Ethan Hawke - “Before Midnight”
With his career shifting worryingly into Nicolas Cage/John Cusack territory (three cheap exploitation flicks, "Sinister," "The Purge" and "Getaway," over the past year), we could have used a reminder of how talented Ethan Hawke really is. Fortunately, this year saw him reteam with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater for "Before Midnight," the third in their trilogy of love-story travelogues, and Hawke might have pulled off his finest hour in it. If the first film was about potential, and the second about that potential being unfulfilled, the third is about reality, and 'Midnight' presents an all-grown-up version of Jesse, imperfect and tired to the point of brokenness at being separated from his son. Of course, it's impossible to talk about these films by separating the central duo (and we'll get to Delpy in due course...), but while she was the clear stand-out in the earlier films, Hawke goes toe-to-toe with her in "Before Midnight."
Toni Servillo - "The Great Beauty"
One of the more divisive films of the year, Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty" is, depending on who you ask, either a gloriously heady, incredibly rich masterpiece, or an indulgent, empty-headed pastiche of better filmmakers (and occasionally, somewhere in between...). Whichever way you come down on it, though, we hope we can all agree on the brilliance of its central performance by Sorrentino favorite Toni Servillo. The actor essentially is the film as Jep Gambardella, a writer decades on from his acclaimed, but lone novel, still living the high life in Rome, and the whole simply wouldn't work without the wry, glorious minimalism of Servillo's turn—he's a man who's lived so much and so hard that he's now exhausted and disgusted by his friends, his parties, his city and his women. The film brings all kinds of colorful characters into Jep's orbit, but it's always him in the middle, and you couldn't ask for a more watchable performer: Servillo might even have topped his extraordinary turn in Sorrentino's "Il Divo" here.
Ali Mosaffa - “The Past”
After "About Elly," "A Separation" and now "The Past," Asghar Farhadi is starting to look like one of the best directors of actors in the world right now: there hasn't been a performance in any of his films so far that feels anything less than lived-in, multi-dimensional and totally convincing. While Berenice Bejo might have won the lion's share of honors, taking the Best Actress prize in Cannes (and rightly so), we wouldn't want Ali Mosaffa to be forgotten for his unbelievably fine work in the central role. The Iranian actor and director, mostly unknown in the West before now, plays Ahmad, who returns to France after a four-year gap to finalize his divorce from his ex-wife (Bejo), only to become caught up with troubles with her daughter and new beau. It's rather a passive character, in some ways, carried along by other events, but Mosaffa unveils real generosity and love in Ahmad, even as he shows glimpses of the reason that the marriage initially fell apart. It's the best kind of ego-free acting, enabling his co-stars while quietly stealing scenes himself, and as good as anything else you'll have seen this year.
Isaiah Washington - "Blue Caprice"
It takes a pretty special performance to come back from scandal, and whatever his previous sins, Isaiah Washington gives that kind of turn in "Blue Caprice." The actor's barely figured in any significant work since he was fired from "Grey's Anatomy" in 2007, but Alexandre Moor's retelling of the real-life Beltway Sniper killings puts him front-and-center as serial murderer John, and reminds us all of how impressive he could be at his best. He has a thin veneer of charisma on the surface—just enough that you can believe he can lead his surrogate son into terrible acts—but underneath is a terrifying and broken man, a portrait of evil and mental illness, or somewhere in between, that's not quite like any seen before on screen. Even if the film had found a wider audience, it's likely that Washington's baggage would have prevented a nomination, but if he keeps letting the work speak for itself like this, a full-on comeback could be on the way.
Hugh Jackman - “Prisoners”
Audiences have become used to Hugh Jackman playing a largely invincible hero as Wolverine across a series of comic book movies, but when he emerged this fall as a hulking, bruised and haunted man in Denis Villeneuve's shattering "Prisoners," it was a reminder of the depths the actor is capable of reaching. The moody crime saga and domestic drama follows Jackman's survivalist, ready-for-anything, All-American everyman Kelly Dover who is forced to come face to face with something he could never be ready for: the abduction of his daughter. And what follows is a man sickened by a situation that has run out of his grasp, and who takes extraordinary measures to inflict some sort of cruel justice and becomes wholly haunted by the person he has become and the weakness of character he displays. It's complex, riveting stuff and Jackman is a hulk of man trying to keep it together in a performance that re-confirms that the actor is so much more than the adamantium claws he displays every couple of years. "Prisoners" has quieted in awards season talk but anything can happen, and we'd be pleased if this film and Jackman got recognized.
Honorable Mentions: Other performances that caught the eye of Team Playlist in the last twelve months include Conner Chapman in "The Selfish Giant," Dane DeHaan in "Kill Your Darlings," Josh Pais in "Touchy Feely," Chris Hemsworth in "Rush," Michael Shannon in "The Iceman" and Tony Leung in "The Grandmaster." Any others that you think deserve recognition? Let us know in the comments section below.