best of 2023

The 25 Best Performances of 2023

From films to live concert experiences to real life—yes, Gwyneth Paltrow at her ski accident trial counts—here are the 25 performers we couldn’t stop watching this year.
The 25 Best Performances of 2023
Gwyneth Paltrow: RICK BOWMER/POOL/AFP/Getty Images; Steven Yeun:Andrew Cooper/Netflix; Viola Davis: Courtesy of Lionsgate.

It’s strange but true: Not all the best performances of 2023 come from the best movies of 2023 and the best TV shows of 2023. Sure, Vanity Fair loved watching a variety of skilled performers tear up the screen in our favorite comedies, dramas, and surrealist postmodern experiments. But we were also captivated by performances on the stage, in concert arenas, on TikTok, and in real life (if a live streamed Utah courtroom counts as real life). Below, find the 25 performers who most captured our hearts and minds this year, in everything from Oscar-worthy films to slightly less highbrow media.

By Kevin Mazur/Getty Images.

Beyoncé, the Renaissance World Tour

You know she brings it to you every ball. Beyoncé delivered a mind-bogglingly impressive concert when she embarked on her Renaissance World Tour this past May, performing her Grammy-winning album in stadiums across 12 countries and 39 cities. While rumors of a foot injury swirled and made some fans nervous, you would never have been able to tell from the performance she gave. There’s a reason Rolling Stone called her the world’s greatest living entertainer of the past decade: Not one note was out of tune, not one step was out of place. Beyond sheer talent, Beyoncé made sure every detail of the show was exquisite, from the overall aesthetic—silver and denim will never be the same—to the viral moments she created (I pity the fool who doesn’t know how to respond to Bey’s command: “Everybody on mute!”). With guest appearances by her daughter Blue Ivy and a back-breaking mini ballroom dance break led by the voguing diva Honey Balenciaga, even the rare moments when Beyoncé wasn’t commanding the stage were captivating. With Renaissance, Beyoncé proved yet again that she’s in a class all her own when it comes to performing live, and that she’s only getting better with age. Long live the queen. —Chris Murphy

By HBO Max.

Kim Cattrall, And Just Like That…

Seventy seconds. That’s how long Cattrall’s saucy Sex and the City PR maven, Samantha Jones, graced our screens during her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance in the And Just Like That… season two finale. But 70 seconds was all it took for Miss Jones to work her way back into our hearts with her patented cadence (oh, honey!) and fabulous fashion sense. Cattrall may have sought sartorial help from original Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field for the occasion, but Samantha Jones could have been wearing a paper bag for all we care. Simply seeing her on the phone with Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie was more than enough to warm the heart of any die-hard SATC fan. And despite rumors of bad feelings behind the scenes, Cattrall brought her A game to the event. We may have waited an entire season for about a minute’s worth of content, but in that 70 seconds, Cattrall reminded everyone how irreplaceable Samantha Jones really is. —C.M.

Kate Chastain, The Traitors

Less than two weeks into January, one of the year’s best reality-TV performances had already been delivered. Chastain threw down the gauntlet by going against the grain; in a landscape dominated by personalities desperate to stay on their respective shows, she earned the spotlight by pleading with contestants to eliminate her on the Peacock reality-competition series. After six seasons as chief stewardess on Bravo’s Below Deck, Chastain wasted no time in establishing herself as a reality star who, when plugged into the right environment (in this case, a Scottish castle crammed with Big Brother, Survivor, and Bachelor alums), knows just how to bring the heat. Speaking to Vanity Fair after her star turn, Chastain explained, “I had trust issues going in, which I think everybody should have. I don’t trust anybody that has a French bulldog. I don’t trust anybody who’s a vegan. I don’t trust anybody who backs into a parking spot. I do not trust people for all sorts of reasons. So I didn’t trust anybody in the castle. Because, PS, the name of the show is Traitors.” —Savannah Walsh

By Sean Zanni/Getty Images.

Jodie Comer, Prima Facie

Perhaps no Broadway performance this year was as difficult and breakneck as Comer’s work in Suzie Miller’s one-woman play. Playing a barrister processing her own sexual assault, Comer swerved from grand rhetoric about the law to moments of deep personal pain, alone onstage for the show’s entire run. It was a staggering piece for its technical accomplishment alone: Holding that kind of focus (and remembering all those lines!) is a feat of athleticism. But Comer also brought great nuance to the role, never losing crucial detail amid the grand swirl of the performance. She was utterly riveting, drawing audiences toward the heat and intensity of the narrative as only truly great storytellers can. —Richard Lawson

By Max.

