Soon enough, the Oscar nominations will arrive, and the chorus of “X was robbed!” will be heard far and wide. But one should discard the notion that the Academy always gives awards for merit. While the Oscars often get it right, other instances merely convey the story that Hollywood wants to tell about itself. Oscars are sadly awarded for marketing, for buzz, for amount of screeners sent out, for number of luncheons attended. Respectfully and humbly, we at the Playlist are not so afflicted.
We’ve already brought you the list of our favorite Breakthrough Performances, so consider those to be sprinkled among this list of 15 —we classified those actors and actresses as newer up and comers to keep an eye on. But this list is where we collect all of the excellence of the year, rank it slightly arbitrarily and wax poetic.
15. Ben Mendelsohn, “Mississippi Grind”
Since making his name in the U.S. with a stunning turn in “Animal Kingdom,” Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn has become an increasingly omnipresent character actor. But in 2015, he became recognizable to a larger audience, thanks to his Emmy-nominated turn in “Bloodline.” He also had good supporting turns in “Black Sea” and “Slow West,” but it’s not surprising that his finest role to date came with a rare lead role in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “Mississippi Grind.” A ’70s-throwback road movie that sees Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as a pair of gamblers heading to New Orleans, the film gives him a chance to play something apart from the black-sheep or villains he’s mostly had the chance to do, making his Gerry a battered sad-sack who has some street-smarts but doesn’t know when to stop. It’s a desperate, heartbreaking and deeply humane turn, even if the movie around it isn’t as strong. It also serves as a reminder that Mendelsohn can do just about anything and should be in everything.
14. Idris Elba, “Beasts of No Nation”
A decade after he left “The Wire,” Idris Elba looks to finally be reaching the megastardom he’s always been destined for, landing the lead role in the megabudget “Dark Tower” movies. To his credit, though, he’s not abandoning smaller fare: he’s still playing “Luther,” he starred in Debbie Tucker-Green’s excellent, virtually unseen British indie “Second Coming,” and he took a chance on a supporting role in Cary Fukunaga’s powerful, harrowing child soldier picture “Beasts Of No Nation,” a role that may well end up paying off with an Oscar nomination. Elba plays Commandant, the leader of a troop of rebels in a conflict in an unnamed African country who’s responsible for the recruitment of the film’s young lead Agu (the spectacular Abraham Attah). He’s a surrogate father to the boy and a man whose violent acts are almost always carried out by others, and Elba’s enormous charisma is an undoubted boon as such. But Elba’s abilities encompass more than his charisma: he has a lack of ego that’s rare in actors of his status, and he’s completely unafraid to show both the ultimate weakness of the man he’s playing, left alone and vulnerable by film’s end, but also his moral sickness, as he sexually abuses Agu and other boys. It was brave enough to go into the wilderness with Fukunaga (Elba famously nearly fell over a cliff during the shoot), but braver still to take a role like this.
13. Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”
If David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence’s collaborations have been thus far characterized by manic, boisterous and audacious performances, the director and his muse zig-zagged in an expectation-defying direction for their third collaboration. In “Joy,” Lawrence may be the lead, but she’s the eye in the middle of a hurricane that is her charactrer’s ungrateful and infuriating family. It’s a counter-intuitive move to have your lead character sublimated and oppressed by the exasperating personalities of her extended clan, but it’s an interesting challenge for Lawrence. Thematically it works too, as the movie is about awakenings —to the self, to ones dreams and aspirations and to a higher calling. Lawrence plays the character with incredible emotional depth, grace and quiet dignity. But perhaps the most remarkable feat she pulls off is convincingly expressing the generosity of the character’s spirit —a much less tolerant character would eventually snap. And while Lawrence’s Joy finally discovers her own agency, she does so with a largeness of heart that demonstrates an almost super human ability to forgive.
12. Sarah Silverman, “I Smile Back”
As the credits rolled on “I Smile Back” at its Sundance premiere in January, I texted my editor “holy shit, I think Sarah Silverman just won an Oscar.” So it doesn’t look like that’s likely to happen now, as the film seems to have slipped under the radar, but that doesn’t take away from how absolutely riveting Silverman is as the trainwreck addict Laney. It’s also totally in the Academy Awards vein of an unexpected dramatic performance from a comedian that delves into a dark and seedy drug-soaked underworld. While the film sometimes drifts distressingly toward an “Intervention”-type treatment of her rock bottoms, Silverman sells the hell out of the material. She plays Laney with a twitchy edge, and the moments when her face twists into and out of her performance as the perfect Stepford mom are chilling. She’s vulnerable, funny, angry, self-destructive and desperately sad, and Silverman occupies each of those roles fully. Whether she gets the accolades she deserves or not (she’s nominated for a SAG award), this dramatic turn from the comedienne speaks to the untapped wells of her talent.
11. Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs”
Few non-superhero casting roles this year were as talked-about (mostly thanks to the Sony leaks) as the title role in Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s bravura biopic of the Apple founder —Christian Bale passed, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise were considered, but in the end it was Michael Fassbender that took on the proverbial polo neck. It’s a tough gig: playing a familiar face that he doesn’t look all that much like, being in almost every frame, following on the heels of another (admittedly much-derided) Steve Jobs biopic. But Fassbender gives the best performance in a career with almost no bad ones (let’s ignore “Jonah Hex”). The staginess of Sorkin’s script is always obvious (though Boyle makes it cinematic too): the three-act structure, the contained cast, literally setting it in and around a series of theaters. And Fassbender plays it like he’s got a great Shakesperean role (arguably more so than with his understated “Macbeth” this year), relishing Sorkin’s dialogue (which not every actor can pull off, as multiple cast members of “The Newsroom” demonstrated), and tearing into every texture. The ambition, the ruthlessness, the ego, the intolerance, the brilliance, the elusiveness: it’s all here, but while he never courts sympathy, we also find something to like in his wit, his protectiveness of Steve Wozniak, and his ultimate reconciliation with the idea of fatherhood. Everyone’s great here —Kate Winslet and Seth Rogen especially— but it’s obviously Fassbender’s’ film.
10. Marion Cotillard, “Macbeth”
Marion Cotillard takes a supporting role to Michael Fassbender in the Shakespearean adaptation “Macbeth,” and then she steals the whole film out from under him. Her Lady Macbeth is the brains of the operation, the cunning schemer and supporter behind her husband’s bid for power. Whether whispering incantations and prayers or bellowing commands at a royal dinner, Cotillard doesn’t allow a single eye to drift away from her while she is onscreen. She switches between an ethereal and mystical queen to a ferocious, terrifying leader pulling the strings while her husband spins out from guilt and madness. She impresses in the quieter moments as much as the louder ones, particularly the “to bed” monologue. It’s a different kind of role for Cotillard, and she tears into it lustily but with a palpable sense of control.
Much of the praise and awards buzz for Ryan Coogler’s unexpectedly terrific “Rocky” revival was reserved for Sylvester Stallone, who may well pick up an Oscar nod for returning for the seventh time to his defining role as the Philly boxing hero, now retired from the ring and battling cancer. Stallone’s great, the best he’s been in… well, nearly forty years, but for me, the greater impression was made by Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson. Both have had breakout roles in the past —Jordan in Coogler’s debut “Fruitvale Station” and Thompson giving one of last year’s best turns in “Dear White People,” but this film marks their biggest mainstream exposure, and they’re both completely wonderful. The former plays the title character, Adonis Creed, and he has an easy charisma that belies an almost Brando-ish mix of tough physicality and utter vulnerability. It’s a character as iconic and as specific as Stallone’s original. Specificity carries through to Thompson’s Bianca too. Broadly speaking, she’s in a supportive girlfriend role, but is always her own person, selling the almost melodramatic set-up of her character (a musician losing her hearing) like it was breathing, and virtually glowing off the screen. We hope these two make a dozen movies together.
8. Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
Filming Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” as you’ve probably heard from cast and crew and critics, was a brutal, harrowing experience. It’s about a fur trapper mauled by a bear and left for dead by the men who vow to either bring him back alive or give him a proper burial. Loved ones are left dead in the process, and the fur trapper, played by a deeply committed Leonardo DiCaprio, essentially raises himself from the brink of death to slowly and furiously crawl back for his vengeance. “The Revenant” is grueling and there are cruel climates, unforgiving people and merciless circumstances all around, but the wounded, clinging-to-life DiCaprio brilliantly communicates the visceral suffering of his character on both a physical and spiritual level. “The Revenant” may be a revenge and survival movie on the surface, but it’s also a lament for a world without mercy and the facade of civilization. “The Revenant” constantly questions humanity, and DiCaprio quietly though blisteringly contemplates this cold, harsh reality with lasting and haunting impact.
