into being, why he was born, when he talks about having to be very neat and tidy, otherwise his mother would physically abuse him, Kevin, so Dennis was born because Dennis was capable of being that neat and tidy person, keeping the mother at bay.

I thought that's interesting. That must apply through all of them. So I had to effect the way into each character was finding out, why they were necessary, what they did, what job did they perform in the larger community. What part or what facet of Kevin's original character were they based on primarily. And of course they grow and they swell, and they become much more well-rounded than just that. They're not just one thing. But it is their core. It's their prime driver. You know?" - Den of Geek, January 16, 2017

9. CHRISTOPHER NOLAN | Director and Writer | DUNKIRK

"It’s one of the great human stories, and it’s one of the most suspenseful situations that I had ever heard of in my life. You have 400,000 men – the entire British army – trapped on the beach at Dunkirk. Their backs to the sea, home is only 26 miles away and it’s impossible to get to. The enemy is closing in, and there’s a choice between annihilation and surrender. I just think it’s the more extraordinarily suspenseful situation. That, I think, speaks to a lot of things that I am interested in with film.

I think people who know the story of Dunkirk, in particular, may be surprised by the intensity of the experience. It’s a very suspenseful story and we really try to do justice to that. The pacing is relentless, and the story and action scenes are extraordinarily intense. I think the lean, stripped-down nature of that, and how fast it moves, and what it puts you through in this short space of time… I think it has a different rhythm that I’ve worked in before.

I’m an incredible lover of silent films. The challenge of taking on what I call a present-tense narrative – that is to say, we don’t learn a lot about the people we’re experiencing this with. We really just try to live in the moment and experience it with them, and look through their eyes. That was the challenge of the film, and as it is shaping up I think that, for me, is the thing that I challenged myself the most with and I am excited about that." - Fandango, March 30, 2017

10. BROOKLYNN PRINCE, BRIA VINAITE | as Moonee and Halley | THE FLORIDA PROJECT

(Regarding 7-year-old star Brooklynn Prince): "There were a few scenes...that were more improv. But for the most part, I have to say, we stuck pretty close to the script, we had limited hours, and Brooklynn is amazing at just learning lines. So she would come to set knowing the scenes and then sometimes if I had time I would let them deviate or I would encourage some improvisation. There were sometimes that were almost fully improv, but obviously she knew what she had to say to sell the perfume. That was literally like we were putting them in a candid camera situation. So I couldn’t even—I couldn’t tell her what to expect because I didn't know what would happen..."

(Regarding the debuting Bria Vinaite and discovering her on Instagram): "At the time I was thinking about the character of Halley a lot, and we haven’t cast for her yet. So we were out to some A-listers for that role...but then, I kept going back to Bria’s Instagram saying 'yeah, well they’re not going to be as good as her so….' But we could never cast her because my financiers won’t allow me to but then somebody finally said, 'why don’t we just audition her? You proved in Tangerine that unconventional casting can work.' And I think that’s what allowed me to do it. So we flew her to Orlando. She connected with Brooklynn and it seemed to me like the energy was there. I actually believed them as mother and daughter. 

[Bria] was really enthusiastic about doing it, but at the same time, she was intimidated. She said, 'Help me' and we said 'we’re gonna give you a crash course in acting for the next month.' So a month leading up to the shoot, she lived down [in Florida] and she was working with my acting coach who worked with the kids and it was just all intensive. It was freakin’ awesome, was what it was. She really really got to that place we needed her to get to." - Sean Baker, director of The Florida Project, Collider, October 13, 2017

11. JOSH O'CONNOR | Johnny Saxby | GOD'S OWN COUNTRY

"What’s so beautiful about Francis’s film (Francis Lee, director), is that Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu, co-star) comes in and shows Johnny another way to interact with the landscape. I’d seen a few, I guess, LGBT films, but I think what actually attracted me to the film, regardless of its LGBT nature, was just a love story that ends in a hopeful way. Y’know, even in a lot of heterosexual cinema it’s always kind of miserable. Love doesn’t work and then, if it does work, it’s suddenly a rom-com. I loved that this was an unforgiving, bleak view of someone’s life, but which had hope. You don’t see that in any cinema, let alone LGBT."

(On co-star Secareanu): "I think if you’re open — as an actor or as a person — it’s a lot easier. It was just immediately apparent that there was a chemistry there. I don’t quite know how Francis saw that, but you could feel it, yeah.” 

(On Johnny and Gheorghe as farmers, tending to Johnny's family farm): "I remember Francis saying, ‘You do realise we’ve now made a period film’. Like, this film is now pre-Brexit and how interesting is that? It does add a dimension and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. And hopefully it’s a pro-Europe, pro-immigration film, because you see that Gheorghe comes in and his culture teaches Johnny — the way that he reacts to the land, reacts to animals.” - The Evening Standard, August 24, 2017

12. GARY OLDMAN | as Prime Minister Winston Churchill | DARKEST HOUR

"(Initially) I turned it down. You're stepping into Richard Hardy's shoes, Albert Finney's shoes, Michael Gambon's. And, of course, the silhouette. You look at me, and I probably could have a good crack at Stan Laurel.

