Film

The 17 Most Overlooked Performances of 2017

In a just world, these would be serious awards contenders

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2017 has been a good year for actors. But beyond those awards contenders that we’re already kind of tired of hearing about, there’s a whole category of overlooked performances from this year that didn’t get even close to enough love. That’s overlooked, not underrated. These are not those highly touted turns that are probably going to just miss out on Oscar nominations. Nor are they widely beloved and discussed critical favorites that didn’t quite catch enough buzz. These are those performances that are among the greatest of the year but that almost nobody is talking about — either because the movies weren’t big or successful enough, or the parts weren’t showy enough, or the names weren’t famous enough. Let’s right some wrongs. Here are the seventeen most overlooked performances of the year.

Hiroshi Abe, After the Storm

He gave a monumental lead performance in one of the year’s absolute best films, and nobody is talking about him because ours is a civilization beyond redemption. As a failed novelist and deadbeat dad trying finally to put his life back together, Abe gave possibly the most human performance of any film that I saw this year; that is to say, his was the one that most effectively combined those conflicting impulses and feelings — pride, shame, contempt, jealousy, love, devotion, weakness, determination — that convey the sheer emotional chaos and confusion of trying to make our way in the world. This is a man who is at once too proud to take a manga writing gig but too depressed to actually write that next “serious” novel. He’s a gambling addict who understands his weakness yet can’t resist passing it along to his son, because it allows him to connect with the boy. Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of the world’s great directors, but if After the Storm works — and oh boy, does it work — it works because of Hiroshi Abe.

Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, Félicité

It’s amazing that the French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis pretty much handed over his film to an actress making her first onscreen appearance, but it sure as hell paid off. As a down-on-her-luck singer and single mom struggling to save her son after a horrific bike accident, the Congolese performer Beya is front and center for almost all of Gomis’s remarkable, riveting Félicité, and every setback and triumph, every offense and approach, registers on her face, often in close-up. The story could easily have lent itself to overt tragedy or melodrama, or even a thriller: It is, after all, about a mother racing against the clock in a desperately impoverished milieu. Instead, Beya grounds the film in lived-in reality, even as she also adds a dose of otherworldly magic to the proceedings through her musical performances.

Matt Bomer, Walking Out

Very few actors can make a character who spends most of a movie wounded, helpless, and dying this interesting. But as the manly father whose annual hunting trip with his son goes horribly awry, Bomer brought stoicism, anguish, and a weird grace to Alex and Andrew Smith’s sad survival drama. He has to show disbelief, disappointment, rage, and, eventually, pride — all while rendered mostly motionless and covered up in winter gear. It’s a role with a deceptively high degree of difficulty, and Bomer nails it.

Adam Driver, Logan Lucky

Yes, yes, he was great as Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi and all that, but Driver was both laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly touching as the soft-spoken, dim-bulb, Iraq vet bartender/robbery sidekick to his brother Channing Tatum in Steven Soderbergh’s cut-rate Southern-fried heist flick. Part of Logan Lucky’s charm is in presenting familiar faces in atypical parts — hence, Daniel Craig as a sleazy, twangy, fast-talking imprisoned bank robber, Tatum as a schlubby layabout, etc. Everybody was great, but Driver is the one who looks like he is doing exactly what he should be doing. “I don’t care how many dramas he does, Driver’s angular face and protruding ears are built for laughs,” April Wolfe wrote in her review of the film, and I couldn’t agree more. Adam Driver is one of our great comedic actors. (And pssst, that’s also why he’s so good as Kylo Ren.)

Michael Fassbender, Song to Song

As Cook, the sleazy record producer who brings Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling’s star-crossed lovers together and then tears them apart in Terrence Malick’s ethereal Austin-set romantic drama, Fassbender brought real charisma and vulnerability to the part of a hedonistic snake. In the director’s allegorical world, Cook is a constant nemesis, destroying everything he touches — including a young waitress (Natalie Portman) whom he marries and then debases. But he’s also superbly charming, and there’s real hurt in there somewhere. He might function in the film’s moral vision as an absolute evil, but Cook also clearly realizes that he’s more screwed up than everybody else in this movie.

