My Favorite Male Lead Performances of 2017

Every January, I make myself pick out specific performances I loved from the previous year. I spend so much time talking about movies, but I don’t actually give credit to specific performances. The only time I’ll talk about them is when I’m going over the Oscars. Which isn’t the same thing.

The great thing about lists like this is that it forces you to consider everything. You immediately start thinking of the performances that are nominated for the awards. But if you consider each and every movie you saw from the year (and I did. All 400 of them), and think about how you really felt about all the specific performances, you’re gonna be surprised which ones you actually liked best. (Especially if you can be honest about it and don’t think about what’s already out there, which few people are willing to be.)

Today I’ll be covering all the male lead performances I loved. They’re in order, but they’re not really in any order. The numbers don’t matter. These are just the ones I enjoyed the most. We’re not talking about awards-worthy or whatever.

So here are my favorite male lead performances of 2017:

1. Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman is so great. I’m glad he’s finally getting his due with this one. The performance is really great. Sure, it’s a bit ‘obvious’, but great is great. There are moments where he fully disappears into the role and I forget I’m watching Gary Oldman play Winston Churchill. Not completely. Not like Daniel Day-Lewis does. But a few times. Which is more than most people ever get. It’s a great actor playing a great character giving the kind of performance we’d all expect. It’s not the sexiest number one (though this may convince you otherwise), but it is my favorite performance of the year. So who’s to argue, really?

2. Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

He’s so great. He’s so great in everything, but this — I am here for every moment of him being uncomfortable and fussy. The little brow furrows, and annoyed stares across the breakfast table. “The tea is going but the interruption is staying right here.” We know he’s always gonna be great, so seeing him in the top five of ‘best performances of the year’ is no surprise to anyone. The thing that sucks is that, if this is his last role, why did it have to be so good? It only makes us want to see him act more.

3. Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel Esq.

Denzel is one of those actors who works enough that he doesn’t feel overly choosy, but also doesn’t have enough credits that you don’t know them all. Since he won his Oscar for Training Day, he’s made 17 movies. So about one a year. And you can pick out which ones are the really good performances. Like, Oscar caliber performances. It’s Flight, Fences and this. Those are the three. Which is why I’m glad they nominated him. Because he’s so great here. This is the most un-Denzel performance I’ve seen him give in a while. It’s also the most committed I’ve seen him in a role in a while, too. He’s so good here, and it’s a shame that no one saw this movie, because they’re missing out on a truly fantastic performance.

4. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

This kid was in everything this year. Lady Bird, Hostiles. This is the performance, though. My god. It’s one of those performances that is so well-crafted throughout that once you get to those final twenty minutes, it really hits home. The best decision Luca Guadagnino made was letting that final shot play over the majority of the credits.

5. Hugh Jackman, Logan

I’d add The Greatest Showman to the list, but nah. I appreciate the effort, but the performance isn’t anything more than a “good job.” The beauty of this performance is that we had 17 years with this character, to get to know him, and love him. And now, they pull out all the stops and go full dramatic, in a movie that really surprises you with how much emotion it gets out of you. And central to that is Hugh Jackman’s performance. You often overlook the acting in a movie like this, but when you pay attention to it, he’s really giving you the goods. You feel every ache and pain and every ounce of loss and regret on his face. This is one of those situations where, yes, the 17 years plays a large part in the performance, but the work itself is really good.

6. James Franco, The Disaster Artist

It’s James Franco doing a spot-on Tommy Wiseau. There was almost no way this wasn’t making my top ten.

7. Robert Pattinson, Good Time

He’s so good here. He got a bunch of low level awards support, which was very deserved. He’s been quietly delivering really solid work the past few years, and this is probably the best work he’s ever done. He looks almost unrecognizable, and really makes you root for this guy who really isn’t that great a guy. I’m very impressed by his choices lately, Pattinson.

8. Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049

Tough performance to get kudos for, as he’s playing a replicant, which means emotion is not something he is supposed to show. But this is a hell of a performance. He tones down the “Ryan Gosling” of it all, not giving into all those instincts that can annoy some people. He endears you to the character by letting everyone else project onto him, and then there’s that slow burn to that great scene in the middle where he finally lets his emotion show. It’s a really solid performance that has gone very much under the radar in terms of acclaim this year. I’m a big fan of his work in this. In a way, it’s more impressive to me than La La Land.

9. Vince Vaughn, Brawl in Cell Block 99

Criminally underrated performance. This movie takes Vince Vaughn’s size and uses it to its advantage. They shoot him full frame, and they immediately turn him into this giant dude who can really fuck shit up. He rips a car hood off in the first ten minutes. And then they give him so much sympathy that you really want the guy to succeed. And then it just goes from there. Once the ‘action’ starts, you really feel like this guy is a brick wall. When he starts beating the shit out of people, you really feel like he’s capable of doing that. You don’t always feel that way about an actor, but here, you feel it. It’s a really great performance, one that shows a whole different dimension to Vaughn as an actor. Huge fan of his work here.

10. Richard Gere, Norman

How many years is it now that a Richard Gere performance ends up in my top ten of the year? He’s always doing these underseen, great little indies and giving these terrific performances. Here, though — within ten minutes, you understand this guy. You know exactly who he is, what he does, and can think of someone you know who’s like that. He rounds this guy out so well so quickly, and then you just watch as this guy gets great things happen to him (for once) and then as the screws start to turn as things go south. It’s really good. Gere is one of our most underrated actors, and delivers the goods once again.

11. Kenneth Branagh, Murder on the Orient Express

Why has this movie been so underrated all around? Branagh is playing an iconic character — even if you haven’t read the Poirot books or seen a Poirot movie, you know the character — and really does a fine job with it. He’s a world class actor, and brings the right sense of verve and tone to the character, making him well-rounded without being overly cartoony. Which is tough, considering the size of the moustache. But he pulls it off. The performance, not the moustache.

12. Idris Elba, Molly’s Game

Some might consider him supporting, I consider him lead. The dialogue does a lot, but it’s also Idris Elba delivering that dialogue, and that’s what counts. Also, that deposition room monologue is one of the best single moments I saw this year. That’s a legitimate showstopper where you stand up and applaud afterward.

13. Jeremy Renner, Wind River

It’s a very quiet, underrated performance. He accomplishes so much with looks and body language, which is a very underrated facet of acting nowadays. I’m generally not a huge Jeremy Renner fan (I like him, but I never particularly see greatness in his performances), but I was very impressed by his work here.

14. Charlie Hunnam, The Lost City of Z

Another actor I don’t particularly think much of as an actor, but he’s very good in this movie. An overlooked performance in a film that’s been criminally overlooked.

15. Kyle Mooney, Brigsby Bear

There’s just such a sweetness here that won me over. I didn’t really know him from SNL or anything, so I was really impressed by his work here. He handled the drama so well. You truly felt for this guy and all the stuff he’d gone through. I had other options for this spot, but I wanted to shout him out, because he brought such a pathos to the character that it needed and made the movie way more of a winner than it could have been in different hands.

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2 responses

  1. lacourseauxetoiles

    This is a good list. I personally wouldn’t consider Idris Elba a lead though. Most of the film is devoted to Chastain’s flashbacks, Idris Elba doesn’t have an arc that’s independent of Chastain, and he barely gets any screentime (I’m actually not sure if he gets any) without Chastain also being in the scene.

    January 30, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    • I agree. Elba may have the most recurring male role in Molly’s Game, but it’s still a few steps short of that borderline-lead range.

      January 30, 2018 at 9:20 pm

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