At a film festival there are certain people you expect to blow you away, and that was true at Cannes this year where well-established movie stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert de Niro, Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, and Scarlett Johansson delivered top tier work. But even more thrilling is when an actor surprises you, either coming out of nowhere to deliver something astonishing or reinventing themselves in incredible new context.
In the theaters dotting the Croisette you could find plenty of the latter, as everyone from Riverdale hotties to indie darlings gave performances that stood out in films from directors like Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes. Some of these debuts will likely turn into Oscar campaigns later in the years, others may not, but all are definitely worth your time.
Charles Melton, May December
Last year, Cannes kicked off Austin Butler’s CW-to-superstar transition with Elvis. This year, it’s looking like the fest is going to do the same for Riverdale‘s Charles Melton. Melton stars opposite the heavyweight pair of Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in Todd Haynes’ highly praised new film May December. He plays Joe Atherton-Yoo, a now 36 year-old suburban dad, who had a sexual relationship with his then 36-year-old boss at a pet store when he was in the seventh grade. He’s now married to that woman (played by Moore), and they have three kids—one already away at college and a pair of twins about to be.
The movie’s plot revolves around the arrival of an actress (Portman) who intends to play Moore’s character in a movie, but while the ladies play mind games with each other, it’s Melton who gives the film its emotional heft. With protruding beer belly, Melton is unmoored as a man who has rarely grappled with the childhood experience that shaped the rest of his life. Melton’s appearance in May December is the kind that audiences reconsider what they think of him, and could very well lead to a supporting actor nomination. After all, Netflix bought the film out of Cannes for $11 million, and likely plans for an awards push.
Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon
There’s one actor on this list who is a surefire contender for an Oscar nomination, if not an early pick to win, and that’s Lily Gladstone for Killers of the Flower Moon. Gladstone first caught viewers’ attention in Kelly Reichdardt’s 2016 film Certain Women, where she plays a lonely ranch hand who becomes quietly infatuated with a teacher portrayed by Kristen Stewart. Though that was a small movie with slim awards hopes, there were definitely arguments she should have been nominated then. Now, playing Mollie Burkhardt in Martin Scorsese’s epic based on the David Grann nonfiction book of the same name, should do the trick.
Scorsese’s version of the story centers on the relationship between Mollie (Gladstone)—a member of the Osage nation, a tribe that had great wealth in the 1920s because of the oil on their land—and Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio), a white man who falls in love with her and her money. In the early scenes, their chemistry is palpable as Gladstone conveys her wary attraction to him. As the saga progresses, however, and Mollie’s family members begin to get murdered in a plot orchestrated by Ernest’s uncle (Robert De Niro), Gladstone lets the pain of this genocide seep into her face and her body language. While DiCaprio is getting rightful commendations for his own performance in the film, with some saying it’s the best of his career, Gladstone is right there by his side, establishing herself as one of the most impressive actresses working today.
Killers of the Flower Moon hits theaters on October 6, 2023.
Talia Ryder, The Sweet East
Talia Ryder has been slowly emerging as a talent to watch in the likes of acclaimed indie Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Netflix’s teen flick Do Revenge, but she has never had a role like Lillian in The Sweet East. In the indie from director Sean Price Williams, best known for his cinematography, she stars as a South Carolina teen who ditches her high school trip to Washington D.C. for a deranged traipse across the East Coast, falling in with some anarchists, a polite white supremacist played by Simon Rex, filmmakers played by Jeremy O. Harris and Ayo Edebiri, and more. Lillian appears beautiful and passive, a cipher for others to spout their ideologies at. But that’s an illusion. Instead, in Ryder’s hands, Lillian is a culture tourist with a canny sense of self who is playing others as much as they are projecting onto her. She also has a full on musical number at the beginning and a lovely voice.
Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest
Followers of Cannes are well aware of German actress Sandra Hüller, whose film Toni Erdmann was one of the festival breakouts in 2016. But this year was the year of Hüller at Cannes where she starred in both Jonathan Glazer’s unsettling Nazi film The Zone of Interest and Justine Triet’s fascinating courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall. The latter is the showier role for her in which she plays a novelist whose husband is found dead, supposedly having fallen out a window of their rustic home in the French Alps. She’s accused of murder and stands trial without the audience ever knowing the truth of what really happened. That mystery is central to what’s so stunning about Hüller’s performance. She allows us to feel like we understand parts of this woman, even as we question whether she is capable of killing.
In Zone of Interest, we know she is capable of monstrosities—or at least standing by as monstrosities happen—as Hedwig Höss, the wife of the commandant of Auschwitz. It’s eerie how Hüller (and her co-star Christian Friedel) fully inhabit these people as we watch them going about their daily lives just adjacent to the horror next door.
Jake Ryan, Asteroid City
Wes Anderson’s films have vast ensembles, but if there’s an unexpected standout in his latest, Asteroid City, it’s Jake Ryan, who plays Woodrow Steenbeck, the genius child of Jason Schwartzman’s war photographer Augie Steenbeck. (In the context of Anderson’s meta film they are also both actors playing actors playing these roles, but that’s just a testament to the skill of the performers.) You might know Ryan from his sweet turn in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade as a dorky boy who likes chicken nuggets, and here he excels as a different flavor of nerd. The actor is a perfect match for Anderson’s erudite, rhythmic dialogue as he embodies a teen who literally wears the nickname “Brainiac” on his shirt pocket. That he’s playing Jason Schwartzman’s son on screen almost feels like a passing of the torch: Maybe Ryan will be Anderson’s new muse.
Asteroid City hits theaters June 16, 2023.
Josh O’Connor, La Chimera
Josh O’Connor made a name for himself playing Charles on The Crown, but for those who only know him from that buttoned up Netflix drama, get ready to see the breadth of his talent in Alice Rorwacher’s La Chimera. Here, O’Connor plays Arthur, an Englishman in 1980s Italy with an almost magical ability to sense where Etruscan treasures are buried in tombs. He makes his living as this sort of grave robber, selling the antiquities to dealers. The nature of his job nags at his soul all the while he mourns the loss of his one great love. Throughout the film, which is at turns mystical, whimsical, and melancholy, O’Connor speaks mostly in intentionally broken Italian when he speaks at all. He also has a disheveled air about him that is nonetheless entrancing. Arthur keeps people at an arm’s length, but O’Connor invites you to lean in and learn more. It’s the start of an impressive year for the actor, which also will include the next Luca Guadagnino film, Challengers.
This post was originally published on W Magazine
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