2018’s Strongest, Most Stunning Leading Film Performances

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Photo Source: Peter Prato / Annapurna Pictures

Backstage is waiting excitedly for the Dec. 12 announcement of this year’s Screen Actors Guild Award nominees—and here, deciding which performances on the big and small screens merit the attention of the nominating committee. With the below list, we’ve rounded up some of the calendar year’s gutsiest, most thrilling, and most memorable star turns in cinema, from all the actors whose names will be on voters’ minds this awards season. For your consideration: the leading men and women of 2018 film! (Here also are our supporting actor picks!)

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A FEMALE ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma”
Aparicio’s work as Cleo, the live-in maid to a wealthy family in 1970s Mexico City in Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographically inspired epic, is the unlikeliest star turn Hollywood has seen in years. A 24-year-old schoolteacher and first-time actor, Aparicio was chosen out of thousands to play a leading role so uniquely challenging, it’s impossible to compare her to any other. “Roma” begins and ends with Cleo going about her domestic duties, and what Aparicio does in between is a towering achievement.

Emily Blunt, “Mary Poppins Returns”
“Practically perfect in every way” describes everyone’s favorite flying nanny, but it could also apply to Blunt, one of Hollywood’s most versatile triple threats working on the big screen today. She doesn’t attempt to copy the role made iconic by Julie Andrews, instead bringing her own flair to a graceful, humorous Mary Poppins that audiences will no doubt find irresistible.

Emily Blunt, “A Quiet Place”
And in as different a project from “Mary Poppins Returns” as possible, Blunt proves equally adept at powerful, minimalist horror. Alongside writer-director-star John Krasinski, she lends vivid specificity to a wife and mother doing what she must to protect her family—all while barely speaking a word. The scene in which she gives birth while attempting to remain in complete silence as extraterrestrial sound-seekers creep ever closer is one for the books.

Glenn Close, “The Wife”
Only in Close’s hands could a lifetime of resentment boil over into a climactic, shattering rage that practically shakes the walls of the movie theater. Restrained and then devastating, her performance in “The Wife” as a genius overshadowed by her successful but conniving husband (Jonathan Pryce) is her best in years. Given all her impeccable onscreen work (and six Oscar nominations, with no wins!), that’s really saying something.

Toni Collette, “Hereditary”
Thanks in part to her crazy-malleable face, Collette has the ability to drop into extreme emotional spaces in a matter of seconds. There’s just something irresistible about watching her dynamic reactions to increasingly horrific revelations in this haunted-house thriller; outrageous as the chaos becomes, Collette grounds us in heart-shattering reality. And in the art of screaming, actors now have a new standard.

Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
This British actor had little notoriety on this side of the pond just months ago, despite a Golden Globe win last year for “The Night Manager,” but that’s about to change. Her master class performance as Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ twisted royal palace comedy is heartbreaking, hilarious, cruel, outlandish, and full of memorably nontraditional poise. Colman brings the power and the nuance, but prioritizes fun first and foremost. Give her every award there is.

Viola Davis, “Widows”
Looking for an actor who can portray grief with the subtlest nuance? What about someone who can lead a kickass heist against all odds? Davis could probably do both in her sleep, yet she still finds ways to push herself and surprise audiences in Steve McQueen’s timely and deliciously dark thriller. There aren’t enough accolades in the world for her level of talent.

Elsie Fisher, “Eighth Grade”
Watching “Eighth Grade,” you’ll find yourself passionately rooting for Kayla Day, the bruised, sensitive hero at the center of this portrait of life in middle school today. That’s due entirely to Fisher, one of the year’s most exciting breakout stars, giving a naturalistic performance that captures both this ultra-specific era of social media and something universal—a coming-of-age journey to which anyone with a heart can relate.

Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born”
The year’s most exhilarating cinematic moment belongs to this superstar, and it encompasses every quality that makes her feature film debut an instant classic. Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine invites her Ally onto his stage in front of thousands, and as the music—Gaga’s music, of course—is pouring out of her like a geyser, she covers her eyes in disbelief. Like the rest of her performance, it’s both epic and intensely intimate, the kind of magic that reminds us why we go to the movies.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Kindergarten Teacher”
Are the increasingly dubious actions of Gyllenhaal’s titular character justifiable? It’s an interesting question in this sketch of a woman, discouraged and hungry for inspiration, who becomes dangerously obsessed with the poetic talents of one of her 5-year-old students (Parker Sevak). Watching Gyllenhaal weep for an artistic life beyond her grasp inspires an even bigger question: Could any other actor working today tempt us into sympathizing with such a person?

