Runners-Up: I also considered these performances for the top 10. Emory Cohen in Brooklyn who is exceedingly sweet and likable throughout the movie. Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation who shows how a warlord can slowly seduce a young boy into being evil – and then showing just how pathetic he is. Tom Hardy in The Revenant who clearly had the best role, and relishes every line. Sean Harris in Macbeth is perhaps the most tragic Macduff I can recall in a movie. Tom Noonan in Anomalisa who was a one man supporting cast. Michael Stuhlbarg in Steve Jobs who managed to stand out, despite always having to go toe-to-toe with Fassbender, and does so quietly.
10. Jason Mitchell in Straight Outta ComptonAs Eazy-Z, Mitchell is the standout in a fine ensemble cast for Straight Outta Compton. In the film, he has to go from cocky – a street hustler and drug dealer, into a rap star – dropping that arrogance for a few moments when he starts rapping, not thinking he cannot do it –before becoming even more arrogant than ever, and driving everyone away. His best moments though come late in the film, when this guy who thought nothing could touch him has to confront his own mortality when he finds out he has HIV. It’s a heartbreaking moment, made all the more impressive because of how brash he was earlier in the film. All the performers in Straight Outta Compton are in fine form – but Mitchell should be the breakout star.
9. Walton Goggins in The Hateful EightNo one in The Hateful Eight is really playing their roles with much subtlety – but I don’t think anyone else goes quite as broad as Walton Goggins, as the new Sheriff that Russell, Jackson and Leigh meet out in the cold. He is playing a good, ol’ Southern boy – proud of his rebel roots and the fallen Confederacy, and the most openly racist of the group (even if it’s a rather cheerful racism). Alongside Leigh’s Daisy, he is also the one who has changed the most. Goggins is almost gleeful in the films first half – as if he stepped right out of Blazing Saddles and right into Tarantino’s movie – and then, as everything gets darker, so does he. Goggins has for a longtime been a well-respected actor on various TV shows – now he’s finally got a movie role to match – and he rips into it and will not let go.
8. Liev Schreiber in Spotlight
Schreiber is so quiet in Spotlight that it seems like awards voters have just completed overlooked him this season – which is a real shame, since his performance is just about perfect in a small role. He plays the Boston Globe’s new editor, who quietly, but firmly, pushes the Spotlight staff towards the story, but then basically stays out of their way – backing them when needed. He is a distant character for much of the movie – the new guy in town, and the newspaper, who no one quite trusts – and that’s just the way he likes it. Schreiber is excellent here, in such a quiet way. It’s a performance that has stayed with me more than some of the other, bigger performances in the movie (like, say, Mark Ruffalo).
7. Sylvester Stallone in CreedIt is very easy to make fun of Sylvester Stallone – and to a certain extent, he even deserves it. When he wrote and starred in the original Rocky, he was compared to Marlon Brando – but he didn’t have much interest in following that career path – instead preferring some very silly (albeit, very entertaining) action movie. But he never really lost the ability to act, even if he didn’t really flex those muscles very often. His performance in Creed is the best work he has done since the original Rocky – and for perhaps the first time, he is playing Rocky Balboa as a realistic person – it’s easy to see the Rocky from the first film becoming the Rocky of Creed (the other Rocky films – not so much). Yes, the movie gives Stallone a showcase role (one designed for Oscar season) – but Stallone plays it with for more genuine emotion than most other, more respected actors do. Stallone will always be an action guy – but it’s good to be reminded once in a while just how good an actor he is capable of being.
6. Michael Keaton in SpotlightI quite liked Keaton in last year’s Birdman (and would have preferred his winning the Oscar to Eddie Redmayne – but whatever) – but I think he’s even better in Spotlight. This is a much more understated role than the over the top madness of Birdman – and one that fits Keaton even better. Playing the Spotlight editor, who at first doesn’t want the case, and probably pushes the hardest for it – even when it means some personal problems – Keaton really is the moral center of the movie (and unlike Ruffalo, never flies off half-cocked). To me, this is a borderline lead performance – but whatever category he’s in, this is one of the best performances of Keaton’s career – better than Birdman – and I like Birdman.
