A begrudging rapper; a teen heartthrob; a contract killer; a star who watched another star be born; a duck. This year was full of distinct, bold performances on TV, in movies, in music, and in real life. Here, Amanda Dobbins and Andrew Gruttadaro count down the best of them.
There have been a lot of renditions of the national anthem, OK? Whitney already did the booming triumph and the Dixie Chicks already did the harrowing harmonies, alright? Fergie wanted to spice things up and there wasn’t much uncovered ground left, ya know? A jazz riff was really the only option left on the table.
So you better believe my girl bought her drummer a pair of brushes and hit that Staples Center court dead set on turning this nation’s anthem into the score for The Maltese Falcon.
Maybe you don’t understand it. Maybe it causes you to look to the sky while your eyes glaze. Maybe you can’t see the beauty in how Fergie turned “banner” into a six-syllable sound. Maybe a laugh bubbles up inside your loins and presses against your chest before all you can do is let it escape from your mouth. What a shame, my friend, for you’ll never understand that glory can only be achieved by taking tremendous risks.
Now let that remix ring off. —Andrew Gruttadaro
9. Will Smith
Will Smith has won four Grammys, been nominated for two Oscars, starred in a hit sitcom, coined the word “Willennium,” and earned literal billions of dollars at the box office. He did not find his true medium until 2018. Will Smith’s Instagram, which features off-the-cuff videos about his family exploits and heavily produced videos about the Eagles’ Super Bowl journey, is the purest and most powerful expression of the Will Smith brand to date. Do you want to know how Will Smith feels about inspirational memes? We’ve got you. Are you interested in how Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith experience a sunset in Dubai? That video is also available. You are probably already aware of Will Smith’s opinions of Drake, since his #InMyFeelings entry—filmed, by drone, on top of a bridge in Budapest—has 19.1 million views and more or less gave Drake a platinum record all by itself. On Will Smith’s Instagram, bungee jumping is still en vogue, and movie stars are still thriving. Hollywood has a future after all.
8. The Central Park Duck
“Holy duck,” I texted my friend. It was the only time I’ve never cared about the iPhone’s maddening persistence to autocorrect my profanity. Because we were, in fact, talking about a duck, and he did appear to be quite holy indeed.
In early October, the sexiest duck ever appeared in Central Park—the apex of waterfowl, distinguished by wings that appeared to be made of the finest leather, a head touched by every color in the spectrum, and a bevy of fire-tinged spiked feathers extending from his face, like if Martin Van Buren’s sideburns had been geometrically compelling (and hot). Experts determined that it was a Mandarin duck, but could not determine where it was from. Not that it made a difference—updates on the “hot duck,” as it was rightly dubbed, still became the only thing that mattered on a daily basis.
New York can be a dismal place, full of aggression, despair, and rotting infrastructure. But for the past two months, the city has regained its sense of magic. It’s a place where the hottest duck to ever exist can just fall out of the sky and land—and consequently be deified, as is right. —AG
7. Jodie Comer
Funny, deranged, surprising, and totally winning: If you are looking for the exact moment when Jodie Comer became a star, it is the word “HOOOOOOLE.” —AD
6. Noah Centineo
Noah Centineo is not on the list because of his performances in Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. OK, that’s partially why—he’s an excellent teen love interest, a modern-day Jake Ryan with better skin—but he’s on this list more because of his elite ability to continue to cultivate his persona as a heartthrob in the wake of those movies. He knows what the people want, and in 2018 he was not afraid to really give it to them. Here he is playing with puppies. Here he is in bed, behind text that reads “I dreamt we were in love.” Here he is shirtless. Here he is shirtless. Here he is shirtless. Here he is shirtless. Here he is shirtless. Here he is shirtless. Here he is shirtless. Here he is shirtless. Here he is shirtless.
It’s not enough anymore to be a dreamboat in a couple of movies—achieving heartthrob status is a demanding, 24-hour job. To be an Internet Boyfriend in 2018, a guy must make every single person on the internet feel as though he is exclusively speaking to them. That’s what Noah Centineo pulled off this year—to great ends. —AG
5. Tom Cruise
“That’s an art, that’s a skill, that’s a craft. Those are people risking their lives and doing things that are absolutely and utterly truly amazing and are so much a part of an experience like that.” That’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie, talking about the need for a stunt category at the Oscars. He’s right, but also: just give Tom Cruise a Best Actor Oscar for Mission: Impossible — Fallout. He ran; he fought; he jumped out of a damn plane. Physicality is a part of acting, too. —AD
4. Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Long before we Lady Gaga’s plaintive howl on “Shallow” had embedded itself in our bones, long before we had admitted to ourselves that Ally’s “ass like that” was, in fact, good, this photograph was the only thing we knew about A Star Is Born:
I cannot emphasize enough how high this photo set the level of difficulty for Bradley Cooper—and how the movie’s trailer raised it even higher. The thought of Cooper playing a be-Father John Misty’ed country rocker with gravel lodged in his throat and a bottle always by his side just seemed a touch too silly. And all the subsequent stories about Cooper’s face-touching habits and his and Gaga’s communes over leftover spaghetti made it seem even sillier. But my god, Bradley Cooper pulled it off. As it turns out, when faced with a role that seems beyond ridiculous, the only thing you can do is commit.
