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The Best Performances of 2017

In a year defined by a golden age of child actors and countless compelling, wholly empathetic performances on the big screen and television, the Ringer staff selects their favorites

20th Century Fox/Amazon Studios/NBC/Neon/Ringer illustration

From the legend Carrie Coon to Paul Bettany’s utterly human portrayal of the Unabomber to the young star leading 2017’s renaissance of child actors, The Ringer staff picked their favorite performances of the year.

Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale

Juliet Litman: A few years ago, it was hard to imagine that Elisabeth Moss could ever be known publicly as anything but Peggy Olson. I don’t want to speak for Moss, but I imagine it wouldn’t have been the worst actress-character elision. Peggy is an iconic character from one of the best, most celebrated shows in the history of the format. She was a rule-breaker, an independent thinker, and a homeowner. The GIF of Peggy strutting out of her office — possessions in her arms, cigarette on her lips — will circulate for as long as GIFs are shared. It would have been enough.

And thus, she had no business helping usher The Handmaid’s Tale into the world and captivating a legion of new Hulu subscribers with her performance as Offred, also known as June. (I like to think Peggy would prefer to call her June.) Moss’s Offred conveyed a full spectrum of emotion — from fear, to exhilaration, to anger, to anguish, to despair, to desire — which is sorely rare for female characters on television, let alone one who lives in a repressive, cruel, punitive dystopia. She inhabited the role so thoroughly that I did not think of my favorite secretary-turned-copywriter too often.

Ted Danson, The Good Place

Hannah Giorgis: The Good Place, which follows the high jinks of four dubiously moral humans as they bumble about the afterlife, is a fundamentally absurd show. But the series tackles intense philosophical questions on a weekly basis, wrestling with moral quandaries like “Is it possible to become a good person?” without feeling overly preachy. At its center is Michael, the “architect” of the titular setting, played with unimaginable charm by Ted Danson. Danson grants the character a rich complexity that lends the heady show some needed levity — but above all, he’s simply just so damn fun to watch. Danson’s physical comedy makes lines like “I am a canyon full of poo-poo” land with the same earnest hilarity as his questions about the universe’s very essence. His mockery of human beings — laced with both disdain and warm-hearted envy — resonates in every line. Watching Michael learn how humans operate is at once amusing and comforting. Somehow, hearing Ted Danson make existential observations helps cushion the blow of reality.

Carrie Coon, The Leftovers

Miles Surrey: I didn’t know much about The Leftovers when I first watched the pilot, so when I saw a woman named Nora Durst give a speech honoring her dearly departed husband and children, I assumed she was a one-off character. While sobbing, all I could think was, “That actress I’ve never seen before sold the shit out of that speech.”

Carrie Coon — or as she’s better known to me, the greatest person on planet Earth — was, in fact, the most essential part of The Leftovers, to the point that the series finale is called “The Book of Nora.” Coon made many Leftovers fans cry a lot over three seasons, but not in a cynical, This Is Us–type of way. Nora would be a fascinating character in the hands of most actors, but Coon imbued her with a fragile humanity; the Everything Is Fine facade she carried like the heaviest suit of armor ready to fall apart at any moment. Sometimes it did, to devastating effect. Take Episode 4 of the final season, when Kevin Garvey (the great, jacked Justin Theroux) abandons Nora in an Australian hotel as the sprinklers go off. Oops, I’m crying again.

Whether or not we choose to believe that Nora crossed over to an alternate world where 2 percent of the Earth’s population — including her family — wound up, one thing is certain: In three heart-wrenching seasons, Carrie Coon gave one of the best performances in modern TV history. We all know who she is now.

Anthony Scaramucci, White House Communications Director

Jason Concepcion: The White House, and the current administration in general, has, at one point or another, been populated with various unsavory characters including charlatans, unalloyed racists, potential foreign agents, slavering plutocrats, climate change deniers, and various other fuckwads hellbent on incinerating the social contract until all that’s left is an iron fist, clad in a designer leather glove, clutching a silk bag full of blood-soaked cash. They are reprehensible. Anthony Scaramucci was, too. But at least he was fun.

Scaramucci, who is not addicted to cocaine, was the White House communications director for 10 days in June after the slow-motion defenestration of Sean Spicer. In that short span, he referred to then–chief of staff Reince Priebus as “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic,” and said, infamously, “I’m not Steven Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” Like some kind of demonic Mariano Rivera, Scaramucci came into the late innings of Western civilization, threw 110 miles per hour, broke five bats, then disappeared to start a podcast or something. In the timeless words of the execrable Darren Rovell, this was terrible for our country, but the content was great.

Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Alison Herman: Taking on a TV show’s title role is hard enough when the role isn’t as intimidatingly complete as Midge Maisel, the funny, smart, charming, kind, and beautiful center of the sumptuous, snappy new Amazon drama. Add in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s signature speed-freak dialogue and you have the makings of either a disaster or a career-maker — nothing in between. Luckily, it’s obvious by the end of Maisel’s first scene that Rachel Brosnahan is up to the unusually steep challenge of her first starring role. Brosnahan has the charisma to make Midge’s halting rise through the comedy ranks seem inevitable; just as importantly, she has the vulnerability to show the real pain and frustration that drives Midge even as her show pushes right up against the edge of twee. For all of Sherman-Palladino’s assertive presence as creator, writer, director, and showrunner, Brosnahan is the sine qua non of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. If she isn’t amply rewarded for it with awards and yet more roles, I’ll be outraged and ashamed.

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Katie Baker: There are many memorable performances in I, Tonya, a movie that would be downright campy if it weren’t so rooted in absurd historical fact. Allison Janney is unforgettable as Tonya Harding’s wicked, fur-coat-wearing, parrot-shouldering mother; Paul Walter Hauser has a delightful breakout role as a bumbling would-be criminal mastermind who can’t keep his mouth shut or his acid reflux at bay.

But it’s Robbie, as the titular Harding, who turns in the most subtly impressive acting of the ensemble. Robbie, the film’s lead actress as well as a producer, had never heard of Harding before reading the script. Still, she channels the uncouth and unapologetic essence of the controversial ice queen across several decades: first as an awkward teenager, then as a lively, jealous Olympic hopeful, and later as a full-of-excuses, chain-smoking, defiant old broad.

The role involves mental, physical, and metaphysical gymnastics. Robbie, who is Australian, worked with a voice coach not only on mimicking Harding’s Pacific Northwestern accent, but also on developing the nuances and octaves of her voice at different stages of her life. While she had played hockey in the past, she was unfamiliar with the toepicky challenges of a pair of figure skates and spent ass-bruising hours perfecting her form. And she had the tough job of portraying not just a living person, but an infamous one, a task that can be distracting for an audience if it isn’t done just right. But just as Harding landed that triple axel in 1991, Robbie not only nailed this tricky task — she put in the hard work to make it seem like a lot of high-flying, head-spinning fun.

Dafne Keen, Logan

Sean Fennessey: We are living in a golden age of child actors, from The Florida Project’s puckish Brooklynn Prince to the ensemble of mortified preteens in It. But no young actor conveyed anger and fear, righteousness and grace quite like Dafne Keen, who as X-23 in James Mangold’s Logan went claw-to-claw with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, arguably the most charismatic superhero figure in movie history. That Keen was able to do so in what was easily the best installment of a Wolverine movie, one in which the action felt real and the consequences felt final, is a testament to a ferocious young actor. Bilingual but barely speaking, Keen channels an uncommon focus. And when she finally does speak, it’s a fire hose of intensity.

Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus

Kate Halliwell: In Kogonada’s Columbus, which follows two strangers bonding over architecture and cigarettes, Haley Lu Richardson delivers the performance of the year. In her first leading role, Richardson plays a recent high school graduate and “architecture nerd” who has chosen to forego college in order to stay home and care for her mother, who is addicted to meth. Over the course of a few days, Richardson’s Casey meets John Cho’s Jin, and they instantly form a connection as she shows him around the remarkable architectural mecca that is, improbably, Columbus, Indiana.

My bias toward and intense love of Richardson’s performance stems from a number of places; I grew up in a similarly midsized Indiana town, worked similarly unfulfilling summer jobs, and was terrified to leave it all. “You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing,” Casey says in the film, in reference to the literal and figurative construction of her home. How tempting, how easy it would be to stay, yet how badly she wants to go. It took moving across the country for me to realize everything I had in my own Indiana hometown, and seeing Richardson play out that age-old dilemma in such an achingly familiar way will stick with me for a long time.

Paul Bettany, Manhunt: Unabomber

Michael Baumann: If your TV show or movie has a cop trying to understand a serial killer and discovering unsettling things about themselves along the way, I will watch it. That’s how I came to be one of the nine Americans who saw Manhunt: Unabomber, a show in which a gaunt and shifty-eyed Paul Bettany imbues Ted Kaczynski with surprising humanity. Bettany made one of the 20th Century’s most notorious domestic terrorists look not only like an evil, sadistic genius, but an underdog. The perspective of the show shifts back and forth between Bettany’s Kaczynski and Sam Worthington’s Jim Fitzgerald, an FBI agent whose Philadelphia accent informs a key plot point, but in Worthington’s hands comes off French Canadian by way of the former Yugoslavia.

