Paul Dano – Love & Mercy
Dano’s performance as a young Brian Wilson is a thing of beauty. Dano looks eerily like Wilson in some scenes, but it’s the mixture of fragility and exuberance that sets the performance apart. It’s much, much more than your typical biopic impersonation; Dano finds the real joy and the real sorrow that exists in the character and expresses it perfectly.
Benicio Del Toro – Sicario
Del Toro is as good as he’s ever been as the mysterious title character in Villeneuve’s masterful thriller. It’s a minimal performance and a surprisingly quiet one. He’s sinister because of what he doesn’t say, how he doesn’t react, what hides behind the layers that Del Toro quietly builds. When he’s finally allowed to take center stage, it’s the explosion the movie’s been waiting for, but he’s maybe nowhere as good as in that final scene. It’s a complicated character, deep and treacherous, but Del Toro navigates those waters like few actors could.
Johnny Depp – Black Mass
It’s a thrill beyond measure to see Depp fully invested in a role and giving it the serious attention it needs. His turn as merciless Boston gangster Whitey Bulger is easily his best work in at least a decade; it’s probably his best work since the nineties. He makes Bulger chilling, terrifying, utterly evil and menacing, but he stops short of making him a cartoon. Even in the most over the top moments, Depp’s Bulger feels frighteningly real. The role allows Depp to once again disappear behind a lot of makeup, but this time, there’s a real performance back there behind it and Depp’s magnificent talent shines through. This is the Depp we all used to love; here’s hoping this Depp sticks around for a while.
Murray Hamilton – Jaws
Hamilton’s performance as Mayor Vaughan in Jaws unfortunately gets lost behind that lead trio of performances, all astoundingly brilliant of course, but he has to make my honorable mentions list because he’s really incredibly good. Hamilton creates a character unctuous, preening, arrogant and altogether repulsive. He’s one of cinema’s most enduring “I just wanna punch his stupid face” characters and he’s never less than brilliant. His final scene in the film, an emotional confrontation in a hospital, allows us to finally see the human side of the ugly character and Hamilton makes that moment land too.
Tom Hardy – Mad Max: Fury Road
Hardy’s performance as Max is instantly iconic; he strips the role of all the Mel Gibson baggage and has made it entirely his own by the time you’re five minutes into the film. And he does it with long stretches of absolute silence; he speaks in words of one syllable when he can and if he can get away with a single word he does that too. And he spends a large portion of the film hiding the majority of his face behind a strange mask. But it’s all in the eyes; steely glares, a wild eyed terror, berserker rage and, ultimately and most surprisingly, a strange tenderness. No word on Hardy’s best performance yet; his career is too full of masterpieces and he’s still too young. But when the career retrospective comes, this one will be in the conversation.
Oscar Isaac – A Most Violent Year
Isaac’s star just keeps rising, thank God, and he took another step into the stratosphere with his performance here as the owner of a heating oil company struggling to maintain his personal ethics while competing in a crooked and dangerous business in the New York of the 80s. Director Chandor and Isaac are both angling for a Godfather II era Pacino feel and damned if they don’t pull it off. Isaac stalks through the movie, dangerous but conflicted, struggling to stay this side of the line, but being pushed at every turn by his competitors, his partners, his wife. It’s a great performance, layered and intense.
Ian McKellen – Mr. Holmes
McKellen as Sherlock Holmes feels like casting so perfect you’re not sure why it took so long to happen. McKellen has made a real career for himself by breathing real life into icons, like Gandalf. And this is another triumph. His Holmes is vulnerable, struggling, afraid; he’s losing the thing that has made him who he is: his intellect, his great mind and as he struggles to come to grips with this and remember a case that has haunted him through the years, we see a Holmes wrestling with failure and loss, like we’ve never seen him before. McKellen’s performance is perfect.
Jason Mitchell – Straight Outta Compton
Of all the ways the Oscars snubbed Straight Outta Compton, I felt the snub of Jason Mitchell the hardest; as Eazy-E, Mitchell gives what was, for my money, the best performance in the film and Straight Outta Compton is built out of amazing performances, built from the ground up. Mitchell finds an easy groove of charisma, but as the film progresses, he finds the complicated emotions behind the persona and as the film winds to a close, he portrays the guilt & regret of the character to perfection. It’s a great performance, a stand-out even in a film composed of excellence.
Ryan Reynolds – Mississippi Grind
If you’d told me even two or three years ago that Ryan Reynolds would end up on a year-end honorable mentions list, I’d have laughed. But he’s finding a smart character actor groove and, after a really fine performance in Woman in Gold, he’s given his finest performance to date, his first genuinely great performance, as a charming, but ultimately desperately lonely, gambler in the overlooked Mississippi Grind. It’s a performance that starts out coasting on Reynolds easy charm and he has great chemistry with co-lead Ben Mendelssohn, but as the film gets darker, you start to see the sorrow. There are some amazing scenes, once Reynolds’ character has begun to understand the hopelessness and pointlessness of the journey of the characters, when he’s nothing short of brilliant, even as he’s sitting quietly, feeling absolute despair in the face of his partner’s desperate optimism. Good for Reynolds; can’t wait to see what he’s going to do in the years to come.
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
Ruffalo is always solid, of course, but he gives a really brilliant, transformative performance here. Everything about the performance is dead on, from his body language to the powerful emotions of the character. The way Ruffalo moves, walks, sits . . . it’s all in service of capturing a character. And he’s adept at communicating emotions without overt performance; some of the most powerful emotional moments in the film are played wordlessly, but his face and his eyes say it all.
BONUS: Worst Male Performance
Bennett Kilpack – Way Back Home
Way Back Home is an old Pre-Code film that I watched as part of my “early films of Bette Davis” marathon. The main character is a wise old reverend who dispenses “witty” Yankee “wisdom” to the folks in his small town. One of the folks is Bennett Kilpack who plays the single most annoying character I’ve seen in a movie in a good . . . wow . . . a few years at least. The slack-jawed yokel is a stock character, but no one has ever done it worse than Kilpack. It’s the character I most wanted to beat senseless with a crowbar. That has to count for something.