Runners-Up: In addition to the top 10, I considered the following performances as well. Rachel McAdams in Spotlight who doesn’t get the bigger moments as Ruffalo and Keaton, but exudes sympathy throughout. Fatma Mohamed in The Duke of Burgundy who is wonderful in her one scene, as an artisan of very specific things. Cynthia Nixon in James White is wonderful as a woman slowly dying of cancer. Sarah Paulson in Carol delivers her every line perfectly – and creates a full character out of someone who only has a few scenes. Jada Pinkett-Smith in Magic Mike XXL presides over the movie with unapologetic sexuality – and I think had more fun than just about anyone else this year doing so. Tessa Thompson in Creed takes what could have been a thankless “girlfriend” role, and gives it a life of its own.
Top 1010. Kristen Wiig in The Diary of a Teenage Girl
After having a huge hit with Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig has smartly done mostly indies – doing one interesting performance after another – sometimes with comedic elements, sometimes not. She is quietly building an impressive resume. Her performance in The Diary of a Teenage Girl is perhaps her best to date – she plays a woman in the 1970s, who has just got divorced, and decides she wants to let loose – she gets a hunky boyfriend, and starts drinking more, doing pot, and having parties – and essentially ignoring her teenage daughter – that is unless she is outright competing with her. Wiig does a brilliant job with this woman – who she never tries to soften, and portrays her as an often selfish woman, while still showing her with a little bit of sympathy. Wiig has quietly become one of the most interesting actresses around – and this is some of her best work.
9. Jane Fonda in YouthSince making her return to acting 10 years ago (after 15 years away), two-time Oscar winner Fonda hasn’t really found any movie roles that match her immense talent – that is until Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, where Fonda delivers a one scene performance that is probably the best thing in the entire movie. In the film, she plays an aging movie star, best known for her roles in the films by Harvey Keitel’s director – who shows up to tell him to his face that she will not be in his new movie, and how terrible she thinks it will be. It’s a big, bold, brassy performance, and Fonda rips into it and stops the movie cold. It shows just how good Fonda can still be. Now it’s time for someone to give her a bigger role, to make full use of her talent.
8. Joan Allen in RoomIt’s been a while since the great Joan Allen got a great movie role – but her work in Room ranks among her best. It is a quiet, subtle performance – she plays Brie Larson’s mother, who had accepted years ago that her daughter was probably dead – and now has to deal not only with her return, but also the grandson she never knew she had. Allen plays this wonderfully quietly – showing support to both, and subtlety bringing Jack out of his shell a little bit. Her work in Room never calls attention to itself – which is probably why she has mostly been overlooked this awards season, despite the huzzahs the movie has received. But it’s perfect work for the film, and the character, and a welcome return to form for one of the best actresses around.
7. Katherine Waterston in Queen of EarthKatherine Waterston has had a tremendous year – starting late in 2014, when she delivered a stunning performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (as the enigmatic Shasta Fay Hepworth), and continuing through this year where she was solid in Steve Jobs (as the mother of his child) – and exceptional in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. Here she plays a woman – half of a female friendship with Elisabeth Moss – as the movie takes place over two summers, one where she needed Moss, and is angered that she brought her boyfriend to her country home, and the next year when Moss needs her and she slyly, subtlety enacts her revenge (how purposefully is open for debate). Waterston doesn’t have the showcase role that Moss has – she doesn’t get to break down into tears, and edge into insanity, but her role is in many ways even more difficult – and she does it brilliantly. In less than a year, I have gone from not knowing who she is, to not being too able to wait to see what she does next.
6. Kate Winslet in Steve JobsIt is inarguably true, that once again writer Aaron Sorkin has created a female character to be the voice of reason in one of his projects – much like Sports Night, The West Wing and The Newsroom before it. It’s also true, that as clichéd as this role may be, that Kate Winslet plays the role perfectly – having to keep up with Sorkin’s mile a minute dialogue (often while walking of course), and find an emotional core to a film that is in many ways purposefully chilly. True, Winslet’s accent comes and goes at times (strangely, it becomes more prominent the longer the movie goes on) – but that’s a minor quibble with yet another great performance by one of our greatest actresses.
