Best Performances of The Year: 2015

This year’s awards season started off with so much promise and a wealth of contenders. You had inspired choices like Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria cleaning up with the critics, Idris Elba on the cusp of his first Oscar nomination for Beasts of No Nation and Michael B. Jordan having a true breakout moment in Creed. You had films like Chi-RaqThe End of the TourTangerine and Love & Mercy all of which were brilliant, but ultimately passed over in favor of mindless Oscar bait. In the end, the Academy’s narrow scope once again limited the possibilities of what was possible to a mindless lineup that required no imagination. In doing so, they saw the revival of #OscarsSoWhite for the second consecutive year.

But what if the Academy thought outside their narrow bubble? What if they used their imaginations and rewarded actually great performances, instead of the ones with the biggest campaigns behind them? I imagine we would see Mya Taylor’s brilliantly rendered Alex from Tangerine, instead of Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s half-baked “feminist” take on a battered woman in The Hateful Eight. Or maybe Benicio Del Toro’s menacing Alejandro from Sicario over Christian Bale’s hammy, phoned in performance in The Big Short.

2015 gave us so many amazing films with fully realized performances, that still live on despite the Academy’s ignorance.

Here’s my acting ballot. Who really deserved a nomination this year. 

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, Love & Mercy
    • For injecting such depth and gravitas into what could’ve easily been a stock character. “The woman behind the great man” is a troupe prodded along far too often in Hollywood (see A Beautiful Mind and The Theory of Everything), but Banks fiery determination and nuance makes this the role of a lifetime, giving the usually funny woman a chance to flex her dramatic muscles. The unbelievable true story of Brian Wilson makes for a fantastic film, with the dual performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack painting a memorable portrait of one of the greatest songwriters in the history of music. But it’s Banks’ Melinda Ledbetter that you walk away from the film thinking about. She’s had a banner year with starring in the final Hunger Games film and directing her first feature film to over $200 million, but this is her most monumental achievement yet.
  • Alicia Vikander as Ava, Ex Machina 
    • Though she won that inevitable Oscar nomination for The Danish Girl, he ubiquitous Vikander delivers her most technically proficient, and best, performance of the year in Ex Machina. Perhaps this performance wouldn’t be as astonishing if the film weren’t build around it, or if we didn’t see so many shades of this one performer through several other performances in the same year. Still, Vikander manages to create not just a memorable genre performance, but one that’s ethereal, magnetic, sensual and deceptive. By the film’s final frame, Vikander will leave you speechless.
  • Mya Taylor as Alexandra “Alex” , Tangerine 
    • Tangerine is a great film for many reasons, but it would not be half as great if Mya Taylor’s Alex was missing from it. Though it almost feels inauthentic to label Taylor as a Supporting Actress (the film is really a two hander) it feels more like the film wants to tell the story of co-star Kiki Rodriguez’s character. Nevertheless, Taylor imbues such a startling, and much needed nuance to the character that benefits the film as a whole. The standout scene where Alex sings at an empty bar is one of the most mesmerizing scenes this year, and perfectly encapsulates her beautifully rendered performance in the film. The plot is much more interested in co-star Kiki Rodriguez’s character Sin-dee, and while it makes for a great film, I wanted more of Alex’s story. This may not be her film, but it ought to be.
  • Rose Byrne as Rayna Boyanov, Spy
    • If you haven’t hopped on the Rose Byrne love train, you’re missing out. She’s done it all: Dramatic scene stealer (Marie Antoinette), Horror (Insidious), Raunchy Comedy (BridesmaidsNeighbors),  TV Crime Drama ( Damages) and has still managed to top herself and surprise us all with this performance. Her expert line delivery and use of every inch of her body (especially that ridiculous wig) recall a dedication from the likes of Lucille Ball. It’s time to reward this criminally underrated performer, who continually delivers with each new film. Seriously, is there anything she can’t do?
  • Angela Bassett as Miss Helen, Chi-Raq
    • Bassett has been experiencing something of a revival in popularity with her always engaging work on the uneven American Horror Story. However, her performance in Spike Lee’s latest is the best work of her career. Fiery, charismatic and unapologetically magnetic, she is a marvel. Bassett walks a fine line between showing and telling, delivering the difficult dialogue with an astounding level of technical proficiency, while also conveying a number of emotions through mere looks. Even if the film as a whole doesn’t reach the highs Bassett does with her performance, it’s worth watching for her alone.

