There were plenty of fantastic acting performances in 2023–certainly more than included on this list–but nonetheless, having watched hundreds of movies and thousands of performances, here are the 20 most memorable, timeless and/or sensational acting showcases of the year.
I don’t separate actors by gender or role (lead vs. supporting), though ironically (hypocritically) I don’t advocate for award nominations and winners to be flattened in the same way. Why? Well, this year is a good example: 8 of the 10 best honors go to white people, and only 2 of the top 10 are women.
It is what it is, and not every year shapes up this way, but let’s not put the cart before the horse.
Leo just barely makes the cut, but that shouldn’t diminish what he does in Killers of the Flower Moon, my most anticipated movie of 2023 and also one of the year’s most disappointing. Nonetheless, and unsurprising, DiCaprio is excellent here, playing an idiot villain who is stupid enough to fall in love with the woman whose family he is largely responsible for killing.
Hüller, who also is very good in 2023’s holocaust drama The Zone of Interest, gives an immersive and complex performance in Anatomy of a Fall. Her character is a walking paradox, and Hüller strings the audience along from one scene to the next, rarely (if ever) showing her cards.
Barrino, best known by her first name during her tenure on “American Idol” long ago, is sensational as the main character in the musical remake of The Color Purple. Her character–abused, raped, ridiculed into submission, but also strong and ultimately defiant–isn’t easy to pull off, but Fantasia leaps into the role with gusto.
17. Vanessa Kirby, Napoleon
Napoleon isn’t a perfect movie, and Joaquim Phoenix, who is on this list for another character, is sorely miscast, but there’s no denying the electric pull that Vanessa Kirby has in every scene she’s in. Sexy, smart, powerful, and seductively sophisticated, she’s the real star of Napoleon.
16. Jacob Elordi, Saltburn
The “Euphoria” actor, who I suspect will be overlooked throughout his career due to his good looks and assumed “pretty boy” characters, is downright terrific in Saltburn. He may get overshadowed by some of his co-stars, but he plays his elusively complex role to perfection.
15. Jonathan Majors, Creed III
Well, I debated including Majors on this list for obvious reasons. While I won’t champion him in the future, I also won’t deny the fact that he gave us one of the most unsettling and sinister performances of the year as the two-faced villain in Creed III.
14. Alison Oliver, Saltburn
You won’t see Alison Oliver pop up on many award lists, but she sizzles in more ways than one in Saltburn as the seductive and suspicious sister. It’s her final scene in the movie that earns her place on this list; it’s one of the best deliveries (and takedowns, however short-lived) you’ll see all year.
Wright’s performance in American Fiction may not be the flashiest on this list, but the revered performer delivers another pitch-perfect turn, playing both a snobbish (and exasperated) intellectual and a faux-gangster from the hood.
No one saw the three-hour-long descent into anxious madness that is Beau is Afraid (note: it’s actually really good, until it isn’t), but Phoenix is at the top of his game here, playing a man-child utterly beholden to his ruthless mother’s aura.
11. Rosamund Pike, Saltburn
Rosamund Pike is just awesome, and when she’s given license to sink her teeth into eccentric characters as she is in Saltburn, she absolutely thrives.
10. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers
While Paul Giamatti and co-star Dom Sessa throw sarcastically witty barbs at one another, Da’Vine Joy Randolph injects The Holdovers with a sense of energy, humility, and maturity. She’s funny, yes, but she gives one of the most emotionally painful performances of the year.
The fascinating thing about American Fiction is how the movie teeters between and blends comedy and drama, an no one exemplifies that more than Sterling K. Brown, who bounces between being ridiculously funny and shockingly raw–often in the same scene. It’s an extremely touching performance, one not to be forgotten anytime soon.
Dafoe earns the honor of having the weirdest character on this list; the benefit is he’s also blessed with some of the best dialogue of the year. Dafoe is perfectly suited to bring that dialogue to life, and he does it with a twisted twinkle in his eye.
7. Ryan Gosling, Barbie
Everyone knows Gosling is a good actor, but it’s easy to overlook how damn good he is in comedic roles (reminder: see The Good Guys). His portrayal of an idiotic Ken doll who is simultaneously well intentioned while desperately and naively misogynistic is an impressive feat. No offense to the excellent Margot Robbie, but Gosling steals the show.
It took me two viewings to truly appreciate what I was watching, but Andrew Scott is absolutely fantastic in All of Us Strangers. You can practically see his emotions ripping the poor guy apart, and yet Scott gives us something even more complex–a character who is tragically scarred yet optimistic about his future (or at least his present).
5. Barry Keoghan, Saltburn
I love me some Barry Keoghan, and the talented young actor is at it again with Saltburn. It’s hard to explain his role without giving everything away, but he somehow manages to be both (and simultaneously) likable and dangerously strange. Few actors can convey so much while also being mysterious as hell, but that’s Keoghan for you.
This is the Nicolas Cage we know and love. It’s hard to imagine many other actors pulling off what he does here, sprinkling a seemingly normal dramatic role with unhinged comedy and awkward freneticism.
Giamatti is so good in so many things he does it’s easy to discount him, especially in a movie like The Holdovers. But make no mistake: Giamatti (and The Holdovers) is absolutely excellent here, giving one of his best performances in years.
Mark Ruffalo, please take on more comedic roles. In Poor Things, the actor who is now known most for his role as the Hulk, digs deep to give one of the oddest, funniest, and intentionally pathetic performances of the year.
Anyone who has seen Poor Things knows what I’m talking about. This is one of the boldest, out-there, and unconventional performances of the year, and it’s Emma Stone’s career best. It’s also the best performance of 2023.
Want more? View my top 10 movies of 2023 list.
By Erik Samdahl