Runners-Up: Christopher Abbott in James White fully embraces his characters asshole nature, as he gets hit with one damn thing after another. Steve Carrel in The Big Short is at first very funny, and then gets very angry – and yet it never feels like a lecture from him. Matt Damon in The Martian cruises on his movie star charm – which is precisely what the movie needs. Johnny Depp in Black Mass is truly frightening in the movie, and playing a recognizable human for the first time in a while. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant delivers an impressive physical performance (even if I wish there was more to it). Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies makes this performance look so easy, I’m not sure people realize how good he is in it. Josh Lucas & Stephen Plunkett in The Mend are playing brothers, both of whom are assholes, although only Lucas knows he is – at first – and they’re equally great. Ben Mendelsohn in Mississippi Grind is wonderful as a born loser in this gambling movie – so good in fact, I wish he had had an opportunity to work with Robert Altman on something.
I usually do not put voiceover work in animated films on these lists – but the combination of the fact that it’s a weak year for Best Actor, and another vocal performance in this movie is so good, I had to include it on my supporting actress list, made me decide to include David Thewlis’ excellent vocal work in Anomalisa on my Best Actor list. And it is a terrific performance – playing a character who is at first sympathetic – going through an annoying thing we all must – travelling, being lonely etc. Gradually, it is revealed that his Michael is living in own personal, self-made prison – cut off from everyone else, who he sees as the same person again and again – briefly brightening when he meets someone new, and then crashing down again, even further into despair. Who knows why Charlie Kaufman chose Thewlis for the role – but he’s perfect for it anyway, weary, tired, despairing – and more than a little bit of an asshole. This is great voiceover work – and a great performance that helps to make one of the best characters of the year.
9. Michael Fassbender in Steve JobsNot everyone can handle Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue – that always moves a mile a minute, so if you cannot keep up, you look silly, and quite often borders on the preachy, so if you say it wrong, you just sound like you’re speechifying, and you cease to be a real character. Michael Fassbender may not have been the first choice to play Jobs – but he probably ended up being the best choice. He doesn’t try to soften Jobs at all – this is a character who for the most part is portrayed as an asshole, and Fassbender knows it. But he is a brilliant asshole – and Jobs knows that – and Fassbender digs down and is at his very best when he delivering the speeches that in other hands may not have worked at all. He also handles the quieter stuff – the slow softening of Jobs into less of an asshole, good as well. In short, he was the perfect choice to build this movie around – and he delivers the performance the movie deserves. It may not have been what audiences wanted – I don’t know if they want their biopics about people they can like, or what – but it’s what was needed.
8. Jason Bateman in The GiftThere are certain actors who have a screen persona that they return to again and again – mainly because audiences like those personas, and want to continue to see the actor do that same thing. If they’re lucky, these actors get a chance to upend that persona at some point – not by doing something completely different, but by exposing that persona for what it really is. Think of Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, in which Paul Thomas Anderson has Sandler play the most socially awkward character of his career, and exposes the darkness that Sandler always played for laughs. For Jason Bateman, he has made a career (since his resurgence on Arrested Development) playing put upon characters – characters who are exasperated by all the crap he has to put up with, and everyone around him. He plays a similar character in The Gift – but the film allows him to explore the darker side of this persona – and reveal that, in fact, most of Jason Bateman’s character are assholes – we just don’t always realize it. We realize it here – as Bateman, who starts out as the victim in the audiences eyes, gradually becomes the villain (or, at least one of the villains). Kudos to Bateman for going there with the film – and the performance. A shame so few seemed to realize it.
7. Peter Sarsgaard in ExperimenterMichael Almereyda’s Experimenter is one of the oddest films of the year – and one that has stuck with me far longer than most films. In the film, Sarsgaard plays famous social scientist Stanley Milgram – and focuses on his experiments dealing with authority – and does so in a way that is thought provoking, funny and feels like a Milgram experiment itself, performed on the audience. A lot of what makes the film work is Sarsgaard’s drily funny performance – at first it seems rather humorless, perhaps even edging over into dull, and then as the movie progresses, he talks directly to the audience more, revealing a wicked sense of humor – and even at some points, a song and dance routine. It is one of the oddest performances of the year – and one of the very best, precisely because it is so odd. It helps set the tone for the movie, that is all its own. Sarsgaard is frequently excellent (he was the best of the supporting cast in Black Mass – in part because he didn’t try too hard to do a Boston accent) – but this may well be my favorite performance of his to date.
6. Jacob Tremblay in RoomJacob Tremblay is in every scene of Room – the entire movie really is his point of view – which is an incredible responsibility to place on a child actor – and he delivers by giving one of the best child actor performances I have ever seen. It is, in many ways, a rather passive performance – he’s there in every scene, but he’s often reacting to what others around him are doing – as they drive the action. The film allows him to behave like a child – and in the second half, an incredibly shy and confused child, who wants nothing more than to shrink back into himself, and the comfort he knows. It’s rare for a child performance to be this good – often, they feel over directed, or over written – but here it works perfectly. Without him, the movie fails – but Tremblay does a great job.
