When I fell in love with the movies – in the mid ‘90s – it seemed like Supporting Actor was often the strongest acting category – and 2016 is the first time in years where I could argue that was true (the ridiculously strong Best Actress lineup is the only reason this isn’t a cakewalk. Of the many performances that could have made the top 10 that I didn’t have room for, here are a few: Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash goes big, early and often, and gives the movie a real jolt of energy it really needs. Michael C. Hall in Christine starts the movie looking and seeming like a Ken Doll – then ends up being a perfect embodiment of 1970s new age chauvinism. Woody Harrelson in The Edge of Seventeen is wonderful as the history teacher the main character bonds with – trading barbs with the best of them, before revealing his humanity. Stephen McKinley Henderson in Fences delivers a subtle performance of quiet humanity – a necessary counterpart to the fireworks of Denzel and Viola. R. Hibbert & Ashton Sanders & Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight combine to create one great character through years – I cannot pick out one to highlight – because they’re all so good – showing the small and large evolutions through the years. Andre Holland in Moonlight has complete and effortless charm in the final segment of the film. Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea performs admirably for the newcomer tasked with trying to keep up with the best performance of the year by Casey Affleck – and finding the right dose of humor to balance the tragedy. Yosuke Kubozuka in Silence is excellent, as essentially a pathetic, Judas figure in the film. Shia LaBeouf in American Honey shows, again, why he’s an interesting performer – here as a mass of contradictions that at times we love and at times we hate, right along with the main character. Tracy Letts in Christine is wonderful as Christine’s boss – who is both understandably frustrated with her, and also a complete misogynistic prick. Jack Reynor in Sing Street delivers the truly great performance in this British charmer – as the older brother who has already given up on his life, but won’t give up on his brother. Nick Serino in Sleeping Giant is great in this Canadian indie – as the most reckless of three boys, doing stupid things on summer vacation. Patrick Stewart in Green Room gives a subdued performance as the leader of the neo-Nazi group holding a band hostage – not sympathetic, but tired, and just wanting to give everything over with, which somehow makes it more chilling. Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Nocturnal Animals is a memorably sleazy, evil bad guy – and finally delivers on his earlier promise.
Tom Bennett has only a few scenes in Love & Friendship – but you aren’t going to forget his performance, which is arguably the funniest of the year. He plays Sir James Martin, and he’s a clueless idiot – but he’s such an amusing, harmless and downright funny idiot that you’ll love him every time he’s onscreen –and the rest of the cast puts up with him because he’s rich and has a title – and in Jane Austen England, that’s all you need, right? Every time Bennett walks onscreen, he steals whatever scene he’s in – blathering on about whatever inane topic enters his mind. I could watch a whole movie of him doing it – but his few scenes are a highlight.
9. Stephan Lang in Don’t Breathe
If you want to see physical acting at its finest, then watch Stephan Lang as the Blind Man in Don’t Breathe. He doesn’t say very much for a long time in the movie – he just walks around in the dark, on the warpath to kill the three young people who have invaded his house (although he is still – somehow – the bad guy, even before he proves just how bad he is). He is terrifying in those early scene as he stalks his prey through the house he knows so well. When he does speak – and reveals just how, well, crazy he has gone, Lang becomes one of the year’s most memorable and vile villains. Lang has been a fine character actor for a long time – and this is one of the highlights of his career.
8. John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane
You’d be hard pressed to find a better character actor in American movies over the past 25 years than John Goodman – who has worked with practically everyone, and can always be counted on to deliver a fine performance in any role, large or small. His work in 10 Cloverfield Lane is some of the best of his career. In the film, he plays a man who may, or may, be right about a cataclysmic event that has destroyed America – which made him taking Mary Elizabeth Winstead to his underground bunker an act of charity, not kidnapping. Either way, he’s also clearly unhinged, and throughout the film, his paranoia swings from harmless to terrifying, before the intense final scenes with him. This isn’t the first time Goodman has been asked to play someone possibly unhinged and dangerous – but Goodman does find some new notes here, making him a dangerously unpredictable presence. A great performance by a great actor, who continues to do fine work in every film he makes.
7. Ben Foster in Hell or High Water
Ben Foster seems to be on his way to becoming the next Christopher Walken or Nicolas Cage – those kind of strange, one-of-a-kind actors, who can either overact brilliantly, or overact horribly – with an occasional subtle performance to throw you off. In Hell or High Water, Foster is the least subtle character in a movie that is mainly about subtly – and needs the kick in the rear Foster gives it occasionally. As the more reckless brother – the one with nothing to lose – Foster rips in his role as a bank robber, who having fun, mainly because he’s finally going to be of service to someone in his family. Foster has been a talented actor for quite some time now, just looking for directors who know how to use properly. Hell or High Water is an example of how to use him perfectly.
