My Favorite Male Lead Performances of 2018

So here are (finally) my favorite performances of the year. We have our Oscar nominations already, so this will either be exactly in line with those or very much opposed to them. I generally figure this stuff out as I go, since it’s all about what I personally feel to be my favorite. That’s the point of the article (look at the title).

The point of these lists is the same as when I post the Underrated and Underseen films of the year — I just want people to discover cool stuff. I mean, sure, a lot of the time we’re all in agreement on what the best stuff is, but you might look at my list and see something you wouldn’t anywhere else. And then you seek that out and think, “That was really great. I gotta tell people about that.” That’s the goal. It’s all about seeing cool things and sharing cool things.

As I say, they’re in order, but they’re not really in order. The numbers don’t matter. I liked these efforts the most. And it’s just about what I liked, not about awards or anything else.

Here are my favorite male lead performances of 2018:

1. Christian Bale, Vice

This one is simple — I thought I was watching Dick Cheney for like, half the movie. You just forget that it’s Bale. And when that happens, you gotta rate the performance highly. Especially for me. It’s remarkable. Bale is an actor who commits himself fully to a role. And this one — jesus. Or Satan, as he said. You know this performance is amazing because they didn’t need to include that scene where he’s shirtless and didn’t have to point out how much weight he gained. Because that would have taken your attention away from the fact that IT’S DICK CHENEY ON THE SCREEN. I thought the comic nature of the film would lessen his shot at an Oscar. Nah, he’s gonna run away with this. This is a pretty undeniable performance, say what you might about the film.

2. Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

Another one. I had to make it #2 because legitimately, I thought I was watching Freddie Mercury on that Live Aid set. I questioned how up front the teeth were (not that they felt false, just that they called so much attention to themselves) at the beginning and whether or not the film was doing the performance any favors. But honestly, at the end, it was Freddie Mercury. So here we are. I have to consider that one of the best performances of the year because it did its job.

3. Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

I am very particular about Italians on screen. I grew up around Italians. I know when they’re cartoon characters. And here’s the thing — this performance… it’s part cartoon character. But the trick to it is… they are. The kind of guy this guy is… he’s part cartoon character. And Viggo knew just how much to include and how much to not. So I was wary at the beginning just how cartoonish it was gonna be, and then I just lost myself in it. It totally worked. Any issues I have with the character are not in the performance. Viggo is incredible here. He makes the guy big but real. Maybe to some people he’s overdoing it. Not to me. It’s got a Hollywood polish on it, but it’s not too big.

4. Mahershala Ali, Green Book

He’s gonna get nominated (and probably win) in Supporting, but this is a lead performance. Half this movie is just the two of them on screen. So you have to call him a lead. And he matches Viggo, step for step. Arguably he has the easier role, because he gets to be off-screen for parts and build his character that way. But it doesn’t diminish what he does with it. You understand this man completely, and it’s quite wonderful. This is a two-hander of a movie and it would have been a much lesser movie if not for the two performances.

5. Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

I’m so impressed with Bradley Cooper. The direction alone is impressive, but the performance he gives too — it’s a complete performance. You totally get this guy from the first ninety seconds. And he does not allow him to look or sound good. The most he does is let him be happy for a minute. That’s it. This is a really controlled and dynamic performance. And again, my only issues with it are with the writing (namely in that third act. Pretty much everything after SNL). Cooper really drills down on this guy much more so than anyone else has ever done in this role. They’ve done flashy “acting” and have been very good, but this is the first time we saw the full depths of despair of this guy, and I’m really impressed.

6. Ryan Gosling, First Man

He carries the movie with his eyes. That’s worthy of inclusion on this list. So much of what he does (and doesn’t do) has to give you insight as to who this man is, and it works. It does. It makes what could have been a generic space movie much more interesting, especially in the moments when the sound design and cinematography don’t do the job for him. And it’s the moments where he lets his emotions show that really work. Gosling is one of those guys who got lost in the “cool” character that happened after Drive. But when he goes back to the quiet performances (Place Beyond the Pines, Blade Runner), you realize just how good he is. This movie rests on his performance (and Damien Chazelle’s direction). And the route they took in telling this man’s story is a really impressive one, and puts forth a performance that’s so understated that people might overlook it as being incredibly simple and dismiss it. I am not.

