There were a lot of great performances in 2016, on screens both the big and small. Rather than break them up into two distinct groups, I’m compiling them all — both TV and film — together in one convenient location so you can read them at once — preferably out loud, on the bus, to strangers. I’ve broken them into two categories: first, the best performance of 2016 then, the other great performances of 2016 in no particular order. Enjoy!
The Best Performance of 2016
Royalty Hightower — The Fits
Quiet, introspective and fierce, Royalty Hightower delivers the year’s best performance in Anna Rose Holmer’s miraculous movie The Fits. As Toni, an 11-year-old boxer who finds herself drawn to a dance team who practice at the same rec center where she pounds away on a heavy bag, Hightower’s task wasn’t easy. Toni says very little, and instead the bulk of her performance hinges on the way the character listens and observes. After Toni joins the dance team, her teammates are suddenly stricken with mysterious seizure-like fits. There’s no direct explanation for what’s causing this, and that mysterious element plays an integral part in Hightower’s performance. We watch as she goes from being unsure and uncoordinated to completely in command, and we watch as she watches the girls around her come undone. A key element to acting in silence is how the performer uses their facial expressions, and their eyes. Hightower has a remarkable mastery of this, particularly for her big screen debut. There were many great performances this year, but none even come within the general vicinity of the work of Royalty Hightower.
The Other Great Performances of 2016 In No Particular Order
Rhea Seehorn — Better Call Saul Season 2
In just two season, Better Call Saul has evolved into a better, more intriguing show than Breaking Bad, the series that spawned it. And in cast full of great actors giving great performances — Bob Odenkirk as morally conflicted lawyer Jimmy McGill, Michael McKean as his mentally ill, jealous brother Chuck and Jonathan Banks as former-cop turned security guard/burgeoning criminal Mike Ehrmantraut — one in particular stands out the most: Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler. As interesting and flashy as all the other characters in this universe may be, it’s Seehorn’s Kim that shines. Principled and talented, Kim finds herself increasingly drawn into Jimmy’s destructive orbit, doing her best to rise above it all. After the show found its footing and introduced us to its cast in Season 1, Season 2 gave Seehorn center stage to wow audiences. Season 2 found Kim’s career in hot water for backing the trouble-causing Jimmy, a fact that played hell with Jimmy’s conscience and ego. Yet when he attempted to step up to the plate and “fix things”, Kim was the first stop him. “You don’t save me,” she said. “I save me.” Seehorn is so incredibly good in this role it’s stunning; the same type of revelatory performance that turned Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston into a household name. Seehorn’s Kim never came up in Breaking Bad, which weighs a bit ominously on the show and character. So here’s hoping Better Call Saul doesn’t rush to make the two timelines line-up anytime soon. The more time spent with Kim the better we’ll all be.
Eva Green — Penny Dreadful
Poor, sweet, gothic Penny Dreadful. It’s almost fitting that a show so much in the throes of tragic, forlorn loneliness as this would go mostly unnoticed save for a small group of committed fans. While other, terrible horror-themed shows like American Horror Story and The Walking Dead continue to thrive, Penny Dreadful was forced to shuffle off this mortal coil after three beautiful, tragic seasons. In all three seasons there was one constant: the incredible lead performance of Eva Green as doomed Vanessa Ives. Green is always a surefire source for commanding performances, but Penny Dreadful gave her some of her finest work, and Season 3 was arguably her most triumphant season of all. Finding herself the lust-object of Dracula himself, and potentially responsible for the end of the world in the process, Green’s Vanessa struggled with her very existence, trying so very hard to find the one thing that always eluded the rogues gallery of Penny Dreadful: happiness.
Millie Bobby Brown — Stranger Things
Stranger Things was a wonderful little surprise: a retro throwback to Stephen King and Steven Spielberg that was wise enough to not over-stretch its episodes (pay attention, Marvel shows!). The cast of young newcomers who made up the bulk of the cast all brought their own strengths to the table, but the stand-out was 12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, a young girl with psychokinetic powers and a serious jones for waffles. Brown begins Stranger Things in various states of shock — wide-eyed, quiet, squirrelish. But come the show’s finale she’s blossomed into a badass heroine fully ensconced into pop culture. The writing for the character’s arc is fine, but it’s Brown’s on-screen transformation that makes Eleven iconic.
