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The Top 25 Performances of 2018 (So Far)

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We’ve already talked about the best movies and TV series of the year here at CoS, but whenever this bi-annual time of year rolls around, we find ourselves struggling to pare those lists down. There are endless excisions of films and series we loved, to say nothing of those that maybe weren’t favorites of ours but had strong bright spots that stood out, even if the whole might have missed the mark. There’s so much great art coming out at one time that it’s often dizzying to try and catalogue it all, but we thought we’d take one more shot at it before moving on with the back nine of 2018. When it comes to film and television, to recognize great art is, most of the time, to recognize great actors, and man alive, there are a lot of great actors out there.

The list you’re about to read has allowed us to show love to some of the performances that stood out to us this year on screens big and small alike, from the broadest and most delightfully scene-stealing work to turns of uncomfortable candor and rare emotional honesty. There are comic turns and searingly dramatic ones, playful indulgences and terrifying transformations. There are even two duet performances so good that to recognize one half of the duo without the other would seem wrong — and it’s our list, so fuck it, we’re cheating. There’ll be a little something for everyone, or so we hope, so without any further preamble, we submit our top 25 performances of the year, so far.

–Allison Shoemaker and Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
TV Editor, Film Editor

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25. Claire Foy

Claire Foy Unsane hospital gown

The Film: Unsane
The Director: Steven Soderbergh

The Performance: On the heels of her star-making turn as Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s The Crown, Claire Foy branches out into grimier territory as the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-filmed thriller, Unsane. As a woman coerced into an involuntary stay in a psych ward, Foy manages to expertly juggle a host of tactics to get out – from smiling compliance to aggressive hysteria. As Unsane’s world unravels, so too does Sawyer, with Foy filling every closeup with unspeakable dread. —Clint Worthington

Also Great: Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah

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24. Rachel McAdams

Game Night Disobedience Rachel McAdams

The Films: Game NightDisobedience
The Director: Steven Soderbergh, Sebastián Lelio

The Performances: To anyone paying attention, the news that Rachel McAdams gave not one but two of the year’s best performances will come as no surprise. What’s so delightful about this particular pairing is how different these roles are, making clear, through contrast, the extent of McAdams’ significant powers. In Game Night, she’s an ebullient force of nature, so committed to the ludicrous given circumstances that a dance with a gun she thinks is fake can be both giddily funny and low-key terrifying. In Disobedience, she shows us a woman whose life is a familiar, well-practiced lie; while the (also excellent) Rachel Weisz shows us a woman falling apart, McAdams gives us a glimpse at a tamed and silenced truth that needs only the slightest bit of encouragement to come racing out. Brava. —Allison Shoemaker

Also Great: Game Night: Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons. Disobedience: Rachel Weisz, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser

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23. Brandon Victor Dixon

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert Brandon Victor Dixon

Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC

The Show: Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert
The Directors: David Leveaux, Alex Rudzinski

The Performance: It takes a lot to stand out next to mega-star John Legend, but as Jesus Christ Superstar Live moves into its second half, that’s precisely what Brandon Victor Dixon does. His tortured, confused Judas steals the show, Dixon stunning the, at times, overly involved audience into silence with his emotional acapella and raw, vulnerable performance. A Broadway vet, Dixon has the chops for Judas’ notoriously difficult musical numbers, but it’s the strength and intimacy of his acting that sets him apart. –Kate Kulzick

Also Great: Sara Bareilles, John Legend, Norm Lewis

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22. Hayley Atwell

Howards End Hayley Atwell Starz

Photo: Starz

The Show: Howards End
The Showrunner: Director Hettie Macdonald, writer Kenneth Lonergan

The Performance: “So often I feel we live chattering away at the edge of a great abyss,” Margaret Schlegel tells her sister in the second episode of Kenneth Lonergan’s adaptation of Howards End. Part of what makes Hayley Atwell’s turn as Margaret so unforgettable is that abyss or rather Margaret’s sense of it. In Atwell’s predictably capable hands, Margaret’s defining characteristic is empathy — a keen awareness of the thoughts and feelings of those around her, of the turnings of the world, and of her own shortcomings. Hers is a performance that crackles with intelligence, but what emerges is not the flash of a bolt of a lightning or the roar of a blaze, but the slow, constant warmth of coals left burning. As with nearly everything Atwell touches, this Margaret, and thus Howards End as a whole, is quietly and almost unbearably full of life, abyss or no abyss. —Allison Shoemaker

