Let’s bring in the New Year with the best performances from last year.
Yep, we’re still doing this whole thing. Anyways, last year I chose to make a point with my article about the year’s best performances in film. Since I struggled so hard to think of even just five great performances by male actors in films that year when it came time for me to fill out my Failed Critics Awards ballot – and, seeing as the most serious competition for DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning performance as a particularly sadistic member of the nihilist version of Jackass was Bryan Cranston beginning to piss away all the talent he used to have, that seems to have been shared by most – I had all ten of my entries on this list be female performances. Ten turned out to be too few slots, as well, since I cut double that amount from the published list.
This past year was much better for Film, however, so I didn’t have to work too hard to come up with a strong list for both arbitrary genders. Therefore, this year’s 10 Best Performances article splits the difference between the two, like I’m some kind of feminist or something. In addition to the criteria that determines eligibility in any of my Year-End pieces, I have restricted this to just one performance per-film, mainly so I don’t redundantly repeat any of my prior thoughts all over again and give off the impression that I’m half-assing these pieces or something. Resultantly, there are a large number of Honourable Mentions to get through before we dive into the (unranked) list, and here they are:
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane), Paul Dano (Swiss Army Man), Chris Hemsworth (Ghostbusters), Leslie Jones (Ghostbusters), Aaron Paul (Eye in the Sky), Alan Rickman (Eye in the Sky), Charlize Theron (Kubo and the Two Strings), Luke Evans (High-Rise), Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys), Ellen DeGeneres (Finding Dory), Andy Samberg (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), Kate Beckinsale (Love & Friendship), Anya Taylor-Joy (The VVitch), Ginnifer Goodwin (Zootopia), Jason Bateman (Zootopia), Sasha Lane (American Honey).
John Goodman as Howard (10 Cloverfield Lane)
John Goodman has had a long and storied career playing almost every character type known to man, but he’s mainly played loveable and somewhat paternal figures or overblown arseholes (the latter primarily for The Coen Brothers). What he’s rarely been is genuinely terrifying – even his character in The Big Lebowski is portrayed more as an impotent petulant blowhard than a legitimate threat – despite being a surprisingly physical actor, but that’s exactly the skillset that Dan Trachtenberg puts to use in 10 Cloverfield Lane. The resultant performance is menacing, commanding, and often full-on terrifying, yet surprisingly complex and very occasionally somewhat pitiable; a tour-de-force piece of work that is by far and away the best of any actor or actress from the past twelve months. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a phenomenal film, make no mistake, but it would maybe have only been about a quarter as tense and phenomenal if anyone other than Goodman were playing the role of Howard.
Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin (The Edge of Seventeen)
Putting across a convincing, believable, but also not-absolutely-insufferable portrayal of a self-absorbed teenager in a film is incredibly hard – and if you don’t believe me, go watch Lewis MacDougall’s alternately stiff and irritating lead performance in J. A. Bayona’s meh-gnificent A Monster Calls… actually, don’t do that. Also throw depression and self-loathing onto that pile, you’re asking a hell of a lot for a performer to be able to pull off. It takes somebody with both quiet technical nuance, the empathy and restraint to refrain from pushing those additional aspects overboard, and enough raw likeability and charisma to keep the viewer relating to them without wanting to smack them across the face (since all teenagers are insufferable shitbags). Hailee Steinfeld turns out to be exactly that performer, brilliantly realising and elevating Kelly Fremon Craig’s script so completely, with such aching vulnerability and such piercing anger and wit, that it acts as a sort of culmination of all the promise and talent she’s demonstrated in her young career up to now.
Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle (Hail, Caesar!)
The important thing about Hobie Doyle is that there is not a single insincere bone in his body. He lives to please, like a puppy dog. He’s aware of his limitations and where he shines best, but he won’t complain if the studio wants him to go off and fill-in for a role that he is completely ill-equipped to deal with, and he’ll make a full go of a studio-mandated date with a woman he’s never even met because, darn it, the boy just wants everybody to be happy. This is why Ehrenreich was catapulted into everyone’s spotlight, because he never plays Hobie with anything less than total sincerity. He may get flustered, he may get confused, but he never gets angry with anyone other than himself, and Ehrenreich embodies that so totally that every last one of his scenes are a pure joy to watch. It’s almost the definition of a star-making performance, particularly because there’s not a trace of ego or deliberate-attention-grabbing to it.
Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks (Arrival)
Amy Adams’ best work comes through two factors: her face, which is quietly expressive to such a degree that you just cannot teach that no matter how hard you try, and when she is an at-least-somewhat ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Adams has this ability to juggle both quiet emotion and quiet resolve masterfully, and Arrival lets her do so with gusto, resultantly putting in her best work to date. The emotional core of the film hangs on her, the joy of the progress made in communicating with the Heptapods is palpable through her, the inspiration in watching smart people do what they do best can be seen just through the shifts in her facial expression, and the warmth of the sequences featuring Louise’s daughter come from Adams’ naturalistic sweetness. In a film about communication, Adams’ quiet restraint speaks loudest and clearest.
Shia LaBeouf as Jake (American Honey)
American Honey may appear to be a travelogue of poverty-stricken Forgotten America as viewed through the eyes of a bunch of wayward-yet-hopeful misfit teenagers, but in reality the film is actually more about Star’s (Sasha Lane, just missing out on being the representative for American Honey) infatuation, and eventual abusive relationship, with Jake, the charismatic honey-trap for Krystal’s recruitment drive. At once non-committal yet scarily possessive, sweet yet violent, selfless yet majorly selfish, it’s a role that, particularly once you see the results, you realise only Shia LaBeouf could have played. Jake, after all, needs to be charming enough to get us to fall for him in the same way that Star does, so that we can get an indication of what she sees in him, but without lapsing over into making him some kind of misunderstood brooder and in the process glorifying abusive relationships. I’m still not sure if the film itself manages this – hell, I’m honestly not even certain if writer-director Andrea Arnold is even aware that her film is actually all about abuse or not – but LaBeouf at least does, and it’s his best performance in years.
