2016 in Review: The Best Performances of the Year

Amy Adams, Natalie Portman, Isabelle Huppert and Jeff Bridges give some of 2016's best performances.
Say what you will about the movies of 2016, but these last few days end a year for great screen performances. This year also marks an improvement in great parts for women as the list for lead performances is overwhelmingly stacked towards great female roles. Here are Cinemablographer.com’s picks for the top ten supporting and lead performances of 2016.

The Best Supporting Performances of 2016

10. Margaret Bowman in Hell or High Water
Margaret Bowman proves that no role is too small to leave an impact. She has only a few minutes of screentime as the cranky steak waitress with the sassy line of “What don’t you want?”, but Bowman gives Hell or High Water its moment of genuine flat-out brilliance in which the crime drama assumes Coen Brothers level humour and gravitas with its glimpse into small town Americana. She steals the film with one great scene.

9. Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
Another small performance, Ali’s turn in Moonlight has great heart. Appearing in the first act of the film and disappearing far too soon, Ali’s Juan reminds the audience what a positive impact a mentor and father figure may have. He might not be the most respectable figure as the film reveals more about his profession, but his charismatic and humane mentor breaks through stereotypes, particularly with his standout monologue on moonlight and the wisdom it imparts to young Chiron, as the dealer lets a moment of intimate candor break through his tough exterior.

8. Tom Wilkinson in Denial
Wilkinson is characteristically great as Richard Rampton, the reserved lawyer for Rachel Weisz’s motormouth academic on trial for libel in Denial. His work is a master class in restraint as Rampton pragmatically assess the case and delivers every line as if the plaintiff, Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) isn’t present. Wilkinson preserves the dignity of Rampton’s case by refusing to acknowledge the absurdity of Rampton’s charges and, in turn, by denying him the pulpit with which he hope to spread his nonsense.

7. Nicole Kidman in Lion
Sue Brierley is an ordinary hero, but Lion never overwhelms the story of her adopted son Saroo’s pilgrimage back to India thanks to the subtle and deeply heartfelt performance by Nicole Kidman. Kidman underplays this role masterfully as Sue’s difficult relationship with her younger son strains her spirit, yet the whispers of light that crack through through her hardened change of character make her especially touching. The pure, unabashed, and selfless love that exists within this woman makes Lion so rich and inspiring.

6. Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals
Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are excellent as ex-lovers in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, but the supporting players steal it. From Andrea Riseborough’s flamboyant cameo to Laura Linney’s Southern matriarch who is Kentucky Bourbon personified, Tom Ford peppers his film with memorable parts. But it’s Michael Shannon, badass extraordinaire, who owns Nocturnal Animals as a lawman with a knack for vigilante justice. The dark and morally ambiguous character lends tension and credibility to the fictional thread of the film, which could be unruly pulp if not all the ingredients came together as juicily as they do with Shannon’s help.

5. Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Miss Sloane
Gugu Mbatha-Raw might be the unsung hero of the year. She proves a worthy counterpoint to Jessica Chastain’s icy Liz Sloane as headstrong lobbyist Esme Manucharian, who could easily be a flat soundboard for exposition in lesser hands. The central turn of Miss Sloane hinges on Mbatha-Raw’s willingness to expose her character’s vulnerability, and as she injects a jolt of emotion to contrast with Chastain’s stoic game face, she reminds audiences that human lives are at stake in Capitol Hill’s lobbying game.

4. Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky
Like Wilkinson in Denial, Mirren gives a performance of laudable restraint in Eye in the Sky. As Col. Katherine Powell, Mirren navigates the moral and ethical no fly zone of impersonal warfare. Eye in the Sky tackles the complexities of contemporary technological warfare as invested military parties around the world debate a drone strike with collateral damage. With her composure and self-assurance, Mirren creates a woman who risks becoming a drone herself as warfare removes human lives from the battleplans.

3. Dakota Johnson in A Bigger Splash
Dakota Johnson might best be known for Fifty Shades of Grey, but her performance in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash is way sexier than anything Miss Steele and Mr. Grey cooked up with whips and buckles. Playing the sexpot daughter to Ralph Fiennes, Johnson and her onscreen daddy burn up the scenery with weirdly incestuous chemistry. Her Lolita-ish seductiveness gives this sweltering romantic thriller some juicy underlying tension and heat: her naïveté and come-hither looks foreshadow a dangerous game in which debauchery is the main course. 

2. Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water
Jeff Bridges must have been a crusty old sheriff in past life. It’s as if he grew into this role since Hell or High Water echoes his early work and rewrites the westerner for the new frontier as myths of American ideology crumble in the post-Bush years. His cantankerous humour offsets the jarring violence of the film as he and his road partner (Gil Birmingham) try to make sense of their wayward nation. He fits the role of the woke and world-weary sheriff who’s seen it all. This part plays so well into Bridges overall persona that it’s hard to imagine a better fit between character and star.

And the best supporting performance of 2016 is…

1. Molly Parker in Weirdos
As Laura, the bipolar mother to Kit in Bruce McDonald’s Weirdos, Molly Parker outdoes herself by showing impeccable range and vulnerability. There is no bigger high and no deeper low to the emotions that the characters on this list display as Laura’s jumbled memories and erratic euphoria create a character of complex and heartbreaking psychology. As Laura dances in her bohemian dress and reminisces about the good-old days with Andy Warhol, she takes Weirdos beyond greatness by lightning up the screen as the Miss Havisham of rural Nova Scotia. Molly Parker’s daring performance in Weirdos ranks among her best work.

The Best Lead Performances of 2016

10. Ethan Hawke in Born to Be Blue
It’s often controversial when Hollywood stars swoop into northern Ontario for a plum role in a production with some tax breaks, but I don’t see the harm in letting them do so occasion if they turn in performances as excellent as Ethan Hawke does in the Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue. Hawke inhabits Baker’s soulful love for music and his junkie twitch with outstanding passion and dexterity. If Born to Be Blue were an American indie and not an overlooked Canadian film, Hawke might be a frontrunner in this year’s awards race. Carmen Ejogo too, while we’re at it!

9. Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals
The double threat of Amy Adams makes its first appearance on this list with unexpected coup in Nocturnal Animals. Adams surprises by playing against type as the cold Susan, whose everyday life is a Tom Ford commercial until her ex-husband writes her a novel-length Dear Jane letter that wakes her up to the emptiness of her existence. Adams actually fits the part from the novel very well, for Susan is a wholesome schoolteacher in the source material, but pushing her out of her comfort zone is one of the many ways in which Nocturnal Animals dares us to explore the darker sides of ourselves.

8. Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship
Who knew Kate Beckinsale could be so funny? She’s a perfect vessel with which to bring together two seemingly different, but unexpectedly similar, worlds of art and letters: romantic-era Jane Austin and contemporary Manhattan Whit Stillman. Beckinsale plays it straight, poised, and prim as Lady Susan and she could easily be reprising her role of Charlotte from The Last Days of Disco in an elaborate costume party at Studio 54. With great repartee and chemistry with co-star Chloe Sevigny, Beckinsale underscores the satire in Jane’s comedy and Whit’s wit.

7. Mylène Mackay in Nelly
Mylène Mackay’s complex work in Anne Émond’s Nelly is jaw-droppingly impressive. It might be the best and bravest work ever to receive a spotlight in the TIFF Rising Stars programme at the Toronto International Film Festival. Mackay tackles no less than three roles and personas in her multifaceted performance as late author Nelly Arcan and the literary counterparts she inhabits. The film plays a bit like the Québécois Nocturnal Animals as the multiple narratives fictionalise Nelly’s life and refract the darkest elements of her troubled mind. Mackay is alluring, devastating, and terrifying as she adopts various characters who are all reflections of the author’s troubled psyche. She should be Canada’s next big star.

6. Peter Simonischek in Toni Erdmann
Homer Simpson finds his live action counterpart in the German comedy Toni Erdmann. Simonischek plays dopey daddy Winfried and his alter ego Toni Erdmann in this riotous film from Maren Ade, and his mix of deadpan physical comedy and hearty humanity makes this character one of the best comedic performances since the days of Peter Sellers. The more embarrassing Winfried acts in Toni’s wig and Neanderthal dentures, the more sympathetic he becomes as he desperately tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sandra Hüller) by resurrecting the childhood games that once forged a strong bond.

