Top 10 Best Performances FEATURE
Roadside Attractions, Roadside Attractions, TriStar Pictures; Photo Illustration by Lauren Margit Jones for TIME

Top 10 Best Movie Performances

Dec 03, 2015
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Z for Zachariah
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Z for Zachariah.Roadside Attractions
10

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Z for Zachariah

As the last man on Earth—or at least one of the last two—Ejiofor gives a thorny, nuanced performance that spans the extremes of male tenderness and aggression.

Lily Tomlin, Grandma
Lily Tomlin in Grandma.Sony Pictures Classics
9

Lily Tomlin, Grandma

Tomlin, playing a cranky septuagenarian in charge of helping her granddaughter get an abortion, gives a prickly-tender performance that's less about aging, specifically, than about the great and terrible process of getting to know yourself.

Juno Temple, Black Mass
Juno Temple, Black Mass.Warner Bros. Pictures
8

Juno Temple, Black Mass

As a chattery, winsome prostitute who meets a horrific end, Temple brings luminous warmth to an otherwise cold, drab picture.

Sam Elliott, I’ll See You in My Dreams and Grandma
Sam Elliott, I’ll See You in My Dreams and Grandma.Bleecker Street; Sony Pictures Classics
7

Sam Elliott, I’ll See You in My Dreams and Grandma

In one of these movies, Elliott plays a dazzling silver-fox boyfriend; in the other, he’s an ex who can’t let go of his bitterness. He brings shimmering gravity to both.

Elizabeth Banks, Love and Mercy
Elizabeth Banks, Love and Mercy.Roadside Attractions
6

Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy

As Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who helped save Brian Wilson from crooked shrink Eugene Landy, Banks is the ultimate sympathetic presence. She proves that “listening” is an action verb.

Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy.Roadside Attractions
5

Paul Dano, Love & Mercy

What does the world sound like when you’re a musical genius? Dano’s portrayal of troubled Beach Boy Brian Wilson burrows right in—we feel the vibration of every note.

Nina Hoss, Phoenix.
Nina Hoss, Phoenix.Sundance Selects
4

Nina Hoss, Phoenix

Hoss, one of Germany’s—and the world’s—finest actresses, is haunting as a concentration-camp survivor, rendered unrecognizable after plastic surgery, who strives to reclaim the man she loves. Her face itself is a radiant noir mystery.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk.TriStar Pictures
3

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk

Some of us have been waiting years for Gordon-Levitt to star in a musical. For now, the actor’s gorgeously physical performance as wireworker extraordinaire Philippe Petit in The Walk is the next best thing. Re-creating Petit’s famous 1974 aerial stroll between the World Trade Center’s twin towers—traversing that impossibly narrow cable in soft, barely-there leather slippers —he’s a chassis of strength and confidence that’s as tensile as steel and as light as a whisper.

Ensemble, Spotlight
Ensemble, Spotlight.Open Road Films
2

Ensemble, Spotlight

How, really, do you play a journalist or, worse yet, an editor? It’s one thing to portray a reporter asking questions; it’s far more difficult to dramatize the act of processing information—especially when the details are as horrific as those of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal dealt with in Spotlight. Yet, almost miraculously, the actors here—including Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams—excel at capturing the complex interior dynamics of professional newsgatherers. These are people held together by anxiety, determination, maybe some caffeine—whatever it takes to get the story.

Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in My Dreams
Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in My Dreams.Bleecker Street
1

Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in My Dreams

Some performers take command of the space around them; others simply open it up with light and warmth, a much quieter way of taking charge. Danner has always been the latter kind of actress, and in I’ll See You in My Dreams, as a seventysomething widower who learns that love isn’t through with her yet, she’s so breezily in tune with her surroundings—and with her fellow actors Martin Starr and Sam Elliott—that she makes it all look easy. This is a gossamer foxtrot of a performance. And her iridescent karaoke version of “Cry Me a River” will slay you.

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