Sarah Paulson, “Blue Jay.” Playing a character who runs into an old, significant flame (Mark Duplass), Paulson’s performance is one of immense physicality. When she and her ex go to a convenience store to get a six-pack to, perhaps, make conversation more bearable, Paulson edges ever so subtly closer to Duplass, looking at him not like she’s seeing him again for the first time but like she can’t believe she’s seeing him again at all. She fills out her entire performance with these little tics, growing more comfortable in his presence the further down the nostalgic rabbit hole they plunge, seizing on a key cassette tape of their past and declaring in a voice that is nearer a time machine than any sci-fi lit: “The winds of change are fucking blowing tonight.” No matter how far they take their eventual role-playing, Paulson keeps a few toes tethered to her real life she’s simultaneously trying to push away, until the conclusion, that is, when she is suddenly forced to revert. Her most heartbreaking facial expressions are the final ones, depressed dumbfoundness at having just fallen with an unalterable thud through the trapdoor of reality.
Ralph Fiennes, “A Bigger Splash.” Like a hurricane might be a cliched phrase but, really, seriously, people, Ralph Fiennes in “A Bigger Splash” is like a hurricane. A rock 'n' roll producer who interrupts the holiday of his one-time flame, he enters the film mid-conversation, kicking up a fuss into a telephone in a full speed ahead speaking pattern that suggests a short circuit in his larynx has literally made it so he can't shut up. He can, of course, but Fiennes plays the part with eyes twitching to speak when he's not speaking. And if it’s all too much, it’s also strangely never enough, which is what Fiennes play to in the part, a man clawing at the oxygen in the air with his every move and word like he can’t get enough. You’re never sure anyone else in the movie actually likes him, but you know he doesn’t care. You don’t care either. He’s the life of the party.
Michael Shannon, “Elvis & Nixon.” How do you play Elvis Presley? Lord, how many ways can that go wrong? And it is not that Shannon forgoes an impersonation of Elvis, because he kind of does do an impersonation of Elvis, and a deliberately less than stellar one, choosing, brilliantly, to play The King as The King, a man who has bought into but also, at the same time, become tired of his own myth. This is Elvis long after Ed Sullivan.
Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals.” As a small town Texas detective in a fictional story within a story, Shannon outfits his part with more soul and bite than any other character in an often glam version of a B movie, downplaying his tragic reveal by meeting it with a doomed shrug, and playing the murder investigation more as a sizing up of the person he is helping, seeing if this person is willing to do what needs to be done to achieve, shall we say, real justice.
Kate Beckinsale, “Love & Friendship.” Joy of performance, George C. Scott used to call it, and Kate Bekinsale as Whit Stillman’s version of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan who is like two levels of Joy of Performance. Because Beckinsale gets to have fun in character as a woman essentially giving a performance with myriad variations in order to get every male, handsome, dumb, or both, all around her to do her bidding, but also because Beckinsale herself, eternally underused or misused as an actress, is clearly getting an absolute kick out of the opportunity to sink into her teeth into the role of a lifetime.
Trevante Rhodes, “Moonlight.” Assuming the part of the film’s main character after two other actors have already played the part at earlier stages in his life, Rhodes represses the immense baggage and frustrations we have seen established in the role even as he simultaneously allows that baggage and those frustrations to randomly, quietly surface, like bubbles in a pond.
Glen Powell, “Everybody Wants Some!!” It requires immense skill to both blend into and stand out from the ensemble, but Powell pulls the trick as Finn, self-appointed captain of a gang of 70s-era bros with a philosophy in, like, you know, life, man. His energy, in fact, reminds me of Fiennes in “A Bigger Splash” except that instead of driving you insane, he eventually reels you in, not forcing you to see the world through his eyes but pushing you - hard, if need be - to see the world through yours.
Lily Gladstone, “Certain Women.” While Gladstone has her nameless, isolated, recalcitrant rancher go about her daily routine with great physical serenity, she informs every encounter with a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart) on whom she has a crush with warmly curious timidity. And in her final sequence, when tasked with offering a doomed confessional, she is already markedly emotionally retreating before she even makes it to the end.
Addison Timlin, “Little Sister.” As an ex-goth turned aspirant nun, Timlin avoids playing too hard at the dichotomy to find a middle ground instead, evincing how a brief dalliance with her past life allows for the last spurt of necessary spiritual growth, quietly suggesting that differing subcultures can nonetheless humanistically merge. In Timlin’s able hands, there is no dividing line between Siouxsie Sioux and Mother Theresa.
Ralph Fiennes, “Hail, Caesar!” Not much more than a glorified cameo, Fiennes still provides his role of a highbred Hollywood director struggling to coax a performance out of a simpleminded cowpoke so much ruffled pomposity that his performance was the funniest thing I saw at a movie in 2016.