To celebrate the films of 2016 and the imminent Oscars ceremony, the Lewton Bus gang will be spending some time talking about the Things We Dug back in 2016, starting with our favorite performances.
To start off, there were so many fantastic performances in 2016, it was incredibly difficult to narrow down my list. What you’ll read below are my favorites based on a pretty loose criteria of what I thought was best on a technical acting level as well as what stood out to me as memorable and powerful.
Elle Fanning – The Neon Demon
“You know what my mother used to call me? Dangerous. ‘You’re a dangerous girl’. She was right. I am dangerous.”
Elle Fanning’s performance as the impressionable and virginal Jesse in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (Read our review!) is as evocative and daring as it is sometimes (purposefully) uncomfortably titillating. The performance is almost entirely physical; Jesse doesn’t have much to say for herself. She knows her looks are what people evaluate her for first, and she lets them do the talking. As her success grows and she penetrates further into the male-gaze dominated field of modeling, her soft spoken nature gives way to an arrogant, deadpan growl. The real power in the performance, though, isn’t just the physical transformation we see from the beginning to the end of the film (Jesse’s coming into being realized gorgeously by a scene Refn shoots on a runway as Jesse reaches a kind of nirvana), it’s witnessing a wounded soul give in to the destruction that was wrought in her life for the crime of being beautiful. Before Jesse even reaches LA, she has been broken by the reinforcement that her only worth is her beauty, which she is told will make her desirable to men and an enemy of women. Giving in to what she was taught for her whole, young life, she draws the deadly ire of her older contemporaries.
We see so many shades of Jesse during the course of The Neon Demon thanks to Fanning. Her vulnerability, her deadened and pragmatic soul, her ruthlessness. All of this mixed in with the infinite sadness of being a child living on borrowed time before her beauty runs out. Jesse is never more beautiful than she already was in the moment before, and this informs her every action. She herself believes she has no other skills. Fanning gives an unflinching, bravura performance. And while she’s been impressing since way back in Super 8, her career will be one to watch for in the coming years.
Daniel Radcliffe – Swiss Army Man
“Is this crying? I don’t like it. It’s wet and uncomfortable.”
Swiss Army Man isn’t just the kind of movie that can reaffirm your love for film, it’s the kind of movie that will reaffirm your love for humanity. And Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as the magical corpse, Manny, gives the movie it’s beating heart as well as it’s constant comical and heartfelt flatulence.
It’s the sort of role a lesser actor would scoff at. Play a corpse? A farting corpse? But Radcliffe, who since the ending of the Harry Potter franchise has lead a career defined by unorthodox roles, has become one of Hollywood’s best and most daring actors.
The story of Manny and Paul Dano’s Hank is that of a lost soul, Dano, learning to live again as he teaches Manny what it means to be a person. There is song, story, adventure, laughter, love, and a little bit of alcohol. For a movie featuring only living person and a corpse, it’s filled to the brim with life. Radcliffe’s Manny learns the ins and outs of being a person, including heartbreak and what it means to grow up. It’s the kind of insane physical commitment and performance on par with the work of the Marx brothers or Charlie Chaplin. Radcliffe gives himself completely to the role and the film, and it pays off in spades.
Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
“Lord of the plains. That’s me.”
The central relationship in Hell or High Water, the story of two brothers on a cross-Texas robbing spree, bent on stealing from the bank that wants to foreclose on their families land. Pine plays the quiet, driven, and careful Toby Howard. Foster, on the other hand, plays ex-con Tanner Howard like a man with one day left to live. He’s impulsive, brash, and violent. And he loves his brother. It’s the kind of love that will be familiar to anyone with an older brother; they fight and argue over the semantics of their bank robbing, they wrestle while having beers and watching the sun set. Foster’s Toby might seem like a violent maniac to most, but basically everything he does in the movie is in service to his love for his brother. It’s the kind of fully realized performance of a despicable character that you can’t help but feel for at the same time. Foster is a chameleon of an actor, and one of Hollywood’s best who often flies under the radar. It’s incredible that in the same year as his bizarro turn as a compromised mage in Warcraft he also delivers the stirring and vivid portrait he creates in Hell or High Water.
Angourie Rice – The Nice Guys
“You’re the world’s worst detective.”
Shane Black has a penchant for giving young actors breakout roles in his movies, and his nigh-perfect The Nice Guys is no exception. Playing opposite Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe (both at the top of their game) Angourie Rice manages to practically steal the movie out from under their feet. Delivering some of the best lines in the movie, Rice eases through the rhythm, humor of another top-tier Shane Black script like she’s been doing it for years. While it’d be easy to give all the credit to Black for being a great director and writer, Rice feels like such a naturally gifted actress that it’s hard not to be excited for her next big role (which will be in Spiderman: Homecoming, by the way).
