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The Best Performances of 2015

A living legend. A lonely shopgirl. A scientist. A spy. Several assassins. The best performances of 2015 came from various corners of the world, from actors who we expect to see in features like this to ones we had never heard of before 2015. Watching a new crop of young actors rise in some of the year's best films (and click here for our top ten) can be invigorating, and seeing performers who we thought may have given their last great performance deliver the best work of their career can be breathtaking. 

We asked the writers of RogerEbert.com to pick a performance about which they wanted to write. This does not make this list comprehensive. We all admire Brie Larson's work in "Room" and Saoirse Ronan's turn in "Brooklyn," but we tried to balance out our thoughts on some potential award winners with some of the lesser acclaimed turns of 2015 (and, interestingly, supporters for both Larson and Ronan). So, just because someone isn't on this list doesn't mean we don't love their work. Consider this a sampling of the best performances of 2015. There was a remarkable number of great ones from which to choose.

Blythe Danner as Carol Petersen in "I'll See You in My Dreams

Blythe Danner’s performance in In “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is the perfect mix of comedy and drama. She’s very funny, especially in scenes with the hilarious supporting team of Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place and June Squibb. She maintains that sense of humor even in the film’s most emotional moments. There’s a natural ease in how she invokes it, providing an effective shorthand for her character, Carol's resiliency. She's a widow happy with her usual routine, but she's not just sitting around waiting for the inevitable visit from Death. Several times in the film, she takes charge of the situation, whether it’s singing a spectacular karaoke cover of “Cry Me A River” or playfully succumbing to the easy-going, masculine charms of Sam Elliott’s hunky sailor.

However, what’s most impressive about this performance is its beautiful stillness. Director Brett Haley often leaves the viewer to bask in glow of the inner monologues Danner writes solely with her gaze. (I love how her face lights up when she’s tipsy.) Early in the film, Carol has to put down her beloved canine companion, Hazel. As she kneels beside Hazel in his final moments, Danner’s comforting, slight smile and her tear-filled eyes tell the story of their relationship. You can almost see her memories flashing before you.

Later, she is serenaded by Lloyd (Martin Starr), whose friendship has a slightly romantic, though unrequited touch. Carol’s a musician, so Lloyd’s act is a big risk on his part. But watch Danner’s reaction. She’s paying attention with her entire being: she’s the musician impressed with Lloyd’s composition, the supportive friend easing the nervous singer through his performance, and the listener experiencing an introspective catharsis through the lyrics. Danner caps this silent moment with the perfect delivery of a simple yet meaningful line. “Thank you, Lloyd,” she says. And thank you, Blythe Danner. (Odie Henderson)

Paul Dano & John Cusack as Brian Wilson in "Love & Mercy"

“Love & Mercy” opens with a deft re-creation of '60s pop aesthetics via montage, showing the Beach Boys playing concerts, recording singles, and goofing around for the camera. The trick is that none of what we're seeing is "real”— instead, through varying film stocks, mimicking the angles of '60s TV coverage, and aging the footage, director Bill Pohlad stages a raid on memory, using actors, sets and locations to conjure a vision of nostalgic bliss. 

At the heart of this strategy are the central performances of Paul Dano and John Cusack, who play Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson at two key passages in his life: Dano (an eerie doppelgänger for the musician) while the group is recording their masterpiece, “Pet Sounds,” and Cusack twenty years later, when Wilson is mourning the loss of brother Carl, and under the heavily medicated spell of a questionable doctor, Eugene Landy.  

Few recent movies have felt as giddy about the process of creation as “Love & Mercy,” and much of that is relayed by Dano’s effortless shifts between dreamy-eyed stillness (listening to a playback or imagining a certain chord) and acrobatic clowning in conveying those ideas to the band in the studio. He leaps about in a fireman’s hat, plays the strings on a grand piano, gesticulates like a big, geeky kid as the band plays on. Contrast that with the later sadness of Cusack, who looks nothing like Wilson, but conveys his spirit through whispers, side-eyed jitters, and a heartbreaking stammer. Cusack’s secret weapons have always been his pupils, which grant us a window to his earnestness; here, they seem to almost float on the screen, looking for someone with whom he can rediscover the joy he once found in his art.

