It’s the end of the year once again, and as is tradition around these parts, it’s time to reward the 2018 Top Ten Entertainers of the Year! That’s right, we’re going to take a look at the artists who conquered the year, becoming pop culture touchstones through multiple great performances, songs, or novels. As is always the case, the list can be found below, in alphabetical order, building up to the 2018 Entertainer of the Year!
Before we get to the Entertainers of the Year, let’s take a look at the Honorable Mentions. In terms of directors, few had as remarkable a year as Jason Reitman, who directed two of the best films of the year in Tully and The Front Runner, and no one had as impressive an outing as Ryan Coogler, who turned Black Panther into a pop culture phenomenon. Speaking of Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Letitia Wright all had a massive presence, as Boseman and Wright both had Avengers: Infinity War, Wright received an Emmy nomination for her work on Black Mirror, and Jordan is continuing to rake in the cash with the well-received commercial hit Creed II. Several actors had a series of critical and commercial hits, including Melissa McCarthy (Life of the Party, The Happytime Murders, and the marvelous Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed, Bad Times at the El Royale, and Suspiria), Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased and Ben Is Back, both awards contenders), John C. Reilly (The Sisters Brothers, Stan & Ollie, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and the upcoming Holmes & Watson), and John David Washington (Ballers, Monsters and Men, The Old Man and the Gun, and BlacKkKlansman). Some actors also turned their attention to conquering both mediums: movies and television. That list includes Jonah Hill, who both starred in Maniac, appeared on Saturday Night Live, and made his directorial debut with Mid90s, Emma Stone, who also starred in Maniac as well as received Oscar buzz for her turn in The Favourite, and Maya Rudolph, who appeared in Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders, as well as flat-out stole Big Mouth, The Good Place, and Forever. Meanwhile, a few character actors managed to finally get roles that let them truly demonstrate their talents, including Cynthia Erivo (Widows and Bad Times At The El Royale), Elizabeth Debicki (Widows, Peter Rabbit, The Cloverfield Paradox, and an incredible turn in The Tale), Claire Foy (First Man and a starring turn in The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and an already-legendary performance on Saturday Night Live), and Jesse Plemons (a scene-stealing turn in Game Night, an unnamed role in Veep, and the birth of his son with actress Kirsten Dunst). And in terms of music, few artists were as influential this year as Kacey Musgraves with the wonderful Golden Hour or Ariana Grande with the great Sweetener, a confusing and pop culture dominating relationship/engagement with Pete Davidson, and a follow-up break-up legend in “Thank U, Next” (which just dropped a bomb music video the other day). Now that that’s settled, let’s look at the list of Entertainers of the Year!
After breaking out as an indie actress and a bubbly darling with films like Junebug and Enchanted, Amy Adams has spent the past eight years trying to prove to the world that she is one of the best of her generation. After a series of critical hits like The Fighter, The Master, and American Hustle, as well as appearing on this very list in 2016 for her performances in Arrival and Nocturnal Animals, Adams has returned with two decidedly different performances in 2018, determined to return to this list one way or another. She began her year with the television hit of the summer, Sharp Objects, where she delivered a fiery performance as Camille Preaker, an alcoholic investigative journalist with a series of mental illnesses who returns to her hometown to recover and to investigate the murder of two young girls. The show was a scorching mystery that had audiences riveted, and Adams’ performance was the center of it all. This alone would be enough to secure her on the list, but that’s not all: she is also on her way to her sixth (should have been seventh) nomination for her upcoming performance in Vice. Dabbling in method acting, Adams brings a sense of nuance and determination to her performance as Lynne Cheney, the passionate wife of Dick Cheney who helped him plan and orchestrate his rise to power. With her domination of both film and television (and a likely double nomination from the Golden Globes this Thursday), Amy Adams has had a remarkable 2018, and I’m glad we could experience it alongside her.
