These are the 15 movie roles this year I most felt deserved highlighting. Man, there were some great roles this year, introduction, introduction, introduction, how many words does this have to be? You don’t care and I certainly don’t. On to the list!(Note: except for the top two, this list is in no particular order).
Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!) The entire cast of Richard Linklater’s spiritual follow-up to “Dazed and Confused” is one riotous bundle of joy (and a cure for the usually cliche portrayal of college kids), but Glen Powell’s Finnegan is by far the standout. The scene that makes his character comes at a party for the “artsy fartsy” crowd when, after encouraging a freewheeling spirit of sex, booze, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll throughout the film, he actually gets for real hurt when his proteges crash his chances with a girl he happens to like. Finnegan is on the cusp of adulthood and leadership heading into one of the most tumultuous decades of American history, but he’s not quite there yet…and it’s the leftover, subtle vulnerabilities of the kid during his last days of youth that make him so unbelievably endearing. If there’s any justice in the world, EWS!! will do for him what Dazed and Confused did for…well, most of the cast.
Tilda Swinton (A Bigger Splash) The (in my opinion, overblown) controversy over Swinton’s Doctor Strange role sadly overshadowed her performance in this Fellini-esque story of beautiful people behaving in decidedly un-beautiful ways. Playing a major, David Bowie-esque popstar who has gone near-mute from the stress of living in public, Swinton has few lines but somehow manages to steal the show from a simmering Matthias Schoenaerts and a manic Ralph Fiennes. Being mostly robbed of the ability to speak, Swinton has to convey a massive range of emotions largely with body language—a task she accomplishes with all the skill you’d expect from one of the world’s greatest actresses.
Natalie Portman (Jackie) Frail and tough, honest and veiled, open and censoring—Portman’s portrayal of the most famous First Lady in American history is riddled with contradictions that, in her hands, become a coherent character. She can sink to the depths of unbearable anguish at a moment’s notice, and five minutes later it is as if nothing very bad had happened. Yet, there’s always something boiling under the surface…perhaps an understanding that history will forever place “JFK’s wife” next to her name, whatever else she may do with her life. At times, Portman seems to barely hold it all in, yet when we leave the theater she is still a mystery. Maybe that’s how it should be.
Joel Edgerton (Loving) Rarely does more go unsaid or understood than passes behind the face of Joel Egderton as Richard Loving, one half of the married couple whose simple wish to live in their home state of Virginia dealt a death blow to laws banning interracial marriage in the United States. Edgerton says little, and when he does it is in as few words as possible…every one of which speaks his entire mind. Key to the performance, though, are scenes of him simply sharing intimate moments with wife Mildred. At a time when the stereotype of the traditonal American husband and father of yesteryear is often held up for all the wrong reasons, Edgerton’s performance is crucial.
Emma Stone (La La Land) Until near the end, the music is the driving force of La La Land. Then someone asks the character of Mia to “tell a story”, and Emma Stone delivers one of the best scenes of her career. The strength of the “Audition” number redefines what has come before for the character, and solidifies her as both someone we can really root for, and the personification of dreamers, however hopeless they might be. The final look she gives Ryan Reynolds in the film speaks more than a page of dialogue ever could.
Viola Davis (Fences) Before the era of feminism, there was an unspoken agreement between married couples in the U.S.: a wife was to put up with her husband’s shit, even when he was full to bursting with it. It was hard to pick one of the two main performances in “Fences” to single out, but ultimately Davis’s simmering cauldron is the heart of the story, enabling her to both survive and love life with her deeply, deeply flawed husband. Unlike Denzel Washington, who gets to vomit forth an endless stream of anger throughout the film, Davis is tasked with saving her one great outburst for when it is most needed and has the most impact, creating a scene the trailers should not have featured; it should have been allowed to burst on audiences like water from a broken dam, rolling over everything in its path. Five minutes later, she’s calm again, but she’s also a different woman…or maybe just another woman who was hiding behind the first all along.
Sunny Pawar (Lion) The trailers all emphasize the adult Saroo’s search for his home, but the bulk of the movie is taken up with a young Saroo getting lost in the first place, and Dev Patel is overshadowed by 8-year-old Sunny Pawar…not an easy feat. Like Quvenzhane Wallis and Jacob Tremblay, Pawar takes a role that could easily have been phoned in (since we have natural sympathy for kids) and makes little Saroo into an enormously relatable character, a lost boy whose stomping ground is no Neverland. It isn’t any wonder the filmmakers keep coming back to him in flashbacks after his character is grown. He’s the heart of the film.
Hailee Steinfeld (Edge of Seventeen) I swear, my generation moons over the era of John Hughes High School comedies so much they seem to forget that being awkward, out-of-place and unable to wait for the day after graduation day isn’t unique to them. Every year we get a handful of largely unheralded comedies about that very topic, and Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as a morbid, confused and, yes, aggressive (bad female! bad!) teen who openly discusses her sex life, alcohol habits and dark, dark, dark humor elevates “Edge of Seventeen” to the top of the pack. With acerbic wit, pinpoint aim, and unflinching pessimism, Nadine Franklin manages to skewer not just every aspect of High School life but many of life in general. The only target she routinely misses? Herself.