Also Great: Phillippa Coulthard, Julia Ormond, Joseph Quinn, Alex Lawther (the last also great in The End of The F***ing World)

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21. Emily Blunt

A Quiet Place Emily Blunt

The Film: A Quiet Place
The Director: John Krasinski

The Performance: A Quiet Place makes a convincing case that if there’s one person you want by your side during an apocalypse, it’s Emily Blunt. As a mother trying to give her family a sense of normalcy in a world where monsters hunt by sound, Blunt turns in a largely silent and frequently wordless performance. Yet she effortlessly conveys her character’s compassion, intelligence, resilience, fear, and impressively high pain tolerance. —Caroline Siede

Also Great: Noah Jupe, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds

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20. Tessa Thompson

Tessa Thompson Annihilation Dirty Computer Emotion Picture

The Films: AnnihilationDirty Computer: an Emotion Picture
The Director: Alex Garland, Chuck Lightning

The Performances:  Each of the five women who head into Annihilation’s Shimmer does astonishing, visceral work, bringing Alex Garland’s lyrical yet nightmarish world to life one tremor at a time. Were this just the Annihilation slot, Tessa Thompson might get the nod anyway — her Josie Radek is an open wound walking, not so much crying for a tourniquet as a cut far past the point of healing. But throw in her work in Janelle Monáe’s “Emotion Picture”, aired on BET and MTV to accompany the release of Dirty Computer, and she leaps ahead of an excellent pack. As engaging as she is in each of the album’s videos in which she appears, she’s even better in the scenes that pepper the film, drawing viewers into the story of a woman confronted by evidence of a life, and a love, stripped from her mind against her will. —Allison Shoemaker

Also Great: Dirty Computer: Janelle Monáe. Annihilation: Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh

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19. Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix You Were Never Really Here

The Film: You Were Never Really Here
The Director: Lynne Ramsay

The Performance: Lynne Ramsay’s first film in eight years spends little time attempting to make itself accessible. The story of an ex-military bounty hunter who specializes in recovering abducted young girls from sex slavery, You Were Never Really Here sees Joaquin Phoenix off into an absolute hellscape, an urban fugue of exhaustion, suicidal ideation, and the depths of human depravity. Joe doesn’t say much, but Phoenix puts an ominous weight behind every single lingering gaze. For such a charismatic performer, he removes much of the affect from Joe’s presence, leaving him a ghost wandering through the world in search of a reason to stay, with the weight of the horrible things he’s seen crushing him every moment of every day. He’s a trembling hand in human form, desperate for another one to settle over him and lead him back to the light. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Also Great: Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts

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18. Thandie Newton

Westworld HBO Thandie Newton

The Show: Westworld
The Showrunners: Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan

The Performance:  In Westworld’s increasingly cerebral second season, robotic host Maeve emerged as the show’s beating human heart. And that’s thanks largely to Thandie Newton’s breathtaking performance. Whether delivering a biting one-liner or silently processing a horror unfolding before her, Newton brings incredible emotional depth to Maeve’s relatively straightforward quest to find her daughter. In a season too obsessed with violent delights and violent ends, Newton manages to make a believable case for empathy being the greatest strength of all. —Caroline Siede

Also Great: Zahn McClarnon, Rinko Kikuchi, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood

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17. Justina Machado

One Day at a Time Justina Machado Netflix

Photo: Mike Yarish/Netflix

The Show: One Day at a Time
The Showrunners: Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce

The Performance: Remove “Hello, Penelope” and “Not Yet” from One Day at a Time‘s excellent second season, and Justina Machado would still have given a terrific performance as the heart of a sitcom that’s already pretty much all heart. (The heart’s heart? Just go with it.) But add in those two episodes — the former centered on Penelope’s struggle with depression and what it means for her future and her relationships; the second, a gut-punch of an episode with a six-minute monologue from Machado as its cornerstone — and that terrific performance becomes an instant all-time great. Looking for a masterclass in acing the multi-camera format? (cue horns) This is it! —Allison Shoemaker