Kathryn Hahn, “Private Life”
For those of us convinced that Hahn is one of the absolute best actors working today, Tamara Jenkins’ tale of infertility and marriage opposite Paul Giamatti equals two very gratifying, gorgeous hours of filmmaking. This is the Hahn-fueled vehicle we’ve been craving: funny, devastating, and grounded in the heartbreaking minutiae of what it means to be a woman and a human. It takes a special kind of comedian and actor to make that feel nothing short of extraordinary.

Regina Hall, “Support the Girls”
Hall has such a radiant smile, it could probably be used as a source of renewable energy. It takes an astute actor, though, to implement such an asset at the right moments in the right ways. In Andrew Bujalski’s surprisingly nuanced comedy about Hooters-style waitresses rising up, Hall’s harried mother hen Lisa forces strained smiles to appease various men, saving her genuine grins for the workplace sisters she loves.

Felicity Jones, “On the Basis of Sex”
Jones diligently studied the mannerisms and speech patterns of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in this Hollywood retelling of the Supreme Court justice’s burgeoning law career. It’s a tall order to reconcile the icon we know today with her more humble beginnings and professional struggles, but several minutes into the film, Jones disappears into the character; it’s easy to forget the actor within the role.

Nicole Kidman, “Destroyer”
What an absolutely fearless performance. Brooding, brittle, with hollowed-out eyes, Kidman’s undercover LAPD detective Erin Bell is a technical and emotional marvel of a role, letting the star bury any and all natural glamour in the name of sheer brutality. There’s a particularly intense standoff between Kidman and Tatiana Maslany that crackles with electricity.

Keira Knightley, “Colette”
As Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the French artist and author whose literary wit was obfuscated for too long by her husband, discovers new parts of herself during this film, so, too, do we discover new things about the actor bringing her to life. The endearing Knightley has a knack for turning a subtly modern lens onto period pieces; that this progressive turn-of-the-century biopic feels right at home in 2018 is entirely her doing.

Joanna Kulig, “Cold War”
In this snapshot of postwar Poland—Kulig’s third film with director Paweł Pawlikowski—the star gets to use her riveting singing talent in ways that feel inextricable from her acting. As Zula, the chanteuse of a band performing under pressure from Stalinist forces, she often must project cheerfulness or wit while feeling defiance or desperation. Kulig also conveys, gorgeously, the tumult of falling in and out of love throughout the story’s 15-year span.

KiKi Layne, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Layne seems to have been born to play Tish Rivers, the narrator of James Baldwin’s tale of romance despite injustice in 1970s Harlem. She’s convincingly an innocent 19-year-old, yet also believable as she charts Tish’s growing resilience and resistance—born out of necessity, given the unfair circumstances threatening to tear her family apart. Layne and her Tish allow us to cling to hope without removing the story’s tragedy.

Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
In becoming Lee Israel, the biographer and loner who made ends meet by forging letters from famous literary wits, McCarthy somehow harnesses her natural affinity for humor while also subverting it; her Lee is acidly funny, yes, but she’s also depressed as hell and irritable with pretty much everyone except her cat. To watch her reigniting passions and discovering joy, however briefly, during her criminal enterprises is to watch a tragicomic master at work.

Chloë Grace Moretz, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”
Moretz’s titular teen feels like someone you know from high school. Thanks to this talented actor, operating at an empathetic level audiences have never seen from her before, Desiree Akhavan’s depiction of gay conversion therapy feels painfully real, bone-deep, and all too relatable—like we’ve been boxed into God’s Promise along with her.

Carey Mulligan, “Wildlife”
As much as you yearn to reach through the screen, grab Mulligan’s struggling wife and mother Jeanette Brinson by the shoulders, and shake some sense into her, you also want to give her a hug. She’s so clearly grasping for whatever stability she can find in her life, and Mulligan’s massively expressive eyes have never looked sadder and angrier. It’s a tour de force.

Rosamund Pike, “A Private War”
It takes a star as ballsy as Pike to take on a role like Marie Colvin, the late journalist whose relentless mission to cover war zones put her in some of the most hellish situations anyone could possibly experience. Wearing an eye patch with pride and an internal world of hurt, Pike’s Marie captures something essential about the human experience: a need to tell the truth no matter the cost.

Julia Roberts, “Ben Is Back”
Opposite Lucas Hedges as her runaway drug addict son, Roberts reminds us why she’s an emotive force of nature in this heartbreaking portrait of two people in a void, struggling to build a bridge toward each other. The actor is at her best making ordinary women feel intimately familiar; whether you’re a mother or not, Roberts’ performance will find ways to resonate within you.

