Critics' Picks: The 25 Best Film Performances of 2016

8:00 AM 12/17/2016

by THR Staff

What do Isabelle Huppert, Shia LaBeouf and Kathryn Hahn have in common? They gave three of THR film critics' favorite big-screen turns of the year, listed below in alphabetical order.

'Elle,' 'A Hologram for the King' and 'Moonlight'
'Elle,' 'A Hologram for the King' and 'Moonlight'
Courtesy of Photofest

  • Casey Affleck

    Manchester by the Sea

    Claire Folger/Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

    There isn't a false breath in Affleck's wry, wrenching portrayal of Lee, a man who occupies a purgatory of his own devising. In a film that repudiates every cliché about grief, redemption and healing, his exquisite performance is one for the ages — at once forbiddingly opaque and shattering in its emotional transparency. — Sheri Linden

  • Michael Barbieri

    Little Men

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Tony, the cocky-but-instantly-lovable kid of the immigrant seamstress downstairs (Paulina Garcia) in Ira Sachs' delicate drama, dreams of becoming an actor. But the young newcomer playing him is a damn good one already. Just watch Barbieri in that bravura, constantly crescendoing improv scene between Tony and his acting teacher. No further explanation required. – Boyd Van Hoeij 

  • Kate Beckinsale

    Love & Friendship

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    It takes consummate skill to make comedy look this effortless, not to mention keep us in the corner of a self-serving manipulator like Lady Susan Vernon. Beckinsale is the whisk to Whit Stillman's delectable Austenian soufflé, tossing off one of the year's best lines when she commiserates with Chloe Sevigny on her choice of husbands: "Too old to be governable, too young to die." — David Rooney

  • Annette Bening

    20th Century Women

    Merrick Morton/A24

    Further cementing her current career image as the cool mom you secretly wished you had, Bening is prim, funny and quietly fragile as a semi-bohemian single parent in '70s Santa Barbara in Mike Mills' ensemble comedy. Although she shines in the role, it's a deglamorized performance that harmonizes gracefully with her co-stars in a series of taut duets. And not since Lauren Bacall has someone looked so sexy smoking onscreen. — Leslie Felperin

  • Sonia Braga

    Aquarius

    Courtesy of TIFF

    More than four decades after becoming an international sex symbol in the ribald comedy Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Braga proves she's as alluring as ever in Kleber Mendonca Filho's drama. As a retired music critic who refuses to give up her apartment to rapacious developers, the 66-year-old Brazilian actress bares herself physically and emotionally in a moving, witty performance that, in a merit-based awards season, would be racking up the prizes. — Frank Scheck

  • Jeff Bridges

    Hell or High Water

    Lorey Sebastian

    Yielding his most flavorful work since reincarnating Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers' True Grit, Bridges plays crusty Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, a Western archetype imbued down to his weary bones with abrasive humor, contemplative intelligence and the bruises of solitude, which turn into searing wounds when he loses the deputy on the receiving end of his banter. — D.R.

  • Judy Davis

    The Dressmaker

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Watching Davis in Jocelyn Moorhouse's entertainingly ripe genre potpourri, you wonder where she's been, and why we don't see more of her. Her Mad Molly slings fine-tuned vitriol, at once funny and frightening, but her affection for Tilly (Kate Winslet) is plain, if never telegraphed. The performance makes you eager for her next gig, as Hedda Hopper in Ryan Murphy's 2017 FX anthology series Feud. — Harry Windsor

  • Adam Driver

    Paterson

    Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

    Rooted in the conception of a poet not as an above-it-all intellectual but as one deeply attuned to whatever surrounds him, Driver's performance as Jim Jarmusch's bus-driving wordsmith is remarkably open. The actor's short filmography already demonstrated tremendous charisma and skill, but this was the first time we felt we might love him. — John DeFore

  • Luke Evans

    High-Rise

    Courtesy of Photofest

    A barnstorming display of sheer brawny charisma in the noble tradition of Stanley Baker, Toshiro Mifune, Oliver Reed and Gerard Depardieu, Welsh hunk Evans' multi-layered, revelatory turn as aptly named loose cannon Wilder is the chief saving grace of Ben Wheatley's otherwise disappointing J.G. Ballard mis-adaptation. — Neil Young

  • Ralph Fiennes

    A Bigger Splash

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Part lusty sun god, part Jungian shadow, Fiennes takes brazenness to intoxicating heights as record producer Harry Hawkes in Luca Guadagnino's siren song of a drama. The actor makes Harry a glorious brute, a desperate gale-force intrusion on the island idyll of his former lover (Tilda Swinton). And when he dances, in the best movie use of a Stones track ever, his exultation is ours. — S.L. 

  • Kathryn Hahn

    Bad Moms

    STX Productions, LLC

    Want to know how to steal a scene? Just ask Hahn, who blazes through this otherwise ordinary studio-com as a blowsy suburban mom raging against the matriarchy. Blessed with bulls-eye timing, the actress turns average one-liners into comic bullets and routine slapstick gags into mini-tornadoes of hilarity, leaving her costars in her wake and viewers wanting more. — Jon Frosch

  • Tom Hanks

    A Hologram for the King

    Courtesy of X Verleih

    In a year when Hanks played the heroic pilot in Sully, it's worth saluting his equally fine performance as a more desperate Everyman in Tom Tykwer's underrated Dave Eggers adaptation. Playing a befuddled businessman trying to close a deal in Saudi Arabia, Hanks captures the anxiety of all Americans losing their footing in a world they no longer command. — Stephen Farber 

  • Sandra Hüller

    Toni Erdmann

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Hüller is fearless as flinty business consultant Ines, navigating the category-defying German comedy's every twist of deadpan absurdity with stunning ferocity. In the boardroom, the bedroom and particularly when Ines plays along with the goofy transgressions of her father, she reveals a character who's constantly performing — and who, in an unforgettable jolt of self-awareness, strips that performance away. — S.L.

