2023 signaled a strong post-COVID comeback for the theatrical moviegoing experience. From indie darlings like Talk to Me and Dream Scenario to mainstream blockbusters such as Barbie and Oppenheimer, it’s clear that audiences are not only ready to head back to the cinema; they’re hungrier than ever for more variety. Along with that came a slew of amazing performances that ran the gamut of human experience and emotion. I’ve condensed the top five acting portrayals I saw across this magical year.
5. Nicolas Cage, Dream Scenario
Dream Scenario (2023) – source: A24
In addition to being one of the funniest movies of the year (as well as one of the saddest), Kristoffer Borgli‘s startlingly good directing debut gave us Nicolas Cage‘s best work since Joe (2014). The story followed a university professor named Paul Matthews (Cage), whose life is turned upside down as more and more people began to see him in their dreams. Utterly enamored with the attention and fame, Paul falls prey to an endless pursuit for more, which come back to haunt him once his nightly appearances began to take a dark turn.
This is a premise ripe for not only black humor or satire – Spike Jonze explored slightly similar territory in his debut, Being John Malkovich – but a perfect opportunity for a performer to go right over the top. Smartly, Cage went in the exact opposite direction, crafting Paul as a much more nuanced realistic person, rather than a caricature. Lots of us can relate to the desire for more than what we already have, missing the reality that we already have the best life we could hope for. Every facial tic, enunciation, and apprehensive walk Cage gave continuously conveyed the depth of Paul’s insecurity, as well as his guilt once he realized the consequences that his subsequent actions had on his personal life. In a career full of both grounded and wacky performances, this is one of the Oscar-winner’s best.
4. Florence Pugh, A Good Person
A Good Person (2023) – source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Drug-addiction dramas, or dramas about grief and guilt, are not at all new, something a lot of critics sadly focused on more than anything when it came to this poignant tale. It may not have been anything new, but Zach Braff‘s deeply-felt film is nevertheless engrossing, thanks in particular to a stunning lead performance by Florence Pugh. The premise centered around Allison (Pugh), a young woman whose life was derailed after a car accident that claimed the lives of her brother and sister-in-law-to-be. A year after the incident, Allison has developed a dependency on opioids and booze as a result. When she runs into her ex-father-in-law-to-be, Daniel (Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman) at an AA meeting, an unlikely friendship isthus sparked.
I’ve always found Pugh to be a chameleon of an actor who can truly transform into her roles, and this was no different. From the inside out, she embodied Allison’s self-loathing, trauma, and begrudging choice to move towards healing. Nothing about it felt fake or phony. I just felt I was observing a person trying to pick themselves up in the wake of loss, to believe in their capacity to be good. This was the best portrayal of a drug addict I’d seen onscreen since Zendaya‘s double-Emmy-winning work on HBO’s Euphoria (2019-).
3. Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer
Oppenheimer (2023) – source: Universal Pictures
In his first leading role in a Christopher Nolan picture, Cillian Murphy gave the performance of his career as J. Robert Oppenheimer. The three-hour biopic chronicled Oppenheimer’s role in the creation of the atom bomb, but even more so his inner workings as he dealt with the moral and scientific implications, as well as the impact of his work on his personal life. With Hoyte van Hoytema‘s camera always firmly trained on him, nowhere to run, Murphy gave us a comprehensive window into the physicist’s complex soul. By turns haunted, charismatic, fiercely confident and conflicted, he took on the colossal task of portraying this controversial man, and absolutely fired on all cylinders.
2. Margot Robbie, Barbie
Barbie (2023) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures
I’ve always found Margot Robbie to be one of our most versatile actors working today (if not the most versatile), and this was one of her best portrayals. This amazing blockbuster followed Stereotypical Barbie (Robbie) as she ventured into the real world to help a woman named Gloria (America Ferrera) who used to play with her, in order to resolve her own existential crisis. In doing so, Robbie demonstrated Barbie’s journey to form her identity with a potent and nuanced blend of subtlety, poignancy, and yes, unabashed silliness (it was a comedy, after all). Her now-famous scene on a park bench – if you’ve seen the film, you remember exactly the moment I speak of – made me tear up each time I saw the picture in theaters. That alone was some of the best acting I saw all year. Bravo, madam.
1. Ryan Gosling, Barbie
Barbie (2023) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures
I truly never would’ve expected to place a comedic performance as my top pick for the year, but such is the case with this outstanding performance. Ryan Gosling is not often given credit for his humorous chops (heck, he’s hardly ever given roles that would allow him to showcase that kind of talent), but here he absolutely stole the show. As he portrayed Ken’s journey from a utter dependence on Barbie, to falling prey to the influence of the patriarchy, to finally beginning to discover his own sense of self, Gosling smartly played it straight. He also combined that with a fearlessness to go totally over the top, which made the character a lot funnier, and more sympathetic, as a result. The film itself brilliantly highlighted how forcing oneself to conform to restrictive patriarchal norms and roles hurts not just women, but men as well. However, if it wasn’t for Gosling‘s relentless sincerity, I don’t think that aspect of the messaging would’ve landed as strongly. If he is nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 2024 Academy Awards, it will be well-deserved.
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