2016 was a year filled with idiosyncratic performances drawing on autobiographical, political, and emotionally resonant influences. Narrowing things down to 15 key players (with no distinction between male and female, lead and supporting) was a difficult task, but this list is encouraging in terms of representation in the future. Hopefully, 2017 will bring even more defiantly personal and challenging works of thespian brilliance to the table.
Kate Plays Christine
Kate Lyn Sheil's multi-faceted, remarkable performance in Robert Greene's astonishing faux-documentary Kate Plays Christine could easily be labeled "critic-proof", since she's essentially playing a version of herself preparing for a role that doesn't actually exist. Sheil's greatest triumph, however, is giving us a glimpse at the dictonomy inherent in representation; holding true to the real-life Christine Chubbuck's anxieties about TV news turning into sensationalism.
Make way for the new indie it girl in the form of Leah Fay Goldstein, who plays a neurotic struggling actress in Pavan Moondi and Brian Roberston's Diamond Tongues. Her funny-sad performance has to hit various notes; from naive, abrasive, coy, insecure, to emotionally devastated, and Goldstein proves that unlike the character she's playing, she's the real deal.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Finnish actor Elmer Back gives a buoyantly theatrical performance as celebrated Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in Peter Greenaway's ambitious hodgepodge of form and content. Back makes some specific choices here verging on caricature, but his demented commitment to this larger-than-life figure breathes new life into the usually stale biopic portrayal.
Laura Bispuri's evocative Sworn Virgin is held together by Alba Rochrwacher's deeply haunting performance as a transgendered person navigating personal demons and societal norms. Like Tilda Swinton, Rochrwacher has an innate ability to shift between notions of gender and identity seamlessly, offering up a delicately nuanced portrait of someone attempting to reclaim their sense of self.
In Lorenzo Vigas's brilliantly understated From Afar, Alfredo Castro delivers one of the year's most subtle and devastating performances as a lonely man cruising the streets for young male hustlers. Castro does so much with simply a look and the smallest gesture, Haunting, sympathetic, and mysterious all at once.
Elle/Valley of Love/Things to Come
Isabelle Huppert unleashed three outstanding performances in three very different films; as a woman dealing with rape culture and trauma in Elle, a mother dealing with the death of her son in Valley of Love, and as an aging philosophy professor undergoing a midlife crisis in Things to Come. All three performances were laced with nuance, humor, and intelligence, proving that 2016 really was the year of Huppert.
The Measure of a Man
As a laid off factory worker in Stephane Brize's cringe-drama The Measure of a Man, Vincent Lindon is able to convey the hopeless emasculation and bottled up anger of a man desperately trying to provide for his family. It's a portrayal of great humility and understatement, with Lindon navigating a variety of emotions without ever making it feel like we are watching a performance. Bravo.
Newcomer Lily Gladstone quietly walks away with Kelly Reichardt's beautifully muted film about women struggling against the tide of monotony. As a soft-spoken ranch hand obsessed with Kristen Stewart's substitute teacher, Gladstone projects a mixture of warmth, timidity, longing, and heartbreak in her limited screen time.
Tali Shalom-Ezer's Israeli first feature is a doozy; a tale of adolescent confusion amidst a heinous sexual crime, but it's the unbelievable performance of Shira Haas (who was 16 at the time of filming) as 12-year-old Adar which leaves an impact. This is an extremely difficult role; with Haas delivering a raw, naturalistic, and moving performance as a young girl trapped in domestic hell.
Raman Raghav 2.0
Cinematic psycho serial killers may be old hat, but Nawazuddin Siddiqui is deliciously unhinged in Anurag Kashyap's stylish thriller Raman Raghav 2.0. From pathetic weasal, charming ladies man, to scary presence dominating an entire room, Siddiqui makes this deluded madman endlessly fascinating and unpredictable, resulting in the year's best villain.
Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a black kid growing up in Miami who struggles with his sexuality and sense of identity, and the film draws its power from the superlative work of the three actors portraying him. Alex Hibbert brings an unaffected innocence as the child, Ashton Sanders simmers with longing and frustration as the teenager, and Trevante Rhodes brings it home with a deep sense of melancholy and nuance as the adult, muscle-bound Chiron. All three actors are linked, despite physical dissimilarities, because they imbue their performances with a cohesive emotional core.
The Love Witch
Samantha Robinson casts an entrancing spell in Anna Biller's wonderful 1950s Technicolor/1970s Italian horror pastiche as, you guessed it, a "love witch." The miracle of Robinson's performance is how specific it is; purposefully stilted but never winking too much, gloriously arch but somehow finding several notes to play within any given scene. Move over Samantha Stephens, there's a new Samantha in town, and she's here to emasculate and kill your men.
As Mildred Loving, the real-life woman who was arrested for "cohabitation" during the 1960s in Virginia for marrying a white man, Ruth Negga gives a powerfully quiet, internally defiant performance. Submissive, yet forward-thinking, Negga delivers a masterclass in micro acting; using gestures, facial expressions, and in one particularly moving scene, reveals layers of emotional depth while on the phone with a ACLU member.
Morris From America
As a widowed father looking after his 13-year-old son in Germany, Craig Robinson is charming, funny, self-effacing, and surprisingly melancholic in Chad Hartigan's charming coming-of-age tale Morris From America. We've seen Robinson do his motor-mouthed shtick before, but here he layers droll comedic moments with pangs of loneliness and compassion, and in one incredibly powerful scene, delivers a soulful monologue about his deceased wife that hits the jugular.
Emmanuelle Bercot is electrifying as a closed off lawyer recovering from a skiing accident in My King, a tumultuous love story that bristles and sears with wounds, both physical and psychological. Playing a woman who falls hard and fast for a charismatic restaurateur (Vincent Cassell), Bercot brilliantly shades her flirtations with streaks of malice and legitimate madness.