Kate McKinnon as Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Ghostbusters)
I ALMOST toyed with not putting this on the list, for I also watched Office Christmas Party this year and McKinnon’s performance in that is majorly worrying evidence of what can happen when she’s not given strong enough direction – since there are many of the aspects and tenants of her Ghostbusters performance in there but without a character or soul to hang them onto. But after about 14 seconds, I relented. How could I not? After I raved about McKinnon’s performance as Holtzmann straight after first seeing the film? After I watched clips of her performance on YouTube repeatedly for months after to tide me over until the Blu-Ray release? After I connected so totally to the character of Holtzmann, embodied so perfectly by her performance? After I went as (an attempted) Holtzmann for Halloween? After I wrote almost 2,500 words about how much the character meant to me? After I awarded the moment she goes on the warpath against an army of ghosts the title of Best Scene of 2016? Yeah, no brainer. McKinnon fucking killed this.
Daniel Radcliffe as Manny (Swiss Army Man)
Remember a couple of entries back when I was praising Alden Ehrenreich for successfully playing Hobie Doyle with total sincerity and earnestness, and then the entry before that when I mentioned how difficult it is to write and play a believable teenager because get it even slightly wrong and you just want to bash the actor’s head in with a pipe wrench? Well, Daniel Radcliffe had to combine the pair of those into one character for his work in Swiss Army Man, and he had to also do it whilst playing a corpse. Well, the teenager part isn’t wholly accurate – Manny, at least as far as Hank’s delusions go, is more of a new-born child discovering life and the world for the first time – but the general sentiment is. Swiss Army Man is a surprisingly sweet and life-affirming film, and much of that is down to Radcliffe’s 100% sincere and earnest performance. Anything less than the total commitment that he shows here and a monologue about farts wouldn’t have been anywhere near as sweet and moving as it turned out to be, and that’s an achievement to be proud of.
Helen Mirren as Col. Katherine Powell (Eye in the Sky)
Eye in the Sky is a film with a lot of amoral people who have convinced themselves that they are acting in the best interests of the greater good, even whilst they let their personal obsessions and careers get in the way of effective and non-compromised decision making. In that respect, there may be none more amoral than the nominal head of the drone operation, British Army Col. Katherine Powell. Her obsession with finding, capturing, and even killing Al-Shabbab militant Carol Danford, whom she had been tracking for six years, is so total and absolute that she is willing to do anything and everything required to get the go-ahead that she so desperately craves. Mirren is surprisingly terrifying, here. It’s not just that she fits in perfectly as a British Army Colonel, it’s that Powell’s slow slippage from professional, to barely-restrained rage, to palpable desperation, all without ever losing the aura of authority, is like watching a train full of passengers slow and methodically go off-the-rails – there’s a heartbreak to it, but mostly it’s just horrifying watching this woman succumb to her obsession to such a damaging extent, and the destruction she wreaks as a result.
Tom Noonan as Everybody Else (Anomalisa)
These last two entries are being awarded less for the performances themselves and more for their mere presences. That sounds like I’m attempting to undercut their work in their respective films, but I mean it as quite the opposite. A strong performance is one thing, but you can also gain a hell of a lot just from having the perfect performer with the exact necessary presence be cast in the right role. For example, Tom Noonan in Anomalisa is being rewarded here purely down to his voice. Now, is he acting in Anomalisa? Yes, of course he is, voice acting is damn hard. But whilst his performance is great, it’s less his performance and more just his voice that’s worthy of praise. That voice, that unmistakably generic, implacable voice is key to the impact of Anomalisa, the subtle changes and inflections that differentiate the people he plays but without giving any of them unique personalities or feels. His voice swims around the whole of Anomalisa’s first 30 minutes, a near-constant hum that is inescapable, crushingly so, and it’s where the groundwork for the film is laid. It’s a great performance, but it’s a phenomenal voice.
Beyoncé Knowles (Lemonade)
Similarly, Beyoncé’s work in Lemonade is very strong – the confessional delivery in her readings of Warsan Shire’s poetry, especially, are so vital to the mood of the film – but much of the work in her performance comes from her just being Beyoncé. Beyoncé is a larger-than-life figure, an icon, the kind of Star that could only have originated in the late-90s/early-00s and cannot be replicated today despite many, many attempts. There’s a grace, a control, and a power to her mere presence, one that, especially now, is capable of single-handedly raising up whatever she is involved with. She is the anchor for Lemonade, the pole around which everything pivots, and as such becomes this rallying commander for Black womanhood. Think of how many small sequences from “Hold Up” or “Sorry” or “Formation” have been shared about this year, how many of those shots and GIFs are instantly iconic, how much strength they radiate, how much defiance and solidarity they embody, a commanding demand for attention at a time when the question of whether Black lives should matter is bewilderingly a debate we are still having rather than a simple issue that shouldn’t have even come up in the first place. What Beyoncé does, people watch, for they cannot not watch, because she is Beyoncé and her presence alone is a loud symbolic shot across the bow for Black women everywhere.
Tomorrow: The 10 Best Needle-Drops in Film in 2016.
Callie Petch is a soul man.