2016 was a year of breakout movie performances by a new wave of brilliant young actors. Of our top ten picks of the year, half of the actors are under 40, and only one was previously considered anything close to an annual, Oscar-contending mainstay. In fact, six of our top 20 performances came from actors whose names few but the most ardent film fans would have recognized this time last year. As some obscure folk singer once wrote: The times, they are a-changin’. Here are our 20 favorite performances of 2016. —Michael Dunaway
As if there would be any doubt: Craig Robinson coasts through Morris from America with substantial ease. As Curtis, a man recently made single—solo’d almost existentially, widowed and seemingly the only African-American in the whole country of Germany were he not accompanied by and doing his best to raise his 13-year-old son Morris (Markees Christmas, great)—Robinson is ostensible cool personified. He is, from the film’s opening moments, a parent so confident in his taste in life he teaches his son that loving music is a matter of right and wrong: right meaning Morris embrace his New York roots and fall in love with the city’s hip-hop, and wrong meaning doing anything else. Which is maybe what makes Robinson’s performance so brilliant: All of his character’s hidden depths, Curtis’s buried pain and deep sense of loss, is made clear in Christmas’s performance. Instead of making Curtis’s grief overt, Robinson projects much of that conflict into his younger co-star, making their climactic moment together—in the film’s final scene, a quiet story told in a car—starkly, heartwarmingly true. Realest dad of the year right here. —Dom Sinacola
Amy Adams had two outstanding performances to watch this year, but her role in Arrival narrowly edges out her turn in Nocturnal Animals. In each, she is wounded, trying to show a strong public face while pushing down memories of a tragic past. In Arrival, though, she also has to make standing in an alien spaceship while interpreting an alien language seem believable. She succeeds all around. —M.D.
To watch Kim Min-hee play Lady Hideko is to watch an actress unpack herself over the course of two hours. It’s a challenging role for any number of reasons: There’s the physical demand, of course, because asking someone to pantomime as much sex as Hideko has on camera is asking a lot, and there’s the weight of the material, which starts dark and grows darker even as the story becomes more and more buoyant and exhilarating. But the real trick for Kim is layering, or rather shedding, her layers as The Handmaiden’s psychodrama unfolds. Hideko is presented at first as facile, delicate, a child in a woman’s body—utterly lacking in agency. The further we get into the film, though, we see more of her, figuratively and literally, as the big reveal Park sets up from the very beginning is sprung upon us, and Kim adapts all along the way as occasion demands. By the time the movie ends, she has transformed, and isn’t that what a great performance is supposed to be about? —Andy Crump
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the most memorable performances in Martin Scorsese’s latest opus, Silence—an awesome chronicle of religious persecution in 1600s Japan—belong not to its two leads, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, but its supporting cast: Tadanobu Asano, Y?suke Kubozuka, Shinya Tsukamoto, and, most of all, Issey Ogata. Ogata, paired with the great Asano, plays Inoue Masashige, the Grand Inquisitor of the Tokugawa government and lord of Chikugo. He’s also the film’s main antagonist to Garfield and Driver’s ill-fated Portuguese Jesuit priests, a gently smiling and sharply mocking presence. It’s his job to lead Garfield toward temptation, to get him to apostatize, and to this job he commits with pomp that would be purely amusing if his methods weren’t so severe. (Laugh all you want, but being hung upside down and bled in a filth-stained pit isn’t a pretty way to go.) If Ogata’s background as a comedian strikes as incongruous with the role, well, just watch him go to work. His seriocomic approach to playing Masashige only enhances the character’s depth of cruelty. —A.C.
Denzel Washington does not star in his adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play so much as he dominates it. More often than not he’s on screen, and even when he isn’t, his presence is still undeniable, which means his costars have to work twice as hard just to keep their profile from being swallowed up by Denzel’s iconic power. Yes, sure: Each of them succeeds, particularly Viola Davis and Stephen Henderson, but there’s no arguing that Fences isn’t about Washington in every possible sense. Which is a good thing! Washington has spent far too much of the past decade mucking around with movies unworthy of his talent—you’d probably have to go back to 2006’s Inside Man to find a role that actually serves him well—and in Fences he lets loose, bringing his swagger, his easy charm, his casual command and authority, and his humanity to the film’s forefront. Troy Maxson may not have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but Denzel makes him look like a goddamn titan. —A.C.
That a part this underwritten (though deliberately so) doesn’t fall into shallow set dressing is a testament to a masterful director, Jeff Nichols, and a masterful actor who understands exactly what her director is doing. Ruth Negga’s eyes contain multitudes—she would have been a star of the silent era—but as Mildred, the mixture of sorrow, fear and steely determination in her voice is one of the year’s clearest examples of a performance that is not to be missed. —M.D.
It’s one thing for an actor to try to get into a screenwriter’s brain and understand the essence of a character. It’s another thing altogether when the character is itself a creation of another character, as in Gyllenhaal’s performance in Nocturnal Animals. Compounding the difficulty, Gyllenhaal’s character is one who the author character has created as a proxy for himself, and Gyllenhaal plays the author as well—both in the present and in flashback. He’s excellent in all those incarnations. A bravura performance. —M.D.
