1. The Martian: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kristen Wiig, McKenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Bodinger Wong
An excellent group of actors with a few names you don’t normally see in television (Davis and Glover) all acting with that same walk-and-talk urgency that keeps the mood of the film tense but leaves room for comic levity. Matt Damon had the most overtly comic performance but Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig deserve a bit of credit in that department as well
2. Spotlight: Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Brian D’Arcy James, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Cudrup
Another film with strong actors all on the same page in terms of the requisite intensity needed to carry the film. While Mark Ruffalo ended up the only male actor getting a nomination, it would not have looked out of place to see Keaton, Scheiber or Brian D’Arcy James pop up on Oscar nomination day. Each of the five leads provided a different energy even though their character descriptions (serious-minded journalist battling evil) must have looked exactly the same on paper to form a five-man band of sorts.
3. Trumbo: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Alan Tyduk, Louis C.K., Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Portnow, John Goodman, Stephen Root, David James Elliott
In my opinion, Cranston was a bit too broad and caricatured to merit an Oscar nomination in his category, but he certainly fit the serio-comic tone within the context of his film well. The portrayals of Hollywood icons untethered from the baggage of their on-screen personas like Eddie G Robinson (Stuhlbarg) and John Wayne (Elliott) were particularly interesting performances and Helen Mirren had a lot of staying power as the vindictive columnist Hedda Hopper. Perhaps the biggest surprises were Louis C.K.’s tender performance as fellow troublemaker Arlen Hinds and Elle Fanning’s mature performance as Trumbo’s faithful-yet-frustrated daughter.
4. Brooklyn: Saoisre Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Emily Bett-Rickards, Eileen O’Higgins, Jenn Murray, Jim Broadbent
A relatively generic love story doesn’t just n
ab a Best Picture nomination in a competitive race like 2015 without solid acting from its leads and background cast. This was Ronan’s first role as a mature grown-up, Cohen’s beak-out, and a cementing of Gleeson’s filmography as someone with range and an ability to melt hearts.
5. Love and Mercy: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Bill Camp, Jake Abel, Erin Drake
Any sort of forced awkwardness in the adult love story (would he really merit a second date in those circumstances?) was smoothed over by the chemistry between Banks (whose impressively coiffed hair contrasted well with her ability to see inner beauty) and Cusack. Paul Giamatti plays a memorable villain in his overbearing guardian capable of terrifying tirades when threatened and Bill Camp’s soulless father provides a parallel in the past timeline. Credit also goes to the four actors who doubled the Beach Boys and one of the best performances of the year in Paul Dano’s tortured genius portrayal of a young Brian Wilson.
6. Big Short: Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Brad Pitt, Marissa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Finn Whitrock, Rafe Spall, Karen Gillan
The sheer amount of talent and the way it is used puts this up there. Bale, ordinarily paying intense and ready for violent, is a new kind of revelation here as an unconventional genius who plays heavy metal drums during the workday and likely resides on the spectrum. Carrell has been showing range and talent for a while (particularly under the direction of Adam McKay) so he’s not that much of a surprise here but it’s still a fine performance. If there’s a reason this falls just short of the top five, it seems Brad Pitt is just shoe-horned in for star power and it might have been nice to see a treasure like Melissa Leo in an expanded capacity.
7. Hateful Eight: Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Birchir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Channing Tatum, Bruce Dern
Whether a Tarantino film hits you the right way or not, it’s hard to deny how masterful he is at casting. His films have relaunched many a career (even John Travolta counts here), engineered many breakout performances (Christophe Waltz stands out but don’t forget Daniel Bruhl, Melanie Laurent or Diane Kruger from that same movie), and maintained a stable of repertory players (Tim and Eli Roth, Michael Madsen, Samuel L Jackson, etc) that add to the trademark of each film.
8. Straight Outta Compton: Corey Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Paul Giamatti, Aldis Hodge, Keith Stanfield, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr.
It’s not particularly easy to get cast recognition for a group of actors this unknown (except Paul Giamatti, whose name sticks out there like a sore thumb) and there are extra points there for mimicking each of the rappers.
9. Youth: Harvey Keitel, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano
A film that has offered the meatiest film roles Jane Fonda and Harvey Keitel have received in decades and Michael Caine isn’t too shabby in it either. The film didn’t live up to its potential on the awards circuit but not for lack of its acting.
10. Sicario: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya
Emily Blunt’s raw performance is the stuff of an action heroine. Think Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty” but directly in the line of fire. On top of that, Benicio Del Toro had a good run on the awards circuit, Jon Bernthal (who would land a role in “Daredevil” a year later) steals a scene or two and many of the minor players (the Mexican crime lord and family) provide for a solid multi-cultural cast.