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9 performances poised to take the film world by storm this fall

Playing ministers, mothers, and motel managers, these actors and actresses are leaving their mark.

Michelle Pfeiffer in Mother!, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, and Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project
Michelle Pfeiffer in Mother!, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, and Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

This is the time of year when critics start to toss around the phrase “Oscar-worthy performance” — probably far too often. Not every great movie performance is really worthy of an Oscar, and there are only 20 nomination slots available for acting at Hollywood’s biggest awards.

But even if a performance is unlikely to take home a statuette when the Academy Awards finally cap off the grueling awards season, it can still set audiences and critics aflame. Great actors don’t just deliver lines; they make you doubt reality for a moment. They let you sink so deeply into a character that you forget you’re “just” watching a movie. And when the awards season first gets underway in September, you never really know who will eventually turn up on awards ballots, anyway.

The recent Toronto International Film Festival — the traditional start to awards season — was a showcase for a lot of great performances, from veterans and newcomers alike. To note them all is a fool’s errand, but here are nine that we’ll still be talking about months from now.

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

McDormand plays a bereaved mother in small-town Missouri who has finally had it with America’s many injustices — its ineffective justice system, its racists, its hypocrites, its many men who do bad things and get away with them. So she goes down to the local advertising shop and rents three billboards for an entire year, to catch the attention of the local police chief and, ultimately, the entire town.

McDormand has long played women who aren’t messing around, from her past roles in everything from Fargo to Olive Kitteridge. She has a knack for telegraphing disgust and despair, and her laugh has an edge. Her Three Billboards character is the moral and emotional core of the film, and she bites into the role savagely while maintaining an undercurrent of grief-stricken pathos. It’s the kind of performance the term “tour de force” was invented for. As a bonus, the film nabbed the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award at TIFF, which should give her performance an extra boost.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in US theaters on November 10.

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.

The Oscars often favor performances in which actors undergo remarkable physical changes to play real-life characters, and Gary Oldman’s turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour is one such performance. Oldman takes on Churchill’s affect, vocal intonation, and jowls — while also infusing the role with humor and warmth. We know what’s going to happen, how Churchill will have to put his countrymen at risk to cut deals and make the government hum along; Oldman makes us feel the human cost of those decisions.

Oldman emerged from the fall festival circuit as a clear Oscar frontrunner, partly on the merits of his performance and partly because many people feel that Oldman is due. He’s been nominated for an Oscar only once before (for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), but his career is littered with other accolades and nominations, including BAFTA wins and a SAG nomination. He’s also a recognizable face in both mainstream and arthouse films. Will 2017 be his year? He may face strong competition — Daniel Day-Lewis, after all, will appear in a Paul Thomas Anderson film later this year — but playing Churchill may just give Oldman the edge.

Darkest Hour opens in US theaters on November 22.

Michelle Pfeiffer in Mother!

Michelle Pfeiffer in Mother!
Michelle Pfeiffer in Mother!

Even people who hated Mother! (and there are many) will have a hard time ignoring Pfeiffer’s performance in the film, in which she somehow embodies both Eve and the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden — a late scene in which she wears a rather reptilian bra is a dead giveaway, as is her persistent tempting of Jennifer Lawrence’s lead character. Pfeiffer is both sexy and terrifying, with a seductively aggressive performance that is bewildering in the best way.

Pfeiffer has previously been nominated for three Oscars — twice for lead actress (Love Field and The Fabulous Baker Boys) and once as a supporting actress (Dangerous Liaisons) — and admittedly her role in Mother! is probably too small, and the film too controversial, to propel her into such a competitive field. But even without awards, her performance is one of the most memorable (and meme-able) of the year.

Mother! is currently playing in theaters.

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sally Hawkins has been underrated for a long time, though she regularly works with eminent directors like Mike Leigh and Woody Allen. Her grin and her huge, expressive eyes lend an air of sweetness to the characters she chooses to play, who are often harboring some hurt behind an effervescently brave face.

In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Hawkins’ character Eliza is friendly, pensive, and mute. Taking the power of speech away from an actor is like strapping a basketball player’s arms behind his back, but Hawkins doesn’t seem fazed in the least. As she falls in love with a fish-man (yes, a fish-man), every moment of her performance is imbued with humor, warmth, and — as the movie progresses — more and more raw desire.

The Shape of Water opens in US theaters on December 8.

Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name

Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name
Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name.

Chalamet has been around for a while: He first caught attention on the Showtime TV series Homeland, and he played roles in Interstellar, Miss Stevens, and Men, Women, and Children. But 2017 is likely to be the year he truly breaks out. The 21-year-old actor appeared in three projects that screened at TIFF, including Hostiles, Lady Bird, and Call Me by Your Name.

That last film, from Italian director Luca Guadagnino, is the one that’s been getting all the attention. It’s a love story centered on two gay men; Chalamet co-stars with Armie Hammer (who himself sets the screen on fire), speaks Italian, plays musical instruments, and generally just turns in a stunning, layered performance in a role that’s equally about coming out and coming of age. Since Call Me by Your Name premiered earlier this year at Sundance, critics have been praising the poise and depth of Chalamet’s performance, and once the film hits theaters — alongside the two others — Chalamet will be a star.

Call Me by Your Name opens in US theaters on November 24.

Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project

Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project
Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project.

Who among us has not marveled and cowered at the gloriously craggy face of Willem Dafoe? His career is littered by villainous and villainously sexy turns in movies where he plays the most indelible and unforgettable element.

But casting him in The Florida Project as the gentle Bobby, manager of a flophouse motel not far from Walt Disney World, was a genius move. It lets him capitalize on an underused physical asset: his pair of wise blue eyes. Bobby is surrounded by kids and adults living on the brink of total ruin, and he has to put up with a lot; in the role, Dafoe makes the job seem more priestly than pecuniary. He embodies empathetic humanism, and if there is any justice in the world, he’ll be recognized in every awards lineup this fall.

The Florida Project opens in US theaters on October 6.

James Franco in The Disaster Artist

James Franco in The Disaster Artist
James Franco in The Disaster Artist.

Franco’s presence on this list isn’t a joke. He’s been parodied and pilloried by eye-rolling onlookers for years, but he’s a good actor. He brings energy and enthusiasm to every character, with a toothy and disarming grin and a predilection for roles that let him try new things, whether it’s acting essentially alone in 127 Hours or parodying himself in This Is the End.

He brings all of that dynamism and ebullience to his role in The Disaster Artist, which he also directs. Franco plays Tommy Wiseau, director of the famously horrendous cult favorite 2002 movie The Room. Wiseau is a bizarre figure in real life — an enigmatic kook whose accented, article-dropping syntax bears no real resemblance to anything known or heard prior — and Franco plays him to perfection; at a TIFF screening of The Disaster Artist, the real Wiseau even proclaimed his love for the movie. It’s a killer performance that manages to avoid caricaturing Wiseau and even brings humanity to him.

The Disaster Artist opens in limited US theaters on December 1 and wide on December 8.

Allison Janney in I, Tonya

Allison Janney in I, Tonya
Allison Janney in I, Tonya.

Janney has long brought her low voice and strong features to portrayals of smart, interesting characters, most famously the put-upon White House press secretary C.J. Cregg on the TV drama The West Wing. She is ordinary and gorgeous, fragile and cool, all at once. But until now, you wouldn’t typically call her a character actor.

That changes with I, Tonya, in which Janney plays Tonya Harding’s abusive mother LaVona with concentrated comedic power that hits you like a crumpled-up Coke can. Janney dons enormous plastic glasses and a mud-colored, bowl-shaped wig to play the character, delivering her “interviews” with a parakeet on her shoulder, and it all comes off as a revelation. And though she brings a lot of humanity to the role, Janney doesn’t exactly “humanize” LaVona; the character comes across as a monster, and Janney relishes that.

I, Tonya will open in limited release on December 8 and wide in January 2018.

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed
Ethan Hawke in First Reformed.

The pleasure of an Ethan Hawke performance is often based in his boyishness, which hasn’t gone away as he’s aged. Hawke usually retains the voice and mannerisms of someone who never quite ditched his youthful bravado, giving him a veneer that guards a deeper vulnerability.

First Reformed might be Hawke’s best work to date, and it’s certainly his most mature performance. As a pastor who is coming apart at the seams physically, mentally, and spiritually — but who’s journaling about it and trying to care for his tiny flock at the same time — Hawke lets fear bubble right up to the surface and occasionally boil over. As the pastor’s state of mind deteriorates, his composure remains placid — and yet when it finally breaks, we’ve somehow been expecting it all along.

First Reformed is awaiting a US release date.

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