25 Best Movie Performances of 2016 - Rolling Stone
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25 Best Movie Performances of 2016

From killer comedic turns to Oscar-worthy emoting – these were the actors who gave us the greatest movie moments of the year

Let us now praise famous men and women – namely, the ones who gave us the year's best big-screen performances that stuck with us for days, weeks and in many cases, months after we left the theater. The two dozen actors listed below cracked us up, choked us up, thrilled us, scared us and moved us. But more than anything else, they reminded us of what the medium is capable of when you turn a camera on someone and let them aid in telling a story.

And what's particularly impressive is that, unlike some years past, 2016 offered up jaw-dropping, Rudy-clap–inspiring work from all over the movie-based map. Yes, the usual suspects, likely Oscar nominees and people whose names are preceded by "Sir" are present and accounted for (one of whom scored a double-whammy with not one but two list-worthy turns). But so are numerous comedians, newcomers, several folks who you never dream of seeing on this type of round-up in the past and even – gasp – a kid from a big sound-and-fury superhero blockbuster. Movie stars nestle next to first-timers and theater bigwigs; reliable heavy hitters found fertile ground in the most unusual of places. Some folks had to carry a whole movie on their shoulders, while others left their mark in supporting roles and one, maybe two key scenes. All of the actors included here, however, made it a good 12 months to sit in the dark with strangers. These were the 25 performances from 2016 that we keep giggling over, get weepy remembering and can't stop talking about.

Casey Affleck, ‘Manchester by the Sea’

We leave the wounded, wound-down handyman of Kenneth Lonergan's American tragedy in the same place we first found him, on a boat; how Casey Affleck gets the New England everydude from that opening ball-busting scene to that final fade-out feels like a miracle of less-is-more acting. Traumatized and tapped out has always been his sweet spot (see The Assassination of Jesse James or Out of the Furnace), but this is the sort of rich role that requires a star to play the scales: angry, grieving, nurturing, numbed, funny, frightened, irredeemably fucked up. Affleck nails each one and never stops charting the character's gradual acceptance of the things he can and can't change. Whether he's trading smart-ass remarks or trying to keep his emotional barriers from collapsing during that heartbreaking Michelle Williams one-on-one, the actor makes you believe this guy's long-days journey. This is the kind of quiet desperation of real life that American movies rarely do anymore. Affleck's performance reminds you of how sweet the sound of a recognizable human being, even a permanently damaged one, really is.

Mahershala Ali, ‘Moonlight’

There's not a single weak link performance-wise in Barry Jenkins' extraordinary chronicle of a young man growing up hard in Miami, but Mahershala Ali's pusherman still stands above the pack – it's a near-perfect portrait of a tough guy tapping into paternal tenderness. Taking the preadolescent version of the movie's protagonist under his street-scarred wing, Moonlight's neighborhood drug dealer Juan is the only father figure the kid has; it's thanks to Ali that we see not only the contradictions of his protectiveness but the humanity behind his kindness and kindred outsider status. The swimming-lesson-cum-baptism scene alone is proof that this character contains multitudes, but it's the dinner-table conversation about a homophobic epithet that seals the deal; watch Ali's face as he weighs his response and then offers a left-field answer that suggests some seriously hard-won wisdom. There's lots of heart and soul in this drama; Ali is the one that also gives the movie its guts.

Kate Beckinsale, ‘Love and Friendship’

Whit Stillman's breezy, bubbly adaptation of Jane Austen's epistolary novel Lady Susan is full of wonderful turns (Tom Bennett's "12 Commandments" riff alone deserves to be put in a time capsule and studied by future generations). But the real MVP of this comedy of manners is arguably the most surprising one: Where have you been all this time, Impeccable-Comic-Timing Kate Beckinsale? Finally liberated from roles that require little more than looking good in a catsuit and/or gasping in peril, the British actress is the engine that keeps this farce running full steam ahead; she hasn't been this good since The Last Days of Disco. Beckinsale was born to toss off Austen's bon mots. Directors, you have no excuse to misuse this comedienne anymore.