6. Tracy Letts in Indignation
Playwright/actor Letts had a great year in front of the camera – as the asshole father in Todd Solondz’ Wiener Dog, as the chauvinist boss in Antonio Campos’ Christine were also terrific – but his best work was as Dean Cauldwell in James Schamus’ adaptation of Philip Roth’s Indignation. As the “Dean of Men”, who calls in the hero for a “talk”, Letts is merciless, yet infuriatingly calm. You can see how he pushes every button on the films hero, without ever raising his voice or being outwardly disrespectful – it’s a masterful dismantling, and every time Letts return after that set piece (that takes up a good 20 minutes in the middle of the movie) he grows more intimidating. Letts has had a great career on stage already – and I’m happy he’s finally getting the film work that allows us to see what a tremendous actor he really is.
5. Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals
Michael Shannon knows he is playing a caricature of a Southern lawman in Nocturnal Animals – remember his character in the story within the story (double fictional), and in many ways, it’s Shannon total embrace of the clichés of the character, that makes the character work as well as it does (and helps to upend those clichés). Shannon, who I think would get my vote for best actor working right now, embraces his role as Bobby Seale – a the lawman hell-bent on getting justice – or at least revenge – on behalf of the main character, whose wife and daughter are murdered. There are many great moments in Shannon’s performance – for his first few moments, when he gives Gyllenhaal a priceless look to let him know how badly he thinks Gyllenhaal fucked up – right up to the finale. There is nothing I wouldn’t gladly watch Shannon do – and his work here joins his work in 99 Homes, Bug, World Trade Center, Midnight Special and Take Shelter – among many others – as proof as to why right now, no one is doing it better than Shannon.
4. Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water
Casting Jeff Bridges as a Texas lawman, on the edge of retirement, is just about the most obvious casting decision you can make – and for Hell or High Water, it paid huge dividends. Bridges, who easily could have slapped on a cowboy hat and sleepwalked through the film and been fine, ends up delivering one of his very best performances. He’s a Texas Ranger, not quite ready to hang it up just yet – he’s got one case left in him, and while he jokes with his partner along the way, he also shows just how good and observant he really is. He shines throughout the film – nowhere more so than in the closing scenes – first his reaction that turns from jubilation to tears in a heartbeat, then his final confrontation – a tense standoff where he sizes up the competition, is great. Bridges has been one of our best actors for decades –and he keeps showing us why.
3. Issei Ogata in Silence
As the Inquisitor in Silence, Ogata delivers what may be the film’s finest performance. It’s a performance that starts out almost comedically – we’ve heard so much about the brutality of this character, and he comes on, and we do not know who he is, but he seems like a harmless old man. As the film progresses though his intelligence and thoughtfulness comes through – as does his quick wit, and capacity for both cruelty and benevolence. That are a lot of great roles for the Japanese actors in Silence – but Ogata outshines them all with his whip smart performance. The veteran character actor is getting his highest profile international role of his career – and he’s making the most of it. A great, towering performances.
2. Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!
If there was a true, star-making performance this year, it was Alden Ehrenreich’s turn in the Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar! He started the year as a vaguely familiar face – but after his terrific work here, he ends up as the new Han Solo. It’s hard to imagine, no matter how good a Han Solo he makes, that it will be a better performance than what he gives here – as Hobie Doyle – a cowboy stuntman, turned movie star, who cannot really act, but dammit, he ran ride a horse and shoot a gun, and play with a lasso. For a while, it looks like Hobie is another in a long line of classic Coen dunces – and he plays that brilliantly (Would that it were so simple) – but he ends up being just about the smartest guy in the movie – and, yes, that means something. Ehrenreich is hilarious here, but his performance is more than that. It’s pure joy to behold, subtle, funny and heartfelt. The kid’s a star.
1. Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
There is something really understated and beautiful about Ali’s performance in Moonlight. You could write him off as a cliché – the drug-dealer-with-a-heart-of-gold (a version of the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold) – but that would be doing a disservice to his work here. In the film, Ali plays Juan – a crack dealer, yes, but one who when he finds a scared young boy in a crack house, he takes him home and takes care of him, before he can get him home. The two have a tender relationship – its Juan the kid comes to when he wants to know what a “fag” is – and Ali’s performance in his response is perfect – as it is in a baptism of kinds in the water. The best moment maybe one that is left unresolved – when the kid realizes that Juan sells the crack that his mother is addicted to. For those who have watched House of Cards – among others – you already know Ali is a terrific actor, but his work on Moonlight should be the role that takes his career to the next level.