Is there anyone that doesn’t love Emily Blunt? After breaking out in 2006 with a scene-stealing turn in The Devil Wears Prada, Blunt had a series of roles that worked to raise her status, including The Young Victoria, Your Sister’s Sister, Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, Sicario, and Into the Woods. However, she has rarely been better than she’s been in 2018, with two (and a half) massive blockbusters that will cement her as the A-lister she deserves to be. Her year began with an appearance in A Quiet Place, the horror film directed by her husband John Krasinski. The film builds itself up as if the focus will be on Krasinski’s forlorn, stern father figure, but around the halfway point, the film dramatically shifts its focus to Blunt’s pregnant mother figure. She is the one in the film’s frightening middle portion, and more importantly, she is the one who gets the badass finale – when the film cuts to black on her cocking a shotgun, I almost stood up and cheered. And in the summer, she collected a sizable paycheck for reprising her role as Juliet in Gnomeo and Juliet 2: Sherlock Gnomes (not great, or even good, but at least she got paid). However, her biggest role is yet to come: tackling the iconic titular role in Mary Poppins Returns. Expectations are high for Blunt, as Julie Andrews’ performance is so beloved and previously won her an Oscar. However, as early reviews and awards continue to roll in, the film has been met with universal acclaim for its touching storytelling, and above all Blunt’s performance, which pays tribute to Andrews while doing its own thing. She has so much love, she has started earning Oscar buzz. Everything’s coming up Emily in 2018, and I’m glad she’s finally earning the love she deserves.
Alison Brie was a hair’s breadth away from making the Entertainers of the Year list in 2017. I’m glad I held off from including her, because what she has done in 2018 has been nothing less than extraordinary. Sure, she hasn’t added anything to her résumé, mostly just doubling down on GLOW and BoJack Horseman, but if you can’t appreciate the remarkable accomplishment she pulled off on both shows, I’m not sure you should be allowed to appreciate art. Let’s start with GLOW, a show she helps produce. When the show first started, Brie was funny, and Brie helped make it stand out. Her portrayal of Ruth, a struggling actress whose bad choices and pretentiousness have hurt her chances at making friends and finding an acting gig until she finds a surrogate family in the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. However, it was this year that Brie managed to shine as brightly as she deserves. In season 2, Ruth is fully invested in her Zoya the Destroya character, milking her opportunity to play the heel. Brie turns herself into a laughingstock in the best possible way, transforming herself from the show’s Diane to the show’s Sam Malone in the blink of an eye. What’s more, she also balances two major arcs, as she balances a love triangle between a kindhearted cinematographer and Marc Maron’s cynical Sam Sylvia while simultaneously trying to mend the fence with her former best friend Debbie. All the while, Brie gives it her all, acting alongside a goat, barreling in on a zipline to win a match, and altogether working as both a straight man and a character as crazy as her costars. That alone would be enough to earn her a spot on the list, but Brie didn’t stop there. She also put in her best season of BoJack Horseman yet, delivering an entire episode about the heartbreak of divorce in the form of an emotional listicle, adding her own special spins to lines, such as responding to the request of “Be charming! Be yourself!” with “I can’t be both!” and eventually delivering the emotional conclusion as she tries to balance helping her friend deal with his issues while simultaneously understanding that he is a monster who has done terrible things. Both roles show an insane range in their teetering the line of comedy and drama, and only an actress of Brie’s caliber could make herself the heart of not one, but two of the best shows of 2018.
A movie star of Bradley Cooper’s caliber could have easily rested on his laurels and played it safe. He could have stayed in his lane, made insane bank, and probably won an Oscar within ten years (he already has three consecutive nominations). That would be the logical thing to do. But Cooper didn’t want to play it safe. He wanted to challenge himself, and to prove himself as an artist. And to do that, he took on the mantle of becoming this generation’s Warren Beatty. What do I mean by that? I mean that Cooper set out to write, direct, produce, and star in a film of his own design. Not only that, he wanted to tackle a film that had been remade twice before, with two of those renditions still serving as classics. And yet, Cooper has proven himself one of the greatest driving forces of 2018 for that very reason. Not only did he draw career best performances out of himself, Sam Elliott, and launch the acting career of Lady Gaga (herself a major part of the film’s success, and just as worthy of this spot on the list), but he also showed that he has what it takes to become a great director. He has a loose, natural style, a keen eye for staging, and the desire to earn each shot (it wasn’t necessary to film those scenes at actual concerts, but Cooper did it, and he did it well). And the results have been massive: a highly successful soundtrack, an awards season that will serve as a major boon, and a film that has grossed almost $400 million as of this article’s posting. That alone would be impressive, but Cooper hasn’t stopped there. He also provided a major voice performance in Avengers: Infinity War, thanks to an expanded role for Rocket Raccoon. And not only is he one of the best parts of the film, but he also has the honor of belonging in the $2 Billion Club – starring in a film that earned over $2 billion. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Cooper will be teaming up with Clint Eastwood yet again, after their box-office shattering film [or nightmare] American Sniper for Eastwood’s last onscreen appearance, The Mule. We don’t know if The Mule is any good, but we do know that it will absolutely work in tandem with Cooper’s other projects to establish him a driving force of 2018 pop culture.