Also Great: Rita Moreno, Todd Grinnell, Stephen Toblowsky, Isabella Gomez

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16. Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway Ocean's Eight 8

The Film: Ocean’s 8
The Director: Gary Ross

The Performance: Ocean’s 8’s most impressive heist is the way Anne Hathaway manages to steal it. After public perception turned against her for being too genuine (Hollywood is fun for women), Hathaway stepped away from the spotlight for a bit. But now she’s back with a vengeance. Following her stellar turn in 2017’s Colossal, Hathaway delivers a comedic tour de force as Ocean’s 8’s image-obsessed actress Daphne Kluger. It’s a blast to watch Hathaway mock her own public persona while getting the last laugh in the process. —Caroline Siede

Also Great: Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna

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15. Sterling K. Brown

Sterling K Brown This Is Us Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Photos: Ron Batzdorff/NBC, FOX

The Shows: This Is Us and Brooklyn Nine-Nine
The Director: Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, Dan Goor

The Performance: This Is Us has been such a dominant force in television drama since it started airing that it’s easy to forget that it’s only been around for two seasons — and two seasons is far too early for us to begin taking Sterling K. Brown’s excellent performance for granted. While in many ways, our second go-round with the Pearsons was dominated by Mandy Moore’s deeply felt work as matriarch Rebecca, Brown remains as solid and captivating a presence as ever. But this is a man who might nab three Emmy nominations later this month — for This Is Us, his stellar at-bat hosting Saturday Night Live, and, most delightfully, for an electric guest turn on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which saw him go toe-to-toe with Andy Samberg and the great Andre Braugher as the too-smart-for-his-own-good perp sitting pretty in “The Box”. —Allison Shoemaker

Also Great:This Is Us: Lyric Ross, Mandy Moore, Susan Kelechi Watson. Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Andre Braugher, Andy Samberg, Stephanie Beatriz

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14. Hugh Grant

Paddington 2 Hugh Grant

The Film: Paddington 2 
The Director: Paul King

The Performance:  Has there ever been a more delightful career about-face than Hugh Grant in Paddington 2? As the pompous, vain villain Phoenix Buchanan, Grant gleefully pokes at his past as a stammering romantic lead while stealing every single scene he’s in with that cheeky grin and expert timing. From his soliloquies to mannequins wearing costumes from his previous roles to that show-stopper dance sequence after the credits, Grant was the cherry on top of Paddington 2’s delectable marmalade sandwich. —Clint Worthington

Also Great: Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson

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13. Elisabeth Moss

The Handmaid's Tale Elisabeth Moss

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

The Show: The Handmaid’s Tale
The Showrunner: Bruce Miller

The Performance:  In lesser hands, the brutality of The Handmaid’s Tale could come off as toweringly self-indulgent. Luckily, the women of Hulu’s series — and Elisabeth Moss in particular — are not in possession of lesser hands. Moss’ time-jumping performance as June, a woman whose agency and liberties are being slowly stripped away and woman surviving the dystopian world that follows that turn, is a marvel. A steel of spine exists beneath even June’s most shattered moments, making hers a story of survival first and all else second. It’s that steel that makes the show’s darkness endurable, her performance indelible, and The Handmaid’s Tale essential viewing. With Mad Men, it became clear that Moss is one of television’s best, but this performance makes it plain that she’s among the greatest actors living. —Allison Shoemaker

Also Great: Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Yvonne Strahovski, Samira Wiley

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12. Michael B. Jordan

Black Panther Eric Killmonger Michael B. Jordan

The Film: Black Panther
The Director: Ryan Coogler

The Performance: A standout among stars, Michael B. Jordan shines in Black Panther as Eric Killmonger, the film’s deadly, wronged antagonist. His physicality, intensity, and alternating ruthless detachment and tender vulnerability make Killmonger arguably the best villain in the MCU. Jordan finds the humanity in Killmonger without ever apologizing for his brutality and rage, drawing the audience in with his incredible charisma and daring them to choose him over the privileged, princely hero. —Kate Kulzick

Also Great: Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, Lupita N’yongo, Letitia Wright

