My Favorite Female 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 female lead performances of 2018:

1. Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline

I’ve said for months that I think this is the best performance of 2018. And this is Helena Howard’s first film. Which is nuts. She so utterly commands the screen here, you almost can’t believe what you’re watching. Truly I don’t think this movie would even be particularly watchable if not for the performance she brings to it. It’s stunning. There’s a weird mindset around this town that anyone — writer, actor, director — they do one first thing that’s amazing, and almost always it’s looked at as an audition to be passed. They never praise the actual achievement, they just want to put them in new stuff based on that. It’s maddening. But this is truly the best single performance I saw this year, and the fact that it’s just not even out there shocks me. (There’s always one every year. Never fails.)

2. Emma Stone, The Favourite

This is basically The Favourite x3. They’re all amazing. I’m splitting hairs when I choose between them. I’m putting Emma Stone first just because I feel like she’s got the most complex character of the bunch. Here’s a woman who has experienced trauma (not that the Queen hasn’t, but more on her in a minute) and is now doing literally anything she can to survive, which involves manipulating her way into status again. I think she does a fantastic job. To me, she’s the most impressive of the three. But again, six of one, half-dozen of the other.

3. Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Colman has the showy role, and of course most people would say she did the best. She gets to be the biggest of the three in terms of broadness of the performance. To me, that’s easier than what the other two had to do. Still, she is incredible here, and it’s worth noting. Also, I do quite like having this performance sandwiched between the other two. Fitting, given the story.

4. Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

She’s always good. Here, I’m not sure I saw anything that made me say anything other than, “Oh, it’s just Rachel Weisz giving a really good performance, as usual.” So she’s great, and deserves to be this high. I just… didn’t love her performance as much as I loved the other two. She’s still fourth, though. There’s a reason all three of them got nominated.

5. Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born

She’s only even fifth as a function of how weak this was for great female lead roles. So much of this is the role itself and so much of it is her singing voice, but since that’s part of the performance, it counts. I think the movie did her a tremendous number of favors in terms of how it shot her and edited her performance. So I’m not sure it’s a technical marvel as much as it’s a performance that total works in the context of its film. Doesn’t really matter, because she’s fully deserving of the accolades. I still think some people might be overrating this performance by thinking it being great also means it was great on a technical level… which it wasn’t. Mostly because of lack of experience. Still, it achieves everything it needs to achieve, and that voice of hers really goes a long way.

6. Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace

A lead performance that was pushed as supporting that everyone overlooked anyway. Honestly, putting three of these here in lead and not in supporting where they tried to get people to vote for them is the only reason I was able to get this list to 15. This was a bad year for female lead roles. And it sucks. But Thomasin McKenzie, only 18, delivers a performance that stands up against Ben Foster, who is no slouch. She’s the heart and soul of this movie, and is so utterly captivating. I really loved what she did here and wish more people saw the film.

7. Claire Foy, Unsane

She got all the notice for First Man, which, to me is a wasted “wife” role, where most of her scenes are spent giving her nominally something to do while she waits for her husband to come back from doing great things. Here, though, this is her showcase. She gets to play a woman who doesn’t seem totally well to begin with who may or not be full crazy. Or, she’s totally right and she’s just PTSD from a stalker (who may or may not be real). She gets to really show her acting chops here, and has the benefit of being shot by a cell phone, which makes the whole thing feel intimate and allows her to do things in such a way that they’re captured differently than they would be on a film camera. It heightens the performance in a lot of ways. And she’s really good here.

8. Toni Collette, Hereditary

It’s a really committed performance, even if I think the movie might be too nuts to fully work. But she’s going all in on this. And I appreciate her commitment to the role. It’s one where, I feel like she’s playing up the emotional resonance of the character rather than the batshit plot twists and actualities of the plot, which grounds it a bit. Though I also say that her performance is, partially, one of the funniest I saw in 2018. That second half, with the manic screaming and the faces, and then the last part… the head banging and the skittering through the air and the piano wire… I thought that was comedy. Still, she gives a great performance.

9. Amandla Stenberg, The Hate U Give

It’s a very impressive performance. She gives the standard YA performance, which you have to, and then she has to handle such more mature emotional themes, and deal with so many more complex moments than someone in a YA movie would have to pull off, and she does them fantastically. It’s a really adult performance. Which I hate saying, but since the point of this movie is that she’s a kid, does, I think, fit. You feel the journey of this character and she has to do more than most other actresses do in their movies, simply because of the fact that her movie is operating on two levels at once. I’m very impressed by her and I think she is and is gonna be a great actress in the future that everyone recognizes as such.

10. Charlize Theron, Tully

The dedication to this role is insane. The weight gain is one thing, but the overall demeanor. You look at her in this movie and just feel tired. This is one of those performances that everyone acknowledges as very good, but so few people would put high enough to want to really shout out at the end of the year. It’s worthy of it. Charlize is usually worthy of it.

11. Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Revenge

She’s just awesome here. One of the best action heroines I’ve seen in a while. America doesn’t do badass female action characters like this. She has to carry this movie, and she does. This is every bit as intense as The Revenant was. And she is the action heroine we need in our lives.

12. Kathryn Hahn, Private Life

She’s fantastic here. I never had a particularly high regard for her as an actress, just because I’ve only ever saw her in comedies. And usually bad ones. But she gives a hell of a dramatic performance here. I was leery for a time, but she really carries this one home. It’s a great piece of work, and I’m glad they did try to push her for awards consideration, because it is a performance that, were it an actress of more acclaim, might have actually gotten nominations.

13. Kiki Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk

She’s great here. It’s her first film, but you can tell that she’s a natural at this. The camera loves looking at her, and she is just captivating to watch. This is a tremendous performance in a tremendous film.

14. Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

She may never have a performance of note again. But this one is enough. It’s such a beautiful portrayal of a regular kid. She just feels real, which is probably the biggest compliment you can give a performance. Everything about it just felt totally natural. Really great job by her.

15. Viola Davis, Widows

She’s so good here. It’s part ensemble and part action movie, so what she does here can get overlooked. But she’s wonderful, and the moments she gets to “act” (which is almost a disrespectful term, I know), it really highlights the complexity of the character and her determination to not have it be just a one note “action movie” role. We know she’s always great, but here I think people aren’t realizing how great she really is. And I’m glad BAFTA nominated her. At least now some people have to reevaluate and look at the performance again to see how good she is.

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