Carrie Coon, The Gilded Age

I don’t even think I like Bertha Russell, but I cannot get enough of Coon’s delicious performance as this status-obsessed wife of a robber baron. I shouldn’t care about who gets a luxury box in the rival opera houses that divide old money from new in 1883 New York. I’m appalled by the way she views those from the working class as almost a subhuman species, and I roll my eyes at the overwrought manners and ceremony that preoccupy Bertha and her peers. But Coon is so mesmerizing precisely because she doesn’t even try to make her character sympathetic. Bertha’s zeal to climb the ladder is practically demonic, shaking loose those condescending fussbudgets and sociopaths already at the top. Her heedless clamber threatens to fracture the ladder itself and maybe even topple the broader sociopolitical structure it leans upon. I love the chaos and barely contained fury she brings to a world that seems so cruel and out of touch. Burn it down, sis: A Pyrrhic victory still counts as a win! —Anthony Breznican

By Murray Close/Lionsgate.

Viola Davis, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

Those who begin their year by becoming an EGOT should end it by diving into the most scenery-chewing role imaginable. The Hunger Games franchise has reliably provided award-winning actors the opportunity to frolic, from a mustache-twirling Donald Sutherland as President Snow to the booze-soaked sincerity of Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy. But unlike the way Julianne Moore shows steely restraint in the Mockingjay films, Davis leaves it all on the arena floor as Volumnia Gaul, a mad-scientist game maker whose evil knows no bounds. As Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes star Tom Blyth told Vanity Fair, “I expected her to be super serious, but she’s coming in and she’s playing…. Then at the end of the day, she’s like, ‘Well, that was fun. Cool. I’m going to have a margarita.’” Rest assured, it’s well deserved. —S.W.

By Netflix.

Colman Domingo, Rustin and The Color Purple

The year 2023 was truly Domingo’s. After years of turning in celebrated, sometimes award-winning supporting roles in projects like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Euphoria, Domingo finally received his first top-of-the-call-sheet leading role with Netflix’s Rustin. As Bayard Rustin, the oft-unsung queer civil rights activist and organizer of the March on Washington, Domingo electrifies every frame, channeling Rustin’s passion for change and his refusal to compromise in the face of both racism and homophobia while going toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, and Chris Rock. Domingo also steals scenes in The Color Purple as Mister, the banjo-plucking, mean-mugging villain of the film, who also goes through what may be its biggest transformation. With Rustin and The Color Purple, Domingo showcases his range and talent, proving that he’s not just a veteran character actor—he’s a movie star. —C.M.

Cole Escola, Our Home Out West

Escola has long been one of New York City’s most valuable cultural treasures, a piercingly smart and amiably silly writer-performer who mixes archly comic drag pastiche with disarming sincerity. This year they released Our Home Out West, a fake TV pilot from yesteryear in which Escola plays a multitude of characters, from a brothel madam with a heart of gold to a queeny small-town preacher to a prim boarding house proprietor. It’s a thorough, and thoroughly delightful, piece of work, which Escola generously made available on YouTube for free on Thanksgiving. Watch Our Home Out West and then go explore the rest of Escola’s oeuvre. What awaits you is a fascinating array of high-low humor, staggeringly precise homage, and gonzo flair unique to Escola. They really might be the funniest person alive—and one of the best actors of their generation. —R.L.

By Amazon.

Ronald Gladden, Jury Duty

Sometimes the best performance is the one you don’t know you’re giving. That was certainly the case for Gladden, the normie who captured hearts on Amazon Freevee’s Jury Duty. Gladden didn’t know he was being filmed, or that he was serving on the jury for an entirely fake trial. But as the absurdity mounted around him, he reacted with kindness, charm, and complete authenticity. Not even an outrageously self-centered James Marsden or a nearly disastrous night out at a Margaritaville phased Gladden, who was rewarded with $100,000 and newfound fame for maintaining his strength of character. It’s hard to believe others in his shoes would have acted with such civility. —Natalie Jarvey

By Warner Bros / Everett Collection.