Alden Ehrenreich — Hail, Caesar!
Whatever you think of The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, it’s hard not to admit the film did not completely deliver on the screwball comedic romp that its excellent trailers sold it as. However, it’s all-but-impossible to deny how gloriously charming Alden Ehrenreich was as slow-witted but well-meaning cowboy actor Hobie Doyle. With matinee idol looks and an affable aw-shucks charm, Ehrenreich managed to be the breakout in a film with one of the most incredible casts of the year. It would’ve been simple to play Hobie as a complete stooge, but Ehrenreich enriches the character with a real heart. It’s no surprise that this performance is launching Ehrenreich into superstardom, including landing him the role of a young Han Solo in an upcoming Star Wars Anthology film.
Casey Affleck — Manchester By the Sea
When talking about Casey Affleck’s performance here, or elsewhere, it’s important to include a disclaimer: the actor has a reprehensible past that includes accusations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse, and these are not things to be overlooked or simply shrugged-off. But from a performance standpoint alone, Affleck’s work in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is laudable. The actor has made a name for himself playing twitchy weirdos; outsiders struggling to find a way in. All those past roles seem to have been building toward this. Affleck’s character Lee is on the outside, for sure, but he’s not exactly trying to get back in. It’s more like he’s coasting on fumes; drifting through what could barely be classified as an existence. There’s a scene late in the film between Affleck and co-star Michelle Williams which may very well be one of the most emotionally effective film scenes I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a devastating, painfully wrought moment acted magnificently by the two performers; it’s also a study in contrasts — with Williams’ Randi pouring her heart out and Affleck’s Lee physically struggling to hold his own feelings back. Affleck’s work in Manchester by the Sea will likely net him an Academy Award for Best Actor, and that’s both understandable yet troubling. It’s hard to argue that the actor’s incredible performance isn’t award-worthy, but it’s more difficult to support Hollywood in continuing to reward men who subjugate women in its industry.
Jena Malone — The Neon Demon
As a makeup artist for both the living and the dead, Jena Malone’s alluring, potentially supernatural Ruby in Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish, gloriously trash horror film The Neon Demon must be seen to be believed. There will be many who simply loathe Refn’s film, and I won’t fault them even though I don’t agree. But I defy any of these critics to find fault in Malone’s chilling, darkly hilarious performance. Malone’s Ruby is always watching and lusting, thirsting for beauty both metaphorically and literally. Some of the best moments in The Neon Demon are the result of the off-kilter way Malone plays them, such as a scene where she greatly misreads an intimate moment with star Elle Fanning, or when she cozies up with a corpse in her charge. With her work here, and brief appearances in Nocturnal Animals and the Director’s Cut of Batman v Superman, Malone had a year of scene-stealing supporting performances that she’ll hopefully keep up into 2017.
Viola Davis — Fences
One of the very best actresses working today, Viola Davis managed to even come off as solid in the otherwise detestable Suicide Squad. But her performance in the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences seems to be what the actress has been working to for a large part of her acclaimed career. Davis played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and won a Tony Award for the work, and don’t be shocked if she takes home an Oscar as well (inexplicably in the Best Supporting Actress field instead of lead, due to strange Academy politics). As our own Colin Biggs said in his review of the film, “Fences is wholly Viola Davis’ picture. She lurks in the background, like Jaws, and devours the screen when she decides not to hold back against one of her husband’s tirades.”
Natalie Portman — Jackie
Natalie Portman delivers, without question, the best performance of her career, in Jackie, a film set in the days following the assassination of JFK. Adopting Mrs. Kennedy’s breathy voice and socialite accent, Portman dissolves into the role. She occupies almost every frame of Larraín’s film, and we are captivated every step of the way. The actress has never been so unmoored before, even in her impressive Black Swan role. Ms. Portman has long been a marvelous actress, but under every performance there was always the indication that it was still Portman up on the screen. Not so with Jackie. It’s the type of performance that will not simply be admired, but also dissected and studied for years to come. With this film, Portman transcends herself, embodying not so much the real Jackie Kennedy but rather the public’s perception of the famous First Lady.
