The Actors Who Defined 2022

This piece contains spoilers for "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery."

It's far too early to define the social and cultural significance of 2022. We're still reckoning with this year's most seismic events: the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and another spate of mass shootings targeting the most vulnerable among us. What artists will make of these developments — and how we will, in the long term, push back against or further acclimate to them — is, for now, a mystery. We're just now starting to get films and television shows dealing with the impact of #MeToo, Donald Trump's presidency, and the previous years' torrent of mass shootings.

The films of 2022 struggled with our rapidly shifting reality in surprising ways. Whatever you were expecting from Jordan Peele's "Nope," I'm going to guess that he left you reeling. Many of this year's films knocked me sideways, and the best of the bunch were led by performances that challenged my hopes and worries about where we're headed. Writers and directors tackle our troubling new world behind the scenes, but actors are the tip of the spear. They're the ones who draw blood. Here are ten performances that left scars.

Cate Blanchett - Tár

Oscar number three is deservedly en route to Cate Blanchett for her bravura turn as problematically brilliant composer/conductor Lydia Tár in Todd Field's finely nuanced character study that asks the audience to consider societal cancelation from the viewpoint of the cancelee. Field issues no judgment on Tár's behavior — which allows Blanchett to both enthrall and disgust us with her character's creative genius and personal transgressions. Watching Tár fine-tune her orchestra down to the minutest of details is every bit as exhilarating as her brazen manipulation of a soloist audition, based solely on her attraction to one of the cellists, is galling. She's out of line, and, as the walls close in due to past grooming efforts (a former protege has died by suicide), increasingly out of her mind.

"Tár" is a wheelhouse role for Blanchett, and she connects flush in scene after scene. We're dazzled by the character's insights into classical music, and get a kick out of her rhetorical grandstanding. She is an invaluable resource of knowledge, and, judging from what we learn about her from others, legitimately revered in her field. She is a force to be reckoned with, and, ultimately, hastens her own downfall by being the unapologetically obdurate genius she's apparently been since childhood. What do we do with uncompromising, undeniably gifted jerks like Tár? Field has no answers to that question, and, thankfully, he knows better than to undercut Blanchett's career-best performance with a clumsy, moralistic finale. The character may not deserve better, but the actor certainly does.

Michelle Williams - The Fabelmans

Even the most casual viewer of Steven Spielberg's films has probably sensed that the father of the modern blockbuster has daddy issues. Some of his characters have strained or nonexistent relationships with the ol' paterfamilias, which, as we've read time and again, reflects the filmmaker's resentment of his dad for splitting with his mother. So you might expect Spielberg's semi-autobiographical film about his childhood to make a dramatic meal out of his surrogate's interactions with his father.

But "The Fabelmans" is not that movie, at least, not exclusively. The film belongs in large part to Michelle Williams, whose portrayal of the eccentric, wonderstruck Mitzi Fabelman digs into Spielberg's complicated feelings about motherhood. Williams has been a must-watch performer for a while now. Her collaborations with director Kelly Reichardt have shown off her remarkable range, while her supporting turn in Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" is one of the most brutally wrenching expressions of parental grief I've ever seen. In "The Fabelmans," she captivates and flusters in equal measure as a mother with an artist's heart. As the film progresses, you realize Spielberg has worked through the daddy stuff. It's his mother who really messed him up, but, strangely, in a way that was loving and encouraging and, ultimately, responsible for his dedication to a dream-weaving craft. Williams plays a woman who lives every second as fully as possible, and who loves recklessly and, at times, selfishly. "The Fabelmans" might be Spielberg's story, but it is Williams' movie.

Michelle Yeoh - Everything Everywhere All at Once

The first time I saw Michelle Yeoh on the big screen, she jumped a motorcycle onto a moving train. There was no stunt person involved. She did it. Needless to say, I was in love.

It's a rough feat for a woman who studied ballet at England's Royal Academy of Dance, but as Yeoh would prove in martial arts classics like "Police Story 3: Supercop," "Tai Chi Master," and "Wing Chun," she's not afraid of a bruise or the odd broken bone. But since Yeoh broke through to the West in 2000 as Yu Shu Lien in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," filmmakers have struggled to write roles worthy of her daring — which isn't just physical, but emotional.

