20 Best Performances of 2015

By @waytooindie
20 Best Performances of 2015

2015 has been an interesting year for film to say the least. Unlike years past, there haven’t been those one or two landmark films that cast a shadow on the rest of the field, no Birdman, BoyhoodThe Tree of Life, or There Will Be Blood for the film critic intelligentsia and wider moviegoing audience to rally behind in unison.

The filmic pillars of the past twelve months have been not films, but actors. Towering, career-defining performances from surging newcomers and refined Hollywood mainstays alike have wowed audiences in great numbers. Some belong to the best movies of the year; others are transcendent, standing a cut above the movie that harbors them.

With respect and admiration, Way Too Indie presents what we feel were the Best Performances of 2015. Be the roles leading or supporting, male or female, these twenty performances made the biggest impression on us.

Way Too Indie’s 20 Best Performances of 2015

Christopher Abbott – James White


We’re perpetually in close proximity to Christopher Abbott in James White, in which he plays the titular party boy/mama’s boy who flirts with self-destruction as a habit. Death breathes down his neck as he copes with his father’s recent death and prepares for his terminally ill mother’s departure. Abbott is a fireball of anger, frustration, love and regret that director Josh Mond always keeps in plain view, uncomfortable as that can be sometimes. Whether it’s with his slumped-over posture or with the twitch of an eye, Abbott bares James’ soul incrementally, with subtle physical tics and tells that hint at a raging internal war he can hardly contain. This is the kind of role actors live for, and this is the kind of performance that indicates greatness. [Bernard]

Joshua Burge – Buzzard


When Buzzard begins, Joshua Burge’s protagonist Marty is trapped by apathy, and by its finale, he’s fleeing in desperation. Burge characterizes Marty as a deadpan loser, a lower class user trying to milk the system to continue fostering his unimpressive existence. But as Buzzard unfolds, we begin to question exactly why Marty does what he does. Where did his poverty come from? Is the system he abuses perhaps partially responsible for his careless mentality? Burge forces the audience to finally sympathize with Marty long after they’ve (likely) dismissed him as an insolent dweeb. He carves complexity on a face we so easily prejudge and misclassify. Buzzard is a testament to the ability shoe-string budget features have to be meaningful, and Joshua Burge is responsible for a significant amount of its success. [Cameron]

Suzanne Clément – Mommy


In Xavier Dolan’s award-winning Mommy, Suzanne Clement plays the film’s most enigmatic character, Kyla, who lives across the street from the film’s two protagonists, the behaviorally inept Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and his single mother, Diane (Anne Dorval). Kyla is a complex and potentially traumatized character who has trouble verbalizing herself, symptomatic of the pain of losing a young son, which is revealed through subtle, visual queues early on in the film. Though Clement may not receive as much screen time as Pilon or Dorval (especially during the first half of the film), her understated performance is just as resonant, and for that, she deserves immense recognition. [Eli]

Benicio Del Toro – Sicario


Benicio del Toro has shown us so many dimensions of his gift that he seldom surprises us onscreen. Likewise, he seldom disappoints—he’s one of the best character actors we’ve got. But in Sicario, he changes up his game, playing a Mexican cartel land assassin who’s intimidating in the most frighteningly peculiar way. He doesn’t just beat up his victims and hostages; he invades their space, extracting information by leaning into them with his shoulder (and, in extreme cases, his crotch). His interpretation of the classic hitman archetype is one of the most interesting I’ve seen in years, a more psychologically sick and quietly menacing killer than what we’re used to seeing at the cinema. He isn’t a death machine, but a damaged, tired man who takes no pleasure in the chase but is nevertheless driven to kill by his obsessions. We’ve seen Benicio before, but not quite like this. [Bernard]

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant


In critical assessments of a performance, the lengths to which an actor physically challenges himself can often be the sole takeaway from a film; however, Leonardo DiCaprio’s work in The Revenant goes beyond simply suffering for one’s art. As the vengeance-fueled Hugh Glass, DiCaprio is a constantly compelling force. He crawls through snowbanks with bloodstained hair, strains while climbing up snowy mountainscapes, and practically foams at the mouth while tied to a stretcher during the moment where he’s betrayed. It’s an assaulting experience for both actor and audience. Yet, DiCaprio is such an emotive, vulnerable performer that he never loses sight of the human beneath the flesh wounds. In the nearly three hours of The Revenant, much of which features DiCaprio alone and engulfed by nature, you get a sense of Glass’s thought process from the little hesitations and panicked glances over his shoulders. You see it on his face and in his body language. He’s a man that is beaten and battered, but immensely strong of will. Bringing humanity to the bleakest circumstance in remote locales is among the actor’s greatest achievements in a career full of notable roles. [Zach]

Anne Dorval – Mommy


In Mommy, Anne Dorval delivers one of the best lead performances of the year as a mother struggling to care for and understand her violent son amidst the more common struggles that lower-middle class families face. It’s a performance filled with such power and honesty that it makes this heartbreaking struggle (and the even more heartbreaking moments of fleeting happiness) all the harder to swallow. And like all great performances, Dorval is able to turn on a dime with the material, like when she finds the moments of humor in Xavier Dolan’s wonderful script and nails them. Don’t let this be a performance you miss this year. [Ryan]

Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs


How does someone step into the shoes of an icon and leave his own indelible impression? It certainly helps to be aided by the staccato rhythms of an Aaron Sorkin script, but in Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender portrays the late Apple CEO like Silicon Valley’s Gordon Gecko—impossibly charismatic despite a ruthless streak of narcissistic tactics. As Steve Jobs, Fassbender doesn’t quite walk as much as glide from scene to scene. It’s easy to imagine a version of Sorkin’s play-like three-scene structure feeling too “start and stop” but Fassbender expertly throttles the film’s momentum like Travis Pastrana jumping dirt mounds at the X Games. Steve Jobs is an actor’s movie, but it’s Fassbender who handles the brunt of informing relationship through his actions. The magnetism of his performance both makes this movie enthralling and embodies the alluring aspects of Steve Jobs, the man. [Zach]

Nina Hoss – Phoenix


Nina Hoss’ subdued, tour-de-force performance in Christian Petzold’s post-Holocaust psychodrama Phoenix will leave viewers with their jaws firmly planted on the floor. Indeed, the final scene of Phoenix is so breathtaking and cleverly cathartic that it feels like the perfect end to a slow-burning cinematic puzzle. It’s primarily because of Hoss’ restrained performance as Nelly Lenz, the facially-disfigured and unidentifiable concentration camp survivor, that the gradual expansion of the film’s intensity works so well. And her eventual explosion, her emotional release that concludes the film, is simply one for the ages. [Eli]

Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina


While maybe not on the level of his work in A Most Violent Year or Inside Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac is always reliable for a good performance, and that doesn’t change here. One moment Isaac’s Nathan can be filling the audience with a sense of uneasy tension before quickly lightening the mood and filling it with laughter. Isaac brings so much charm and mystery to the role that he nearly steals the show from the wonderful Alicia Vikander. Isaac has quickly established himself as one of the better actors working today with a string of great performances; hopefully that streak will continue with his next film, another sci-fi movie called Star something or other. [Ryan]

Richard Jenkins – Bone Tomahawk


As Chicory, the old and seemingly useless town deputy, Richard Jenkins initially appears to be little more than comic relief in Bone Tomahawk. But as time goes on, and our characters make their trek to a shocking and brutal destination, Jenkins slowly but surely walks away with the film. Some credit has to go to S. Craig Zahler’s excellent screenplay, which gradually reveals a more complex character underneath Chicory’s buffoonish surface, although Jenkins’ ability to create such a genuine and sympathetic character from the page is what helps elevate Bone Tomahawk from a low-budget genre pic to a future cult classic. You can see the power of Jenkin’s performance already; despite a small release with little to no fanfare, he managed to get an Indie Spirit Award nomination, a surprising and—for those who’ve seen it—deserving pick. [C.J.]

Brie Larson – Room


The year’s most heart-wrenching film is anchored by one of 2015’s best performances. A young mother kidnapped and locked inside a shed for several years while raising her son, Joy (or “Ma”) is a tangled knot of trauma waiting to come undone. Beginning the film as a warm, protective woman doing whatever she can to shield her boy from their terrible situation, Larson often underplays the predicament. She imbues her character with the belief that if she can provide a sense of normalcy, her son might avoid permanent mental scarring. In the breathtaking moments when Larson has a raw, emotional reaction to the threat against her son, or the hope she retains for his future, her performance elevates Room to a special level of stories about family. When she collects her inevitable Oscar nomination, the broadcast may play a clip of her louder, more dynamic performance from the film’s latter half; however, Larson’s ability to balance emotional pain, world-weariness, naiveté, hopelessness and hope in one role is what makes this performance remarkable. [Zach]

Rooney Mara – Carol


The language of Carol is one communicated through gestures and expressions. Words are held back in almost every line of dialogue, so it’s up to the actors to divulge the psychology of the people they are attempting to embody. Rooney Mara, whose role in many instances is wrongly being credited as supporting, is astonishing in her ability to sculpt depth and humanity within Therese. If she’s hesitant, her hands and eyes will move a certain way. If she’s curious, her eyes will light up. Whether she is speaking or silent, we can always follow the emotional narrative occurring within Therese’s mind, and if that doesn’t speak to the caliber of her performance, I don’t know what does. [Cameron]

Elisabeth Moss – Queen of Earth


Elisabeth Moss’s performance in Queen of Earth is something out of a classic Hollywood melodrama—the kind of performance you would see from Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. From the first frame of the film (a close-up of the actress’ mascara-run face), Moss dominates the screen. Even while she is a wholly exaggerated person by the end of the film, almost animalistic, Moss leaves just enough humanity to ground herself. Director Alex Ross Perry helps give the performance the variance it needs with an out-of-time structure, jumping between past and present, showcasing the many levels of her depression. It’s the highest stakes role of the young actress’ career and she takes the opportunity by both hands, strangling it to unconsciousness. After her highly praised supporting role in Perry’s Listen Up Phillip, their follow-up together shows a fantastic working relationship and hopefully a pairing that will grow over the years. [Aaron]

