We have had many performances that bask in the dark shadows of harrowing survival, where people find themselves stranded or on the brink of death. We have also had investigations conducted by inquiring minds (whether they be for informative or emotional purposes). We’ve had a number of biopics that have brought those we know to life (and life to those we didn’t know too well). We’ve also had dramedic roles that bounce back and forth between hardships and good times. What we haven’t had is enough. Acting is a great source of variety, because you never know what you’ll be getting with a good performance. It’s been a good year, and sadly I haven’t had a chance to see some acclaimed films that have had noteworthy performances within them (The Big Short, Macbeth, 45 Years, etc.). Nonetheless, I hope I have captured enough of what this year had to offer below, especially with my number 1 (of which only was able to be added virtually days before I finished this list). Time to dive into the top performances of 2015!
25. Léa Seydoux-Madeleine Swann [Spectre]
Let’s face it: Spectre isn’t the strongest Bond film. While that may be so, it may have a strong Bond element within Léa Seydoux’s take on the token Bond Girl. Madeleine Swann is a toughy and a sleek one at that. She has every bit of mystery required for the part. What she adds to the table to make her possibly the most memorable Bond Girl in the Craig era is her ability to not be a pushover or a distinct “interest”. She is an individual with charisma and sternness. She has a menacing stare, even during simple conversation. Never does her vulnerability feel like the opportunity to take her down, as she has a permanent wall set up even during her more candid moments. Seydoux is not letting herself be defined as an actress with such an eclectic span of roles, but she kind of set the bar for Bond Girls in the future.
24. Josh Brolin-Detective Christian Bjornsen [Inherent Vice]
Inherent Vice is supposedly going to be a cult film in the future. It’s like the Big Lebowski with a more complex plot line. Obviously, we’re being led by a stoner (Joaquin Phoenix’s character) and so we will get lost. We fall down a rabbit hole of deception and urban crime. Others may have liked the film more than I have, but would anyone dare disagree that Josh Brolin was one of the best things about this picture? He’s a jerk– and a real sour one at that– with a scowl on his face for the entire film. When he tries to be serious, it comes off as funny. When he tries to be funny, it comes off as serious. This guy is as backwards as he could ever hope to not be. He is the reason why some of the funnier moments of the film work as well as they do. He’s simply a walking contradiction (how could an authority figure be more puzzling than the hippy that has the film based around him?). I don’t see myself revisiting this film often in the future, but I can easily imagine wanting to look up this goof’s signature moments on YouTube (I did just that while writing this).
23. Elizabeth Olsen-Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch [Avengers: Age of Ultron]
When people list off their favorite Avengers, they may turn to the sly Iron Man, the charming Captain America, the relatable Hulk or the unfamiliar Thor. There are even more members that can be picked. For now, I’ll stick with one of the newest members introduced to the cinematic Marvel canon this year in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Scarlet Witch is played wonderfully by Elizabeth Olsen, who continues to stretch her acting capabilities with each new role. In the Avengers sequel, Scarlet Witch is easily the strongest part of the film, We get an introduction to her strengths and we end the film off seeing her humanistic connectivity. She deals with loss, and we not only see a person grieve; We also see a super hero expel her inner self. This creates waves of power via CGI, but you’d believe it even before the editing room due to Olsen’s convincing collapse. Olsen made Wanda Maximoff not a super human but a human with super powers, and sometimes we need that focus.
22. Matt Damon-Mark Watney [The Martian]
Luckily, “I’m a botanist”, Mark Watney proclaims with a smile as he realizes that he has an answer to yet another problem he has to face. The Martian was recently listed as a comedy at the Golden Globes, and while this may seem like a tactic to try and garner some wins for the film, it isn’t too far fetched. Matt Damon as the stranded astronaut Watney is, oddly enough, quite funny. He uses his solutions as punch lines, either via enthusiasm (“In your face, NASA!”) or as a-ha! moments. The scenes of grueling pain aren’t long, and Damon nails those, too. It’s just nice to see him having fun again, especially in a film that is as entertaining as it is dramatic. We see a nice back and forth between goofy and serious that is close enough to work, and it’s through Damon’s take on Watney; He essentially made him a cool geek. He loves to experiment and sees his success as a simple hooray, even when his life is at stake. He’s just an oddball, but a smooth one at that. You don’t always have to be completely whacky to have a good time.
