This essay is part of our 2017 Rewind, a look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of 2017.
Like every year before it, 2017 was home to movies that ranged from good to great — there were bad ones too, but this is a time to celebrate not condemn — and more often than not, some part of their success was due to the performers onscreen. This year saw spectacular turns by veterans (Frances McDormand/Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Gary Oldman/Darkest Hour) and newcomers (Timothée Chalamet/Call Me By Your Name, Haley Lu Richardson/Columbus) alike, but in picking our performer of the year we’ve gone with someone who gave not one, but three memorable performances in 2017.
Michael Stuhlbarg has been appearing in films since 1998’s A Price Above Rubies, but his break away from the forgettable came over a decade later when he was tapped by Ethan & Joel Coen to headline A Serious Man. It was a rare lead role for the actor, but he hasn’t looked back since and has gone on to work with the likes of Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black 3), Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths), Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs), and more. He’s never less than a standout even in fantastically strong ensembles, and 2017 saw him do just that in three highly-acclaimed films.
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water may be about a woman who finds love and companionship with a fishman, but its loudest heartbeat comes from Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Hoffstetler. One man of science among many, he’s hiding two secrets from his co-workers and the American government that has employed him. The first is for viewers to discover on their own, but the second is the unlikely pairing of scientific curiosity and compassion. It lands him in trouble, and while the main narrative teases a fairy tale spin on porpoise coitus it’s Hoffstetler’s humanity — and the price he pays for it — that hits hardest. His role in Steven Spielberg’s The Post isn’t nearly as big, but it says something that he remains visible amid an ensemble that also includes over a dozen more recognizable actors including Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Carrie Coon, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Pat Healy, and more.
Not content to live life solely on the big screen, Stuhlbarg also detoured into television this year with season three of FX’s deservedly-acclaimed Fargo. This season’s story line focuses on a pair of feuding twin brothers played by Ewan McGregor, and Stuhlbarg plays second banana to the more successful of the two. He folds perfectly into the Minnesota character mindset, accent and all, and he excels at expressing an oddly confident angst as things grow darker. Stuhlbarg also gets the rare opportunity to play tough guy, and as short-lived as it may be it’s nonetheless glorious in its entertainment value.
His real triumph for 2017, though, comes in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. He plays the professor father of a 17-year-old son who falls in romantically with an older student visiting their Italian home in the summer of 1983. Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer play the young men, and both fittingly give tremendous performances as the focus of the film. Stuhlbarg’s wise and warm character is present throughout, but it’s his monologue late in the film that seals the film’s themes (and earns my vote for Scene of the Year). Over the course of just a few minutes, Stuhlbarg’s words and delivery manage to simultaneously devastate with their beauty and rebuild with their ode to hope and love.
It’s the most gorgeous and stunningly positive note a film could hope to end on, and such power is rarely entrusted to supporting characters and supporting actors. He proves himself worthy of the responsibility, though, and in turn shows his dedication to both his craft and a career spent playing third, fourth, or tenth fiddle in films populated by “movie stars.” That view is summed up well in a recent interview he gave to The Wrap.
You do what you can. The story’s not about you. You learn as much as you can. You try to make it as much a part of yourself as you can. You make some decisions. And then you show up on the day and there’s always going to be something you hadn’t thought about. In some cases you might be delighted, in other cases you might be really frustrated. But you make it work.”
Stuhlbarg “makes it work” on a steady basis that looks to only grow from here. With three films this year — and three each of the two years prior — he’s an actor in great demand for very obvious reasons. His filmography shows a performer with range and the ability to blend into his characters, but this year he stood out in high-profile films and a message for the ages. The speech his character gives at the end of Call Me By Your Name is an intimate and personal word from a father to his son, but it stands as equally powerful advice for us all after what has been one hell of a rough year for so many. “If there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out… to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!”