Richard Dreyfuss – Jaws
Dreyfuss’ performance in this movie is a work of career-best perfection. His performance is the biggest in Jaws, filled with nervous energy; Hooper is the scientist in the story, but unlike most scientists, he can hardly stand still long enough to finish a sentence. It’s a brilliant comedic performance, but he lands the dramatic moments of terror and fear to perfection as well.
Joel Edgerton – Black Mass
Depp’s performance got all the press, but it was Joel Edgerton’s career best turn as corrupt FBI agent John Connolly that really anchored the film for me. Edgerton has a strong character arc to play; initially, Connolly’s has good motives, if still somewhat selfish, but as we trace his descent Edgerton hits every note perfectly, from his exuberant love of his new lifestyle to his ever growing fear and desperation as he realizes that he’s in far over his head. Somewhere in the middle of the film, he becomes utterly despicable and the viewer wants to see him be destroyed completely, but by his final scene, he’s moved past despicable and into utterly pathetic. The sense of triumph at seeing him brought down is laden with a sick kind of disgust. Edgerton is an actor I used to not like very much, but he had a hell of a 2015, writing, directing and giving a great performance in The Gift. And then there’s this one, a performance for all time, a masterclass in the wages of sin.
Michael Fassbender – Macbeth
Fassbender is a pitch perfect cast as Macbeth and he’s every bit as good as you expect him to be. He plays Macbeth with a compelling ferocity, but he finds . . . not vulnerability exactly, but perhaps a kind of brutalizing frailty. Fassbender is ultimately nothing short of terrifying. His Macbeth is an unstoppable force of nature, whether he’s roaring in rage or, more likely, quietly going mad. Fassbender finds a resolve that keeps Macbeth going farther than he should. His delivery of some of the speeches here (the “lay on, Macduff” speech in particular is brilliant) is as good as Shakespeare gets.
Edward G. Robinson – Double Indemnity
Both MacMurray and Stanwyck are great in Double Indemnity, but every time I watch it, it’s Robinson’s canny performance as Barton Keyes that gets under my skin. Keyes is a sharp-thinking, fast-talking character and Robinson could play that in his sleep; he finds wonderful comic moments and makes what could have been a fairly average supporting part into a masterclass in acting. But it’s in the quiet moments that Robinson really reaches a level that, for my money, he never did elsewhere. It’s in the relationship between Robinson and MacMurray that the film really takes flight and Robinson may have put down his finest acting in that last scene.
Roy Scheider – Jaws
Scheider’s performance is probably the most minimal in Jaws, which is fine; he is, after all, playing the normal guy, the everyman. But the way that Scheider really puts you inside the head of this average small-town police chief facing a ridiculous situation is nothing short of great acting. Even among the rest of the amazing cast, Scheider stakes his claim and holds his own with a performance that’s deeply evocative from start to finish, a performance built, not on showboating or flamboyance, but on making every single moment be absolutely true.
Arnold Schwarzenegger – The Terminator
Schwarzenegger has never really been hailed as a great actor and, let’s be frank, that’s not exactly a huge injustice. But his performance in this movie is nothing short of fantastic. Schwarzenegger creates a palpable air of menace and terror almost entirely through body language. The way he moves, walks, looks around – it’s a great performance that adds up to one of the great villains of all time.
Robert Shaw – Jaws
Well, let’s finish up the Jaws triumvirate. Shaw isn’t subtle, but when you’re playing a lunatic shark hunter named Quint, subtlety isn’t exactly called for. But Shaw finds a character arc for Quint, even though he’s really only in the third act of the film. As Quint’s obsession grows, he becomes more dangerous, but there are moments here where Shaw finds actual humanity. The monologue is brilliantly delivered, but I also love the moment when Quint actually realizes that he is out of his depth on this particular mission. Only Shaw could say so much with a single look at a life jacket.
Jason Segal – The End of the Tour
Segal’s performance as troubled writer David Foster Wallace got raves back when the film came out, but it seems to have already been forgotten. That’s a shame because Segal, never an actor I’ve particularly liked, is wonderful in the film. He finds the Wallace behind the bandanna and long hair and glasses. He finds a real human character back there and the sorrow and uncertainty and emotional damage that he brings to the performance make this one so much more than just an imitation.
Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner
As iconic British painter J.M.W. Turner, character actor Spall turns in the performance of a lifetime. Perpetually scowling, spending entire scenes communicating only with exasperated grunts, striding through the movie like the complicated character he is, Turner, in Spall’s hands, is sympathetic, frustrating, brilliant, likable, witty, enraging, affectionate, abusive in turns. A scene in a brothel is acting like I have never seen before, absolutely without ego, without vanity. Only truth.
Ronald Zehrfeld – Phoenix
I expected Zehrfeld to be overshadowed by Nina Hoss, who has the lead role in this beautiful Hitchcockian thriller about a woman that’s survived the Nazi prison camps. But Zehrfeld, as the husband that the woman believes betrayed her to the Nazis, is nothing short of brilliant. The movie has plot twists for days, so I won’t spoil anything here, but Zehrfeld’s performance is intensely layered, constantly revealing more as the film progresses. The final scene is a knockout for a lot of reasons, but Zehrfeld is one of them. There’s a shot of his face in the final scene that still haunts me.