21. Johnny Depp-Whitey Bulger [Black Mass]
Poor ol’ Johnny. He was stuck in quite a rut for a number of years now. He went from being a chameleon that could take on any role to being, well, Johnny Depp as x (find x). It’s been a while since we’ve seen him take on a great role (Sweeney Todd) and even longer since he did a part that was unlike his usual fare (Finding Neverland). Well, this streak is no more. Depp as Whitey Bulger is creepy, unsettling and threatening. As illustrated as he may be, there is some good news to this: It’s the furthest from being Johnny Depp that Johnny Depp has been in ages. The way he eyeballs the room is with the sight of a criminal, not a quirky character. His diction is not a slur but a roar. He simply is channeling this character from some place he hasn’t reached for quite some time. Now, I know that this role has been debated a little bit. A lot of people think Depp as criminal mastermind Bulger was one of the best things he’s ever done. A lot of people find this portrayal too over the top. Either way, it’s finally something different, and while I fall under the more appreciative category, I can only hope that Depp’s newly found re-imagination continues to spark in his upcoming films (save the Alice and Pirates sequels).
20. Mya Taylor-Alexandra [Tangerine]
What a sloppy film this is, and I mean that as a compliment. Tangerine is all over the place in terms of emotions, ideas and chaos. It truly is a piece of work. The only firmly grounded part of this bizarrely addictive film is Mya Taylor’s voice of reason known as Alexandra. While the rest of the film will scream around her causing drama at every turn, Alexandra will sometimes partake in said shenanigans but will sometimes be the character to put her foot down first. Her hyper realistic reactions to scenarios work so well as anchoring plot points, because of how commanding she can be with just a responding visage. She also works not just as the tether pole for these situations but also as the instigator. Alexandra broke the news about the cheating pimp. Alexandra sings the song that works as a pivotal moment of grace amidst fury. Alexandra is the comforting shoulder to cry on during the apex. This is Mya Taylor’s debut, and with the amount of noise she’s made with this role alone, it will be far from her last. Alexandra is a taste of a much bigger role Taylor can surely slay in the future; And now we wait.
19. Alicia Vikander-Ava [Ex Machina]
We’re witnessing a future crushing force within the acting industry take place. The last time we’ve seen this kind of growth, it was with Alicia Vikander’s current boyfriend Michael Fassbender’s slow takeover of the world. Now, in a current wave that includes her Ex Machina costars Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, Vikander has helped dominate 2015 with some serious roles. Her best is her top notch take on an android named Ava. Ava is self aware and emotive enough to inflict reactions out of us. She is robotic enough, however, to make the separation between real and fiction blatant enough to be uneasy. We are fully aware that she is fake, but part of us wants to believe. Technically we do, considering that we bought into Vikander’s work. The way her eyes scroll as if they are fixed on an axis is remarkable enough. Then you have the jointed way her head quirks about. Every small detail is essential in making Vikander’s android come to life. She is Sweden’s strongest export currently, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this new star experiences academy gold in the future.
18. Emily Blunt-Kate Macer [Sicario]
This is a nice piecing together of some of the characters Emily Blunt has taken on before. She’s played a wide eyed learner (The Young Victoria) and a big deal who doesn’t take names (Edge of Tomorrow). Hell, she’s even combined the two before (Looper). In Sicario, Blunt does it stronger, as she is the coasting surfer that makes the film her ocean. She cuts into the film’s dramas as a new kid on the block; Her adjusting is our adjusting. She takes charge as the student that masters both the teacher and the class once things kick into gear. She balances the uncertainty and the wisdom enough to make each decision properly weighted. As a result, Kate Macer is vital in making Sicario’s tensions work effectively. When she’s scared, we have no idea who will survive. When she bursts in, we fear for her as we follow behind. Blunt makes her character have a smooth enough transition to add flow to the gritty and unsettling thriller Sicario.