  • Isabelle Huppert

    Elle, Things to Come

    Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

    2016 was certainly a vintage year for the 63-year-old French actress, with two very different films proving that an already remarkable career may be getting even better. Only Huppert could pull off the roles of vengeful rape victim and dejected philosophy teacher with so much humor, abandon and deep-seated perception. — Jordan Mintzer

  • Shia LaBeouf

    American Honey

    A24/Screenshot

    LaBeouf's real-life shenanigans make it easy to forget what a vital and magnetic screen presence he can be. Case in point: the actor's by far the best thing in Andrea Arnold's uneven epic about young misfits selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. As the guy who lures Sasha Lane's grunge ingénue into a life on the road, LaBeouf gives a performance of perfectly controlled naturalistic intensity, radiating feral desire and genuine danger. Who knew a rattail could be so sexy? — J.F. 

  • Vincent Lindon

    The Measure of a Man

    Like a Gallic Gary Cooper, Lindon specializes in portraying stoical everymen with a soul. In Stephane Brize's low-key drama, he movingly embodies a former factory worker desperately trying to land a job, yet refusing to bow down to the system. The performance won him both a Cesar and Best Actor prize at Cannes. — J.M.

  • The 'Moonlight' Ensemble

    Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris in 'Moonlight'
    Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris in 'Moonlight'
    Courtesy of Photofest

    OK, it's cheating, but it seems unfair to play favorites with the uniformly gorgeous and cohesive set of performances in Barry Jenkins' gay-and-African-American coming-of-age drama. Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders give powerful, almost wordless turns as protagonist Chiron's child and teen selves. Trevante Rhodes radiates repressed longing as the adult Chiron, while Andre Holland shines as the object of his unrequited-or-is-it? desire. Mahershala Ali and singer-turned-actor Janelle Monae are deeply moving as Chiron's flawed but loving parental surrogates. And British star Naomie Harris somehow succeeds in making his emotionally abusive crack-addict mother sympathetic. — Stephen Dalton

  • Julianne Moore

    Maggie's Plan

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Moore's haughty intellectual in Rebecca Miller's screwy comedy of remarriage might have been one-note in someone else's hands. But she finds the loneliness lurking within a woman who sets pride aside without sacrificing her dignity. Impressively, the actress manages to convey a touch of spurned-wife indignation even when her character develops surprising affection for her younger rival (Greta Gerwig). — J.D. 

  • Viggo Mortensen

    Captain Fantastic

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Any dude pushing 60 and rocking the full-frontal nudity commands respect, but beyond that, Matt Ross' tale of an off-the-grid family forced to venture outside its Pacific Northwest Eden provided Mortensen with a role whose contradictions fit his rugged Renaissance Man persona like a glove. The actor portrayed the anti-capitalist radical with both conviction and fanatical arrogance, and the loving father at risk of losing his family with haunted vulnerability. — D.R. 

  • Ruth Negga

    Loving

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Jeff Nichols' sober account of the interracial couple who took their fight against Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws to the Supreme Court is resolute in its choice of hushed intimacy over impassioned speeches. That restraint reverberates throughout the scrupulously contained performance of this remarkable Ethiopian-Irish actress, who gives eloquent voice to Mildred Loving’s dignity through her eyes, her silences and her stillness. — D.R.

  • Natalie Portman

    Jackie

    Twentieth Century Fox Film

    A high-wire balancing act that makes you afraid to look away, Portman's take on Jacqueline Kennedy, reeling in the wake of her husband's assassination, is a deep-probe exploration of the chasm between public persona and private life. She gives Pablo Larrain's extraordinary meditation on grief and self-preservation both its precarious fragility and its defiantly brittle edge. — D.R. 

  • Morgan Saylor

    White Girl

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    As a hedonistic New York City college student who gets in over her head with a cute Latino drug dealer in Elizabeth Wood's debut, Saylor purges any remnants of Homeland's Dana Brody with a performance that's the definition of "acting without a net." At once vampish and vulnerable, she creates an unflinching but empathetic and deeply lived-in portrait of youthful impulsiveness and — even more interestingly — white privilege. — J.F. 

  • Michael Shannon

    Nocturnal Animals

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Tom Ford's stylish noir-melodrama thrives on contrasts, and that's how Shannon's strictly fictional world-weary Texas cop unexpectedly becomes the film's most human figure. As someone with nothing left to lose in a hot, dusty, violent world, he's the polar opposite of Amy Adams' real-life character, who lives in a sleek but cold bubble where she stands to lose everything — again. — B.V.H.

  • Tika Sumpter

    Southside With You

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Richard Tanne's shimmering chronicle of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date is one magically sustained swoon. The seeds of the statesman-in-the-making are firmly planted in Parker Sawyers' coolly authoritative characterization. But it's the way Sumpter's Michelle — self-possessed, prickly, alert to every nuance — slowly makes up her mind about him that gives this unabashedly romantic movie its teasing charm. — D.R.

  • Anya Taylor-Joy

    The Witch, Barry

    Courtesy of A24 Films

    As the teenage daughter of Colonial homesteaders tending a farm beset by a mysterious evil in Robert Egger's debut The Witch, the young actress disconcertingly conveyed the confused desperation of a persecuted innocent — then adroitly shifted tone to vividly portray Barack Obama's boho-WASPy college girlfriend in Vikram Gandhi's biopic Barry. — Justin Lowe

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