Sarah Gadon, Mackenzie Davis, Herizen Guardiola, Royalty Hightower, and 37 more of 2016’s best performances

I’ll start this with a confession, albeit a predictable one. This list is late, because I had to pry myself away, kicking and screaming from the idea I wouldn’t be able to write an individual essay about every and all of these feats of empathy, insight and genius listed below; that expounds my love for them and the endless wonders they hold and how they individually made 2016 such an adventure. They’re everywhere from film to TV to music videos and come from first-timers, seasoned professionals, and everything in between, finally getting their role or adding to an ever-expanding list of them. As is always with lists, it’s not exhaustive and bound to change from the moment I hit the publish button. But say no more, say no more. Here goes, a long list with a couple of highlights:

Oulaya Amamra and Deborah Lukumuena, Divines

Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things (TV)

Sonia Braga, Aquarius

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, Black Mirror (San Junipero) (TV)

Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead

Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishe, Halt and Catch Fire (TV)


How often does a show get to grow around two characters, two performances that have always begged for more so much? Halt and Catch Fire began as an entertaining drama that was held back by its ambitions to be the second coming of Mad Men, charting the rise and fall of a flawed male genius and the company he starts in the Silicon Prairie of the early 80s. Lee Pace is fabulous as Joe and has been from day one, but it was hard to ignore Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishe, who were quietly stealing scenes and making Cameron and Donna the show’s best characters. Luckily it was noticed, with 2015’s season two focusing more on their efforts to start their own venture. But season three finally caught up with them fully, build itself around their relationship and how their opposing work styles bristle against but also lift each other up. They grow together and apart, coming to a wrenching end, but even in that dissolution, you won’t want to look away, for you’ll be missing something truly fantastic.

Mackenzie Davis, Always Shine 

Agyness Deyn, Sunset Song

Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon

Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash

Sarah Gadon, Indignation


How long have we been waiting for the world to discover Sarah Gadon? A regular of David Cronenberg and memorable in everything from comic caper A Royal Night Out to Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, it seemed like everyone else was sleeping on a star in the making. Logan Lerman’s Marcus Messner may be the focus of Indignation, a drama about sexual repression, cultural disaffection and things left unsaid that feels pulled from director James Schamus’s 90s heyday as a producer of films like The Ice Storm. But it’s Gadon’s turn as Olivia Hutton, object of Marcus’s affections, that’s the true wonder of the film. She’s simultaneously distant and warmly intimate, an impossible balancing act happening quietly in the shadows.

Greta Gerwig, Maggie’s Plan

The cast of Ghostbusters

Ryan Gosling, La La Land

Sophia Grace Gianni, Transparent (as 12 year old Maura in If I Were a Bell) (TV)

Herizen Guardiola, The Get Down (TV)

Guardiola (centre) in The Get Down

Where on earth did The Get Down‘s team find Herizen Guardiola? I say that because her performance as Mylene Cruz, an aspiring singer struggling under her oppressive and abusive pastor father in 1970s New York, is an endlessly energetic showstopper that feels utterly unearthed. It’s the type makes you wonder how someone else didn’t find her sooner. But we’re lucky The Get Down somehow unearthed her and gave her such a stunning introduction, whether it’s through hijacking a church service to burst to the front and impress a record producer that’s in the crowd, or become the voice of hope echoing through one of the show’s best scenes – her rendition of Up the Ladder, delivered to nothing else but a candlelit piano, plays over a montage of chaos and desires revealed in the darkness of a blackout.

Kathryn Hahn, Transparent (TV)

Royalty Hightower (and the cast), The Fits

Hightower (centre) and the cast of The Fits

What makes a break out performance? What is a moment that is so commanding, so spectacular, that it cements that legendary, ephemeral thing of being a star in an instant? In 2016, one of those revelations was served by a nine year old in the opening moments of her film, doing little more than counting sit ups. Her name is Royalty Hightower and the film is The Fits miraculous mystery box that packs more imagination and insight into 71 minutes than many do in 120. Hightower plays Toni, a young girl who spends her afternoons in a boxing gym at a local community centre until she discovers a dance team (played by her real-life group Q-Kidz , all making their acting debuts)  rehearsing across the hall and decides to join the tight-knit world of high kicks and sequins that soon gets thrown into chaos with a mysterious bout of ‘the fits’. What follows is largely dialogue-free, leaving the stunningly focused Hightower and the rest of her revelatory castmates to work through the ambiguity of the film through movement (fun fact and spoiler alert: devised by Celia Rowlson-Hall, another person on this list), slowly operating more as a singular entity than individuals. It’s bold, it’s beautiful, you’ll be left utterly hypnotised.

Riley Keough, American Honey

Judith Light, Transparent (TV)

Lee Pace, Halt and Catch Fire (TV)

Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz, The Light Between Oceans

The cast of The Neon Demon

Dev Patel, Lion

Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys

Sarah Paulson, Blue Jay and American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (TV)

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When Sarah Paulson finally won an Emmy last September for playing Marcia Clark in American Crime Story, it was greeted (at least by me) with glad cries that FINALLY, someone was noticing! How to summarise her turns in Blue Jay and as Clark in as few words as possible? There’s a scene in the latter where Paulson-as-Clark visits the hairdresser. The media are constantly hassling her that she’s too hard in her no-nonsense suits and attitude in the court room, so she’s after “something different, softer”. “I’ve never had to think about this before,” she says. It’s an unsettling scene, one made even more so when she settles her head back to be washed in the basin. In that moment, without any dialogue, volumes play on Paulson’s face about societal expectation, pride, and an aching sense of what’s next. Her performance exists in the interesting sphere of showing the ‘real’ Marcia Clark, not one constructed by the media. In this moment, we realise a big enough apology can’t be made.

The cast of Queen of Katwe

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, Room

Celia Rowlson-Hall, Ma

Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen

Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Emma Stone, La La Land

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Emma Stone has sparred with Michael Keaton and fallen in love to Ryan Gosling’s rendition of Dirty Dancing, needing little more than tilting her head just so to elicit laughter. But never before has she been allowed to linger in the silences, something that despite all the noise, La La Land allows her to do. It lets her play more downbeats, to stop and just think, for a camera to consider her and see the anxiety, the heartbreak, the longing. It’s a spellbinding understatement that slowly builds to a stunning crescendo in Audition. The camera finally lingers on her as she tells a story, one of heartbreak and lost dreams that she hopes she won’t follow. But is there regret? No, Stone says, she would do it again.

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld (TV)

Anton Yelchin, Green Room

Renee Zellweger, Bridget Jones’s Baby


Hollywood sexism has proved itself in few ways more brutal than the treatment of Renee Zellweger – despite being Oscar-nominated three years in a row (once for a comedy, no less, an impossible feat), the third instalment in the Bridget Jones franchise was her first film in six years. But concerns about the potentially tired series (not helped by the previous outing), were allayed with help from a turn by Zellweger that matches the tender comic brilliance of the first go-around 15 years earlier. Zellweger is so earnest that you feel like you’re experiencing every laugh and shed tear alongside her. A highlight is the amount of physical comedy this time – there were few scenes this year that elicited more laughs than the one in the photo above.

Maddie Ziegler, The Greatest (Sia music video)


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