Annette Benning, '20th Century Women'

Annette Bening, ’20th Century Women’

There are some actors you tend to take for granted, assuming that their name in the credits means you'll get a certain level of quality if nothing else – and then suddenly, they will remind you that they're capable of absolute earth-shattering work when they get the right part. It's not like Annette Bening is aiming for the melodramatic fences with her portrayal of a free-spirit mother in Mike Mills' semi-autobiographical Seventies drama. Instead, she simply digs in deep and draws out a recognizably flawed, flaky, forgiving woman trying to guide her teenage son to being a "good man" at the end of the Carter era … and that road less-than-traveled makes all the difference. It's arguably the finest work she's ever done, or at least tied with her turn in The Kids Are All Right. And we want that scene of her and Billy Crudup boogieing to Talking Heads playing on an endless GIF for the remainder of 2016.

Sonia Braga, 'Aquarius'

Sonia Braga, ‘Aquarius’

The Grande Dame of Brazilian cinema returns, complete with the fire-and-brimstone performance you've been waiting for since her Kiss of the Spider Woman heyday. As a retired music critic fighting real-estate developers, the legendary actress starts off playing things close to her chest, preferring to remain steadfast and surefooted as smooth-talking (and sometimes threatening) suits suggest selling her apartment in the name of "progress." She's the steel-spined embodiment of the nation's cultural history, occasionally nostalgic and melancholy – until filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho lets her flip from immovable object to irresistible force, at which point she become an avenging angel on the warpath. You do not want to piss this woman off. 

Adam Driver, 'Paterson'

Adam Driver, ‘Paterson’

He's played dysfunctional hipsters, wannabe Sith lords and fake-rube folksingers – but it was the role of a quiet everyman poet that showed folks what kind of singular talent Adam Driver really is. Jim Jarmusch's celebration of the lyrical inherent in the mundane life of a New Jersey bus driver leans heavily on the young actor's ability to suggest depth behind a deadpan mug. His Paterson – a man who likes his route, his kooky wife (well played, Golshifteh Farahani!), his nightly visit to the local bar and his verse – feels like the first actual adult Driver has played. But more importantly, the actor immediately syncs up with the filmmaker's small-town Zen vibe and adds a palpable sense of soulfulness to it. We knew he could do petulant and perverse. Now we know he's an ace at being profound as well.

Alden Ehrlenhich, 'Hail, Caesar!'

Alden Ehrenreich, ‘Hail, Caesar!’

Even if you took out his "Twere it all so simple" exchange with Ralph Fiennes – an instant addition to the great Coen brothers set-piece canon – you'd still walk away from the filmmakers' ode to faith and old-fashioned Hollywood and find yourself wondering, "Who was that kid?" The 26-year-old actor had already worked with everybody from Francis Ford Coppola to Woody Allen before the Coens snatched him up to play a naive Tom Mix-like star who smells a studio-sponsored rat. And he's the one who quietly walks away with their hilarious, head-scratching comedy – no mean feat in a movie that features a detrimentally dim-witted George Clooney, Channing Tatum in hoofer-hunk mode and not one but two Tilda Swinton harpies. Ehrenreich may end up being Han Solo for the next generation of filmgoers, but for us, he'll always be the cowpoke who couldn't speak straight.

Krisha Fairchild, 'Krisha'

Krisha Fairchild, ‘Krisha’

Not everyone would help out their filmmaker nephew by playing an absolute terror of a family relative they both knew intimately for his feature-length debut – but to be fair, not everyone is as extraordinary as Krisha Fairchild. The minor indie-movie sensation/familial drama extraordinaire of the 2016, writer-director Trey Edwards Shults' story of a Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong gives us a walking timebomb for the ages: An estranged middle-aged hippy-dippy woman who's one drink and dropped-turkey away from complete meltdown. With a snake's nest of gray hair and eyes that can go from kind to cuckoo in seconds flat, Fairchild lets us know that the title character's return to the fold is bad news. But she also lets you sympathize with this black sheep, showing you the wounded child underneath the wandering soul – and the wrecker of homes that is ready to spring out and scorch the earth because she simply can't help fucking things up. Somebody give this woman more work stat.

