Typically, it is this list that gives me more heartburn than those dedicated to the best and worst MOVIES of the year. I am extremely performance oriented; that is, when watching a movie, I tend to notice the acting first, the story/narrative/script second, and the directorial choices third. A great performance can overshadow a weaker script for me whereas a flat performance can deter my enjoyment of a great story. But in all honesty, 2016 wasn’t exactly rife with great performances, especially when it came to leading men and women. Plenty of “good”, not a lot of “great”. That said, those performances that were great were really great; like, historically great. It should be noted, too, that this list pertains to my own personal favorite performances of the year, not necessarily the “best.” By my count, seven of the 13 names mentioned below received Oscar nominations, a couple received other major award nominations, and the rest saw little in the way of award show fanfare. So keep that in mind as you peruse.
HONORABLE MENTION: Craig Robinson, “Curtis Gentry” - Morris From America
Morris From America is a perfectly fine family dramedy with a unique setting (an African American widower and his young son move to Germany for work) that I hope finds an audience on Netflix somewhere down the line. It is a small, subtle movie and the pairing of Robinson with newcomer Markees Christmas works organically. The movie concludes with a beautiful, heartfelt conversation between father and son that serves as the cherry on top of the sundae for both the movie and Robinson’s performance. Robinson had me in tears, almost out of nowhere, with a speech that brings the entire movie together in two minutes.
10. Viggo Mortensen, “Ben” - Captain Fantastic
It’s been a very long time since I enjoyed Mortensen in a movie. He’s a very talented actor, obviously, but he often chooses unappealing roles in movies that don’t exactly speak to me. Captain Fantastic, however, is a gem and it is Mortensen, as the patriarch of a hippie family living off the grid, that brings the whole thing together. He runs the gamut of emotions with ease, often jumping back and forth between strong family leader and vulnerable man-child on the brink of self-destruction in a matter of minutes.
9. Hugo Weaving, “Tom Doss” - Hacksaw Ridge
Weaving’s is the smallest role of any on this list but while leading man Andrew Garfield is receiving all the award buzz, it is Weaving who, I think, gives Hacksaw Ridge its heart. It’s difficult to play a hard man torn apart by the hell of war but it’s even more difficult to make that man a sympathetic figure instead of simply pitiable. Weaving shines the most in the moments when Doss painfully forces himself to push through the memories that have driven him to the drink in order to fight for his son’s life.
8. Janell Monae, “Mary Jackson” – Hidden Figures
The strength of Hidden Figures (beyond the source material) lies in the incredible performances from virtually every member of the cast. Tarajai P. Henson and Octavia Spencer have (deservedly) garnered a great deal of attention this award season but a few days out from my showing, I’m still blown away by Monae. She gives so much life to Mary Jackson’s cement-like resolve and makes that character so ridiculously likeable. Monae is asked to do quite a lot to keep the film moving, a risky proposition given her limited experience as an actress, but she constantly pops off the screen and makes the most of the huge opportunity put before her.
7. Amy Adams, “Louise Banks” - Arrival
There might have been “better” female performances in 2016 than what Amy Adams turned in here (and I have two ahead of her on my own list) but I don’t think any of them were asked to carry the weight that Adams took on. To be honest, we just don’t get female performances like this very often, not because there aren’t loads of talented actresses available, but because typically this kind of role is written exclusively for males. She is THE lead in a big movie from a rising star director and she absolutely BRINGS IT in every scene, carrying a great script and a complicated concept to new heights it wouldn’t have achieved otherwise. As a longtime Adams superfan, I’m thrilled she was able to top of the year with this so that we can all maybe forget about her taking a bath with Superman for no reason.
6. Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges, “Toby Howard and Marcus Hamilton” - Hell or High Water
The first of two pairings on this list, I couldn’t pick one over the other and felt like I needed to recognize how their characters played off each other to make Hell or High Water what it is. While they only share one incredible scene, the cat and mouse game between cop and robber haunts the entirety of the film in a way I haven’t seen since Heat. Everyone knows Jeff Bridges is great and you won’t find a more respected actor in Hollywood. It is Pine, then, who turns heads, giving a performance that most people, critics and audiences alike, didn’t know he was capable of. There’s not much flash or sizzle to either of their performances but there is a ton of substance, with each of them one upping the other scene after scene, culminating in their final confrontation.
5. Colin Farrell, “David” - The Lobster
I’ve gone back and forth over the last few weeks, trying to decide where The Lobster itself will find up in my end-of-year rankings. But one thing I’ve never questioned is the brilliance of Colin Farrell’s performance. This is one of the weirdest, quirkiest movies I’ve ever seen and Farrell embraces the strangeness of it all with an easy grace and eloquence. He matches every dark and head-scratching turn within the movie with equal parts humor and emotional resonance and in doing so, he sells you on the reality of an absurd universe. Stop sleeping on Colin Farrell, you guys.
4. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, “Mia and Sebastian” - La La Land
Even more so than with Pine and Bridges, to split Stone and Gosling on this list would be a crime. It’s no secret that I love La La Land and I think writer/director Damien Chazelle is an actual genius who may well be THE face of “Hollywood Behind the Camera” for the next decade or two. But for me it is undeniable that a large part of Chazelle’s brilliance is tied into his casting. La La Land probably works with Emma Watson and Miles Teller (the original choices for Mia and Sebastian) but I don’t think it sings (please forgive the pun) the way it does with Stone and Gosling. Stone’s performance is the flashier of the two while Gosling remains more subdued, giving La La Land a stronghold for its consistent returns to its grounded, heartbreakingly realistic roots. Their chemistry is perfect and makes you pine for a yearly pairing in literally any setting they choose to work within.
3. Casey Affleck, “Lee Chandler” - Manchester By the Sea
This was quietly one of the most difficult roles of the year. Lee Chandler is an emotionally crippled (justifiably so) townie with a penchant for self-destruction who gets into bar fights in order to feel something. Affleck takes those characteristics, leans into them, and somehow pushes Chandler into becoming not only sympathetic but downright likeable. In doing so, he makes Manchester By the Sea so much more meaningful (and brutally difficult to sit through) than it would have been with simply a “good” performance. Affleck is always good, even in bad movies, but his work here is a showcase of his unending talent, a master class in realism and the complexity of emotion.
2. Viola Davis, “Rose Maxson” - Fences
We are lucky to live in a time which features a great many terrific and talented actresses who are finally getting a few more opportunities to shine. But I ask you, dear readers, are any of them better than Viola Davis? Answer: No. None of them. For proof of this statement, look no further than Fences, a very good movie with very real flaws made whole by Davis’s grace and power. Denzel Washington might be the greatest actor of his generation and Viola BURIED HIM on that screen, you guys. She reaches into the depths of her soul for both the times when she is required to be quiet and the times when she’s allowed to unload and it is truly a sight to behold. Give her the dadgum Oscar now and don’t stop giving her Oscars until her whole house is covered in golden statues.
1. Mahershala Ali, “Juan” - Moonlight
Mahershala Ali is having a moment, dear readers, and I couldn’t be happier. Having plugged away in smaller roles that were honestly beneath him for the last 15 years, 2016 saw him finally get a chance to shine. Between House of Cards, Luke Cage, and Hidden Figures, it was difficult to miss Ali and even more difficult to ignore him once you saw him. He’s one of those guys who can say more in a silent head nod than most actors can in an entire film of dialogue. But his turn in Moonlight…well that’s something special. He is the core of the film (a film that, by the way, will be a major contender for Best Picture) and each of his scenes is packed to the brim with quiet power and barely contained emotion. I didn’t expect to get emotionally wrapped up in Moonlight but 20 minutes in, when Juan speaks to seven-year-old Little with delicacy and respect, I found myself welling up and instantly attached to both characters. It is a performance for the ages that should ultimately get Ali an Oscar and hopefully launch his career forward into the next stratosphere.