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11. Bill Hader

Barry Bill Hader HBO

Michele K. Short/HBO

The Show: Barry
The Showrunners: Bill Hader and Alec Berg

The Performance: One of the hardest things for a talented actor to do is portray a deeply untalented, insecure actor. What Bill Hader pulls off in the first season of Barry, then, is all the more remarkable: a terrific performance by an actor who’s only getting better with time, portraying a terrible actor who’s also, in his own way, a phenomenal liar. While it starts as something of a dryly funny lark, Barry eventually turns into a show about the point at which a person has crossed a line from which there’s no return, and it’s in so much of Hader’s halted speech that the show’s dualities emerge. There’s a man who wants to be good and sweet and simple somewhere inside him, and there is also an incredibly talented murderer who’s hardly above using that talent to pursue the former lifestyle in earnest. Hader finds multitudes in anxious trembling, and the natural, studied confidence that emerges from him when he’s at his very worst is truly unsettling. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Also Great: Henry Winkler, Anthony Carrigan, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root

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10. Brady Jandreau

Brady Jandreau The Rider

The Film: The Rider
The Director: Chloé Zhao

The Performance: Chloé Zhao’s remarkable feature draws so heavily on Brady Jandreau’s real life that at points, the film takes on a genuinely uncomfortable intimacy. Jandreau spends the film surrounded by his family and friends, but The Rider is at its most affecting when it takes a quiet glance at his real-life pain, as he struggles with the reality that age and injury may take away his ability to ride, and with it so much of his sense of self. The film grapples with masculinity in a more nuanced manner, considering the pain that informs so much chest-beating manhood in modern America, while simultaneously making that pain personal through Jandreau’s expressive, soulful performance. It’s as though he’s inviting you into his own life, in all its glory and agony, and you appreciate him all the more for it. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Also Great: Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott

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09. Charlize Theron

Tully Charlize Theron

The Film: Tully
The Director: Jason Reitman

The Performance:  In her second collaboration with Diablo Cody, Charlize Theron seems uniquely suited to putting a grounded, funny, yet deeply human face on the everyday problems women deal with as they get older. Theron’s wounded, exhausted mother of two aches with the burdens of new motherhood, finding moments of levity amongst all the pain. She’s complex and relatable without devolving into quirky stereotypes and creaky homilies, a mother who was a person before she was a mom. —Clint Worthington

Also Great: Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston

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08. Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke First Reformed

The Film: First Reformed
The Director: Paul Schrader

The Performance:  Ethan Hawke has had a fascinating run as a chatty, casual indie everyman – in First Reformed, the latest from Paul Schrader, he’s magnetic as a stoic, self-destructive priest drawn into the world of radical environmentalism, a man of increasingly shaky control of his faith and his drinking desperately searching for a way to make a difference. As Schrader’s latest iteration of Travis Bickle, Hawke gives the best performance of his long career. —Clint Worthington

Also Great: Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles (a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer), Philip Ettinger

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07. Michelle Wolf

Michelle Wolf White House Correspondents Dinner

The Venue: White House Correspondents’ Dinner

The Performance:  Despite years writing in late night, many Americans were unfamiliar with Michelle Wolf before her roast at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. No one was unfamiliar afterward. Wolf went into a difficult room and delivered a tight, pointed, and hilarious 20-minute set, taking clear and specific jabs at just about everyone in the room. From the Trump Administration to the press to the Democratic party, Wolf spoke uncomfortable truth to power and did it with style.–Kate Kulzick

More Great (and Significant) Standup: Cameron Esposito, Tig Notaro, Ali Wong, John Mulaney

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06. Darren Criss

Darren Criss American Crime Story Assassination of Gianni Versace

Jeff Daly/FX

The Show: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
The Showrunner: Tom Rob Smith

The Performance: Leave it to Ryan Murphy to spot that Glee’s teenage dream could also be The Assassination of Gianni Versace’s 27-year-old nightmare. There has perhaps never been a better match of performer and real-life subject matter than Darren Criss and serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Like Cunanan, Criss is a Filipino American with an inherently magnetic charisma. Whether sauntering into a house party in a red leather jumpsuit or coldly committing a brutal murder, Criss is as a hypnotic, heartbreaking, and, above all, terrifying anchor for the series. —Caroline Siede