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka Daniels) stepped up this year in a big way with "Everything Everywhere All at Once," a rollicking, utterly surreal action film about a laundromat owner charged with saving the multiple universes from a catastrophic everything bagel. In the wrong hands, with the wrong cast, a film this brazenly bizarre could easily collapse under the weight of its own silliness. With Yeoh in the lead, you go along with all of it, including those hot-dog fingers, because her fearlessness has always been its own, glorious reward. This tour de force turn was a long time coming. May it just be the start of a brilliant second act.

Keke Palmer - Nope

Jordan Peele's "Nope" is a sci-fi/horror epic stuffed with jarringly uncommon spectacle. It's a movie that uses an alien invasion narrative as a backdrop to a rumination about Hollywood's checkered racial history, which gets unexpectedly teased out by the specter of a sitcom tragedy that, years later, has turned into a cash cow for one of the surviving cast members. "Nope" is a bewildering experience that, thematically, refuses to shake out cleanly. It's got a lot on its mind, much of which is conflicting, but there is, at its core, an invigoratingly bold performance from Keke Palmer.

Palmer is herself a survivor of the child actor trenches, but she didn't hit my radar until her immensely entertaining portrayal of the stripper Mercedes in Lorene Scafaria's terrific "Hustlers." As Em Haywood in "Nope," she taps into that show person energy, but only because her brother, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), is a laconic cowboy who's better with horses than humans. Palmer is a loud-and-proud business owner determined to keep the family's ranch relevant at a time when films and television are drifting away from practical (i.e. non-CG) elements. I may not have a solid read on "Nope" after two viewings, but I do know that Palmer, as magnetic and inventive a performer as I've encountered in the 21st century, is going to own the next decade.

Janelle Monáe - Glass Onion

This slide contains spoilers for "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery."

At the midpoint of "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery," you might find yourself wondering why an artist of Janelle Monáe's global fame and boundless talent took on a role that, by all appearances, has reached an unceremonious terminus. As the ostracized, seemingly principled member of a group of uber-ambitious young professionals, Monáe's Andi Brand apparently possesses the knowledge that will burn Edward Norton's tech billionaire Miles Bron and her one-time friends straight down to the ground. Well ... she does. But she's not Andi Brand. She's Andi's sister Helen. And she's in cahoots with Daniel Craig's super sleuth Benoit Blanc. And she's not dead.

Thank god. Every performance is on point in Rian Johnson's sequel to his surprise 2019 hit, but Monáe plays the only character with literal skin in the game. As Johnson walks us through the Southern-accented Helen's game planning with Blanc, we acquire a massive rooting interest and an extra dollop of contempt for Bron and his bootlicking buddies. Monáe's got a right to be hostile, and she catches fire in the film's final act when Bron seems guaranteed of a clean getaway. Johnson somehow topped the masterfully constructed "Knives Out" by accessing his ire for the state of our plutocratic planet, and Monáe gives us the conflagration we dearly desire.

Austin Butler - Elvis

Baz Luhrmann's biopic of the so-called King of Rock 'n' Roll had so very much going against it. In an age where the act of cultural appropriation is a crime punishable by cancellation, Elvis Presley is more of a devil than he's ever been. He built his career in part by recording great songs by Black performers like Big Mama Thornton and infused his rockabilly tracks with the swagger of rhythm and blues. He also fell in love with his eventual wife, Priscilla Beaulieu, when she was 14 years old. Elvis wasn't made for these times.

Luhrmann's movie doesn't refute Presley's problematic qualities, but it does get across — with the kind of go-for-broke verve the filmmaker hasn't exhibited consistently, confidently over the course of a feature since "Moulin Rouge!" — how Elvis changed the world. And if the old showbiz saw that directing is 90-percent casting, this is the most masterfully directed picture of Luhrmann's career. There have been very good portrayals of Elvis in the past (most notably Kurt Russell in John Carpenter's TV movie "Elvis"), but Austin Butler accomplishes the impossible. He summons the pelvis-thrusting, taboo-shattering appeal of the King, while, deep in the whirlwind of Luhrmann's visual histrionics, locating the Southern kid who did not survive what wound up being a prolonged childhood.