5. Amy Adams in Arrival
Part two in the Amy Adams double feature of 2016 is her performance in Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Adams gives science fiction (and film itself) a notable female lead with her resilient linguist Dr. Louise Banks, who drives this brainy adventure into mind-bending territory through dialogue, gestures, and foundational aspects of communication. At the heart of her performance is a seed of heartache as Banks carries the daily burden of grief, using it to drive herself forward in a selfless act of love and loss that explores the possibilities that live within the language of the stars.

4. Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane
Pantsuit Nation finds a new icon in Jessica Chastain’s fierce and ferocious Liz Sloane. This performance is infinitely fascinating and important in a year that notes horrible pushback against women rising to power in Washington. Lobbyist Liz Sloane is one tough political animal and Chastain creates a strong character who defies both the glass ceiling and prescribed gender roles by playing Washington with her own set of rules. Part Frank Underwood, part Miranda Priestley, she’s a shrewd player in a stacked game. She owns the talky Aaron Sorkin-y script of Miss Sloane and embraces the character’s complexity and shortcomings to challenge expectations and keep audiences guessing.

3. Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins
Another year brings another round of Cinemablographer applause for the great Meryl Streep. Streep once again reminds us why she’s the best actress working today with her humorous and deceptively funny performance as terrible singer/wannabe songbird Florence Foster Jenkins. The marvel of Streep’s performance is that the actress is actually a great singer, but she does an excellent job of singing terribly as Florence screeches off-key. No matter how horribly Florence sings, though, or how heartily Streep inhabits the King’s Speech-y spirit of the film, her performance hits Florence Foster Jenkins’ passion as its highest note as she endears the character to the audience despite the odds. The film invites one to laugh, but feel the courage behind Florence’s indefatigable love for music.

2. Isabelle Huppert in Elle
This performance might have topped this list in any other year. Isabelle Huppert is an utterly menacing and mesmerising presence as the sociopathic Michelle of Paul Verhoeven’s ballsy new film. Huppert redefines fearlessness as she straddles the roles of victim and aggressor alike, playing a rape survivor who refuses to let the trauma of her attack overtake her. She’s a beguiling cat to the unsuspecting mouse of her aggressor, and the convoluted hunt of Michelle’s game might not convince were Huppert not so deliciously sinister, yet sympathetic. The playful coldness and mercilessness behind Huppert’s eyes creates a character so difficult to pin down that Elle is exhilaratingly icky.

1. Natalie Portman in Jackie
Natalie Portman takes an enormous risk in playing one of the USA’s most iconic women, so Cinemablographer tips its pillbox hat to the star for nailing the presence and spirit of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. On one level, Portman’s performance is a masterful recreation of the First Lady with her poise and breathy diction, but on another, it’s a thoroughly perceptive interpretation of a woman’s grief and strength. The extent to which Portman dives into Kennedy’s post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination helps Jackie eschew biopic convention by burrowing into the deepest recesses of a character’s mind. Portman fascinates by showing a woman who is both shell-shocked and amazingly strong as Jackie composes herself outside the private corridors of the White House to give the nation the reassurance it needs in time of crisis. Like Jessica Chastain’s performance in Miss Sloane, Portman’s turn in Jackie challenges the roles set out for women in Washington—and, one should say, Hollywood—as this complicated woman juggles multiple roles and personas while putting on a brave composure to keep the peace.

Honourable mentions: Nathalie Baye, It’s Only the End of the World; Josh Brolin, Hail, Caesar!; Ellen DeGeneres, Finding Dory; Gael García Bernal, Neruda; Rebecca Hall, Christine; Naomie Harris, Moonlight; Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures; Stephan James, Across the Line; Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen; Tilda Swinton, A Bigger Splash; Rachel Weisz, Denial; Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea; Evan Rachel Wood, Into the Forest.
(Note: I haven’t yet been able to see Fences or La La Land.)

Up next: The Best Films of 2016!

What are your favourite performances of the year?