Adèle Haenel, The Unknown Girl

The Dardenne brothers’ latest, about a young Belgian doctor obsessed with the mysterious death of an unnamed African immigrant near her office, got a very quiet release here in late summer after premiering at Cannes last year. Maybe it made so few waves because it felt more like a thriller than the Dardennes’ previous works. (There’s always been a healthy streak of suspense running through their narratives.) Or maybe because it wasn’t as emotionally satisfying as those earlier, wildly acclaimed triumphs. But this was a movie about the very inability to connect, and the impossibility of emotional catharsis. And as the doctor whose compulsion to learn more about the dead girl leads her to reflect on the limits of her own power, Haenel was mesmerizing in an extremely difficult role. Her character desperately wants to hang on to her idealism about the community she lives in, and yet everything she discovers seems to suggest that the social fabric has already been torn beyond repair.

Jason Mantzoukas, The House

The Judd Apatow/Gary Sanchez style of modern comedy is one built on a kind of remorseless, perverse honesty. So much of the humor in these movies demands characters who act and speak without any kind of filter; what they do and say is funny because it’s so often predicated on things that are rolling around in the deep recesses of our minds as well. As Frank Theodorakis, the recently divorced and deeply humiliated neighbor who inspires suddenly broke empty nesters Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler to start a casino in his giant, empty McMansion, Mantzoukas is a whirlwind of bad ideas and hilariously wounded pride. The performance is so energetic that we can’t tear our eyes away from him, even though we really, really should be looking away. But under its colorfully grotesque surfaces, The House actually hints at darker truths about the American Dream. And while Frank is a walking nightmare of a man, deep down we’re all kind of worried that we might become him someday. (Should I be saying any of this out loud?)

Sienna Miller, The Lost City of Z

To be fair, it’s not like Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson — who are both astounding in James Gray’s gorgeous historical epic of exploration and obsession — are getting much awards love either, even though they totally should. But the more I watch this film, the more I’m impressed with Sienna Miller’s performance. She takes a classic throwaway part — the wife left behind, outwardly supportive but secretly wary of her husband’s wanderings and distraught at his faraway predicament — and turns it into something almost mystically complex. She’s an independent-minded woman in an era that had no use for such people, and in her own way she makes his obsession her own — a transformation that is fully complete by the film’s final scenes, which pretty much belong entirely to her.

Cillian Murphy, Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece is seen even by many of its admirers as primarily a feat of direction and technical wizardry — and understandably so. But it’s also filled with terrifically physical performances, in particular Murphy’s haunted turn as the character known only as the “Shivering Soldier” — a British officer whom we first meet alone and cowering, shell-shocked, against the propeller of a sunken ship. As the film develops, we learn more of his story, but more importantly, we get to see him still try to exert his authority even as his mind and body clearly continue to fray. Watch him try to convince Mark Rylance to steer his small boat around and turn away from the beach at Dunkirk: The broken Murphy is practically concave at this point, and yet he still tries to maintain some semblance of the officer he once was. It’s heartbreaking.

Aubrey Plaza, Ingrid Goes West

In a just world, Aubrey Plaza would be a shoo-in for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Full stop.

Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus

OK, I’m cheating a little bit here: Richardson isn’t entirely unsung. She did get a Gotham Awards nomination for Best Actress for her part as the restless architecture-buff/library worker who connects with melancholy visitor John Cho in director Kogonada’s otherworldly drama about love, loss, and modernism in the Midwest. But dear lord, that’s nowhere near the level of acclaim this young actress deserves for her performance. Columbus is an outwardly chilly but ultimately quite powerful film in which architectural forms take the place of emotions; that sounds insane, but Kogonada actually pulls it off. And Richardson’s subtle performance is key to the film’s effect. In her we sense the constant conflict between protective reserve and tender longing: She’s someone who’s incredibly curious about the world, and full of passion, but is afraid to show it because she’s convinced herself that to leave this town would destroy her troubled, junkie mother. The character, like the movie, is expert at hiding her emotions, but we can sense that they’re there, hovering just under the surface.

