It's pleasant to think, in a year in which seven of the top 10 highest grossing films were CGI fests (with two more animated), actual human performances still count for something toward a film's viability (if not financial success).
Amid a field of tentacles, ray blasts, swooping capes, and giggling little yellow people, these very un-digitally enhanced depictions of characters thrown into one extreme or another stayed with me long after the film ended. Sometimes secret identities don't have to involve a heroic alter-ego.
Reasonable minds can agree that Cate Blanchett ("Tár"), Michelle Yeoh ("Everything Everywhere All at Once"), and Brendan Fraser ("The Whale") were excellent, and remain worthy Oscar favorites, but you likely already know about them. While we're here, I would be remiss if I didn't also give a significant shout out to Eddie Redmayne ("The Good Nurse"), Aubrey Plaza ("Emily the Criminal"), Bella Ramsey ("Catherine Called Birdy"), Park Hae-il ("Decision to Leave") and Bill Nighy ("Living"), each of whom were equally wonderful and also belong on such a list.
That bit of business taken care of, let's dig a bit deeper and find some brilliant individual performances you might not have caught already.
Christopher Abbott/Margaret Qualley, "Sanctuary": Here I am, already breaking the rules, but there was no way to celebrate one of these performances without the other. In Zachary Wigon's absorbing two-hander, Abbott and Qualley play a wealthy heir to a fortune, and a hired dominatrix, respectively. A covid-era drama, written by Micah Bloomberg, it sounds as if it would exemplify the worst of the limitations of the form -- two characters, one setting, lots and lots of talking -- but such talking!
Even with whip-smart dialogue flashing back and forth, and inspired camera work from DP Ludovica Isidori, the film would remain mostly inert without sterling performances from its pair of leads, and Abbott (long underestimated, to my mind) and Qualley both shine. Their roles are intended to be slippery -- they play various power games, taking turns deceiving each other before finally getting real near the end -- but the actors manage to keep them compelling and sympathetic even as they're obviously lying through their teeth at each other. It's billed as an erotic interrogation, but the sexiness in the film isn't from excess nudity or simulated copulation -- it's from two deeply hidden characters finally revealing themselves to each other.
Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, "Holy Spider": Zar Amir-Ebrahimi won the Best Actress award at Cannes, where Ali Abbasi's film premiered last year. Since then, the supremely talented actress has garnered a series of further accolades, and very deservedly so. As the anchor to the dark-as-pitch true-crime narrative, involving a serial killer in Mashhad waging a deadly jihad against female prostitutes in the city, and the intrepid journalist (Amir-Ebrahimi), who uses herself as bait in order to get him captured, Amir-Ebrahimi's character provides the faint glimmers of hope through the muck. Whereas Abbassi's film weighs pretty heavily on the subsequent trial (and execution) of the killer in its final act, the first two belong to the fiercely intense young actress, who portrays a character very much squirming against the oppressive thumb of the conservative, male-dominating regime. We aren't given much about her character's backstory, other than she has been forced to speak out for herself previously, and at great cost to her career, but her piercing gaze and keen intelligence, along with her world-weariness, convey to us most of what we need to know.
Dale Dickey, "A Love Song": Chances are high you've seen versatile Dickey in a variety of roles -- she has been in everything from "Winter's Bone" and "Iron Man 3" to Amazon Prime's "A League of Their Own" and "Hell or High Water''-- but rarely, if ever, has she had a chance at a leading role like the one she got in Max Walker-Silverman's directorial debut. She certainly makes the most of the rare opportunity.
As Faye, the hard-edged widow who agrees to meet an old high school flame at a remote Colorado camping park, Dickey is absolutely riveting. Blessed with a face whose every wrinkle indicates a past history of sorrow and struggle, she gives Faye a weight and substance that feels genuine and organic. Her loneliness is palpable, only fluctuating when her old flame (Wes Studi, also excellent) finally shows up. It's clear she's put every remaining erg of hope into this encounter, which makes their every interaction even more fraught with tension. Dickey presents a master class on saying everything she needs to about her character while barely making a sound.
Rebecca Hall, "Resurrection": Actors tend to flock toward roles that offer a significant back-story, and why not? It's what most thespians are already trained to do in formulating their performance: What happened to this character in their past that has made them turn out this way?
In Andrew Semans' barn-burner of a psychological thriller, Rebecca Hall plays Margaret, a character whose psyche was more or less destroyed by a conniving, manipulative older man (Tim Roth), in a sadistic relationship in which she was asked to do increasingly difficult and self-damaging "kindnesses" for him, at the growing cost of her soul. When he suddenly reappears in her life, many years later, putting both Margaret and her teenage daughter (Grace Kaufman) at risk, she is forced to take direct action. Hall's performance, equal parts nervy, desolated and pugnacious -- pinging brilliantly off the creepy malevolence that Roth fairly oozes -- creates such a full-dimensional picture of her once-shattered heroine, you feel her every sharp intake of breath having to confront the malevolent male demon who almost cost her everything.
Paul Mescal, "Aftersun": Playing a character whose motivations and emotional state are almost fully submerged is a difficult and delicate operation. Show too much, even by a hair, and the audience will know more than they're meant to; tamp it down too much, and they'll be an inexplicable cypher. In Charlotte Wells' tender drama, Mescal plays a young father, taking his 11-year-old daughter on holiday at a Turkish resort. She is oblivious to what might be going on with him, and Wells' film impressively keeps his situation very close to the vest.
We're given slight clues -- his choice of reading material, maybe, or a shot that lingers a bit long as he stands outside on the veranda, smoking -- but much of his emotional life is hidden away. That Mescal is able to balance his performance enough that it feels devastatingly believable despite his relative silence is nothing short of a marvel.