My Favorite Female 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 female 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 lead performances of 2016:
1. Rebecca Hall, Christine
My absolute favorite performance of the year. Rebecca Hall is so good in this movie, and I can’t believe that this isn’t getting more awards traction. From the way she looks to the way she carries herself to the subtle facial expressions — this is a perfect portrait of a woman with severe internal issues trying to keep her shit together, and it is mesmerizing. When this isn’t nominated for an Oscar, it’s gonna be a real shame.
2. Natalie Portman, Jackie
It’s hard to argue with this. She commands the screen. The movie is designed around her performance. And she carries it. I was looking for flaws in this performance and things I wanted to knock her for, but I couldn’t really find any. Great all around. She seems poised to win an Oscar for this, and I can’t really argue.
3. Emma Stone, La La Land
We know Emma Stone is an awesome person and a good actress, but she really hits all the right buttons in this one. It’s hard not to be charmed by her work here. She’s absolutely wonderful, and it would be difficult for me to not put her in the top three performances of the year.
4. Sasha Lane, American Honey
This performance absolutely blew me away. I went into this movie barely having seen a trailer, and from the opening moment of this movie, Sasha Lane captivated me, and she made me want to watch her for three hours. That’s not all directing. That’s star power. She is tremendous in this movie and she has not gotten nearly enough kudos for what she’s able to pull off in this movie. There’s a certain freedom to her movement on screen, and she also manages to convey thoughtful introspection alongside that. And she handles the actual emotional scenes really well too. Definitely one of my favorite performances of the year, and an actress I really hope I get to see more of in the future.
5. Amy Adams, Arrival
I watched this movie about four times now, mostly to see what I thought of it, but also to hone in on what I actually thought about her performance. Since the first time I watched it, I thought, “Wow, she didn’t really have a whole lot to do, did she?” But the more I watched it, the more I realized — she actually has a lot to do. The entire film hinges on how she plays it. You have to buy in fully to what she’s doing and she has to convince you for much of the film that her responses to things are one thing, when in fact they’re something totally different that won’t become apparent until much later. And she pulls it off really well. I’m completely on board with this (eventual) Oscar nomination. She does a hell of a job with this role.
6. Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen
She disappeared for a few years, doing the “moody teenage” thing that even Chloe Moretz fell into. And I think she went off to become a celebrity and singer and all that stuff teen actresses do now. But now she’s back showing us how good she can be with good material and motivation. She’s as good here (albeit differently) as she was in True Grit. The entire movie hinges on whether or not you buy her performance. Because she’s a really unlikable person for a lot of it. But you like her throughout, and that’s a testament to Steinfeld’s screen presence and her performance. I loved this film quite a bit and thought she was tremendous. And I’m glad she’s getting these fringe awards and nominations, because it shows me that the people who took the time to actually watch this movie see the same thing.
7. Ruth Negga, Loving
What a beautiful, quiet performance. Look no further than the climax of this movie, when she receives the news that they won the Supreme Court case, for why I love this performance so much. The way she plays it is so understated and touching. I can’t say enough about this performance, and I hope it eventually makes its way onto the Oscar list.
8. Zoe Kazan, The Monster
I’ve always liked Zoe Kazan. She’s been turning in great indie performances for years, and seems to be stuck playing the “Best friend” character any time she does anything larger. But in those indies, she’s really good. Ruby Sparks was tremendous. And she wrote that. This is one of those performances that takes you by surprise. Because she does not make this character redeemable. Her actions eventually redeem her, but the character is wholly unlikable for a lot of this movie, and it takes a larger than life situation to make you feel for her. Because you have to. She manages to turn in a really complex performance in a movie that you really wouldn’t expect to contain one. One of the most underrated performances of 2016.
9. Morgan Saylor, White Girl
She was terrific. The movie, far-fetched as it is, hinges on Saylor’s performance. And she really has that spark that makes you want to watch her. There are scenes in this movie where — okay, I’m sure she wasn’t drunk or on cocaine, but I could have believed she was, the way she played them. That’s one of those things actors constantly don’t get right. And I bought it the way she did it. And I thought she did a really tremendous job with this movie and hopefully this gets her loads of work in the future, because this shows a tremendous amount of promise from someone I had never even heard of before.
(Also, shoutout to Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. I saw the movie two years ago and really liked her performance, but it’s just so far removed that I didn’t have any real excitement for it. But she’s great in that movie.)
10. Sennia Nanua, The Girl with All the Gifts
This little girl is the centerpiece of this movie. And if you’re not emotionally invested in her, it doesn’t work. She’s great. This kid is a real find. I can’t speak in specifics since this movie never came out in the US, but trust me when I say — this little girl is really good in this movie.
11. Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures
I wasn’t on board with this performance for half the movie, but then she let loose with that tirade about the bathrooms and the coffee pots, and I felt it. I felt a lifetime of segregation and social oppression come out. And that made the whole thing work for. This is a nice and fun story, but there’s a real undercurrent of racism here. And the film doesn’t get too deep into that. Even when it deals with it, it doesn’t pick that scab too deep. And that’s fine. I won’t begrudge it for that. But that moment really makes you feel everything this woman — and all these women — had to go through every single day, and it was really well handled by Taraji P. Henson, who is generally very good whenever I see her, which does not seem nearly as often enough as I’d like.
12. Alicia Vikander, The Light Between Oceans
Never discount an old-fashioned melodramatic performance. She’s not doing old school melodramatic, but you know what I mean. This is a movie with a lot of heavy shit going on, and Vikander really lights up the screen. She’s shown an ability to do that in the past seven movies she’s been in, but I was impressed with what she did here. Too bad no one saw it.
13. Royalty Hightower, The Fits
This girl was terrific in this movie. Again, a movie that hinges on whether or not you buy the child — or teenager — at the center, and I bought everything I saw. She’s gotten a lot of praise for this performance, and rightfully so. This is a hell of a debut, for both the actress and the director.
14. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Winstead’s been quietly one of the best actresses of the past decade. No one saw Smashed, but she’s terrific in it. And the cult movie, whose title I’m blanking on… Faults. That’s what it was. Another one. She always quietly turns in these really solid performances. And this is another one. It’s an appropriately measured performance, that handles the thriller aspects (the “screaming” woman thing) and the dramatic aspects opposite Goodman. It’s really well done. I’m not gonna go overboard like some and say she should be nominated for an Oscar for this, but as far as captivating leading women go, she really stood out (yet again) this year.
15. Isabelle Huppert, Elle
She’s probably gonna get nominated for an Oscar, and there’s good reason for it. The film turned me off. Not because of the subject matter, just because I didn’t particularly like it, but there’s no denying that Huppert is terrific in it. A lot of people are gonna have her as their #1 or in their top 5, and I get it. I didn’t love it that much, but I did want to shout out what she did, because I was really impressed by what she did in this movie.
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