Sure, it’s 2016 now, but I’m still writing 2015 on my checks and I am still digesting all the great pop culture I took in over the past year, so we’re still allowed to talk about what blew us away in 2015. We’ve already discussed our favorite moments on television for 2015 (find those posts here and here) and now it’s time to turn our attention to our favorite performances of the year. These are the characters who got under our skin. These are the actors who we would squeal in delight upon seeing their names in the credits. These are the performances that we’ll still be talking about when 2015 is but a distant twinkle in our eye. Who made the cut? Read on to find out! –Kim
1) Taraji P. Henson – Empire
On paper, Cookie Lyon was ALWAYS going to be an amazing character. While the story of Empire may be about her sons, it’s Cookie who has the redemption arc. She has the deep well of rage and the overwhelming to desire to take back what is rightfully hers and she has the razor-sharp wit to make every word that comes out of her mouth a catchphrase. Cookie was ALWAYS going to be great…but in the hands of Taraji P. Henson, Cookie Lyon became an instant icon. In every aspect of her performance, it is clear that Taraji has been waiting for Cookie her whole life. Watching Empire every week is like taking a masterclass in swagger. There is nothing more joyful to me than seeing an actor RELISH their role and Taraji does just that. It would be very easy to crossover into scenery chewing caricature with a character as LARGE as Cookie but Taraji never does. You always see the hint of vulnerability in her eyes behind the hurricane force bluster. Cookie is, after all, a woman who sacrificed everything for a man who turned out to be a shit. What’s not relatable about that? You tell ’em, Boo Boo Kitty. –Kim
2) Michelle Gomez – Doctor Who
When it comes to Doctor Who, I usually prefer that ingredients like classic, recurring villains are sprinkled in with a light hand. But Michelle Gomez’s “ba-na-naaaas!” interpretation of The Master, the Doctor’s long-haul BFF (Best Frenemy Forever) has me singing a different tune. The series 9 opening two-parter, “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar,” left me longing for Missy to take up residence in the TARDIS permanently. It’s to Michelle’s immense credit that much of the silly chatter following the Master’s change in gender died down soon after she sunk her teeth into the part. And sink her teeth in, she did. Michelle makes the Missy/Master her own with controlled mania and scathing one-liners. (“Murdering a Dalek. I’m a Time Lady; it’s our golf.”) I’m always, always happy to see her, even if the Doctor feels a little more conflicted. –Sage
3) Sam Heughan – Outlander
When his costars Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies scored Golden Globe nominations for their work on Outlander, I was FLABBERGASTED that Sam Heughan didn’t. Perhaps the Leading Actor in a Drama field was too crowded (the likely culprit) or perhaps the voting body was just threatened by the fact that someone THAT PRETTY could be a damn good actor too (less likely but still probable). Jamie Fraser is unabashedly the stuff of fantasy and the fact that Sam Heughan LOOKS like he just stepped out of the pages of a romance novel, with the muscles and the chiseled cheekbones and the ginger curls and the ACCENT, just amps up the fantasy factor even more. It would have been easy for Outlander to just rest on Sam’s looks and let him spout lines like “Does it ever stop? The wanting you?” or “I said I was a virgin, not a monk” and let us all swoon. But nope. Outlander is way better than that. Sam had already shown incredible depth as an actor in all of Jamie’s flashbacks (who DIDN’T recoil when he was flogged until he passed out?) but he took it to an entirely different level when Jamie was tortured by Black Jack Randall. His single tear STILL haunts me. –Kim
4) Matt Damon – The Martian
Matt has always been my favorite, okay? (He needs to double-down on checking that privilege, but I believe in him.) He’s my little Will Hunting, with the tight t-shirts and the “equations and shit.” He’s my shameless Owen, Jack’s fiercest (and straightest) competition for the open spot in the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, in the most outstanding episode of Will & Grace ever produced. And he’s my Jason Bourne, soon to return to the HQ spy franchise that doesn’t name its female characters after their own vaginas. He surprised me again in Ridley Scott’s The Martian as stranded astronaut/botanist Mark Watney. The Martian is Matt’s Castaway moment. He’s sans scene partner for the majority of the film. Even when he’s engaging with an actual person, it’s through some kind of device. And yet, Mark is flesh and blood to the audience, defined by his own determination and the humor he holds on to like a life preserver. The movie’s thesis is that any human life is worth preserving, even in the face of preposterous odds. But consider that his crew, the entire space program, and the whole planet may have rallied around Mark Watney just because Matt Damon made him such a deadass great guy. –Sage
5) Bill Hader – Trainwreck
God, I want to live in a world where the Adam Scotts and the Joel McHales and the Bill Haders are our romantic leads ALL THE TIME. I was so glad I was surrounded by girlfriends on either side of me when we saw Trainwreck in theatres because I made dying animal noises every time Bill Hader’s Aaron Conners was onscreen. I had always been a fan of Bill’s (Stefon for LYFE) but his performance in Trainwreck made me see him in an entirely new light. Aaron is devastatingly sexy yet adorably awkward. He’s confident but not afraid to make himself vulnerable. He watches Downton Abbey with LeBron James. He sees through Amy’s bullshit and is not afraid to call her on it. He’s so REAL it almost hurts. But the best thing about him is that he says what he WANTS, for God’s sake. There are no pretenses with him. Observe and imagine my very vocal reaction to this exchange…
AARON: Off the record, do you want to go grab some dinner?