7. Jason Segel, “The End of the Tour”
It seemed like a joke at first. Jason Segel, the guy from long-running sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” the one who did full frontal in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” playing esoteric author David Foster Wallace? Nah. But in the hands of director James Ponsoldt and with a script expertly adapted by Donald Margulies from David Lipsky’s book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” Segel gives a sensitive and soulful performance that is nothing short of revelatory. It’s clear that Segel feels empathy for the brilliant yet troubled Wallace, but he also makes him real: funny, offbeat, irritated at times and highly and unapologetically attuned to his own whims, vices, and idiosyncrasies. It’s a performance that will break your heart a little and will help you understand Wallace as a person rather than the myth behind the really big books. That’s the most honorable thing that a performer in a biopic can do.
6. Benicio del Toro, “Sicario”
Casting Benicio del Toro is half the battle in scoring a Best Supporting Actor nomination. He’s simply great in everything, utilizing his signature heavy-lidded, laconic charms to great effect. So Denis Villeneuve‘s morally ambiguous drug cartel drama “Sicario,” benefits not only from del Toro’s built-in persona that practically sweats with danger and mystery, but he also gave Alejandro the most well-rounded story. There’s a cat and mouse game that we play with Alejandro throughout the film —he’s the sicario, right? Or wait, he’s not? Oh, he is, and del Toro’s presence helps to both complicate and verify our expectations. The best moments in the film are when Alejandro bumps up against Emily Blunt’s Kate—her rigorous, by-the-books ethical protocol clashes with his unknown and spontaneous strategies. Their final scene together clinches it for del Toro—we know his gig now, his bloody and ruthless revenge, and he lets us see the boil below the surface, keeping it just at a simmer. He also manages to pull all of this off with that haircut.
5. Charlize Theron, “Mad Max: Fury Road”
From “The Force Awakens” to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” 2015 was the year of the stealthy female hero taking over the boys’ club of the nostalgic classic action franchise. And Charlize Theron was so badass as the Imperator Furiosa that the boys didn’t even mind—and her character became an instantly canonized figure. What’s not to love about Furiosa? She’s got a great name, a fantastic look, she isn’t afraid to best Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), who even admits that she’s a better shot. She’s toppling the patriarchy with one motorcycle-riding granny at a time. So Furiosa the character is amazing, but Theron’s is probably the only actress who could pull off the one-two punch of physical power and emotional vulnerability, bringing a sense of balletic grace and inner grit. We don’t learn much about Furiosa’s backstory, but that’s not entirely necessary when Theron exquisitely expresses her rage or her undying hope. If there’s one person we’d follow into battle this year, it was Imperator Furiosa.
4. Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn”
Irish rose Saoirse Ronan is hardly a newcomer—we’ve known her extraordinary talent since “Atonement,” but “Brooklyn” feels like the first film in which she’s played the role of a full grown woman, and it’s a lovely thing to see. We put her co-star Emory Cohen on our list for Breakthrough Performances, as we felt this was the first time we’ve been truly wowed by him, and the two have an electrifying chemistry together, rendering her impossible decision not so hard for the audience to make. But “Brooklyn” is the story of Eilis. It’s not necessarily about her love story, but about her immigration story, her moving to the city and making a life; growing up and becoming the kind of mature and successful woman she once admired on her Atlantic crossing. It’s the story of crushing homesickness, unfamiliar new jobs, lonely lunches and how one gets through the sadness and becomes better and stronger. That Ronan conveys these specific yet also universal and timeless feelings is simply remarkable. She’s the anchor of the story, the beating heart, the breath of life and the bittersweet tears that make “Brooklyn” as touching as it is.
3. Brie Larson, “Room”
We’ve loved Brie Larson since her performance in “Short Term 12,” but “Room” gives her the opportunity to take that broken-yet-steely thing she does so well to another level. We tipped her co-star Jacob Tremblay on our Breakthrough Performances list, but he could have shared this spot with her in this film. Larson is heartbreaking as a young mother kidnapped and held captive for years and who is so fiercely protective of her young son that she fights through her own issues to create a happy home for him in the room where they are held, battling her depression and trauma to keep him safe and happy. Shailene Woodley was also in contention for the role of Ma, but Larson’s performance makes it clear she was the right choice. She has a very unique quality that makes the character what she is—caring and nurturing but also intense, with a specific glimmer in her eyes that belies just how much effort it takes to keep it together for Jack. It’s another performance that demonstrates her powerful dramatic chops.
2. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, “45 Years”
Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” took two much-acclaimed British actors with a century’s worth of experience between them, but who’ve never quite captured the Oscar-winning popularity of the “Best Exotic Marigold” crew, and gave them what may be among the finest roles of their career. The pair play a long-married couple, comfortable and loving in retirement in the East of England, and approaching their 45th anniversary celebration. But their relationship starts to fracture when the body of the husband’s ex-girlfriend, left frozen in the Alps after an accident, is found. The two feel instantly like a married couple: knowing every inch of each other (as we see in a remarkable sex scene) and every slight gesture, but finding that nevertheless there are secrets that could tear them apart. Courtenay is utterly specific in his rendition of old age: it sometimes feels like his Geoff is lost in a sort of fog of memory, barely connecting with Rampling’s Kate, who is stumbling, frail, a touch grumpy but capable of sharpness. And she’s just as rich and textured, if not more so: the sexuality that’s been her trademark has never faded, a warmth that hasn’t always been there present (at least at first), her eyes ever-searching for the truth.
We’ve paired the two lead performances in “Carol” because 1. they truly are both leads, even if some awards organizations or studios might be shuffling one into supporting, and 2. because each performance wouldn’t be what it is without the other. This engrossing love story between two women in 1950s New York needs both the power of Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird and the delicacy of Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet. Carol has the charisma and corporeal sensuality of a lioness, and Therese is her prey. But Mara quietly asserts Therese’s own power and agency in the relationship, her performance is small and subtle, but there’s fire in her darting eyes. In a relationship that exists in a world where it cannot be acknowledged in public, the two women communicate with their eyes, their glances and gestures, speaking around what is plainly there. But there’s a passionate heat to their interactions, and Mara and Blanchett are able to play both sides necessary to pull this off —there’s at once a poised repression and also a burning chemistry between them. It’s quite the feat to pull of a performance of such duality. Our review described it as an “aching, pining film,” and these two women manage to embody just what it looks like to pine.
Click on for our best ensemble of the year, and some other great performances that didn’t make our list.
Best Ensemble: “Spotlight”
So “Spotlight” won’t win any awards for cinematic innovation, but it’s a prime example of Hollywood filmmaking at its best. Tom McCarthy’s rigorous journalism procedural is excellent for how it renders the investigative process, while the acting ensemble gives the film its heart and soul. The performances are unshowy but uniformly excellent, led by a trifecta of Michael Keaton, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber in thoughtful, underplayed, lived in performances. Mark Ruffalo is a stand out as the dogged Mike Rezendes, a dog on a bone (or a piece of cake) when it comes to pursuing his leads. The sequence where he runs down the public documents filed in the motion is riveting, even though it’s just about a guy trying to get to the courthouse before closing time. But Ruffalo sells the urgency. Each character gives the appropriate care to the story, because they know it’s not just the story that’s important, but the human lives at stake. They’re the real-life heroes—outfitted in billowing pleated khakis, armed with notebooks, pencils and polite-but-firm questions. Each character has some reason to feel conflicted: Rachel McAdams’ devout Nana, Michael Keaton’s high school good ol’ boys club, Brian d’Arcy James’ neighbors. But these characters are consummate professionals. Sometimes it’s just satisfying to watch people doing their jobs well—both the journalists onscreen and the acting ensemble bringing this story to life.
We wanted to share a special section of performances that might not have cracked the Top 15 but deserved more than an honorable mention —those smaller roles or comedic turns that delighted or amazed us in some way.
Jada Pinkett Smith, “MMXXL”
A lot has been said about the revolutionary reorienting of the camera’s gaze to a female perspective in “MMXXL,” but let’s talk about at least one of the owners of said gaze—the inimitable Jada Pinkett Smith as Rome. The role of the proprietress/emcee of a private strip club that the boys stop by on their way to the Stripper Convention was originally written for a man, but the decision to switch genders is not only a genius move in flipping the power dynamic, but also because Pinkett Smith is electrifyingly entertaining as she exhorts her “queens.” “Are you ready to be worshipped? Are you ready to be exalted?” she demands of her audience of screaming women, as well as the movie’s audience. She’s the perfect embodiment of an empowered proxy/sherpa into the wild and weird world of “MMXXL.” Why yes, we are ready to be worshipped!
Michael Shannon, “The Night Before”
There was a lot to love about Jonathan Levine’s raucous, deceptively sweet Christmas comedy, but first among them was the greatest extended cameo of the year, from Michael Shannon as drug dealer Mr. Green (who turns out to be both an angel and the son of Santa). Shannon’s particular brand of intensity has always had comic potential (he was a rare highlight of “We Came Together”), but his hilariously deadpan/utterly terrifying turn is a total gem and promises a career left turn for the star.
