7. Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Mahershala Ali has a limited amount of screentime in Moonlight, but his impact is nevertheless enormous. His appearance in the first third of the movie sticks with you throughout the remainder of the runtime.
Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer who takes care of the young protagonist when his drug addicted mother is unable to. He’s not a traditional role model, but the dude’s trying his best. That’s what makes the performance so easy to love. Ali portrays a character with a heart of gold, and he does a hell of a job.
The character Ali plays is a man whose inherent flaws are easily ignored once you recognize the fact that he’s son undeniably compassionate. Ali gives a quiet and introspective performance that gives an already complicated character more depth. Juan is the most unlikely hero in a movie that’s lacking in heroes to begin with.
The character’s brief appearance is plenty meaningful as a result of Ali’s skills as an actor. In a year filled with A-list performances, Ali proves that it’s important to pay attention to the underdogs. Don’t be surprised if he nabs the Oscar in February.
6. Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Okay, so maybe Jeff Bridges is just playing the typical Jeff Bridges role, but when it’s this entertaining why should anyone care? You could argue that Bridges plays a modified Rooster Cogburn in Hell or High Water, but there are just enough “modifications” in this performance to allow it to stand on its own.
Hell or High Water is filled with clever zingers and hilarious one-liners. Bridges delivers these lines with assertiveness. In a movie with so many dramatic moments, you can always count on Bridges to lighten the tension. He’s regularly laugh-out-loud funny, which means he’s regularly the standout character. You could argue that he was given the best lines, but it’s a lot easier to argue that nobody could deliver those lines like Bridges.
Ignoring the fact that he’s playing a well-written character, it’s still appreciate his performance because it seems like he’s having so much fun. It’s great to see an actor so comfortable in a role. Every time he spits out one of the many quotable lines of dialog, he gives off the impression that he’s desperately trying to hold back laughter. Bridges may not give one of the most emotional performances of the year, but he definitely gives one of the most entertaining.
5. Emma Stone – La La Land
Emma Stone is well known for her bubbly personality, so it’s no surprise that she’s the perfect fit for Damien Chazelle’s uplifting and grin-inducing throwback musical. She has the attitude, the charm, and the voice to be successful in one of last year’s most talked about movies.
It’s not just the happy go-lucky Emma Stone that deserves applause though. The more emotional moments that make up her performance in La La Land are also phenomenal. In fact, the more heartfelt moments are even more memorable than her more laid-back and fun scenes. Don’t be surprised if you shed a handful of tears during the audition scene. Her rendition of the song is flawless, and her emotional turmoil is both haunting and inspiring.
As if there was any doubt, Stone once again proves that her chemistry with Gosling is effortless. They were the perfect pair in Crazy, Stupid, Love and they’re even more irresistible this time around. From the moment they meet to the closing minutes, the two dare you to dislike them.
As a pair, they feel like a cohesive unit. In terms of individual performances, Stone edges out Gosling. This could be because Stone is arguably playing a character with more depth, but that’s up for debate. That’s also not the point of the article. The point of this list is to not to undermine other performances. It’s to praise the best performances – and Stone deserves all the praise she has received.
4. Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
After Manchester by the Sea tears your heart into tiny pieces, you’ll likely have time to reflect on everything the movie does well. The script is often the star of the show, but that script would be nothing without competent actors. As the lead, Casey Affleck is more than just competent. He’s out-of-this-world.
The story of a man who takes custody of his deceased brother’s son is funny and poignant. The various interactions between Affleck and Hedges make up some of the greatest moments in the movie. The two are a true dynamic duo. They laugh together, cry together, and scream at each other. This list features several performances that are enhanced as a result of great chemistry with another cast member. This is one of them.
Even without Hedges, Affleck is still an acting powerhouse. This is his best performance since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Though keep in that this is a very different kind of performance. This time around, we get to see Casey Affleck at his most sensitive. If the goal is to make the audience feel, then mission success. Affleck delivers a stirring performance that heightens the emotional impact of this melancholy movie.
The acclaim Affleck has earned for this role is completely warranted. In a movie with so much to love, it’s an accomplishment that Affleck is one of the crowning achievements.