AMY: Yeah, Aaron I think you are so great. But I’m a writer, I’m your writer and you’re my subject. From now on we need to keep it professional. You know?
AARON: No. I think we really like each other and we should start dating.
AMY: No. I’m saying– I’m confused. Am I not communicating this right?
AARON: No, I hear you. I’m saying I disagree. Do you like me?
AARON: I really like you, so we should be a couple.
DREAM MAN. May 2016 bring us ALL the Romantic Leading Men like Aaron Conners. The world will be a better place. –Kim
6) Krysten Ritter – Jessica Jones
Nothing about Jessica Jones is comfortable. There are no reminders that everything’s going to be okay, and even the people you want to trust can be turned against you in as little time it takes Kilgrave to grind out a few words. Krysten Ritter stands in the middle of that fire, leather jacket collar turned up against the flames and defiance dialed to 11. And even when she’s scared out of her mind and second-guessing her every action, she makes you want to stand there with her. I can’t imagine anyone but Krysten in this part; the rest of the ensemble is fearsomely well-cast and the writing and directing are tops, but this performance is the lynchpin. Krysten does Jessica justice, not just as a sloppy recluse turned low-key superhero, but as a rape survivor and a real, live, functioning adult dealing with mental health issues. One season in, and she’s already an icon. –Sage
7) Gina Rodriguez – Jane the Virgin
I can’t emphasize enough what a treasure both Gina Rodriguez and Jane the Virgin are. JTV swept the Feelies for a reason and it’s not just because Jaime Camil plugged us, though it certainly helped. (Thanks for the love, Ro!) It swept because Jane the Virgin is the most heartfelt, warm, outrageous, and FUNNY show on TV right now. It has helped fill the giant hole that Parks and Recreation left in my heart. Jane the Virgin would absolutely not work without the terrific performances of its cast and Gina’s Jane is the anchor. Her performance is one of the most fully realized on television right now and I feel sorry for anyone who HASN’T experienced it. Jane is spirited and Jane is funny and Jane is strong and Jane is brave. Gina breathes such LIFE into her from the sparkle in her eyes to her delightful cackle to her gleeful dance moves. But she also brings a beautiful vulnerability to the role (please to see the above gif). Gina can go from laughing to having tears in her eyes in a matter of seconds and she takes the viewers on that journey with her. You root for Jane and you want her to succeed in all areas of her life. It’s all just real and warm and I want Jane/Gina to be my best friend. If she’s not nominated for an Emmy this year, I’ll be leading the riots. –Kim
8) Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road
I love Mad Max: Fury Road so much? Like, a straight-up action movie has never meant so much to me, a connoisseur of Hugh Grant rom-coms and corseted literary adaptations. But then again, no other action movie has given me Charlize Theron sporting a buzz cut and a metal arm, driving the getaway “car” for a harem of freed sex slaves. The movie treats Imperator Furiosa like it would any male hero, except when it doesn’t. She’s stoic and dogged, and has no problem barking out orders to Max. But this fight is personal for her in a way that she knows it can’t be for him. I’d love to see Charlize get an Oscar nomination for this, actually, in the hopes of creating more Amazonian warrior roles for women in the future. (Please.) But I suppose I can settle for seeing Mad Max on the top of so many critics’ end-of-year lists and some fierce Furiosa cosplays at Comic Con. –Sage
9) Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
When I heard that Michael Fassbender was playing the titular character in the Sorkin-penned Steve Jobs, my first response was “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?”. My second thought was “Well at least we know he’ll be better than Ashton Kutcher.” On paper, Michael Fassbender is not the one you go to when casting Steve Jobs, the least of which is the fact he looks nothing like him. I should have known better than to doubt him because Fassy is a REVELATION in Steve Jobs. The movie is essentially a three-act play and Steve Jobs never leaves the stage. It is a ferocious performance and you always see Steve’s genius in Fassbender’s eyes and in his body and in the way he delivers those Sorkin arias with panache. I was riveted the entire two hours from the way Fassy went toe to toe with my queen Kate Winslet to his battles with Will McAvoy himself (RIP The Newsroom) to the final scene with his daughter where we saw the seed of the iPod take root. If this were a just world, Fassy would be walking away with the Oscar next month. –Kim
