There are a lot of ways to judge a great performance. In 2023, as in every year, some of the year’s best movies were quirky, colorful, boundary-pushing challenges to the cinematic status quo, and some were low-key, emotionally intense stories, either tracking the lives of famous historical figures or just trying to evoke the pains of real life. Our list of the best performances of the year honors both extremes: outsized performances that tickled and surprised us, and realistic ones that made us forget we were watching a performance. Here are our favorites among the many great performances we saw in movies in 2023.
Srs roles, srs bsns
These are some of the more traditional dramatic roles on this year’s roster: Character work that felt moving and real, and that touched us in some way.
Lance Reddick, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a movie designed for strong performances. It all takes place in the course of one trial, mostly in a single room with a small cast and plenty of monologues. Humphrey Bogart, Eric Bogosian, and others have excelled in previous adaptations of the story, and this time, Jason Clarke and Kiefer Sutherland play the two main roles.
But the late Lance Reddick controls the movie from a relatively minor role, as head judge Captain Blakely. He brings an instant air of authority and fairness to the proceedings, asking probing questions and giving great consideration to the evidence laid out in front of him. It’s an excellent reminder of how skilled Reddick was, no matter the size of the role. He and director William Friedkin will be missed. —Pete Volk
Michelle Williams, Showing Up
Five-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams followed up her mesmerizing performance in The Fabelmans with a stark juxtaposition in Showing Up. In the former, Williams was the light and life of every room as Mitzi Fabelman. In the latter, she’s the dour, cynical sculptor Lizzy, beaten down by the realities of the art world.
One of the great joys of following an actor over the course of their career is seeing that versatility and transformation from role to role. No one embodied that more this year than Williams. It’s a powerhouse performance, and one that could not possibly be more different than her role in The Fabelmans. —PV
Greta Lee, Past Lives
One of the most brilliant parts of Greta Lee’s performance in Past Lives is also the subtlest. The tone of her voice shifts between English and Korean, a little effect that stemmed from Lee’s own way of speaking Korean. Like her character Nora, Lee emigrated when she was a child, so her Korean sounds very rudimentary, and she emphasizes that difference, all while seamlessly shifting between languages. It’s such a little detail, but one that really cements Nora’s character and her relationship with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) as a part of her past, a part of her that will forever be out of her reach. —Petrana Radulovic
Michael Fassbender, The Killer
Michael Fassbender’s performance in The Killer is one of the great straight-man performances of all time. The entire movie hinges on us not only believing that his character is a career hitman, and one who’s succeeded in the past, but also that he believes every word of his self-serious inner monologue. It would have been so easy for this movie to slip into self-parody or knowing irony, for Fassbender’s delivery to oversell the movie’s jokes or undersell its tension. Instead, his even-handed delivery remains perfectly measured every single time, like the practiced precision of a careful hitman having a very bad day on the job. —Austen Goslin
Rosamund Pike, Saltburn
In spite of how pervasive “eat the rich” content is at this moment, it’s hard to dial in a perfectly calibrated rich-person performance — unless you’re Rosamund Pike, who makes it look easy. In Saltburn, her frilly turn as the Catton matriarch Elspeth is the linchpin the movie circles around. She comes into rooms filled to the brim with maternal instinct and interest. But Pike’s aim is all venomous froth. Elspeth’s contradictions (and how those complexities trickle from wealth to her children) make perfect sense in Pike’s performance. She paints a rich person who feels all too real, and all too insidious — even if she never knows it. —Zosha Millman
Real people, real situations
Playing a historical figure isn’t always an act of imitation or re-creation, but it does open an actor up for an extra level of scrutiny, not just of their performances, but of their faces, bodies, mannerisms, and everything else. Without digging into that messy question of whether a given actor looks exactly like the person they’re portraying, we gathered some of the based-on-real-life performances that told the most compelling stories in 2023.
Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer
Was there a performance more iconic in 2023 than Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the alternately smug, struggling, suffering, and stoic face of the Manhattan Project? It’d be hard to argue there was. Without being showy about it, Murphy wraps this movie around his performance, bringing across the complexity of a man driven simultaneously by ego and patriotism, scientific curiosity and fear. —Tasha Robinson
Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla
Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me is so accurate to the book that it doesn’t feel like a complete movie: Like the book, it becomes a thin, rushed story in the third act. But casting Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla boosts the project considerably: She gives Elvis’ longtime live-in girlfriend a palpable vulnerability and desperation that’s almost painful to watch, and it’s satisfying to see that gradually harden into resolve as Priscilla moves beyond her teenage crush and starts seeing her neglectful, selfish partner clearly. —TR
Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon
One of 2023’s most indelible and painful stories comes from Martin Scorsese’s re-creation of the 1920s Osage murders. Lily Gladstone’s Mollie is the heart of the story, a helpless witness to the systematic murder of her family and tribe, and the crimes of her conniving, divided husband Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gladstone could easily come across as a weepy soap-opera victim here, but she gives Mollie such a deep well of pride and determination — and in the end, such a sense of weary, offended fatalism — that she ends up as the movie’s focus, stealing the show from the louder, broader performances around her. —TR
Penélope Cruz, Ferrari
Being depressed and difficult in biopics is common, but rarely are the results as transcendent as Penélope Cruz’s performance in Ferrari. Her Laura Ferrari is the first wife, a mother who lost her only son, a woman who is acutely aware of how much has been drained from her life. Laura’s bluster cannot be contained or compared. You can see it constantly etched on her face and in the way she carries herself — but nowhere is it more clear than when she visits her son’s grave. Where Enzo Ferrari sits and speaks, Cruz simply communes, commanding a whole story with just a twitch and a tear. —ZM
Glenn Howerton, BlackBerry
Glenn Howerton’s spent years being huge, ridiculous, and hilarious on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, so it’s no surprise that he’s fantastic in one of his first high-profile film roles; it’s just a shame that the movie around him isn’t better. Howerton’s Jim Balsillie is a machine built for pure rage and frustration, but no one else in the movie can match his fury or meet him in the middle for the melodrama the film sorely lacks. As soon as Howerton finds a dramatic role where the actors and the movie don’t wilt around him, he’s going to do something really special. —AG
Double features, triple threats
These are cases where we’re nominating one person for multiple 2023 performances, or multiple people from one 2023 movie.
Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth, Infinity Pool
Credit where credit’s due: Infinity Pool is the only movie in 2023 to feature Alexander Skarsgård on all fours, barking like a dog. This is not to say he seemed incapable of it; Skarsgård is a chameleon with the range to play a self-assured businessman in the same year he’s a submissive animal.