Kate Beckinsale (Love & Friendship) It is exceedingly rare that a woman in the movies can be aggressive and acidic at the same time. Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan is such a character. It is impossible for all but the most ardent feminists to actually like her, and you’d never want to be drawn into her poisonous circle of rumor, manipulation, innuendo and life-destroying gossip, but you have to admire her for taking charge of her own life at a time when women were tasked with hosting guests, looking pretty and shutting up. These days, she’d almost certainly be described as a sociopath, wrecking lives for her whim and amusement, yet you can’t look away. She’s the year’s best villain…or is she?
Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) Chris Pine’s well-meaning father is our anchor to this story of two desperate brothers in hard times, but Ben Foster is the anarchic, destructive force that keeps our eyes glued to the screen. Whereas Pine’s dad doesn’t think of himself as criminal and Jeff Bridges’s sheriff has spent far too much time watching old westerns, Foster knows exactly what he is: a violent criminal whose psycopathy he might be able to turn to his brother’s aid in one last blaze of glory. There’s never really a question of him surviving the story; he’s not a man, he’s a storm, and he’s here to rage harder than he ever has before blowing himself out.
Naomie Harris (Moonlight) Talk about embodying multiple people in one role. Harris plays mother to a young, gay black man at three different stages of his life, but she’s not the kind of perfect mom the movies prefer. She’s a drug addict at a time when the War on Drugs refused to treat such people with any sort of humanity, and she’s got a temper to match the times; when she screams hurtful words at her own son, the decision to remove the audio from the scene makes her come off as near-demonic. Simplicity, though, isn’t really what Moonlight deals in, and there are layers and regrets to her revealed as the film goes on. Her final scene asks a rather important question: should any time be too late to be forgiven?
Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) For the most part, horror will forever be considered beneath the notice of those who hand out accolades, which means even if you turn in one of the most startling performances of the year, it doesn’t really count if it’s in this genre. That’s a shame, because unless you count a tiny, uncredited role from 2014, Taylor-Joy makes the most impressive film debut of any actress this year. Called upon to do things involving animal blood and demonic possession that a more image-concerned person might spurn, she handles the role of a teenage girl whose family is being assailed by the forces of hell by taking it all absolutely seriously, which is essential; any hint that she thinks anything she’s doing is silly, and the film falls apart. There’s reason to question whether anything supernatural is really happening in the New England wilderness of the late 1600’s, but no reason to doubt the strength of Taylor-Joy’s performance.
Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) Not everything has to be so serious, something Deadpool would probably remind you of right before delivering a kick straight to your kibbles and bits. As the star, producer and driving force behind the hilariously raunchy R-rated superhero flick, Reynolds is the most eminently watchable and entertaining a comic hero has been outside the suit since Robert Downey Jr. swaggered into the Iron Man armor. Mel Brooks once famously described his films as rising below vulgarity, and whether Reynolds is taking time out to break the fourth wall or making incredibly lewd comments at his blind, elderly, female roommate, he’s bringing the spirit of “Blazing Saddles” to a genre that sometimes really needs to get over itself. In a year where “Batman vs. Superman” took itself more seriously than a second heart attack, Reynolds’s Merc with a Mouth is the filthy, over-the-top cure the doctor ordered.
And my top two performances, starting with my choice for Best Actress:
Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
In arguably the most challenging role this year, which comes in certainly the most challenging film, Huppert plays a woman who, after being raped, plays a cat-and-mouse game with the rapist. Whether she is trying to catch him or get caught again is another question. The role was turned down by multiple more well-known actresses, before being taken by Huppert, who deserves to be more well-known outside her native France. Key to her performance is that her character is not altogether very likable, and if she were not a victim of a heinous crime, you’d have a real difficult time feeling empathy for her. That takes far more guts, I think, than playing out brutal scenes of assault, since we tend to demand our heroines be pure as the driven snow.
Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
He’s been turning in the best work he possibly can in every role he’s had, big or small, for two decades, always overshadowed in fame by his older brother, but this year is Casey’s. Angry, violent, adrift and bereft, Lee Chandler is a man with no purpose in a world that demands every man have one, not that he grasps himself on that level: he’s simply a man who has been struck over and over until nothing but armor remains. Forced to deal with the issue of custody for his nephew after his brother dies, he portrays a truth no man wants to face: not all of us are cut out for responsibility. Despite this, Affleck walks a fine line, making Lee simultaneously a jerk and someone you’d really like to see come out on top. Unfortunately, as Lee well knows, the world just isn’t that simple.
Honorable mentions: I limited my list to 15, and even after expanding from ten it was still difficult. There are lots of great roles that didn’t make the cut, and here are the ten that really gave the winners a run for their money, in one big list. If you don’t see your favorite, remember: it doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t good, just that I can’t possibly list them all.
Kristen Stewart (Cafe Society) The Cast of Don’t Think Twice Royalty Hightower (The Fits) Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) Lou de Laage (The Innocents) Ruth Negga (Loving) Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane) Pretty much everybody in Moonlight (Moonlight) Katie Holmes (Touched With Fire)