5. Michael B. Jordan in CreedThere is such a thing as star quality – and there is such a thing as a “movie star” performance – and while often the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Will Smith or Matt Damon get dismissed for coasting on their charm, delivering a great movie star performance based on your charisma isn’t always an easy to do (Damon did get an Oscar nom for The Martian this year – which is a prototypical movie star performance). No one is going to mistake Michael B. Jordan for being at that level of stardom – but in Creed him shows that he has all the ingredients to become that big – that is how good he is here. Make no mistake, Jordan was at a disadvantage here – a sequel to a popular series, which pulls out the whole “son of the dead guy” routine, Creed could have easily been a cheap ploy to get people into the seats to watch another Rocky movie. But it isn’t – and a lot of that credit has to go to Jordan, who has all the charisma to sell the role, and the acting chops to pull off some of the quieter moments. Jordan delivers the best “movie star” performance of the year – and he isn’t even that big of a star yet. He will be.
4. Géza Röhrig in Son of SaulThe camera barely leaves Geza Rohrig for the entirety of Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul – a brilliant Holocaust drama, focusing of Rohrig’s Saul, who over a day and half or so, becomes obsessed with giving one teenage boy a proper burial in Auschwitz. It’s an insane idea, and the film knows it, and that’s precisely the point. Saul is one of the Jews who works for the Nazis at the camp – helping to herd other, non-suspecting Jews to their deaths in the showers, and then cleaning up and disposing of the bodies afterwards. It’s a soul killing job – and Saul’s guilt is overwhelming as he tries to redeem himself – but he may well be too far gone. In the film, Rohrig often seems like a blank slate – he often cannot talk, cannot betray any emotion – because to do so could well get him killed. But there’s a lot going on in his eyes, as he becomes determined to do this one thing. There were showier performances this year to be sure – but few that were better. I have no idea what Rohrig will do next – but I want to see it.
3. Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful EightSamuel L. Jackson has been Quentin Tarantino’s muse for over 20 years – having showcase roles in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Django Unchained and now The Hateful Eight. He is, arguably, the best interpreter of Tarantino’s very specific dialogue, which Jackson rips into with “fierce vengeance and furious anger”. His performance in The Hateful Eight is some of the best work Jackson has ever done. True, the role was tailor made for Jackson – allowing him the kinds of speeches Jackson excels at, and many opportunities to do his eye popping anger. But there are layers to this performance that I think have been overlooked in many ways. Just how much of what he says is true, and not true? In a sense, everyone is manipulating everyone in The Hateful Eight – and everyone is, well, hateful. Jackson probably holds out sympathies the longest – but does he deserve them? It is a performance for the ages – one that wrestles with the themes of the movie brilliantly. There is a reason why Jackson does his best work for Tarantino.
2. Tom Courtenay in 45 YearsCourtenay’s co-star – Charlotte Rampling – has justifiably garnered praise and awards for her fantastic work in 45 Years – yet Courtenay is pretty much just as good, just in a different way. As his wife shuts down, reeling for the news that has rocked their 45 year old marriage, Courtney’s Geoff responds in a different way. While he is secretive in some ways, he is also given to talking more and more, letting his wife know more details that never before – details that may destroy their marriage. The final sequence – at their anniversary party – is brilliant for the different ways the two act – she is quiet, and listens, while he delivers a long monologue – that seems thought through, and carefully worded. Courtenay has had a long, brilliant career – two Oscar nomination (for Doctor Zhivago in 1965 and The Dresser in 1983 among many fine performances), and yet this may be his finest hour. Rampling deserves all the love she has received for the film – it’s just that Courtenay deserved some as well.
1. Paul Dano in Love & MercyAs the younger version of Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, Paul Dano gives his best performance to date – and the best performance in this category this year (and yes, I believe it’s a lead, and not a supporting performance). In the film, Dano plays Wilson as he is starting to slip – starting to succumb to the mental illness that will consume him for years to come – but hasn’t gone so far that it has overwhelmed his genius yet. As the film begins, he wants to stop touring with the band – he just wants to stay home, and work in the studio, crafting something that only he can hear – frustrated that what’s in his head doesn’t always match what is being produced. It’s a brilliant performance as Dano walks this line between genius and insanity – not least of which because the film doesn’t confuse the two – he wasn’t brilliant because he had mental illness – the mental illness suppressed his genius. As an actor, Dano has often been misused and miscast – not all of his performances work as well as they could have with other actors in them. But in Love & Mercy, he has found the role of his career so far – a brilliant opportunity to play a man who heard things no one else did. It is a remarkable performance.