9 Unforgettable Acting Moments of 2023

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Photo Source: Atsushi Nishijima/Jon Pack/Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures/Dale Robinette

Movies etch themselves into our memories for all sorts of reasons, from writing to music cues to camera movements; but it’s the human element that keeps us coming back to the cinema. Whether in lavish blockbusters or scrappy indies, this year’s standout scenes run the gamut from quiet to explosive, as some of our finest screen actors (in tandem with outstanding directors) unearth complex emotional truths that are by turns ugly and beautiful. These moments crystallize the themes of this year’s greatest films thanks to soulful, fined-tuned performances we won’t soon forget. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone

“Killers of the Flower Moon”: Mollie’s Final Question for Ernest

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower MoonCourtesy Paramount Pictures

Martin Scorsese’s violent period epic digs into the infamous Osage murders of the 1920s as personified by Mollie Burkhart (Gladstone), an Indigenous woman who’s repeatedly betrayed by the white men around her. Her enormous grief in the wake of her family’s murder becomes her natural state of being. It all culminates in a climactic scene in which Mollie confronts her husband, Ernest (DiCaprio), about his involvement in the conspiracy—including whether he was responsible for poisoning her. Even though she seems to know the answer, his refusal to confess leaves her in limbo. In an acting masterstroke, Gladstone conveys her character’s devastated resignation rather than her anger. Meanwhile, DiCaprio contorts his expression as Ernest grapples with the weight of his sins, his sickening guilt leaking from every orifice. The quiet scene is a microcosm of the massive human toll white settlers exacted on Oklahoma’s Indigenous people; it’s all the more gut-churning for its intimacy.

Ryan Gosling

“Barbie”: Ken Discovers the Patriarchy 

Ryan Gosling in BarbieCourtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster may be about women coming into their power, but Ken—the ultimate lovelorn himbo, played by a wildly committed Gosling—has his own realization about male dominance. When the well-meaning plastic beach bum ventures into the real world, he’s confronted with a testosterone-fueled vision of Western patriarchy, from muscled bods to male presidents to horseback-riding cowboys. The scene is a hilarious—and sinister—parallel to Barbie’s emotional awakening, Gosling conveying his character’s exuberant sense of liberation. With a brand-new ideology coursing through his veins, Ken morphs into the ultimate douchebag right before our eyes. It’s a magic trick that’s both farcical and emotionally honest.

Greta Lee

“Past Lives”: Nora’s Silent Goodbye

Past Lives

Courtesy Jon Pack

Celine Song’s directorial debut is all about transience—but ironically, the film’s final scene makes us ache for someone to stay. While her husband (John Magaro) waits upstairs, Nora (Lee) bids farewell to her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), on a New York City sidewalk. As she walks him to his Uber during one long, unbroken take, Lee wears the movie’s complexity on her face. The actor portrays both Nora’s nostalgia about the lovestruck young girl she once was and her current devastation at Hae Sung’s departure; when he leaves, a part of her goes with him. Without saying a word, Lee encapsulates the themes of regret and possibility that characterize “Past Lives.” We don’t just share Nora’s wonder, but also her sense of reflection.

Charles Melton

“May December”: Joe Confronts Gracie 

May December

Credit: François Duhamel

Melton’s Joe Yoo was only 13 when he consummated his relationship with his much older wife, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore). Now in his mid-30s, he’s seemingly living a life of domestic bliss, all while managing Gracie’s melodramatic emotions at the expense of his own. Their relationship will forever be tainted by the fact that it began as a grooming situation, and this shaky foundation constantly threatens to topple their suburban normalcy. When Joe finally asks Gracie why she refuses to talk about their past, she immediately shuts down his search for catharsis. Melton uses physicality to convey his character’s regression, his body taking on a childlike posture. It’s a highwire performance without a net, so vulnerable that the scene is uncomfortable to watch. Melton, Moore, and director Todd Haynes are showing us a moment so private that it feels like we shouldn’t be in the room.