Wilson heard music no one else could, and the key to these embodiments is how well Dano and Cusack convey the blessing and the curse of that state. By shifting in time, “Love & Mercy” creates a deliberate instability of tones and perspectives, generating a heartening unwillingness to dismiss the possibility of grace. (Brian Doan)

Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata in "Chiraq"

Teyonah Parris gives my favorite performance of the year in Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq.” The screenplay is a searing wail of love, grief, and fury inspired by “Lysistrata,” a play by Aristophanes first performed in 411 BC, and by the number of violent deaths in Chicago and other cities, more than the military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Parris’s character is also named Lysistrata, described by Samuel L. Jackson’s narrator/chorus as “a gooooorgeous Nubian sister.” Like her ancient Greek namesake, she calls for a sex strike to stop the violence in her community, asking the women from the rival gang to join her because they have a lot in common: “Everybody here got a man bangin' and slangin', fighting for the flag, risking that long zipper of the cadaver bag.”

The dialog in the film is almost entirely in rhyme, connecting the poetry of Aristophanes to contemporary hip-hop. In an interview, Parris said that her training at Julliard, including a performance in “Lysistrata,” helped her to locate the reality in speaking lines that could too easily fall into sing-song. And, she and director/co-writer Lee spoke about her influence on a key scene, which was revised to show that her character could be vulnerable but never weak. Parris utterly masters the slightly heightened tone of the film without exaggeration or irony. Her Lysistrata is brave but vulnerable and Parris is that rarest of performers who can show us a character thinking about her options, with each scene building on the last.

Her joyful strut through her community, greeting everyone she sees, beautifully conveys exactly who she is and how she feels about her home. As she listens to the guidance of Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), tells off the men who try to stop her crusade, or looks at the troubled man she loves (an excellent Nick Cannon), we see a heroine who is brave, determined, warm-hearted, and constantly learning. And we see an actress who is just beginning to show us what she is capable of. (Nell Minow)

Emory Cohen as Tony in "Brooklyn" 

Emory Cohen is a born star. His lithe, slippery body language tells you everything you need to know about his character before he’s said one word. He’s shy, but wants to project bravery. He doesn’t want to look like the other guys in the room. He wants to be different. To be the kid everyone notices. But he wouldn’t know what to do with more than one person’s attention. It would scare him, make him open up. And Cohen conveys this with the way he walks, the distance he keeps from Saoirse Ronan before and while he introduces himself. Less than a minute of screentime.

Cohen’s brand of inarticulate, sensitive method actor goes back a long way through screen history, but it’s more than jarring to see him show up fully formed and without peer in 2015. "Brooklyn," especially, is a peculiar place for him. It’s been written so carefully by Nick Hornby, directed so precisely by John Crowley and Ronan is such a calculated, composed performer. Cohen walks into the movie like a maelstrom, unpredictable human energy throwing off Ronan’s carefully scripted plans for herself. His words seem to escape from him despite his best wishes to stay quiet. Despite his slight swagger and immense charisma, he still isn’t sure he wants to bother anyone. Cohen draws on some endless source of energy that ensures that every microsecond of his screen time, every minor tic and movement of his head, is more animated than a Pixar character. He’s a burst of sexual, sensual fun in "Brooklyn"’s straight-laced narrative and the idea that anyone would consider choosing Domnhall Gleeson over him is pure science fiction. When he smiles, the film’s heart starts beating twice as fast. Memorize his name because he’s got so much incredible work ahead of him. (Scout Tafoya)

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa in "Anomalisa" & Daisy Domergue in "The Hateful Eight"

