9. Toni Collette in Hereditary (2018)
Much was made of Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary and with good reason. Bereaved and peeved, Collette runs the emotional gambit as Annie Graham: a miniaturist and grieving mother on the verge of losing her head in more ways than one. She is bemused and ashamed at her own indifference to her mother’s death. She vibrates with a rage that twists her face into a wild-eyed, shrieking mask. She laughs when things get too spooky (wouldn’t you?). Annie is an animal caught in a trap: vulnerable, terrified, and furious. It is an unimpeachable performance articulated in anger, an emotional blitzkrieg through grief that will likely go down not only as one of the best but one of the most snubbed genre performances of the decade.
8. Jack Dylan Grazer and James Ransone in It (2017, 2019)
Jack Dylan Grazer‘s performance as Eddie in It: Chapter One is a god-tier child performance. There’s no other way to describe it. He’s a 4-foot-tall neurotic with enough anxiety to power six city blocks. And I love him. He’s got the soul of Joe Pesci and the hypochondria of a fifty-year-old suburban housewife who just discovered bleach wipes. And I love him. Luckily for us, lighting strikes twice: James Ransone’s take on Eddie in the remake’s second chapter effortlessly picks up Grazer’s nuances and infuses them with the tempered softness of adulthood. Eddie wears his trauma on his sleeve, and it’s as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. Much has been made of Bill Skarsgård’s performance in these films and, to a lesser extent, of Bill Hader’s in Chapter Two. But for my money: Grazer and Ransone’s performances are the heart of this reboot and up there with the decade’s best.
7. Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper (2016)
Full disclosure: I didn’t get the Kristen Stewart thing. For a long time. And then I saw Personal Shopper. Her tendency to be read as emotionless is utilized to reflect a character who has compartmentalized her grief, and who is wary of dealing with the passing of her brother. She holds onto a belief in his spectral presence, becoming increasingly convinced that he’s trying to communicate with her. Stewart’s performance toys with contradictory ideas — the possibility that she’s being haunted or that the “signs” exist where she wants to see them — and the question of how much Maureen wants to believe. As much as her character wavers, the performance is steadfast and mystifying. She’s as haunting as the film is. I get the Kristen Stewart thing now. (Anna Swanson)
6. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (2014)
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as freelance newsman Lou Bloom has the intensity of a stressed-out animal gnawing off its own leg. Lou is desperately hungry, a predatorily polite and ever-ready scavenger, caught in the alluring headlights of a noble calling. The story matters to Lou more than anything. Good things come to those who work their asses off and alter crime scenes to get a better narrative. Whether any of this is right is the furthest thing from Lou’s mind, and, in truth, his love of dirty work is a perfect match for the ethical emptiness of his employers. Lou is a slinking, uncomfortably upbeat creep whose ambitious appetites and ravenous opportunism give us the heebie-jeebies. He’s the anti-hero the 21st century deserves.
5. John Hurt in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
It shouldn’t be possible to describe an actor as being tailor-made for portraying a vampiric Christopher Marlowe, but John Hurt was. The actor’s trademark soft-spoken nature and his soft, kind eyes gave the impression that he was always providing those around him with sage wisdom, a trait exemplified in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film. As a world-weary version of the 16th-century playwright, Hurt carries with him the burden of existence and the blessing of time. He’s seen it all and done it all, but what’s left? The melancholic film takes its time to meditate on this question. Hurt encapsulates these ideas with his meticulously crafted and contemplative portrayal of Marlowe, a man famed for his wit, now experiencing the fatigue of living so long as one of the undead. His is a pensive performance, the kind that one came to expect from Hurt, but the kind that no one ever grew tired of. (Anna Swanson)
4. Seo Young-hee in Bedevilled (2010)
Female revenge films have a tendency of stripping victimized women of their humanity once they snap. Of rushing through the stickier parts of trauma to get to the bloodbath. Not so with Bedevilled, the criminally under-seen South Korean slow-burn about an abused woman with a desperate motive: to get off this ridiculous island in one piece…by whatever means necessary. The circumstances that inevitably lead to Kim Bok-nam’s tipping point are clear, undeniable, and harrowing. But when she finally reaches for the sickle, Bok-nam’s justice has come at far too steep a price for her actions to be satisfying. Seo Yeong-hee puts in one hell of a performance and carries this film on her back like a goddamn pack animal. Whether she sports a beaming smile or a fearsome grimace, Seo Yeong-hee is simply ferocious.
3. Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built (2018)
Matt Dillon’s performance in The House That Jack Built is so good that I suspect it is one of the reasons people reacted to Lars Von Trier’s latest like the man had made a snuff film instead of one of the best horror-comedies of the decade. Dillon absolutely nails a very tricky tonal tightrope. Jack is not compelling to watch because he’s charismatic or conniving, or because we pity his damage, or are swayed by his philosophy. He’s compelling to watch because Dillion has perfectly captured the darkly funny truth at the heart of all sociopaths. Namely: that they ain’t shit. Dillon’s Jack is a clown unaware of his own buffoonery: a self-obsessed man who’d risk it all for confirmation that he’s the smartest person in the room. Dillon lets us in on the joke. He never passes up an opportunity to expose Jack’s asshattery: to push up his glasses, sneer, and masterfully undermine the fuck out of this pathetic loser who fancies himself a mastermind.
2. Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes (2014)
Alex Essoe’s knockout performance as Sarah, an eager, struggling actress willing to do anything for a taste of fame, is unforgettable. From sweet and fragile aspiring actress to deteriorating subhuman madwoman, Essoe runs a physical and emotional gambit and remains spot-on the whole way through. It’s a punishing role (quite literally), and Essoe owns the hell out of it. Whether sulking poolside or falling to pieces, Essoe endows Sarah with a vulnerable intensity that puts us on edge while also succeeding in drawing out our sympathy. It’s a startlingly affectionate and unnerving portrait of a Hollywood hopeful: a wicked and twisted take on the sacrifices actors will make to break big.
1. John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
John Goodman’s performance as Howard Stambler in 10 Cloverfield Lane is the stuff of nightmares. In a film boasting a small, terrific cast, he’s a force to be reckoned with: an inscrutable American psycho tangling his victims in webs of psychological abuse and uneasy kindness to harrowing effect. As Howard, Goodman gives one of the best performances of his career: a capricious veer between menacing captor and genial uncle, an emotional sea-saw of levity, fussiness, and paranoia that keeps us on our toes and our hearts pumping. In a story that depends on the fear generated by our oscillating trust in Howard, it’s to Goodman’s credit that we’re never really sure if he’s on the level. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance. If only these kinds of movies won Oscars.
- Kristen Dunst in Melancholia (2011)
- Essie Davis in The Babadook (2014)
- Tammy Blanchard The Invitation (2015)
- Richard Jenkins in Bone Tomahawk (2015)
- Ralph Ineson in The VVitch (2015)
- Kate Siegel in Hush (2016)
- Ebizô Ichikawa in Blade of the Immortal (2017)
- Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out (2017)
- Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019)
- Samara Weaving in Ready or Not (2019)
- Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse (2019)
*Admittedly not that short a list.