5. Elizabeth Banks in Love & MercyOne of the most annoying tropes in biopics is the ever supportive wife of the “great man”, who is there just to say supportive things, and often absorb a lot of abuse, when the genius inevitably becomes an asshole – but often comes out the other side. It’s annoying, and many great actresses have been stuck in this role in the past. But the role that Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy is more than that. Yes, she is the supportive “better half”, and does help Brian Wilson through tough times. But she isn’t meek, and doesn’t fade into the background. In fact, she almost takes over the half of the movie that has John Cusack as Wilson – who is at times almost catatonic, and under the abusive thumb of Paul Giamatti. Banks’ shows strength throughout the film, and draws Wilson back from over the brink of insanity – but is a character in her own right, not just in relation to Wilson. Banks has been doing fine work for a while now – but this is probably her best performance to date – and deserving of more love than she has received this awards season.
4. Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful EightOne of the most interesting things about Leigh’s Daisy in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is how she begins as the most obviously hateful character in the movie – Leigh’s big, bold, brassy performance makes no secret of her racism, and she seems crash and cruel. But throughout the movie, as the rest of the reveal just how bad they are, Daisy becomes less hateful as a result – so much so, that by the end, she is perhaps the least hateful of them. Leigh, who has always been a terrific actress, is doing some of the best work of her career here – Tarantino doesn’t do subtle, and Leigh goes whole hog into it. But she does provide some quieter moments – moments where she is thinking through precisely what her next move is. Daisy is – next to Samuel L. Jackson’s Marquis Warren – the most complex character in the film, even if it doesn’t appear like that at the beginning. And Leigh does it all wonderfully.
3. Alicia Vikander in Ex MachinaAlicia Vikander had a terrific year – being the best part of both The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Danish Girl – two films I didn’t really like (and I didn’t even see Burnt or Testament of Youth or Seventh Son). But the performance that should make her a star is her work as Ava in Ex Machina – and robot with artificial intelligence, created by an ego-maniac, who has to be put through the Turing Test by one of his underlings. Her performance is immensely sympathetic from the get-go – someone we believe has real feelings, and truly does care about her interviewer. Then, things get interesting. Vikander’s performance is brilliant – she gives her vocal inflection and facial expressions an artificiality, but doesn’t overdo it. She is the most interesting character here – because she’s the hardest character to get a grasp on, and she navigates the changes brilliantly. We’ll be seeing Vikander for a long time to come.
2. Jennifer Jason Leigh in AnomalisaIn most years, an actress would not be able to top the performance that Jennifer Jason Leigh gave in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight – but this year, Leigh did just that – and using only her voice. Her work in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, as Lisa, is heartfelt, gentle, subtle – and ultimately hopeful. She plays a woman lacking in any real confidence – until she meets the main character, who falls for her, and gives her confidence. The great thing about the movie is that although the main character in the movie is ultimately a jerk – a man who cannot imagine anyone’s else’s inner lives, the movie isn’t like that – and actually does get to know, and love, Lisa in a way the main character is not capable of. Much of this is because of Leigh’s wonderful performance, which makes her much more human that she otherwise would be. Even something that sounds as silly and stupid as her singing an acapella version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” becomes one of the best moments of the year in her hands. I usually do not put voice over performances on these lists – but I had to make an exception here. Leigh does perhaps the best work of her great career here.
1. Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils MariaBefore Kristen Stewart became a movie star with the Twilight series, she was one of the best young actresses in Hollywood – often taking on interesting roles in indie movies. She wasn’t good in the Twilight movies – which is why many pick on her – although I will say that I think she does the best job she possibly could in an impossibly bad role. Since Twilight ended however, she has returned to what she was doing before – doing great work in smaller movies. Easily the best performance she has ever given is here – in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria – playing the assistant to a movie star (Juliette Binoche), who helps her boss prepare for a role – which is about a powerful woman, and her assistant. There are several levels to Stewart’s Clouds of Sils Maria – as there are several levels of performance to her character as well. It’s a fascinating performance in a movie that deliberately pays homage to Ingmar Bergman – something like Persona, where two women become incredibly close. Stewart is wonderful navigating the different paths her character takes – even going so far as delivering a speech defending big, Hollywood movies that Binoche is badmouthing. Her enigmatic final scenes work, in large part because of what Stewart has done before now. It’s a testament to how great I feel Stewart’s performance is here that even in a year this strong, I never considered anyone else for the top spot. This is a brilliant performance in a film far too people saw.