There was a run in the early '90s when Jennifer Jason Leigh was one of our most important actresses. Working with the Coens ("The Hudsucker Proxy"), Robert Altman ("Short Cuts"), and Alan Rudolph ("Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle"), Leigh was one of those rare actresses who seemed to elevate every project with which she was involved. She didn't just appear in a film, she changed the fabric of the entire project, from "Last Exit to Brooklyn" to "Georgia." Over time, the parts changed for Leigh, but the talent clearly never faded. Just look at her two films releasing in the final week of 2015: Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" and Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson's "Anomalisa." Much praise (and criticism) will be aimed directly at Tarantino and Kaufman, but the films wouldn't be anywhere near the same as they are without the involvement of Leigh. Here she is again, changing her art form through her sheer talent. In both films, she's given "the moment" in which the movie can rise above or crash to the floor. Her angry, bloody scenes in the second half of "The Hateful Eight" are its most memorable, but it's the tender, uncertain character she creates with her voice work in "Anomalisa" that's even more resonant. Daisy Domergue would eviscerate Lisa without a second thought, but it's Lisa who tears us up from the inside. One powerfully physical performance balanced by one in which so much is done with a hesitant pause or an awkward reply. My dream is that these two performances start another run like the one we got from Leigh in the early '90s. All of film would be better off. (Brian Tallerico)

Ben Vereen as Dixon in "Time Out of Mind

When Oren Moverman’s “Time out of Mind” screened at 2014’s New York Film Festival, most of the buzz revolved around the performance of Richard Gere, who disappears into the role of George, a newly homeless New York man. My eyes were fixed on the character of Dixon, who attaches himself to George in a shelter and becomes his de facto best friend. The performance was so natural and lived-in that I assumed Moverman had cast a non-actor in the role. When I checked IMDB after the movie, I saw that it was Ben Vereen. Ben Vereen! I knew him only from “All That Jazz,” but theater fans of a certain generation—when there were still theater stars, not just movie stars angling for credibility—will remember him as a true Broadway star in the 1970s, nominated for two Tonys, and a fixture on several TV variety specials.

His film career never quite took off, but there is a silver lining to that cloud. It gave him the gift of anonymity, which he uses to perfect effect in “Time out of Mind.” When George meets Dixon at a shelter, he is just another obstacle for George to overcome: a guy who won’t shut up while George is trying to sleep. As they spend the next several days together, however, he becomes a glimpse into George’s future. Is Dixon mentally disabled, or has he just lived on the street too long? Vereen’s verbose and vulnerable performance blurs the line between those notions, encapsulating the film’s social comment and commanding the audience’s attention. (Noah Gittell)

Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz in "Phoenix

The most remarkable thing about "Phoenix," the latest neo-noir from German filmmaker Christian Petzold ("Jerichow," "Barbara") is how much of its stifling mood is fostered by a single performance. Actress Nina Hoss, a frequent Petzold collaborator, not only grounds, but practically delivers everything that makes "Phoenix" such a gripping thriller. As Nelly Lenz, Hoss plays a woman in the process of re-integrating herself into post-WWII Berlin. The American occupation is underway, and job opportunities are scarce for Lenz, a concentration camp survivor who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery, but is ultimately unrecognizable to her husband Johnny (Roland Zehrfeld). 

Hoss's vulnerability draws viewers in. In fact, so much of the film's dialogue, adapted by Hoss and co-writer Harun Farocki from Hubert Monteilhet's novel, is of secondary importance to the cast's body language since the film is about people who are essentially performing for a living. Johnny, unaware that Nelly is actually his wife, wants to use her to claim government money she's rightfully entitled to. But to do this, Nelly must become the woman her husband remembers her as.

