For the second year in a row, this may well have been the weakest of the four individual acting categories (although it came on strong in the final weeks)– but that’s more depth than anything else, and the top performances here are as good as any year. Some performances that I consider for the top 10 that didn’t make the cut include: Jesuthasan Antonythasan in Dheepan is great as a man with a dark past trying, and ultimately failing, to change. Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar! Gives a wonderful comedic performance, which takes on surprising depth as it goes along. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals is essentially playing two roles here, and does a good job of making them subtly different 0 more sympathetic, and then slightly less so. Logan Lerman in Indignation anchors this excellent Phillip Roth adaptation with the best performance of his young career so far. Vincent Lindon in The Measure of a Man deservingly won the Best Actor Prize at Cannes 2015, for his excellent performance as a man trying to find a job – and when he does, realizing he’ll have to sell his soul to keep it. Anton Yelchin in Green Room is probably the de facto lead, and he brings a nice humanity to his role as someone who has no idea what he’s stepping into (especially hard to watch him in pain however, given real world events).
9. Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Ryan Gosling’s performance in La La Land is perhaps the year’s best “movie star” performance – the kind of performance that only works because Gosling is a huge star, and has a ton of charisma to carry it off. On paper, his Sebastian could have easily been a pretentious asshole, the type of guy women suffer through dates on, as he rambles on about jazz and purity, as the scan for the exits. Yet Gosling makes it work – in his hands, it all cute and charming – and he gives the audience a knowing wink throughout. What’s more, he eventually makes us actually care about this guy –enough that he breaks your heart in the closing moments in the film. To a certain extent, Gosling’s work here is very similar to his work in The Nice Guys or The Big Short – Gosling has developed his movie star persona to be sure. But he deepens it, just a bit here. I do hope that at some point, Gosling does something outside his current movie star comfort zone again – but until then, as long as he’s doing it this well, this mode in fine.
8. Chris Pine in Hell or High Water
Since the Star Trek reboot made him a star, Pine has been doing fine work – but it’s mainly been in movie star mode, which he makes look effortlessly. In Hell or High Water, Pine does his best work to date. He uses that movie star charisma to great effect – he gets us on his side from the get go, and we don’t really question that until fairly late. It’s a quiet, subtle performance – one in which you can feel how he carries the weight of everything on his shoulders. This is the type of role that I wish more movie stars would take on – it gives the film a different vibe with him in it, and it works brilliantly here.
7. Andrew Garfield in Silence
Andrew Garfield had a good year this year – he may well get nominated (or has already been so) for his role in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge – and even if I have issues with the film, I do think Garfield is excellent in that role (even if it’s rather one note). He’s far better though in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, as a young priest who believes he knows all he needs to know when he travels to Japan, and finds out just how wrong he is. This is a role that often appears passive – especially in the first and last acts – but Garfield really is doing a lot with his role – he brings forward both his characters empathy and arrogance, which will combine to eventually bring him low. This movie is in many ways a culmination of Scorsese’s career – and this character a culmination of many Scorsese leads. And Garfield delivers a performance that’s worthy to stand alongside them.
6. Peter Simonischek in Toni Erdmann
Out of the two lead role, Simonischek has the flashier one – we open with him, donning a lot of makeup, and his exaggerated false teeth (he’ll wear those teeth through most of the movie). Simonischek is not afraid to go over-the-top throughout the movie – fully embracing even silly fart jokes. Yet, while he is great in those bigger moments, what makes his performance truly wonderful is the undercurrent of depression that is undeniably there throughout the entire performance. He goes big, and knows other characters are laughing at him, and he doesn’t seem like he cares – but there are those small moments, when he looks off to the side, when it hits. His final scene is perhaps his quietest – and it is subtly heartbreaking. A great performance in a great movie.
5. Joel Edgerton in Loving
Joel Edgerton’s performance is perhaps the quietest of any lead performance of the year – not only because he often doesn’t say much, but even when he does, he does so in a quiet voice. He plays a white man in love with a black women in Virginia in the 1950s – which is just about the worst thing he could do. His wife is the more active of the pair – she makes the decisions – but he is strong, quiet center of the couple, and the film – he is not willing to bend or break for anyone. When he says, in response to the question of what he wants them to tell the Supreme Court, he says simply “Tell them I love my wife”. At the heart of this important case, and this movie, comes down to that one, perfect line.
4. Denzel Washington in Fences
In Fences, Denzel Washington gives a wonderful performance as Troy Maxon – strict patriarch, in 1950s Pittsburgh, bitter and angry at his lot in life – how he never really got a chance at his version of the American Dream, who just may end up destroying what he does have. Troy isn’t a bad guy per se – at least not at first. Washington imbues him with his natural charisma and good cheer – you see why people like him so much as he jokes with his friend, and later his wife. But when his younger son enters the picture, Troy becomes darker – and angrier, even downright cruel and violent. Washington did this role on Broadway a few years ago, and honed it to perfection. In the film version, Washington rips into his every line of dialogue (and he has a lot of them). Washington has been one of the best actors in the world for decades now – occasionally though, he relies on his old tricks and natural skill. When he wants to though, few can touch him. He wants to in Fences.
3. Colin Farrell in The Lobster
Colin Farrell is a deadpan, comic delight in The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos surreal, disturbing satire about, well, I’m still wrapping my head around that. From his first scene – checking into a hotel where if he doesn’t find a mate in a month he’ll be turned into an animal of his choosing, Farrell is barely off-screen for the next two hours – and he is wonderful in every scene. His character has to bury his emotions – but one of the reasons why the performance works so well, is that somehow Farrell still makes sure the audience still knows he has them. Farrell has always been a great actor, although he hasn’t really gotten the credit he deserves often. Here, he delivers his best performance to date (and still, he isn’t getting credit). He’ll get it someday.
2. Adam Driver in Paterson
In a year of great, quiet leading actor performances, Driver’s still stands out for how quiet and still it is. As the title character, a bus driver in Paterson New Jersey, who takes comfort in his routine and his poetry. He likes to listen in on his customers – he finds them amusing. He loves his wife, who has a lot of crazy ambitions that he supports – and she supports him as well. Driver does an excellent job at showing how the minor fluctuations in his routine – a potential act of violence, a bus breakdown – get to him underneath, even if he acts appropriately on the surface. Driver has been doing great work for years now – and Star Wars has made him a huge star – but one hopes he continues to do work like this, for filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch. It is a perfect combination of actor and director – and is one of the great performances of the year.
1. Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea joins the ranks of the greatest screen performances of the decade so far. It is a truly remarkable performance, restrained, subtle, emotional, and heartbreaking. He plays a man who is pretty much completely broken when the movie begins – although we do not yet know why. He is alone, out of choice, and lashes out in violence, or else simply wants to be left alone. During the course of the movie we will both discover what actions of his ended up breaking him – and see him slowly, ever so subtly, come out it just a little bit. Affleck has been a great actor for a while now – although he seems selective about what work he does. In Manchester by the Sea, he delivers his best performance to date. The film finds a few moments of humor throughout – which Affleck delivers in the same quiet way as everything else. His two biggest scenes are both quiet as well – a conversation with his ex-wife, which he tells her there is “nothing there”, and finally, in what is the line reading of the year for me – when he tells his nephew “I just can’t beat it” – which is as close as he comes to a breakdown. We’re lucky to get a few performances this good in a decade.