Tuesday, June 18, 2024

List: Jaylan Salah’s Top 10 Performances of 2023

It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. But for movies, last year was superb. We got a blend of genres, a mesh of great performances, and some astounding surprises. I thoroughly enjoyed 2023 as a movie lover, and there were a lot of wonderful cinematic moments for me. The Barbienheimer phenomenon restored my faith in cinema, and there were a lot of surprise hits by the end of the year. There were many films directed by women, hopefully, many more this year, and various African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans in the lead roles. A great performance is a great performance, and in 2023, we had plenty.

Honorable mentions include Charles Melton in May December, Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest, Taraji P. Henson, and Danielle Brooks in The Color Purple.

10. Barry Keoghan in Saltburn

I know, I know. Some people view Saltburn as the worst thing that happened to cinema, others are enjoying it in a non-serious way. The actors might have taken the promotional and press tours a bit too overtly, or in an unabashed way almost like fanbaiting with their hotness and sex appeal. These are two remarkable men in one of the most sexually charged films of the year 2023 (uhm, Passages, too?). Despite Saltburn heightening the feelings with Jacob Elordi –a star prepped to be the next Hollywood hotshot of the next era- as the iconic dreamboat, Barry Keoghan steals the scenes. Keoghan plays a doe-eyed sociopath, obsessed, dark, and aloof, with such grounded insanity that it brings to mind his earlier roles in The Green Knight and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

9. Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon

There’s acting and there’s existing in a realm as a performer. Lily Gladstone exists in Killers of the Flower Moon as Mollie Burkhart, she downplays the act, she breathes through the character, patiently waits, exerts power, and navigates a hostile world that sneakily and coyly tries to rob her of power, agency, and ownership. Her performance as a woman defies categorization, steering away from Hollywood Queen Bees wearing prosthetic noses or blonde beauties playing sacrificial mothers, size zero women pretending to be housewives tired of a redundant life with redundant husbands, or the cherry on top of a gangster-heavy film. Mollie is wary of the racism, but she’s also comfortable in the power she exerts over a White man she deems beneath her, even if he –sadly- uses that particular flaw in character to fuel his sinister plan of destroying her.

8. Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers

There’s something about Mescal in every role he plays. He’s not the most handsome of the current flood of young Hollywood actors on the scene; Chalamet, Dickinson, Elordi, Keoghan, Gatwa, etc. But there’s a degree of truth to his acting that might not be present in most of his peers. In All of Us Strangers, Mescal plays a seductive object of affection for Adam, the main protagonist. While basking in the glory of such a desirable character, he delivers a melancholy performance, with subtlety and dignity, engulfed by the film’s haunting atmosphere. What Paul Mescal gets served, he delivers. He might miss in one instance or another, but when on call, he transcends expectations and draws great sympathy from the audience.

7. Emma Stone in Poor Things

There are not a lot of times where both actor and audience are having fun with a performance. Emma Stone was having the time of her life with Bella Baxter, where else could a gal spit, grunt, masturbate, make crazy faces, and learn to use her arms and feet (punching people along the way) except in cinema? Yorgos Lanthimos is no stranger to the bizarre and unhinged, and here, he has solidified Stone as a long-term collaborator and muse, liberating her from the confinement of being an American actress to reach a level of libertine only found in European movies. Bella is both funny and wacko, but also bestial and ravenous, and Stone perfectly encapsulates that man-child/man-monster hybrid energy.

6. Greta Lee in Past Lives

Celine Song’s Past Lives calls out to tired souls. It’s a beautifully made anti-fairytale movie, where the prince and the princess meet at the wrong place and time, where the much-anticipated climax stirs nothing in the course of events. Nora is an ambitious immigrant woman, her choices are never easy. To move on with her life, she had to bury the past, to let go of the silly, hopeless romanticism of a land left behind, a world no longer her own. But to meet Hae Sung again is to allow all those buried desires, dreams, and lust to resurface. Greta Lee nails the role of Nora, caught in between two worlds; the way she watches Teo Yoo’s sad innocent face, the way heartbreak slowly forms on her composed features, is the work of a veteran actress in command of all her tools.

