My list of the best movies of 2022 is still in the works. In the meantime, I figured a list of my favorite movie performances this year would be easier to compile. I was wrong, of course — not just because there are always more actors than movies to choose from, but also because actors so often do great work even in less-than-great movies.
In trying to sort through my favorites, I was reminded of how many terrific performances this year were given in tandem, by two lead actors who forged the kind of on-screen bond that goes beyond mere chemistry or rapport. I was reminded of this further when the British Independent Film Awards recently instituted a new category, best joint lead performance. It’s an inspired decision that acknowledges just how often excellence happens in pairs — not that you’d necessarily know it from some of this year’s more ridiculous Oscar campaigns, which like to bend the definitions of “lead” and “supporting” to suit their own convenience.
To suggest that, say, Carey Mulligan is of secondary importance to Zoe Kazan in the woefully underseen “She Said” — or that Brendan Gleeson is somehow supporting Colin Farrell in “The Banshees of Inisherin” — speaks to the mind-set of awards-hungry distributors reluctant to pit actors of the same gender directly against each other. Here it may be worth noting that BIFA is one of several organizations (including the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., of which I’m a member) that opted to switch to gender-neutral acting categories this year, another welcome if not uncontroversial departure from awards-season orthodoxies.
To accommodate as many personal favorites as possible (while still leaving out far too many), my own list features 20 actors who did extraordinary work this year. The first 10 stand alone; the second 10 are organized as co-leads.
Here are the first 10, listed in alphabetical order:
Cate Blanchett, ‘Tár’
For an actor who has incarnated English and Elvish royalty, impersonated Bob Dylan and Katharine Hepburn, and won an Oscar for channeling Ruth Madoff by way of Blanche DuBois, the role of a world-famous classical conductor might not seem the height of difficulty. But difficulty, always a misleading measure of acting greatness, has nothing to do with Lydia Tár’s allure. Plenty of actors could have studied piano, conducting and German to the level of technical fluency Blanchett achieves here; few could have invested Lydia Tár with the same otherworldly magnetism. This towering musical genius and ruthless manipulator comes to us fully formed; we hang on her every public and private word, her every flick of the pen and baton. And as Lydia’s world begins to crumble and her hold on reality falters, Blanchett somehow pulls us closer still, refusing to soft-pedal the character’s monstrosity — or her magnificence.
Dolly de Leon, ‘Triangle of Sadness’
Ruben Östlund’s poopy-pukey Palme d’Or winner divided critics, as any self-respecting provocation should. But few disputed the strengths of his actors, particularly Harris Dickinson and the late Charlbi Dean, who died a few months after “Triangle of Sadness” premiered. The revelation of the ensemble was De Leon, a veteran of the Filipino stage, as Abigail, a lowly cruise worker who survives a shipwreck and experiences two startling reversals of fortune. It’s De Leon who becomes the emotional fulcrum of Östlund’s topsy-turvy class satire, the one who exposes the hypocrisy of a world where people are valued solely according to their utility. Her performance is a triumphant rejection of that logic — lusty, commanding, hilarious and finally heartbreaking.
Danielle Deadwyler, ‘Till’
The impulse to wrest redemption from tragedy runs the risk of trivializing it, even when that tragedy is as historically monumental as the murder of Emmett Till. But by focusing on Mamie Till-Mobley and her clear-eyed activism in the wake of her son’s death, the director Chinonye Chukwu chooses not an easy way out but a principled corrective — one that would resonate less forcefully without the intelligence and gravity of Deadwyler’s performance. Deadwyler conveys the crushing weight of Mamie’s devastation, the kind that makes living another day seem impossible. But she doesn’t just show Mamie feeling; she also shows her thinking, wrestling with voices within and without, weighing the personal cost and the public benefit of every word she speaks. It takes a great actor to withstand a gaze like Chukwu’s, let alone direct that gaze back at the audience with the same unflinching power.
Colin Farrell, ‘After Yang’ and ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’
I could have easily slipped Farrell and Brendan Gleeson onto my co-lead list for “The Banshees of Inisherin,” so pleasurable and persuasive is their endless war of wills. But Farrell had such a remarkable 2022 (I could’ve easily listed “Thirteen Lives” and “The Batman”) that I would have been remiss not to single him out. Good as he is in “Inisherin” as a small-town farmer who can’t handle rejection, I like him even better in “After Yang,” in which he’s quietly affecting as a grieving family man navigating a morally uncertain dystopian frontier. You could hardly imagine two more different characters, but united by Farrell’s hangdog poignancy, they can’t help but emerge as brothers under the skin, both clinging fiercely to memories of better days in the face of unthinkable loss.
