These are our favorite film performances of 2016.
Paul Verhoeven’s films are not typically known for their outstanding performances, as the actors tend to be a tool for the director’s blunt but vicious satire. Notable exceptions are sprinkled throughout his filmography, but Isabelle Huppert’s performance in Elle is completely unprecedented in Verhoeven’s work. The film, with its complex rape politics and unsparing view of the reverberating impact of trauma, is almost impossible to parse on a first go, and much of its disquieting ambiguity comes from Huppert, who dusts herself off after being raped in the opening seconds of the film and seems to carry on as if nothing happened. But the sangfroid in the actress’s face betrays both lingering horror and willful determination, a sign of her vulnerability and her refusal to succumb to it. Huppert is blackly comic, unnervingly calm and given to expressing Michèle’s most extreme reactions to her trauma with a straightforward emotional logic that may be more disturbing than the wracked emotions of a psychological thriller. Michèle manages to stare down everyone with the same fearlessness, be it her hapless ex, her young and sexist employees, even her rapist. It is a career-best performance from an actress who holds fair claim to the title of best in the world and the kind of work that could inspire whole chapters of analysis. – Jake Cole
It’s many parents’ first instinct to shield their kids from the world’s harsher side — my dad still tries, and I’m 27. They tell children everything will turn out right in the end. They gloss over the fact that the the path towards figuring out one’s life is often incredibly painful, especially those who are slightly different, like Moonlight’s young Chiron (Alex Hibbert). Chiron is a quiet kid bordering on catatonic because of his mother, who struggles with addiction, and his dawning realization that the homophobic taunts shouted at him by the kids who hound him might have merit.
Juan, a local drug dealer/community leader played by Mahershala Ali, starts playing Chiron’s father figure after finding the petrified boy hiding from his bullies in the Miami apartment complex/drug hole where he operates. In a scene at Juan’s kitchen table, Chiron gathers all the courage in his tiny frame to ask Juan what a “faggot” is. Ali is steady as Juan, who pauses and takes a breath. You can see him weighing his options internally, making sure that he says exactly what needs to be said. When he speaks, his response is reassuring because he informs Chiron that it’s a word meant to hurt gay people, that it’s fine to be gay and that it’s also okay if Chiron is not sure whether he is gay or not — he has time to figure it out. Crucially, he is honest with the boy, informing him of the vocabulary that will be used to hurt him repeatedly throughout his life, preparing Chiron rather than tossing a canned response at him about how it’ll all work out. It’s a remarkable, graceful moment that taught me as much (if not more) about effective fatherhood than many of the fathers I’ve known. – Rob Samuelson
Rebecca Hall has been a bright light in movies both good and bad. When I first saw her, in 2006’s Starter for 10, her look was so unique and her acting so natural I was captivated. She hasn’t let me down since, even though the films might. So it’s amazing that in 2016 she created a performance so lived in and authentic that I had to give it the propers it deserves – since it doesn’t seem like most will.
As disturbed newswoman Christine Chubbuck in the frightening drama Christine, Hall showcased her skill at living inside another person’s soul. Chubbuck infamously shot herself during a live newscast, and Hall works to get inside the woman, as opposed to the news item. Hall changes everything, from her looks to her gait (Chubbuck seems to have perpetual Charlie Brown walk). As a woman desperate to be taken seriously as a newscaster, and juggling that with her personal dreams of a husband and children, Hall infuses Chubbuck with sensitivity and sadness. It’s not her fault she’s socially awkward and difficult; if she were a man, would we consider those traits a detriment? Hall makes us ask the question of whether the price one pays for success is ultimately worth it when no one appreciates you. – Kristen Lopez
While Stéphane Brizé’s Measure of a Man isn’t one of the best films of 2016, it does contain one of the year’s finest performances, with Vincent Lindon perfectly embodying the role of a middle-aged Parisian on a personal and professional downslide. The veteran actor prevails against the film’s internal obstacles, the bureaucratic tangle of state and corporate interference that forces him out of his job as a factory worker and into the permanent limbo of supermarket security, portraying a persistent dignity struggling against a wave of barely contained, perceptibly simmering fury. Moving through a series of dehumanizing encounters with potential employers, professional colleagues and business associates, he communicates the existential burden of a man who’s been raised to take action, to have pride in his work and to do the right thing, plunged into a world where those directives are insistently at odds with one another. Lindon also does well with a few obstacles placed by the film itself, particularly it’s overly didactic structure, which turns every interaction into a bullet point, his loss of a skilled trade and his new job spying on his fellow workers positioned as the human cost of a passive-aggressive neo-liberal nightmare state. Brizé’s script seems to demand reduction, yet Lindon manages to masterfully convey the character’s essence with a practiced mixture of expressiveness and impassivity, the spectacle of a man receding inside a reduced, dehumanized version of himself transformed into one of the most quietly empathetic performances in recent memory. – Jesse Cataldo
As the eponymous “girl on the train,” Emily Blunt’s Rachel Watson is one of the most pathetic protagonists of the year but also the most relatable. When we meet her, she’s waxing poetic about how she passes the first home she ever owned on the train to work every day. Her ex-husband lives there now with his new wife and their baby. She seems like the sort of beautiful, wounded woman you would expect from this kind of film. But in reality, she’s an unemployed drunk who uses her alimony money to ride this train every day, overdosing on self destructive nostalgia.
Blunt’s performance is so special for how absolutely selfless it is. There’s not a shred of dignity propping Rachel up. Blunt looks as aesthetically appealing as most movie stars do, but she works against the grain of her natural charisma to make Rachel the most shameless shell of a person possible. When she wakes up from a blackout half convinced she’s drunkenly committed murder, we buy it, because she’s just that far gone. Kudos to Blunt for managing to turn “hot mess” into it’s own kind of Greek tragedy. – Dom Griffin
Ever since his woefully underrated genre-bender Enemy, Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has anchored his films around strong central performances: Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy, Emily Blunt in Sicario and now Amy Adams in Arrival, a meditative science-fiction mood piece that finds Adams playing Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist tasked with decoding the impossibly complicated language of some mysterious extraterrestrial visitors. The role sounds knotty and burdensome, but Adams embodies the role with typical grace and confidence, even as the character struggles to keep the weight of the world—literally—off her shoulders. Anchored in emotions of loneliness and grief, Adams leans on the character’s sense of professionalism and curiosity, and she delivers a performance that ranks among her most nuanced and accomplished to date. Arrival’s overall concept is grandiloquent and somewhat complicated; if it wasn’t for Adams’ grounding presence, the film would have quickly gotten away from Villeneuve. She makes calmness and resolve look heroic, and her voice and demeanor are consistently measured and steady, despite the fact that we see flashbacks—at least we think they’re flashbacks—of a time when she was anything but. The range of emotional states Adams presents here is astonishing. The film has an epic framework, but her mesmerizing performance ultimately makes at an intimate experience, merging the best of sci-fi with the moving devastation of human heartbreak. – Drew Hunt