Ryan Gosling, Barbie

What an increasingly rare joy it is to watch an icon emerge in front of your eyes. One hundred years from now, in montages about the magic of the movies (or whatever they’re calling them by then), they’ll be showing clips of “I’m Just Ken,” putting Gosling’s baffled Ken face on a cinematic Mount Rushmore next to Cary Grant’s smirk or The Passion of Joan of Arc. Does a himbo based on a doll deserve that kind of treatment? Ask yourself how much dimmer the world would be without Kenergy or that white fur coat, and you’ll know the answer is yes. —Katey Rich

By Eike Schroter/Netflix.

Mark Hamill, The Fall of the House of Usher

If you know anything about Hamill’s work beyond Luke Skywalker, you’ve seen (or heard) what an extraordinary villain he can be. From voicing the Joker in decades of animated Batman TV shows and movies, to playing the deceptive dad who fakes an apocalypse in 2017’s Brigsby Bear, to (going even further back) playing the murderous priest in John Carpenter’s 1995 remake of Village of the Damned, Hamill has indulged the darkness. Midnight Mass creator Mike Flanagan gave him another colorful poison flower to add to this bouquet with the scene-stealing role of Arthur Gordon Pym in The Fall of the House of Usher. Pym is the ruthless attorney and fixer for the corrupt family whose collapse is chronicled in the modern-day Edgar Allan Poe remix. Stooped and snarling, Pym looks and sounds nothing like the Hamill audiences know, suggesting a coiled soul and merciless competence. When one character compares him to the grim reaper in The Seventh Seal, Pym accepts it as a compliment: “Love Bergman,” Hamill grumbles. Eventually, given the chance to renegotiate his own doom, Pym refuses. The relentless predator always knew his story would end with him as prey. —A.B.

By Neon / Everett Collection.

Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall

Midway through Justine Triet’s beguiling drama—part courtroom thriller, part somber inspection of the compromises of marriage—Hüller tucks into a marital-argument scene so bruising and so foundation-altering that you can practically feel the room rumbling. It is, perhaps, the film’s defining scene. What a testament to Hüller’s marvelous performance, then, that her quieter moments—of grief, of creeping dread, of solitary frustration—register just as potently. Hüller is also fantastic, chillingly so, in this year’s The Zone of Interest, but it’s the tricky portraiture of Anatomy that is her crowning achievement. Shifting between languages and darting in and out of shadows of doubt, Hüller is a wonder, both fully bared and maddeningly inscrutable. —R.L.

By CBS/Paramount +.

Brandon Scott Jones, Ghosts and The Other Two

Chances are you don’t need me to tell you how great the CBS sitcom Ghosts is; the series is a rare streaming-age success story for network TV. But if you haven’t yet been charmed by this gentle comedy about a collection of spirits who haunt a Hudson Valley bed-and-breakfast, I highly recommend giving it a try. And though everyone in the show’s sprawling ensemble is doing great work, Jones is especially compelling as Revolutionary War–era ghost Isaac Higgintoot. A pompous Continental Army officer who was also, until very recently in the show’s timeline, a closeted gay man, Isaac could easily have been as one-dimensional as his implausibly silly last name. But in Jones’s hands, he’s got layers—and his romance with British officer ghost Nigel (John Hartman) is genuinely sweet. It’s all the more impressive knowing that Jones shot this series while simultaneously delivering a poignant turn as a wronged best friend on The Other Two, another of 2023’s best comedies. The man’s got range! —Hillary Busis

By A24/Everett Collection.

Greta Lee, Past Lives

As she tells it, Lee has been waiting her whole career for a role like that of Nora in Past Lives. Known for her more supporting comedic work on shows like Russian Doll, Lee took on a much more demanding task with Celine Song’s sweeping romance centered on a woman whose childhood sweetheart from Korea comes to visit her in New York. Song’s directorial debut rests on Lee’s shoulders—and she delivers. For much of the film, we’re experiencing Nora’s internal examination of her past through Lee’s eyes and subtle changes in facial expression and demeanor. It all leads to a cathartic release on a New York sidewalk, which sees Lee bring the entire film home—leaving us as tear-soaked messes examining our own pasts, lost loves, and lives that could have been lived. —Rebecca Ford

By Lions Gate/Everett Collection.

Rachel McAdams, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

How thankless it can be to play the mother in a movie about children—and how incredible it is to see McAdams turn the cliché on its head in Kelly Fremon Craig’s warm, achingly real adaptation of Judy Blume’s classic. It’s still Margaret’s story, from her friendship with Grandma Sylvia to “we must, we must, we must increase our bust.” But all the while, her mother, Barbara, is coping with her own transformation, adapting to life in the suburbs and grieving her severed relationship with her own parents. McAdams makes it clear that adolescence can be just as wild a ride for the parents, sometimes with even more complex emotions to go with it. —K.R.