Cillian Murphy

“Oppenheimer”: Oppenheimer’s Victory Speech

Cillian Murphy in OppenheimerCourtesy of Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

In the standout scene of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster biopic, atomic bomb inventor J. Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy) delivers a victory speech after his creation is detonated over Hiroshima. As he talks, the world around him begins to vibrate, reflecting the state of his psyche. Oppenheimer speaks with elation at first; but as the scene goes on, the scientist begins to come to grips with the deadly impact of his invention. Murphy externalizes his character’s turmoil as the Earth seems to shift on its axis. The horrified, guilt-ridden silences between his words are louder than bombs.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph

“The Holdovers”: Mary vents her grief

Da'Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers

Courtesy Focus Features

Alexander Payne’s 1970s-set film follows the tense dynamic between curmudgeonly teacher Paul (Paul Giamatti) and his hotheaded student Angus (Dominic Sessa), as they’re forced to spend winter break together on campus. Their relationship wouldn’t be nearly as impactful without the gentle but distant presence of their fellow holdover, Mary Lamb (Randolph). The boarding school’s kitchen manager acts as the film’s matter-of-fact voice of reason; but inside, she’s struggling with grief over the recent death of her son in the Vietnam War. Her loneliness and despair come to a head at a colleague’s Christmas party. The seasonal joy having become too hard for her to bear, Mary finally unleashes her anguish in a drunken display of unrestrained mourning. Randolph’s vulnerability in the role is so true to life that the scene acts as a mirror to the messiness of grief.

Margot Robbie

“Barbie”: Barbie at the Bus Stop

Margot Robbie in BarbieCourtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Of all the iconic moments in Gerwig’s runaway hit, this emotionally resonant scene is arguably the heart of the film. After her first few jarring hours in the real world, Robbie’s Barbie sits down at a bus stop to ponder the origins of the discontent that led her to leave her land of plastic to experience life in new, more human ways. In an impressionistic montage anchored by Robbie’s meditative, teary close-ups, Barbie remembers a mother and daughter playing with the doll version of her. As she opens her eyes, literally and metaphorically, to the complex emotions all around her, she says with uncertainty, “That felt achy…but good.” And when Barbie turns to see an elderly lady (Ann Roth) sitting nearby, a single tear falls down her face as she tells her she’s beautiful—to which the older woman replies, “I know it!” With a loving, determined quiver in her voice, Robbie conveys the culmination of Barbie’s recent self-reflection in a single, fleeting moment. In just two lines, the Oscar nominee expresses a profound appreciation of the beauty inherent in all people. 

Andrew Scott

“All of Us Strangers”: Adam Says Goodbye

Andrew Scott in All of Us StrangersCourtesy of Searchlight Pictures

In Andrew Haigh’s dreamlike drama, Scott plays Adam, a lonely, grief-stricken screenwriter who’s caught between two worlds. While sharing a meal with the ghostly manifestations of his dead parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) at an otherworldly diner, he decides it’s time to finally let go of these living memories and embrace the affections of Harry (Paul Mescal), the man fighting to stay by his side in the real world. As Adam bids his parents farewell in a flash of golden light, it feels like he’s losing them all over again—a second death caused by their son himself. The scene is the climax of his struggle to choose between two different versions of love and comfort: one living, one long dead. In the end, Adam makes the monumentally difficult decision to lay the past to rest. It’s a heart-rending performance from the talented Scott.

Emma Stone

“Poor Things”: Bella’s Sexual Awakening 

Emma Stone in Poor ThingsCourtesy of Searchlight Pictures

In Yorgos Lanthimos’ fairy-tale take on “Frankenstein,” Stone stars as Bella Baxter, the reanimated corpse of an adult woman with the mind of a child. Thanks to her peculiar origins, she matures quickly, rushing through the stages of adolescence. The Oscar winner puts Bella’s sexual self-discovery at the center of her performance—particularly in a montage of carnal exploration with the debonair but ridiculous Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). As the character loses herself in unrestrained pleasure without hesitation or apology, the film becomes a fantasy about a life unburdened by bodily shame. It’s a performance that’s as liberated as it is liberating. 

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 28 issue of Backstage Magazine.