10) Kirsten Dunst – Fargo
As an ’80s baby, it’s incredibly gratifying to see the teen stars of my past blossoming into some of the finest actors of any generation. The second season of Fargo matched the first for risky casting (hiring my English muffin Martin Freeman to play a Midwestern insurance salesman went over like gangbusters), and then sat back and reaped the acclaim. Everyone in Fargo is good. But Kirsten Dunst is a revelation. The word “fascinating” doesn’t even fully describe beautician Peggy Blumquist and her frenzied search for self-actualization. Kirsten starts with Peggy’s feathered bangs, frosted nails, and thick accent and then adds the shifting focus of her eyes as she moves in and out of realities, the sharp surfacing of her deep rage, and the vulnerability that thrives underneath all of it. It’s the kind of performance that makes me wish that Fargo, for all its genius, weren’t an anthology series with a rotating cast. –Sage
11) Amy Poehler – Inside Out
Because there is no better person to be the voice of Joy, is there? Voiceover acting is not easy and not everyone can do it. But Amy Poehler? Her voice is MADE for cartoons and Inside Out‘s Joy was everything we love about Amy Poehler rolled into one adorable pixie. At her best, Joy is a ball of sunshine whose voice practically FORCES you to smile. At her worst, she’s at Leslie Knope x a million levels of stubborn. You can practically SEE Amy bouncing around the studio as she delivers her lines. And then she can say goodbye to Bing Bong and freaking WRECK you. (When Amy Poehler cries, I cry.) If Amy was the voice of everyone’s consciousness, we’d all be just a little better off, wouldn’t we? –Kim
12) Ben Mendelsohn – Bloodline
This dude is Australian. AUSTRALIAN. Five minutes into the Netflix original Bloodline and I was convinced that Ben Mendelsohn had never set a foot outside Florida.
Bloodline isn’t a game-changer, though it’s perfectly enjoyable. The core of its appeal is Mendelsohn as Danny, the black sheep of the Rayburns. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Menacing and broken, Danny is about as reassuring as a coiled snake in the grass. Sheep or snake (Sage <3’s metaphors!), Danny and his unpredictability are what kept me hitting the next episode button during my Bloodline marathon weekend. It’s a tall order for an actor to make me feel like I’m getting an up close and personal view of his psyche, even though I haven’t the foggiest idea what he’ll do next. (See also: Jon Hamm.) He scares the hell out of me. And I will lose my damn mind if he takes the Globe or the Emmy. –Sage
13) Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker – Agents of SHIELD
I really think that Agents of SHIELD refuses to let FitzSimmons to be happy for more than a hot second because Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge are just beautiful criers. That’s the only excuse. During the Q&A of their SDCC panel, a fan thanked Iain for his incredibly sensitive portrayal of Fitz’s brain injury and I have to agree. SHEILD took its time with that story. Fitz wasn’t back to normal overnight and his recovery was both painful and amazing to watch. The way he struggled for words, the way he couldn’t quite figure out how he fit in, the way he longed to reconnect with Gemma…all of it was incredibly well done and it was such a SUBTLE performance (which is not an easy thing to do on a Comic Book Show). And just when our star-crossed geniuses got on the same page, Simmons was snatched up by the monolith and zapped to an alien world. This gave BOTH of them new levels to play. Iain infused Fitz with a dogged determination to get his girl back (if you didn’t cheer when he DID, why are you even watching this show?) while Elizabeth got to show a whole new side of Simmons as she battled to stay alive in the void. “4,722 Hours” saw Simmons solo for most of the episode and Elizabeth Henstridge took that opportunity and ran with it. She was SO STRONG when she was clearly petrified. She was devastating as she clung to her video messages to Fitz with all her being. She owned the hour and made it one of my favorite SHIELD episodes to date, principally because it became such a character study.
