Top 25 Performances of 2016

2016 has come to a close. The bulk of the better films of the year rested right near its end, so you will definitely see a bit of a lopsided list with my picks for the best films. However, there were still performances that could be selected throughout the year; even within the not-so-great films. Sometimes performances can save a film, sometimes they outlive the film. With a huge amount of strong female performances, a few roles that went against typecasting and some strong comebacks, here are my top 25 performances of the year.


  1. Emily Blunt-The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train tried to follow in the footsteps of similar thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and completely failed. This film was only held together by yet another strong performance by Emily Blunt. Blunt’s work as Rachel is mentally unstable and hooked on booze whose every emotion pours off the screen. The main source of our excitement and concern is from her misery and her fight to prove her worth, and not from the film itself.


  1. Mark Rylance-The BFG

Steven Spielberg’s The BFG was a commercial flop that was kind hearted in nature and truly not even a bad film. The one aspect I would promote as great instead of just good or decent, however, was Mark Rylance’s touching take on the titular giant. He is gentle and with a rasp in his voice that feels innocent. You cannot help but root him on to take on the bigger behemoths because of his perseverance and kindness. Dammit, Mark Rylance is just way too likeable and I’ve only really gotten to know him for two years! The BFG is worth it just for this guy’s heart filled performance alone.


  1. Mads Mikkelsen-Dr Strange

Dr. Strange sure had its eclectic cast of wonderful performances, but who could forget cinematic badass Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius? His powerful demeanour and stone cold expressions most certainly added to his power hungry character, but it is the ability to inflict humour through the same cold line delivery that is striking. You understood his motives because Mikkelsen made his thirst for vengeance real and not a villainous trope. We need even more evil Mikkelsen characters, please!


  1. Patrick Stewart-Green Room

Common good-guy Patrick Stewart is much more different in Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier’s third main effort). As a head skinhead gangster figure, Stewart is devilishly sinister in this manic film. He is direct and his commands are anything but civil. His stares are robotic and inhuman. I’m sure not used to Stewart like this, and this savage character-against-type is definitely refreshing.


  1. Meryl Streep-Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep has graced us with her comedic talents before, but there’s just something about her god awful singing that makes her turn in Florence Foster Jenkins all the funnier. She is actually painful to listen to, and yet you feel awful for laughing because of her true enthusiasm to be a professional singer. She is delusional but not through arrogance but due to commitment. As you probably know by now, there is nothing that Streep cannot do.


  1. Kate Beckinsale-Love & Friendship

Kate Beckinsale hasn’t had the right films to hone her skills. Love & Friendship— one of this year’s best period pieces— was finally the film to bring Beckinsale critical attention since 2004’s Aviator. She is charming and switched on as she works through loss by taking for herself. This magnetic role is unlike anything you have seen Kate Beckinsale in, I can guarantee.


  1. John Goodman-10 Cloverfield Lane

You are guaranteed to almost always get good work from John Goodman. In this loose sequel to Cloverfield, Goodman plays Howard, the captor of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character. His menacing and ill meaning character has been buzzing through viewers minds since the start of the year, and his work is one of the few things that has lasted this long in the movie world. 10 Cloverfield Lane was worth the watch, but Goodman’s evil character is worth the nightmares.


  1. Joseph Gordon Levitt-Snowden

If there was one thing to take away from Oliver Stone’s biopic, of which didn’t attract the Oscar attention it desired, there was one thing to take away. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the most memorable aspect of this story as the man of the hour Edward Snowden. The likeliness is quite accurate, yet it is how Gordon-Levitt utilizes Snowden as a concerned brainiac that withstands the film. We know Snowden as a fearless whistleblower (whether you’re on his side or not), yet Gordon-Levitt showed us the moments that led to his risk taking that sells the story.


  1. Ruth Nega and Joel Edgerton-Loving

The most remarkable thing about Ruth Nega and Joel Edgerton in Loving is how collected their performances are. They could have raised big fusses and screamed a lot, but instead both actors spoke volumes through what they didn’t say instead of what they did. Nega is the vocal one of the two, and even she carries a soft voice on top of strong words. Edgerton is reserved and talks more with his eyes and expressions. These two actors remind us that the Loving couple were just ordinary people wanting to live happily, and that’s special.