Bettany, however, is brooding, quiet, and vulnerable. By the end of the eight-episode run, I found myself wondering how this sensitive man could’ve unleashed so much mayhem, thinking impolite thoughts like, “Did we really need to put together a dedicated task force of dozens of agents for someone who killed three people in 20 years?” and “You know, Industrial Society and Its Future really made some compelling points.” That’s partially the perspective of the show, and it wouldn’t have worked if Bettany hadn’t turned a monster back into a man.

Pamela Adlon, Better Things

Claire McNear: The core thesis of Better Things is that parenthood is basically shitty. Your kids are jerks, or they don’t appreciate you, or they knowingly inflict and salt and resalt wounds, or they’re just one long, whining drive to various mind-numbing tween obligations. And yet Pamela Adlon, who as single-mom actress Sam Fox plays a sort-of version of herself, makes it all seem — well, not lovely, but fundamentally worth it. She grimaces and groans and rolls her eyes the whole way through, and the result is something genuinely beautiful and frequently moving. Adlon’s performance is as dark as it is loving and as tender as it is cutting; it’s weird and funny and sad and hopeful, occasionally all at the same time.

The show's future is a little ambiguous: The series was cocreated and executive-produced by Louis C.K., whose tenure with FX was terminated by the network last month after revelations of sexual impropriety came to light. Adlon had previously credited C.K. and her experiences working on Louie—a similarly semiautobiographical dark comedy—with giving her the confidence to make Better Things; after the C.K. news broke, Adlon put out a statement saying she was “devastated and in shock after the admission of abhorrent behavior by my friend and partner.” Together with Adlon, C.K. wrote or cowrote every episode of Better Things’ second season and all but one of its first; it will undoubtedly be a different show when it returns. But more than the dreamy slices of California living or the growth of Fox's daughters or even, really, the plot, Adlon has always been the heart of the show. She is magnificent at it, and if we've ever needed someone who can point out the bright spots in a whole lot of muck—whether that muck is the day-to-day shittiness of parenthood or just the general misery of existing in 2017—the time is now.

Bria Vinaite, The Florida Project

Kate Knibbs: When people talk about The Florida Project, they often hone in on two killer performances: Willem Dafoe’s exasperated, tender motel caretaker, Bobby, and 7-year-old newcomer Brooklynn Prince’s star-making turn as effervescent troublemaker Moonee. Dafoe and Prince are both terrific, so I’m glad they’re getting acclaim — but, to me, the most astounding performance in the film comes from Instagram weed fashion girl Bria Vinaite, who plays Moonee’s aimless mother, Halley. Vinaite, agitated and agitating, is a nervy, charismatic disaster, a mother who loves her daughter but does not know how to care for her. She elicits a visceral response; I wanted to hug her and punch her in the face, and I will never forget her.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Fargo

Ben Lindbergh: Winstead’s Nikki Swango almost single-handedly salvages Fargo’s tiresome third season. A recently paroled femme fatale who loves the loser she’s led astray, she’s as serious about blackmail as she is about bridge, and as capable of killing as she is of making the aftermath of the murder into a tender moment. Loyal, logical, and resourceful, she’s the first person you want with you when your air conditioner smashes someone’s skull.

Nikki’s arc, along with the season’s, accelerates after fiancé Ray Stussi (Ewan McGregor) disappears from the picture, freeing her of the obligation to babysit him while also providing fuel for revenge. Rebounding quickly from both a physical beating and her grief over Ray, she plots to shake down and take down Big Bad V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), whom she extorts for $2 million. Her Varga vendetta culminates in a memorable hotel-lobby showdown in the penultimate episode, “Aporia,” in which Nikki, now part of a badass alliance with assassin Mr. Wrench, defies Varga’s attempts to kill her or hire her and coolly walks away from the figurative explosion.

Since Season 3 aired, the Swango-Stussy story line has overlapped in uncomfortable ways with the murky timeline of a real-life romance between Winstead and McGregor, both of whom recently separated from their spouses. Subsequent gossip aside, Winstead’s performance stands out as one of 2017’s clearest cases of an actor elevating uneven material. Rest in peace, Swango.