Just missed the cut: Kristen Stewart delivered the most confidently assured and effortless performance of her career, one that will leave you looking at her in a whole new light. It was a pleasure watching Kate Winslet make her comeback with Steve Jobs, adding a whole new layer of emotion to Aaron Sorkin’s masterful screenplay; She is the film’s heart.  Julie Walters was one of the best parts of the amazing Brooklyn, serving as the film’s comedic relief. Miranda Hart was one of Spy’s biggest surprises, making the film’s lovable goof character hilariously real (bonus points for stealing entire scenes from much bigger stars)

The rest: Sarah Paulson, Carol; Joan Allen, Room; Kristen Wiig, The Diary of A Teenage Girl; Cate Blanchett, Cinderella; Andie McDowell, Magic Mike XXL; Jada Pinkett-Smith, Magic Mike XXL; Allison Janey, Spy; Jane Fonda, Youth

Winner: Mya Taylor, Tangerine 

Runner-up: Rose Byrne, Spy

Third Place: Angela Bassett, Chi-Raq

Best Actress: 

  • Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, Carol
    • Perhaps the most iconic performance of Blanchett’s long, and esteemed, career. And that’s truly saying something. As the titular Carol, the actress’ red hot characterization feels as if the character jumped right off out of Patricia Highsmith’s novel and onto the screen. Blanchett’s Carol is smoldering, flawed, mysterious and compelling all at the same time. Though many have hailed Carol as a duet between Blanchett and Rooney Mara, it’s Blanchett you walk away from the film thinking about.
  • Brie Larson as Joy “Ma” Newsome, Room
    • This role would have been a dream come true for any young actress, but its in Larson’s performance that she feels like a real person. Though she already proved she has a real talent with child actors and actresses in Short Term 12, her report with Jacob Tremblay makes for some of the most compelling moments I’ve ever seen put to film. Ma is never just a victim in the hands of Larson. In fact, the actress isn’t afraid to show us the ugly, flawed side that’s been created as a result of her unfortunate circumstances. Those scenes where she’s lamenting over her lost years make the heart ache. But it’s the other side that’s full of hope and love, that leave a lasting impression.
  • Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer, 45 Years 
    • How its taken Charlotte Rampling this long into her career to obtain her first Oscar nomination is beyond me. But this is a performance for the ages, one that will certainly be remembered as one of the greats. Rampling creates a portrait of a woman torn between what she wants to believe in, and what she’s ultimately forced to believe: The man she’s loved for over 40 years is not who she thought he was. Watching her wrestle with her emotions slowly reach their boiling point is mesmerizing. Her performance really comes full circle, however, in the film’s final moments where Rampling takes her character through the gamut and leaves us with one of the most visually arresting frames you’re likely to ever see onscreen.
  • Lily Tomlin as Elle Reid, Grandma
    • Though the Oscars ultimately felt that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in the very messy JOY filled the default ‘comedy’ slot in this category, I decided to go with Lily Tomlin. Lawrence could’ve taken a few queues from Tomlin’s work in Grandma. The actress is saddled with the tricky task of effortlessly blending comedy and drama. On one hand, she is a woman who has seen it all; Left heartbroken by the death of her longtime lover, Tomlin’s Elle also has an affinity for sarcasm and a prickly outer exterior guarding her bruised interior. She pulls it off with aplomb, never overselling either side of Elle, but rather letting the audience inside this woman’s mind while withholding just enough to make her feel real.
  • Saoirse Ronan as Ellis Lacey, Brooklyn
    • Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen, but never has one felt so personal and heartfelt. That may just be a testament to the strength of Brooklyn‘s source material and the adaptation from book to film by Nick Hornby. But every film needs a star in the center, and no star burned brighter this year than Saoirse Ronan. Managing to remain luminescent while carrying the film on your back is no easy feat. Not since Natalie Portman in Black Swan has a role blended so perfectly with its actress; Ronan maps out this young woman’s journey with such precision, that you can’t help but feel that the narrative extends beyond the page. In Brooklyn, Ronan dives headfirst emerges on the other side as a true leading lady.

Just missed the cut:  Teyonah Parris is instantly iconic in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, the perfect muse to lead such a starry, capable ensemble. Emily Blunt proves once again in Sicario that she is more than capable of having a film built around her. Melissa McCarthy not only carries the hysterical Spy, but she makes for a credible action heroine to boot. Both Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston play two very intense sides of the same coin in the marvelous Queen of EarthRooney Mara is the more silent side of the beautiful Carol, working perfectly in tandem with co-star Cate Blanchett.

The rest: Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine; Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl; Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back; Meryl Streep, Ricki and the Flash; Blythe Danner, I’ll See You In My Dreams; Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road.

Winner: Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Second Place: Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Third Place: Brie Larson, Room

Best Supporting Actor: 