5. Penélope Cruz in Ferrari

Everybody wants a feisty woman to claw her way through a performance. Penélope Cruz is not the kind of woman to be dismissed at any chance. She’s there with her fire and her raw pain, she’s not one to hold back, but she has not been that intense since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The greatest directors are the ones who don’t let her tone down her energy but raise the bar higher so that her performance reaches a crescendo, deservedly so. As Laura Ferrari she eats the scenes, almost wiping out Adam Driver’s existence entirely from every scene they acted opposite each other. It’s great to see the various manifestations of grief on the screen so that people from the audience who went through similar experiences could feel less alone, and luckily for us in 2023 we had two amazing interpretations of a mother losing a child, Cruz was one of them and she nailed it.

4. Zac Efron in Iron Claw

At the beginning of the year, the idea of Zac Efron making my Best Actors of the Year list would have made me roll my eyes.  I always associated Efron with the fluff of the Disney Channel productions era; the music, the dances, the weird actresses with squeaky voices, the schmaltz, it was all too much for me. But when I had a career retrospective, Efron worked so hard to reinvent himself beyond the poster boy for Disney’s reputation. From The Paperboy to 17 Again, and from Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile to Hairspray, Efron has been trying to build status in a tough business that rarely handled former Disney or YA stars with kindness or enthusiasm. In The Iron Claw, Efron is a monster. He ruptures the screen, he breaks hearts as Kevin Von Erich, and commands the movie, like the whole family revolves around him, even when his brothers are on their own. His work here is grounded-actor material and that’s surprising and deserving of award recognition.

3. Milo Machado-Graner in Anatomy of a Fall

If there’s anything Justine Triet gifted to the world in 2023, then it’s Milo Machado-Graner as Daniel. Graner’s body tells stories that his hushed tone fails to express. His hunched back, bent shoulders, and head curled inward emphasize his vulnerability, in a crushing, adult world where he is both a pawn and a hapless victim. Daniel is plunged into misery and pain from an early age. The fact that his parents have an unhealthy relationship is worsening his isolation. His sensitivity makes the world a big puzzle that he tries to navigate with a melancholy acceptance associated with kids his age, those who have known suffering early. Graner captures that frustrating childhood perfectly, and I might argue that the scenes in which the camera zooms in on his frail body, shrinking as his parents are torn to shreds in the courtroom are far more impactful than the ones where he breaks down.

2. Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers

Grief has many manifestations, and women grieve in various forms and attitudes, but hardworking, hardboiled women don’t have the luxury of leaving the world behind and being encapsulated in their mourning. That’s where Da’Vine Joy Randolph excels in living, breathing, and transmitting all those emotions of a silently-suffering, grieving mother. Mary Lamb is not the average, tender, loving Mama Bear, she’s seen a lot, and put up with a lot to put her son through a decent educational route, one she couldn’t achieve when she was his age, only to have all her dreams crushed when he dies in the war. Randolph takes the pain and the imminent grief that her character is feeling to the core, making her chain-smoking adaptation to the situation, while watching the game shows and interacting with the other characters all the more impactful. 

1. Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers

How can a scriptwriter make a smelly, sweaty, bizarre-looking character lovable? How can you create sympathy without evoking disgust or ridicule? Giamatti turns Paul “Walleye” Hunham into one of the most compelling, truthful characters ever to appear on screen. Hearts break for him as he struggles with being a kind and honest person but having a repulsive air around him, a factor of contemptibility to his name that drives people away from him, even as he tries to connect with his limited social skills and working around his aversion to people and his general air of hostility. Giamatti breathes life and understanding through the role, and he depicts disappointment and self-pity in some of the highest movie scenes with such command of his tools as an actor that he doesn’t need to move to make audience members connect with him on a deeper emotional level. This is my favorite performance of last year without a doubt.

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