Saoirse Ronan, “Mary Queen of Scots”
Watching Ronan take on the eponymous queen of Scotland, it’s doubly impressive to remember the astounding reality that just last year, she was Oscar- and SAG-nominated for playing an angsty teen from California. There’s no denying this young star’s versatility, and you get the feeling she’s just getting warmed up. Her work in this flashy biopic, particularly in her many magnetic close-ups, stuns once again.

Amandla Stenberg, “The Hate U Give”
While Starr Carter isn’t necessarily the infant from the Tupac Shakur acronym—“THUGLIFE: The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”—that inspired this timely page-to-screen adaptation, the 20-year-old Stenberg brings an unforgettable, heart-on-her-sleeve innocence to the role. Demonstrating how today’s injustices and inequalities impact the lives of those who least deserve it, Stenberg is the drama’s beating heart, and she’ll shove her way into yours.

Charlize Theron, “Tully”
Who knew you could describe an actor’s portrayal of motherhood as “visceral”? That speaks to what Theron does throughout “Tully,” a truthful and relatable illustration of the physical, mental, and emotional realities of having children. It’s impossible to come away from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s film without an understanding of the sacrifices and day-to-day life of being a mom.

Emma Thompson, “The Children Act”
This tale of a judge debating the intersection of a child’s religious beliefs and a life-saving medical procedure dwells in a moral and narrative ambiguity that demands to be pondered well after viewing. Without question, though, it is yet another superlative performance from Thompson as the Hon. Mrs. Justice Maye, as subtly drawn a character as we’ve seen this year. She keeps her court—and us—in the palm of her hand.

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A MALE ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Christian Bale, “Vice”
Bale playing U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is one of those instances where the casting announcement itself seems to merit an award. There are probably plenty of actors who could take a crack at the severe, sinister politician, but Bale comes with his own distinct guarantee: to-the-bone commitment to an intense role with just a sprinkling of irreverence.

Steve Carell, “Beautiful Boy”
With “Welcome to Marwen,” “Vice,” and this heart-wrencher of a biography, Carell is in fine form this year. He has a natural likability and receptiveness that under Felix Van Groeningen’s direction manifests as tragic. As David Sheff watches his son spiral into the multiple rock bottoms of drug addiction, Carell hints at an emotional roller coaster that just makes us want to comfort the poor guy.

John Cho, “Searching”
Amid superhero blockbusters and weighty biopics, let’s not forget this year’s more experimental indie films, for therein lie gems of acting brilliance. Case in point: this Aneesh Chaganty thriller, seen almost entirely through smartphones and other screens, featuring a dynamo performance from Cho. As a father piecing together his daughter’s disappearance, the actor strikes a balance between guttural worry and slow-boiling tension. Certain stars prove fun to watch when solving mysteries, and Cho is very much one of them.

Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”
Have you heard? Cooper made a movie—and he astounds in it. This is one of those star turns in which the actor takes drastic means to alter their physicality (that gravelly voice!) so they can react and emote completely in character. Ragged rock star Jackson Maine so badly wants to save himself for the person he loves, and ultimately cannot fill that gaping void with all the whiskey and power duets in the world.

Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”
You get the feeling Dafoe must have spent years living in Vincent van Gogh’s shoes (and holey socks). Director Julian Schnabel’s style is a hybrid of arthouse and naturalism; he’ll leave the camera on the three-time Oscar nominee for long stretches of time, sans dialogue, to just let him be. Dafoe nails his showier scenes as the artist loses his grip on reality, but it’s those somber, simple moments of him and his canvas that you’ll remember.

Daveed Diggs, “Blindspotting”
In their alternately hilarious and disquieting love letter to Oakland, California, Diggs and his co-star and co-writer, Rafael Casal, inventively ponder the realities of gentrification, police brutality, and systemic racism. Experiencing it, particularly the scene where Diggs delivers a jaw-dropping rap that seems to fight its way out of him, is like having a mirror thrust in your face and seeing 2018 America in all its garish detail and flaws.

Rupert Everett, “The Happy Prince”
Bringing Oscar Wilde to the big screen—writing, acting, and making his directorial debut—was something of a Herculean task for Everett, a longtime Wilde devotee determined to do justice to the literary icon’s tragic final days. His touching and brilliantly witty portrayal is surely an effort of which Wilde himself would be proud.

Ben Foster, “Leave No Trace”
At first it seems Foster’s Will lives in the woods of Oregon completely off the grid purely for antiestablishment reasons. But as he and his teenage daughter (played by Thomasin McKenzie) are dubbed homeless and forced to reintegrate into society, it becomes apparent Will is haunted by PTSD-driven trauma from his military days, trauma that the actor exudes from head to toe. Debra Granik’s emotionally spare yet potent two-hander is a phenomenal showcase for Foster’s raw talent.