  • Emory Cohen as Tony Fiorello, Brooklyn 
    • As the love interest to Saoirse Ronan’s Ellis Lacey in the charming Brooklyn, it’s easy to get carried away in her story and see the men as simply that. But the great thing about Brooklyn is how fully realized each supporting character feels, starting with Emroy Cohen’s Tony Fiorello. Not does his inherent charm make your heart want to melt into a puddle, but the young actor blows away all of his previous performances (which were less than memorable). He makes you understand why he’s the man Ellis chose in the end, and will have you pining for your own Tony to come along and sweep you off your feet.
  • Idris Elba as Commandant, Beasts of No Nation
    • Monumental is probably the best word to describe Elba’s work in the fantastic Beasts of No Nation. As the charismatic leader of a child army, the actor oozes frightening level of magnetism. Elba’s characterization rises above the level of just ‘villain.’ His Commandant feels authentic, like someone ripped right out of the war-torn West African village in which the story takes place. It’s frustratingly mesmerizing; You want to hate this man, and you do, but Elba’s performance highlights the man behind the villain as one you won’t forget.
  • Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro Gillick, Sicario 
    • Del Toro makes his presence felt in every single frame, even if he doesn’t physically appear. He’s a menacing, dominant force in a rollercoaster of a film. Starting off as a background character, he jumps to the forefront by the film’s end. It’s clear to us watching the film, and those acting in it, that this movie belongs to him. Much more than a threatening assassin, the actor brings a reservoirs worth of backstory to his performance that’s never overtly expressed, but we feel the pain and determination leering at us from Alejandro’s eyes. It’s a performance that accomplishes so much, without ever trying too hard.
  • Jason Statham, Spy
    • Perhaps the biggest surprise of Paul Feig’s wonderful Spy is how Jason Statham bursts full-throttle into his foray into comedy. Acting against Melissa McCarthy as a larger than life personality couldn’t have been easy, but the actor never once breaks a sweat. He’s a comedic ball of fire, delivering some of the most out of this world dialogue without breaking character. You never know what he’s going to do next, only that it will have you passing out from laughter.
  • Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman, Ex-Machina
    • Many will look back on 2015 and remember Isaac for his brief, but star-making turn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s his performance in Ex Machina, however, that shows the true heights of the actor’s disarming screen presence. Though there are other complex villains in this category, Isaac’s is perhaps the most watchable. And that may be in part to his ability to ooze sex appeal in just one swift movement; He seems so relaxed, and lived-in in this role of the mad scientist of sorts, that it feels almost inauthentic to label him as the film’s antagonist, but he’s always watchable. Bonus Points: That dance scene.

Just missed the cut: Michael Shannon makes for a hell of a charismatic villain in 99 Homes, while Mark Rylance has moments of brilliance in the stuffy Bridge of SpiesSam Elliot was perhaps this year’s most ubiquitous supporting male giving great turns in both Grandma and I’ll See You In My DreamsSylvester Stallone is great once again stepping into the shoes of Rocky Balboa, and has some of the most heartwarming moments in the film. Bradley Cooper salvages some greatness out of the otherwise messy JOY.

Winner: Benicio Del Toro, Sicario

Runner-up: Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

Third Place: Oscar Isaac, Ex-Machina 

Best Actor: 

  • Jacob Tremblay as Jack Newsome, Room 
    • The overall success child performances are unfairly attributed to their directors. And while I’m sure Room’s director did guide newcomer Jacob Tremblay a great deal, it’s easy to see that the lion’s share of the credit deserves to be placed at the young actor’s feet. As Jack, a boy recently freed from captivity, he maps the tricky road to recovery with a precision that goes beyond his young age without forgoing his inherent childlike wonder. He is quite literally, a revelation.
  • Jason Segel as Daniel Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour
    • Many actors win Oscars for portraying real life people. So someone is going to have to explain to me how Segel’s performance as author David Foster Wallace slipped the cracks this year. Relying on sheer screen presence and charisma, the actor shakes off any criticisms that he doesn’t look very much like the real life Wallace. Segel is much more concerned with embodying Wallace’s spirit, and in doing so, the physical differences melt away. Who knew he had this inside of him?
  • Paul Dano & John Cusack as Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy
    • Citing one of these men and not the other would feel absolutely criminal. As the young and old incantations of the legendary Brian Wilson, they paint an incredibly real portrait of the man behind the music. Both nail the neurosis and damaged psyche without making it seem too scenery chewing. Dano especially plays the biggest scenes with the smallest, most subtle gestures that ultimately resonate more. In the case of Cusack, he plays Wilson with a weary, lived in authenticity that highlights the mental illness without making it seem like a caricature. Love & Mercy is that rare musical biopic with performances that don’t feel created for the purpose of winning awards.
  • Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, Creed 
    • Jordan has been an actor waiting for his true ‘A Star Is Born’ moment for a long time. As the son of Apollo Creed, he takes on the physical immersion with exceptional aplomb. Someone should have told Leonardo DiCaprio it was possible to have a physical element to your performance, and still have time to build an actual character when he was filming The Revenant. Even critics of the Rocky series will find it hard to deny Jordan’s star power here, and his chemistry with every single actor he shares the scene with is palpable.

Just missed the cut:  Michael Fassbender paints a stunning portrait of the late Steve Jobs, relying less on mimicry and more on his skill as an actor, while Abraham Attah carries Beasts of No Nation with a charisma beyond his years (I went back and forth about him and Jacob Tremblay in this category. If only I could’ve included them both. What a year for child actors).

Winner: Michael B. Jordan, Creed 

Runner-up: Paul Dano, Love & Mercy

Third Place: Jacob Tremblay, Room

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