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The 20 Best Film Performances of 2015

The 20 Best Film Performances of 2015

 

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Sidney Poitier once said that “Acting isn’t a game of ’pretend.’ It’s an exercise in being real.” But how does one be real? This year saw dozens of performers bend the concept of reality to its breaking point. In Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, Elisabeth Moss’s Catherine descends into a depressive, mentally unstable state as she grapples with her father’s suicide, a failed relationship with her boyfriend, and failing friendship with a bestie played by Katherine Waterston. Of the role, Moss said she was attracted to it because “playing happy characters is very boring.” But there can be reality inside the boredom, as Gérard Depardieu demonstrates in Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York, grunting and sliming his way through the portrayal of a Dominique Strauss-Kahn type, a detached and criminal politician whose numbed indulgence of booze, drugs, and women is put on hold when a maid accuses him of rape. In an interview with Sofilm, Depardieu admitted, “When I’m bored, I drink,” going on to say he can “absorb” up to 14 bottles of wine a day and not feel drunk, “just a little pissed.” In each case, performer and performance is simultaneously off in the distance and close by, perhaps difficult to parse with the naked eye, but not beyond the vanishing point where tangible existence meets fantasy. If 2015’s best performances taught us anything, it’s that reality presents itself in many shapes and sizes.

The 20 Best Film Performances of 2015

Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon, James White

As James White’s titular character, Christopher Abbott emits impetuous masculine energy, which Cynthia Nixon, as James’s dying mother, actively deflects in a manner bespeaking of her character’s years as a woman living with a troubled, empathetic son. Together, these incredible actors fashion an intimate symbiotic cocoon out of emotional scar tissue and fleeting moments of grace. Chuck Bowen

The 20 Best Film Performances of 2015

Emory Cohen, Brooklyn

Though Saoirse Ronan’s Irish immigrant is the protagonist of Brooklyn, it’s Emory Cohen’s charming, beautiful Italian American with whom we, like our heroine, fall hopelessly in love. Channeling young Brando (that saunter! That thick-tongued accent! Those high-waisted pants!), he becomes the foremost emblem of the film’s swooning romance, as alive to the sex appeal of old Hollywood as it is to the pull of the Old World. For Brooklyn’s portrait of a woman torn between two homes (and two men) in the early 1950s to work, Cohen has to become the boy of our dreams. And he does. Matt Brennan

The 20 Best Film Performances of 2015

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Though he’s often just beyond the edges of the frame, Tom Courtenay’s stricken encounter with the past is an omnipresent force in writer-director Andrew Haigh’s devastating two-hander 45 Years, rippling across Charlotte Rampling’s face like a stone dropped in still water. As their aging English couple dredges up nearly half a century’s worth of personal history and finds its meaning irrevocably transformed, Courtenay and Rampling’s remarkable performances become a single, seamless entity, measuring each flicker of emotion with the precision of a seismograph. Brennan

The 20 Best Film Performances of 2015

Gérard Depardieu, Welcome to New York

Throughout Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York, Gérard Depardieu is fearlessly willing to plumb the depths of depravity in his depiction of wealthy sex-fiend Devereaux (a not-even-veiled version of Dominique Strauss-Kahn). The actor contextualizes Devereaux’s long history of philandering by playing his interactions with women as perverse courting rituals, and his blank, emotionless expressions and leisurely physicality shrewdly suggest a man so acclimated to having power that nothing, not even sexual assault charges, fazes him. Wes Greene

The 20 Best Film Performances of 2015

Arielle Holmes, Heaven Knows What

First-time actress Arielle Holmes, the star of Joshua and Ben Safdie’s harrowing third feature, Heaven Knows What, intimately knows the struggles of drug addiction, as the film was based on her autobiography about living on the streets as a heroin addict. That knowledge comes through in her ferocious line readings and gestures—a performance that burns with the desire to give her experiences the truest possible expression on the screen. Kenji Fujishima

The 20 Best Film Performances of 2015

Nina Hoss, Phoenix

A character like Phoenix’s Nelly Lenz runs the risk of never getting beyond a mere concept. Not only is she meant to shoulder the film’s central allegory about the dangers of repressing trauma, but she also spends half the film bending to the perverse schemes of a man trying to model her as a facsimile. To come alive, the character requires an actress as gifted as Nina Hoss, who’s able, with every minor contortion of her facial muscles, to expose the vulnerabilities and complexities churning beneath an evolving display of façades. Carson Lund

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