Daniel Giménez Cacho, ‘Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths’
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s labyrinthine semi-autobiographical fantasia isn’t the easiest movie to love or even to navigate. But as a journalist, documentary filmmaker and thinly veiled Iñárritu stand-in named Silverio Gama, Giménez Cacho proves an indispensable guide. With his bone-dry wit and grizzled good looks, he projects a world-weary charisma that can’t help but flatter his subject. But he also gives the kind of deftly underplayed, physically nimble turn that’s all too easy to overlook. Amid all the strange visions and memories swirling around him, it’s Giménez Cacho who must serve as the movie’s stabilizing presence, its coolly reactive center. And the center holds, beautifully: You believe Silverio, whether he’s staring down an ancient ghost, arguing with his teenage son or mourning an unshakable loss.
Mia Goth, ‘Pearl’
“X,” a languid homage to old-school ’70s porn and slasher flicks, was the richer of the two Goth-starring, Ti West-directed thrillers released this year. But it was in “Pearl,” a cleverly deranged prequel set six decades earlier, that Goth delivered the bolder, gutsier performance. Like a mash-up of Dorothy Gale, Carrie White and Norman Bates trapped in a radiant Technicolor fairy tale, Pearl longs to escape but also lusts for blood, and Goth nails those twin desires with a conviction that’s only magnified by West’s wildly stylized framing. With her red-lipped rictus grin, her eyes that can beam with earnestness one minute and deaden with murderous resignation the next, Goth makes a sublime demon, but she’s also a creature of irreducible pathos. “I’m a star!” she screams at the moment her dreams are ground into dust — and who would be foolish enough to argue?
Lee Hye-young, ‘In Front of Your Face’ and ‘The Novelist’s Film’
Lee was a fixture of the Korean screen in the 1980s and ’90s, and her two recent performances for the writer-director Hong Sang-soo constitute one of this year’s great comeback stories. One of them, “In Front of Your Face,” winkingly overlaps with her personal experience: Her character, Sang-ok, is a long-dormant actor eyeing a possible return to the screen, for reasons known to her and her alone. In “The Novelist’s Film,” she plays a successful author, Jun-hee, who’s looking to try her hand at writing a short film. Despite their shared sense of creative possibility, the two women are utterly distinct — Sang-ok is gentler and more open to the moment, while the more aggressive Jun-hee bends circumstances to her will — but Lee invests them both with great delicacy, acerbic wit and a laugh that can convey both scorn and sorrow. (The comeback continues: Keep an eye out next year for her superb latest collaboration with Hong, “Walk Up.”)
Jack Lowden, ‘Benediction’
The English veteran and war poet Siegfried Sassoon isn’t the kind of famed biopic subject who inspires acclaim for how perfectly a performer has nailed his appearance or speech patterns. But in Terence Davies’ achingly sympathetic portrait of a writer wrestling with his art, faith and sexuality, the astoundingly versatile Lowden (“Fighting With My Family,” “Dunkirk”) brings us into intimate communion with someone we instinctively recognize: a man whose gift for language makes his reputation and brings him into a circle of friends and lovers, but can’t shield him from the anguish of rejection and loss. Lowden’s own gift is for making hesitation both legible and compelling; his Siegfried is a wordsmith but not always the most outspoken man in a room, a passionate lover and fierce antiwar protester who doesn’t always know what he wants. His emotional disintegration in the final moments is a shattering benediction indeed.
Anamaria Vartolomei, ‘Happening’
The particular urgency of Audrey Diwan’s searing adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s novel stems from its evocation of a time and place, 1960s France, whose laws forbidding abortion are clearly far from a thing of the past. But you feel the urgency most acutely in Vartolomei’s extraordinarily eloquent, often wordless performance as Anne, a young woman who seeks to terminate her pregnancy, and who refuses to succumb to hopelessness even at her moment of gravest despair. Vartolomei’s piercing eyes register every diminishing, inevitably gendered slight, whether it comes from the judgmental women in her school dorm or the scornful male doctor who throws her out of his office. These are cruel setbacks. But as we can see from the determination in Anne’s step and her utter refusal of the shame that society tries to heap upon her, they are not the end of her story.
