Five critics from the Los Angeles Times took turns picking their three favorite characters from the past year in film. The choices that follow range from blockbuster leading lady, Wonder Woman, to the pint-sized breakout of indie darling “The Florida Project.”
Cyril Woodcock, played by Lesley Manville in “Phantom Thread”
“Don’t pick a fight with me. You won’t come out alive.” The most memorable moment in “Phantom Thread” doesn’t belong to its romantic leads — Daniel Day-Lewis as the fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock or Vicky Krieps as his latest paramour, Alma. It belongs to Cyril, Reynolds’ sister, confidant, business partner and platonic soul mate, the woman who keeps this beautiful London house and this impeccable operation in order. Manville’s performance, a silent symphony of withering glances that channels Judith Anderson in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” is mesmerizing in its ferocity but also in its unexpected flickers of compassion. You don’t just fear this woman; you revere her and long for her approval.
Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince in “The Florida Project”
As Moonee, a 6-year-old little rascal who exercises a reign of (mostly benign) terror over a derelict motel on the outskirts of Orlando, Prince is a force of nature, a running, screaming human joy-bomb. But for all that she doesn’t understand about the perilous world she calls home — least of all the harsh realities that her mother (Bria Vinaite) seeks to keep hidden from her — Moonee is also startlingly observant, and you sense that, like many forced to grow up too soon, she will emerge uniquely attuned to the pain of others. “I can always tell when adults are about to cry,” she says in one of her most telling moments, though it was Prince’s own climactic outburst that plunged me — twice! — into tears of my own.
Larry Reed, played by Algee Smith in “Detroit”
For most of Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing reconstruction of a racially charged 1967 confrontation at the Algiers Motel, the soul singer Larry Reed is one of several young men and women we see being trapped and senselessly brutalized. But before and after that nightmarish incident, we spend a few precious moments getting to know Larry, who, as beautifully played by Smith, comes off as an affable young man with a sly sense of mischief and a justifiable pride in his musical talent. The two times we hear him sing — first on an empty stage that beckons him toward fame, and later in a small church to which he has committed his life — are cumulatively shattering in their intimacy and hard-earned grace.
Christian Nielsen, played by Claes Bang in “The Square”
Christian Nielsen thinks he has it all together. His job as a museum curator affords him a great lifestyle while allowing him to easily overlook his own shortcomings. He doesn’t recognize the societal privilege he regularly benefits from and unwittingly wields. But “The Square” slowly dissolves his self-certainty and forces him to confront who he truly is underneath the polished, poised veneer. By the time the Cannes prize-winning film hit U.S. theaters in late October — amid the burgeoning revelations of harassment and abuse in Hollywood and beyond — its narrative of men asserting power while often oblivious to doing so took on the dangerous charge of a live powerline swinging free. Danish actor Bang is a revelation, conveying both Christian’s louche charm and growing moral confusion. In all walks of life, men are finding themselves forced to reconcile with how their behavior impacts others and their place in the modern world. Christian is a man of this moment.
Ingrid Thorburn, played by Aubrey Plaza in “Ingrid Goes West”
These are confusing times. One can spend an awful lot of energy asking “Who am I?” but also its adjunct “Who would I like to be?” Ingrid Thorburn personified those existential questions in a skewering satire of the social media era and its new codes of conduct, as online avatars and curated personalities become a hall of mirrors for one’s true sense of self. After physically attacking a woman she had been stalking on Instagram, Ingrid moves to Los Angeles and reinvents herself in the image of a seemingly blissful online influencer (played by Elizabeth Olsen). Plaza brings both an edge of aggression and a deep well of pathos to the role. For better or worse, there is a little Ingrid in many of us, struggling with the anxiety and sense of inadequacy that comes from peering into the lives of other people.
Ronsel Jackson, played by Jason Mitchell in “Mudbound”
For the earliest parts of “Mudbound,” Ronsel Jackson is talked about but not seen. He is off fighting in Europe during WWII as a sergeant in a tank battalion, and his letters to his family back home in Mississippi bring a pulse of adventure and achievement to their hardscrabble lives as tenant farmers. When he finally arrives back home, on a wave of movie star charisma courtesy of Mitchell, he is immediately thrown back into a world defined by racism and barriers he had grown used to living without. Late in the film, Ronsel travels a great distance simply to knock on a door. It is a moment that balances breathtaking tension with heartbreaking poignancy. He is stepping into a future he sees for himself, creating the world as he wants it to be, no longer accepting the world as presented to him.
Colin Warner, played by Lakeith Stanfield in "Crown Heights"
Unjustly accused individuals languishing in prison are a familiar cinematic situation, but Lakeith Stanfield's on-fire performance in this based-on-fact story is exceptional. With his hair in dreadlocks and his large, soulful eyes, the actor, who made an impressive debut in "Short Term 12" and went on to the FX series "Atlanta," is in such complete command of both the righteous anger and bottomless despair that alternate in Warner that he seems to be living the story more than acting it.