Ryan Gosling – The Nice Guys/La La Land
“No kid, we don’t want to see your dick.”
It should be against the law for someone to give two perfect performances the way Ryan Gosling did this past year in The Nice Guys and La La Land, but here we are. In one film he plays an incredibly talented jazz pianist who just so happens to have some of the crappiest luck in Los Angeles…in the other, he plays a fairly bad detective who just so happens to be the luckiest sonofabitch in Los Angeles. Gosling is so good in the roles it makes me want to encourage him to only play ‘slightly asshole-ish guys who we can’t help but root for and live in LA’ in the future. The shared DNA between Holland March and Sebastian are apparent. Both are slightly delusional goofballs, often succeeding in spite of themselves, but with the important backbone that Gosling has in spades: an almost old school movie star charm that forgives all his bad habits and makes him someone to root for.
It’s also important to mention just how blastedly funny Gosling is in these pictures. He gives a physical comedy performance on par with Buster Keaton in The Nice Guys (case in point), and while Sebastian might lack the technical dancing excellence of his forebear Fred Astaire in La La Land, he more than makes up for it with his warm smile and dancing eyes.
Amy Adams – Arrival
“Memory is a strange thing.”
Amy Adams is one of my favorite actresses. From Enchanted to Doubt she can deliver in any genre. She’s funny, warm, deep, and human. And somehow she is still continuing to impress me. In Arrival (Read our review!), she gives her best performance yet as the brilliant but isolated Dr. Louise Banks. On the surface, Arrival may be an expansive story of humanities first contact with aliens, but it’s really an intimate story about one person and the kinds of choices we make in our lives. It’s difficult to get deep into Louise’s story without spoilers, but suffice it to say, her journey teaches us an important lesson: that accepting the ephemeral nature of life and happiness will always be the better choice over stagnation and fear. Advocating for Adams’ greatness in this part is really me advocating for this movie, which has the potential to change your life.
Garrett Hedlund – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
“I love you too, Billy.”
One of this year’s sadly underseen and underappreciated films, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Read our review!) also features what is probably Garrett Hedlund’s best onscreen performance yet. Hedlund plays the cynical but protective Sergeant Dime. Keeping his unruly men in line while they’re stateside, Dime could come across as simply a buzzkill, but Hedlund informs Dime with so humanity and life that elevates the role from stereotypical gruff sergeant to an actual person. He has several bravura scenes where he picks apart the empty adoration of civilians thanking him and his men for their service, or asking if the war is “worth it”. For Dime, like all the troops, they don’t care about the macro reasons for the conflict. They’re soldiers and it’s their job. Their focus is on keeping one another alive.
It’s one of the real gifts of this movie that each soldier feels like a real person. There aren’t any stock characters here. Just the modern soldier as he really is: real people who love and need one another. If you skipped out on this movie, I highly recommend giving it a watch.
Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!
Hail, Caesar! has suffered this year from the “Zodiac Effect”, which is what I like to call it when one of the years best films comes out in February and is forgotten by the time year-end lists roll around. Well no such effect takes place here at Lewton Bus. Hail, Caesar! is a treasure, and Ehrenreich one of its brightest jewels. He participates in what is perhaps the funniest scene of the year with Ralph Fiennes, and oozes charm throughout the rest of the picture. Also? Just look at how damn handsome this guy is. There’s not much else to say other than that the young actor holds his own with some of the best in the business in this film, and gives a performance well worth celebrating.
Anya Taylor-Joy – The Witch
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
The Witch is one of my favorite films of the year, and at its center is Anya Taylor-Joy, an almost unknown actress before the movie who hits her part right out of the park. Her Tomasin is bursting with womanhood in a time and place where desire for anything beyond a simple and pious life is viewed as sacrilegious. It’s a constantly understated performance. Tomasin never speaks about her desires or her aches for something more, but rather we feel these things through Taylor-Joy’s wide and vulnerable eyes. In the end, when Tomasin celebrates her new life, there is dread (this is one of the most tensely atmospheric movies I’ve ever seen), but there is also power in her choice. A fist-pumping moment of patriarchal rejection on par with moments in Mad Max: Fury Road.
I have to shout out to the other child actors in this movie…they’re all incredible. It’s one thing to have one or two kids who knock it out of the park, but to have four is a wonder. Harvey Scrimshaw in particular has a possession scene which blows the roof off of the movie with the kind of commitment and energy you might find hard to get out of a far more experienced actor.
I can’t help myself, so here are some honorable mentions: Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. (Captain America: Civil War), Colin Farrell (The Lobster), Zac Efron (Neighbors 2), Toby Kebbell (Warcraft), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Ma Dong-Seok (Train to Busan)
So there are my favorite performances for the year! I know I probably missed your favorite, so tell me about it in the comments below. I look forward to reading about them!