What I did was to push all of that aside and go to the source material, the [1940] newsreel footage. He’s often thought of as this grumpy curmudgeon born in a bad mood, with a whiskey and a cigar, and he shuffles in. And what I saw, what jumped out of this old, jittery black-and-white footage, was a man who was 65 but moved like a 20-year-old. He moved through space with a fixity of purpose. He had this cherubic face with sort of a naughty schoolboy grin, with a sparkle in his eye.

I was born in 1958, and of course Churchill was our hero — I guess our savior. The man who won the war. My mother’s 98, went through the blitz; my dad was in the Royal Navy at the battle of Okinawa. One feels a connection there. But I’m constantly amazed discovering things about Churchill. I was surprised to find when I read the script was just how close we came to losing. Eventually, we didn’t do a deal with Hitler. I could forgive perhaps the Americans for not knowing the history, but I thought it was interesting that in Britain a lot of the people also didn’t know any of the details of the story. That is something to take away from the film, to realize just how perilously close we came right down to the wire." - AARP, November 21, 2017

13. JORDAN PEELE | Director and Writer | GET OUT

"Every great horror movie comes from a true fear, and ideally it's a universal fear. The tricky nature of this project is that the fear I'm pulling from is very human, but it's not necessarily a universal experience, so that's why the first third of the movie is showing, and not in an over-the-top way, in a sort of real, grounded way, just getting everybody to be able to see the world through my protagonist's eyes and his fears.

You know the stereotype of all black people know each other, well I think it probably comes from the fact that we can identify with each other's experience in a way that others may have a harder time. So yes, you see a black person anywhere where you're the only two, it's like there's an instant bond, or there should be, is sort of the feeling.

This was an exercise in making a movie that is meant to be inclusive. In any good story, whoever you are, you should be able to relate to the protagonist. At the same time, I had to recognize that black people would be watching this movie and having a different experience than white people would. Often when I thought about a specific scene or a specific moment I'd think, I hope the black audience here is [saying] 'You know what? This is my experience. I've never seen it done in film like this, that's awesome.' And at the same moment I might recognize that there would be a lot of white people who would watch the scene and either recognize these moments as something that maybe they've done, or that they've seen someone do." - NPR, March 15, 2017

14. ANDY SERKIS | Caesar | WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

(On motion-capture acting): "There is no difference from an acting point of view. The approach is no different to a live-action role. It’s not standing in a voice booth for two hours every six months, it’s living with that character day-in and day-out on set for the entire duration of the shoot, living and breathing every single moment, making acting choices that you would do in the conventional sense. The performance is not augmented or changed by a committee of animators. It is honored, and the fidelity is sought to translate that performance. In the past, it’s almost felt like performance capture is kind of like a drug-assisted sport. Now that’s just not true. The performance is the performance.

If that character was a human being, it would be an extraordinary journey. But as an ape and having that kind of filter, it’s that times 10 really; because we’re able to look at the human condition through the eyes of apes, it just elevates it into something else."

(On playing Caesar in the final film): “I really feel the loss of not being able to play that character anymore. It’s been thrilling at every turn, and a real challenge; a massive challenge with each movie. There are key points along the way where he shifts and they’ve all been incredibly fascinating to chart.”

(On the industry embracing motion-capture acting): “It’s absolutely about performance. It’s opening up great avenues for next-generation storytelling. So, I think the acting community really needs to embrace it.” - Deadline | Hollywood, November 21, 2017

15. KRISTEN STEWART | Maureen | PERSONAL SHOPPER

(On being cast by director Oliver Assayas): "Initially I thought it was because we have an ability to communicate sort of wordlessly. But he said that he needed this person to be someone who was quite remote and somewhat androgynous but also had this vulnerability that was overtly sexualized. There's a real duality to this girl. She was a twin. She's half of a person. She's trying to supplement that loss and figure out who she is within that, and also within this very strange, superficial environment, which is this fashion world that she's drawn to but also repelled by."

(On the initial reaction to the film at its Cannes premiere): "It's quite a divisive movie. It's not easy to describe. It's not really easy to even describe your own experience with it sometimes - and that doesn't bother me. It's not that I don't care. It's just that I don't mind being a part of something that is polarizing."

(On Assayas calling her the best actress of her generation): "It's not something that would ever push me or pull me in any direction. I really love what I do. I would still keep making the work even if critics didn't like it." - The New York Times, March 9, 2017


AND 16 MORE PERFORMANCES WORTH SEEING FROM 2017...