Brian Tyree Henry
I have written two of these Entertainer of the Year pieces so far, and outside of my choices for the top award, I need to say that I have never seen an actor as prolific as Brian Tyree Henry has been in 2018. Henry has been a force to be reckoned with, taking on anything and everything offered to him, and then proceeding to act the hell out of said role. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cheesy genre film, a comedic television show, an animated film, or a dramatic stage production, Henry has been out in full force. I mean, it’s telling that Henry has already been nominated for two different EGOT-worthy awards this year: for his work on Atlanta, playing the rising rap star Paper Boi, Henry has finally earned his due, receiving an Emmy nomination for his efforts. It’s really a deserving nom; Henry has been the heart of the show for quite some time, finding ways to bring pathos to a character who alternates between the pompous Jim Dial-esque star who must be corralled and the straight man to his cousin/manager’s assh*lery. Meanwhile, Henry also managed to earn a Tony nomination for his work on Broadway in Lobby Hero. Written by Kenneth Lonergan, Henry plays William, a security guard supervisor who is harsh on his trainee (Michael Cera) due to a need to prove himself a respected leader in the community,, and who finds himself in a complex situation when he is asked to lie to two cops (including Chris Evans’ corrupt veteran) to save his brother. It is a complex, mature piece, and Henry’s emotional core was a driving force for the show’s success. But Henry didn’t stop there. He also appeared in not one, not two, but six movies, ranging from the cheesy genre flicks Hotel Artemis and White Boy Rick to the intense action thriller Widows (which he very nearly stole) to the soulful in If Beale Street Could Talk, which early reviews indicate he stole. He even shows up in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as Miles Morales’ police officer father (aka the Uncle Ben of this universe), and still had time to cameo on Drunk History as Berry Gordy. Who else could do that? Henry is a star on the rise, and I hope people look back on 2018 as one of his finest hours.
John Mulaney has been slowly conquering the world since his smash-hit special New In Town in early 2012. He’s had a series of hit comedy specials, a few great cameos on TV shows, and a failed sitcom. However, it wasn’t until 2018 when Mulaney finally got his due, coming into his own as the comedian we all knew him to be. We’ll start with his incredible tour and special, Kid Gorgeous. Gorgeous is a fairly significant special for Mulaney; first, it had the honor of filming at Radio City Music Hall, a milestone in Mulaney’s career. Second, while none of his stories were as incredible as, say, “The Xanax Story,” “The Salt and Pepper Diner,” or the Bill Clinton story (aka The Comeback Kid), Gorgeous does have the title of Mulaney’s most accomplished show. Which is to say, this is the special where every story Mulaney tells has the benefit of feeling like one of his closers. From writing for Mick Jagger to the ins-and-outs of a Catholic Church upbringing to the hilarity of your college asking for money when you’re an English major (a segment many of my fellow English major alumni have described as “too real”), and an incredible segment about Stranger Danger as taught by a Chicago cop named J.J. Bittenbinder (incredible name). The special is a work of art, and it ended up netting Mulaney his first individual Emmy in September. But Mulaney’s year didn’t stop there: he also managed to appear in everything, including hosting the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards and guest appearing on Crashing. He had a brief spot on Saturday Night Live when friend Bill Hader hosted (and reprised a beloved character that Mulaney had written), which launched Mulaney’s own hosting gig, a performance that stands out as one of the show’s best. Mulaney was a passionate host, game for several sketches, and even reprising two of his favorites from the trash bin – and they ended up stealing the night. The former was a silly father-son switch sitcom that allowed Mulaney to deliver a killer Andrew Cunanan joke, but the latter was the real money shot: an elaborate Les Mis homage based around the idea of ordering a lobster in a diner. It was dumb, it was silly, it was bombastic, and it was arguably the best sketch of the year. And I haven’t even mentioned his vocal work on Big Mouth (where he really came into his own as a lead) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where he is stealing scenes as the very-real Spider-Ham aka Peter Porker. As with the rest of his 2018, it’s dumb and silly, but endlessly exciting. And that’s exactly the kind of attitude that makes John Mulaney one of the best performers of 2018.