Naturally, once Simmons returned to Earth, she dealt with PTSD. What was so lovely about her scenes with Fitz is that he showed her such kindness and love because he KNEW what it was like to feel like you’re crawling out of your skin. He was patient with her, he never abandoned her, and he joined her in her quest to go back for Will even though you KNOW it killed him. They finally FINALLY kissed only to have Fitz declare that they are cursed. It’s awful and it’s beautiful and I can’t wait for more. Hopefully with SOME smiles on their beautiful faces this time. –Kim
14) Tituss Burgess – The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
I don’t want to alarm anyone, but Tituss Burgess gave the comedy performance of 2015 in the first season of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Tituss and Ellie Kemper (and Tituss and Carol Kane) have the perfectly bizarre chemistry required of a lasting sitcom odd couple. And Tituss is made for the rapid-fire humor preferred by the people who brought you 30 Rock. (And with it, D’Fwan. And D’Fwan’s D’Fwine. Please D’Fwrink responsibly.) Beyond the laughs (“You think the Reverend Martin Luther King wanted to wear a bikini and put on angel wings and gyrate on the gay pride parade float? Foop! I’m mixing up my struggles.”), Titus Andromendon gave us lazy divas a spiritual idol and the catchiest “ode to black penis” ever composed. Say it with me, now: Pinooootttt nooooiiiiirrr! –Sage
15) Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Issac – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The pressure on the new generation of Star Wars stars was immense. I’m sure that the moment Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Issac got the jobs they were half elated and half terrified. THIS WAS STAR WARS! No big deal, just the most highly anticipated movie in at least a decade. We all know what happened to Hayden Christensen. This could go immensely wrong.
As we all know by now, our new trio delivered in spades. Rey, Poe, and Finn feel completely at home in this universe…it’s a very well of COURSE these are our heroes kind of feeling. The chemistry was instant. And by instant I mean Poe said ONE WORD to Finn and we shipped it. Issac and Boyega just balance each other out. (Perhaps their love will restore order to the Force? One can dream.) Poe is cocksure but not arrogant while Finn is wide-eyed without being simpering. Poe is unwavering in his devotion to the Rebel Cause (like Leia). Finn’s natural instinct is to protect himself when threatened but he ends up going after his friends (like Han). They are a perfect match.
And then there’s Rey. Daisy Ridley brings a quiet strength to the PROTAGONIST OF THIS MOVIE (despite what toy makers may thing). She is steely and determined and don’t you DARE hold her hand cause she can take care of herself, thank you very much. She’s a hero for girls and boys of all ages. Daisy ALSO had instant chemistry with John Boyega, so maybe he’s just one of those types who have chemistry with everyone? We’ve got two more movies to do proper research on that theory and I can’t wait. –Kim
16) The Cast of The Wiz
This trend of televised live musicals isn’t going away any time soon, so I’m going to need every producer who’s even considering getting in on this to pay strict attention to The Wiz. We sat through Carrie Underwood’s wooden acting to get to Audra McDonald ripping “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” a new one in The Sound of Music. We pretended that Allison Williams had enough charm and moxie to make up for her junior high choral concert voice in Peter Pan. And then The Wiz blew all the posers out of the water with a starry and qualified cast.
I know Ne-Yo as the Gentleman, so I didn’t even recognize him as the Tin Man. He changed his quality of movement completely and disappeared into the part. Did everyone know that David Alan Grier could sing like that? (Three snaps in z-formation.) WHERE HAS ELIJAH KELLEY BEEN HIDING SINCE HAIRSPRAY AND WHY ISN’T HE ON BROADWAY? Amber Riley proved that there’s life after Glee for the kids who’ve got the goods. Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige slayed, as expected. Common could get it, as usual. And OITNB‘s Uzo Aduba squeezed some tears out of this shriveled heart with her unaffected and beautiful performance of Glinda’s big number, “Believe in Yourself.” The production was powered with spunk by its Dorothy. Shanice Williams is an incredible find, wide-eyed and professional. I could feel her pride radiating through the screen. And bless her heart, she wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated by the talent around her. This is how its done. This is how you get America to fall in love with musical theater. With integrity and with representation. –Sage
1) Erin Richards – Gotham
Because once she went bad, she was OH SO GOOD. Seriously. Having Barbara Gordon go off her rocker was one of the best choices Gotham has ever made. –Kim
2) Rainbow Bondage Bear and Sugar Baby Bear – The On The Road Again Tour (and beyond)
This is a very long, very gay story. (Find a short explanation here.) Short version: Whenever there’s despair and consternation in the One Direction fandom, these colorful gentlemen appear to let us know that nothing is forever and that everything is going to be fine. Everyone is going to be fine. I wonder who we have to thank for that? –Sage
3) Zach Appelman – Sleepy Hollow
Zach Appelman’s Joey Corbin (ever since “Little Joey Corbin” we refuse to call him Joe) fit in the Sleepy Hollow ensemble so seamlessly that it feels like he’s always been with us, hasn’t it? His arrival gave Ichabod a much needed bro and injected the show with a new masculine energy that we’re still reeling from. #ShowUsYourPecsZach2016 –Kim
4) The cast of Hamilton
Who gave YOUR favorite performances of 2015? Let us know in the comments!