To make a movie all you really need is a camera and something to point that camera at, and so it makes sense that we point our cameras – more often than not – at human beings, who are wild and unpredictable animals, capable of great heroism and horribly villainy, of extreme pathos and utter silliness. We’re fascinating creatures, human beings, and we haven’t run out meaningful ways to dramatize our existence quite yet.
That’s why, when we look at the best movies of the year, we tend to think of them in terms of performances. We think about the incredible actors who brought these unusual and remarkable characters to life, because without their efforts those people wouldn’t have formed a connection with our minds and our souls. They bring a writer’s words to life and they bring humanity to the otherwise technical craftspersonship of filmmaking.
With that in mind, it’s worth taking a moment at the end of the year to highlight the most powerful performances I’ve encountered in my travels. After watching hundreds of motion pictures these are the characters I’m going to take with me. Some of these are individual achievements, others are impossible to even consider without the contributions of a partner or an entire ensemble cast. Either way, they are my picks for the best performances of 2016 (in alphabetical order by film title), and I recommend that you discover them for yourselves. These characters are eager to meet you, and to share their experiences, and I think you would benefit from letting them teach you about love, cruelty, empathy and fear.
REBECCA HALL (Christine)
Rebecca Hall delicately balances between pride and despair in Christine, a film that understands all too well that there’s a connective tissue between those two extremes. As Christine Chubbuck, the television reporter who committed suicide on live television in 1974, Rebecca Hall is magnetic, even if perhaps we’d prefer not to be drawn into her perilous mindset. Between physical illness, mental illness, loneliness and the glass ceiling Rebecca Hall finds a lot of room to make us understand exactly why Christine Chubbuck did what we might otherwise call “unthinkable.” No other performance this year was so perilous, and so impactful.
RYAN REYNOLDS (Deadpool)
20th Century Fox
Ryan Reynolds turned in the year’s best mulligan with his performance in Deadpool, proving once and for all that the absolute betrayal of the popular Marvel Comics character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine wasn’t his fault. In this crowd-pleasing action-comedy, Reynolds nails all the character’s trademark quippiness but builds that snark on a foundation of humanity. Deadpool isn’t a joker because he doesn’t take life seriously, he makes jokes because it’s the only way to deal with life’s many miseries. Ryan Reynolds knows how to make us feel bad for a mass-murderer, and he does so with loving aplomb.
ISABELLE HUPPERT (Elle)
Sony Pictures Classics
Few characters in 2016 were afforded more complexity than Michèle Leblanc, the protagonist of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, who refuses to be defined by the many horrible things that happen in her life. Over the course of the film she is sexually assaulted, harassed, involved in an unthinkable crime, sleeps with her best friend’s husband, and yet she refuses to be a plot point in a story. Shame, she argues, never stops anyone from doing anything. She’s in control of her life and takes advantage of her opportunities, in thoughtful (although sometimes not very wise) ways that challenge what we expect of other human beings, and of ourselves.
VIOLA DAVIS (Fences)
Denzel Washington gets the showier role in Fences, his adaptation of August Wilson’s stage play, but that’s because he’s playing a showier person, who hides his pain behind high-volume bluster. But this film really belongs to Viola Davis’s character, Rose, who stands by his side and accepts her boozy blowhard husband until the time comes to stop. And when that time comes, Viola Davis reveals that the true power of Fences comes not from the protagonist but from the other characters, who put up with his crap for reasons all their own. Her power dwarfs that tiny man in her midst because she has dignity, and her dignity doesn’t stay quiet forever.
KATE MCKINNON (Ghostbusters)
Even those who liked Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters have to admit that it’s not as well-constructed as the original, but that’s not Kate McKinnon’s fault. As Dr. Jillian Holtzmann she jokes and jests and dances and yet she’s not a source of comic relief. She’s that rarely portrayed character, the extroverted introvert, who hides her insecurities behind theatricality, who’s more comfortable lip synching with blowtorches than speaking a few emotionally honest words in front of friends. And in one of the standout scenes of the year, she also manages to headline an incredible action sequence without indulging in sexual posturing. She does great things because she’s great, not because she wants to be witnessed by others. An inspirational performance, flawlessly executed by one of the best comedians in the business.
