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Halfway: Best Leading Performances of 2015 Thus Far

½way mark - part 2 of ? You can't see everything but you should see as much as possible if you're in the awardage business, or business of watching awardage, or business of watching awardage watchers and... well you get the picture. SEE MORE MOVIES. I know I need to and I see plenty.

Let's take stock of what's come out in theaters thus far (Jan 1st - Jul 1st for our purposes here). Even if conversations suggest otherwise in November through January each year we always pray that Academy members are regular moviegoers and don't just wait until their screeners arrive.

10 best lead performances from the year's first half...

Best Actress

Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Here's your assignment: Play an unflattering but hyper glamorous and entitled version of yourself. Amp up the comic timing and intellectual heft but stir it all up confusingly with sudden grief, regretful sorrow, and contrarian cluelessness masquerading as superiority. Now thinly layer all that over a restless crisis in confidence while also demonstrating the actor's process and connecting memorably to every scene partner. If you can do all that, congratulations - you're Juliette Binoche!
Blythe Danner, I'll See You in My Dreams
Wonderful contouring of a guarded woman wrestling with 'is that it?' late life anxiety, loneliness and spoken and unspoken requests for intimacy with two new men in her life. Bonus points: beautiful singing.
Melissa McCarthy, Spy
For much of the film she seems to have created a wholly new signature part, tender and endearing, with a great mix of competence, clumsiness, and wildly varying degrees of confidence. Even if she careens towards a more familiar bad-ass bulldozer toward the end, her comic skills are on point. Her best work since Bridesmaids 
Carey Mulligan, Far From Madding Crowd
She's arguably miscast but Mulligan clears that hurtle with her lively interior and bewitching surface. She reminds us -- and, frankly, we needed the reminding -- that she felt like a bonafide movie star when she first broke through in An Education

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Even if the sound design and editing weren't so brilliant in Ex Machina, we're confident you could still hear the faint whisper of gears turning and circuitry whirring in Vikander's every movement and careful conversation, where she's always processing what to hide, what to reveal, what to say, how to be seen, whether to warn, and so on as her own understanding grows. People often describe deeply felt performances as "lived in" but if Ava couldn't quite qualify to be accurately described in that way (this AI was practically born yesterday after all) this is as authentic as synthetic gets. Vikander may be in 8 movies this year but a decade from now, well into her superstardom, this may well be the performance that people still talk about as the key to her ascendance.

Honorable Mention: With apologies to Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years and a few other actresses but you can't list everyone!

Best Actor

There's been far less of note to choose from when it comes to the leading men but here are five men that impressed.

Jack O' Connell, '71
Unbroken may have been the breakout last season but Starred Up and '71 (released in the States finally in 2015) were the far superior pictures. While this one is more of a filmmaking feat than an acting picture - it's damn relentless in its momentum - O'Connell holds the camera and his character like a true star even while merely running for his life or collapsing exhausted at the mercy of strangers
David Dastmalchian, Animals
We knew early on that he could do much more than bit parts with how vividly he played them. So he wrote his own leading role, and nailed the execution. Animals works a very well trod path (the addiction drama) but his character arc is a wonder of clarity and naturalism with a heady mixture of regret, shame, love and acceptance ... and maybe some redemption around the corner
Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina 
Dance break! Isaac's performance may be best remembered for the idiosyncractic dance sequence (in this picture? well, ok!) but he refuses to let Vikander have all the challenging fun by complicated his mad scientist as much as possible with his own shaded performance, especially that agressive sexuality that feels less interest in fucking your body than your mind.
Gaspar Ulliel, Saint Laurent 
The movie makes a huge blunder in continuing on into YSL's old age without its star player but for most of the picture he's perfect at summoning the sexually and artistically compulsive soul of this celebrated designer.


• Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
I've personally been all over the map in terms of Dano's work in the past but it all comes together here. He's excellent at burrowing into the mysterious impulses of a great musician in this painfully introverted performance as a man beset by both mental illness and artistic inspiration. He doesn't ask you to connect them (thankfully) but he does fine work showing how they possessed Brian Wilson in similar ways. He even makes John Cusack tolerable (as his older self) through how much of your sympathy he's aroused. 

Honorable Mention: With apologies to the ever charming Channing Tatum as Magic Mike (we'll take his word on the XXL) but that movie is enough of a shrine to his stardom already without us also praying at the altar or tossing dollar bills.

Which leading performances really resonated with you this year? Are you eager to catch up with any of these.