By Seacia Pavao/MAX.

Bebe Neuwirth, Julia

Amidst one of TV’s most underrated ensembles, Neuwirth gives a soulful, electric performance as Avis DeVoto, Julia Child’s pen pal turned career adviser, that rises above. In some episodes, she’s a delightful foil to former Frasier costar David Hyde Pierce’s Paul Child. In others, like those involving Avis’s burgeoning romance with Danny Burstein’s Stanley Lipschitz, Neuwirth is able to plumb new depths. Throughout the season, Avis wrestles with allowing another person into her orbit. Neuwirth makes each conflicting feeling feel utterly urgent. And—no spoilers—there hasn’t been a martini toss on TV this satisfying since Anjelica Huston’s GIF-yielding work on NBC’s Smash.S.W.

By RICK BOWMER/Getty Images.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Ski Accident Trial

This March, we called Paltrow’s ski accident trial the best show on television—and eight months later, we stand by that proclamation. The Oscar winner served iconic courtroom looks on the aisle (aviators indoors!) and poised solemnity on the witness stand. (“Well, I lost half a day of skiing” is arguably more memorable than any line Paltrow has delivered in her career.) The live streamed trial scene was absurd—a retired optometrist suing a world-famous celebrity for an injury sustained at a posh ski resort—and inspired many a meme. The jury eventually sided with Paltrow, finding her not at fault for the collision. But the actor delivered her coup de grâce—a button better than any writer could have scripted—upon exiting the courtroom, when she leaned down to her opponent and told him, “I wish you well.” The trial has already inspired a musical, Gwyneth Goes Skiing, that will premiere in London next month. —Julie Miller

By Focus Features/Everett Collection.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers

Randolph’s breakout role came just a few years ago—opposite Eddie Murphy in 2019’s *Dolemite Is My Name—*and she’s dropped in for some memorable supporting appearances in the years since, from TV series High Fidelity and Only Murders in the Building to films including The Lost City and Rustin. But in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, Randolph proves her ability to settle in for a character-driven story that’s stripped of distraction and focused solely on her skills as an actor. As Mary, a school cafeteria administrator who is also grieving the recent loss of her son, Randolph captures maternal pain while never allowing the grief to feel clichéd. Whenever she’s onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off her layered, nuanced performance in this moving dramedy. —R.F.

By Noam Galai/Getty Images.

Martin Scorsese, TikTok

This is the year that Scorsese put in the work. When the actors strike prevented his cast from participating in most of the press rollout for Killers of the Flower Moon, the legendary director was game for just about any media opportunity, from his contemplative GQ interview to a nearly 30-minute video sit-down with Timothée Chalamet. But nowhere has he been more endearing, more loose, and more himself than on his daughter’s TikTok. Francesca Scorsese, 24, has been featuring her 81-year-old father on her TikTok channel for more than a year, but her videos began to draw notice as the promotional cycle for Killers heated up. There, he’s just a dad participating in the kinds of silly stunts that all parents of a Gen Z’er are eventually roped into. In one video, he guesses the meaning of modern slang while a voice filter makes him sound like an Oompa-Loompa. In another, he participates in a Letterboxd-affiliated movie-ranking game that sees him ultimately select 2001: A Space Odyssey as his top film. The sweetest post is a 22-second sizzle reel of sorts—with the caption: “He’s a certified silly goose”—featuring behind-the-scenes moments of the dad and daughter. As one TikToker observed in the comments on Francesca’s film-ranking video: “Casually having Martin Scorsese as a family member is exhilarating.” —N.J.

By Searchlight Pictures/ Everett Collection.

Andrew Scott, All of Us Strangers

Scott’s turn in All of Us Strangers often feels like a magic trick. In the biggest film role of his career, the Irish stage veteran and Fleabag Hot Priest plays a struggling screenwriter drawn back to his family home outside of London, where he encounters his long-dead parents in the form of Claire Foy and Jamie Bell. Which is to say: at the same age as when he was a child. Andrew Haigh’s ghostly drama tasks Scott with stepping into a juvenile physicality without the conceit feeling gimmicky. But Scott emotionally strips himself down so completely that what results is a work of profound vulnerability, attuned to the experience and shadow of grief on a visceral level. That he simultaneously makes for a steamy romantic lead, falling for a mysterious new neighbor (played by Paul Mescal) amid the metaphysical twists, speaks to just how rich the performance is—a mosaic of deep, painful feeling. —David Canfield

By Searchlight Pictures/Everett Collection.