Kathyrn Hahn, 'Bad Moms'

Kathyrn Hahn, ‘Bad Moms’

Say what you will about this surprising hit in which suburban mothers stop trying to meet impossible parental standards and start doing Patrón shots: It contains a flat-out killer comic performance from Kathryn Hahn in full don't-give-a-fuck mode. Like Kate McKinnon's ghostbusting MVP, the character actress is the movie's much-needed dose of pure chaos – she's the gloriously foul-mouthed Id, the one most likely to wax poetic about uncircumcised penises, chug milk from the carton in a grocery store free-for-all and make out with whomever is handy. Whether she's flirting with dads at drop-off ("Your beige windbreaker is really lighting up my board") or talking about how much she loves her dumb lug of her son, Hahn is Bad Moms' not-so-secret weapon. Just be sure to duck when she starts spitting booze at a PTA-campaign party.

Garrett Hedlund, 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk'

Garrett Hedlund, ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’

Another one from the who-would-have-thought? dept.: Ang Lee's big-screen blowout of a bestseller about a 19-year-old Iraqi War veteran used as P.R. tool came with a next-big-thing British lead and a much-ballyhooed hyper-realistic filmmaking style. Folks who could locate a movie beneath the techno-distractions, however, were rewarded with a genuinely eye-opening performance from the least likely source. There was little to suggest that Garrett Hedlund would ever be anything more than a go-to scruffy pretty boy – this generation's Stephen Dorff. But his commanding officer is the film's stealth heart and soul, a cynical leader of men capable of telling off fawning fatcats and talking truth to power without dropping his professional yes-sir facade. You leave the theater thinking that his charismatic military man would do anything for his troops; that you're actually watching a jaded veteran rather than an actor; and that no one has figured out how to properly use Hedlund's gift for inherent contempt until now.

Royalty Hightower, 'The Fits'

Royalty Hightower, ‘The Fits’

Cast as the lead in Anna Rose Holmer's one-of-a-kind indie about a prepubescent girl who discovers a dance troupe, a personal tribe and possible transcendental bliss, the then-10-year-old Royalty Hightower has you in her spell the moment you see that opening close-up of her, counting out sit-ups in a boxing gym. She then guides viewers on one of the most trance-like coming-of-age movies ever, as her young woman on the verge begins to experience a genuine transformation from wallflower to out-of-this-world divinity. It's rare to see someone this young communicate so expressively with little more than a glance or a look, and even rarer to find one who could pull off "the scene" – a showstopping sequence in which her curious observer locks in and finally finds her groove. The first name is apt.

Tom Holland, 'Captain America: Civil War'

Tom Holland, ‘Captain America: Civil War’

Real talk: We almost assuredly do not need another new big-screen version of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, even if it does mean that Sony and Marvel Pictures worked out a deal so the iconic superhero can show up in Avengers movies and now he's part of the MCU, yadda yadda yadda. But if we have to have a fresh-faced young actor strap on the webshooters, we could not have asked for a better person to take over than Tom Holland. Yes, lots of folks can pitch punny banter at villains and swing from skyscraper to skyscraper, but only a precious few might have figured out a way to get at the man behind the mask so beautifully. Watch Holland's back-and-forth with Robert Downey Jr. when the latter asks him why he dons the costume; all of Peter Parker's confusion, frustration, teen angst, guilt and nobility are right there in his response. In a single scene, he absolutely nails the Parker we know from the comic books, concisely and convincingly, for what feels like the very first time. Suddenly, the idea of a new webslinger doesn't seem quite so bad.

Tracey Letts, 'Indignation'

Tracy Letts, ‘Indignation’

Seventeen minutes – that's how screen time the conversation between Tracy Letts' college dean and Logan Lerman's conflicted student, the first of two stand-offs, occupies in James Schamus' impressive adaptation of Phillip Roth's 2008 novel. But it's this centerpiece sequence that sells you on the playwright-actor's status as a master of authoritative contempt. Having long cornered the market on what he calls "assholes in suits" (see also Christine), Letts could portray this self-righteous embodiment of Eisenhower-era status quo in his slumber. Instead, he turns this intellectual tête-à-tête into a philosophical battle royale, firing volley after volley and forcing Lerman to step up his serve-back game until the young man is literally argued into unconsciousness. No other working thespian today could turn a line like "the gullibility of which you take at face value the rationalist blasphemies spouted by an immoralist the likes of Bertrand Russell!" into a full blown three-act opera. No other actor should even try. 