ALDEN EHRENREICH (Hail, Caesar!)
One of the silliest performances of the year was also one of the most endearing. Alden Ehrenreich co-stars in Hail, Caesar! as Hobie Doyle, a good-natured cowboy crooner who finds himself out of his element when the studio casts him as an erudite leading man. Incapable of reading the simplest of lines, his back-and-forth with director Laurence Laurentz (played by an equally funny Ralph Fiennes) to get a single sentence right is a masterpiece of whimsy. He goes with the flow, even when he’s the one standing in the flow’s path.
ENSEMBLE CAST (Hidden Figures)
20th Century Fox
Picking one great performance in Hidden Figures – a rich, entertaining and valuable biographic picture about the unsung (read: black, female) heroes of NASA – is an exercise in futility. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe belong together in this movie, playing off of each other’s enthusiasms and plights, creating a unity of spirit that lends Hidden Figures greater depth. It’s the story of individual accomplishments in a time when those accomplishments fed off of each other, and in the process providing the world with an entire generation of heroes. And these wonderful actors – and a supporting cast that includes Mahershala Ali, Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst – personify that sense of achievement, in all of its strength, vulnerability, dignity and humor.
KATE BECKINSALE (Love & Friendship)
In a modern era, Lady Susan Vernon might not have been the villain. But in the 1790s a widow had fewer prospects, and so the manipulations begin in Whit Stillman’s wonderfully manipulative Love & Friendship. Kate Beckinsale understands that Lady Susan’s web of lies is a defense mechanism, her only way to survive in a culture designed to marginalize her, but there’s no reason why she shouldn’t enjoy it. And so we watch her seduce and destroy her friends and family (not, necessarily, respectively) and take full advantage of a society too damned polite to point out that she’s doing it. And we love her for every vicious turn of phrase, every insidious insinuation, and every lovely wrongdoing.
RUTH NEGGA & JOEL EDGERTON (Loving)
Few great films feel slighter than Jeff Nichols’ Loving, a real-life drama about a Supreme Court case that illegalized mixed-race marriage and paved the way for same sex marriage several generations later. It’s a big story told with subdued energy, as if to say that there’s nothing remarkable about two people loving each other, and that making a big deal out of a wholesome marriage is fundamentally mad. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton personify that ethos perfectly as Mildred and Richard Loving, two sweet and uncomplicated individuals who shirked the system because they didn’t understand it (as if anybody ever could). Their power is in their unassuming personalities. Normalness rarely, if ever, felt this remarkable.
ENSEMBLE CAST (Manchester By the Sea)
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan assembled the perfect cast for his acclaimed drama. It’s a film about an emotionally reserved man, played by Casey Affleck, dealing with all the big and little problems that arise after his brother dies. It’s a story about how life goes on, even when you’re not ready to, and to tell that story you need an ensemble cast of characters whose foibles and tragedies each matter equally. Every character in Manchester By The Sea is living a complete life, even if they have only one line of dialogue. And so even though Casey Affleck is “the lead,” he’s sharing this whole world with brilliant performances by Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Tate Donovan, C.J. Wilson and more besides. There isn’t a flawed performance to be found in Manchester By The Sea, and they all add up to something beautiful.