Melissa McCarthy, “Spy”
As we all know, death is easy, comedy is hard, but try telling that to the Academy, who rarely give peformers (and especially women) nods or trophies for comic turns, let along in big summer hits. But we’d urge them to reconsider when it comes to McCarthy’s turn in “Spy,” in which the actress plays beautifully against her brash persona as a mousy, lacking-in-confidence CIA analyst who ends up in the field. The star takes a well-rounded character and then builds layers on top of it, letting Susan Cooper play pretend that she’s a superspy before eventually coming to the conclusion that she always was one. For a big, brash comedy, it’s incredibly subtle and nuanced work, and another reminder of why she’s one of the most exciting comic leading ladies to come along in an age.
Michael Sheen, “7 Days in Hell”
Did anyone watch this HBO mock-documentary about a week-long tennis match between Andy Samberg’s brash American and Kit Harington (in a revelatory comedic turn) as a dim-witted Brit? It seems like it went under the radar, which is a damn shame, because Michael Sheen’s brief cameo as grotesque, predatory 1980s British TV chat show host Caspian Wint was the single funniest performance of the year. Poorly postured, greasy-haired and constantly chain-smoking and at once hysterical and deeply sad, Sheen’s turn is a reminder of how much he can do with almost nothing. And when Harington innocently asks him “Why do you smell of fire?” and Sheen responds “Because I rage inside, like a furnace,” it was easily the best line reading of the year.
Amy Poehler – “Inside Out”
If Joy doesn’t work, then “Inside Out” doesn’t work. She’s our hero, our villain, our narrator, our MacGuffin, our introduction to the film’s world and our hope, and like the other actors in the film, she needs to continually portray the emotion she’s named for without letting the performance become samey. Fortunately, the filmmakers cast Poehler, who plays the role like an aria for nearly two hours. She’s almost relentlessly upbeat, but from the beginning, the “Parks and Recreation” star shows that to a fault —she’s ever busy and ever focused on the good to prevent the bad from ever getting a foothold. Once she does comes to terms with sadness, crying devastatingly in the memory dump, it’s both utterly heartbreaking and strangely pleasing.
Richard Jenkins – “Bone Tomahawk”
Jenkins has made everything better for years now, but he hasn’t had such a good big-screen showcase as he gets in “Bone Tomahawk” since his Oscar-nominated role in “The Visitor.” S. Craig Zahler’s lovely, lyrical horror-Western sees the actor play Chicory, an elderly, somewhat decrepit deputy who accompanies Kurt Russell’s sheriff on a rescue mystery, and both his humor and his melancholy make him the film’s beating heart. One particular speech, about a flea circus, is one of the loveliest bits of writing and performing we saw all year.
Michael Angarano – “The Stanford Prison Experiment”
Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “Stanford Prison Experiment” is a performance showcase for a murderers’ row of young Hollywood talent, both known and unknown. It also features one of Billy Crudup’s two terrific supporting turns this years as slightly evil, definitely amoral professionals —this time as Dr. Zimbardo, the researcher who becomes the warden in his prison experiment. But while Tye Sheridan, Ezra Miller and Chris Sheffield excel as the prisoners pushed to their limits, the inciting force is played with a drawling, swaggering ferocity by Michael Angarano as a guard nicknamed John Wayne. The most brilliant part of Angarano’s performance is not in his explosive moments, but in the transitions, the moments when he’s just a normal, casual guy before inexplicably putting on this character who devises manipulative games of psychological torture more harmful than any blow from a nightstick. If there ever were a demonstration of the ability of power to corrupt, Angarano’s performance in this film is this most stark. There’s no explanation for his ability to do this or his shift in personality, and that is the most chilling of all.
There were plenty of other suggestions that didn’t make the final cut but that we’d like to shout out anyway.
Greta Gerwig is consistently luminous and fizzy in “Mistress America,” Alicia Vikander had a fantastic year and was all around and excellent in “Ex Machina,” Matt Damon was our favorite “The Martian,” and Michael Shannon was great as the shark-like real estate broker in “99 Homes.” Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks were aces in the Beach Boys flick “Love and Mercy,” ” Ian McKellan in “Mr. Holmes,” and Sylvester Stallone in “Creed,” though we picked his co-stars instead.
Cobie Smulders was great in both “Unexpected” and “Results,” and fellow Sundance ‘15 alum Blythe Danner also surprised in the sweet “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” Jack O’Connell killed it in “‘71” as well as Patrick Wilson in “Bone Tomahawk.” Will Smith even does fine work in “Concussion,” and Amy Schumer was obviously the best in her star turn in ‘Trainwreck.”
As for voice acting, we loved Ben Whishaw in “Paddington,” the one-two punch of David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Anomalisa,” and even James Spader in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
— Katie Walsh, with Oliver Lyttelton and Rodrigo Perez