Previously: ½way mark - pt 1 Oscar Chart Updates

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Reader Comments (29)

Surprised Theron didn't make your top 5. I mean, I get that the real standout is Nicholas Hoult's Nux (would he make your top 5 supporting at least?), but Spy and, especially, Far From the Madding Crowd are kind of surprising choices over that work.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Really looking forward to catching Clouds . Even more so after your praise.

Also, sorry to nitpick, but isn't Blythe Danner supposed to seeing us in her dreams, rather than the morning? ;)

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

This has been such a great year for lead female performances. Other than Vikander and McCarthy that you mentioned I also loved:
Golsihifteh Farahani in About Elly
Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey
Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
Charlize Theron in Mad Max Fury Road
Khedira Toure in Girlhood
Naomi Watts in While We're Young...

I can't even imagine how I'll manage to narrow the list down to five by the end of the year, let alone right now!

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCoco

I would honestly be fine if that were Oscar's Best Actress race. I am not one of those people who pipes in with "this has been a great year for Best Actress/Actor" because I feel like it falls into cliche and is one of those phrases that gets overused every year (come on people-EVERY year can't be a great year, otherwise the curve needs to be adjusted), but I will pull it out this year-this is turning out to be my favorite year for Best Actress since perhaps 2010, maybe even in 2006.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

I also liked Amy Poehler in Inside Out; Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke in Me and Earl and The Dying Girl.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph W

Charlize Theron was completely bland in Mad Max: Fury Road - you never buy for second she's bad ass --- look to Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver or even Geena Davis in The Long KIss Goodnight, to see how it's done right.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterulrich

This has been quite a weak year for actor so far what I've seen which has been limited but actress has been strong and should continue to be strong. Isaac and Vikander I see as supporting and of the Vikander performances so far her work in Testament of Youth is her truly great leading performance this year. I agree Theron is stunning and should have been included. Another great pair of leading performances are the duo from Duke of Burgundy. The best sex movie so far this year.

In actor Jack O'Connell is the most credible lead performance I loved this year so far.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

Something that I love about the Binoche is that she is capable of incredible multitasking without keeping all these emotions shallow. She digs really deep, even when the part is barely written (Red Balloon) or absolutely enigmatical and conceptual (Certified Copy). And we're talking here about only thrre of her most recent parts. If you look at whole picture of career, she's played a crowd of impossible parts without never - I mean never - going for the obvious choices or delivering lazy work.

She is the best actress of the last 30 years and I'd say she's reached the peak of her powers lately (think about these three movies plus her career-best turn in Camille Claudel 1915), but then I remember she's been this amzing from day one.

Gotta love the Binoche.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

"Surprised Theron didn't make your top 5."

Me too. Charlize was great in Fury Road.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJackie

Carlos -- thanks for the catch. I have no idea what is wrong with me with that typo. yeesh.

everyone -- i loved Mad Max Fury Road but it wasn't an 'actor's film' for me in the way some genre pieces are that don't get credit for acting. I always like Theron but it doesn't hold a candle (for me) to my holy trinity er quadrilogy of female action acting (Hamilton/Weaver/Thurman/Yeoh)

July 2, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm so sad people didn't flock to see "Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter" . Rinko Kikuchi's performance is easily my favorite so far this year, and I do love every actress you've listed.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCris

Cris -- i thought she was good in that too but she was nomintaed for something last year so it was kind of a Maps to the Stars situation. If you're movie can't decide which year it belongs to i must ignore it :*(

July 2, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Yay Paul Dano! Loved him. Best actor is really thin this year, but I also really, really liked Guy Pearce in Results. It's a low-key performance but really amusing and heartfelt.

And Alicia Vikander is far more impressive in Testament of Youth than in Ex Machina.

I haven't seen Danner, McCarthy, or Mulligan (and I can't imagine that I'll really buy her in that part), but Sidse Babett Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy and Roni Elkabetz in Gett are leagues better than Binoche and Vikander as well.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Kristen Wiig "Welcome to me" THE best performance I've seen so far this year.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterstjeans

My top 5 favorite female lead performances:
1. Arielle Holmes Heaven Knows What
2. Charlize Theron Mad Max
3.Kim Shaw Animals
4. Alicia Vikander Ex Machina
5. Brit Robertson Tommorowland

Top 5 male performances
1.Paul Dano Love & Mercy
2. David Dastmalchian Animals
3.Shameik Moore Dope
4. Buddy Duress Heaven Knows What
5. Mark Ruffalo. Infinity Polar Bear

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdavid

Loved Isaac, though I'd have thought of him as supporting. Can't wait to see Danner, Ulliel, & Binoche's performances, but given where I live, I'll have to do that via Netflix.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Yes, yes, yes to Gaspard Ulliel for 'Saint Laurent.' What an actor! What a performance! What a butt!

