Best Performances of 2018

The movies and the plays and the TV shows are great, but what about the people in them? They’re right here — well, some of the very best are.

The Shredding Banksy

O.K., the painting was actually called “Girl With Balloon,” and it wasn’t meant to stay a painting. Not after it was sold at Sotheby’s for $1.4 million. Banksy’s plan was for the frame to feed the piece through a hidden shredder, leaving a pile of canvas ribbons and landing him a most lucrative moment of Tim Burton-era Batman villainy. But something went wrong with the shredding, so a prank metaphor for art-world excrement managed to look, gloriously, like art that actually was having an accident.

Billy Porter, ‘Pose’

Everything about this show — set in New York City’s gay ball scene of the 1980s — leaps over the top. The clothes leap, so do the music, décor and names (Billy Porter’s ballroom M.C. goes by Pray Tell). But Porter does something huger than leaping. When he isn’t blasting out runway themes (“The category is: Executive Realness”) or smart-bombing errant contestants, he trades flamboyance for angst (medical, personal and existential). He becomes the living embodiment of what the racists and rock snobs could never hear in great disco: the blues.

[Why I love the soundtrack to “Pose.”]

Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, ‘Killing Eve’

This is a cat-and-mouse show that’s either about two cats or two mice. It’s a thriller. But it’s also a comedy, and these two women are inventive about how to be funny in a thriller. Oh is a sociopathically neurotic intelligence agent. Comer is a whimsically psychopathic assassin. And in at least two or three scenes, the comedy is the thrill, like when Comer wants Oh to unlock her phone at gunpoint. Oh has to perform mortified stress in mumbling the password and Comer has to summon judgy exasperation after she hears it: “1, 2, 3, 4.” They make run-of-the mill embarrassment seem more lethal than any bullet.

Beyoncé’s Company, Coachella

Last April, the universe genuflected before Beyoncé after she wrapped a major music festival around her baby toe. Some of us are still on our knees. But as good as she was, the dancers and marching band and majorettes she brought with her — part black-college halftime extravaganza, part Fela Kuti marathon; workers to her queen — might have been even better, their virtuosity reinforcing hers. At this point Beyoncé is a guaranteed intoxicant, but the bodies and musicianship surrounding her left me drunk in love, too.

@JayNedaj, ‘Black Christmas Movies Be Like …’

Vine is dead. But Jay Nedaj lives! On Twitter. His microdramedies are bouillon cubes of black satire — criminally salty. In “Black Christmas Movies Be Like …” he plays every gender and any emotion — often at the same time and with a relish worthy of the Emmy, Oscar, Tony and Razzie (also at the same time). Some truly deft editing (and amazing wigs) gathers Nedaj’s characters from individual shots into a complete family of black-movie clichés. The result is a kind of gospel Muppet Dada that is etched somehow not only in parody but in warmth. He cuts because he cares.

‘Black Mirror’ Season 4 Power Rankings

1. Andrea Riseborough, “Crocodile”

2. Letitia Wright, “Black Museum”

3. Jesse Plemons, “U.S.S. Callister”

4. Kiran Sonia Sawar, “Crocodile”

5. The dog, “Metalhead”

6. Maxine Peake, “Metalhead”

7. Joe Cole, “Hang the DJ”

8. Georgina Campbell, “Hang the DJ”

9. Douglas Hodge, “Black Museum”

10. Cristin Milioti, “U.S.S. Callister”

Lucas Hedges

The most original young actor in America is also the busiest. In the last year or so, he was the best thing in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” one of the highlights of “Lady Bird” and “Mid90s,” the centerpiece of two issue movies — about the opioid crisis (“Ben Is Back”) and about gay-conversion therapy (“Boy Erased”) — and Kenneth Lonergan’s dementia tragedy, “The Waverly Gallery,” now on Broadway. Hedges works in a unclassifiable style. He can be deceptively gentle or misguidedly thuggish and delivers dialogue with an upside-down transparency, but with no bogus intensity or bravado. Scarily enough, there’s an eternity for him to get somehow stronger. The most original young actor in America is just 21.

Matt Damon, ‘Saturday Night Live’

There are current and former “SNL” cast members who specialize in the parody of entitled yet “endangered” whiteness. But would any of them have embodied it with Damon’s gusto — or his gullet? He fills his Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh with righteous hot air, emotional steroids, water and “water.” On one hand, what Damon pulled off was cathartic caricature. On the other, it was a heroic, 13-minute bench-press grunt.

Zain Al Rafeea, ‘Capernaum’

Every once in a while, you leave a movie having seen a performance that mocks all the other acting that came before it. It’s performance of such rigor, realness and nerve, of personality and will, that there ought to be some other, bigger word for what you’ve watched. That’s Al Rafeea in Nadine Labaki’s drama, which burrows way down into the human costs of the Syrian war. He plays an urchin who sues his parents for bringing him into all this hell and spends the movie trying to skim its surfaces on his own. Al Rafeea is 14 now and not a trained actor, but he works with this pungent mix of sweetness, swagger and steel. You stagger home from Labaki’s achievement heartbroken but also in awe of the little man who dominates it.

Meshell Ndegeocello, ‘Ventriloquism’

Where has this album been all my life? It’s a collection of covers of 1980s and ’90s hits, so, to be fair, the answer is “on other people’s albums.” But Ndegeocello is a visionary and a sensualist who sings with notes of honey, molasses and tar. Here, she finds the foundational groove of each song — Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity” — then builds a new house around it, making the songs all hers, and with a blend of funk and twang that makes them suitable for both sexy time and the front porch.

The Cast of ‘Oklahoma!’

Excavation seems like an inherent aspect of revivals. This one, directed by Daniel Fish for a too-short run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, implied that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 original, about land-grab-era romance, was built on a graveyard. For more than an hour, it lets the show’s sexual strangeness speak for itself. But the second half becomes an act of historical possession that culminates with the cast (which included Rebecca Naomi Jones, Damon Daunno, and Mary Testa) doing the final number (“Oklahoma” itself) as a mass eruption. Riotous violence made Oklahoma Oklahoma. The people in this show helped offer the most devastating musical proof I’ve ever had that that rage came to make America “America,” too.

Sarah Koenig, ‘Serial’

This podcast does so many important, moral things right that it feels absurd to pre-empt any serious consideration of the current season’s spelunking into the racism and wholesale injustice of Cleveland’s criminal justice system and police force to note that Koenig is giving a stupendous weekly performance, not only as a journalist but as a narrator. She’s the best in the art form. You can hear her eyes roll, her skin pimple, her heart sink, and as she’s putting all of this across, you don’t know what she’s reading (maybe everything) and what’s extemporaneous, but it all feels natural. She’s gone from the blinkered faux-amateur-sleuth of Season 1 to a more hardened soul who presents the most appalling of the city’s (and by extension, the country’s) outrages with the wisdom of someone who might be accepting the things she (probably) cannot change.

Winston Duke, ‘Black Panther’

This guy is such a commanding leader in his handful of scenes as a rival tribal goliath that I’m not above admitting I wanted to see him run Wakanda for just, like, the week. But Duke is also a commanding enough actor — funny, shameless, imposing (imagine if Orson Welles joined the W.W.E.) — that he basically declares himself a future star. His wink-wink haughtiness pretty much steals a movie that was already funny, sexy and beefy yet apparently in need of a meatiness only Duke provides: baked ham.

Wesley Morris is a critic-at-large. He was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at the Boston Globe. He has also worked at Grantland, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. @wesley_morris

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