5. Michael Stuhlbarg – Best Supporting Actor, Call Me By Your Name
Often, Academy Award winning performances are judged based on brief “Oscar clips” that are played during the awards show itself; it’s not always the best way to rank performances, but witnessing a truly strong monologue does give insight into the essence of a performance. When talking about the great monologue of the 2010s, few would leave off the extraordinary speech that Samuel Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) gives to his son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) at the end of Call Me By Your Name. In just a few brief minutes, Stuhlbarg explains why it is important to open oneself up to emotions, both good and bad, and tells his son that his heartbreak doesn’t diminish the joy he once had.
The brilliance of Stuhlbarg’s performance is that he is completely understated in the film up until that point; the audience is able to see him as a watchful guardian who allows Elio to experiment with his emotions, all before sharing a personal moment where he can impart this wisdom. It takes an extraordinary actor to condense the film’s theme into one intimate moment, and Stuhlbarg delivers in a scene that should be heralded among the best pieces of film acting.
4. Robert Pattinson – Best Actor, Good Time
There should no longer be any debate regarding the fact that Robert Pattinson is among the best actors of his generation; Pattinson has completely surpassed his early days as the Twilight heartthrob and embraced a variety of exciting roles in independent films. Pattinson’s finest work to date was in the Safdies’ modern masterpiece Good Time, an all in one night thriller following a deceitful bank robber who must make enough cash to free his brother from jail.
There’s no place that Pattinson won’t go with his performance; the fact that he’s trying to save his brother is virtually the only redeeming thing about the character, who is willing to screw over anyone in his way and find creative ways of finding mischief. Like Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems, Pattinson’s character Connie Nikas seems drawn to chaos itself, and the resulting frenzy gives Pattinson the chance to shine.
3. Joaquin Phoenix – Best Actor, Her
Joaquin Phoenix may have won the Oscar for his performance in Joker, but he was much more deserving for his performance years prior in Her. Spike Jonze’s vision of the not so distant future puts a spotlight on man’s capacity for loneliness, and examines how a world that’s more connected than ever can leave people more and more alone. Jonze doesn’t criticize or dismiss the feelings that Phoenix’s character Theodore Twombly feels for the artificial intelligence program Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and allows their relationship to play out until the bitter end.
Yet, the challenges that the character faces also means that Phoenix must do a lot of heavy lifting as an actor, sharing scenes and moments where he must interact with a person that isn’t there. Phoenix is often renowned for his performances as dark or disturbing characters, but in Her he is able to give a tender and open look at a man who comes alive in the most unexpected of ways.
2. Oscar Isaac – Best Actor, Inside Llewyn Davis
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the definitive films about artistry; the stories of overnight success and rags to riches are rarities, and for most that pursue the artistic craft, there is a daily struggle of self-doubt and apprehension toward going forward. Inside Llewyn Davis looks at this daily battle through the eyes of the titular folk singer, whose world is rocked by loneliness and tragedy. Throughout the film, Davis is tempted by glimpses at a success he never attains and a comfort he never feels.
Oscar Isaac wears this hardened philosophy on his sleeve, and like most Coen Brothers characters, he hides a ponderous soul within a rough, sarcastic exterior. Isaac’s musical performances are completely remarkable, and he is able to capture an entire history within Davis’s words all while showing off his amazing voice. This was Isaac’s breakout role, and while he has given many great performances since, Inside Llewyn Davis is the one he will be remembered for.
1. Ethan Hawke – Best Actor, First Reformed
Ethan Hawke is one of the best actors alive, but he’s also quite understated, and the Academy Awards often go for the more loud, emphatic performances. “Best acting” does not mean “most acting,” and a performance as quiet and reserved as Hawke in First Reformed is easily among the best of the 21st Century. Like many of these characters, Hawke’s Pastor Ernst Toller is a man wrestling with tragedy, yet he only knows how to heal himself with pain.
Toller is so embedded with sadness that he feels desensitized to feeling, but it’s his growing fascination with the environmental danger that puts his entire worldview into crisis. Toller’s only remaining dedication is that to the faith, and when he feels that he can no longer believe in this sacred institution, his world shatters.
Hawke expertly shows how these anxieties build within Toller and draw him into action, and alongside his growing anger is hope as well, as he begins to feel for the young woman Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who seeks his counsel. Paul Schrader’s script deals with big ideas and has a good deal of ambiguity, yet the masterful performance from Hawke grounds it all in a human spirit.