10. Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
In Kelly Reichardt’s triptych drama, Gladstone plays a reserved young woman who is more comfortable with horses than with people—until she meets a recent law-school grad (Kristen Stewart) who comes to her small Montana town every week to teach an adult-ed class. Gladstone’s performance, though contained and compact, maps oceans’ worth of solitude and longing. It’s a thing of unadorned beauty.
9. Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Most of life, really, is moving on—or at least convincing yourself you’ve done so. Here, Williams plays the ex-wife of one exceedingly angry and troubled guy (Casey Affleck). Even though she has remarried and started a new family, she can’t bring herself to speak to her ex in anything other than clipped, angry tones—until, in the movie’s most devastating scene, she confronts him with a rush of feeling so raw that it cuts like the New England wind. Williams pushes a little further, maybe, than you think she should—and reaches something close to perfection.
8. André Holland, Moonlight
Holland’s Kevin is a guy who has done jail time and is now rebuilding his life and working as a cook. Impulsively, he reaches out to a man he knew long ago (Trevante Rhodes), a person he loved in ways he couldn’t, back then, admit to. Holland brings shades of regret and wistfulness to this warm, resplendent performance. But mostly, he shows what it means to reach a point where there’s no other choice than to charge at happiness, and at life.
7. Emma Stone, La La Land
As a singing, dancing coffee-counter girl with big Hollywood dreams, Stone glows from within. Her luminous charm is both modern and retro. No wonder Ryan Gosling’s struggling jazz pianist falls so hard for her: he’s the polka dot to her moonbeam.
6. Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
In this semiautobiographical comedy-drama from Mike Mills, Bening plays a liberated 1970s single mom who is both superhero and irritant to her young son (Lucas Jade Zumann). She cares for him so much that she can’t tell if she’s smothering him or allowing him to be too free—and meanwhile her own hopes and desires fall by the wayside. Bening gives so much shape and texture to middle-aged loneliness that she turns it into something inclusive rather than alienating. By drawing us close, she makes us feel alone, together.
5. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Grief is rarely a soft, benign thing. It’s often fierce and belligerent, and those are qualities that Affleck brings to his role here as a grieving loner who is suddenly charged with the care of his teenage nephew. Sometimes Affleck allows his character to be deeply unlikable, but that’s the key: the impulse to reach out to him is greater than the urge to shrink away.
4. Isabelle Huppert, Elle
In this gloriously twisted provocation, Huppert plays an entrepreneur, a rape victim, a woman who barely understands her own appetites. Is she a goddess of destruction or pleasure? Huppert’s measured coolness will keep you guessing, and sometimes laughing. If it’s possible to live life with blasé gusto, this character does.
3. Ethan Hawke, Born to Be Blue
West Coast jazz trumpeter, singer, heartthrob and junkie Chet Baker was a rough guy with a troubled life. The man Hawke plays here is, intentionally, more a dream image of Baker, the one we want to believe in when we lie back in the embrace of his trumpet sound, as soft and strong as a willow’s bough, or revel in his feathery crooning. Hawke captures all of Baker’s radiant, roughed-up physical beauty, playing it as if it were a ballad—a valentine more fervent than it is funny.
2. Ruth Negga, Loving
As Mildred Loving—who with her husband Richard fought for the right to be legally married in their home state, resulting in the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision—Negga takes all the qualities we think a strong woman ought to possess and renders them in surprisingly quiet watercolor tones that build, gradually, in richness and depth. This is heroism spoken in a whisper.
1. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight
It’s cheating, sure, to wedge three actors into one “best” slot. But in Moonlight, the performances of Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes—all playing one character at different stages of life—are so spiritually intertwined that they practically merge into one soul. Hibbert’s Little is a spring green leaf of self-sufficiency and resilience. Sanders’ Chiron, as narrow and watchful as a whippet, perches cautiously between self-protection and tenderness. And Rhodes’ Black, the bulked-up grownup, hides behind layers of muscle. The slow burn of his smile, when he finally cracks one, hits like the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth—the thing you’d waited for without knowing you were waiting.