Best men: 12 best male film performances in 2016

Desperate men of all stripes: A few are coming of age and some are coming to terms; all are absolutely fantastic

Published December 24, 2016 8:30PM (EST)

 (Paramount/David Lee/Picturehouse Entertainment/A24)
(Paramount/David Lee/Picturehouse Entertainment/A24)

There were some indelible performances by men on screen in 2016, but more often than not they resonated because actors underplayed, communicating more with silence and expressions than with words. Here are a dozen of the best and most blistering male performances of 2016.

Denzel Washington in “Fences” is arguably the male performance of the year. The actor also directed August Wilson’s play, deftly, and his familiarity with the play shows in this riveting screen adaption. His performance never feels stagy or too polished. As Troy Maxson, the two-time Oscar winner spouts reams of dialogue, talking about wrestling with the devil, describing a fastball on the outside corner, or recounting a story about his father. These absorbing speeches provide telling moments about his character, a flawed, obstinate man who grapples with his lot in life over the course of the film. How Troy treats his wife Rose (Viola Davis), his sons Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo), as well as his disabled brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), define him. The potent scenes between Troy and Cory crackle with the tensions between father and son. In contrast, a scene in a bar between Troy and his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is equally powerful given the restrained emotions. But it is Washington’s extraordinary body language that best conveys the pressures and problems Troy is carrying in his every movement and expression. Just watch how he reacts to news he receives in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm: He loses his balance briefly, sticks his head out the window, and shouts into the night. Troy is a man in pain, and Washington is as devastating to watch in this scene as he is in a quiet moment he has with one of his children on the back porch. “Fences” is a tour de force for Washington, who is unforgettable here.

Four of the actors in “Moonlight,” a film about masculinity, all deserve recognition for creating such vivid characters. Alex R. Hibbert as Little was heartbreaking in arguably the film’s most powerful scene, when his character asks Juan (Mahershala Ali) “What’s a faggot?” But equally impressive is the advice Juan gives Little: “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” The emotions between these characters are palpable throughout director Barry Jenkins’ outstanding adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play because of the strong performances. Likewise, a scene between Kevin (André Holland) and Black (Trevante Rhodes) at a diner is magnetic, full of sexual tension as the men talk about their past and consider their present and future. “Moonlight” is a marvelous film, but it is how these actors express so much by saying so little that makes it so affecting.

As Richard Loving, Joel Edgerton explains that he is breaking the law because he loves his wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga). “Loving” shows this not just in his dream to build her a house, but in cozy, private moments, such as the iconic one captured by a “Life” magazine photographer (Michael Shannon) of the married couple snuggling on their couch. Edgerton is so invested in his role, the actor is practically invisible; viewers may feel they are watching the documentary that inspired this movie.

As the closeted David in Andrew Ahn’s exceptional “Spa Night,” Joe Seo gives one of the year’s breakout male performances. A young man who is trapped by his immigrant parents’ failure and their aspirations for his success, Seo’s shy, reserved character tries to be a good, dutiful son. However, his budding sexuality threatens to betray and expose him. The internal struggle David feels, to not displease his parents and to discreetly act on his desires, comes to a frothy head in the Korean spa where he takes a job. Seo’s phenomenal turn is accomplished with little dialogue and maximum emotion; when David rubs his skin raw as a form of self-loathing and self-expression, it is both painful and powerful.

In “Hell or High Water,” Jeff Bridges Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton is preparing to shoot a criminal. He pauses just long enough to stretch the tension and make viewers think this about-to-retire lawmen might not have what it takes to do his job. But never fear, Bridges is ingratiating from the moment Hamilton enters a bank that just been robbed, and drolly asks for the man who looks like he forecloses on people. Such confidence jars nicely with his casual racism toward his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Moreover, his chat with Toby Howard (Chris Pine), whom he suspects committed the crimes he is investigating, is fantastic. Bridges’ acting in “Hell or High Water” is among his finest work in recent years.

In Tom Ford’s stylish “Nocturnal Animals,” Michael Shannon plays Bobby Andes, a cop who suggests bending the law to help Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) get revenge on a trio of low-life thugs who harassed his family. As Andes suggests how he and Tony might handle a situation that develops, Tony agrees, prompting Andes to smile quickly. It’s the briefest of moments, but one that reveals much about Andes’ character, who not long after reveals something more devastating. Shannon may not have much screen time, but the reliable character actor makes the most of it, stealing every scene he's in.   

It’s not every actor who will appear in a film playing a farting corpse and have their co-star (Paul Dano, in this case) ride them like a jet-ski, but Daniel Radcliffe does just that in “Swiss Army Man.” It may be a naked bid for the actor to show off his range (and his ass), but his fun and funky performance in this wacky bromance was certainly amusing. Anyone who only sees Radcliffe as Harry Potter will be witness to a different kind of wizardry.

Colin Farrell has been funny before — he won a Golden Globe for his work in “In Bruges” — but his deadpan comic performance in “The Lobster” was one of the year’s highlights. Put in the untenable situation of having to find a suitable partner in 45 days or be turned into the titular animal, Farrell’s David will do anything to resolve his situation. That this extreme version of speed dating develops into something drastic is part of what makes “The Lobster” so inspired, but it is Farrell's perfectly controlled, emotionless performance that gives the film its zing.

As Lee Chandler in “Manchester By The Sea,” Casey Affleck gives a very internalized performance. He actively suppresses (not expresses) the guilt and shame his characters feels following a tragedy that uproots his life. When he makes a dramatic move, stealing a policeman’s gun, it’s a shocking moment, but it shows the same self-destructive streak he exhibited starting a bar fight, or acting out toward his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Affleck’s performance is a frontrunner for an Oscar this year, but anyone on this list would be deserving of the prize.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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