The Year in Film: The Ten Best Performances of 2016

Editor’s Note: Contributors were asked to submit nominations for the “Ten Best non-Isabelle Huppert Performances of 2016,” for the sake of variety.


Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Ali’s buffed-out drug-dealer-cum-salt-of-the-earth Juan, however improbable, is a blend of pride, shame, and selflessness. With subversive cleverness, Barry Jenkins conveys hope in making a wistful gangsta the savior of a lost boy, but few other actors could pull it off. No wonder Ali’s portrayal of Beltway operator Remy Danton in House of Cards is about the only nuanced one in the show. Jonathan Stevenson



Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship

Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is by far the best film to ever hone in on the razor-sharp satire of the author’s work, yet the finest performance in the film belongs to Tom Bennett’s fearlessly dim-witted work as Sir James Martin. Perpetually wearing a slack-jawed grin and giggling with childish delight at life mysteries like peas, Martin is the comic grotesque of every moneyed suitor unworthy of Austen’s intelligent, self-reflective heroines. Hidden just beneath the surface of Bennett’s gormless expressions is the insinuation that there were far more Martins in Austen’s world than Darcys. Jake Cole



Joel Edgerton, Midnight Special

Joel Edgerton has been quietly anchoring movies for over a decade now, so it’s no surprise he’s finally receiving accolades and plaudits for his incredible work. Jeff Nichols deserves a hand for trusting Edgerton’s minimalist charm in not one but two excellent films this year. He’s charming and tragic in Loving, Nichols’s tale of a marriage in trouble, but even he can’t compete with paramour Ruth Negga’s scintillating underplaying. He’s shines even brighter in Midnight Special, playing a conflicted state trooper who is handed purpose on a silver platter after living without it for years. His fear and devotion are deeply affecting as he gives up his ego and safety in order to protect a child who’s been selected for some mystifying higher purpose. Edgerton is absolutely electrifying as an average American thankful that he can give himself fully to a cause he believes in. Scout Tafoya



Mel Gibson, Blood Father

It’s impossible to divorce Mel Gibson’s problematic public persona from what makes him as forceful and mesmerizing as he sometimes is onscreen. The same manic quality that fueled his unfortunate public tirades is there in his demonic blue-eyed gaze and unruly mostly-gray beard in Blood Father as the tatted recovering alcoholic (of course), Harley-riding ex-con, reluctantly out to defend his daughter from gang goings-on in the dusty Southwest. Jean-François Richet’s nimbly brutal little thriller is leant heft and a real edge by Gibson’s volatile presence. Justin Stewart



Lily Gladstone, Certain Women

In a film that also stars three of the best working actors (Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart, who essentially co-leads the final section of Certain Women with Gladstone), it is newcomer Gladstone that outshines them all. As a ranch hand who develops a fascination with the lawyer and teacher played by Stewart, she conveys a preternatural stillness that perfectly meshes with Reichardt’s contemplative and quiet filmmaking. Whether she’s tending to horses or gently staring across the table at Stewart as she eats, there is an undeniable gentleness and kindness that only makes the narrative developments more heartbreaking. The fact that Reichardt gives Gladstone the final shot of the film, especially considering where she ends up, speaks volumes, even while she remains mostly silent. Ryan Swen



Kim Min-hee, Right Now, Wrong Then and The Handmaiden

By coincidence, Kim Min-hee starred in two multi-part films released this year. Though she plays ostensibly very different characters—in Right Now, Wrong Then she plays an aspiring painter in a small town and in The Handmaiden she plays a Japanese heiress—both performances play with notions of perceptions. In the former Kim is in a more reactive role, responding with a mix of compassion and curiosity to the statements of Jung Jae-young’s protagonist. The differences in her character between the two parts of Hong Sang-soo’s film are not readily apparent, but Kim teases them out with precision, down to subtle but telling changes in facial expression. Her work in the latter movie is no less precise, even though Park Chan-wook’s film operates in an entirely different register: in the first part, she is seen more as a mysterious, somewhat aloof figure who opens up to Kim Tae-ri’s character, but she takes the lead role with vigor for the second and the third parts. Much of the pleasure of the film and its twists is to see how the change in perspectives lends a different tone or intention to practically every scene, and Kim manages to deliver a performance that both remains consistent through the whole film and seems entirely different. Ryan Swen



Blake Lively, The Shallows

The Shallows inflicts a lot of stuff on Blake Lively that I imagine lots of different actor types dread: She has to parade around three-quarters naked and, later, bleeding, like a scream queen; she has to do a lot of swimming, like an action star; she has to talk to herself like a one-woman show in a scene where her character (a med-school dropout) performs self-surgery; and she has to chat with and befriend a seagull, like absolutely no other movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a B-movie gauntlet, and she rocks it, summoning action-heroine fortitude, pulling off the movie’s awkward self-facing pep walks, and making me believe she’s best friends with a bird. The movie is sillier, but the performance is not so far removed from Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity, showing both star power and deference to the marvels of her material. Jesse Hassenger



Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

Farting and flopping and dangling and dragging and diving and falling and barfing and smooching and swimming… all while playing dead, his face constantly in a twisted grimace. Short of setting himself on fire and using his butt as a propeller, Radcliffe regularly stood in for his stunt dummy as Manny, the Hobbes/Wilson to Paul Dano’s delirious castaway Hank. By the end, having “learned” about life, he becomes more limber and coherent, thus more developed than the indie dreamboat template being parodied. Max Kyburz



Kate Lyn Sheil, Kate Plays Christine

“If someone calls me ‘subtle’ one more time, I might lose my mind.” So says Kate Lyn Sheil as she contemplates the inherently melodramatic properties of playing Christine Chubbuck, and her determination to challenge her own perception as much as her subject’s propels much of the thematic drama of Robert Greene’s characteristically performative documentary. True to her word, Sheil tosses out subtlety in favor of vividly embodying her own doubts about taking the part, delving in and out of Christine’s history and her own conjured past that all lines dissolve into the film’s blistering, confrontational final moment. Jake Cole



Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen is the most accurately observed teen movie in years, which is all the more impressive given that Hailee Steinfeld’s lead performance is the film’s most bullish and dramatic. Nonetheless, Steinfeld captures perfectly that tendency of confused, introverted youth to inflate their problems into insurmountable social challenges. Nadine’s actions may lapse into mania, but Steinfeld’s use of haughty self-defense, nervous interaction and chaotic yearning makes Nadine’s mistakes merely the manifestation an all-too-common emotional flux. Jake Cole

Keep up with all of our Year in Film features here.


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