Riley Keough – The Girlfriend Experience
The best performance I saw by a woman in 2016 was Riley Keough’s cold, detached, wholly committed work on Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience. But because the performance was captured on a television show, I’m not including it in my overall list. Regardless, I cannot issue enough praise for Keough’s work on the show. She was excellent throughout, and her performance in the season’s ninth episode – which takes place in real time, twice, from two different perspectives – is some of the best acting I have ever seen. Period.
15. Imogen Poots – Knight of Cups
“I. Think. You. Are. Weak.” Of all the women who come into and out of Knight of Cups, Imogen Poot’s mysterious character was the most captivating. I wanted an entire movie dedicated to her character.
14. Bella Heathcote & Abbey Lee – The Neon Demon
Gigi and Sarah’s intentions are obscured through kindness, violence, contempt – you name it. I loved guessing how far these two were going to go, then being completely dumbfounded by how far they actually went.
13. Lily Gladstone – Certain Women
Certain Women is populated with more well-known names, but Lily Gladstone was the actor I couldn’t get out of my mind. Who is this rancher? How did she get here? Where is she going? I so want to know what she’s going to do now.
12. Janelle Monáe & Naomi Harris – Moonlight
Monáe and Harris don’t share any scenes in Moonlight, but as very different mother figures for the film’s main character, Chiron, both Monáe and Harris’ work carry emotional weight. Monáe, a fantastic signer making her acting debut (she was also great in Hidden Figures), brings peace and calm to Teresa, while Harris brings fire and regret. Again, the roles couldn’t be more different, but I appreciated them both equally.
11. Anya Taylor-Joy – The Witch
Anya Taylor-Joy was the emotional anchor of the singular and terrifying indie film, The Witch. Taylor-Joy had little experience before being cast in the film, and was only a teenager when The Witch was shot, but damn if she doesn’t have the skills to carry the film all the way to its hypnotic conclusion.
10. Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
20th Century Women is led by a great, holistic Annette Bening performance. Bening is always so good at character immersion; she throws herself into a world without showing off. Dorothea is such a wonderfully imperfect human. She has flaws and contradictions like the best of us, but ultimately aims to be good. Which is something Bening far surpassed here.
9. Viola Davis – Fences
I love how movie characters react when backed into a corner. Some fold, others fight. Rose is a fighter. And when pushed past her brink, she lets her insufferable husband, Troy (Denzel Washington), have it. Davis is a performer who’s always there. Her characters watch, they react, they listen. Troy is the showier role in Fences, but Rose is the heart. Give the woman an Oscar.
8. Amy Adams – Nocturnal Animals
I got Susan. I got her shame, her apathy, her regret. I understood why she was the way she was. When Nocturnal Animals went back in time, and we saw a younger, livelier Susan, I understood her too. Some of us turn into the thing we fear most, and it takes a new variable – a photo, a manuscript, a sled – to make us realize we need to change. I think Susan is headed there, but she certainly deserves a taste of her own medicine first.
7. Sasha Lane – American Honey
Star is such an enigma. She’s temperamental and removed, fun and curious – she’s a typical teenager, played atypically well by Sasha Lane, a person who had never been in a movie before. Lane’s casting is further credit of writer/director Andrea Arnold’s knack for casting unknowns.
6. Natalie Portman – Jackie
I appreciated the fractured way director Pablo Larraín chose to tell Jackie (grief isn’t circular, it comes in broken waves), but Portman’s work far surpassed the film for me. There isn’t a false note to be found in her performance, and few scenes from 2016 impressed me more than Portman’s drunken and drugged-up “Camelot” sequence in Jackie. It rivals anything she has done before.
5. Emma Stone – La La Land
I adored Mia. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to be loved. I wanted her to win. I’ve always enjoyed Emma Stone’s work, but she won out here. She sang and danced and charmed her way into my favorite film of the year, captivating me with the magic of it all. I’ll be admiring Stone’s work in La La Land for years to come. I mean, for that final audition alone.
4. Rebecca Hall – Christine
In July 1974, 29-year-old reporter, Christine Chubbuck, shot herself to death on live television. Not much is known about Chubbuck, yet the mystery surrounding her was thrillingly realized in Christine. Rebecca Hall does her finest work to date as the manic-depressive Chubbuck. It’s a performance so convincingly laced with dread and mania that it’s difficult to watch. It’s a shame Christine didn’t get a wider release, Hall’s work deserved far more praise than it received.
3. Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea
I can’t rewatch Michelle Williams’ final scene in Manchester by the Sea without shuffling anxiously. It is absolutely brutal. It’s so uncomfortable to watch because it’s so real. All the pain the characters are feeling, all the pent up tragedy, the shame, the dread – it’s all right there, on this crappy little street, in this freezing weather. Great performances are about more than one scene, but damn if this thing doesn’t punch.
2. Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Elle opens with a woman named Michèle being raped, and in the immediate aftermath, the film shows her refusal to report the rape to authorities, or let it impact her life in a negative way. Director Paul Verhoeven originally wanted Elle to take place in America. But when he was unable to find an American actress (or actress capable of playing an American) willing to take on the role of Michèle, he moved production to Paris and cast Isabelle Huppert. I understand Verhoeven’s troubles in casting Michèle, but I’m so happy his search led to Huppert. I can’t think of another performer who could pull Michèle off, certainly not this well. Elle never goes where you think it’s going to, and that frightens people. It sickens and disgusts them. But there’s Isabelle Huppert, sitting in calm, sipping wine, paying attention, watching. Watching in that very way only Isabelle Huppert can.
1. Morgan Saylor – White Girl
I like to be rattled. I like movies that show the dark. I like actors who put themselves out there by risking career and bucking convention. Everything Morgan Saylor does in White Girl is a deviation from what we expect from actors of her demographic. I can imagine the publicists, agents, and managers begging Saylor to turn Leah down. It’s too wild, too raw, too sexual. It’ll ruin your career before it starts. An actor can only effectively play a character like Leah one way – by going all in. Which is exactly what Saylor does in this film. She doesn’t toe the edge. She excitedly yells Fuck It while jumping over.
Leah is a reckless young white girl with no filter for limits. She doesn’t party, she rages. She doesn’t shout, she screams. She doesn’t court, she loves. Hard. As Leah becomes engulfed in an increasingly dangerous New York City drug culture, she makes countless mistakes, and rarely learns from them. The convention of film dictates that characters are introduced with conflict, and upon tackling that conflict, they change into a better person. But how many young wild and free teenagers actually change while they still have access to recklessness?
I had never seen Morgan Saylor act before (she played Damian Lewis’ daughter in Homeland), but I will never forget her work as Leah. This is a career-defining role from a young performer who is just getting going. I can’t wait to see how Saylor out does herself.
2016 in Review