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My Favorite Male Lead Performances of 2016

Every January, I make myself pick out specific performances I loved from the previous year. I spend so much time talking about movies, but I don’t actually give credit to specific performances. The only time I’ll talk about them is when I’m going over the Oscars. Which isn’t the same thing.

The great thing about lists like this is that it forces you to consider everything. You immediately start thinking of the performances that are nominated for the awards. But if you consider each and every movie you saw from the year (and I did. All 350 of them), and think about how you really felt about all the specific performances, you’re gonna be surprised which ones you actually liked best. (Especially if you can be honest about it and don’t think about what’s already out there, which few people are willing to be.)

Today I’ll be covering all the male lead performances I loved. They’re in order, but they’re not really in any order. The numbers don’t matter. These are just the ones I enjoyed the most. We’re not talking about awards-worthy or whatever.

So here are my favorite male lead performances of 2016:

1. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

This is one of those odd years where I don’t love any of the male performances. It feels like a weak year for male performances. And honestly, it’s a breath of fresh air. Because there’s usually an overabundance of male performances and not enough female performances. And for once, this year is the opposite. And I love it.

That said, this is really the only male lead performance this year that actually truly made me feel anything. Which is ironic, because it’s almost as if this character feels nothing for the majority of the film. But man, that police station scene — that’s the only one that made me sit up and go, “Oh fuck.” This isn’t a performance that would normally crack my top… three even. Maybe he’d be a #3, but this year, without having a whole lot else that made me feel impressed, this was the most impressive performance I saw. So he’s #1.

2. Ryan Gosling, La La Land & The Nice Guys

More so The Nice Guys than La La Land. I know a lot of people are going the other way. The La La Land performance is strong because he plays piano for a lot of the scenes, and you see him actually playing. The dancing is fine, and the acting is good. But mostly it’s a serviceable performance. The Nice Guys performance, though — I really felt that guy. He drew that character up perfectly. He’s the right amount of charming, lovable loser, and complete fucking screw-up. I love what he did with that character and that was quietly some of the better work I’ve seen all year. He’s gonna get nominated either way, but for what it’s worth, I preferred the Nice Guys performance.

3. Cliff Curtis, The Dark Horse

In a year without a standout male lead performance, this one held up. Cliff Curtis, who has been one of my favorite character actors for a decade now, delivers what should have been a career-making performance, one that got him all sorts of notice, if not acclaim. But instead, no one knows this movie exist. Forget that he gained like 50 pounds for this role. He’s dedicated. And he delivers the goods. Sometimes a role like this can feel like a stunt. Not this one. He’s really good here. He feels like a real person, the way Curtis plays him. And more people need to see what is actually one of the best performances of the year.

4. Chris Pine, Hell or High Water

Didn’t think this would ever crack top five. But hey, the year is what it is. I don’t think Pine is the kind of actor that will ever feel like he gives awards worthy performances, but in this specific role, I was really captured by the work he did. He was quietly very solid, and while I can’t say this was great technical acting, I can say the performance, in the role he was playing, worked for me. It worked really well. And that counts. My favorite doesn’t necessarily mean the best or that I’d vote for him for awards. I’m just saying — this performance worked for me more than a lot of others.

5. Joel Egerton, Loving

I wish this were top three. But even for me, someone who appreciates the low key nature of Jeff Nichols’ films, sometimes it can be too low key. So I liked this performance a lot, but I didn’t love it. I appreciate all the work he did, and the work he does, and I think this is one of those movies and performances that should have gotten more love than it has.

6. Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins

Still perhaps the most underrated performance of the year. Meryl’s getting all the acclaim doing her usual Meryl thing — which is sometimes either, “Holy shit, look at her go,” and other times it’s, “You realize you’re sucking all the air out of the room, right?” This one for her felt like the latter. Meanwhile, Hugh Grant delivers the best performance I’ve seen him give in years (even though he’s always very quietly solid, and so rarely works with good material and complex characters, either through his own choosing or a lack of choices). It’s such a great role, of a man so dedicated to making sure this woman remains insulated and happy before she dies that he’ll do anything to keep it that way. It’s such a touching portrayal of someone who could have easily been played one-note, or given that Jim Broadbent kind of vibe. That dedicated spouse who never really has that air of deception about him. With Hugh Grant, he has that “cad” kind of sensibility, based on his earlier work, so you see that he’s deceiving this woman (in a way) and has a wife on the side, and you think maybe he’s taking advantage of her, but then you see how much he truly cares, and that makes it work so much more. Really love this work, and should he actually be nominated for the Oscar, I will wholeheartedly support it.

7. Miles Teller, Bleed for This

Miles Teller seems to work well when his character gets yelled at a lot and gets into car crashes. This is a really dedicated performance, and another one that flew under the radar this year. He gets to be the charismatic boxer, but also gets to face adversity with the whole broken neck thing. Even people who didn’t necessarily like the film had to admit that his performance was really solid. I’m a fan of his in general, even though I do feel a lot of times he skates by on that “I’m a charming asshole” persona he has. And while I’ve been critical of him and don’t automatically give him passes on performances, I couldn’t find fault with this one. I was very, very impressed by the work he did.

