The Dazzling Dozen: THR Film Critics' Favorite Performances of 2015

2:31 PM 12/11/2015

by THR Staff

What do Zac Efron and Dame Maggie Smith have in common? They gave two of THR film critics' 12 favorite performances of the year.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; Netflix; Sundance Selects

Written by David Rooney, Neil Young, Stephen Dalton, Deborah Young, Michael Rechtshaffen, Leslie Felperin, Jordan Mintzer, Stephen Farber, Frank Scheck, Jon Frosch, Boyd Van Hoeij, Sheri Linden

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    Christopher Abbott

    James White

    Film Arcade

    Think you never need to see another cancer drama? Or another portrait of a dissolute Manhattan hipster in self-destructive freefall? Just try averting your eyes from Abbott as he figuratively peels back layer upon layer of skin to expose his character’s panic in this thorny pas de deux with an equally riveting Cynthia Nixon as his dying mother. — David Rooney

     

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    12

    Zac Efron

    We Are Your Friends

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

    Having reaped unexpected raves for 2014's knockabout Neighbors, the High School Musical dreamboat exuded genuine movie-star charisma in Max Joseph's sun-dappled Boogie Nights homage. And while the picture's box-office returns didn't exactly pump up the volume, this 28-year-old Tyrone Power clone increasingly ranks among the most exciting American actors of his generation. — Neil Young

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    Idris Elba

    Beasts of No Nation

    Courtesy of Netflix/Venice Film Festival

    In his multi-layered performance as Commandant, the charismatic leader of a battalion of child soldiers fighting a bloody African civil war, Elba manages to convey both fatherly warmth and sadistic, sexually twisted evil. This is the diabolical flipside of Elba’s Mandela portrayal, with just a hint of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. — Stephen Dalton

    Listen to Idris Elba and Cary Fukunaga on THR's Awards Chatter podcast hosted by awards analyst Scott Feinberg.

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    Rooney Mara

    Carol

    'Carol,' Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

    No one can throw a stole around like Cate Blanchett. But Mara gives her own lesson in style as her natural vulnerability gloriously gives way to quiet strength and passion after her character falls for an older sophisticate in Todd Haynes' lesbian love story. — Deborah Young

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    Ben Mendelsohn

    Mississippi Grind

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    The Australian actor doesn’t merely play the part of a gambling addict on a lifelong losing streak in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's road movie; he completely inhabits his character's weary soul, bourbon and sweat-soaked desperation seeming to emanate from his every pore. — Michael Rechtshaffen

    Listen to Ben Mendelsohn on THR's Awards Chatter podcast hosted by awards analyst Scott Feinberg.

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    Bel Powley

    The Diary of a Teenage Girl

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    This fast-rising English actress not only nailed the accent of an American teen; she also captured that volatile, in-between quality of 15-year-olds. It's a performance of layers and nuances, as Powley registers flickers of intelligence, sensuality, childish disappointment and, above all, longing for love — even if it comes from the most inappropriate places. — Leslie Felperin

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    Geza Rohrig

    Son of Saul

    Sony Pictures Classics

    Surely the best performance by a non-actor this year, New York-based Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig's turn in Laszlo Nemes’s crushing Holocaust thriller, Son of Saul, was unforgettable. As an Auschwitz Sonderkommando trying to carry out one last ritual of defiance, Rohrig gave us a shred of humanity in a place without any. — Jordan Mintzer

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    Jason Segel

    The End of the Tour

    Courtesy of A24 Films

    Portraying writer David Foster Wallace, the actor shed his familiar comic persona in order to celebrate a gifted but fragile artist. As Wallace interacts warily with a nosy interviewer (Jesse Eisenberg), Segel conveys a startling new intelligence, skepticism, soulfulness, and incontestable integrity. — Stephen Farber

    Listen to Jason Segel on THR's Awards Chatter podcast hosted by awards analyst Scott Feinberg.

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    Maggie Smith

    The Lady in the Van

    Courtesy of Sony Pictures

    Dame Maggie makes a welcome starring return in Nicholas Hytner's adaptation of Alan Bennett's play about his experiences with a homeless woman who took up residence in a van parked outside his London home. Reprising her acclaimed stage performance, the actress delivers a moving, fiercely unsentimental turn as a character who could have been reduced to cutesy caricature. — Frank Scheck

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    Kristen Stewart

    Clouds of Sils Maria

    As Valentine, the assistant of a needy aging actress (Juliette Binoche) in Olivier Assayas' underseen gem, the Twilight starlet delivered the sort of casually amazing performance that leaves you hanging on every word and scrutinizing every gesture. Suggesting a racing mind and restless heart beneath her trademark eye-rolly nonchalance, Stewart created a magnificent enigma of a character, both deeply familiar and totally inscrutable. — Jon Frosch

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    Mya Taylor

    Tangerine

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    The steamrolling, out-for-revenge Sin-Dee Rella is Tangerine’s flashiest role. But as her frenemy Alexandra, Taylor is the film’s lonesome, beating heart. Her aching rendition of "Toyland," in a virtually empty bar she hoped would be packed, is a piercingly performed slowburner that speaks to the character's solitude and broken dreams. — Boyd Van Hoeij

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    Alicia Vikander

    Ex Machina

    'Ex Machina,' Courtesy of A24 Films

    Her role in the Oscar-friendly The Danish Girl might stir up more awards attention, but it's the Swedish actress' work in Ex Machina that resounds. She’s riveting as Ava, an android femme fatale as physical as HAL 9000 was disembodied. Mechanical or sentient? Innocent or calculating? Each infinitesimal shift in posture and vocal inflection keeps us guessing. — Sheri Linden

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