7. Hugh Jackman, The Front Runner

I have been marveling all season at how just utterly ignored this movie has been. Hugh Jackman, by the way, this, Logan, Prisoners, Les Mis — you forget how great he is when he’s not doing the big budget stuff. Dude’s a really great actor. Here, he completely embodies this guy in such a way that I totally understood who the character was. You get where his strengths and weaknesses are and you feel like he’s just reacting in the moment to the stuff presented to him. Which I know sounds obvious, but it’s really hard to do that on screen and seem normal. I know people in life who can’t properly react to something because it sounds like they’re just looking to say their next “line,” so to speak. Apparently at the end, when they shot that moment where he talks to the media, Jason Reitman told him, “Just go out and take questions,” and let Jackman just do it without any prep. That’s the sign of a strong performance. And apparently he did so much research into it that he wanted to be able to, at any moment, dip into a conversation about all of this guy’s actual policies and platform no matter what the situation was in the movie. I know that’s not necessarily part of the performance, but it also is. Dude came prepared, and it’s a great performance in the sense that you completely see a man who cannot understand why this is all happening to him, because he can’t see why his flaw matters. It’s great, and deserved so much more attention than it got.

8. Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting

I was blown away from the minute I saw this movie. I saw a trailer before something and didn’t really have expectations for it. The trailer looked fun, and I knew the movie kind of was there, but I just didn’t expect the weight and force of this movie to hit me the way that it did. And Diggs cowrote it. I’m not gonna say this is the most technically sound performance of the year. It’s not. But it doesn’t have to be. You feel it. You feel everything this guy is going through, and whatever feels rough in terms of the acting is way overcome by the fact that it’s one of the most emotionally gripping performances of the year. And honestly I wish this year were slightly weaker for lead performances just so I could shout about how he deserved to be nominated. Not that he wasn’t deserving or that anyone would listen anyway, but still, he’s great, and it always just felt like, as much as I loved the film and his performance, it was always just out of range for me. Still, this is a movie that everyone owes it to themselves to see immediately, and this is one of the best performances of 2018.

9. Robert Redford, The Old Man & the Gun

Some of this is the fact that it might be his last performance. But also… he’s a master. He’s just the best, Redford. He’s made it look effortless for almost 60 years. This is one where you just sit back and watch the man do his thing. And if this is the last one for him, it’s a hell of a note to go out on.

10. Nicolas Cage, Mandy

I’m just glad that the Cage I want to see is back. He’d been worrying me over the past few years. I had Army of One to tide me over, but I needed the good Cage. The Bad Lieutenant Cage. The nuts Cage that’s in a completely controlled environment. The man is a weapon, and when you properly aim it, you really get something special. Maybe I’m mixing the wrong metaphors here. Still, he’s incredible here. That bathroom scene alone… not to mention THE LAST HALF OF THE FILM WHICH IS JUST FUCKING MAYHEM. The fact that I can put this man back on this list makes me happy. (And he has two other crazy performances this year, in Mom and Dad and Between Worlds, neither of which hold a candle to this one but are worth mentioning. Not to mention the fact that he has the single greatest line of 2018, in Into the Spider-Verse, where he says “I like to drink egg creams, and I like to fight Nazis.”) This man is a true artist, and it’s about time we all got back to remembering that.

11. Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate

There’s something quietly extraordinary about this performance. I really liked how the movie and Dafoe handled it. It doesn’t overdo it (like, admittedly, Kirk Douglas did. Though it’s a different era and that performance was strong for its time), and just gives you a portrait of this man, struggling like any artist. It’s Dafoe at his best, and I’m glad he just got recognized with a nomination for it.

12. Ben Foster, Leave No Trace

Serious question — is Ben Foster ever not good? I never fully appreciated him until Hell or High Water. And even that took multiple watches. I saw what he accomplished with that character that I didn’t fully notice the first time I watched the movie, and it really clicked for me just how good he always is, and how easy he makes it look. Here, he’s just amazing as a guy so deeply broken and utterly uncomfortable around others. Quietly one of the best films and the best performances of the year.

13. Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here

I thought this was gonna be some generic action movie when I first heard about it. I thought it would be cooler than usual, but I didn’t expect a hell of a lot. Man, was that an incorrect assumption. Joaquin never lets me down. Even when (if, I should say) the movie isn’t great (which, of his recent stuff, is really only just Mary Magdalene and Irrational Man), he’s usually doing something interesting with the performance. This is one… the performance is deceptively simple. But he’s really doing some great stuff with this guy. You think the editing and the direction are doing a lot of the work for him, but he’s holding up his own. Also, shout out to his Sisters Brothers performance, which is also quite fantastic.

14. Lakieth Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You

I think he does a really great job of handling the heightened nature of the reality of the film, both grounding it with the performance and also rising to the level of “what fucking universe is this?” I think he really threads that needle and has been one of our better actors these past few years. I hope he gets more roles that stretch him over the next few years that show us what he can really do, because I suspect, it’s a lot.

15. Jack Black, The Polka King

He’s so awesome here. He’s been delivering solid, unheralded performances for over a decade now (people forget how good he is even in Tropic Thunder, alongside so many other people who are great in that). He doesn’t do that many movies, so most people don’t really pay attention. But he’s good at this. Here, the accent could overwhelm everything, but he doesn’t let it. It’s really good stuff. There’s a lot of great dramatic work being done in what is ostensibly a comedy. More great roles for this man, please.

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