Maria Drazdechova, played by Zuzana Mauréry in "The Teacher"
She's Comrade Drazdechova to everyone, a seemingly pleasant and professional teacher and party member in 1983 Czechoslovakia, a time when communism was going strong. But, as masterfully played by Mauréry (who took the best actress prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival), Comrade Drazdechova is gradually revealed to be something much more complex: a shameless, devious manipulator of the system, an exploiter with a genius for taking advantage of both students and parents. A dazzling performance in a too-little-seen film.
Stefan Zweig, played by Josef Hader in "Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe"
During his heyday, Zweig was the most translated European writer on the planet, but when we meet him he was also an exile from Hitler's rule, coping with the chaos, displacement and uncertainty of being a nomad separated from the homeland whose language had always nourished him. Josef Hader, well known in Austria as, of all things, a comedian, is brilliant as Zweig. With a face that's muted, evocative and all but unreadable in repose, he puts us in touch with how deep the writer's rarely expressed sadness and melancholy ran.
Sister Sarah Joan, played by Lois Smith in “Lady Bird”
When was the last time you saw a nun in a movie who wasn’t brandishing a ruler or a withering putdown? “The Sound of Music”? (Even then, calling poor Maria a flibbertigibbet isn’t exactly helpful.) In “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig gets a lot right in her portrayal of Catholic school education, starting with Smith’s wise, compassionate principal, Sister Sarah Joan. Lady Bird, like a lot of high school seniors, doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. But she wrote a pretty good essay about Sacramento, and the good sister compliments her on the writing. “I pay attention,” Lady Bird says. “Isn’t that what love is?” Sister Sarah Joan replies, the question itself embodying her own grace and goodness.
Marina Vidal, played by Daniela Vega in “A Fantastic Woman”
Self-assertion against the patriarchy is front and center in “A Fantastic Woman,” with Daniela Vega playing a Chilean transgender waitress and part-time cabaret singer standing up for her basic rights and dignity after the death of her lover. In the face of hostility and humiliation, Marina is difficult, direct and often defensive. How could she not be, given the world in which she lives? But she endures and, ultimately, transcends the limitations being forced on her. Fantastic doesn’t even begin to describe this woman.
Dina, played by Tiffany Haddish in “Girls Trip”
We need friends. Not just friends who’ll like our social media posts, but loyal companions who know when to speak truth, when to offer comfort and when to remove the hoop earrings and brandish a broken wine bottle. Haddish’s Dee says she would die for her friends, and “Girls Trip” offers plenty of evidence that we should take her promise at face value. Haddish, born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, spent decades honing her outrageous comedic talent, waiting for a showcase. She makes the most of the opportunity, delivering every line and gesture with perfect timing and maximum detonation. Bring on the sequels.
Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman”
In a year of powerful moves by women onscreen and off, the first superheroine of the modern comic book movie era brought humor and heart with her as she leapt off the page onto the screen. As embodied by the effervescent Gadot, director Patty Jenkins’ take on Diana of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta injected compelling character work and depth back into a superhero genre overstuffed with bland, spandexed heroes. Here was a Wonder Woman we needed: compassionate, confident and powerful. Principled and courageous. Curious and kind. And a hero who doesn’t need a mother named Martha to chart the right course (she had an island full of brave women to show her the way).
Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”
The best new addition writer-director Rian Johnson made to the galaxy far, far away. The first Asian woman to be featured heavily in the “Star Wars” franchise’s 40 years, Rose’s journey begins before we even meet her onscreen as we witness the heartwrenchingly heroic actions of her sister Paige, a gunner in the Resistance. Paige’s fate is inextricably tied to the awakening of Rose’s own valor and her belief that she too can and should be as much a part of the action as anyone else. Her transformation from Resistance mechanic/#1 rebel fangirl to battlefield soldier is one of the film’s truest arcs — and Tran’s infectious charisma cracks open the door to wanting to know more about Rose’s past and future.
Valkryie, played by Tessa Thompson in “Thor: Ragnarok”
Casting Thompson as the Marvel comics warrioress was one of the most inspired moves director Taika Waititi made in “Thor: Ragnarok.” How lucky we were to get a superheroine this surprisingly complex: Unmistakably powerful, haunted by her own demons, and wholly unimpressed by Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. Who couldn’t relate to Valkryie, drowning herself in drink to forget the past she couldn’t change, numbing herself to life to avoid her fullest potential? She might be Asgardian, but the protector-turned-bounty hunter is so utterly human that watching her embrace her heroine’s destiny once more — with the swagger of a cosmic Cardi B, making bloody moves across the universe — was one of the most satisfying blockbuster moments of the year.