Kate McKinnon, 'Ghostbusters'

Kate McKinnon, ‘Ghostbusters’

Never mind the Hillary impersonation; this was Kate McKinnon's shining 2016 achievement, injecting much-needed anarchy into the controversial femcentric reboot of the blockbuster franchise. (The fact that the word "controversial" is applicable is both ludicrous beyond belief and totally indicative of the year's cultural battlegrounds – a gentle warm-up for our apocalyptic November.) It's rare that you get to watch someone, especially a known actress, become a bona fide movie star before your very eyes, but that's what happened every time the SNL vet was onscreen; even her reaction shots were gutbusting. You need someone charismatic who can sell quiff and queeff jokes, convincingly lick proton pistols and nail lines like "It's 2040, our President is a plant"? There is no question who you're gonna call.

Ruth Negga, 'Loving'

Ruth Negga, ‘Loving’

Somewhere, in an alternate universe, there's an overly grand, gimme-Oscar version of the Richard and Mildred Loving story, in which the unlikely Civil Rights activists are prone to speechifying and sobbing that's been turned up to 11. Thankfully, we got the better version, courtesy of Jeff Nichols – and count yourself equally lucky that he found the perfect heroine in Ruth Negga. The Irish-Ethopian actor is a familiar face to Preacher fans and BBC addicts, but her muted turn her feels like a revelation. It was enough that she opted not to play Mildred as the Norma Rae of interracial relationships but as a normal human being; Negga then takes it a step further and emphasizes how overwhelmed Mildred is by the hatred around her and the history she's making. Lots of ink has been spilled already about her silent-movie-star looks, but watch how she uses that face to convey so many emotions butting into each other and then rapidly receding away. It's like an acting clinic.

Natalie Portman, 'Jackie'

Natalie Portman, ‘Jackie’

You see the blood-splattered pink suit, you hear the finishing-school-meets-Flatbush-Ave. accent, you sense the weight of unspeakable grief that weighs on this young widow. What you don't witness as you keep watching Pablo Larrain's expressionist portrait of First Lady Jackie Kennedy is any trace of the Natalie Portman you're used to – it's the sort of unexpected immersive performance sans fancy prosthetics that filmgoers haven't seen since Philip Seymour Hoffman brought Capote back to life. Once again, we have a portrayal that favors intuition over imitation, but that still doesn't explain how Portman channels the social awkwardness, the insistence on keeping a mythology alive and the sheer will to endure so pitch-perfectly. 

Glenn Powell, 'Everybody Wants Some!!'

Glen Powell, ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’

Richard Linklater's "spiritual sequel" to Dazed and Confused is most assuredly an ensemble piece – but Glen Powell's charismatic campus Lothario with the shit-eating grin and the infectious let's-have-fun attitude is by far the movie's standout. (To keep the Dazed comparison going: He's the film's young, cult-of-personality Matthew McConaughey.) "The person everyone says he was in college," the actor said right after the movie's release. "The bullshit version of their story? [Rick said] Make him that guy!" He's the only dude in this Eighties-set comedy who can get away with smoking a pipe, sweet-talking ladies at discos and country bars and throwing fastballs at freshman duct-taped to a wall. This is a movie that consistently threatens to nosedive into toxic jock territory; Powell keeps things buoyant and boyish without ever coming off bro-douchey. He's the dream wingman.

Michael Shannon, 'Elvis & Nixon'

Michael Shannon, ‘Elvis & Nixon’

It wasn't like we didn't have a number of Michael Shannon performances to gush over this year, from Midnight Special's anxious fugitive father to Nocturnal Animals' Western off-white knight. But for our money, the actor's high point was the one turn we'd have likely dismissed sight unseen: How good could his Elvis Presley be, really? The answer is: worth its weight in peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. Whereas most folks would have been tempted to simply lean on an imitation, especially since this what-if take on the King's infamous POTUS powwow takes place in the icon's self-parody phase. Shannon treats him like a dazed, entitled regent used to hearing "Yes, Elvis" regardless. He plays the character rather than the comic potential, and consequently raises everybody's else's game, especially Kevin Spacey's wobbly Tricky Dick. To which we can only say, thank you, Mr. Shannon. Thank you very much.

