The onset of fall means, as it does every year, that film critics and awards prognosticators are once again tossing around the phrase “Oscar-worthy performance.”
Not every great movie performance is really worthy of an Oscar, of course — and there are only 20 nomination slots available for acting at Hollywood’s biggest awards. But great performances are always worth watching, even if they don’t end up on year-end lists during awards season. 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.
The recent Toronto International Film Festival — the traditional start to awards season — was once again a showcase for a lot of great performances, from both veterans and newcomers. It’s impossible to note them all, but here are nine we’ll still be talking about months from now.
Brian Tyree Henry in Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk
In the two short years since he emerged onto many people’s radar with his role as rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles on the FX series Atlanta, Brian Tyree Henry has become an actor to watch. He’s been nominated for multiple Emmys (for Atlanta in 2018 and This Is Us in 2017) and a Tony (for the Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero), and he’s starting to look like a contender on the big screen too, working with two of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors in films that screened at TIFF.
In Steve McQueen’s Widows, he plays a political candidate with a lot of righteous anger and many shady secrets. And in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, he has a short but memorable scene as a friend of the film’s two protagonists who gives a searing, devastating monologue about his time in jail. In both, Henry’s range is considerable, and his screen presence is absolutely magnetic.
Sam Elliott in A Star Is Born
As it turns out, the 2018 version of A Star Is Born is a vehicle for three stars. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who play the film’s two protagonists, have electric onscreen chemistry, and they turn in fine-tuned performances. (It seems very likely that Cooper, at least, is headed for a Best Actor nomination.) But whenever Sam Elliott shows up onscreen — in a supporting role as Cooper’s character’s much older brother and manager — he’s all you can look at. It’s the perfect role for him: gruff, reserved, and wounded, with a deep core of care. (In fact, Cooper based his own character’s voice on Elliott.)
Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk is stacked with talent, but newcomer Kiki Layne, tasked with carrying the film through both narration and her onscreen performance, is a revelation. Her portrayal of Tish — a pregnant 19-year-old who’s trying desperately to exonerate her love, Fonny, after he’s unjustly accused of a crime — is both vulnerable and steely, determined and hurting. This is Layne’s first big-screen role, and it seems to indicate that she’ll go very far.
Robert Pattinson in High Life
Robert Pattinson spends a sizable stretch of High Life in a spaceship with only a baby as a scene partner, and that might be the most conventional part of the movie. Pattinson plays a death row inmate who is sent into space to serve as a subject of experiments that are hard to understand; it’s a wild premise, and one that fits the actor’s recent proclivity for tackling challenging portrayals with innovative directors (in this case, French director Claire Denis). He’s the film’s moral center and its backbone, and a large part of what holds it all together.
Ryan Gosling in First Man
Ryan Gosling’s performance as First Man’s reserved Neil Armstrong is studiously understated; he doesn’t say much, and when he does, it’s often after several beats of silent contemplation. It’s not a typical role for Gosling, more muted than even his brooding performance in 2011’s Drive. But First Man is Armstrong’s story, and the film often pulls in tight, relying on Gosling’s eyes to convey every emotion, from grief and fear to love and determination. Whether a performance like this attracts as much attention as other, showier performances during awards season is yet to be seen, but it’s a great onscreen turn nonetheless.
Viola Davis in Widows
There’s a wealth of talent in Widows, but Viola Davis, as always, is like a bolt of lightning that rips through the screen. She leads the cast as a grieving and vulnerable widow who digs deep to find strength after her husband dies, only to discover that everything about her new life is much more complicated than she thought. Her role in Widows calls for her to display every kind of passion, and Davis is more than up to the task.
Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me
Melissa McCarthy stars in Can You Ever Forgive Me? as a misanthropic, lonely writer fallen on hard times, and she is splendid in the role. But it’s Richard E. Grant’s performance that will you leave you eager to see anything he appears in. Grant plays a flamboyant stranger named Jack whom McCarthy’s character meets in a bar; his devil-may-care attitude is at first a foil, then a pleasure, and then an irritant to her, and you can understand it all, since all those qualities are embedded in his buoyant, occasional maniacal, always delightful performance.
Yalitza Aparicio in Roma
Yalitza Aparicio stars in Roma as Cleo, a housemaid who left her village to work and live with a family in Mexico City. It’s a difficult role since for much of the film, Cleo is too timid to exercise much agency — but that’s the point. In Aparicio’s performance, Cleo’s evolution from withdrawn to mature, spurred by grief and loss, is authentic and heartbreaking, and her laugh, when it shows up, is infectious.
Joanna Kulig in Cold War
Joanna Kulig plays a young Polish singer in Pawel Pawlikowski’s decades-spanning romance, and it’s the sort of performance that instantly signals you’re watching a star. Her character is required to be impish, scandalous, depressed, and in love, sometimes all at once, and Kulig has the sort of screen presence that’s impossible to tear your eyes away from, whether she’s singing, weeping, dancing, or staring into the abyss.