  1. Aaron Taylor-Johnson-Nocturnal Animals

I have openly criticized Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s acting before. He is inspired by Daniel Day-Lewis and tries to adopt his chameleon ways of acting yet he falls short; that is until Nocturnal Animals. The majority of the cast does a great job, but it is Taylor-Johnson’s turn as a bad boy that surprised me the most. This is the most transformed Taylor-Johnson has felt since he played John Lennon seven years ago, and it took a story within a story to get him into the trance he has wanted as an actor since.


  1. Greta Gerwig-20th Century Women, Jackie

Greta Gerwig’s two performances are great contrasts of this young starlet’s capabilities. In 20th Century Women, we get a role that is more familiar with Gerwig: A funny quirky role in a film that boasts her indie film experiences. In Jackie, however, Gerwig is almost unrecognizable as Nancy Tuckerman. She is poised, concerned and a great anchor to Portman’s grieving Jackie O. Even after these two completely different characters, I still think we have yet to see Greta Gerwig at her best, and that’s the greatest part.


  1. David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyongo-Queen of Katwe

David Oyelowo was shockingly snubbed for a Best Actor nomination for Selma. Lupita Nyongo famously won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. Two strong and emotionally charged actors in a touching tale about a girl from Katwe that becomes a chess master of the world? We’ll take it! Both Oyelowo and Nyongo bring pathos and sincerity to this uplifting tale (which happens to be one of Disney’s best live action films in years).


  1. Ben Foster-Hell or High Water

All of the leads in this indie western were terrific, yet I have to go with the man I didn’t even recognize until ten minutes of the film had already passed. Ben Foster is a great performer who has often picked the wrong projects, but Hell or High Water is a great podium for his talents. He is borderline unrecognizable as a gun crazy thief driven by bloodlust. If Foster picks up more roles like this, he will most likely get that Oscar he so deserves eventually.


  1. Amy Adams- Arrival

Amy Adams graced us with two roles this year (she also starred in Nocturnal Animals), but it is her work in Arrival where she shined the most this year. As a linguist aching to be heard, Adams delivers her performance as a knowledgable professor turned alien interpreter well. She is curious yet instigates conversations. She takes a step back yet plunges forwards. Amy Adams is a great from our time, and this turn is no exception.


  1. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone-La La Land

Both actors have musical upbringings (Stone with In Search of the New Partridge Family, Gosling with Mickey Mouse Club and Dead Man’s Bones). Both have been household names for years. It only made sense that they would electrify the nighttime sky in La La Land, and yet their performances are still so shockingly terrific. Never mind the dancing, singing and playing: the actual acting is of top form as well. Both are funny, charming and relatable with their hardships. Both took us to a new place, and that’s why we love them both.


  1. Sally Hawkins-Maudie

Why do we forget about Sally Hawkins on this side of the pond? Happy Go Lucky happened, and we forgot about her. Blue Jasmine happened, and we did the same thing. The many films Hawkins does in between get heavily overlooked, and while these films may not always be the best in her catalogue, she is always in top form. In Maudie, Hawkins covers a variety of ages and struggles with such ease. As painter Maud Lewis, Hawkins perfectly depicts her body wearing down and her humility being challenged. It is my civil duty to remind everyone of one of this generation’s greats, and so here we are.


  1. Andrew Garfield-Hacksaw Ridge and Silence

Andrew Garfield has been aching to show the world his true power once he had his big break with 2010’s The Social Network. I feel that 2016 is his year to finally fulfill this mandate. In Hacksaw Ridge, he is a conflicted medic who wants to save lives but stay true to his religion (the ultimate test while seeing the horrors of war). In Silence, he is a priest (also Catholic) who sets out to find his mentoring pastor in a hellish environment. Both times, Garfield battled with conflicting beliefs convincingly.


  1. Dev Patel-Lion

The greatest surprise this year was Dev Patel, with his greatest work to date by far. Halfway into Lion, you see the young Saroo is now an adult fully entrenched in the Australian lifestyle. Patel, similarly, dives into the culture head first by donning a surfer physic and a convincing Australian accent. When he yearns to find his former home, you can sense the fear of both the known and the unknown in his eyes and within the cracks of his voice. This work as Saroo is the Dev Patel we have all been waiting almost a decade for.


