Want to know how interesting the best of 2015’s movie characters were? Oscar-winning beauty Charlize Theron as a fierce feminist crew-cutted, one-eyed sharp-shooting post-apocalyptic trucker-revolutionary was only the TWENTIETH best. This year’s winners were brought to us by everyone from some of the greatest character actors around (Mark Ruffalo, Walton Goggins) to indie stalwarts (Peter Sarsgaard, Jessie Eisenberg), and from actors with a lifetime of great performances (Charlotte Rampling, Blythe Danner, Ben Vereen), to those who broke out into that rarefied air for arguably the first time (Jason Segel). Here are our favorite performances from 2015.
20. Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
The marquee features Max’s name, but the film’s true hero is Furiosa, a freedom fighter battling against an oppressive male regime. Just when you think Mad Max: Fury Road is going to peg Max as the film’s savior, Max gives the credit to Furiosa. She’s the character driven by a purpose. He’s just a survivor. Hardy and Theron both lend muted gravitas to their roles—she has more spoken dialogue than him, if only just—and act through gesture and expression more than anything else. It’s clear, though, that this is her movie more than it is his, a huge accomplishment in light of the film’s intrinsic masculinity. —Andy Crump
19. Josh Lucas, The Mend
The movies have given us a wide array of unlikable protagonists to root for over the years—Bobby Dupea, Llewyn Davis, Rupert Pupkin, Ronnie Barnhardt, Phillip Friedman, Billy Brown—but who knew Josh Lucas had that kind of character in him? Sure, he’s played smarmy and unstable types over the course of his career, but only John Magary’s The Mend presents Lucas with the opportunity to fuse those two components together. The result of that union is Mat, a grizzled asshole on a losing streak that would be impressive if it wasn’t so pathetic. Mat’s the kind of character who makes your stomach turn and your heart break at the same time—a grumpy, aggressive, territory-marking ne’er-do-well who visits misery on himself before visiting it upon others; no matter how hard he tries, though, he can’t totally cover up his humanity, his passion for his girlfriend, his love for his brother, or the emotional alluvions that he just flat-out refuses to deal with. He’s a bastard of his own making, and Lucas lends the role an impish spirit and volatile charm that makes both Mat and TheMend feel vital. —A.C.
18. Christopher Abbott, James White
Like no movie in recent memory, the feature debut of writer-director Josh Mond is a small marvel of evenhanded empathy. Played by Christopher Abbott, James White has a restless energy, a self-destructive streak, a bratty sense of entitlement, and a fierce devotion to those he loves. So, what does that make him, exactly? A cautionary tale? Utterly insufferable? A misunderstood romantic? James White never quite decides, which isn’t the same as not having strong opinions about its central figure. Abbott’s performance has to embody all these different sides of White, and he exudes an insular naturalness. —Tim Grierson
17. Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy
In a banner year for Banks—who, along with roles in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2, Magic Mike XXL, and the Netflix series revisiting of Wet Hot American Summer, also co-starred in and directed the hit Pitch Perfect 2—her work in indie sleeper Love & Mercy was a quiet triumph. As Melinda Ledbetter, the guileless Cadillac saleswoman-turned-girlfriend (and second wife) of troubled Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson, Banks wrung emotional depth and nuance out of an underwritten role. Her compassion is matched only by a strength and resolve to wrest Wilson from the toxic external and internal forces pulling him under. Amid all the voices, Ledbetter’s is the one he can believe—and Banks’ performance is as powerfully sincere as the love and mercy that helped draw Wilson out of his haze. —Amanda Schurr
16. Ben Vereen, Time Out of Mind
Sometimes the greatest treasures are hidden right out in plain view. Ben Vereen hasn’t forgotten how to act since his triumphs in Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin on Broadway, Roots on television, or All That Jazz on film (to name a scant few of his many career highlights). So why, other than Bryan Barber in Idlewild (2006), is Oren Moverman the only director who’s thought to cast Vereen in a large part in a major film in the last couple of decades? I’m not sure, but I do know that Vereen brings the truth in Time Out of Mind. His portrayal of Dixon, the friend Richard Gere’s George finds in the shelter, simultaneously embodies the situation of many homeless men and deftly sidesteps caricature, lending the movie a sense of gravitas and dignity. As I told him onstage at the Sarasota Film Festival, the world needs more Ben Vereen. Let’s make it happen, filmmakers. —Michael Dunaway
15. Arielle Holmes, Heaven Knows What
In Heaven Knows What, it’s easy to accept Harley’s ups and downs as “real” whether you’re aware of Holmes’ story or not. Josh Safdie met her on a subway platform in New York City while doing research in the Diamond District; after getting to know Holmes, he encouraged her to start writing. (She penned her memoir in Apple stores.) Something about that feels like kismet, though more critical viewers may be inclined to qualify Heaven Knows What as exploitation. But as filmmakers, Josh and Benny share a singularly sensitive eye. They have no taste to engage in our nostalgie de la boue—instead, their movie reads like an act of advocacy, and it’s a vivid testament to the strength of their bond with Holmes. For her part, she’s remarkably brave about having the good, the bad and the ugly of her existence committed to film, and, yes, against all odds there is some hope to be found here, joy that bubbles up amidst heartbreak, cruelty and callous indifference. —A.C.
14. Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in My Dreams
In retrospect it seems so obvious—a huge portion of our population is moving into retirement, and why shouldn’t they have a cinematic love story for their stage in life? And, anyway, what man, of any age, doesn’t have at least a bit of a crush on Blythe Danner? What woman of any age doesn’t secretly sometimes wish she was Blythe Danner? It would have been enough just to see Danner in the lead role of Brett Haley’s I’ll See You in My Dreams. But her performance is perhaps the best of her long career—funny, sad, heartfelt. I don’t know who the current title-holder would be of the Julia Roberts/Meg Ryan “America’s Sweetheart” championship belt, but I know who my vote would go to. I’d love to spend the next decade watching new Blythe Danner romantic comedies. —M.D.
13. Brie Larson, Room
Everyone has a different moment when he realized Brie Larson was going to be a big star. For most, it’s somewhere in the impressive 21-movie run she’s had in the last seven years. I knew it when I saw her in Tanner Hall in 2009. By 2013’s Short Term 12, most of the indie world knew it. And now, with Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, everyone knows it. It’s a difficult film to watch—claustrophobic, nightmarish, heartbreaking. But Larson’s Ma never gives up hope, despite the almost unimaginable horror visited on herself and her child. And (spoiler alert), once the two escape midway through the film, her performance only gets better as she struggles to cope with the aftermath of her ordeal, and the challenge of learning to deal with the outside world again. It’s a brave, tough performance, and the reception it’s getting is incredibly encouraging. And the best part? Larson, incredibly, is only 26-years-old, which means we should have decades more to enjoy the incredible performances she brings us. —M. D.
12. Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
45 Years delineates the invisible nuances of marriage, how subtle changes in behavior can hint at larger concerns and emotional disruptions. The film is told from the perspective of Kate, who’s played by Charlotte Rampling as if a lifetime of love is hanging in the balance. In filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s character drama, she and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are preparing for their 45th anniversary, but a dead former lover from his past has suddenly left her wondering if her marriage hasn’t always been compromised by the fact that, if things had worked out differently, he would have married the other woman instead. Rampling embodies every one of Kate’s doubts and regrets, resulting in a portrait of a misspent life that’s a slow-motion crusher. —T.G.
11. Jesse Eisenberg, The End of the Tour
David Foster Wallace
was a larger-than-life figure, and Jason Segel’s pitch-perfect portrayal of him was always going to loom large in The End of the Tour. So it was a shrewd move by director James Ponsoldt, in casting the “other” David (David Lipsky, the interviewer spending a few days with Wallace), to recruit a heavyweight actor to stand up to Wallace’s, and Segel’s, star power. Eisenberg more than holds his own. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brad Pitt’s James tells Casey Affleck’s Ford, “I don’t know if you want to be me or kill me.” There’s more than a bit of that relationship here, and as compelling as Wallace is, it’s pretty damned compelling to watch Eisenberg’s Lipsky get seduced in spite of himself by Wallace’s charm, wit and wisdom. And the fact that Eisenberg naturally comes across on screen as neurotic and calculating doesn’t hurt, either. Still, it’s the moments where he breaks through those clouds (with difficulty), and allows himself to connect with Wallace on a personal level, that truly shine in the film. —M.D.