When I make this list each year, I write out (with a pen and paper because I am old and I like the things of my ancient youth) just about any performance that I enjoyed in a good movie and then try to pare it down. Some years I wind up with 12 or 14 names that vie for these top 10 spots; some years it’s closer to 20. This year, my informal “finalists” list included 27 names. That’s how awesome 2015 was at the box office. I legitimately agonized not just over who to cut from the list but in which order to slate the lucky 10. It’s a tough fake job but I guess someone has to do it.
I’d like to note (as always) that this is a list of favorites, not necessarily “best.” There are plenty of crossovers between this list and my hypothetical Oscar ballot but I’m not here to argue that Emily Blunt’s turn in Sicario was somehow better than Brie Larson’s in Room, only that I enjoyed Blunt’s more. So keep that in mind as you browse through and look for reasons to yell at me.
HONORABLE MENTION – Mark Rylance – Rudolf Abel, Bridge of Spies
On the whole, Bridge of Spies was slightly underwhelming given its pedigree. Rylance, however, was anything but underwhelming. A great stage actor whose turn in the movie spotlight has been limited, Rylance turned in one of the quietest, least showy performances of the year and yet he constantly compelled the audience’s attention. It’s rare to go into a Tom Hanks movie and come out talking about another actor.
10. Emily Blunt – Kate Macer, Sicario
Blunt gets a spot on my list for the second year in a row and I’ll probably just save her a spot every year from here on out. A brilliant actress who takes challenging roles and always impresses, she’s also turning into a full on action star but in far headier action movies than we might typically expect. Sicario is one of my favorite films of the year and as the only woman in the cast, she more than holds her own in the midst of a dark, gritty story that would swallow up a lesser actress. Once again, I say to you, Disney: This is your Captain Marvel. Look no further.
9. Walton Goggins – Sheriff Chris Mannix, The Hateful Eight
Since his early days on The Shield on through his delightful run on Justified, few actors have grabbed my attention the way Goggins does. His drawl, his snake-y charisma, his Southern Shakespearean manner of speech is unlike any other guy in the industry. As such, Goggins is PERFECT in the Tarantino universe and in a vast sea of outstanding actors, it is he who stands out the most for me. He delivers Tarantino’s lines better than perhaps any actor ever has. And that is saying something, of course.
8. Johnny Depp – Whitey Bulger, Black Mass
My frustration with (bordering on disdain for) Depp over the last decade plus has been well noted. At one point, Depp was both the biggest star and the most sought after actor (and make no mistake, those are two remarkably different things) in Hollywood. Then his next 20 movies or so were a mish mosh of mediocrity, laziness, and white face paint, to the point that I hoped he would just stop acting altogether. Black Mass (for all its flaws) proved, however, that when Depp is motivated, he can still deliver a mesmerizing performance. I loovvvveee his take on Whitey Bulger. He finds the right mix of menacing charisma that you need to portray an outlaw like Bulger, the complete 180 from his lackluster turn as John Dillinger in Public Enemies. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance and I hope it gives him the jolt he needs to stop doing Alice in Wonderland sequels and get back to real acting.
7. Harrison Ford – Han Solo, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I’m not sure what kind of list this would be if I left out Han Solo, the greatest American franchise character ever, in his triumphant return to the big screen. To be fair, there’s a little too much “Old Han Solo Being Cheeky Old Han Solo” in The Force Awakens. Just a little. But for me, that did nothing to diminish the unbridled joy I experienced when Harrison Ford was on my screen (all four times I saw the movie) nor the fun that Ford seemed to have playing his most famous character once again. These movies are in great hands moving forward (see below) but this one needed a guiding hand and Ford/Solo did that so brilliantly.
6. Jason Segel – David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour
I had very little familiarity with David Foster Wallace heading into The End of the Tour and really only watched it because one of my cohorts on the podcast talked it up. Wow, am I glad I did. The vast majority of the film is just a series of conversations between Segel and Jesse Eisenberg and in its simplicity resides its depth. Segel is better known for comedy but he has some serious range as an actor and that’s on full display in Tour. He’s vulnerable and fragile yet brilliant and likeable, which is by all accounts who DFW truly was. In a lesser year, Segel probably garners some real award attention.
5. Michael B. Jordan – Adonis Johnson, Creed
I’ve been a fan of Jordan since his days on Friday Night Lights and I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am that Creed will be the film that defines his year, not The Fantastic Four. It would’ve been so easy to let Creed become Rocky Balboa’s film but Jordan refuses to let that happen. He’s just so stinking good and he will not be ignored for even one moment on screen. His portrayal is fierce and genuine and earnest and his approach to the character is near flawless.
4. Matt Damon – Mark Whatney, The Martian
Before The Martian debuted, there were those that said Damon “needed” a hit. I didn’t subscribe to that theory but he sure got one nonetheless. When I read this book, I thought Damon would be great as Whatney and he more than exceeded my expectations. What separates The Martian from other survivalist stories like Castaway is the sarcastic, downright fun nature of its protagonist and Damon nails that to a T. You also need Whatney to be extremely likeable in order to justify the expense of trying to bring him home and few actors embody “likeable” the way Damon does. He’s the perfect fit for this role and he plays it beautifully.
3. The Cast of Spotlight (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci)
I’m cheating here because I couldn’t begin to pick out one member from this extraordinary cast and exclude the rest. Rarely have I seen a drama ensemble work so effectively. Spotlight has almost zero flash or showiness to it and while that may be a detriment to the cast’s Oscar chances, it’s also what makes the film so good. Each of these actors serves as a vital cog in the Spotlight machine and the combined weight of their performances is staggering. Each gets a moment or two to shine but it’s really all about the collaborative effort that takes Spotlight to great heights.
2. Sylvester Stallone – Rocky Balboa, Creed
Despite a long and at times illustrious career, Stallone never seems to get the credit he deserves. I get it, he sounds dumb and looks like a meathead. But he’s an INCREDIBLY smart guy who “gets it” better than almost anyone. I don’t think anyone on the outside expected Creed to be the triumph that it is but you know who did expect it? Stallone. He knew exactly what he was getting himself into here and how it would be received. Always his best character, returning to his Balboa roots the way he did here was a stroke of genius, allowing him to stay in his range (admittedly small) while transitioning the character into a role that suits his age and experience. He’s funny and jovial for the most part but when he’s called upon to deliver genuine emotion, he gives us that in spades. I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about it.
1. Daisy Ridley – Rey, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Of all the performances on this list, Ridley’s is the one that surprised me the most. I’d been looking forward to The Force Awakens for three years before December 17th and had run through the gamut of emotions and expectations of what was to come before stepping into the theater. At no point did it even cross my mind that of all the actors and characters involved in this story, the one I’d be the most intrigued by, interested in, and genuinely fond of would be the one played by a young girl I’d never heard of. And yet here we are. To be fair, Rey is a fantastically written character and Ridley had a lot to work with. But oh, how she NAILS every note perfectly! This is the “strong female character” we hear referenced so frequently, the soon-to-be iconic action character we want our children to look up to. I’m still blown away by how this fresh face was able to handle a daunting task like sharing scenes with Harrison Ford and coming out on top. She stole scenes from Han Solo, for goodness sake! It’s a fantastic character, Ridley was the perfect choice to play her, and when it all came down, I don’t think she or anyone else could’ve done a better job.