Ryan Gosling, “First Man”
Damien Chazelle pulls out every trick in the bag to put us in the close quarters of shaky (extremely shaky) space travel in this Neil Armstrong biopic that seeks to convey the human side of the 1969 moon landing. But it’s Gosling, tensing and clenching, who completes that spectacular effect. An actor with plenty of interiority playing a historical hero known for his own reticence, Gosling gives a fascinating show-don’t-tell performance that tethers this giant leap for Hollywood.

Ethan Hawke, “First Reformed”
With Hawke, you’re guaranteed an unshowy yet somehow unexpected take on a character. In Paul Schrader’s meditation on faith and the line between right and wrong, the actor plays Ernst Toller, the Protestant minister of a church losing followers. The way Hawke illustrates violence, both internal and external, literal and figurative, makes for one of the most indelible performances of the year.

Lucas Hedges, “Boy Erased”
Thank goodness Joel Edgerton’s dramatization of Garrard Conley’s gay conversion experience had the protective veneer of a Hollywood film with recognizable actors; as a documentary, it would be too devastating to witness. Hedges, nevertheless, will tug at your heartstrings with increasing skill. First delicately insecure, then gradually empowered and certain, his charting of a gay man’s coming of age dips deep into the soul.

Hugh Jackman, “The Front Runner”
A reproduction of 1988 politicians misbehaving—and getting caught misbehaving—may seem like tame viewing in 2018. But Jackman, with his likably heroic persona, turns out to be the perfect fit for Gary Hart, the idealistic American senator whose presidential bid was derailed by chaotic media coverage of his extramarital affair. Watching Jackman put a detailed, empathetic human at the center of that story proves fascinating.

Stephan James, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Stare into James’ eyes during Barry Jenkins’ stunning “Beale Street” close-ups and you may just have to look away. That’s how bright he shines with his depiction of Fonny, a young artist imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and kept apart from his pregnant fiancée. The contrast between James’ early moments of optimism and later despair could shatter your heart into a million pieces.

Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Malek struts, wails, purrs, poses, fights, and, best of all, entertains in this Freddie Mercury biopic. His capital-P performance seems better suited to verbs than adjectives, so active is his full-bodied transformation into Queen’s flamboyant frontman. The last several minutes of this movie re-create the rock star’s iconic Live Aid concert with eye-popping detail and energy, and Malek sears himself into his captive audience’s minds.

Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”
Mortensen is one of those actors who can alter something within themselves, not just externally with makeup or costumes, to disappear into a character. In this two-hander about a road trip in the 1960s segregated South, Mortensen pulls off an endlessly enjoyable type: the tough-guy slob. His New York bouncer-turned-driver Tony Lip provides a specific, brilliant contrast to Mahershala Ali’s uptight pianist Don Shirley, and together the two make movie magic.

Robert Redford, “The Old Man & the Gun”
In what he’s called his last film role, Redford culls from all his natural charisma and sensitive cowboy swagger as Forrest Tucker, a septuagenarian career criminal completing jailbreaks and bank heists alike with a delightful flair. Just as Forrest proves that conning can be an art form, Redford makes his hardened, offhandedly funny style feel like a masterstroke.

John C. Reilly, “The Sisters Brothers”
Opposite Joaquin Phoenix in “The Sisters Brothers,” Steve Coogan in “Stan & Ollie,” and plenty of other projects going back years, Reilly has proven he deserves something of a Most Valuable Player distinction. He can be zany opposite calm, or rational amid chaos—with an actor this smart, there’s always attention paid to tonal contrasts. The glimpses behind the curtain he provides in Jacques Audiard’s off-kilter Western are the work of a studious scene partner.

Lakeith Stanfield, “Sorry to Bother You”
Filmmaker Boots Riley said of his star, “He’s always looking for the poetry in people.” In one of the year’s most surreal comedies, Stanfield does what you might not expect, providing a grounded naturalism that allows the rest of the movie to be outlandish. Stanfield’s surprisingly successful telemarketer Cassius Green is our guide to navigating this fun-house mirror version of Oakland, California. Even in slapstick, he can find his poetry.

John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”
Of all this year’s period pieces that say more about today than their era, Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” feels like the quintessential example. Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the black detective who schemed to infiltrate his local Ku Klux Klan chapter and eventually got the ear of David Duke himself. Imbuing his performance with equal parts 1970s and 2018, Washington’s steady gaze assesses or questions every status quo; there’s an ocean of thought and feeling just behind the actor’s eyes that speaks volumes.