As Nelly, Hoss's transformation is remarkable. She starts off as a stubborn victim who refuses to accept the topsy-turvy world she lives in. And she becomes a canny survivor who understands, and even masters her post-war life. Hoss brings so much emotion to the film's bittersweet, haunting finale, where Nelly sings "Speak Low" and makes Johnny realize that she's not just playing at being his wife. It's an enchanting, brittle performance, one whose nuance, and sensitivity can't be over-stated. (Simon Abrams)

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in "Sicario

Maybe it's the eyes. Those haunting, sad and weary eyes that seem to say that they've seen everything. But it's not just his eyes, but everything that Benicio Del Toro does in his amazing, mesmerizing portrayal as the mysterious Alejandro in Dennis Villeneuve's drug cartel thriller "Sicario." He stands out in such an excellent and compelling film. Playing what could easily have been the routine, clichéd part of the interloper with all the answers, and who knows where all the bodies are buried, Del Toro gives one of his most beautifully shaded and nuanced performances.

In the weariness of his voice, his slovenly appearance and his slack posture, we believe him as a man who carries a huge burden of guilt. Throughout the film, as we learn more about him and the pain, the personal tragedies that have made him the person that he is, we believe the psychological toll. Del Toro plays a man cursed by demons and yet someone who has come to the sad conclusion that he cannot control the forces that have determined his fate. He can only go along with them and hope at the end for some sort of personal redemption.

At the climax, when he performs a truly shocking act, we cannot forgive what he does, but we understand the source of his rage. At the end, Del Toro is left standing, not a victor but as someone who has seen and done too many horrible things, but with the knowledge that he will survive at least one more day. (Sergio Mims)

Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer in "45 Years"

In a lifetime of beautifully restrained performances full of mystery, danger and sex appeal, Charlotte Rampling’s work in “45 Years” is a career pinnacle. Her face says it all. The British beauty, still radiant as she reaches 70, conveys so much with just the slightest glance or shifting expression. It’s a master class in technically precise acting, and it’s the perfect fit for the intimacy of writer/director Andrew Haigh’s quietly powerful domestic drama.

Rampling stars as Kate, a retired schoolteacher who’s preparing to celebrate 45 years of marriage to her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay, a fellow screen veteran who’s equally crucial in creating an increasing tension). In the days leading up to their anniversary celebration, Geoff receives a letter with information that changes everything Kate thought she knew about this man and this marriage. Rampling carefully reveals a little more each day about Kate’s evolving mindset, even as she maintains the usual routine of the couple’s comfortable life in the English countryside.

There’s not a single inauthentic moment in Rampling’s performance, nor an explosive monologue for the Oscar nomination reel, and yet she creates a complete arc for this woman. One scene stands out in particular: Kate allows her suspicion to turn into fear, which prompts her to go digging in the attic through the remnants of her husband’s life before he knew her. As she shuffles through the photographs in a slide projector, her face slowly, agonizingly crumbles. As is the case throughout his highly observant film, Haigh is wise to keep the camera still. Our hearts ache for her, and she hasn’t even said a word. Rampling has crafted a complete characterization through minimalist use of a few recognizable human instincts, and it’s just devastating. (Christy Lemire)

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in "Bridge of Spies

Would it help?” While that detached reply from captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel is a wry running gag in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” it is also one of the key elements in the masterfully understated performance by Mark Rylance. Reminiscent of Alec Guinness in 1979 TV series “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," Rylance does not reveal much in his plain appearance, but he subtly lets us get the small human glimpses from his reticent character along with a little dry sense of humor. 

During the opening sequence in which Abel works on a self-portrait, Rylance’s subtle physical acting captures a seasoned soldier of the Cold War who is constantly balancing himself between his disguise and his true identity. He is captivating while also being discreet as required throughout this quiet but increasingly tense sequence, and we come to see Abel as a fully-established character around the point when he is finally exposed in public. 

Rylance is also an effective counterpoint to Tom Hanks’s straightforward performance in the film, and he deftly conveys to us Abel’s growing esteem toward his lawyer while never overstating it. When Abel flatly tells his lawyer what will possibly happen once their business is finished, we sense a sort of friendship which has been formed between these two different men, and Rylance is poignant when Abel later makes a small but significant active action for his lawyer.  