But there would be no brilliance in Skarsgård’s performance without Mia Goth’s turn as the sicko holding the leash. Together, the two of them are toxic impulses personified, the barking dog and the owner screaming obscenities from the hood of a car through a megaphone. Those descriptors are pulled credibly from the movie, a testament to the strength of their performances. They’re pillars of perversion that swirl into utter madness. —ZM
Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt, Oppenheimer
Oppenheimer is a movie about perspectives — primarily, as the title suggests, the perspective of “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). It’s the reason we get mere glimpses into the lives of people like his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), or his other love interest, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). And yet both these women make their roles speak more strongly than their screen time suggests. They’re two sides of the same brassy coin, imprinting their strong wills on Oppie and showing how he came to be, without losing the sense of their own worlds. Their scenes and their influence are indelible, making Oppenheimer who we know him to be. —ZM
Amie Donald and Jenna Davis, M3GAN
The sentient, titular robot with Renesmee’s eyes in Blumhouse’s runaway horror movie could’ve been just a CGI joke. But thanks to Amie Donald’s foreboding presence and Jenna Davis’ perfectly calibrated voice acting, she’s the perfect blend of comforting, formidable, and eerie. In their hands, M3GAN feels like she genuinely could be a real product, and a real problem. Robot details can be hard to pin down, but Donald gives M3GAN’s walk an uncanny realness, while Davis’ voice is all cheery menace without modulating too much. All that and she has a killer dance routine. HAL 9000 wishes! —ZM
Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers
Quite possibly 2023’s best ensemble piece, The Holdovers never comes down to one performance: It’s all about how the three central characters respond to each other. Boarding school professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and angry young-adult student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) are unexpectedly stuck together for the holidays, with Mary and Angus grieving fresh losses, and Paul quietly hanging on to old ones. They’re each by turns prickly, mournful, and manic, but the entire film hangs on the moments where they open up and are kind to each other, and they each get a chance to show a lot of range and pull focus in this remarkably evenly balanced movie. —TR
Jamie Foxx, They Cloned Tyrone and The Burial
One of our great versatile movie stars, Jamie Foxx shone in two very different movies this year. In Juel Taylor’s impressive sci-fi satire debut They Cloned Tyrone, Foxx is the smooth-talking hustler Slick Charles, the uproarious comic relief of the genre-bending movie. The movie’s blooper reel is essentially five minutes of Foxx making his castmates laugh, and rightly so.
A few months later, Foxx displayed his Oscar-winning dramatic chops in the true-story legal drama The Burial, playing magnetically charismatic lawyer Willie E. Gary. Both roles are flashy, but show different sides of him. Foxx’s Slick Charles is constantly making quips and asides, but his intended audience is typically himself. Gary, meanwhile, controls every room he’s in, winning cases by making himself the star of the show. Both are terrific reminders of how versatile Foxx is, and how his charisma helps every one of his movies shine. —PV
Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall and Zone of Interest
Playing the wife of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss is not a rewarding role, but Sandra Hüller finds a gear that suits the movie perfectly. She imbues Hedwig Höss with a very specific kind of selfish parent human-ness that feels recognizable to anyone, then shifts imperceptibly to the movie’s most casually sadistic behavior, gleefully vulturing confiscated fur coats and makeup. It’s a stark contrast to her far more sympathetic but still complex role in Anatomy of a Fall, as a woman who may have killed her husband and betrayed her son — or may be the victim of an overzealous, smarmy prosecutor. Her performance leaves both options open for debate, without robbing her of dignity and humanity. —AG, TR
Charles Melton and Julianne Moore, May December
Netflix’s knotty movie about the relationship between an older woman (Julianne Moore) and a much younger man (Charles Melton) — loosely inspired by the tabloid-friendly case of Vili Fualaau and Mary Kay Letourneau, whose affair started when Fualaau was 12 — rises and falls solely on the cast, and how they balance a potentially repellant relationship with the complicated considerations at work. Moore’s prickly, needy role could drive away any sense of sympathy, but Melton helps make her seem like a real and reasonable person, while adding his own layers of need and frustration to the story. It’s a riveting movie that revolves around the two of them and how they function together. —TR
All the supporting boys, Oppenheimer
Oppenheimer weaponizes star power like few movies ever have. The parade of names that accompany the movie’s many scientists and generals is nearly impossible for all but the most die-hard Manhattan Project scholars to follow, particularly when the action reaches Los Alamos. So instead of fretting over the audience keeping everyone straight, director Christopher Nolan deployed an armada of stars who couldn’t wait to work with him and let their famous faces tell the story instead. You don’t even need to know that it’s Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, or Jack Quaid as Richard Feynman, or Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence; all you need is a lot of compelling men to bounce off of Cillian Murphy’s brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer fast enough for the movie’s exceptional chain reaction to continue. —AG
Comedies and oddballs
The comic performances we loved in 2023, plus a few unusual edge cases.