In Moonlight’s opening minutes, during which Mahershala Ali as Miami drug-dealer Juan checks in on a street-level crony by doing nothing more than amicably shooting the shit, Barry Jenkins’ film announces itself as open-hearted as it is inscrutably generous. In those opening minutes, Ali simultaneously sets up a call-back for later in the film—beginning already to bind its three chapters together—and offers up so much about his character: his warmth, his friendliness, his fatherliness, his seriousness. Most difficultly, in a perfectly toned performance, he places Juan within that liminal space between legit businessman and career criminal, portraying him as a bad man who seemingly has not one bad bone in him, cracking open the world of the film by avoiding all preconceived notions about what you expect or think you have paid to see. And Moonlight has only begun. —D.S.
Name-dropping with gusto, dancing euphorically to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue,” flirting shamelessly with his ex right in front of her new boyfriend: No character this year had more fun than Harry Hawkes, the irrepressible bon vivant who powers A Bigger Splash. In director Luca Guadagnino’s (I Am Love) dark drama of thwarted desire, Ralph Fiennes plays Harry as the life of the party who crashes the restorative vacation of ailing singer Tilda Swinton and her lover Matthias Schoenaerts, who’s worried that Harry may steal his girl. The guy’s got good reason to be suspicious: Fiennes has never been so gregarious—so abundantly, euphorically hammy—as he is in A Bigger Splash, this jet-setting, troublemaking music producer fully confident in his power to seduce men and women alike with his scruffy charisma. In real life, Harry’s the sort of cat it would be hard to hang around for too long. In A Bigger Splash, Fiennes makes the character’s 1,000-watt personality captivating and dangerous in equal measure. —Tim Grierson
Barry Jenkins is one smart cookie. When he cast the relatively inexperienced Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight to play the adult version of his lead character Chiron—and wrote that character as a man of very few words—he knew he needed a steady hand opposite Rhodes, someone to both propel the scenes forward and anchor them in reality. Enter classically trained Andre Holland, who’s been acting since age eleven, who boasts an MFA from New York University and who’s been in such critically acclaimed films as Sugar, 42 and Selma (not to mention TV shows The Knick and American Horror Story). Holland’s Kevin is chatty without sacrificing any of his gravitas, ambiguous without losing any seductive force. The climactic third act of the film plays almost entirely between these two actors, and Holland fills the space around Rhodes’ quiet performance, giving the silence a a shape. Rhodes’ turn is powerful, but it would not have worked without Holland’s Oscar-worthy performance. —M.D.
The acting pedigree on Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt’s quietly devastating portrait of isolated womanhood, is nothing if not impressive: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart can each claim with good reason to be one of best actresses working in film today. If Reichardt’s picture tells us anything, though, it’s that we may need to make room in that ranking for Lily Gladstone, the fourth member of their company, who turns in the film’s best performance as a lonely rancher named Jamie. As with Certain Women’s first and second story threads, Jamie’s tale is a deeply melancholic affair, a story of unrequited love on the sprawling plains of Montana. Jamie, who lives alone on a farm outside Belfry, meets and falls for Stewart’s young lawyer by chance, and for the rest of her time in the film tries mightily to win her crush’s affections. Gladstone is game for the deceptively simple task of keeping Jamie’s heartache just below the surface, a balancing act only a gifted performer could maintain. —A.C.
We live in a cinematic world of bright lights, loud explosions and short attention spans. A subtle film like Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, where nothing much seems to happen, can fade right into the woodwork. But the legendary director hasn’t forgotten how to craft a film, and Knight of Cups may be Malick’s most personal (which is saying a lot). In it, Christian Bale is Malick’s avatar, a successful but fundamentally dissatisfied, haunted man. There’s an unexpected, deep pull to Bale’s performance, and the scenes with a wonderful Brian Dennehy as his character’s father are especially poignant. It’s entirely possible that you didn’t realize the power of this performance the first time. Watch again. —M.D.
Really, Michael Shannon didn’t have to bring his A-game to Tom Ford’s sleekly trashy sophomore feature at all. Playing a fictional construct in the novel-within-the-movie conceived by Susan’s (Amy Adams) vengeful ex-boyfriend Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), Shannon could have simply coasted on his usual coiled anguish, collected his paychecks and called it a day. And yet, here’s this great actor going above and beyond the dictates of his acting assignment and not only stealing the show from its prettily suffering stars, but also managing to locate actual pathos for Bobby Andes, the terminally ill sheriff whose amorality is borne out of genuine frustration with all the injustices he’s witnessed in his lifetime. But Shannon also balances this bracing attempt at uncovering emotional truth with a winking self-awareness for how absurd it all is, making his character as much a figure of delicious black comedy as one who refuses to be simply a mouthpiece for the pettiness of his authorial creator. If nothing else, Shannon’s menacingly low-key variation on Al Pacino’s “what are you, a fucking owl?” line from a similar interrogation scene in Heat offered one of the most unexpectedly delightful comic highlights of the year. —Kenji Fujishima
Emma Stone’s particular brand of iridescent sunniness has been in search of the right vehicle, and she finds it in La La Land, a euphoric, consciously old-fashioned L.A. musical in which she plays an aspiring actress who falls for a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling). But as the movie turns melancholy and the characters have to decide between their careers and their relationship, Stone breaks your heart, becoming the voice of a lot of hopeful artists who worry that, deep down, maybe they’re not cut out for all this. —T.G.
