In this final installment of our “Best of 2016” series, Andrew Warnes and I turn to the Best Actresses of the year.
Amy Adams / Arrival
One of the finest attributes one can acknowledge about the stunning and powerful Amy Adams is that no actress working today can better present an “everyday human.” No joke, while she can play a dramatic and fiery persona like the best of’em, she has always stood apart as one who demonstrates great restraint and realism (e.g. Doubt, The Master, Her, and Big Eyes). Perhaps, all these phenomenal and understated characters have prepared her for this role, because this very well may be her best silver screen moment yet. She demonstrates such dignity, brokenness, inner conflict, emotion, and strength, all in the most unflashy and un-Oscar-baity manner possible. The end result is one of the finest performances of the year (and the one nominee snub I’ll never rightly get over).
Emma Stone / La La Land
Let’s face it, it occasionally takes a very distinct and original set of skills, traits, and even features (*ahem* big eyes) to make an impact in the world of Hollywood. Emma Stone has all the checkmarks to make her one of the most liked leading ladies today. And while she may have many an unfair advantage, she has sensibly brought all these fantastic pros forward to make the most complete, classic, and likeable roles she has ever given (which is saying a lot). I’m here to wager you’ve never seen her in such a clever, relatable, fun, and emotionally stirring manner before, all which she appropriately wears on her sleeves. With the likes of La La Land, Stone certainly has met the ranks of classic Hollywood starlets, and has never shined so bright.
Taraji P. Henson / Hidden Figures
No one need tell of Henson’s ability to display a powerhouse and ruthless character (just ask Cookie from Empire), but for my own preferences, I can’t help but be drawn to her more likeable, vulnerable, and inspiring performances (e.g. Queenie from Benjamin Button). With Hidden Figures, Henson gets to once again shine as a character of true sympathy and admiration (and incredibly brilliant…this woman more than made me feel idiotic). But don’t think she’s all emotion and feeling, Taraji knows how to portray her real-life character Katherine with equal parts power, demand, and cunning. In short, she displays the best of both enjoyable worlds, and she does so effortlessly.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead / 10 Cloverfield Lane
Choosing an actress for a “best performance” recognition in connection to a blockbuster is typically met with some skepticism. After all, popular films with popular names attached to them (like J.J. Abrams as producer) are just money grabs, right? Well, not always. In Winstead’s case, she brings an emotional and subtle performance to a film that’s as much psychological thriller as it is horror. The film’s writing is particularly impressive, bringing subtleties of trust issues, fear, and the inclination to run from her problems to a script that could have been a simple survival plot. But it’s what Winstead brings to the script – a subtlety that reveals those choices, and a balancing of fear and survival instinct, that makes the film work far more than the majority of horror/thriller combinations do. Many people are talking about John Goodman’s role as the kidnapper, but far too few people are talking about Winstead as the tenacious and flawed (character name).
Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis /Fences
The purpose of Fences – to tell a cautionary tale about a man who destroys his family – is only possible if Viola Davis’s portrayal of pain is passionate and moving. To say it is those things is perhaps the biggest understatement of the year. The development of her character, from compensating for her husband’s rough exterior to the intense emotion she displays at the film’s climax, is one of the most raw and moving performances I’ve ever seen on screen. The fact that she has thrown herself into the character is clear, and throughout the rest of the film, the way that she acts with poise, respect, and a deep sense of responsibility is all the more meaningful. In the character of Rose, especially because of Davis’s incredible performance, emerges as a beacon of light in what becomes the emotional wasteland of Denzel Washington’s harrowing film. Washington, who himself recently won a Screen Actor’s Guild award for his performance in the film, is clearly a key piece to the film, but it’s Davis’s performance that brings the film from good to great.
Helen Mirren /Eye in the Sky
It seems nearly year after year, there’s always one film in contention with the iconic Helen Mirren at the helm in a very respectable and commanding role. It feels almost second nature to proclaim that the likes of Streep, Blanchett, and herself deserve awards recognition for every role they wear (and occasionally, it can even sound a bit redundant). But with her role in Eye In The Sky, I think we have found a well suitable place for Dame Mirren to flaunt her talents. In this film, she must play the ferocious and missile-happy Colonel Powell. She is the commander of an impossible situation, and one who must be the voice of the ugly truth. She expertly navigates through her soldiers and superiors in the most shouty, manipulative, and even cold manner possible. But in true Mirren fashion, she doesn’t permit Powell to become a cliché, rather she demonstrates one who is playing the role that is required of her. This commander knows there is sacrifice, discomfort, and even evil that must take place for a greater good, for better or worse.
Janelle Monáe / Hidden Figures
Having a film full to the brim with standout performances (making its SAG Ensemble Win completely deserved), it is difficult to differentiate as to who truly is “the best supporting character?” For my money, however, I found the most intriguing and surprising performance came to us by this previous musician turned actress. As the newcomer of the group, Monáe was able to display great strength, determination, and all the sass that the role demanded, all the while making it both fresh and engaging. I was also highly impressed with her nuanced yet fun ability to never hog the screen nor go all “Oscar-Bait” on us, which I found that much more transfixing and relatable. While it makes my heart happy the incredible Octavia Spencer was once again nominated (who is likewise great), I just can’t help shake the feeling that this was the real standout and breakout performance of Hidden Figures.
Lucy Boynton / Sing Street
Sing Street is a film that excels in taking cliche eighties coming-of-age motifs, and expanding them into more nuanced character and relationship development. That’s very clear in Lucy Boynton’s character. She could have been the every day “hot girl” that’s out of the protagonist’s reach, but instead, she, like our main character, is someone who’s grown up in hard circumstances, who wants to make something out of her life, but keeps getting pushed back down. And, in the spirit of the film, she ultimately finds true meaning not in those aspirations, but in relationships with those around her. Lucy Boynton portrays this inner conflict well, managing a balance with the cliche facade that her character is putting on as part of the model persona, while giving a subtlety to the inner turmoil and conflict that she feels as an orphan. All in all, the film could not work without the mystique quality she brings to the role, and she stands out as one of the more underappreciated actresses in 2016.