Alia Shawkat — Search Party
If you slept on TBS’ surprisingly incredible Search Party, you’d do well to rectify that ASAP. Particularly for Alia Shawkat’s precise performance as Dory Sief. Dory is drifting through a prototypical millennial existence in New York: dead-end jobs, hip but shallow parties and commitment problems galore. But when a girl she went to college with goes missing, Dory becomes obsessed and launches her own investigation. Imagine Broad City crossed with David Fincher’s Zodiac, and you’ll be somewhere in the ballpark. Shawkat, arguably most famous for the role of Maeby on Arrested Development, has quietly been amassing a body of work proving what a unique actress she is. Search Party should be her breakout moment, as she shows off an incredible range playing a character slowly spiraling out of control due to obsession. It could’ve easily turned into a manic caricature, but Shawkat keeps it grounded and sympathetic.
Ethan Hawke — Born to Be Blue
One of our most underrated actors, Ethan Hawke brings a down-to-earth commitment to every role he’s playing, no matter what the subject matter (I’m looking at you Daywalkers). With Born to Be Blue, Hawke gives us his best performance yet, playing jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. As Patrick Phillips said in his review for Cut Print Film, “Hawke’s performance is a study in understatement, straight down to the near whispery speech patterns. But Hawke – no stranger to music himself – also finds the cocky, brittle swagger that made Baker’s chilled-out playing style so iconic. Hawke reportedly studied hours of Baker footage to capture the artist’s essence. And his broken-voiced rendition of Baker’s ‘My Funny Valentine’ is a chill inducing moment that you will not be able to shake – even if he doesn’t quite carry the pain and desperation that bleeds into Baker’s version.”
Ruth Negga – Loving & Preacher
Ruth Negga turned in two incredible performances this year, on the big and small screen. In Jeff Nichols’ Loving, Negga is Mildred Loving, a woman who, along with husband Richard (played by Joel Edgerton) was arrested for their then-illegal interracial marriage. As our own Nix Santos said in her review of the film, “With a powerful, tender performance by Ruth Negga, it’s Mildred that proves as the couple’s spine. While she initially seems a bit shy and quiet, it’s ultimately her determination that pushes them towards a hard-earned victory, like when she writes Bobby Kennedy for help with their case after seeing the inspiring image of Martin Luther King Jr. on television. The twinkle in her eye and the inner strength she possesses are precisely what the two need in order to hold their ground and keep the fight alive, especially in the terrible face of discrimination and unfairness. Through Mildred, Negga emerges with one of the most memorable performances of the year, infusing every scene with overwhelming emotion and grace.”
Then there was AMC’s Preacher. Let me blunt: the show is not very good. Jettisoning much of what made Garth Ennis’ graphic novel series so remarkable, Sam Catlin, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s TV adaptation left much to be desired. But one element that was pitch-perfect was Negga playing Tulip O’Hare, a hitwoman with a heart of gold (sort of). Negga was so cool, so commanding as Tulip that it makes watching the otherwise disappointing show a must.
Daniel Radcliffe — Swiss Army Man
Who knew that the part Daniel Radcliffe was born to play was that of a farting, talking corpse? Nothing in the actor’s career suggested how incredible he’d be in such a strange part, and yet here we are. It takes real talent to bring pathos to a flatulent cadaver, and thus Radcliffe’s accomplishment should be ignored.
John Goodman – 10 Cloverfield Lane
At this point in his career, it should come as no surprise that John Goodman is astonishing actor. Yet Goodman’s work in 10 Cloverfield Lane is truly formidable. Teetering wildly between seeming pathetic to terrifying, Goodman’s Howard should be remembered as one of the all-time iconic “movie monsters.” He may not wear a mask or have a gimmick, but the character is rich, complex, and memorable, and much of that is the result of Goodman’s imposing performance. Like the scariest of zealots, so sure is Howard in his own righteousness that you almost want to believe him, and Goodman milks that for all its worth.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw & Mackenzie Davis — Black Mirror
Black Mirror jumped to Netflix and found a heart, thanks to the episode “San Junipero”, a lovely little love story about two women who find each other in the 1980s, and beyond. Gugu Mbatha-Raw & Mackenzie Davis are the leads, and the actresses have such a palpable chemistry with each other that you’ll be hoping they work together more often. Mbatha-Raw’s Kelly is self-assured and alluring where Davis’ Yorkie is shy and lovelorn, but sparks fly when the two come together thanks to their performances and the way they play off each other. Be it the first time that Kelly asks Yorkie to come home with her, leading Davis’ Yorkie to sweetly-but-sadly whisper, “Oh, you’re nice…”, or the moment where Mbatha-Raw confesses, “I wasn’t prepared for you,” Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” resulted in one of the strongest moments in entertainment in 2016, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw & Mackenzie Davis made it extra special.
