Minnie, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (Bel Powley)
The heroine of Marielle Heller’s sublime “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is a wildly creative (and deeply insecure) teenager who turns to various outlets to express her hormonally — and emotionally — driven desires. From engaging in an affair with her own mother’s boyfriend to honing her skills as an artist, Minnie dives right into whatever ignites her passion, for better or (as is often the case) for worse. Startlingly relatable and hugely unique, Minnie is the exact type of new-wave “strong female character” modern movies need right now.
Bing Bong, “Inside Out” (Richard Kind)
In a Pixar film literally ruled by emotions, there’s something captivating about the compellingly selfless Bing Bong, a creature born of feeling and hope, only to be crushed by the long march of time. Depressing? You bet, but why sugarcoat the pain of leaving childhood behind when Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind) so beautifully portrays it in a giddy, candy-colored setting that only further illuminates the horror of his existence? “Inside Out” is packed with tear-stained moments and heartstring-pulling scenes, but the purity of Bing Bong is on an entirely new level.
Tony, “Brooklyn” (Emory Cohen)
Sure, Saoirse Ronan’s luminous Eilis may be the obvious protagonist of John Crowley’s shimmering “Brooklyn,” but it’s Emory Cohen’s heartbreaking turn as her eager paramour Tony that really lets her shine. Cut from the same cloth as old-school romantic leads and classic charmers, Cohen’s Tony is the kind of leading man we don’t see nearly often enough. But while his swagger and confidence are initially appealing, it’s his deep sensitivity that really knocks it out of the park (Dodger fan or not).
Ava, “Ex Machina” (Alicia Vikander)
The gag might be an expected one — in a film about two humans battling it out for the affection of a robot, it’s the robot who is the most genuinely emotional — but it’s one that’s perfectly embodied by the talents of Alicia Vikander, she of “It Girl” and “having a moment” status. As the android Ava, Vikander is tasked with confronting the needs and desires of the flesh and blood men in her life while also dealing with her own burgeoning humanity, a feat she accomplishes through finely tuned facial expressions and restrained body language (some of it CGI, but still). She just might be more human than all of us.
Furiosa, “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Charlize Theron)
A heady combination of ball-busting badass and emotionally mangled hero, Furiosa is the unmitigated heart and soul of George Miller’s gutsy, bruising wild ride back into the world of Mad Max. Now where’s this standalone film?
Michael Stone, “Anomalisa” (David Thewlis)
A Charlie Kaufman hero from the classic mold (shiftless, down-trodden, privileged, still kind of appealing), the ennui-tastic Michael Stone mopes onto the screen, instantly telegraphing both his worldview and his pain. Distraught and destroyed by the seemingly limited possibilities of his life, everything is upended for Michael when he meets the startlingly original Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), forcing him to confront what’s missing in his life (and what may have just arrived). A shaggy romantic hero whose desires transcend his non-human trappings, Michael is one of the most emotionally nuanced characters of the year (and certainly the most emotionally nuanced puppet).
Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra, “Tangerine” (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor)
Fast-talking, quick-witted and endlessly amusing, the indie world was gifted with one hell of a pair of firecracker-bright new characters, thanks to Sean Baker’s “Tangerine.” Both Rodriguez and Taylor have started wracking up the accolades for their turns as revenge-driven working girls in the quirky Hollywood fable, but such rewards fail to acknowledge just how special they are together. They are two halves of one riotous, raucous whole.
Adonis Creed, “Creed” (Michael B. Jordan)
Ryan Coogler tells us just about everything we need to know about young Adonis within the first 10 minutes of his “Rocky” reboot, painting him as a scrappy kid with a big brain and lots to live up to (the boxing? oh, sure, he’s good at boxing, too, but that’s not the real meat of it), a big role that Jordan then generously fills out with his own spunk and spirit. How do you formulate a reboot to come out swinging with guts and glory? Give it a knockout central character like Adonis.
Daisy Domergue, “The Hateful Eight” (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
Despite the copious amount of spilled blood (and toppled jelly beans) that pepper “The Hateful Eight,” the cast of Quentin Tarantino’s latest always seems to be having the best time ever, but no one is having as good a time as Daisy. Leering, sneering and always down for a good hanging joke, Daisy just might be the baddest of the bunch, but she’s also the most watchable and refreshing. Leigh is two for two on her big breakout turns this year (her role in “Anomalisa” is so tender that it hurts), but the fearlessness with which she attacks Daisy is truly something special.
Rick Carver, “99 Homes” (Michael Shannon)
Michael Shannon knows his way around tough, fearsome characters, but Rick Carver really is turned out from a new mold. At turns loathsome and seductive, it’s easy to see why the house-flipping madman could be so intriguing to the needy and desperate, and Shannon resists imbuing him with anything over-the-top (even those terrible e-cigarettes seem spot-on), instead building a bastard we feel like we know, which just might be more terrifying than anything.
Saul, “Son of Saul” (Géza Röhrig)
Laszlo Nemes’ bold and wrenching exploration of the Holocaust is told through the experience (and, quite literally, through the perspective) of just one man, a hefty role that requires a special kind of talent to carry it effectively. Despite the formal demands of the role, Géza Röhrig fearlessly embodies Saul, crafting an instantly iconic and deeply moving character that will likely stand as his signature part for many years to come.
Jack, “Room” (Jacob Tremblay)
Imaginative, creative and emotional, young Jack is kitted out with all the standard earmarks of any cute kid, but his entire life is overshadowed by a reality his mother doesn’t dare expose him to. The power of a mother’s love and the strength of her will (as portrayed by the brilliant Brie Larson) give “Room” much of its hard-won intensity, but the bright-eyed Jack gives it heart.
It, “It Follows” (Multiple actors)
David Robert Mitchell’s cleverly designed menace can assume the physical body of anyone and everyone, a neat trick for a horror movie, and one that’s used for both hilarious and terrifying results in this whip-smart feature. Despite being played by a cadre of actors, It manages to maintain an all-too-familiar presence and drive that will give anyone the willies.
Amy, “Trainwreck” (Amy Schumer)
A new breed of romantic heroine, Schumer’s Amy is brassy, bold and totally inappropriate, but she’s also got one hell of a career drive, good luck with dudes and a (kinda hidden, but totally there) heart of gold. “Trainwreck” ably plots a genuine growing-up and maturation for Amy, who learns to take risks (emotional and physical) on the way to becoming a true leading lady.
Big Dick Richie, “Magic Mike XXL” (Joe Manganiello)
Four words: Convenience store water dance. Pure joy.