While he has been a respected British stage actor who won three Tony awards, Mark Rylance was not known well to most of us before his Emmy-nominated work in the recent TV series “Wolf Hall." His superlative performance in “Bridge of Spies,” which will certainly be Oscar-nominated in the next month, deserves to be watched and appreciated for its restrained but rich aspects, and I think we will see more from this talented performer in the next following years. (Seongyong Cho)

Kristen Stewart as Valentine in "Clouds of Sils Maria

There is something hypnotic about Stewart’s face—her depressive eyes, a striking beauty—the sense that she’s thinking a lot more than she’s saying. As Bella, in the often-reviled “Twilight” saga, she brought to the table a weird unruly tension, so typical of adolescence. She is awkward physically, and not entirely in control of what she is doing. So many young actresses seem slick, professional and generically eager-to-please. Not Stewart. The “Twilight” movies are a portrait of a girl starting to inhabit herself, reluctantly, as millions of people watch. 

Even to those of us who have always been in her corner, through “Twilight,” “Adventureland,” or “The Runaways,” her performance as Valentine, the assistant of famous actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” is revelatory. The intelligence always struggling to express itself in the “Twilight” saga is freed in unpredictable ways. Stewart’s Valentine is insightful, capable, doggedly unafraid of conflict. Her awkward gestures are still present, hand pushing back her hair compulsively, but now they seem both restless and grounded at the same time, Valentine impatiently clearing the decks to say what she needs to say.

Stewart brings layers of complexity to the role, revealing not Valentine’s life story, but how Valentine’s mind works, the most important thing about any human being. Valentine’s thought processes are sometimes more interesting than Maria’s more-obvious struggles. The final shot of the film, showing sharp hills in the landscape where people disappear before emerging again, expands the narrative into anxious questioning. The questions echo with huge reverb: Who is Valentine? Where did she go? Where did she go?

In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Stewart is more there in her absence than in her presence. (Sheila O'Malley)

Jacob Tremblay as Jack in "Room" 

In some ways, young Jacob Tremblay gave the most adult performance of the year. In "Room," he plays five-year-old Jack, who, since birth, has been held captive with his mother in a converted shed by a psychopath. The boy knows only these surroundings, and whatever mom has allowed him to know about the situation. In the first half of the film, Jack is just a kid in a horrendous situation. He plays, throws fits and goes to bed when told. After he is thrust into the dangerous role of a daring escape, Jack is now faced with the real world, and it is here where Tremblay takes hold of the audience. 

Having to unlearn what he has learned, Tremblay must adjust without the guidance of his screen mother who up to this point has been able to suffer the burden of the film's reality. As Jack discovers things about the world he has only dreamt about, Tremblay appears to grow up exponentially before our eyes while finally discovering the simple joys of childhood. His simple reaction to seeing a dog for the first time remains one of the most blissful and heartbreaking moments of the year. 

Tremblay is no mere supporting player in "Room." He is an extension of Brie Larson's own terrific work, walking hand-in-hand, step-by-step with a mother who would very much like to go back to the time she has lost, while Jack cannot wait to move on to what is next. After one of the best performances of 2015, Jacob should feel the same. (Erik Childress)

Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang in "The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s ravishing and mournful “The Assassin” is one of the year’s great artistic achievements. Set in the 9th century during the decline of China’s Tang dynasty, the movie crystallizes Hou’s demanding and rigorous formal technique that eschews close-ups and develops its themes through long takes, subtle camera placement and intricate framing.

Hou’s work with actors has always been underappreciated. The most bracing and revealing aspect of the film is the soulful gravity and emotional depth registered by the Hong Kong actress Shu Qi as the vengeful female assassin Nie Yinniang. In “Millenium Mambo” and “Three Times,” Shu was more a decorative object of desire than a fully embodied character. She has developed a startling technique in the last decade. Lithe and imposing, clad in all-black, Shu is a searing vision of death. The first time she carries out an assignment, literally floating in the air and taking out a corrupt official riding horseback with a rapid and terrifying precision, Shu infuses the part with both a starling physical grace and emotional solidity. 