As Randi, foil to Casey Affleck’s sad-addled Lee, Michelle Williams must bear the weight of the whole film. She is Manchester by the Sea’s woman—the counterpoint to a culture of maturity-paralyzed man-boy caregivers—the sole lighthouse beacon of hope that Kenneth Lonergan’s world doesn’t completely exist within some bleak, emotionally dystopic reality. Without her, every performance in the film would reek of distended weirdness or unearned, unanchored despair, the audience doomed to watch little more than a bunch of tragic people march toward their own dooms—to either try really hard to pretend their lives aren’t tragic, or just give up completely. —D.S.
It’s no surprise that Yorgos Lanthimos survived his transition to English-language filmmaking with his surreal sensibility fully intact: All of his previous high-concept curios (Kinetta, Dogtooth, Alps) felt like transmissions from an alien world anyway. The mountain to climb for an actor working within one of Lanthimos’s worlds is to make such oddball dialogue play like it organically comes from their character’s head—and this Colin Farrell magnificently achieves. As David, the lovelorn central figure of The Lobster, a single man who desperately tries to find a romantic partner at a hotel in 45 days before he’s turned into an animal, Farrell crafts a warm portrait of loneliness and the desire for companionship that transcends the film’s profoundly strange premise. Even as events become weirder and weirder by the minute—especially once David believes he’s found the love of his life—Farrell maintains an uncanny hold on the inner human being beneath all the deadpan quirk. —K.F.
Considering its touchy subject matter—a woman’s unconventional, to say the least, response to her rape—it’s a bit surprising that Paul Verhoeven’s latest provocation hasn’t really caused the same kind of firestorm of controversy that, say, Showgirls did. This could be explained by Verhoeven’s art-house-friendly aesthetic this time around—but it most likely has more to do with just how much imagination and empathy Isabelle Huppert puts into connecting the dots of her character’s difficult-to-pin-down psyche. As always, Huppert has no interest in begging you to like her, which seems appropriate for a character like Michèle Leblanc, hellbent on refusing to be seen as a victim after being brutally raped by a masked stranger in its opening scene. But Huppert, working from David Birke’s screenplay (adapted from a novel by Philippe Djinn), digs deeper and comes up with some even more astonishing psychological links. Her occasionally manipulative way with people, her alternating attraction/repulsion toward violence and domination—all can be glimpsed in Huppert’s brilliantly dense and utterly fearless characterization, offering yet another remarkable example of why she’s celebrated as one of the finest actresses in the world. —K.F.
Talking about Casey Affleck’s leading performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea without talking about the particulars of the film poses a unique challenge. It isn’t enough to applaud Affleck for capturing grief—masculine grief, New Englander grief, Irish grief—with such unspoken clarity, though in this film grief isn’t felt as much as it’s kept at bay. It isn’t enough to say that his work shows restraint and grace that should be justifiably described as “masterful,” either. Lee Chandler, a handyman who works and lives in Quincy, doesn’t grieve so much as he drowns, and Affleck peers through the anguish Lee endures in his every waking moment, not simply to understand it but to make it his own. Manchester by the Sea evokes a regional specificity that many other contemporary films try and fail to, and Affleck gives the film authenticity through both his local status and his understanding of what Lonergan means to say about the process by which Lee mourns the passing of both his brother and his past. Lee isn’t the type to say much, but in the hands of an actor like Affleck, he doesn’t have to. His guilt speaks volumes. —A.C.
Throughout his career—from Girls to The Force Awakens—Adam Driver has played sensitive guys whose emotions are kept close to the surface. In Paterson, that essence becomes poetic. Driver plays Paterson, a New Jersey bus driver who dreams of becoming a poet. Ron Padgett provides the film’s poems, but it’s Driver who gives Paterson its soul, showing how a seemingly ordinary life can be extraordinary if we just take the time to appreciate the small differences from one day to the next. Driver plays this man as an artist preparing to bloom. —T.G.
In Christine, Rebecca Hall delivers her finest performance as Christine Chubbuck, the Florida reporter who shot herself on live television in 1974. Hall is all lingering resentment and heartbreaking awkwardness as Christine, suggesting every hopeless misfit every once of us have ever known. The movie never judges this melancholy character—Hall makes her both endearing and frustrating—and in the process acknowledges the complexity of a woman whose final act can’t possibly “solve” the riddle of her unhappy life. —T.G.