The best performances we saw in 2015
Tracy Chapman, The Late Show with David Letterman
Sometimes lightning strikes, and you catch it in a bottle. In late April, for one of his last shows, David Letterman had Tracy Chapman come on to perform one of his favorite songs, Ben E. King's "Stand By Me." It was a beautiful rendition, just Chapman and her electric guitar, but it gained new resonance two weeks later when King died at age 76. Since the performance aired, Letterman went off the air, King left this world, and plenty of dark things happened in the U.S. and around the world. But this still stands. –Peter Weber, senior editor
Colin Farrell, True Detective
I won't rehash the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the sophomore season of True Detective — but whatever your views on the show, you have to admit, Colin Farrell was great.
No role Farrell has tackled has possessed the visceral, layered emotion of detective Ray Velcoro. Over 10 episodes, Farrell takes an abusive, psychotic addict of a man and forcibly pulled the good parts of him like viscera from the depths of Velcoro's soul. You can feel the weight, existential but made palpable, that he carries around. He could have been a parody: a coked-up, alcoholic, violent, corrupt cop. Instead, he became the heart of the show. We may not remember the plot's particulars, but we will remember him. –Chris Lites, contributing writer
FKA Twigs, Congregata
For three nights in May, English singer-songwriter Tahliah Barnett, who records as FKA Twigs, took the stage at a little-known venue in Brooklyn's Sunset Park to deliver a truly transcendental performance. Movement, moreso than music, was the show's focus and drive. Backed by a slew of male dancers, FKA Twigs — a classically trained dancer herself — captivated the audience with her deliberately slow, winding motions, while her core of dancers warred against her intentional slowness with staccato jumps, impressive acrobatics, and — much to the delight of the crowd — plenty of world-class vogueing. As the booming choruses of hits from her debut album LP1 waxed and waned, so the writhing bodies of Twigs and her dancers did also.
The venue's smoky darkness, penetrated occasionally by warm hues of red and orange, remained for the entirety of the set, which, combined with the suffocating heat, transported the audience to a hellish underbelly of the psyche, and kept them there. –Stephanie Talmadge, editorial assistant
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
If there was any justice in the Oscars, Nina Hoss wouldn't merely be a contender for Best Actress — she'd be the frontrunner. In Phoenix, her fourth collaboration with German auteur Christian Petzold, Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a Holocaust survivor who gets surgery to heal her scarred face. When she tries to reunite with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), she realizes he doesn't recognize her, and decides to conceal her real identity as she figures out his true loyalties.
The grace with which Hoss assumes the role masks what a delicate balancing act it is. She must be vulnerable yet threatening, seductive yet cunning, enigmatic yet human — neither a muse nor a femme fatale. It's easy to understand why she and Petzold keep working together; her ability to turn a look into language is perfectly in sync with his style of wordless storytelling. She has the presence of a movie star without any of the synthetic glamour. And Phoenix's ending — which I'll refrain from spoiling here — relies entirely on Hoss' considerable range of talents, and winds up being one of the most powerful moments in recent cinematic memory. –Amy Woolsey, contributing writer
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Key & Peele's "Negrotown"
Rarely do political satire and absurdist whimsy join forces in the comedy vortex. But throughout its glorious five-season run, this has been Key and Peele's sweet spot; equally adept at provoking insightful commentary and committing to ridiculous bits, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key fuse styles for sketches that are as effective at making us think as they are at making us laugh. "Negrotown" closed out their final season with what might be the epitome of this combination: a spectacular choreographed musical number about a mythical black utopia designed to address police brutality. As Peele's ceremonious tour guide introduces Key's unfairly treated black everyman to a cartoonish fantasy land where black people aren't oppressed, the racially motivated stop-and-frisk we'd witnessed moments before appears all the more brutal in comparison.
Negrotown is supposed to seem silly; residents wear bright, primary colored outfits and dance and sing to the comic tune of an oboe, signaling to viewers that such a ludicrous dreamworld could never actually exist. Yet amenities that Key's character describes as "too good to be true" are merely the basic courtesies afforded to white people automatically: the right to appear in public without being harassed, to catch cabs and sign leases, to have their personal space respected. By depicting fundamental rights as wild dreams to those who are systematically denied them, Key and Peele make racial inequality starkly — and, yes, hilariously — visible. –Roxie Pell, editorial intern
Kendrick Lamar, Late Show with Stephen Colbert
If you're one of those people who doesn't understand the appeal of live music, I'm going to go ahead and assume that you've never watched a Kendrick Lamar performance. Allow me to direct you to the Compton-born rapper's September appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Lamar took the stage as Colbert's first official musical guest and ran through a medley of tracks from his third album, To Pimp a Butterfly, released earlier this year.
Backed by a full live band, Lamar is so on-beat with his gestures it's as if he's a marionette. But it's obvious that Lamar is the one in charge of this stage: so flawless in his delivery of tongue-twisting verses, and so charismatic in his flourishes at the microphone.