With very little dialogue, her performance is almost entirely mediated through gesture, movement and developed through the expressiveness of the body. Her own face is an elaborate mask of desire, longing and regret, particularly as she comes to terms with the great lost love of her life. As great as the film is visually, Shu provides a complex emotional center. The way she negotiates her own past and leaves open the emotional implication of loss and emotional surrender is equally spellbinding. To be sure, the imagery is intoxicating. Shu Qi’s performance is a radical act of awakening. (Patrick McGavin)

Idris Elba as Commandant in "Beasts of No Nation

2015’s gender progress, as fueled by the female leads in the likes of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens,” has also made cause for deconstruction of the male archetypes who previously claimed power. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s child soldier odyssey “Beasts of No Nation,” a story of boys and men weaponized by testosterone and rifles, offers one of the year’s fullest portraits of hollow masculinity through an unnamed commandant played by Idris Elba. 

By poising him with a royal swagger and confident proclamations, Elba initially creates a mythic presence out of a man who has somehow obtained such power in this rickety war machine. But in Elba’s most impressive effort, he devises an intimate image of someone who shepherds child soldiers, expressing him like a sports coach or father figure, one that inspires his young army with tough love and eye-to-eye battle-time rallies. 

Elba’s best scene involves him being rendered completely powerless. In a drab waiting room removed from the carnage tearing up their part of Africa, Commandant sits and sits and eventually passes out, waiting for his higher-up to finally make time to meet with him. This moment, and the others that follow in Elba's quietly vivid presentation of a gripping, inversely tragic downward spiral, prove just how non-mythic such a human being is. By the end, the curtain has been pulled back on the Commandant’s true limits of power, rendering him just as vulnerable as anyone else without a gun, army or threat of violence to hide behind. (Nick Allen)

Charlize Theron as Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Her physique is that of a lean and hungry predator, her skull is closely shorn like a warrior and her left forearm has been replaced by a mechanical limb. But if any feature defines Charlize Theron’s imposing Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” it’s her piercing blue-green eyes that peer out from a ghoulish mask of smeared black grease. As she roars along behind the wheel of her massive War Rig across a bleached-out barren terrain, little escapes her gaze or her deadly aim. The actress has been extolled for her penetrating side-eye glances on screen, and here they work overtime considering that she barely utters more than 100 words throughout this mayhem-packed post-apocalyptic journey. Her most memorable line? “Out here, everything hurts.”

Theron won an Oscar after obscuring her beauty in “Monster,” but here it's a small part of her acting weapons arsenal, as she challenges a world overrun by macho mad men, including Tom Hardy’s Max. She is surrounded by a ragtag sisterhood composed of five willowy young breeders rescued from the clutches of vile warlord Immortan Joe and a group of gutsy, gun-toting older women from Furiosa’s past. But what earns “Fury Road” its feminist-forward label is her relationship with Max. Like competitive alpha animals, they initially all but growl and bare their teeth in a vicious fight before slowly becoming allies—although it is soon clear that she maintains the upper hand. One of their best wordless scenes arrives when, with only one bullet left to take out a rapidly approaching foe, Max simply and silently cedes the firearm to the more competent Furiosa. Don’t look for romance, however. These two are too busy saving the world while chasing mutual redemption. Besides, the final look they share together is more meaningful than any declaration of “I love you.” (Susan Wloszczyna)

Kurt Russell as John Ruth in "The Hateful Eight" 