I wasn't crazy about 'Clouds of Sils Maria' or Binoche's work in it. I admire her for being intelligent and having pretty great taste in directors and projects, but I often find her performances to be too self-conscious.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

I like this list, but I wasn't too crazy about Clouds. I found it very repetitive and overemphatic. Binoche was excellent, but the spotty script did her no favors.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I haven't seen Saint Laurent, but I find it hard to believe that Gaspard Ulliel did a better job than Pierre Niney in the other Yves Saint Laurent movie of 2014...

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterulrich

I really liked Vikander in "Testament of Youth," and I haven't been able to shake off the performance even after having watched it two weeks ago, so that must mean she's only growing in my estimation.

I also really liked James Marsden in "The D Train." The movie basically flopped at the box office, no doubt due to its subject matter, but I thought it was better than expected. And I appreciated that Marsden did not shy away from the thornier edges of the character. He give us a type of has-been jock that we hadn't quite seen before in the movies. He really shined, IMHO.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

Cobie Smulders, RESULTS

David Dastmalchian, ANIMALS
Lawrence Michael Levine, WILD CANARIES
Guy Pearce, RESULTS
Matthias Schoenaerts, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
Gaspard Ulliel, SAINT LAURENT

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commentertalia

I 100% co-sign Ulliel and Mulligan, two performances that aren't likely survive all the way to the year-end lists, but that elevated their films tremendously. (And I could easily make room for their co-stars Michael Sheen and Jeremie Renier in the supporting categories.)
And I'm happy to see Oscar Isaac there, too; his performance is just as important to the success of the film as Vikander's brilliant work.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

No offense to the actors, but I am fairly confident that none of these "January to June" performances will be Oscar nominated.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

Tom Ford -- well, sure. but we only want to point out the good stuff so Oscar can at least pretend to care about cinema year round.

July 2, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

You weren't reminded of Mulligan's star wattage in "The Great Gatsby"? The film is a real wash, but I thought she was perfect. I prefer her performance there to her work here.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

I would find it hard to narrow it down to five lead actresses this year, Nathaniel, but I think I'd end up about where you did. The unassailable three, I think, are Binoche, Danner, and McCarthy. Oscar-worthy all, and so different. Do you see any of them lasting for end-of-year accolades (beyond McCarthy in GG comedy of course)? Binoche seems the most oscary and was probably the most impressive... The film had issues, but that Binoche's acting is just superb. So utterly naturalistic yet luminous as a goddess. The range and believability of that performance was really something.

I still need to see Testament, but yeah by all accounts Vikander is even more impressive there. I wasn't super over the moon with Mulligan, though she makes a good 5th slot. I'm rather ambivalent on Kristen Wiig in Welcome to Me, surprisingly. Saw Arielle Holmes but I couldn't get into her movie that much... it was a bit too unpleasantly raw and verité for my taste.

If I'd seen Testament of Youth by now, my 1/2 year ballot would probs be Binoche, Danner, McCarthy, Vikander, and Vikander... in roughly that order.

And yeah lead male actor is pretty fallow currently but yay for Paul Dano and the quasi-supporting Oscar Isaac.

July 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAdam K

My two favorite male performances this year so far both belong to Viggo Mortensen - he's quite different, and equally good, in Jauja and Far From Men. He also acts in three or four different languages between the two films, so it's an impressive double turn on many fronts. Isaac, Fassbender in Slow West, and Jean Dujardin in The Connection round out my top 5. Honorable mention goes to Chris Pratt, who I really do think is kinda perfect in Jurassic World.

Karidja Toure in Girlhood is my favorite lead actress performance so far this year. Then three great performances in movies that I was iffy on overall - Ronit Elkabetz in Gett: The Trial of VIvane Ansalem, Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, and Brit Robertson in Tomorrowland. Amy Poehler in Inside Out (an Ellen-in-Finding-Nemo level accomplishment for me) rounds out my top 5. Honorable mention goes to VIkander.

July 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I only managed to catch Sils Maria last night and oh my god, all of you guys can have your Kristen Stewart (who, forgive me, does fine work but absolutely nothing special). I'm all about Binoche.

Nathaniel and Cal Roth above said everything I would want to say, only ten times more eloquently.

I'd actually go as far as to say, give or take Barbara Stanwyck or Liv Ullmann or Katharine Hepburn, Binoche may in fact be my favourite actress ever. Ever.

July 4, 2015 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Is there any specific reason as to why in the banners above the categories in your Oscar charts you don't acknowledge J.K. Simmons recent win in the Supporting Actor category? I was just curious because the three other acting winners are represented and other winner from this past year are included as well but he is not.

July 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

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