3. Isabelle Huppert – Elle
The sooner you accept the fact that Elle isn’t a high-octane rape-revenge thriller, the sooner you’ll be able to appreciate it as a profound character study. The subject of this particular character study is a woman named Michèle Leblanc, who is played by the always impressive Isabelle Huppert.
Leblanc is one of the most complex movie characters of the year, which is why it’s such a relief that Huppert is the star. Those that have seen her in movies like The Piano Teacher and Amour know her talent by now, so it should be no surprise to learn that she is the heart and soul of this movie.
The camera essentially tracks Huppert throughout the over two-hour runtime. Every second is dedicated to her. The supporting characters have depth, but they still exist to push Huppert’s character forward. As a result, Huppert is expected to “bring it.” She does more than play her part. She absorbs every word of the script, resulting in a performance that’s heartbreaking and nuanced. She doesn’t read her lines as much as she carefully plans how she will deliver every single word.
It would be unfair to say that Huppert’s performance is effortless. Her commitment and dedication are among the most admirable aspects of the movie. Her movement and manner of speech all seem to come as a result of extended planning. Few actresses today can come across as this confident in their abilities. If you didn’t know who Isabelle Huppert was before, now is the time to pay attention.
2. Adam Driver – Paterson
When Adam Driver isn’t starring as the antagonist in one of the biggest blockbuster franchises of all time, he’s probably starring in a small indie film. Driver’s career started taking off once he began earning recognition in various independent movies. Certain actors could be accused of “selling out” once they make it big in the movie industry, but Adam Driver is not one of those actors. Paterson is a small-scale drama about a bus driver living through his repetitive life.
Adam Driver’s performance as the bus driver is the best of his career. Driver has great performances under his belt. He wowed audiences in Inside Llewyn Davis, Tracks, and Frances Ha. His presence in HBO’s Girls is always welcome. Those performances don’t hold a candle to his work in one of 2016’s greatest gems.
Driver is poetic and endearing as the main character of the film. His performance is so natural it’s as if he lives in the protagonist’s skin. It’s not a loud performance, but rather a quietly effective performance. Driver comes across as genuinely down-to-earth and likeable. He’s not flashy, but he’s human.
This is the type of performance that quietly grows on you until you finally recognize its brilliance. His performance insures that you’ll be thinking about the film for a long time after your initial viewing.
1. Natalie Portman – Jackie
Near the end of every year, studios do their best to cram in as many biopics as they can in order to get Academy Award attention. Like every year, 2016 was not short on high profile biopics that sought to earn attention from critics and voters alike. The most unique and impactful biopic to come out last year was Pablo Larrain’s Jackie. Instead of following a formula, Larrain decided to give us something we rarely see.
Jackie is an intimate biopic that focuses on one woman’s life over a short period in time. The primary focus of the film is to give us a look into the eyes of the former First Lady shortly after her husband’s assassination. It doesn’t sugar coat things, and it doesn’t dedicate much time to the supporting cast. This small-scale biopic wants to tell one story only – Jackie Kennedy’s.
For everything Jackie does right in terms of how it’s set up, it would still be nothing without its star. The moment Natalie Portman delivers her first line of dialog, you know you’re in for something special. The audience is tasked spending the entire movie with Jackie Kennedy. She’s the center of attention, so it’s the actress’s responsibility to dazzle. Portman does more than dazzle. She’ll love you speechless. Her accent is perfect, her mannerisms are spot-on, and her facial expressions are quietly powerful.
More so than the script, Portman is able to tell a story of grief. It’s not the words on the page that will move you – it’s her. Portman portrays Kennedy as a deeply flawed individual who struggles to maintain her cool following a life-changing event. Watching her unravel throughout the film’s runtime is gratifying for countless reasons.
Portman has never been better. Her career has had plenty of highs, but this is her magnum opus. Portman takes you on a ride with Jackie, and she doesn’t let go until she leaves you breathless.
Author Bio: Justin is a paraprofessional teaching assistant and full-time film enthusiast with a degree in English. When he’s not writing about films, he’s probably watching them in his spare time.