I could go on and on singing Lamar's praises — not to mention detailing the intense, emotional messages hidden in his laudable verses — but the proof is in the performance, so do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing. –Kimberly Alters, social media editor
The women of The Leftovers
The startling and brilliant second season of HBO's bleak drama The Leftovers, set in the long aftermath of the "Sudden Departure" — in which two percent of the world's population vanished without explanation — features fine work from the entire ensemble, but it succeeds on the strength of its remarkable women.
Amy Brenneman, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd, Regina King, Janel Moloney, Margaret Qualley, and Liv Tyler register every emotional tremor of The Leftovers' quasi-apocalyptic universe, and with each turn of the kaleidoscope the narrative comes into sharper focus. From the frustrated hope of "Off Ramp" and the intense grief of "Lens" to the nihilistic chill of "International Assassin" and the wild rage of "Ten Thirteen," their ferocious commitment is the yarn from which the 10-episode whole is woven. Indeed, thanks to the women of The Leftovers, the series has emerged as a stricken masterpiece. It's the best show on television. –Matt Brennan, contributing writer
Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
After getting his start on a 2004 episode of Gilmore Girls, Rami Malek has popped up in a wide spectrum of Hollywood projects, from The Pacific to Night at the Museum. But it took USA's thrilling drama series Mr. Robot to earn Malek a deserved ascent from intriguing character actor to charismatic leading man.
Malek didn't make it easy on himself. As Elliott Alderson — a hacker suffering from drug addiction, mental illness, and social ineptitude — he delivers the majority of his dialogue in hushed voiceover addressed to the audience. He spends much of his onscreen time gawking with his enormous eyes and mumbling out of his nearly closed mouth. But Elliott is no garden-variety TV hacker stereotype. He's a savant, eyes open to the world around him in a way no else can understand. The performance anchors a series that depends on Elliott's unreliable perspective to tell its frantic, of-the-moment story. Malek brings a remarkable depth of feeling to a character who only rarely feels. –Mark Lieberman, contributing writer
Ben Miles in Wolf Hall (Broadway); Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall (BBC)
My favorite performances in 2015 worked best in concert with each other. Within a month, I saw two very different actors take on the role of Thomas Cromwell, notorious adviser to Henry VIII, in separate adaptations of Hilary Mantel's Man Booker-winning historical novel Wolf Hall. Ben Miles, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, starred in Wolf Hall Part 1 and 2 on Broadway. Mark Rylance, who also appeared in a buzzy performance in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, starred in the six-part BBC adaptation of the same story.
Their performances were as divergent as they were terrific. Miles plays Cromwell with a kind of genial bemusement — charming and unflappable, using his innate underdog likability as a kind of cudgel against his enemies. Rylance skews the other way: quiet and restrained, and quick to deliberately fade into the background, with a steely stoicism that masks a formidable strategic mind and a deep inner passion. It's a testament to the richness of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall that both performances, despite their stark differences, feel like faithful representations of the Thomas Cromwell she wrote. –Scott Meslow, entertainment editor
Hana Saeidi, Taxi
Officially, Iranian director Jafar Panahi is under house arrest and banned from making movies. Fortunately, that hasn't stopped him from making and releasing a few gems: This is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2014) and, most recently, Taxi (2015). However, the house arrest does tend to put certain limitations on his flexibility for choosing locations and actors. Taxi stars Panahi, as himself, in the lead role, alongside his real-life niece: the phenomenal, wise-beyond-her-years actress Hana Saeidi.
Only 10 when Taxi was made, Saeidi has the kind of self-possession that normally takes many years to acquire: In her debut role, she is authentic, candid, and adorably fierce. Armed with a camera and an assignment to make a film, she probes her director uncle on the rules of filmmaking in Iran: Forbidden from documenting "sordid realism," Saeidi demands to know what it means to "show what's real but not 'real real.'" "There are realities they don't want shown," Panahi answers. But Saeidi won't accept that: "They don't want to show it, but they do it themselves," she says. Such astuteness goes beyond the script and into her very character — and person. Saeidi is a force. –Jeva Lange, staff writer
Phyllis Smith, Inside Out
If you don't know Phyllis Smith by name — well, that's the reaction that her Inside Out character Sadness would expect. But if she were to open her mouth and give off her signature sigh (a perfect mixture of an exhale, an "erm," and intense anxiety), everyone would instantly recognize her as the little voice that's inside all of our heads.