8. Nicolas Cage, Army Of One

When Nicolas Cage is dedicated to a role, great things happen. Sometimes terrible things too. Like Voldemort. Since Bad Lieutenant (which is still one of my favorite films of the past decade), he’s pretty much given in to a period of ho hum performances. It’s as if he realized he was becoming known for the crazy shit and deliberately dialed it back to prescription xanax levels. It’s almost like everything he’s done the past five years is uninspired and barely registering. Maybe it’s because it’s all been tax-related work for hire, maybe it’s because of some other problem — I don’t know. All I know is that I like it when Cage really dedicates himself to a role and goes all out. And here, he goes all out. You only need watch the trailer for this movie to see that. And, this is a character that requires an actor to be dedicated to it, because he has to sustain who this guy is for an entire film. And while the film doesn’t sustain itself all the way through, Cage’s performance does. And it’s the best work I’ve seen him do in seven years.

9. Michael Shannon, Midnight Special (& Elvis & Nixon, Complete Unknown, Frank & Lola)

Mostly I’m here to talk about Midnight Special, but I’d like to shout out those other three performances as well, since he did have about five or six really solid performances this year in all. He’s become one of the most dependable actors out there. To start — Complete Unknown, solid under the radar work. My least favorite, but still very good. Frank & Lola — not an amazing film, but his parts are the most interesting of the film, and actively had my attention while I was watching. That has a lot to do with him. Elvis & Nixon — he’s awesome in it, and I think we realize that. Casting him as Elvis is inspired, and it worked incredibly.

Now, Midnight Special — what a restrained, tender performance. It’s really fantastic work out of him, and I’m sad this performance hasn’t gotten more sustained love. Same for the film. There’s something so beautiful that he plays a father who is so steadfastly dedicated to making sure he does right by his son, which in effect means he sends his son away from him forever. (I’m discounting the final scene of this movie — which I feel is wholly unnecessary and is, in essence, a Christopher Nolan ending designed purely for the audience.) One of the most affecting performances of the year for me.

10. Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge & Silence

Double dose of Garfield. The accents are both kinda dodgy, but the work is strong. Silence is the more impressive of the two. I can dislike the notion of Silence’s focus all I want, but I can’t dislike his work in that film. And Hacksaw, it’s strong work that could come off as hokey work, given the old-school structure of the narrative. But he’s got some really strong moments and really shines during the battle scenes. All around great work that’s really solid and will deservedly get him a nomination.

11. Sunny Pawar, Lion

How fucking adorable is this kid? But even beyond that, how effective was that performance? I don’t care that he’s five or whatever age, he’s really good. He captured my attention for the first half of this movie. That’s it — it’s him. There’s no help there. It’s pretty much him for half the movie, and it takes an extraordinary screen presence to pull that off. And this kid does that. So I’m not discounting his age at all. This is one of the best performances of the year.

12. Christopher Plummer, Remember

Just the most underrated movie of 2016. I can’t believe this hasn’t gotten more love by anyone. This movie is incredibly well-plotted, but it’s Plummer’s performance that ties the movie together. I want to talk in depth about this performance, but I feel like doing so will spoil what a great movie this is. So I’m not going to get into specifics except to say — I love this performance, I love this movie, and this is one of my favorite performances of the year and one you need to see.

13. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nocturnal Animals

Gyllenhaal has been turning in great work for a decade now, though it’s been much more concentrated the past five years. He’s not my favorite performance in the film (the supporting characters steal the film right out from under the leads), but I really appreciated this character, mostly because of what they don’t show us. Technically the story, and the words that Amy Adams’ character is reading are part of Gyllenhaal’s character. Now, I know that’s not technically performance, but that did add to what I watched on screen and added an extra layer of depth to what he was doing. For me, at least. Solid performance, and I appreciate his dedication to the work. One of these days a voting body will recognize that too.

14. Mel Gibson, Blood Father

This is an old school badass action performance. No one gives these anymore. We’re so lacking in old school action leads that we turned Liam Neeson into one. Mel has been there all along, and no one’s let him be awesome in screen the past ten years. It’s somewhat deserved, but apparently we can’t separate art from artist (or we can… just selectively. Because Casey Affleck is about to win Best Actor) and won’t let someone entertain us on screen and disapprove of the choices they’ve made off screen. Because I’d love seeing one or two of these performances a year from him. You feel like you’re in good hands with Mel when he’s on screen. And that’s in front of the camera or behind it. Between this and Hacksaw Ridge, he reminds you of what a cinematic talent he is. And that’s the talent I’ve been going to bat for the past decade.

15. Denzel Washington, Fences

One our generation’s best actors delivering some of the best-written monologues of the past forty years. Of course the performance is gonna be impressive. It’s not my favorite because its such a theatrical experience, but the performance still really good and really effective.

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3 responses

  1. Denzel is my #1. Maybe it’s because of my own background in theater, but watching him I realized he just blows everyone else out of the water. It’s not even that close. Affleck is my #2, and he’s really good, but you’re right. This is a weak year for leading men (second in a row, actually, coming off two incredible years).

    And I just can’t put Garfield very high, at least not for Hacksaw, because those early scenes where he’s supposed to awkwardly charming were just incredibly off-putting to me. He’s better later on, to be fair, but if he actually gets an Oscar nomination I’m not going to be very happy.

    January 14, 2017 at 1:46 pm

  2. Viggo Mortenson was my fave of the year

    January 14, 2017 at 3:25 pm

  3. Spencer Higham

    Casey Affleck. Great choice.

    January 17, 2017 at 11:54 am

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