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The 30 Most Oscar-Worthy Performances of 2017

Photography: Eivind Hansen

From A Fantastic Woman's Daniela Vega to Okja's Okja, these are our picks.

As horrifyingly bad as 2017 was for the American political system, Mother Nature, and our therapist's sanity, the movies that got released were actually quite phenomenal. Every month, we were able to find a steady stream of films to sit in a dark theater and watch to forget about the world for two hours.

Everything from Call Me by Your Name's sweeping gay romance and Lady "Call Your Mother" Bird to the fish-sex-filled Shape of Water and the groundbreaking, transgender-fronted drama of A Fantastic Woman. Even on streaming, we had gems like Okja, Mudbound, and All These Sleepless Nights lull us into a Netflix-influenced stupor.

Related | 12 of the Best Gay Films You Missed in 2017

In all of these films and so many more, the glue that held the cinematic magic together came from a handful of powerful, moving performances. Margo Robbie embodied Tonya Harding, Frances McDormand was suddenly a greiving mom in a middle-of-nowhere town, and Cate Blanchett was perfect as 13 different characters.

As we approach Sunday night's Oscars ceremony, we're looking back at the actors who made us laugh, cried, and feel the emotional weight of their cinematic journey. Here they are.

Daniela Vega, A Fantastic Woman

In the breakthrough performance of the year, trans actress Vega takes method acting to a transcendent level, pouring her own struggles with queer discrimination--and her own skills with singing opera--into the tumultuous experiences of Marina, her onscreen trans counterpart.

Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell are collecting most of the acting trophies for this bittersweet humanist triumph, but Harrelson is essential to the aching heart of the film, using minimal screen time to knock you flat as McDormand's empathetic sparring partner.

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri

Frances McDormand is admittedly our go-to actor for any role involving a grizzled mother without a filter, but her performance this year blew anything else away. Years after winning the Best Actress award for Fargo, her role as Mildred, a grieving middle America mom looking for justice for her daughter's brutal death, was as visceral and powerful as it was surprisingly funny.

Lucas Hedges, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

In little more than a year, Hedges has established himself as one of the finest young actors in Hollywood, and in Lady Bird and Three Billboards (arguably the two best films of 2017), he further proves his versatility, giving soul to a closeted teen in the former and a grief-stricken son in the latter.

Krzysztof Baginski, All These Sleepless Nights

From the opening shot to the closing credits, no other film this year seemed to come close to the cinematic beauty of Michal Marczak's pseudo-documentary about 20-somethings in Warsaw, Poland. With a killer soundtrack and a sense of listlessness familiar to anyone millennial trying to figure out life between dance parties, the film rests firmly on the shoulders of Baginski, who transfixes as he literally dances through the seasons of his youthful rebellion.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name

No film actor gave a stronger or more poignant monologue last year than Stuhlbarg did in the climax of Call Me by Your Name, comforting his onscreen son (Timothee Chalamet) with a stunningly poetic expression of acceptance that should be etched into a guidebook for struggling parents of queer children.

Timothee Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name

If you met someone who didn't cry at Chalamet's heart wrenching portrayal of Elio in this film, they're lying. The young actor has become one of Hollywood's biggest stars this year for his grounded, incredible portrayal in the queer summer love story that has become an awards darling. You only need to watch him cry in front of a fire for five minutes while Sufjan Stevens plays to know the understated power in his performance.

Indya Moore, Saturday Church

Damon Cardasis, the director of Saturday Church, filled his cast with first-time actors, but the commanding nature in which Moore, a trans model, tackles her role as a queer mentor suggests the wisdom and instincts of an actress who's been in this game for years.

Cate Blanchett, Manifesto

If you already thought Blanchett could do anything, wait until you see her embody 13 characters in the same experimental film, playing everyone from a newscaster and a puppet maker to a homeless man and a scientist in a series of vignettes that promote both feminism and the endless fluidity of art.

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound

Rightfully Oscar-nominated, Blige delivers the year's most riveting supporting female performance in Mudbound, a racially-charged period epic that casts the singer as a nearly unrecognizable matriarch--one whom Blige imbues with a fierce love of family that seems to erupt straight from her gut.

Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman

There were surely countless A-List actresses lining up to play the ultimate female superhero, but what a gift it was to have glowing newcomer Gadot wield the Lasso of Truth, and shrewdly make a fish-out-of-water tale into one of cinema's most empowering warrior-woman adventures.

Nahuel Perez Biscayart, BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Critics and awards bodies love to shower praise on actors who lose weight and play ill in tearjerkers, but as the most fired up, AIDS-afflicted member of ACT UP Paris in BPM, Biscayart made that baity trope a footnote of his performance, which was so committed that his character stood out as a poster child for a global epidemic.

Doug Jones, The Shape of Water

It wasn't CGI or motion-capture that gave a soul to Sally Hawkins's slithery squeeze in The Shape of Water--it was Jones, the longtime and often unsung muse of director Guillermo Del Toro, and an actor who, from Pan's Labyrinth to this Americana romance, has created fully fleshed-out characters through facial gestures and body language alone.

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

We'd been prepared to write off Margot Robbie after the true cinematic disaster that was Suicide Squad--although, looking back on it, she actually gave a pretty good performance in the midst of that sea of CGI garbage. But in I, Tonya, there's nothing standing in the way of letting Robbie shine: her performance is hilarious, heartbreaking, and, above all, tender. Robbie paints a decidedly sympathetic portrait of Ms. Harding, and that's never more clear than in her two most powerful onscreen moments: when she's applying makeup in the mirror and looking really scary, and when she gets her sentencing and breaks down in the courtroom.

Allison Janney, I, Tonya

It would almost have been easy to criticize Janney's performance as one-note--basically every moment spent with LaVona Harding portrays a rotten, evil old hag--and yet Janney's take on the matriarch is anything but... because she's just so damn funny. Both times we saw the film in theaters had audiences erupting into cackles with each of her electric jabs, and underneath the perfect comedic timing is something deeper: an unflinchingly accurate portrait of a woman whose only outlet for her own frustrations with herself is abusing her starry-eyed daughter.

Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats

The English actor gave one of the most powerful performances of the year in Beach Rats, a completely underrated gay coming-of-age film set in Coney Island. Whether he holed up in his room browsing online hookup sites or assimilating into masculinity around his meathead friends, Dickinson was fully immersed in the role down, which made the tragic and shocking ending that much more powerful.

Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

What makes Ronan's performance as Lady Bird so magical is her willingness to be unlikable and bratty (of course, these moments only make her even more charming in the end, throwing into sharp relief the acts of true love and selflessness that Lady Bird makes throughout the film). She's all of us: someone who wants to be cool, someone who wants to escape, someone desperate to be in love... and the quick way Ronan is able to convey these deep, deep longings through the furrowing of a brow, or the roll of an eye, solidifies her status as one of her generation's truly incredible talents.

Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

Metcalf's role as the sharp-tongued matriarch could be compared to Janney's in I, Tonya, though whereas the latter's character is, in the end, truly irredeemable, Metcalf's is far from it--one of the warmest, emotionally engaged, caring, loving women we end up seeing on screen all year. Despite the constant nagging and picking and ragging and yelling she engages in through most of her scenes in the film. To be able to take such a lost, angry, hurt woman and peel away the layers to reveal a true core of vulnerability and motherly love is, without exaggeration, an amazing achievement.

Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird

"Log ride!" was one of our favorite lines in Lady Bird, as was the scene where Feldstein and Ronan eat the Body of Christ while giggling in a hallway. Feldstein and Ronan seem like best friends in real life, based on their casual, authentic, and offhand humor and general demeanor together on camera. Feldstein proved a comedian in her own right in the film, and a central part of Lady Bird's core emotional struggle: to find people in life who you can truly lean on.

Pekka Strang, Tom of Finland

Up until now, there hasn't been a fitting ode to the leather daddy patriarch the gay community and we're happy to report that this Finnish actor slips into Tom of Finland's leather chaps just fine. In the period drama tracing his life from the military to the sunny hills of Los Angeles, Strang delivers one of the most grounded performances of the year that hits on all the right, homoerotic notes.

Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde

We already knew that Theron could kick major ass thanks to her incredible role in Mad Max: Fury Road, but it was Atomic Blonde that convinced us she needs her own action movie franchise. Alongside a stylish recreation of Berlin on the eve of the Berlin Wall's destruction, Theron punched, kicked, and fought her way through the most realistic fight scenes we've seen in years. Now, can we take a moment to talk about how stunning that seven-minute long, single-take stairwell fight scene was again?

Tilda Swinton, Okja

Leave it to Tilda to pull of a pair of industry heiress twins, both maniacal in their own right, with equal parts fabulosity, evil, emotional depth, and glamor. The world has slept on Okja because it went straight to Netflix. But the news is most shocking with Swinton, who's long been a darling of Hollywood awards seasons and cemented her eternal status as gay icon after appearing as the original lesbian: the White Witch in Narnia.

CGI Okja, Okja

Listen--robots and animated digital beings will soon have the same rights as the rest of us. Haven't you watched Black Mirror? It seems pretty clear that the CGI rendering of Okja probably has some sort of consciousness of her own, and therefore, we think she deserves some recognition. Because, at the end of the day, the film is not the same without her endearing, heart wrenching performance, and true acting skill is employed as CGI Okja deftly and seamlessly shifts from helpless child into protective matron.

Seo-hyun Ahn, Okja

We've said it once, we'll say it twice, and now we will go ahead and say it thrice: Okja is one of the greatest films out this year. No one deserves more congratulations on their performance than the film's lead, Seo-hyun Ahn, who delivers an authenticity and ferociousness unparalleled onscreen this year. Not only does Ahn successfully deliver in scene after scene asking her to show everything from extreme rage to chilling sorrow to jubilant exuberance--she has to perform stunt after physical stunt, essentially raising the bar for action heroes everywhere.

Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip

It's hard to describe how painfully hilarious Haddish is in this movie without bursting into a fit of laughter. In the film about four black women taking a much-needed "girls trip," this relatively unknown comedian's unfiltered, crazed role as Gina somehow outshined Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall, and Queen Latifah. Everyone may have been talking about Elio's peach but the best fruit sex scene of the year involved Haddish and a poor, unsuspecting grapefruit.

Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick

Another largely slept-on film this year is The Big Sick, which, to be fair, did earn Nanjiani a Best Original Screenplay nom. However, the Academy failed to recognize Nanjiani's performance, which, while subtle, asks him to emote in varied and complicated ways. And let's not forget: Nanjiani is very funny, one highly covetable characteristic often sniffed at by Academy voters.

Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
The scene where Kaluuya first gets hypnotized? And tears just start flowing uncontrollably? That alone should be giving Kaluuya more awards love than he has--sure, it's a tight category, and we also loved Timothee Chalamet in CMBYN and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, but Kaluuya's performance is certainly the most intense, and he pulls it off with an authenticity and terror that are the reason this film holds as much emotional gravitas as it does.

Eili Harboe, Thelma

There's a quiet power in Harboe's performance as Thelma in this queer, Norwegian supernatural drama. While the film has largely been overlooked during awards season, it gives all the more reason for revisiting this gem. As Thelma deals with the inner turmoil of attractive and enough psychic powers to make Carrie blush, Harboe pulls off the quiet power of her character with a veteran's flourish.

Barry Keoghan, Killing of a Sacred Deer

If there were an award for most uncomfortable movie experience of the year, Killing of a Sacred Deer would win by a landslide thanks to a star-making turn from Keoghan. The slow-churning psychological drama follows director Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster and trades in laughs for a truly fucked up and unsettling film about revenge that is carried on the awkward, slumped shoulders of Keoghan. Raise your hand if you felt personally victimized by that arm-biting scene.

Vicky Kreips, Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson's delightfully shady period piece about an atelier in 1950s London may boast the final performance of Daniel Day-Lewis's career, but the real star is Krieps. The French actor masterfully makes even the smallest action have the loudest impact in the room and, by the time she gains her footing in the House of Woodcock, no piece of buttered toast is safe from her powerful performance.

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