17. Natalie Portman-Fania Oz [A Tale of Love and Darkness]
Natalie Portman is a bit of an enigotma. She has the capacity to floor us, and she’s done so before (Black Swan, Closer, even her short stint in Cold Mountain was one of the finer moments of the film). Her best work since 2010 is tucked away within her directorial debut, and it’s a personal take that will possibly be missed by anyone who isn’t seeking out to see this film. It’s too bad, because Portman’s take on a depressed mother trying to find a proper way to give up is quite something. She abuses herself unflinchingly. She will use that same face she hits to put on a fake smile to be an inspiration to her child. She will look at others with scorn but will also use the same glare to stare into the mirror. Much of this is an internal conflict that we can’t really translate. We can only spectate and guess what she is thinking; That is until we see her breaking points. Natalie Portman’s direction of herself is quite remarkable, and this is a sign that there is more where that came from. Don’t let one of her finer moments be overlooked, especially with her complete dedication.
16. Bryan Cranston-Dalton Trumbo [Trumbo]
Bryan Cranston has been known for his comedic charm for ages. Scratch Breaking Bad out of the picture, and you’re guaranteed to think more about his panache from sitcoms. Now, we can see Bryan Cranston with a whole array of different sides. That’s why he does a great job as the one-liner-deliverer Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was a blacklisted screenwriter with perseverance. He has an answer to everything, but maybe he sometimes needs an answer to get by. This is a role that is clearly Cranston, but his mannerisms seem to come from somewhere unimaginable. Either way, this is someone who would always stomp you during an argument. It’s good to see Cranston getting much more work heading his way especially with how varied each new job is. Trumbo is a bit of a mish mash of many things Cranston can do shoved into one. At the same time, you can’t link this character with much that Cranston has done before this. He can cast his signature onto a role without it being labeled simply as Bryan-Cranston-acting-as-this-role, and he has injected enough of himself into Dalton Trumbo without taking away what made this man such a character.
15. Mark Rylance-Rudolf Abel (Bridge of Spies)
Where did Mark Rylance come from? The stage is his main turf, but in one of his very few film roles, he seems to have gotten everyone’s attention as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s drama Bridge of Spies. He is clever and sharp with a bit of sarcasm to his every move. He will tell it how it is no matter how blunt it may be. He does this while being lightly voiced, too, and maybe that’s where everyone’s appreciation for this role has come from. He acts on a level that is believable enough to quite possibly exist. He could have been some over the top cartoon in a cold war satirical kind of way, but instead he’s oddly charming. Mark Rylance is the best actor we didn’t quite know until this year of, well, this year. He seems to be making a name for himself, as he’s due to star in Spielberg’s upcoming adaptation of The BFG. Rylance is this year’s proof that it’s never too late to have your cinema break.
14. Jennifer Jason Leigh-Daisy Domergue [The Hateful Eight]
Out of all the characters and all the disgust, no one is quite as electric and as despicable as Jennifer Jason Leigh is in Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie novel The Hateful Eight. Every other person screams and yelps, but Daisy Domergue will usually sit in the corner and smile creepily. She will spit occasionally and spew an offensive comment, but this pugnacious criminal loves to get reactions out of people. She’s a simplistic bully; That is until you eventually get what her character is all about. When the film finally explodes into the final stages, you witness a switch-around: Domergue is possibly the smartest person within the movie. You believe Jason Leigh’s masquerade for the long haul and you’ll feel betrayed by her actual wits. She remains as ugly as ever, and she actually becomes even more off putting once you lose sight of her twisted sincerity. Daisy Domergue is the brains behind the whole film, and you wouldn’t know it behind her black eye, stained nose and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s convincing treachery.
