Christopher Abbott – James White
A few years ago, Christopher Abbott departed from HBO’s Girls with the intention of focusing on his film career. If the result of that shift is more roles like his crushing work in James White, then he clearly made the right decision. James White is young man hell bent on crumbling his own world. I had no idea Abbott was capable of such depth. There are echoes of James Dean in this performance. Brando, too. I can’t wait to see where Abbott goes from here. (Note: James White received a very small theatrical release at the end of 2015, but the movie was made available via Netflix in 2016.)
Most TV shows that run for five seasons aren’t able to define their characters as well as Richard Linklater did for more than a dozen players in Everybody Wants Some!! You knew exactly who each of these guys were, almost immediately after meeting them. The best ensemble of the year, no question.
14. Liam Nesson – Silence
Watching Martin Scorsese’s fascinating passion project, Silence, I had a reoccurring thought of how noticeably Liam Nesson was acting circles around his co-stars. This is not meant to disparage Andrew Garfield or Adam Driver, both are fine actors (see below), but Nesson has a gravitas that was unmatched in Silence. The film was never more alive than when he was onscreen. I can’t wait to see the film again and study his controlled work.
13. Adam Driver – Paterson
Adam Driver is killing it. Has been since HBO’s Girls debuted in 2012. For my money, Driver reached a career high in 2016. He gave three stirring performances (in Paterson, Midnight Special, and Silence), while on the heals of the December 2015 release the biggest movie of all time (The Force Awakens). The highlight of Driver’s year was his quiet yet affecting performance in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. It’s a film about real life, about real behavior, real thoughts, real desires. Driver brings a sort of quirky enthusiasm to much of his work, and it was a joy to see him strip that away in bringing Paterson to life.
12. Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
We’ve all seen the black, hardened drug dealer on film. We’re introduced to him, and expect something specific. But Mahershala Ali’s incarnation of Juan is completely different. Juan is kind and caring, a sensitive man with noble intentions. He slings because he has to, but loves because he wants to. Wouldn’t it be great for Ali to win the Oscar?
11. Shia LaBouf – American Honey
For all his off-screen antics, Shia LaBouf can act his ass off. Andrea Arnold doesn’t typically cast such well-known stars in her films, but as Jake, Shia LaBouf wasn’t Shia LaBouf. He was simply one of the misfit kids the film focuses on. LaBouf never attempted to steal the spotlight, rather, he immersed himself into Arnold’s world and played along to thrilling results.
10. Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Many actors phone in performances after they win an Oscar. Jeff Bridges has only gotten better since taking home the Best Actor trophy for Crazy Heart. His work in Hell or High Water – the aging sentiment, the gruffness, the sarcasm – was so realistic and entertaining. And the actor’s laugh/cry expression after a pivotal scene is something I haven’t been able to forget.
9. Christian Bale – Knight of Cups
Knight of Cups is a journey film. Whether or not you like it depends entirely on whether or not you are willing to accept the journey. And to accept it, you have to confide in the person guiding you through it. I love the film, and I can think of no better guide than a despondent Christian Bale to lead the way.
8. Ashton Sanders – Moonlight
The three actors who play Chiron in Moonlight are all great, but I connected most with Ashton Sanders, who played Chiron as a teenager. Sanders embodied the fear, rage, and sexual curiosity of a teenager so convincingly. I like Moonlight fine as is, but I would love to see a film dedicated entirely to Sanders’ Chiron.
7. Ryan Gosling – La La Land
I’m a great admirer of Ryan Gosling’s wit and charm, but I tend to dig his serious performances more. But that’s something that made La La Land so unique. It featured an effortlessly charming Gosling who didn’t have to scream and brood to make his point. Instead, he danced and sang and smiled as one half of the best duets of the year.
6. Colin Farrell – The Lobster
The tone of Yorgos Lanthimos’ films is established by the script and the actors. Lanthimos’ does not direct actors how to deliver their lines. So the detached, confused manner in which the actors speak during The Lobster was formed by Colin Farrell and his fellow actors. That is one hell of an acting feat, to choose such a specific tone and roll with it. I’ve always been a fan of Farrell’s acting, but he did something far beyond what I expected here.
5. Denzel Washington – Fences
Troy doesn’t stop speaking for the first 45 minutes of Fences. That’s not hyperbole, the man literally does not stop talking. A few characters work in a word or two, sometimes almost a full sentence. But for Act I of Fences, Troy is on a tear, and cannot be stopped. You never know how far he’s going to go, verbally and physically. It’s a powerful performance, one of the best of Washington’s later career. After all, who doesn’t love watching a walking contradiction?
4. Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
When a man is stuck in his way, it’s damn near impossible to get him out of it. Other adults take notice of this. They look, but they stay away. A teenager cares none about your quiet disposition, and will disrupt it to suit his own needs. That’s Lucas Hedges’ Patrick to Casey Affleck’s Lee. And what a tragically hilarious thing it was to watch.
3. Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals
There are certain performances that are so perfectly cast, it is difficult to imagine any other contemporary actor playing that part. Michael Shannon’s take on Bobby Andes is such an instance. Who else could nail the tone and humor of Andes so exquisitely? Shannon never goes for the joke, but he also never goes for the fear. The man is as funny as he is menacing, and I absolutely love him for it.
2. Chris Pine & Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
No two performers this year played more convincing relatives than Pine and Foster in Hell or High Water. I believed their every exchange; their body language, their interactions, their glances – everything. On-screen chemistry doesn’t always mean male-to-female dynamic. It’s how convincing two actors are together. Toby and Tanner may not have much in common (or perhaps more than they think), and damn if their fiery dynamic didn’t play to great results.
1. Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Not since Michael Fassbender’s turn in Shame (one of my Top 10 favorite acting performances of all time) have I seen an actor embrace dread as well as Casey Affleck does in Manchester by the Sea. Lee is a shell of a man. He’s angry, hollow, gone. He interacts only when he’s forced to; content with contributing nothing to the world. When Manchester by the Sea begins, we’re unaware why Lee is the way he is. But as context of his tragic life is presented, we grow to understand him. You don’t have to like Lee, you don’t even have to wish him well, but damn if Affleck doesn’t make you empathize with him. Affleck’s final, hushed and hunched-over battle cry to his nephew is one of the most moving proclamations of lasting regret that I’ve ever seen on film. I’ll never forget Affleck’s work in this film. And when I have the courage to revisit it, I’m sure it will rip me apart like never before.
2016 in Review