Emma Stone, Poor Things and The Curse

Over the last 15 years, Stone has evolved from affable teen star to Oscar-winning starlet to the person we find her as now: a nimble, surprising artist with fine taste. In 2023, Stone played both a lurching Frankensteinian creation and a calculating wannabe lifestyle guru with equal daring and aplomb. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s new coming-of-age epic, Poor Things, Stone is tasked with mapping decades’ worth of personal growth over the course of a little more than two hours. She does so with keen physical affect and verbal agility, creating a character who’s frightening and lovable at once. Stone does another magic trick on Showtime’s The Curse, revealing ever more layers of an aspiring HGTV star as selfishness and ambition clash terribly with what’s left of her conscience. These are two shrewd, inventive, bold, decidedly grown-up performances from an actor who has now fully announced herself as much more than just a movie star. —R.L.

By Focus Features/Everett Collection.

Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One

It’s never easy to like Taylor’s Inez, from her confident and combative stride through the streets of Brooklyn after she’s released from Rikers in the film’s opening moments to the devastating embrace that closes the film. But liking her isn’t the point; Taylor’s performance in A.V. Rockwell’s stunning debut feature makes Inez come alive in all her complexity, a ferocious striver whose mistakes transform the lives of those around her, for better and for worse. A singer-songwriter whose previous acting roles had mostly relied on her beauty, Taylor proved herself capable of so much more in A Thousand and One. We can only hope Hollywood found her as unforgettable as we did. —K.R.

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The Three Stooges, Survivor

In a game that demands constant performance, Yam Yam Arocho, Carolyn Wiger, and Carson Garrett proved that authenticity actually can be a winning strategy. The Three Stooges alliance came together early in Survivor season 44—though editing tricks (see: Wiger asking a producer how confessionals work) made the outcasts seem as if they wouldn’t outlast their competition. Their collective strength, both in challenges and amidst shifting social dynamics, proved otherwise. Beyond the game itself, the threesome’s commitment to one another supplemented magnetic personalities, giving the season such moments as Garrett’s half-hearted encouragements, Arocho’s skepticism over a fake-idol ploy, and Wiger’s tribal council sass. Performing as nothing but their whole, unabashed selves, the Three Stooges carried one of Survivor’s best cycles yet. —Tyler Breitfeller

By Nina Westervelt/Getty Images.

Michelle Williams, The Woman in Me

It’s clear from Britney Spears’s memoir, The Woman in Me, that there was a time not too long ago when everybody wanted a piece of her: the fans, the press, the paparazzi, and, most insidiously, her parents. In narrating Spears’s audiobook, five-time Academy Award nominee Williams takes on what VF has called “the role of a lifetime,” expertly capturing what it must have felt like to be Britney Jean Spears—who went from a little girl running barefoot in the Louisiana woods to the world’s most famous pop star. With just the power of her voice, Williams is able to express the highs and the lows—the ecstasy and the terror—of Spears’s experience, often pivoting seamlessly from an unintentionally hilarious observation (try not to laugh every time Williams says the phrase “weird-ass”) to a truly devastating insight into Spears’s harrowing conservatorship. Williams’s narration is a performance that’s chock-full of nuance and entertainment value, but also overflowing with empathy for its subject—something Spears was deprived of for far too long. —C.M.

By Netflix.

Steven Yeun, Beef

Yeun is consistently great in almost everything he’s done lately, whether looking at his Oscar-nominated performance as an immigrant father in Minari or his role as a slightly creepy theme park owner and former child actor in Nope. But in the Netflix series Beef, Yeun gets 10 whole episodes to play in, delivering a wide-ranging performance that’s alternately so tightly wound you can feel the suffocation and wildly explosive. Opposite an equally impressive Ali Wong, Yeun plays Danny, a handyman who gets into a road rage incident with a wealthy woman who then becomes his nemesis. As the pair escalate in their diabolical actions against each other, we get to witness an actor who is so in control of his craft that he’s able to really let loose with all that rage while still somehow remaining someone we hope will find peace on the other side. —R.F.