The year is half over and as expected, we already have some great performances to talk about. Many of those lay in independent films, arthouses but there are some performances in bigger films that deserve to get talked about. Some of these may be remembered at the end of the year by awards voters, and some will unfortunately be forgotten, but they all deserve a mention.
Since film distribution can vary from country to country, the films in the list are the ones that had their first theatrical release this year in the film’s country (or one of its countries) of origin. That’s why you won’t see “High Life,” “Shadow” and some others while seeing some films that probably haven’t yet been released in your country. Here we go.
10. Matthias Schoenaerts – The Mustang
“If you want to control your horse, you’ve got to control yourself.” One of Sundance breakouts, “The Mustang” is a beautiful, quietly moving work directed by first-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. It’s about the bond between a hardened prisoner and a wild horse.
The movie has somewhat of a predictable nature (well, maybe except that beautiful final shot) and comes up slightly short if you compare it “The Rider” of the previous year, but what makes this work is its honest portrayal of that aforementioned bond and character development.
Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts has been shining in movies since his 2011 breakout “Bullhead” and here he is terrific once again. Schoenaerts plays a prisoner who serves in a Nevada prison set against desert and mountains. He is placed in a rehabilitation program run by rancher named Myles (the excellent Bruce Dern) who assigns prisoners to train with wild mustangs.
It’s not a film full of dialogue and it doesn’t have a complex plot, but its poetic tone is involving enough. And Schoenaerts’ fully committed work makes the film even stronger. Even when his character is quiet and well-behaved, he vibrates with a dangerous energy that portends disaster. That had always been one of the strengths of Schoenaerts. He can play the sensitive man, and he can be menacing as well.
9. Olivia Wilde – A Vigilante
Olivia Wilde always deserved somewhat of a better career. She gets some strong parts in independent movies from time to time and she has a very solid filmography overall, but her roles can be pretty thankless. This year, thanks to critical reception, she got a lot of attention for her surprisingly showy directing work in “Booksmart,” but most people unfortunately overlooked her great performance in “A Vigilante.”
From its title, you may expect some kind of “Death Wish,” but it’s a different kind of film surely to disappoint some, mostly because it’s not your average revenge movie and its pacing and tone might not be for everyone. It’s also a tough and uncomfortable watch for its subject matter.
As for Wilde, she goes through a serious transformation into a woman who suffered physically and morally for the very serious abuses she endured. She’s a lone-wolf vigilante who helps mostly female victims of abuse to escape using force and asks for almost nothing in return.
Wilde’s portrayal is incredibly effective. Her character often faces panic attacks and Wilde balances her character’s feelings in an impressive way. You may have watched and liked what she had done in “Booksmart” this year, but “A Vigilante” will remind you that she’s capable of doing so much more as an actress as well.
8. Mads Mikkelsen – Arctic
Joe Penna made his name on YouTube with a channel dedicated to music and short films. He has also shot commercials and for his first feature film debut, he chose himself the right actor.
Survival films can be a great acting showcase for their stars; Tom Hanks, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Robert Redford, the list goes on. Now Mikkelsen gets a chance to carry a whole film on his shoulders with a steel charisma, expressing the relentless tension of the suffering, anguish, and desperate perseverance of his character.
Those in search of an explanatory narrative will find no flashback on his past life, neither family photos nor a monologue in voiceover specifying the circumstances of the plane crash of which he was a victim, but his facial expressions speak more than any monologue would. He loses hope, he regains it, he uses all of his strength. “
Arctic” has some other strong things going on, most notably its setting and impressive cinematography, but if anything makes the film memorable, that’s definitely Mikkelsen’s commanding performance. You know nothing about him but he still manages to find so many layers in his character that it makes you feel involved. Absolute testament to Mikkelsen’s talent.
7. Isabelle Huppert – Greta
It may not be a great movie, but nevertheless, “Greta” offers some enjoyment for those who loved ‘90s stalker thrillers. It doesn’t go to unpredictable places much and the payoff doesn’t feel satisfying, but in general, it’s kind of fun.
Mainly because French legend Isabelle Huppert chews the scenery and it’s just fun to watch her. Huppert admits that she never “played a psychopath” before. Greta’s actions are so over the top that it eventually influenced how both she and Jordan handled the character in key moments.
In the scene where Greta plunges a fatal syringe into a man’s neck surrendering to the essence of evil, Huppert improvised and did the first thing that came to her mind: She danced. And things like that are what make the performance unpredictable and deliciously entertaining. No wonder the studio decided to release the restaurant scene as a promotional clip first.
One would wish the film would do even more with the character and since it was already over-the-top, they could go a little more camp with this and give Huppert more material to do so. That said, it’s still a wonderful work and a reminder of her impeccable versatility. An honorable mention should also go to Maika Monroe in a very fine supporting performance. She deserves to get better parts in the future.
6. Elisabeth Moss – Her Smell
It may not be an easy film to watch for everyone, it can even be exhausting for some, but no matter what you’ll end up thinking of the film, most of the people can agree on one thing: Moss is riveting in it.
In the first three segments you feel like you’ve suddenly found yourself among the group of people you have no idea about. It makes it hard to relate, but Moss is such a force of nature that you can’t take your eyes off of her and you feel fascinated by her screen presence and raw performance.
The last act is more conventional; there’s one moment where she just sits and covers Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” and it may be one of the most haunting, gorgeous moments of the year. It takes a level of confidence that not many actors have to pull off a character like this. Absolutely exceptional work and something that we haven’t seen from her. Considering she was also brilliant in a scene-stealing turn in “Us” this year, it seems she’ll keep on amazing people with her versatility.