Hot damn, has Janelle Monáe had a fire 2018. And I’m not even considering her TV or Movie work yet, “I’m referring exclusively to Dirty Computer, arguably the greatest album of the decade (spoiler alert for my end-of-year Best Music list). Monáe’s Dirty Computer is her first album since 2013, and everything about it manages to change the narrative of her career (especially because it isn’t a part of the Cyndi Mayweather narrative) while still maintaining everything that makes Monáe Monáe. A creative, insane blend of electronica, pop, funk, hip hop, R&B, soul, and spirituality. Imbibed with the heart of her influences, from Michael to Janet to James Brown to David Bowie and especially her mentor Prince, Computer served as a self-contained concept album and a short film consisting of the music video. And my God, do both work on another level. The album features Monáe’s lyrical deftness and the musicality of a dream team, and features cameos as diverse as Grimes, Pharrell Williams, Zoë Kravitz, and perhaps most beautiful and strange of all, Brian Wilson, whose groundbreaking Pet Sounds may have had an influence here. Meanwhile, the video features Monáe as an android trying to escape from a totalitarian society with the love of her life, played by Tessa Thompson (who will be appearing below on this list). This results in the climactic “Make Me Feel,” a song so great (and may have included a hook by Prince from before he died, but was decidedly Monáe’s own work) that even if this wasn’t the second best music video of the year (the first is yet to come), it would still work. And it doesn’t hurt that Monáe may have found love out of the whole process, as rumors persist that she and Thompson may be in a relationship. Now, all of that would be enough to put Monáe on this list, but she didn’t stop her 2018 there. She also made her influence known onscreen. Ranging from a bit part in the “Autofac” episode of Phillip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams to supposedly having the only good performance in the upcoming Welcome to Marwen to helping compose the innovative soundtrack to Sorry To Bother You, Monáe has made her influence known, in a quest to make herself one of the most versatile stars in pop culture. And based on what she accomplished this year, it worked.
Joaquin Phoenix has come a long way from making unwatchable mockumentaries and harassing David Letterman. Since 2012, he has been delivering a consistent string of unbelievable performances, from The Master to Her o Inherent Vice. However, I’m not sure that Phoenix has ever had a year as great as 2018, going all the way back to his first roles in 1985. Throughout four different films, Phoenix has transformed himself, studied himself, and pushed himself to create a series of unique, empathetic characters for audiences to devour with glee. Sure, most Americans never had a chance to see his performance as Jesus Christ in Mary Magdalene, due to its planned release by The W*instein Company, however, we do have records and thoughts from oversees, where most people found the film to be of decent quality but stolen by Phoenix’s soulful and contemplative performance. Meanwhile, at home, Phoenix had two performances that bear similarities in their struggles, but in temperament couldn’t be more different. In Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, Phoenix gave a rousing, often-funny performance as John Callahan, a newspaper cartoonist who struggles with alcoholism and the fact that his disease has recently left him paralyzed. Meanwhile, in The Sisters Brothers, Phoenix plays a bitter hitman, isolated from the everyone in the world save his older brother, who deals with the fact that he carries the disease of abuse and alcoholism passed down from the father he murdered many years before. In both films we watch as Phoenix’s characters struggle to overcome their past and their troubles, and each film offers a different result each time. However, both films manage to show us the talents that Phoenix possesses. However, while it was technically made in 2017, there was no Phoenix performance this year as truly remarkable as You Were Never Really Here. In something of a critique of the Taxi Driver narrative, Phoenix’s Joe is a man driven to the edge by society – his father abused him, he suffers PTSD from his time in Iraq and the FBI, and the crime infesting the streets of New York has forced him to take a job hunting down trafficked girls and enacting vengeance against their captors. Joe is a broken man, and we see that through Phoenix’s eyes and actions. However, Phoenix also gives him a heart – in the best scene of the year, Phoenix stays with the man who murdered his mother and whom he had just shot in the chest, and holds his hand and sings with him as he dies. And in the triumphant finale, which I won’t spoil here, he gives a look to young Ekaterina Samsonov that may be the sweetest moment of any film in 2018. There are several great performances from the year, but no one delivered as many of them as Joaquin Phoenix has.