Is there a more underrated American actor working today than Kurt Russell? After all, the guy has been working steadily since he was 10 and over the course of a career that has spanned over 55 years, I cannot recall a single bum performance that he has ever given—some of the movies may have been questionable but never his work—but despite the quality and variety of his work, he has never even been nominated for an Oscar. In "The Hateful Eight," Russell reunites with filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (with whom he collaborated on "Grindhouse") and, as John "The Hangman" Ruth, a fearsome bounty hunter determined to get his latest prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the noose, he delivers one of his best performances to date. Armed with a mustache that would make Sam Elliott bow in admiration and a demeanor that can change from charming to chilling in a heartbeat, Russell tears into Tarantino's florid dialogue with a zeal that is contagious. The character is a brute but Russell finds a way to make him likable without ever letting anyone forget just how dangerous he can be. His mere presence is enough to help fill up the vast 70mm expanse. To go into any plot details would be unfair but suffice it to say, even amongst a cast of scene-stealers like Samuel L. Jackson, Leigh, Tim Roth and Bruce Dern, he is a standout among standouts. Thanks to the violence, vulgarity and certain plot developments, "The Hateful Eight" will no doubt polarize moviegoers but my guess is that no matter how divided they might be regarding the film as a whole, they will have nothing but praise for Russell and his compulsively watchable performance. (Peter Sobczynski)

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet in "Carol

Rooney Mara's performance in “Carol” is a virtuoso display in technique, a whole built from the sum of so many exquisitely accomplished components as to be exhilarating on that level alone. Her every individual gesture, general physical affect, and vocal modulation is built from careful study of 1950s—period-appropriate—acting technique, and put across with a grace that keeps the whole from seeming to be a mechanical assembly. The key, as it so often is in film acting, is in her eyes, and every bit of Therese Belivet's inner life burns the screen through Mara's eyes, those hard, gem-like flames.

The construction of the film, adapted from Patricia Highsmith's “The Price of Salt,” is such that Therese is the prism through which the audience sees Cate Blanchett's Carol, the object of Therese's fascination and desire, to the point that she assumes the film's title. But far from being a passive window, Mara's total virtuosity of Therese and her role in the grand scheme of the film is such that her gravitational pull, the reciprocity of fascination that drives Carol in the latter half of the story, is manifest.

“Carol” is the best film of this year, and of many other years. Rooney Mara's performance in it is, completely on its own, a master class in film acting. In the context of the film around it, and her interplay with Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler (brief, but palpable), and the rest of the players, it is also a masterful piece of collaborative art, a piece with every other exquisitely honed element of “Carol” as a whole. (Danny Bowes)

Oscar Isaac as Nathan in "Ex Machina

From the first moment Oscar Isaac appears onscreen in "Ex Machina," he has the audience firmly in his grasp. As Nathan, the reclusive genius responsible for creating lifelike robots, Isaac comes off as less of a kooky eccentric than a freewheeling frat boy. In some ways, he's as seductive as his most prized creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), drawing owl-eyed everyman Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson)—and the audience—into his own unchecked obsessions with frightening ease. There's a sense of danger reverberating beneath every jovial greeting and half-hearted display of fellowship, keeping us on our toes every step of the way. The unpredictability of his behavior reaches its comedic peak during an especially tense scene, when it appears that Caleb's luck has finally run out. Yet rather than display the typical evil mannerisms, Nathan breaks out into a tightly choreographed dance routine as hilarious as it is unsettling. And though his monstrous misogyny is loathsome, there are multiple occasions in which his musings on human nature make a distressing amount of sense, such as when he argues that one's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. He's a great villain in that he's impossible to dismiss as a mere madman. Not only is he oftentimes the most engaging character onscreen, there are also troubling truths weaved throughout his tangled mass of delusions. None of the choices made by Isaac—from the biggest outburst to the smallest inflection—are the one's you'd expect, and that's what makes him so utterly captivating. In a year that also found the actor channeling Pacino's Serpico in HBO's "Show Me a Hero," this is the role that has cemented Isaac's status as one of our most exciting actors. He doesn't need to chew the scenery in order to keep us mesmerized, though he just might tear up the dance floor. (Matt Fagerholm)


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