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The 20 Best Movie Performances of 2015

12 January 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Justin Gunterman

The Revenant

What a year it’s been for cinema. From smaller indie hits like Tangerine, Room, and Clouds of Sils Maria to giant blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Martian, this has been an undeniably fantastic year. As such, it’s important to recognize the stronger performances to come along this year.

Unlike some years, where the best performances can all be found in the Academy Award nominations, this year has been so filled with talent that some of the greats are sure to be ignored.

With that in mind, this list will cover the twenty best performances of the year. There will be no separation of male and female or lead and supporting. Instead, this list will cover all sorts of performances by all sorts of people in all sorts of different genres.


20. Olivia Cooke – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Olivia Cooke - Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Olivia Cooke may be a star on the small screen thanks to her critically lauded performance as Emma Decody on A&E’s Bates Motel, but early attempts at big screen stardom did not work out in her favor. A foray into the horror genre failed to impress anyone, especially when one of her features was the reviled 2014 flick Ouija. This year she overcame her bad luck by starring in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the quirky teen comedy that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Though the film has a tendency to feel a little been-there-done-that, Olivia Cooke remains consistently engaging as Rachel “the dying girl” Kushner. Olivia Cooke gives the cynical manic pixie dream girl plenty of bite, resulting in a character that we love despite her obvious flaws. The indisputable chemistry with co-star Thomas Mann is just one reason on a long list of “why Olivia Cooke shines.”


19. Jason Mitchell – Straight Outta Compton

Jason Mitchell – Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton’s recent SAG nomination for Best Ensemble is proof that these little-known actors delivered some fine performances. O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, and Jason Mitchell are all remarkable in their depictions of the three members of NWA. The best of the bunch, however, is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E.

Jason Mitchell is one of the breakout stars of the year thanks to his dedicated performance as the troubled rap superstar. If you need proof, look no further than the testimonial supplied by the late rapper’s daughter E.B. Wright who said that Mitchell did a “phenomenal job.” She went on to claim that she “really felt like she was watching him on screen.” Listen, if it’s good enough for Eazy-E’s daughter, it should be good enough for everyone else.


18. Jake Gyllenhaal – Southpaw


Gyllenhaal has been on quite a role in the past few years. With acclaimed performances in Nightcrawler, Enemy, Prisoners, End of Watch, and Source Code, you’d think he would eventually slip up.

Turns out we’ll have to wait a little longer because he shows no signs of abating in Southpaw. While the film itself suffers from being too familiar in an overstuffed genre, Gyllenhaal nevertheless delivers a powerhouse performance as Billy Hope, the troubled but unstoppable boxing champion.

Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation is reason enough to be impressed, but when you combine that with his committed on-screen performance as the damaged boxer, you have a performance that stands out as one of the best of the year.


17. Arielle Holmes – Heaven Knows What

Arielle Holmes - Heaven Knows What

Those with an undeniable love for movies about drug addiction will be happy to have seen Heaven Knows What, a movie that centers around real-life events based off of the life of former heroin addict Arielle Holmes. Based off of her autobiography, it would have been easy for the Safdie Brothers to find an A-list actress to portray the fictional Arielle, but Holmes decided to give it a shot herself.

Given the fact that the events in the film are based around her own life, it’s no wonder Holmes feels so comfortable in her role. The hard-to-watch but ultimately rewarding film finds the new starlet performing her role with a necessary energy that radiates throughout the film. Never content with boring the audience, Holmes constantly one-ups herself in a way that begs the audience to keep their eyes glued to the screen.


16. Mya Taylor – Tangerine

Mya Taylor - Tangerine

Tangerine, otherwise known as “the movie about transgender prostitutes shot entirely on iPhones” was the surprise indie hit of the year, thanks in large part to the talented duo of powerful transgender actresses. Of the two, Mya Taylor stands out as the star of the show thanks to a heaping dose of attitude that gives her character Alexandra a necessary edge.

The film’s incredibly fast pace and manic editing make it hard to notice the smaller intricacies of Taylor’s performance, but if you pay close enough attention, you’ll discover that the transgender actress is doing more than simply going through the motions. Luckily for everyone, Tangerine is readily available on Netflix, and the brief running time makes it an easy watch.


15. Christian Bale – The Big Short

Christian Bale - The Big Short

The Big Short has the best cast of the year, hands down. Of that extraordinary cast, the clear standout is Bale, who plays the socially crippled but astonishingly intelligent Michael Burry – the man who put all of his money on a housing crisis that nobody saw coming but him.

Checking another character archetype off his extremely long list of, Bale once again transforms himself into a character we haven’t seen him do before. Just like every other time, he does so in a way that’s easy to admire.

While there’s no wild weight fluctuation this time around, there’s still an obvious transformation into the role of the real life hedge fund manager. It seems obvious that Bale did his research – assuring audiences that he wouldn’t be happy with anything but the most convincing and admirable performance.



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  • Stelios Zesiades

    Great list for starters, I could argue that Thomas Mann gave the better performance in Me and Earl but that’s a bit nitpicky.

  • Rudi

    A big part of these movies is from 2016.

    • Wyatt W.B

      Not really. Pre-release screenings go back to September.

  • Wyatt W.B

    I would say Tom Hardy for The Revenant

  • Special_One

    Not including Benicio Del Toro for Sicario pretty much discredits the whole list. Out of the ones you’ve chosen I agree with Leo at number 1, but Del Toro was the real standout of 2015. Tom Hardy should’ve also made the list.

    • mysamba

      Benicio Del Toro was believable! He should hands down get best actor award!

  • Adel Narimani

    I guess I was wrong when I thought that Joy & 45 Years & Infinitely Polar Bear & Youth & The Danish girl were a 2015’s movie. If Redmayne hadn’t win the oscar last year, no one would have dared to say he didn’t bring the best performance of the year. And Have you seen Fonda & Caine in Youth? magnificent.

    • Iván Solorio (SanS)

      I agree with Youth but Joy and The Danish Girl? Both films are meh at best. Redmayne’s overacting style can work only once and the fact that Vikander upstaged him (just like Jones did in Lifetime’s Theory of Everything) shows that guy is just not really that good (or we can refer also to Jupiter Ascending too)

  • Iván Solorio (SanS)

    Glad to see that the overrated The Danish Girl and Redmayne aren’t in this list. Having said that, Michael Caine was amazing in Youth as well as Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years two of 2015’s best films.

    • Guido Von M

      I think Danish Girl was a great movie and Redmayne was fantastic. He should have been on this list.

      • Iván Solorio (SanS)

        to each their own. Personally, I like films that can be a little more than just your typical Lifetime movie and where the actor doesn’t have to overact and can at least be at the height of technical acting with co-stars (Vikander surpassed him, just like Jones did in the equally terrible Theory of Everything)

  • Chrisychipz

    Wooooah wheres Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years or Geza Rohrig for Son of Saul?!

  • Juan Diego

    I agree, not including Emily Blunt performance or Del Toro in the list is a disappointment. Is crimanally overlook the standout of these actors in Sicario

  • Still D.R.E.

    Michael B Jordan is so slept on

  • Pooja Kumar

    Tom Hardy for ‘Legend’ and ‘Revenant’ .Have anyone watched indian film ‘I’?eventhough a worst film,actor vikram nailed his role and uplifted the film.He has struggled a lot for the movie.

  • Guido Von M

    Room is one of the most overrated movies of this year. Terrible screeplay and the performance of Brie Larson is not as great as they say i think. The young boy was really good, i have to admit.

  • Harsha Raman

    “Mark Ruffalo is no stranger to starring in ensemble films. After all, he’s an Avenger”