And commit Cooper did. His portrayal of Jackson Maine is unbelievably exact and lived-in: The way he tilts his head to better hear the people talking to him, a subtle but strong reminder of the character’s tinnitus; the way he ambles about a stage, rolling his eyes back into his head to seem equally possessed by the music and the gin; the way he whimpers into Gaga’s shoulder during a spell in rehab. It all feels so real, which of course elevates the events of the movie. But Cooper’s performance also leaves a lasting memory of Jackson Maine. After seeing A Star Is Born, you somehow miss him, as if he really existed once.
Post-ASIB, Cooper has seemed like a shell of himself. Watching The Graham Norton Show, you’d be forgiven if you wondered whether the real Bradley Cooper had been replaced with a life-sized doll of Bradley Cooper. But maybe that’s just a testament to everything he put into Jackson Maine—the anguish, the turmoil, the love. Maybe after committing as hard as he did in A Star Is Born, the guy just needs some time to decompress. He’s more than earned it. —AG
3. Ethan Hawke
There is an art to the actor’s promotional cycle: play it too cool, and you’re the self-serious thespian who won’t deign to speak to the masses. Get too excited, and you’re … Tom Cruise on a couch. Talking about the actual job—acting—is risky too; we tend to judge our movie stars as we do our presidents. (Hangout appeal > professional qualifications. No one wants to hear about “craft.”)
So yes, this is an award for Ethan Hawke’s angry, searching, revelatory performance in First Reformed, but also, it is an award for his seemingly nonstop, endlessly charming and rewarding press tour. My man can give an interview! To GQ, to Graham Norton, to Terry Gross, to The Ringer. (Twice!) He can make process seem exciting; he can defend art without pretension; he can make a connection with just about anyone. These abilities are a gift whether you’re a moviegoer or a podcast listener. We at The Ringer happen to be both. —AD
2. Yalitza Aparicio
It’s the stuff of Hollywood fairy tales: a young woman, with no acting experience, goes to an audition at the insistence of her sister, and she winds up starring in an Alfonso Cuarón masterpiece. Yalitza Aparicio trained as a teacher in her native Oaxaca, and had never seen a Cuarón movie before starring in Roma, the filmmaker’s astonishing tribute to his childhood in Mexico City. She tried out just to learn: “It was never my goal to actually get the role. I was just curious at every stage about the process.”
As Cleo, the live-in caregiver of a family modeled after Cuarón’s own, Aparicio survives riots, oceans, wildfires, childbirth, and several different kinds of heartbreak. The world around her is harsh, and indifferent, and prone to catastrophe; Cleo responds with small gestures—a lullaby, a shy smile—and resolve. Aparicio is one of those rare actors who can communicate emotions without speaking, and in Roma she uses this power to offer empathy: to the family she cares for, to the audience watching, to the director recreating his childhood, and ultimately to Cleo herself. It’s a mesmerizing performance, and also a gift. The Oscars should be so lucky to receive it. —AD
1. Brian Tyree Henry
Brian Tyree Henry doesn’t need much time to blow you away. In Atlanta, all it takes is a thousand-yard stare in the direction of a rogue barber, or the slight crack of a smile. In Widows, Henry communicates a storm of menace in the way he pets the dog of Viola Davis’s character, or gently places his hand on her shoulder. In If Beale Street Could Talk, he appears in only one scene that lasts about 12 minutes, but in those 12 minutes he expresses a lifetime of emotions—the jarring mix of overwhelming fear and slight joy that defines how it feels to be black in America. He delves so deeply into his characters that it’s impossible not to connect with them, to understand where they’ve been and what they’re going through.
Across film, TV, and the stage, Brian Tyree Henry did this repeatedly in 2018, filling in the blanks of his characters and giving weight to moments you didn’t realize needed them. Simply put, no one was better than him this year. —AG