Michelle Yeoh, ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
Frenetic by design but also to a fault, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s inventive multiverse-spanning action extravaganza isn’t an unequivocal triumph. Yeoh’s performance, however, very much is. As the many, many different faces of Evelyn — and not just faces but bodies, all of them in glorious motion — Yeoh revels in the dazzling martial-arts prowess that has made her one of Asia’s biggest action stars, but she also demonstrates the emotional agility — and delicacy — that her audiences and critics have often taken for granted. For that reason, I could’ve easily slotted her and the terrific, resurgent Ke Huy Quan among my favorite co-leads, given not only how superbly and contrapuntally their performances fit together. But in the end, this is Yeoh’s movie, and she stands — and kicks and chops and leaps and soars — alone.
The next 10: Brian d’Arcy James, “The Cathedral”; Eden Dambrine, “Close”; Rebecca Hall, “Resurrection”; Bill Nighy, “Living”; Aubrey Plaza, “Emily the Criminal”; Jeremy Pope, “The Inspection”; Andrea Riseborough, “To Leslie”; Franz Rogowski, “Great Freedom”; Léa Seydoux, “One Fine Morning”; Maya Vanderbeque, “Playground.”
And here, in alphabetical order by movie title, are the best co-lead performances of 2022:
Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal, ‘Aftersun’
Charlotte Wells’ memory piece tells the story of a girl and her dad on a quietly life-changing summer vacation. It’s a fragmentary story, filtered through layers of imprecise recollection and unresolvable longing. But Mescal (“Normal People,” “God’s Creatures”), with his boyish vibes and flinty gaze, and Corio, an astonishing 12-year-old discovery, make profound sense of their characters’ fast-changing bond without spelling out every nuance. It’s the most believably low-key father-daughter relationship the movies have given us recently, and also the most wrenching.
Park Hae-il and Tang Wei, ‘Decision to Leave’
Park Chan-wook’s “Vertigo”-kissed detective thriller is such an extravagantly detailed piece of filmmaking that you may not even notice the actors at first. But as a whip-smart police detective and the beautiful femme fatale who upends his life, Park Hae-il and Tang Wei perform the year’s most subtly riveting dance of desire. Watch the movie again — it’s built for repeat swoonings — and catch the confusion and desire wrestling beneath his professional veneer, and the tenderness beneath her siren-song magnetism. They give this tale of thwarted longing its human pulse and its devastating payoff.
Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall, ‘Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.’
You can all but smell the desperation wafting off Lee-Curtis and Trinitie Childs, two scandal-ridden prosperity-gospel hucksters trying to salvage their Black megachurch empire in Adamma Ebo’s formally slippery satire. But beneath the bright-colored suits and pricey church-lady hats, Brown and Hall locate one of the year’s most searingly intimate marriage stories, in which what looks like a pitiful attempt at damage control becomes its own anguished — and in its way, admirable — declaration of faith. Brown wittily masters the art of pastoral bluster; Hall is simply stunning as a woman who sees the painful truth about her marriage — and defies anyone to criticize her for sticking it out.
N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan, ‘RRR’
S.S. Rajamouli’s ferociously entertaining anti-colonialist blockbuster has infectious dance sequences, outrageous stunts and computer-generated wild tigers, none of which would be half as engaging without Charan and Rao's ride-or-die bromantic chemistry. Any individual set-piece would have qualified them for this list, whether it’s the daringly acrobatic rescue mission that first brings Bheem (Rao) and Raju (Charan) together, their spellbinding “Naatu Naatu” song-and-dance number or the moment their bodies all but fuse into one ruthlessly efficient killing machine.
Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun, ‘Vortex’
Pitiless yet tender, Gaspar Noé’s latest split-screen death trip follows an aging, ailing Parisian couple through their final days. His two superb leads — Argento the legendary Italian horror director, Lebrun the luminous French star of “The Mother and the Whore” — are themselves expressions of purest cinephilia. They’re also wrenchingly persuasive as two people entering the void — and watching as life, love and memory slip away.
The next five: Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon, “Both Sides of the Blade”; Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton, “The Eternal Daughter”; Daniel Craig and Janelle Monáe, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”; Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”; Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, “Nope.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.