Colin Farrell - The Batman, After Yang, The Banshees of Inershin

We've been here before. After skyrocketing to fame at the age of 24 in Joel Schumacher's "Tigerland," and plunging headlong into a career-imperiling addiction to drugs and alcohol, Colin Farrell has been clean and sober and due an awards coronation. He was wonderful in "In Bruges," "The Lobster," and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has yet to nominate him for a solitary Oscar. It's a baffling state of affairs, and this year, he's competing against himself in a way he never has before.

Farrell was almost unrecognizable as The Penguin in Matt Reeves' engrossing, if overlong, "The Batman." In Hollywood, that's the kind of stunt performance that might get you over the Oscar hump, but Farrell had to go and give two beautifully nuanced portrayals in Koganda's melancholy sci-fi drama "After Yang" and Martin McDonagh's darkly comedic "The Banshees of Inisherin." The latter, which reunites him with his "In Bruges" director, is a powerful showcase for Farrell. The Irish actor plays against type as an intellectually incurious man who cannot understand why his best friend (Brendan Gleeson) has up and shunned him. We sympathize with him, but we also understand Gleeson's assessment of his one-time buddy. Watching Farrell grapple with this strange state of affairs was one of this year's greatest pleasures.

Ke Huy Quan - Everything Everywhere All at Once

The year's most unexpectedly satisfying comeback. Ke Huy Quan occupies a special place in the memories of certain Gen X film fans. He made his big-screen debut as the plucky, fast-talking, and plenty-capable Short Round in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," then quickly followed that up as the plucky, fast-talking, and plenty-capable Data in "The Goonies." As a pre-teen at the time, Quan seemed to have won a ticket to the chocolate factory. He saved Indy and saved himself via his "pinchers of power." His career was off to an amazing start ... and then he disappeared.

Quan's return as Waymond Wang, the timid husband of Michelle Yeoh's Evelyn Wang in Daniels' liberatingly exuberant "Everything Everywhere All at Once," arrives 37 years after "The Goonies." He wasn't preserved in amber. He's now 51 and loaded with life experiences, but our affection for him hasn't diminished a whit, and getting to see him spring to life in this gift of a movie brought me to tears. Please hang out for a while, Mr. Quan. We missed you, and we don't want you to go away again.

Edward Norton - Glass Onion

Ah, symmetry! Edward Norton broke through in Gregory Hoblit's "Primal Fear," where he plays a shy, stammering altar boy accused of killing the beloved Archbishop of a Chicago diocese. We sympathize tremendously with Norton's character until, in the final scene, after he's been cleared of murder, he drops his victim act and reveals that he's a cunning, cold-hearted psychopath.

In Rian Johnson's "Glass Onion," Norton comes on as an obnoxiously brilliant tech billionaire who can break down the future of the planet in one seemingly extemporaneous speech one second, and pick out the bridge to Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" on an acoustic guitar the next. He's convinced everyone in his orbit that he's got it all figured out. As portrayed by Norton, we buy it. But the breadcrumbs leading to the revelation of his slippery imbecility have been strewn about the narrative leading into the third act, and when Daniel Craig's Benoit Blanc breaks him down, we gasp at the effectiveness of the con job Norton has, once again, run on us. And it stings because a sadly significant chunk of the populace is still grappling with the idiocy of the character on which Bron was so clearly based.

Johnny Knoxville - Jackass Forever

Johnny Knoxville has survived a scary crash on a golf cart, getting flipped in the air (on rollerskates, because why) by a charging bull and, perhaps most miraculously, taking the worst of a fistic exchange (in a department store, because why not?) with doughy knockout artist, Butterbean.

Knoxville is 51 years old, and while he may not consider himself precious cargo, I do. He brought his band of masochistic clowns back to the big screen this year with "Jackass Forever," and took another gnarly shot from a bull. Knoxville typically pulls himself together and plays off the pain, walking off with a quip ("Is Butterbean okay?") and a smile. This time, the medical crew stabilizes his neck and lugs him out of the pen. He asks his director and longtime co-conspirator, Jeff Tremaine if they got the take. They did. There's been talk of further "Jackass" adventures, and they've certainly laid the groundwork by bringing on younger, equally reckless cast members. I'm game. But when it comes to inviting bodily harm, I hope Knoxville has subjected himself to his last rodeo. No one has made me laugh until I hurt like Johnny. Retire with what's left of your health, buddy.