  1. Annette Bening-20th Century Women

With a great cast of women (not just in this film but in all of 2016), Annette Bening once again shines with her usual great quality as an actress: the ability to bring so many personalities into one singular performance. She is not entirely confident as a mother, but she knows it is her duty to be one. She strives for youthfulness but definitely experiences a disconnect. She aims to be a teacher and she still has to conjure up answers she may not always have. Annette Bening in 20th Century Women embodies all ages of being a woman wondering where it all went.


  1. Ethan Hawke-Born to be Blue

The most overlooked performance of 2016 was Ethan Hawke’s wonderfully complex portrayal of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. He is charming and wins you over. He is damaged and you feel sorry for him. He is harmful and so you cannot tear yourself away. Hawke’s Baker is one of the best takes of his career, and it is a shame that this nuanced work has not received more attention this year.


  1. Naomie Harris (and basically the cast of Moonlight)-Moonlight
    You really cannot leave anyone from this top notch cast out, ranging from the six stellar actors of both Chiron and Kevin’s different stages of life, and Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae as Chiron’s parental saviours. If I had to pick one performance to highlight, that would be the tragic performance by Naomie Harris that cannot be overlooked. Like Chiron and Kevin, Harris’s take as Paula (Chiron’s mother), ranges from young to older, addicted and regretful, and selfish and lonely. This is done all by one person. When you reach Paula’s oldest moments in the film, you will not be able to sit still with how moving her apologies are.


  1. Isabelle Huppert-Elle

To play a survivor of sexual assault is difficult in a film, but to play someone who repeatedly faces her abuser through vengeance and fetishizing is something else. Isabelle Huppert has taken on one of the most challenging performances in recent memory with bravery, fear and honesty. Elle truly is all about her, because Huppert catapulted a difficult film into the masses with her daring performance hoisted above her.


  1. Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedge-Manchester by the Sea

There is no easy way to briefly describe the performances here. Casey Affleck perfectly plays off his jovial past and his miserable present, as well as the harrowing moments of tragedy in between with both humour and devastation. Lucas Hedges portrays a difficult nephew with hilarity and with brief moments of authentic hurt. However, there is Michelle Williams’ short happenings on screen that showcased her talents at their very best; there is a particular scene in mind where her organic reaction to tragedy still rings in my mind, as we’ve all heard cries of desperation that sounded that way. Either way, two opus performances from generational vets and one fantastic introductory role are present here.


  1. Natalie Portman-Jackie

Natalie Portman always has interesting projects even if they do not always work out. Jackie is a special performance because it actually extends her role in Black Swan (how bizarre for a biopic, right?). Portman captures Jackie O’s husky voice, and her rage and depression fighting within her. It’s one thing to get into a real person’s state of mind, but it’s another to do so during one of America’s greatest tragedies (which could only have been much worse for JFK’s wife). Once in a while, Portman’s raw talents truly shine like they do here.


  1. Viola Davis-Fences

Only one performance could edge out Portman’s Jackie, and it had to have been someone who is superhuman. Eight years ago, Doubt featured a performance that stood out against others that came out. It was about fifteen minutes long, and it was even stronger than Meryl Streep’s part in the same scene. Those fifteen minutes of fame became a career maker for Viola Davis. Davis has taken control of every part she has, and she will always be the highlight of any project. Fences is Denzel Washington’s directorial feature adapted from the theatrical rendition of the same name, and it is a stripped down story that relies on narrative and acting to showcase its message. Washington did a fantastic job with all of the many roles he took on to get this film made, but it is Davis who once again makes the film hers. As Rose Maxson, Davis combats Washington’s retro-Hollywood portrayal with a hyper modernistic one. Washington delivers each line with a subdued sternness, but it is Davis’s drenched face, clenched forehead, strained gaze and howling cries that not only bring us back to how acting is now, it sends us to how acting will be in the future. Viola Davis is a definitive actress who is still pushing the boundaries of acting through hyper realistic suffering, and she had the best performance of 2016.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.