Condensing a manageable list of our favorite performances of the year proved to be far more difficult than expected, and it was a hard-fought battle amongst The Playlisters to determine who would make the cut and what the ranking would be. It was a much debated, constantly shifting (until the very last minute) beast, but we’ve finally wrestled this one to the ground. Perhaps it was because we decided to include TV performances in here as well, or that there were no clear front-runners, or that there were that many great performances this year that each camp, with their favorites, swore a blood loyalty to defending their honor. Many hills were died on that day.
The list has ballooned to 25 from last year’s 15 since we simply couldn’t cut it down, so we’ve got an eclectic mix of performances and actors, as seen on TV and the silver screen (sometimes both), comedy, drama, international and American independent film. If our battles were any indication, we’re certain there’s someone you’ll have thought we left out, but that’s just the nature of list-making. Tis the season, after all — check out the rest of our Best of 2016 coverage for all the lists you can handle.
25. Michael Shannon – “Nocturnal Animals”
In a rather dodgy, fairly terrible sophomore feature effort from designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford, Michael Shannon does what he does best — be the most Michael Shannon-y person around. Aaron Taylor-Johnson scored a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe nom for giving the second most Michael Shannon-y performance in this film, and he doesn’t come close to touching the original (though it’s entertaining, to be sure). In a rather small role, Shannon is the best and most memorable character, while basically everyone else is empty and vile. He’s the invention of Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), the novelist ex-husband of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). In Edward’s novel “Nocturnal Animals,” husband and father Tony loses his wife and daughter in a horrific crime, and Shannon plays the West Texas police detective Bobby Andes who helps him track down the culprits, journeying to justice outside the law. Sucking on cigarettes, croaking a whiskey-aged drawl, Shannon fully inhabits this character, not that he would do anything but. Tony as Edward’s alter-ego is a martyr-like figure, a man who discovers his masculinity in the absence of his wife and daughter, guided by the outlaw justice of spirit guide Bobby Andes. While Tony might be a misguided interpretation of Edward’s sorrow at losing Susan, the characterization of mythical, fictional creature Bobby Andes is spot on — lived-in and steeped in an aura of personal history — thanks to the pitch-perfect performance of Shannon, most valuable player in everything he does.
24. Brian Tyree Henry – “Atlanta”
Really, this is a space to recognize the trio of actors in “Atlanta,” Donald Glover’s FX series whose brilliance we can’t stop extolling. But while we adored all three, there just wasn’t enough of Lakeith Stanfield’s sweet and silly stoner sidekick Darius, and Glover’s genius was seen more in the writing/direction/creation of the daring show than in his performance as Earn. Thus, our favorite performance came from 2016 breakout Brian Tyree Henry, who also had a memorable, but short, turn on the HBO series “Vice Principals.” As the up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi, Henry slyly gave one of our favorite performances on TV this year, balancing hubris and the realities of his current station in life. Henry brilliantly reveals all the effort that goes into the swaggy persona of a cult-favorite mixtape rapper, who has to portray a lavish, thugged-out lifestyle with very little resources. It’s far less balling out of control and way more Twitter feuds, sparsely populated VIP booths, and weird, embarrassing altercations in parking lots with fans and foes alike. Perhaps the apex of this comes in episode 5, “Nobody Beats The Biebs,” when Paper Boi is alternately shot down by a foxy news reporter, and starts a battle with “Justin Bieber” at a charity basketball tournament. Henry is nearly a Job-like figure in his striving for shine as he’s constantly batted down again and again. But he’s equally hilarious, especially in what’s maybe the best episode of TV this year, “B.A.N.” We just can’t wait to see what else Glover and Henry have in store for Paper Boi.
23. Greta Gerwig – “20th Century Women” and “Jackie”
Greta Gerwig has a firmly entrenched star persona, established by recent classics made with Noah Baumbach, “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America.” It’s an exceedingly attractive persona, lifted by her ebullient charm, which usually makes her the star of the show. But in a welcome turn this year, Gerwig gave two completely different performances as part of stellar ensemble casts in films about fascinating women. In Mike Mills’ masterful “20th Century Women,” Gerwig is Abbie, a photographer steeped in the late-’70s art-punk scene, who’s also grappling with her own mortality and fertility as an ovarian cancer survivor. She wears her vulnerability on her sleeve, whether exploding in rage at a punk show, or sharing an intimate moment with William (Billy Crudup). Her art and her feminism are the way she lives her life — consider the amazing “menstruation” dinner party scene — and Gerwig embodies Abbie’s layers of quiet power in living her truth. In Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” Gerwig is the support for the First Lady (Natalie Portman), playing her right-hand woman, Nancy. It’s the first time that she’s disappeared into a character, and it takes a few minutes to realize it’s her under that sculpted hairdo. While a smaller role, it’s a crucial one, providing the only unrequited tenderness that Jackie receives during this time. She’s also a part of Jackie’s learning the power of media images, offering helpful “smile” gestures throughout her televised White House tour. While the film belongs to Portman, she couldn’t do this performance without the ensemble to bounce off of, and Gerwig is an important part of that puzzle, allowing for Jackie to reveal her fragility in a feminine safe space.
22. Thandie Newton – “Westworld”
Feelings about “Westworld” as a whole seem divided — to some, a beguiling and heady sci-fi epic with an ambition that papers over its flaws; to others an underwhelming, over-expository mess — but we can all agree that its cast did terrific work. Well, except for the annoying British writer guy. But as fine as Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright especially were, the true revelation proved to be Thandie Newton, as saloon owner/madam/murderbot Maeve. Though she’s been acting for more than 20 years, Newton’s rarely been given the kind of material you sense she’s always been capable of, but gets a doozy of a role here, as Maeve’s increasing consciousness and awareness of her role in the park unlocks a revolutionary spirit in her. Newton plays her as if Cersei Lannister was the heroine of “Game Of Thrones,” subtly altering as she works out how to boost her own personality traits and intelligence. She’s a badass, but the risk is that she’d turn out to be only a badass. Instead, though, Newton really excels with the other notes, showing Maeve’s vulnerability, her confusion as she learns of her purpose, her contempt for the little people who control, her pangs of conscience in the final moments as she decides to stay in the park. We’re fascinated to see where her journey takes her next.
21. John Goodman – “10 Cloverfield Lane”
It’s not totally surprising just how quickly everyone forgot how wonderful John Goodman was in this year’s pseudo-sequel “10 Cloverfield Lane” but it is, nonetheless, disappointing. It was always going to be overlooked because of the type of film it was, a heavy genre picture that excelled with its thriller, science-fiction roots but doesn’t fly so well with the award types. Goodman is terrifying in an understated role, both for his imposing nature and the level of delusion under which his character operates. Believing that what he is doing is right and that because it was he who built the bunker, the two guests living there must follow his set of rules, he strikes a threatening figure immediately, even after we’re lead to believe (momentarily) that he wouldn’t hurt either one of them. Goodman is excellent in just about everything he’s in, but it was a nice change of pace to see him cast in a strictly “villainous” role where he could sink his teeth into a character beyond reason, whose ballooned sense of self-importance is one of the greatest threats to the characters around him. That plus his delusions and Goodman’s slightly off-kilter, expectations-defying performance makes for a truly unsettling antagonist.