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Co-Star Chemistry, The "Make or Break" Secret Ingredient

Year in Review. Each day another different angled wrap-up.

Last year during our year in review roundup we did our first list of "best co-star chemistry" and it was such a fun way to pinpoint the intangible and often uncategorizable spark that ignites greatness in movies that we're doing it again. Want to capture lightning in a bottle in your movie? Hire the right casting director who will pair the right actors together. No special effect, setpiece, or plot twist can or will ever rival the amount of movie-long electricity that can be generated when actors are really sparking off each other and nailing whatever the roles their characters play in each other's lives simultaneously.

The list is presented without much commentary... unless we couldn't escape it. Chime in in the comments, won't you?

16 Chris Pine & Ben Foster, Hell or High Water (Brothers)

15 Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich, Hail Caesar (Director & Star). Theory: If the whole movie were as sharp and funny as their single scene together, the movie would be the single best movie of 2016.

14 Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga, Loving (Husband & Wife)

13 Tilda Swinton & Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash (Ex-Lovers)

12 Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae in Hidden Figures (Co-workers/Friends)

11 Jessica Chastain & Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Miss Sloane (Strategist & Pawn Piece)

10 Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man (Man & Corpse or Ego & Id or Altar Egos?)


09 John Early & Jesse Plemons, Other People  (Friends / Hometown Escapees)
Yes, Molly Shannon significatly elevates this dramedy as the cancer stricken mom but isn't its secret weapon really the escape valve scenes whenever David (Jesse Plemons) sees his old friend Gabe (John Early) both in town again after a long absence. It has to be one of the most relaxed, funny, and authentic depictions of longtime queer friendship we've seen onscreen. 


08 Theo Taplitz & Michael Barbieri, Little Men (Instant Besties)


07 Steven McKinley Henderson & Denzel Washington, Fences (Long Time Co-Workers / Friends / Neighbors)
Talk about a lived in chemistry absolutely resonating -- so much so that their eventual rift is just heartwrenching while completely underplayed --  thank god they didn't recast the roles from the stage. 

06 Kate Beckinsale & Chloe Sevigny, Love & Friendship (Mean Girls, Clique of Two) 


05 Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas, Morris from America (Father & Son)


04 Colin Farrell & Rachel Weisz, The Lobster (Forbidden Lovers)


04 Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane (Captor/Captive)


and three (okay four) true jawdroppers...

03 Crudup, Fanning, Bening, Gerwig,  Zumann in 20th Century Women (Makeshift Family / Roommmates / Village Child Raising Teen-Guiding)


02 Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea (Uncle and Nephew)


01 Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, La La Land (Lovers) 
This is their third picture together and I hope they make at least 3 more... 

EXTREMELY HONORABLE UNCATEGORIZABLE MENTION ...they never share scenes but Lord how they resonate as fundamentally the same and different: Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight (True Self). And to think that Barry Jenkins reportedly wouldn't even let them watch each other scenes. How did this miracle happen?

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Reader Comments (32)

It seems Ralph Fiennes just has chemistry with everybody. Hope the Academy sees fit to reward him one day.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterReady

As soon as I saw the title of this I thought of Fiennes and Ehrenreich's scene. I haven't seen 20th Century Women yet, but for me that's the pairing of the year.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

I'd like to thrown in Raphina and Conor (or Conor and his brother) in Sing Street. And Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring 2. And the AbFab gals.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling need to join this list.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterchasm301

A Bigger Splash's mention got me thinking about Dakota Johnson...something like anti-chemistry, the way her presence just resists and recoils from other characters like oil and water, even when she's trying to charm them. It's part of why the viewer (along with Tilda) feels utterly confounded by her at the end of the movie.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.


December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

The cast of Captain Fantastic, especially Viggo and the kids.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Seriously... Emma and Ryan?

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

Laura Linney and her hair in Nocturnal Animals.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Simon & Travis... oh my god. LOL.

December 29, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Hayden W: totally agree w/ you on Dakota Johnson in ABS: never figured out what exactly she was supposed to be in the film for.