5. Benicio Del Toro in SicarioBenicio Del Toro won an Oscar for Steven Soderberg’s Traffic (2000) – in which he played the only honest cop in Mexico – someone who risks everything in order to fight the drug traffickers – even if, in the end, it may not make all that much of a difference, and he knows it. In Sicario, he pretty much plays the exact opposite role. He plays a mysterious man from Columbia, working with the DOJ, and answering none of Emily Bunt’s most important questions. Everyone else seems to know who he is, and everyone is scared (and eventually we will find out why). Del Toro, who is one of the best actors working, and who excels at playing complicated, humane men, here plays the coldest, cruelest character imaginable – who pretty much takes over the last act of the movie. It is an unforgettable performance.
4. Kurt Russell in The Hateful EightIn Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Kurt Russell plays John Ruth – a bounty hunter who insists on bringing his captives in alive, even if there’s no real advantage to him in doing so. Russell is basically playing Ruth in full John Wayne mode – at first looking rather heroic, and then gradually revealing the layers of violence, misogyny and hatred beneath that persona. Russell is the perfect actor for this role – he has a history with Westerns, and slips right into the role with ease. This is a big, bold, brassy performance – and Russell goes right up to the edge of going over the top, but never quite crosses over. One of the great unsung performances of the year.
3. Oscar Isaac in Ex MachinaOscar Isaac has quickly become one of the best actors currently working – with excellent performances in Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year and Show Me a Hero under his belt. His work in Ex Machina is some of his best – playing a reclusive genius – who has already created one of the biggest computer companies in the world, and has now crossed over into creating artificial intelligence. His character in the film is charming and likable – easily seducing the lead character, Domhnall Gleeson, and the audience, and then revealing deeper, darker undercurrents of misogyny as the film moves along. His character is one of the best villains of the year – and it’s a sneaky villain, because you don’t quite realize that is what he is until late in the film. He seems so reasonable, until he is. Another great performance to add to an ever growing impressive resume.
2. Mark Rylance in Bridge of SpiesMark Rylance is one of those great character actors, who is always wonderful, but until now has never been given the film role to truly shine. In Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, he plays a Russian spy – which should be the recipe for a great villainous role – but instead, he becomes an immensely likable, funny and sympathetic character. It is his character where the Coen brothers (who co-wrote the screenplay) most comes out – with his dry wit, and eccentricity that edges towards caricature but is brought back by Rylance’s humanity. His is the type of supporting role that rises the level of the entire movie – every time he’s onscreen, the movie gets even better than it already is. This is plum role – one that much bigger stars would have killed for – but Spielberg chose the perfect actor to play the role, and is awarded with one of the most memorable performances of the year.
1. Michael Shannon in 99 HomesThe first scene in Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes is a one shot wonder, in which Michael Shannon’s evil real estate agent surveys the damage done by a man who has killed himself – as Shannon was there to kick him out of his home. That scene tells us everything we need to know about his character – he is cold, callous and uncaring – basically mocking the dead man, as his family cries outside. Throughout the movie, he will get even worse. His Rick Carver is a Gordon Gekko for this generation – a man driven by greed. Yet, the way he explains himself actually makes complete and total sense – you can see how he seduces Andrew Garfield into his world. He isn’t really the problem – he didn’t give out the bad loans, he didn’t take bad loans, and someone has to do what he does, right? Shannon has been one of the great actors working since he broke out in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, and followed it up with great work in William Friedkin’s Bug, Jeff Nichols Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road and many more. But as great as he is in all of those films, 99 Homes is his best work to date – a performance that defines a certain moment in time – in all of its cold, cruel glory.