Tessa Thompson really should have been a major star a lot sooner. I suppose we should thank Thor: Ragnarok for that; the Marvel film showed ALL of Hollywood that she is capable of being funny, smart, emotional, and a badass all at the same time (some of us knew that for a lot longer, but I guess it’s fine that they came around at all). However, it is solely based on her own talents and personality traits that she managed to find her way into the biggest and best projects of the year. This ranges from small indie films like Furlough to reprising roles in big-budget franchises, like her return to the wonderful Bianca in Creed II. As mentioned above, she had a major role in Dirty Computer, culminating in a sultry femme-fatale performance in “Make Me Feel” (hot damn that music video is good), and as mentioned above, may have earned a relationship out of the performance with Janelle Monáe. And she returned in a small guest spot to the series that gave her that big break, Dear White People – this time trading in her role as hard-left black/feminist activist for a turn as a Tomi Lahren-esque conservative pundit challenging the very character she formerly played. But most importantly, there was the one-two punch of Sorry To Bother You and Annihilation. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Annihilation, finding its message a little too muddled and the ending not really working, but one thing I have praised since the beginning of the year is the performance of Thompson. Her scarred, empathetic scientist is the most resonant of the cast, being the first to figure out the reality of Area X, as well as being the first to realize that she was most at peace when amongst the natural beauty of this new world-within-our-world – and she delivers a knockout monologue about it. Meanwhile, in Sorry To Bother You, Thompson is hilarious, charming, and incredible as Detroit, an activist, anarchist, and Left Eye leader who works to overthrow the sinister rule of the WorryFree Corporation, as well as a performance artist who spins signs that say “Signs” for a living. Thompson is hilarious and scathing in her performance, especially in a somehow-dramatic scene where she recites the final monologue from The Last Dragon while she is pelted with garbage. Thompson is the heart of the film, and easily the strongest aspect. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that she is currently working on a Men In Black reboot with Thor co-star Chris Hemsworth, which is easily one of the most anticipated films of 2019. When looking at her year as a whole, it is easy to see that Thompson was one of the best performers of 2018.
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR:
Glover was my pick for entertainer of the year since May. I’m not sure how clearly you remember mid-May, but my God, was Donald Glover in control of the world. He released the second season of his beloved show, Atlanta, which surpassed its incredible first to become one of the best shows on TV. And not only was Glover directing and writing every step of the way, as well as turning his everyman Earn on his head as a more dubious and complex character than originally thought, but he was taking risks. Take the now-infamous episode “Teddy Perkins,” which explores the psychological downfalls of former child stars who featured paternal abuse in their rise and fall to fame. Glover appears as a Michael Jackson-esque figure, unrecognizable under heavy make-up, who inflicts psychological torment upon star Darius (LaKeith Stanfield). It is an insanely intelligent episode, written with deftness by Glover and featuring a brave, nightmarish turn from one of the most charming men on Earth. Before this, he also made headlines by helping director Ryan Coogler rewrite Black Panther, adding some of the best jokes and retooling the dialogue to a movie many consider one of the best of the year. Glover followed these successes up with a phenomenal turn in Solo: A Star Wars Story as young Lando Calrissian aka young Billy Dee Williams. And holy sh*t, was it a great turn. Glover channeled Williams’ signature charm and sexuality, creating a hilarious con artist who enters Han Solo’s origin story with the same panache that Han originally entered Star Wars. It’s easily one of the best performances of the year, and one that should not have worked the way it did. Both of these performances helped earn Glover a spot on Saturday Night Live, a performance that rightly has been called one of the best hosting jobs in recent memory. From his hilariously all-out “80s Music Video” to his turn as the straight man in the funny “Dirty Talk” to his weird-ass turns in “Barbie Instagram” and “Courtroom,” Glover completely dominated his duties as host, earning an Emmy nomination for his efforts (losing to Katt Williams for – you guessed it – Atlanta). However, what came next is truly remarkable: while performing a musical number as Childish Gambino on the show, Glover performed his scathing, brilliant hit “This Is America.” And then came the music video. “This Is America’s” music video is easily the best music video of the year, the best film of the year, and arguably the best piece of art this year. Featuring thousands of bits of commentary, intricate dance moves, and horrific explosions of realistic terror, the video dominated the world, earning almost 500 million views online and becoming the #1 song on iTunes and the Billboard Hot 100. It concluded May with a triumphant statement of empowerment, and allowed Glover to completely own a month out of the year. After May, Glover proceeded to release a great EP titled The Summer Pack (and featuring song of the summer “Summertime Magic”), and went on his final musical tour titled the “This Is America Tour,” and he has the upcoming Lion King, but even if he hadn’t, it would have been too late: Donald Glover is the Entertainer of 2018. Oh, and if the Internet gets its way and Glover ends up hosting the Oscars in February, you won’t hear any complaints from me.
I hope you enjoyed this year’s list of the greatest stars of 2018. We’re turning back to A Sacred Wall Christmas tomorrow, but we’ll be back on the 26th with the Best Of 2018, including trailers, Television, Music, and Movies. Stay tuned, and let me know in the comments who your favorite stars of 2018 were!