Cynthia Nixon – James White


The highly underrated Cynthia Nixon provides the backbone to Josh Mond’s stunning debut feature. Nixon casts a strong shadow over the film even when she’s absent from the screen for extended periods. Her performance as a woman suffering from cancer is so fully realized that it’s almost too painful to watch (and probably will be for some). Another great element to her work here is how well she complements Christopher Abbott’s strong work in the title role, giving him so much to work off of. This is truly one of the strongest performances of the decade so far and will hopefully lead to even more equally interesting roles for Cynthia Nixon. [Ryan]

Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight


Mark Ruffalo has spun a pretty interesting career for himself. From his indie beginnings to becoming America’s favorite Hulk, Ruffalo perfectly blends a leading man’s charm with a character actor’s sensibilities. That plays well into his role as Mike Rezendes, a key member of the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team. The film beautifully creates the team dynamic, but Ruffalo sticks out with the most dynamic emotional moments. The ticks and vocal choices may turn some off, but Rezendes is a fully-formed character. You believe his inner-struggle with the information he has uncovered and his passion for digging deeper. His scenes with Stanley Tucci, playing an attorney who possibly has incriminating evidence against a church official, are a highlight of his performance. They build an important relationship by the end of the film, but it is certainly a process, as the two veteran actors play a game of give-and-take across the film to prove themselves to each other. Above all, Ruffalo portrays the kind of journalist we wish every journalist could be—compassionate, hard working, intelligent, willing to take on the impossible story and push to find the difficult answers. This all comes out of Ruffalo’s workmanlike performance. [Aaron]

Michael Shannon – 99 Homes


When Rick Carver is first seen in 99 Homes, he’s callously insulting a man who just committed suicide moments earlier. At first glance Michael Shannon’s character appears to be a walking symbol of the heinous capitalist practices that created the housing crisis, but Shannon helps complicate things to the film’s benefit. Carver is fully aware of how immoral his actions are, but as he repeatedly points out, he’s merely playing by the same rules as everyone else. He is, much like the film’s protagonist, simply trying to survive and succeed within the system, albeit through more questionable means. It speaks to Shannon’s talents that he can take such an unlikeable character and, by portraying him as a ruthless pragmatist, turn 99 Homes into a more powerful and effective cri de coeur. [C.J.]

Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria


The loveliest thing about Kristen Stewart’s performance in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is that it hardly feels like a performance. It feels like Kristen Stewart playing herself, only a slightly altered, slightly more cinematic version of herself named Valentine. She has such a natural presence onscreen, speaking and reacting like a normal human being while acting as the voice of reason for her boss and good friend (played by Juliette Binoche). In Clouds, Stewart is not only the most likable character, she’s also the most mysterious, albeit in a very simple way; for most of its runtime, there’s very little mystery to Valentine at all. Then, suddenly, a shift in the third act forces viewers to think about the significance of her character’s presence (in the context of the film’s themes) and, as a result, Clouds’ enigmatic nature multiplies. [Eli]

Mya Taylor – Tangerine


A lot of attention has been paid to Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s lead performance in as Sin-Dee in Tangerine, and rightly so; it’s a brash, uncompromising and great turn from a first-time actress. But if Rodriguez is the ball of furious energy that keeps Tangerine going, then think of Mya Taylor as the film’s beating heart. Playing Alexandra, the more subdued friend of Sin-Dee, Taylor acts with a confidence and naturalism that prevents the film from veering too far off the map. Rodriguez may dominate the screen, but Taylor is the perfect, sensitive yin to her boisterous yang, and by the end it’s impossible not to recognize how vital Taylor’s performance is to the film’s success. [C.J.]

Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina


We might look back at 2015 as the year of Alicia Vikander. Overall, she had four great performances this year, including the romantic sidekick in the pulpy The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and two finely tuned dramatic turns in Testament of Youth and The Danish Girl. It’s her role as an A.I. in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina that leaves the biggest impression, though. Her role in the film is to basically prove the Turing test through a sequence of interviews with lonely programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). Ex Machina‘s wonderful character design and effects go a long way, but nothing would work without her central performance. Vikander plays Ava with a softness and fragility that makes her completely irresistible to both Caleb and viewers. Her curiosity pierces through the usual robot affectations that Vikander wears well. She has to be both human and machine, hero and villain, and convincing enough to work within the film’s plot conceit. Her ability to effortlessly manage all of these complex layers is one of the most impressive feats we’ve seen all year. [Aaron]

Kōji Yakusho – The World of Kanako


In The World of Kanako, Kōji Yakusho portrays a man living in a perpetual state of dazed anger. He drinks himself half to death and has a long list of pent-up regrets and fears that orchestrate his emotional instability. When his daughter, Kanako, goes missing, he finds a direction in which to point his abstract fury. What Yakusho gives us in bringing this character to life is a master class in expressive body acting. Twitching, howling, and never failing to interact with his environment, Yakusho pulls no punches, diving into the core of his character’s deranged headspace and demented patriarchal rage. [Cameron]

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