Mackenzie Davis — Always Shine
Speaking of Mackenzie Davis, she gives yet another great — but much different — performance in Sophia Takal’s disturbing Always Shine. As a struggling actress seething with insecurity and jealousy, Davis’ Anna resents the sudden success of her best friend Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald, also remarkable here), resulting in a shocking turn of events. Where Davis is timid and shy in Black Mirror, she’s domineering and borderline terrifying in Always Shine, holding every single scene firmly in a vice-like grip.
The Cast of Moonlight
Confession: I originally was going to highlight Mahershala Ali’s already multi-award winning performance in Barry Jenkins’ awe-inspiring Moonlight for this list. But then I realized I couldn’t single-out Ali without talking about the three layered performances of Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert, all playing lead character Chiron at different ages. Then I realized I couldn’t ignore André Holland’s brief but pivotal work, nor Janelle Monáe’s empathetic turn, nor the tragic performance of Naomie Harris. So it boils down to this: the cast of Moonlight is dazzling; sensational; out-of-this-world. But unlike, say, Hail, Caesar!, which also has a great cast, the cast of Moonlight are integral in making the film the powerhouse that it is. There’s no one actor here doing all the heavy-lifting. Instead, everyone is working together and creating one of the year’s very best films in the process.
Ryan Gosling — The Nice Guys
No one could’ve predicted that Ryan Gosling would be the modern day Lou Costello. Yet in one hysterically funny scene in Shane Black’s twisty, violent, massively entertaining comedy noir The Nice Guys, Gosling’s alcoholic private eye character Holland March discovers the bloody body of a murder victim, and then proceeds to effortlessly channel the type of wheezing, unintelligible terror that Costello frequently let loose in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. This may very well be Gosling’s best performance, stripped of his usual cool-guy charms and instead relying entirely on a strong sense of comic timing.
Amy Adams — Arrival & Nocturnal Animals
Does anyone need to tell you yet again that Amy Adams is one of the best modern actresses? If so, allow me: she’s incredible. And she delivered a one-two punch this year with Arrival and Nocturnal Animals. The Arrival part is bigger, and bolder. It’s a performance for the ages: beautiful, thoughtful and quiet. Adams doesn’t have big, award show clip moments here, yet her work as linguist Louise Banks is one of the year’s very best. Adams is in control of this entire movie, and it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is were it not for her quiet, dignified work. In contrast, she plays a glitzier part in Nocturnal Animals. Adams spends most of the film lounging around in bed reading a book and somehow manages to make that come across as brilliant.
Lily Gladstone — Certain Women
In a film featuring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart, the best performance in Kelly Reichardt’s quiet masterwork belongs to Lily Gladstone. Playing a lonely ranch hand (is there any other kind of ranch hand?), Gladstone finds herself enamored of a community college teacher played by Stewart. Gladstone’s silent but deep glances turn her quiet character into the most compelling member of the ensemble. It’s the very definition of a breakout performance, and here’s hoping there’s a lot more to come from the actress.
Ralph Fiennes — A Bigger Splash
I could write something about how layered, funny and tragic Ralph Fiennes work in A Bigger Splash is. How the movie wouldn’t be nearly half as noteworthy had he not graced it with his presence. But instead I’m just going to post these gifs of him dancing in the film.
Riz Ahmed — The Night Of
The Night Of fell apart as it drew to its conclusion, but it started off with a bang that hooked viewers. Much of the early episode’s success was due to Riz Ahmed’s performance as Naz, a man who was apparently at the wrong place at the absolute worst time. Ahmed, who had a breakout performance in Nightcrawler, had a great push this year thanks to The Night Of and Rogue One, and we definitely want to see more of him in more projects. As our own Josh Oakley said in his review of The Night Of, “Ahmed spins a brilliant performance out of this uncertainty; his time at Rikers Island awaiting trial may not be very narratively inventive, but this actor finds new shades beneath the clichés.”