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller, 'Toni Erdmann'

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller, ‘Toni Erdmann’

A Marxist manifesto on dehumanizing corporate culture reimagined as a Marx brothers comedy, German filmmaker Maren Ade's father-daughter farce revolves around one of the year's best double acts: Peter Simonischek's original-prankster dad, a man who loves his novelty false teeth not wisely but too well; and Sandra Hüller's business executive, struggling to survive in a world of glass ceilings and toxic workplaces. Once her pop's goofy alter ego "Toni" shows up to shake her life up, they turn into a screen duo that plays off each others' rhythms to perfection; it's impossible to think of film's brilliant final act, which starts with an impromptu rendition of a popular 1980s pop hit and keeps escalating into the comic stratosphere, working as well without this particular pairing.

Hailee Steinfeld, 'The Edge of Seventeen'

Hailee Steinfeld, ‘The Edge of Seventeen’

Kelly Fremon Craig's ode to John Hughes-era teen angst is more than just a revival of the maestro's mortifying comedy of hallway humiliation – it's a one-woman showcase for the force of nature that is Hailee Steinfeld. Maybe it's because she was only a year or so older than the high school student she's playing, or maybe it was that the Oscar-nominated actor and part-time pop star identified with the idea of not fitting in. Regardless, her mixed-up misfit doesn't feel anything like the screen kids you're used to seeing; even when she's cracking wise, throwing shade (her side-eye is lethal) or realizing she's way over head when it comes to sex, Steinfeld makes you feel like you're observing a teenager in her natural habitat. Her rapport with Woody Harrelson's weary teacher is priceless, but watch when she sees her best friend take off with some mean girls at a party. The look of pure heartbreak on her face proves you can do tragedy as well as comedy without saying a word. 

Patrick Stewart, 'Green Room'

Patrick Stewart, ‘Green Room’

What if all of those qualities you associate with Sir Patrick Stewart – the baritone bark, the natural leadership qualities, the Shakespearean gravitas – were applied to a white supremacist in charge of a skinhead compound? And showed up in a genre film filled with boxcutter surgery, shotgun blasts and angry pitbulls? Jeremy Saulnier's ultimate punk-rock siege thriller is is pure grindhouse batshit, which only makes the British actor's eerily calm presence as a Neo-Nazi intellectual trying to negotiate (and annihilate) his way out of a mess that much more scary. And should you think that his take on such evildoers in the age of "alt-right" euphemisms seems too nightmarish at the moment, we suggest you fast-forward to the scene in which Stewart reminds the bloodthirsty crowd that "the racial advocacy workshop is on Wednesday, unless you hear otherwise." Bravo, Sir Patrick.

Anya Taylor-Joy, 'The Witch'

Anya Taylor-Joy, ‘The Witch’

Robert Eggers' Puritan-horror classic didn't just give viewers the cinema's scariest goat ever (damn you, Black Phillip!) – it also introduced a star in the making. Anya Taylor-Joy convinces you that she's stuck in a 17th-century waking nightmare as her family deals with something wicked in the woods, and that a croaky-voiced invite to "live life deliciously" would be appealing to a young woman living in a repressive religious society. Her heroine is not just the Ye Olde New England equivalent of a horror-movie "final girl"; the actor plays her forked-tongue-in-cheek as she goes from viewing her burgeoning womanhood as a burden to her key to liberation. Sure, a literal devil may be the one offering such freedom, but pay no mind: Taylor-Joy makes you walk every step of the way with her, until there's no ground left beneath her feet.

Michelle Williams, 'Manchester by the Sea'/'Certain Women'

Michelle Williams, ‘Certain Women’/’Manchester by the Sea’

From a whisper to a scream: This was the year that Michelle Williams gave us not one but two incredible, unforgettable takes on nervous, nail-biting women; taken together, these two poles cover the strata of contemporary performance styles. In the former – a triptych of stories directed by Kelly Reichardt, arguably the finest director of actors working today – Williams plays a Type A personality trying to convince a cranky misogynist to sell them sandstone for their house; it's a passive-aggressive pas de deux of impatience and frustration, along with some quiet disgust over her ineffectual husband thrown in for good measure. And then there's Manchester's showstopping duet, an already famous scene in which Williams and Casey Affleck open up old wounds and pour fresh salt into them. The latter may win her an Oscar. Both prove that she's an American treasure.

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