Yes to Alden Ehrenreich & Ralph Fiennes in Hail Cesar! The rest of the movie didn't really gel but their one scene is just comedy gold.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRob

One I would add is Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe for The Nice Guys. Gosling seems to have great chemistry with his co-stars: Russell Crowe, Emma Stone, Ben Mendelsohn, Rachel McAdams, etc.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMatt St. Clair

So glad you included the two boys from LITTLE MEN. I definitely agree.

Great list!

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Just saw your updated list with Gosling/Stone! I was about to say!

Also I agree with Matt that Gosling really gelled well (better than I expected at least!) with Russell Crowe in THE NICE GUYS.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Totally agree on your honorable mention: they don't look physically alike, but after just one minute of each new chapter, you feel you're watching the same person who grew older, just like Boyhood. It's unbelievable! Even more so when you know they never saw each other's performances. It's absolute madness!

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBensunce

Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim in THE HANDMAIDEN would be the one omission I would put in there.

Other significant ones for me:

Dave Johns and Hayley Squires in I, DANIEL BLAKE

Emmanuelle Bercot and Vincent Cassel in MON ROI (I don't know if this was a 2016 US release or not)

Along the same lines as the MOONLIGHT entry........ Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte in JULIETA

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTravis C

Are there any examples of actors who are really great, but who have less than perfect chemistry with their co-stars? I've never thought about that.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGena

*shwew!* I was worried that was intentional ;)

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

Gosling and Stone are magic together !

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

The scene between Ralph and Alden has to be one of the best scenes of the year actually.
I would also add the Handmaiden's mistress and servant, Toni Erdmann's father and daughter, and ABFAB'S GIRLS!

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Gena -- i think there are actors like that but you're right it's harder to think of them. One who might qualify is Daniel Day-Lewis who is a phenomenal actor but not especially gifted at interaction with \co-stars. He's kind of an island but such a glorious one that it hardly matters. I think Julia Roberts is another example at times. Sometimes it happens with the giant movie stars, they generate so much rapport with the camera that sometimes that's the focus.

December 29, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

For some reason, I thought you didn't particularly care for Loving and Edgerton in it, Nathaniel.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Sam Neil and Julian Dennison have such a goddamn charming relationship thats the core of one of the best films of the year, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

Amanda -- i dont like it as much as most people or even think Edgerton is worthy of a nomination, but i do think he and Ruth Negga conjure something very intimate.

December 29, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone in "Certain Women." So much unspoken desire and longing.

Logan Lerman and Tracy Letts in "Indignation." A bitter, acerbic, knock-down drag-out verbal joust for all time.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Tom Hanks and Alexander Black in A Hologram for the King.

December 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJason Cooper

Have you already seen Toni Erdmann? Because number one should be Sandra Huller and Peter Simonscheck, the best duet of actors in a long long time

December 30, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

NATHANIEL - DDL was the first one I thought of, actually. And maybe DiCaprio? At least, he doesn't seem to pick projects where intimate, realistic relationships are at the center.
Julia Roberts - that's interesting, I must check that out. Thanks.

December 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGena

Mary Elizabeth and John goodman are great in 10 Cloverfield Lane ( Goodman is in my supporting actor lineup).

They are great separately and just superb together, so the mention here is perfect.

December 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHuh

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep, they were great with each other and made the film much more interesting and entertaining.

Also I wish to second the shout out to the ABFAB women, the Jennifer Sanders/Joanna Lumley combo deserve some sort of honourary award

December 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

LadyEdith: very true on Streep & Grant together, so charming in FFJ.

Gena above mentioned otherwise good actors that don't seem to jibe well together onscreen and I think that would be a good topic for a post. One pairing that comes instantly to my mind is Julianne Moore & Alec Baldwin in Still Julia. Never quite believed that they really had married. THe chemistry was just not there to me.

December 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRob

"Are there any examples of actors who are really great, but who have less than perfect chemistry with their co-stars? I've never thought about that."

I can't think of many talented actors who generate no chemistry of any kind with their co-stars but I can think of some who can't sell romance or never seem comfortable playing it.

January 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJackie

I'd also mention Rhodes and Andre Holland. Their chemistry was just so fascinating - at first, it's like, are the feelings reciprocated? And then they start this whole verbal and physical dance around each other that is just so tentative and complicated by the past and also sexy. Who's going to make the first move? WILL there be a first move? So great.

January 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

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