Amy Ryan, Abundant Acreage Available

Hard to believe, but this is the first leading role Ryan has ever had in a film — previously she’d done pretty much all character parts. But she’s enormously affecting in Angus MacLachlan’s rural drama about a North Carolina woman who realizes that, in the wake of her father’s death, her ultra-religious brother wants to give away the family farm to its previous owners. Ryan’s Tracy has spent her whole life living in the shadow of men, and she has been a caretaker so long that, for all her outward toughness, she at first doesn’t quite know how to stick up for herself. That quiet tension within her drives this lovely little movie. (To read my interview with Ryan, go here.)

Ia Shugliashvili, My Happy Family

I am definitely not shutting up about this movie, my favorite of the year and a sad denizen of the Netflix graveyard. And I am definitely not shutting up about this performance. As Manana, the middle-aged Georgian wife and mother who decides that she just wants some peace and quiet and a home of her own, Shugliashvili has to give a performance that is equal parts exhaustion, hope, and bewilderment. This is the kind of film in which you can completely lose yourself, and that requires a performance that is at once wholly naturalistic and completely commanding — two modes that are often in opposition to each other.

Sareum Srey Moch, First They Killed My Father

Playing young Loung Ung, who was just five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, first-time actor Sareum’s watchful, tense performance lies at the heart of Angelina Jolie’s masterful true-life war drama. Despite the tragedy of her story, this is not a deeply emotional turn — at least, not until the film’s final reels — but rather one that is true to the experiences of the real Loung, who was forced to go from childlike ignorance to hardened survivalism, bypassing sensitivity along the way. The tears come later, and in the film’s shattering finale, this performance passes from the riveting to the sublime.

Sebastian Stan, I, Tonya

I don’t much care for I, Tonya; the lazy stylization bugs me, and I was neither moved nor enlightened by the film’s wink-wink, no-you’ve-got-it-all-wrong politics. (My colleague April Wolfe had a decidedly different take; read her excellent review here.) But it is extremely well-acted. Margot Robbie has been justly acclaimed for her lead performance. So, too, has Allison Janney, who does wonders with a mostly one-note character. But the real revelation here for me was Stan, Captain America’s own Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes, sporting a deadly ’stache and giving life to Harding’s soft-spoken abusive sociopath loser husband, Jeff Gillooly. Stan is one of those actors who often disappears into a part, but not always in a good way; I usually forget about him completely. But here, he took the character of Gillooly — a future first-ballot-first-year-of-eligibility inductee into the Asshole Hall of Fame — and made us feel something for the man.

 

Lakeith Stanfield, Crown Heights

Stanfield had supporting parts in a number of notable films this year — including a memorable, though mostly brief, turn in Get Out — but he really showed what he could do as Colin Warner, the protagonist of this true-life drama about a Brooklyn teen who was unjustly imprisoned for a 1980 murder and spent more than two decades in prison, all the while claiming his innocence. Most stories of this type give us characters who are big with their emotions — as if the performances have to match the breadth of the injustices being portrayed. But Stanfield’s withdrawn, melancholy portrayal more accurately conveys the sheer overwhelming oppression of this kind of brutality. And it also presents us with a man determined to preserve his humanity, even as everything is taken away from him by a system designed to preserve itself at all costs. (To read Lara Zarum’s profile of Stanfield, go here.)

Miles Teller, Only the Brave

Joseph Kosinski’s real-life firefighting drama — one of the year’s great ugly-cry movies — was completely forgotten at the box office, which is a shame. (Even the detestable Geostorm, which opened the same week, did better.) The film actually contained a whole host of wonderful performances — from Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly to Jeff Bridges and Taylor Kitsch. But onetime wunderkind Teller was the true standout, playing a part quite far from his comfort zone — a melancholy pothead and perpetual screwup trying to set his life straight after learning he has a kid on the way. Always exhausted, never quite right in the head, but quietly driven, Teller’s character, Donut, eventually becomes the beating heart of this movie, and he also gets what might be its most devastating moment, right near the end. We all knew Miles Teller could act, but Only the Brave showed us the awesomeness of his range.

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