13. Nina Hoss-Nelly Lenz [Phoenix]
Acting requires a person to live as another person for a temporary time. You can dive deeper and witness someone acting as someone else to live and get by. Combine the two, and you get Nina Hoss’s incredible performance as Nelly in the German noir thriller Phoenix. Nelly survives a gun shot and has reconstructive surgery to save her face. She looks radically different, and while battling an identity crisis. she is also trying to win over her husband, who believes this is another woman who merely looks like his late wife (he assumed she died). With this, she discovers her husband’s deception and betrayal while she has to play herself pretending to be someone else acting has her. Oh, and don’t forget that Nina Hoss is busy doing all of this for a film. Phoenix could only work with the difficulty this role requires, and Nina Hoss leaps onto the role fearlessly. There are so many corridors that this performance needed to light up, and Hoss illuminates the entire dark film via her acting (both in front of the camera and within the film’s context).
12. Idris Elba and Abraham Attah-Commendant and Agu [Beasts of No Nation]
A civil war has erupted in Ghana, and there cannot be any good within that circumstance. Luckily, we have two lead actors that have made the basic plot in Beasts of No Nation much more tolerable because of how commanding they are. Idris Elba is no stranger to acclaim, and he has achieved greatness once again as the Commendant. He is set in his ways and truly believes in the good that can come from after a war of this nature. He has an apprentice to help him feel this way, and that’s Agu. Agu is played by a new comer child actor Abraham Attah, and what a great debut this is. Attah is fearless and actually becomes the leading force of the film. He can even take the torch away from Elba at times, and Elba doesn’t mind that one bit; He seems pleased to see such pure acting from someone so young. Beasts of No Nation is as good as it is because of the chemistry these two actors have. Elba sees a bright future ahead of this boy, and Attah is learning all of the tricks from a master.
11. Charlize Theron-Furiosa [Mad Max:Fury Road]
Charlize Theron’s head shaved tigress Furiosa is the heart and soul of Mad Max. Sure, Tom Hardy’s fresh take on the Australian post apocalyptic cowboy is the anchor of the film, but Furiosa is what drives the movie forwards. Her motives affect the entire story, not to mention the government within it as well. To pull off this character, you’d need someone who can be a leader as well as a sufferer. Theron makes Furiosa both. She will yell decisions and fight fiercely, but when she has a second to breathe, you can see hurt in her eyes. She is aggressive only to save her own life. Once you have her trust, she makes a strong bond as a sure ally. This is all well and good, but what makes Theron’s role so important is how necessary it is. Its relevancy comes from the fact that this is not a typical female in an action film archetype. There is no interest in the main character and not even an implication of such is available. There is only ferocity. Furiosa stands her ground as an action badass, and Charlize Theron can add yet another avenue on her resumé.
10. Paul Dano-Brian Wilson [Love and Mercy]
Most of the acting in this refreshing biopic is top notch, but it says something when Paul Dano’s version of the great songwriter Brian Wilson still peaks above the rest (especially considering that he isn’t the only person playing Brian Wilson; John Cusack’s take on the older years of the same singer are still worth noting, too). As a younger Wilson, Dano is pitch perfect in look and sound, but it’s his slow decline into a labyrinthian state of mental illness that shows how strong his acting can be. His fears become our fears. His love is channeled through us. His fight to stay both sane and in power of his own music is a struggle we can barely face to watch. You get a great sense of how much Brian Wilson had to battle in order to remain one of the most respected song writers in contemporary music from Dano’s sculpting of his character. We finally have Dano’s take on Wilson’s creativity, and seeing him play the piano or bang on a drum with such joy is especially why this performance is pure magic.
9. Sarah Silverman-Laney Brooks [I Smile Back]
It’s a shame this film couldn’t observe mental illness and addiction further than the blank stare we received from it in return, but Sarah Silverman skyrockets as the movie’s saving grace. As Laney, Silverman has shown sides of her we have never seen before. When she makes wiseass jokes, they are far more humanistic than her usual raunchy persona would usually deliver. Then we witness her angry moments, and they are frightening. Her sadder moments are even more scary. Almost every ounce of emotion this movie has to offer comes from Silverman herself, and you’d never expect this comedienne to have such control of every inch of her face. She battles so many conflicting emotions at once, and you can make every single one of them out. It’s too bad that this film couldn’t provide Silverman with enough of a platform to get as many accolades as she deserves for this harrowing role, but at least it let her show the world that, yes, she really has much more to offer than many have bargained for years.
8. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James-Basically everyone in Spotlight [Spotlight]
There is only one main character in this film, and it’s name is journalism. All of its aspects are taken on by different people in huge ways. Ruffalo represents the itching desire to get the right scoop. Keaton is the headline that needs to say the right words at the right time. McAdams works well as the choice of words that helped soften an article about a difficult subject matter. Schreiber was the contrasting vocabulary that made sure that we didn’t lose the severity of the subject matter all together. d’Arcy James was the entertaining punch that acted as the flare the art of diction can bring. Slattery was the editing that turned information furthermore into prose. Finally, Tucci was the sponsor that got this article seen by more people. You cannot single out one actor out of this fine bunch because you cannot take away anything that makes a strong story strong: The titular spotlight shines on them all.
7. David Oyelowo-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. [Selma]
There was no way this man wasn’t going to be mentioned. Selma got released too late for my list last year, but a super early wide release back in January of this year has granted me a second chance. David Oyelowo is absolutely sensational as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and you’ve had a full year to see Selma to find this out by now. If not, let me try to simply put it like this: He is the late activist. The film grants Oyelowo the chance to deliver King Jr.’s speeches as the bolded moments of the film, and he does not back out on this opportunity. When he is in the privacy of his own home, Oyelowo laces the scene around him with kindness and sincerity. We see the great speaker we all knew and the personal side of him we never saw. We got the severity of his life outside of the public eye and the daring courage he had in front of it. Yes, the Academy missed his recognition, but I refused to do the same.
6. Saoirse Ronan-Eilis Lacey [Brooklyn]
What a career this young starlet has had! We were blown away by her performance in 2007’s Atonement, and hop over to this year 8 years later and notice how she has been a commanding force ever since (she’s only 21 now, too). It’s about time we saw Saoirse Ronan in a starring role that truly delivered her capabilities, and Brooklyn may not even be the film she completely deserves despite being the fact that it’s the best display of her talents that we’ve had thus far. Ronan plays a shy Irish girl named Eilis, and we see her take on New York without being entirely ready to. As the film goes on and Eilis becomes stronger, Ronan starts to take advantage of this by making her deliver her lines as though she was on a stage, Toss in Ronan’s ability to cry and be emotional on command, and you have a film where she directs the scene herself almost every time. Brooklyn is a wonderful film for sure (and it will definitely be featured on my best of list of that nature), but it’s Saoirse Ronan’s acting that really made this story about a girl’s travels and home sickness about a lot more than just the narrative.
5. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara-Carol Aird and Therese Belivet [Carol]
“Therese Belivet”. The way Carol smiles as she delivers this line is the first key hint that there is a spark between an older woman struggling through a divorce and a younger store worker who is trying to discover herself. Cate Blanchett is an absolute powerhouse, but that isn’t surprising at this point. As the titular Carol, Blanchett is smooth and irresistible, but once she is vulnerable, she can be truly terrifying. Match her up with Rooney Mara and you’ve got a stunning pair. That’s because Mara is a wide eyed explorer who follows not because she is overly imaginative but because she fears that she will be left behind. Both characters have hidden fears that slowly leak out of their gazes and grins, and this strength is part of what makes Carol devastating. These are two captivating actresses of two different generations being one unity when they are together. You can’t be any more real than that.
4. Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet-Steve Jobs and Joanna Hoffman [Steve Jobs]
An Aaron Sorkin script is a challenging collective of stern dialogue delivered within the theatrical stage of an office or business environment. Michael Fassbender easily bites into these lines and spits them out without flinching. Take into account that he does this while doing a damn near realistic take on the late Steve Jobs, and you’ll start to see how many knives he truly is juggling. Toss in the fact that the camera is almost always on him, and you can see the unicycle he stumbles upon. To watch Fassbender’s balance and ensure he doesn’t fall, Kate Winslet is a strong supporter as Jobs’ closest ally Joanna Hoffman. Winslet delivers these lines with the same emphasis while inflicting a Polish accent wisely to punctuate lines where they required it. This duo may part at times during the film, but they are powerful on their own and dynamic together. Here’s how you do acting acrobatics with ease!
3.Eddie Redmayne-Lili Elbe/Einar Wegener [The Danish Girl]
Tom Hooper’s latest film may have audiences split (between applauding it for its aesthetics and criticizing it for glossing over both transgender complexities and the resolution of Einar and Gerda’s relationship), but I don’t think anyone can argue against Eddie Redmayne’s latest transformation. As one of the first people to undergo surgery to be assigned a new gender, Eddie makes Einar’s dreams of being herself (as Lili) all the more detailed than the script could have provided. When Eddie plays Einar– an artist who is keeping out of the public eye– with such curiosity, you know that character feels out of place. Once the transformation into Lili starts, Eddie melts into a mold and is impossible to ignore. Each and every subtle movement gradually changes from Einar trying to imitate women to Lili naturally being a woman. Once Lili tries to dress back as Einar, she is a lady in her former identity’s clothes and there is no escaping that. Much of the grace of this film comes from Eddie Redmayne’s textured performance that provides a film based on a current subject with the kind of authority this discussion deserves.
2. Brie Larson-Joy Newsome [Room]
We saw a bit of Brie Larson’s unvarnished chops in the indie drama Short Term 12. She was a guardian figure to troubled youths and she had her own mental challenges. This film was probably the right audition process to gift Larson a role that would push her even more. In Room, she has to be a maternal figure to a boy who has never left a tiny garden shed. She has to play a woman who has been kidnapped for years and barely even remembers the world she is desperately trying to hold on to. We see her courage yet we also see her instability. She can be vicious after spending seven years being defensive to save her child. We see every decision Newsome makes come from a deep and dark place within her. All of these powers come from an actress who is so young and so fresh to the industry, despite having been in entertainment for most of her life. Brie Larson as we know her now is a new face, and she has reinvented her name with complete emphasis. The best part about her performance in Room is that it was an expansion of her work in Short Term 12. I lied: The best part is the possibility that she can maybe be even greater than she is here. She bested herself once before, right?
1. Leonardo DiCaprio-Hugh Glass [The Revenant]
This is a late entry, but it is the best entry. Leonardo DiCaprio’s capabilities have been cherished for years, and his lack of Oscar gold has made him an empathetic meme. This is surely finally his year, because this is surely finally his masterpiece. We thought we saw it all when it came to DiCaprio, but we actually hadn’t seen his very best in the over twenty years we have known this talent. We have finally seen what will surely be seen as his best role in The Revenant. The extreme lengths DiCaprio has gone with this character (Hugh Glass, a survivor of a bear attack who was left alone to die) are enough. He drags himself across the floor and murmurs almost every line. Most of the little dialogue he has is in Pawnee, and the minimal amount of words he has in English are all full of suffering. Then you have the extra lengths DiCaprio went through in order to do his very best. This includes eating raw bison liver, despite the fact that he has been a renown vegetarian for years.
Virtually every second of DiCaprio’s performance as Hugh Glass is like the finale for most other performances. He has gone above and beyond what we thought he was made of before, and he was already a highly respected actor. Not only did he take on one hell of a difficult role, but he nailed it with everything he got. Part of what makes The Revenant so scary is seeing how real it is in his expressions. Part of what makes the film a triumph is seeing DiCaprio’s perseverance. He does as much as he can with so little, and yet he also finds ways to do even more. What we can see in this role is a fight, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s strength has blown away the competition this year despite the fact that this film is barely even from this year. There are too many reasons why this is the performance of the year, but at this point, after two viewings, I still am unable to pinpoint them all. It’s a performance to be beheld.