Mark Ruffalo, Poor Things
One of 2023’s silliest performances, Mark Ruffalo’s vamping as self-identified sophisticate cad Duncan Wedderburn in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things is an end-to-end delight. After a decade of watching him playing dialed-down sad boy Bruce Banner in MCU movies, it’s absolutely delicious to see him busting out his comedy chops in a character that’s initially mannered and fancy, eventually manic and screechy, and stays lusty and schemey throughout the whole film. It’s a real feast of a performance, appropriately outsized for such a preposterously outsized story. —TR
Ayo Edebiri, Bottoms
The teen-girl fight club movie Bottoms is often purposefully outlandish, but Ayo Edebiri’s Josie grounds the story as its central fight club scheme gets more and more out of hand, with the stakes getting increasingly ridiculous. Yet throughout the whole film, Josie just wants a shot with her popular crush. Her down-to-earth performance helps keep Bottoms from spinning wildly out of control. Edebiri imbues her character with relatable awkwardness, wonderful comedic timing, and an electric back-and-forth with co-star and longtime collaborator Rachel Sennott. —PR
Jimmy Tatro, Theater Camp
Everyone in Theater Camp is great, but Jimmy Tatro is the true star. While people like Molly Gordon and Ben Platt are theater veterans operating in their comfort zone and well within the tone of the movie, Tatro has to play the outsider as YouTuber Troy Rubinsky. And he couldn’t be better. The breakout star from American Vandal season 1, Tatro’s Troy is simultaneously charming, adorable, and quite possibly the dumbest nepo-child you’ve ever met. —AG
Russell Crowe, The Pope’s Exorcist
The Pope’s Exorcist only works because of Russell Crowe. The movie maintains its balance of horror and silliness because Crowe completely commits to his role as the real-life exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth. Just a little bit of irony in the performance, a wink toward the camera, or even one ounce too much ham while he’s tootling through Italy on his moped, and the whole movie would collapse around him. Instead, Crowe is all-in on the wackiness of the movie and his character’s absolute stone-cold faith in demons, God, and the righteousness of yelling prayers in Latin. —AG
Robert Fripp, In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50
If Robert Fripp saw his name on this list, he would hate it and hate me. But I don’t have to worry about that, because time spent reading is time not spent practicing. And Robert Fripp doesn’t spend any time not practicing if he doesn’t have to.
The frontman of prog rock band King Crimson is the beating drum at the heart of the doc In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50. He’s a difficult man to work with, but clearly wants the best out of the band. The barbs he traded with documentarian Toby Amies are a highlight, as are the gymnastics his bandmates go through when trying to talk about their experience working with him. Yes, documentary performances are never eligible for these kinds of awards, but Fripp is always on. And his role in this film will stick with me. —PV
Robert Pattinson, The Boy and the Heron
In his post-Twilight days, Robert Pattinson has become wholly committed to playing gross little weirdos. Thankfully, that goes for his performance in the English dub of the new Hayao Miyazaki movie The Boy and the Heron. Pattinson’s performance as the Heron is full of the kind of malice and mocking that only a supernatural creature can have. He’s cruel, angry, and vulnerable all at the same time, and absolutely perfect as the protagonist’s guide, companion, and tormentor. It’s the kind of unglamorous performance that lays bare all the effort that went into crafting it, and while we’re used to seeing Pattinson do that physically on screen, it’s a new and fantastic wonder to see him do it vocally. —AG
Ryan Gosling, Barbie
Ryan Gosling’s Ken is hilarious. He’s horrible. He’s pathetic. He’s seduced by the possibilities of the patriarchy, brings it to a feminist utopia, and brainwashes the women into submission. Yet he’s weirdly endearing the entire time. Ken is the bad guy, but Gosling makes him a lovable doof. Yes, he’s still the main villain of the movie, and the epitome of toxic masculinity, but Gosling still imbues him with oafish charm. Ken sings. He dances. He says the phrase “Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House” with 100% sincerity. In a movie already full of fantastic performances, Gosling stands out. —PR