As Sadness — the ultimate animated example of the difficulties of wearing knitwear — Smith perfectly captures a universal internal voice. She's fierce in her devotion to her job, confused by her purpose, but steadfast in her melancholy. Smith voices her with the warmth of apathy, the defeat of exasperation, and the solemnest sense of perennial quietness; she's used to being dowdy. But there's a comfort to her tone that reminds us all that we've been there, and will probably be there again. Smith's voice makes sadness feel livable and tangible, giving it a sense of place and importance. Her character teaches kids — and, frankly, adults — about themselves, to the point that the difficult emotion she embodies can feel not just tolerable, but healthy. –Stephanie Cangro, contributing writer
Shu Qi, The Assassin
Like most films by the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, The Assassin moves at a pace that even ardent fans would call languid. He prefers to focus on color, landscape, and the choreography of the cool, detached fight scenes. The film takes place in the Tang Dynasty and follows the eponymous Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) as she sets out to kill her cousin, the military governor Tian Ji'an, on her master's orders. Besides having little concern for the audience's pacing expectations, Hou sees a sketch as being plentiful material for the story, so the particulars can be difficult to grasp.
While this creates some overall flaws, it also means that Shu Qi's performance is thrust, almost accidentally, into the spotlight. It is up to her to be not only an emotional fulcrum but to convey with a single glance or in a brief shot her character's emotional journey. In two key narrative moments — following indications of a pregnancy and the reveal of a memento from her past — Shu says in a gesture what would go completely unsaid otherwise. The subtlety of Shu's work proves even the sparest of films often rely on performance. –Forrest Cardamenis, contributing writer
Michael Showalter, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
For all the fearless performances I've seen this year, none has impressed me more than Michael Showalter, donning short shorts and a way-too-tight T-shirt to revisit the role of a teenager that he originally played while in his twenties. Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp offered a prequel to the cult classic that bombed in theaters before finding a new home on Comedy Central. There's no denying the joy of seeing this cast (many with another 20 years and as many pounds on them) portraying teenagers again. And I can't imagine a more gleeful performance than the 45-year-old Showalter as the lovelorn Coop, a dorky 16-year-old kid who just wants (and, in this installment, thinks he has) a girlfriend. While this performance certainly won't win awards, there's no doubt that it deserves to be described as "brave." –Travis Andrews, contributing writer
Lily Tomlin, Grandma
Lily Tomlin is a national treasure, and Paul Weitz's dramedy Grandma is the perfect showcase for her incomparable talent. Tomlin plays Elle, an aging lesbian poet who does not suffer fools gladly. Shortly after breaking up with her longtime girlfriend, Elle gets a visit from her granddaughter, who has a pressing emergency: She needs money to pay for an abortion. Grandma follows the pair as they wander Los Angeles, with Elle calling in all the favors she can.
This episodic approach gives Tomlin the full opportunity to show off her range as an actor. She assaults the baby daddy, butts heads with her ex and her daughter, and has a wry exchange with scene-stealer Laverne Cox. But the best scenes in Grandma take place when Elle squares off against Karl (Sam Elliott), a man with whom she once had a fling. Their banter starts warmly, with pangs of nostalgia, then unexpectedly unearths old wounds that Elle is not quite ready to grapple with. It's a an uncommonly wide range of emotions, each of them beautifully played — and Tomlin, true to form, strikes a perfect balance of vulnerability and grace.-Alan Zilberman, contributing writer
Bokeem Woodbine, Fargo
I had seen Bokeem Woodbine before. I just didn't notice him. I didn't notice him in Ray. I missed him in Dead Presidents. And for all the times I've seen the video for Wu-Tang's "Protect Ya Neck" and Tupac's "I Ain't Mad at Cha," I would've never been able to single him out if someone asked.
I hope Woodbine appreciated all those years of character-actor anonymity, because his performance on FX's Fargo has ended them forever. Woodbine's Mike Milligan is a ruthless killer who happens to be cool, confident, and incredibly well-spoken. In another life, he might have made an excellent host for The Price is Right. That pleasant demeanor is exactly what makes him so unnerving; he delivers some of Fargo's best lines with a charming smoothness that makes it hard to tell if he's about to gun someone down or tell them they won a new car. Fargo's ensemble cast is so good that it's nigh impossible to choose a favorite — but in the end, Woodbine rises above them all. –Chris O'Shea, contributing writer
Aden Young, Rectify
Who, exactly, is Daniel Holden? Throughout the past three seasons of Sundance's excellent and criminally underseen Rectify, he has been portrayed as many things: a convicted murderer wrongfully exonerated on questionable DNA evidence, an innocent but misunderstood man irreversibly damaged from spending 19 years on death row, an emotionally inscrutable savant. Australian actor Aden Young manages to effortlessly bring these deep contradictions in Daniel's character to life, often with only subtle changes in expression.
Young adds emotional depth and subtext to lines that, on the page, might seem ordinary at best or corny at worst. "I never really read outside underneath the big blue sky," Daniel says to a woman playing with her daughter at a park. "It's almost too much," he adds, voice quivering at the thought of all those years he spent locked in a cell. Like Rectify itself, Young's performance hinges on conveying powerful emotions with crushingly understated grace. It's a quietly bold performance that, thankfully, Young will reprise for season four. –Samantha Rollins, news editor