Much of this list speaks for itself – and in the many words written below – but I would be remiss not to point out the top two performances below come from the same film. They are, taken together, remarkable in such a way as to exist beyond the bounds of a list such as this. They represent two of the finest actors in the business delivering some of the greatest lines ever written in a way that nearly breaks the form. I discuss them individually below, but in truth, they cannot be separated. They are dependent on one another in the way the Earth is dependent on the sun. Make of this what you will.
Before we get to the top 10, here are five more performances worth your time and attention: Annette Bening in 20th Century Women; Rachel Weisz in The Lobster; Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in Loving; and Ralph Fiennes in The Big Splash.
10. Tom Bennett for Love & Friendship
The world of Jane Austen, as filtered through the lens of writer-director Whit Stillman, is one of high class and high manners, of subtlety and sobriety, so leave it to Stillman to splash a character like Sir James Martin across the screen. As played by Bennett, Martin is a dolt of the highest order, his profound ignorance matched only by his guileless good humor.
He marvels at peas – yes, the vegetable – praises the 12 commandments then is shocked to find out there are only 10, and is delighted to have realized the name of the estate at which he is staying is Churchill and he need not have searched for a church on a hill. Staying firmly within the Stillman tradition of rapid-fire dialogue and sharp satire, Bennett pitches his performance to just the right level of absurdity as to stay believable but transcend into hilarity at the drop of a hat.
9. Sandra Hüller for Toni Erdmann
Writer-director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is remarkable for many things, not the least of which its success at turning a serious condemnation of sexism in the business world into a three-hour farce littered with humor and pathos. Its star, Hüller, carries the weight of both ends of the story. She must be a woman marginalized within her office, frustrated by her obvious talent being overlooked, but she must also exist in the absurdist comedy world Ade creates. Hüller is more than up to the task.
For evidence of this, look no further than Hüller’s much discussed, rightly lauded performance of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” somewhere after the midpoint of the film. By this time, she is exhausted by her father’s shenanigans – and plain exhausted and overworked – but somehow, she lets him talk her into performing for a group of strangers at a party. Hüller’s slow build from reluctant participant to hammy belting is a thing of beauty. She is a joy to watch, as is this film.
8. Ben Foster for Hell or High Water
If Foster were not so good at playing live wires and loose cannons, I would say it was time for him to move on to something else, but he just is that damn good. This is a bit reductive, of course, as Foster has shown plenty of range throughout his career, from early work on Six Feet Under to The Messenger. However, it is the wild, unhinged characters, capable of anything at any moment, equal parts frightening and seductive, for which Foster will always be best remembered.
He reaches perhaps the apex of that kind of character – though never count out Foster for finding new levels of insanity to portray – as Tanner Howard in David Mackenzie’s widely loved western cops-and-robbers saga Hell or High Water. As a bank robber just recently out of prison but fighting alongside his brother for a just cause, Foster imbues Tanner with enough heart that no matter where the script takes the character – and it gets plenty dark and violent – the audience never loses sight of his true purpose. He is a man who wants to do right, but his only path to it is through wrongdoing.
7. Isabelle Huppert for Elle
How many actresses get to this point in their careers – more than 100 credits to her name, international acclaim, a storied career working with some of the most brilliant directors around – and choose to do a movie like this? Only Huppert, I imagine. Only Huppert could take such a risk on a Paul Verhoeven vehicle about rape, revenge, fantasy, and womanhood. Only Huppert could have the courage to play a sexual assault survivor as both victim and pursuer. Only Huppert could play a woman facing down the demons in her soul, as well as the evils that surround her. Only Huppert.
After making her onscreen debut in 1971, Huppert has spent a lifetime taking chances, and she has never shied away from the ugly, dirty, angry side of the characters she plays. Her character in Elle, Michèle Leblanc, is often cold, cruel, and calculating, and Huppert makes us sympathize with her without softening her. She is allowed to be strong and confident without worry for what others will think. It is a radical and bracing portrait of femininity few actresses would dare tackle. In fact, I can think of just one.
6. Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
Affleck has been among the best actors of his generation for some time. He has not exactly been prolific of late, but what he lacks in volume, he makes up for in quality, never failing to deliver authentic, lived-in performances whether in ensemble heist comedies like the Ocean’s series or in dark, impressionistic thrillers like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints or The Killer Inside Me. Reports of his treatment of the women he has worked with, including multiple claims of sexual harassment, cannot be ignored, but the work stands apart from that.
As Lee Chandler, grieving as much for the life he could have lived but did not as for the death of his brother, Affleck delivers a typically on point portrayal of pain, anguish, and fear. Lee has shut himself off from the world so long, he no longer knows how to reach out and connect, even when he knows he must. For his sake and the sake of his family, he tries over and over again to bring out something in himself that must have been there once – we see it in flashbacks – but he is fishing in a river that has run dry. Affleck expertly sells the weight of this struggle in his body, his voice, and his whole being.
5. Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
Moonlight is broken into three distinct acts, each showing a different stage in the life of a boy growing up in Miami. Ali appears only in the first act, but the monumental force of the character he and writer-director Barry Jenkins create brings into being the rest of the events of the film. Moonlight is predicated on its ability to challenge the assumptions we make about others, and nowhere is that more clear than in the character of Juan, the gentle drug lord who takes a scared young boy under his wing.
Juan does not seek to mold the boy into anything. He simply shows him kindness, which in this world is enough of a miracle. Ali, probably best known for his work on Netflix series House of Cards and Luke Cage, does not force his will onto the character. There are no big, showy moments, no actorly affectations. He lets Juan flow through him so naturally and gracefully it simply sweeps the audience along.
4. Natalie Portman for Jackie
Jacqueline Kennedy is an icon, her place in the public imagination firmly entrenched. As an icon, she is an ideal to which people aspire, an inspiration, a shining example of the best of who a people can be. Yet, she was also a person, a woman, a wife, a mother, whose life was marred by tragedy and whose grief was felt on the grandest stage imaginable. The world is quite familiar with the icon, but Portman’s daring, subtle, and sublime work in Jackie shows us the person.
Taking place mostly in the few days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Portman takes us into the mind of a woman who has been forever altered by her circumstances but refuses to be broken. The actress nails the mannered speech patterns and stiff gait of the upper-crust debutante, but the performance is not built on its imitations. It is built on the quiet, devastating moments in which Jackie is alone, looking at her tired visage in the mirror and wondering what could possibly come next for her. This is where Portman shines.
3. Colin Farrell for The Lobster
What a ride it has been to follow Farrell over these 20-odd years. He has been in enough bad films and disastrous flops to kill five careers, but he keeps coming back, and every once in a while, he gives us a gem like this. Though he has never seemed like a vain actor, Farrell has always projected an easy cool, a breezy charm that makes him easy to root for in his performances. There is none of that here. As the schlubby, awkward, near-sighted David, he inhabits the character so fully the entire movie-star persona he has cultivated just disappears.
At first, Farrell would seem an odd pairing with a director as iconoclastic as modern Greek master Yorgos Lanthimos, but as a man trapped within a dystopian bureaucracy, he embodies the perfect mix of vulnerability and resignation, hope and despair. Lanthimos creates a world that has beaten down its characters until they are empty husks, flat, monotone cyphers on which the system can project its own needs. Farrell commits to this risky characterization so thoroughly he brings the audience along into this disquieting world and makes us long for his release from it.
2. Viola Davis for Fences
If it is not clear by now, it should be made so: Davis is a national treasure. She is an actress of such skill and range as to elevate instantly whatever material she is given. Imagine then some of the greatest material ever written placed in her hands, and you will have some idea of what she achieves as Rose Maxon, Troy’s long-suffering wife. She has stood by him and shown nothing but kindness, patience, and grace, but she is not weak, far from it. She is the rock on which their marriage is founded, and her shock and anger at her husband’s misdeeds are as righteous as anything you will see.
Davis has been onscreen for 20 years and onstage longer. Her early roles included parts in several Steven Soderbergh films, as well as Denzel Washington’s directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, but I suspect most of us first took real notice of her for her brilliant, shattering work in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. She has only one scene, but her impact is so great it leaves a void in the rest of the film.
She has gone on to great acclaim and notoriety with her television show, How to Get Away with Murder, and like all great actors of this era, she even joined a comic book universe for DC (Suicide Squad, remember what I said about elevating material?). She should probably already have an Oscar or two, and if she does not win for this performance, it will be a scandal. She is the heart and soul of Fences, its emotional center of gravity, and she makes it look as effortless as cooling a pie on the windowsill.
1. Denzel Washington for Fences
What else could this be but Washington in the role that should come to define the latter portion of his career? Washington might be the most consistent and consistently wonderful actor of all time. His carefully curated career is marked by excellent genre work, smart crowd-pleasers, and a handful of stone-cold classics. He is incapable of giving an inauthentic performance, and as much as his movie-star persona informs his screen presence, he never lets it inform his acting.
As retired ballplayer and garbage man Troy Maxon, the first half of the film is given over almost entirely to Washington reciting playwright August Wilson’s many stirring monologues. Washington finds every moment, every nuance, every turn of phrase and makes it his own. He hugs the curves of Wilson’s words like a racecar driver, steering into the littlest details and taking us along for the ride.
This obviously was a deeply personal project for Washington, who directs and stars in this adaptation not long after finishing his run in the Broadway revival of the play. As personal as it must be for him, though, Washington’s performance makes it universal. Troy is every one of us who longs for more than he has been given, but he is no mere symbol. He is a living, breathing human being, and that is thanks to Wilson’s words and Washington’s career-topping performance delivering them.
Check back tomorrow as we conclude our Year in Review series with Last Cinema Standing's Top 10 Films of 2016.