Sarah Paulson & Sterling K. Brown — The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story
The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story had wall-to-wall powerhouse performances, but there were two that must be singled-out for being truly phenomenal: Sarah Paulson’s fierce, cocky and ultimately tragic take on prosecutor Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown’s intense, troubled work as fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden. Paulson, chain-smoking at every turn, essentially redeemed Clark in the public eye, turning a woman who had been derided both during and after the infamous O.J. Simpson trial into a flawed hero. The actresses is uncanny in her portrayal of Clark, but she’s not doing a cheap impression — she’s making the real-life figure and by extension the fictionalized character, her own and finding the humanity within.
Brown, as the much maligned Darden, gets put through the ringer. Darden was clearly assigned to the prosecution to add a black face to counterbalance the growing racial divide evident in the case, and Brown plays the internal conflicts of this character perfectly. It’s heartbreaking to watch Brown play Darden as a man who has to essentially defend his own blackness to the black community, and the actor ends up making Darden one of the most sympathetic characters on the show. On top of all this, there’s a surprising borderline-romantic subplot between Clark and Darden that may not be entirely accurate, but feels genuine thanks to the chemistry between Paulson and Brown.
Evan Rachel Wood — Westworld
“I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel,” says Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores in Episode 5 of Westworld, and you believe it. In a show blessed with good-to-great performances (Ed Harris’ smug Man in Black, Thandie Newton’s commanding Maeve, Jeffrey Wright’s tragic Bernard), it’s Wood who deserves the most praise. As Wood’s Dolores breaks out of her “loop” and goes on a journey of self discovery, we go right along with her, and it’s mind-blowing to watch the emotional acrobatics Wood goes through. Content and harmless one moment, tough-as-nails and gun-toting the next, Wood’s work in Westworld contains multitudes, and the way the actresses is able to “power down” in the midst of action is so believable it’s a little spooky. I’ve seen some critics complain that they found Westworld hard to enjoy because there were no characters to “root for.” I’d like to counter they must not have been paying enough attention to Wood’s performance.
Kate McKinnon — Ghostbusters
I will not go into the absolutely abominable internet reaction to 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot, nor will I dignify the reprehensible comments of misogynistic trolls. Fuck ‘em. Here’s what I’m here for: to sing the praises of Kate McKinnon’s weird, wonderful work as Jillian Holtzmann. Even before Ghostbusters hit theaters, people were singing the praises of McKinnon’s look for the film — the tower of hair, the yellow goggles, the leather jackets over vintage suits. But once the film opened, it was clear that McKinnon’s Hotlzmann was the breakout character, all thanks to McKinnon’s work. The character as written is just a quirky sidekick, but through McKinnon’s ad libbing and out-of-left-field acting choices, Holtzmann became one of the most enjoyable elements of an overall entertaining film. McKinnon can make a line like “Come get your sandwich” somehow laugh-out-loud funny just with the inflection of her voice. And her first reaction to seeing Chris Hemsworth’s dimwitted receptionist character — “Is this a big ol’ robot?” — had me in near-hysterics. So please, keep your nonsense hot takes on Ghostbusters 2016 to yourself and give me more of Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann.
Tom Bennett – Love & Friendship
Along with the aforementioned Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters, one of the funniest performances of 2016 belongs to Tom Bennett in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. As the dimwitted Sir James Martin, Bennett garners huge laughs every time he stumbles into a scene, particularly in a moment where he finds himself utterly enchanted with peas. It’s an uproarious performance in a charming, seemingly overlooked film from early 2016.
Isabelle Huppert — Elle
I was tempted to simply post an image from Elle if Isabelle Huppert dumping an urn of ashes over a bridge, write “Nuff said”, and end this piece. Part of the reason for that is because what else is there to say about Huppert, an actress so wholly in her own class, so commanding and untouchable in every performance she creates? And part of the reason is because I know my limitations, and I know that no amount of flowery prose I can lavish on Ms. Huppert would be adequate enough to highlight how incredible she is in Elle. But to shirk my responsibility this late in the game would be a cheat, and so here we are. Huppert delivers a complex, layer-upon-layer performance as a woman whose motivations and motives following her own sexual assault remain mysterious and ever-unfolding to the viewer. In nearly any other performer’s hands this role would be impossible to play, but Huppert makes it look easy, always letting the wheels turn behind her piercing eyes.