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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.

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.