Haven’t Seen: Legend, Crimson Peak, Grandma, I’ll See You In My Dreams, Trumbo, Heaven Knows What, James White, Taxi, Arabian Nights, Spy, Breathe, Experimenter, The Forbidden Room, Heart of a Dog, Mustang, The Walk, The Assassin, Chi-raq, Victoria, Li’l Quinquin, Blackhat, Hard to Be a God, Magic Mike XXL, Mr. Holmes, Amy, Bone Tomahawk, Dope
Honorable Mentions: Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), Sylvester Stallone/Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), David Thewlis/Tom Noonan/Jennifer Jason Leigh (Anomalisa), Steve Carell (The Big Short), Michael Shannon (99 Homes), Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Benicio del Toro/Emily Blunt (Sicario), Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Matt Damon (The Martian), Eddie Redmayne/Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), Carey Mulligan (Suffragette), Joel Edgerton (The Gift), Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Kitana Rodriguez/Mya Taylor (Tangerine), Marion Cotillard/Michael Fassbender (Macbeth), Rest of the Spotlight cast, Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), Paul Dano (Love and Mercy), Elisabeth Moss/Katherine Waterston (Queen of Earth), Juliette Binoche/Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria), Bel Powley (Diary of a Teenage Girl), Jack O’Connell (’71), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), Geza Rohrig (Son of Saul), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight)
For some of these, I paired people because some of these really were two-handed performances. Also, it was a way to cheat and get some more people into the top 15. Why didn’t I just make a top 20? I don’t know.
15. Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs”: The film works as well as it does due to Sorkin’s screenplay and Fassbender’s acting, and it’s without a doubt a great performance that the latter pulls off here. He captures the narcissism and rigid nature of the character, but also does justice to the softer side that arises later in the film.
14. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, “Mad Max: Fury Road”: With Furiosa and Max, Theron and Hardy work in tandem to create one of the more compelling dynamics in film this year. The title is “Mad Max”, but it’s just as much–if not more–Furiosa’s movie, and Theron nails both the badass action elements and the emotional journey.
13. Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”: It’s difficult to single out one actor in what is clearly an ensemble piece, but Ruffalo’s the one I’m drawn to. Yes, he’s clearly the one who’s doing the most ‘acting’–everyone else is wonderfully underplaying their roles–but he does it well. His big moment at the end is excellent, and his interactions with Stanley Tucci’s character are sublime.
12. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, “45 Years”: I’m not the biggest fan of the film as a whole, but I cannot deny the power of these two performances. They slowly and surely illustrate how the past ends up widening a fracture in their characters’ relationship, and it all culminates in a breathtakingly beautiful final 10 minutes.
11. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”: This is admittedly the least ‘two-handed’ performance of the ones I’ve put on here, but whatever. Leo’s performance is great, and although he does rely on quite a few “Give me the Oscar!” faces throughout, we definitely should not overlook the difficulty of a purely physical performance. Hardy has the more intriguing character, but the performances are both fantastic.
10. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, “Carol”: Ask me to pick one, and I’d go with the heart of the film (in my opinion): Rooney Mara. That’s not to take anything away from Blanchett, however, who is still incredible as Carol; that’s just me praising Mara because of how amazing she is. The film rests on subtle glances and light touches, and the two actresses craft a very believable and moving romance.
9. Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”: How happy I am that she has two excellent roles this year. As Daisy Domergue, she spends all of the movie bruised and battered and covered in blood, and her character gets unleashed in the second half. It’s a thrilling and terrifying performance all at once, and she and Goggins steals the show.
8. Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina”: She’s getting attention for The Danish Girl, but that performance–and especially that movie–is nothing compared to this one. It’s not just her playing a robot; it’s her nailing all the mannerisms and complexities while also injecting a human element into it. She’s sympathetic but scary.
7. Jason Segel, “The End of the Tour”: This is a wonderful performance in a movie that is much better than I expected it to be. He and Eisenberg have great chemistry throughout, and it feels like he really does become David Foster Wallace in this. It’s a complicated man and a complicated performance, and Segel is perfect for the role.
6. Abraham Attah, “Beasts of No Nation”: This is not a showy performance, but that only makes it more impressive (if we’re talking singular performances, I’d put him above Tremblay). Attah is able to convey the impact of the world around his character with just one glance, and he plays stoicism so damn well; it doesn’t sound like something you would necessarily ‘play’, but trust me, Attah’s a star in this film.
5. Walton Goggins, “The Hateful Eight”: Now here’s a deliberately showy performance, and it works like a charm with Tarantino’s style. ‘Hammy’ should not be a criticism here because ‘hammy’ is exactly what works. Mannix is just so, so, so much fun to watch.
4. Oscar Isaac, “Ex Machina”: This guy is finally getting attention due to Star Wars, but we can’t forget what a brilliant performance he gives in Ex Machina. He uses the physicality of his character extremely well, and the way his character is both hemmed in and defined by his creation is fascinating to watch.
3. Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, “Phoenix”: These spellbinding performances are some of this year’s most overlooked, and the movie’s exploration of exteriors vs. interiors are reflected in Hoss’s and Zehrfeld’s faces. There is subtlety, but also an undercurrent of unease (and eventually devastation).
2. Sarah Snook, “Predestination”: This movie was a while ago. However, Snook’s performance has stuck with me over the past year, and she is simply a revelation here. It seems like every emotion in existence can cross her face at any moment–the plot can go off the rails a bit, but she gives the story emotional heft–and she knocks every tricky scene she has out of the park. In a lesser performer’s hands, this movie probably wouldn’t work.
1. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, “Room”: Brie Larson’s been doing amazing work for a while now, and I’m so glad she’s getting the deserved attention for Room (also watch Short Term 12, if you haven’t already). She and Tremblay are incredible in their own rights, but their performances are entwined so much that it’s hard to separate them. It’s a touching and heartbreaking relationship, but it’s also hopeful.
Photo credits: A24, Room, Predestination, Screen Australia, The Hateful Eight, The Weinstein Company, Ex Machina, The Revenant, Regency Enterprises, Mad Max: Fury Road, Warner Bros., Village Roadshow