ENSEMBLE CAST (Moonlight)
Films about the masculine experience have an unfortunate tendency to promote the idea that sensitivity is, if not antithetical to the experience, then at least something that is expected to be reserved for rarified moments. It’s an idea that would be completely alien in Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ transcendent film about a young homosexual boy growing into manhood. It’s a film about his search for emotional connections in an environment that doesn’t encourage them, with a mother (Naomie Harris) who offers only anguish, and a loving new father figure (Mahershala Ali) whose job makes him inherently untrustworthy. Together they explore the idea of human connection and the manner in which those connections help an individual evolve, not just into adulthood but – in an allegory personified by casting three different actors in the lead role (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) – from one person into another. Even the concept of this cast is brilliant, but with this cast of genuinely exceptional actors bringing love to every moment, it transcends its cleverness and achieves something akin to wonder.
MICHAEL SHANNON (Nocturnal Animals)
Michael Shannon plays a character inside a character in Nocturnal Animals, a film about an unhappy woman reading a deeply troubling book written by her ex-husband. That book is a story of rape and revenge, in which an impotent hero is given an opportunity for righteous revenge courtesy of an unusual detective, played incredibly by Michael Shannon. It’s a performance with swagger but no cockiness, a man whose matter-of-fact existence belies the fact that – from the construct of the story, and the story within a story – he’s merely a storytelling device. He’s taken on a life of his own, so that even his imminent death seems more affecting than the more overt tragedies of Tom Ford’s icy, high-concept drama. Such is the power of Michael Shannon. Long may he act.
MOLLY SHANNON (Other People)
Molly Shannon (no relation to Michael Shannon) is still best known for her Saturday Night Live escapades, bounding with ill-advised enthusiasm. So casting her as a mother dying from cancer might seem, on paper at least, like a cheap dramatic shot. Watching a woman renowned for her energy just wither away over the course of a year could indeed have been an exercise in callous sentimentality but instead, in Other People, it’s a lovely way to remind us of the lingering impact of vitality, even as it wanes. Molly Shannon brings humor but also dignity and grace to her role, as a woman who tries to stay strong and often, but not always, succeeds. She gives a true, heartbreaking performance in an industry otherwise filled with disingenuous manipulations.
TIKA SUMPTER & PARKER SAWYERS (Southside With You)
Chemistry isn’t exactly a science (at least, not when it comes to acting) but in Southside With You, actors Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers have it nailed. They play Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama on the afternoon and evening of their very first date, a day filled with intellectual back-and-forth, subtle personality tests and challenges to each other’s character. Richard Tanne’s film doesn’t rely on your knowledge that these two will become the President and First Lady of the United States. They’re so opinionated and intriguing that their clashing charismas would have made Southside With You absolutely riveting, even if their names were changed. But that they’re playing famous figures and slip so effortlessly into the recognizable roles, adding intimacy to people otherwise treated with rarefied airs, really does make Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers’ performances all the more exciting and impressive.
JOHN GOODMAN (10 Cloverfield Lane)
John Goodman turns his lovable persona on its ear in 10 Cloverfield Lane, playing (essentially) the living embodiment of oppressive masculinity. He has created a bomb shelter in the image of a 1950s sitcom, and when it seems like the world really has come to an end he’s rescued/kidnapped a beautiful young woman to be his… well, what is she anyway? Does he want a friend? A daughter? A lover? A slave? Dan Trachtenberg’s stylish Outer Limits riff leaves some of these ideas to your imagine, but John Goodman brings their emotional realities to life in a performance that’s terrifying for all the right reasons. You know this guy. This guy lives in your neighborhood. And maybe he’s crazy, maybe he’s just sexist, but either way you should not approve.
KATE DICKIE & RALPH INESON (The Witch)
The cast of Robert Eggers’ ambitious period piece horror thriller The Witch are too Puritan for their fellow Puritans, and live on the edge of colonial America. It could have been bliss but instead we watch as their petty hypocrisies and earnest paranoias rip each other apart. The whole cast in The Witch is exceptional but Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson, as the matriarch and patriarch whose communication issues might just doom their brood, are the real standouts. Their piousness belies real misery, and that misery evolves into a very different, very terrifying kind of pain.
Top Photos: Focus Features / A24 / Sony Pictures Classics
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.