Also Great: Penelope Cruz, Cody Fern, Finn Wittrock, Judith Light


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05. Brian Tyree Henry

Brian Tyree Henry Atlanta

Curtis Baker/FX

The Show: Atlanta
The Showrunner: Donald Glover

The Performance: In Atlanta‘s rookie season, Brian Tyree Henry broke out as Paper Boi, a late-thirtysomething come-up rapper whose lifestyle exists at odds with who he seemed to be as a person. He was dryly funny when he wasn’t fronting as a drug dealer, loyal when he didn’t have his own business to consider. In the second season, however, Henry’s characterization becomes all the more remarkable given the abstract paces he’s forced to go through before the hope of a better tomorrow can even start to emerge. Yet it comes at the cost of even more of his freedom, and particularly in the season standout “Woods”, Henry imbues Paper Boi with an increasingly exhausted regret. He’s in the life now, and he has a genuine shot at leaving so much of the bullshit of the old one behind, but the man who was Al before Paper Boi might have to stay back there with him. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Also Great: Donald Glover, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz

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04. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys

The Americans Keri Russell Matthew Rhys

Eric Liebowitz/FX

The Show: The Americans
The Showrunners: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg

The Performances: The Americans finished its run with brutal, unflinching honesty, thanks in no small part to the heartbreaking performances at its center. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ weary, strained performances give the final season its stomach-churning intensity and bring both the series and their characters to their inevitable tragic endings. Both Russell and Rhys deliver career-best performances and constantly elevate each other’s work, so instead of trying to choose between them, we celebrate them both, two stunning, nuanced, and impossibly subtle performers made all the better through their work together. —Kate Kulzick

Also Great: Holly Taylor, Noah Emmerich, Margo Martindale, Austin Abrams

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03. Laura Dern

The Tale Laura Dern

Kyle Kaplan/HBO

The Film: The Tale
The Director: Jennifer Fox

The Performance: Jennifer Fox’s feature debut, after years of documentary work, is so brutal and personal that some audiences could be forgiven for having to pass it by. Yet it’s a superlative work that anybody should be able to see, and a substantial part of its impact emerges from Laura Dern’s performance as Fox, who’s forced to reckon with the reality of her first sexual encounters as a young teenager and the ways in which they may have informed her life without her even realizing it. Dern’s work is devastating without ever coming close to being inappropriate or showy, as thoughtful and delicate as material of this nature deserves. Like the best performances, Dern takes the personal and makes it universal, without losing any of the intimacy that the first category deserves. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

Also Great: Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burstyn, Isabelle Nélisse

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02. Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh

Killing Eve Sandra Oh Jodie Comer

The Show: Killing Eve
The Showrunner: Phoebe Waller-Bridge

The Performances: The mild-mannered investigator and the charismatic sociopath: familiar archetypes made captivatingly new by Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in one of 2018’s best new series, Killing Eve. Setting aside the satisfaction of seeing women in these traditionally male roles, and of seeing Oh get the breakthrough lead role she’s long deserved, the real joy of the series is the detailed, utterly relatable nuances Oh and Comer bring to their potentially tiresome or quirk-laden characters. Both are strong individually, but it’s their crackerjack chemistry that elevates this fun, inventive series from entertaining espionage caper to can’t-miss thrill ride. —Kate Kulzick

Also Great: Fiona Shaw, Kim Bodnia

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01. Toni Collette

Toni Collettee Hereditary

The Film: Hereditary
The Director: Ari Aster

The Performance: “I am your mother!” Amidst all the supernatural goings-on and heart-stopping tension of Ari Aster’s Hereditary is a tale of familial grief and trauma, and nowhere is that undercurrent more intensely depicted than in Toni Collette’s bravura lead performance. Collette’s manic, slow-burn breakdown is incredibly striking, a woman barely holding it together amidst the destruction of her family follows the grand tradition of Mia Farrow, Ellen Burstyn, and other phenomenal ’70s horror mothers. —Clint Worthington

Also Great: Alex Wolff, Millly Shapiro, Ann Dowd

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