Historically in America, during tough times people go to the movies.
They look for a romantic distraction or a place to cry or for characters who speak to their struggles. Whatever your political leanings, the presidential election of 2016 was ugly and fractious. And yet, the movies last year were surprisingly thoughtful and inspiring. The so-called prestige season opened in May at the Cannes Film Festival with Hell or High Water, in which Chris Pine appeared as a new sort of Western antihero—a bank robber out to save his family’s land. He squared off against a Texas Ranger, played by Jeff Bridges, and the moral complexity of the film (will our actions return to haunt us?) is something America would do well to ponder.
Also premiering at Cannes was Loving, based on the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple who helped legalize interracial marriage (they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1967) and, ultimately, paved the way for same-sex marriage. Ruth Negga, who played Mildred with quiet grace and tenacity, delivered, perhaps, the breakout performance of the year. But there were many others of note: for instance, Casey Affleck as a broken man undone by loss in Manchester by the Sea; Mahershala Ali as a drug dealer and flawed father figure in Moonlight; Anya Taylor-Joy as an otherworldly and diabolical daughter in The Witch.
In a year when a woman was denied the presidency, female characters prevailed on the big screen: Amy Adams was a linguist who brokered world peace in Arrival and a regretful art dealer in Nocturnal Animals. Natalie Portman brought nuance and steel to her portrayal of an icon, Jackie Kennedy; Annette Bening was at once enigmatic and commanding as an unorthodox 1970s matriarch in 20th Century Women. And Taraji P. Henson was fierce as a little-known heroine, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, in Hidden Figures. Unlike much of the country, Hollywood exalted in female empowerment, and audiences rejoiced.
Our new government may be poised to move backward, but movies in 2016 continued to broaden their horizons—and ours. In December, there even emerged a modern take on a classic cinematic form: La La Land was a thrilling song-and-dance musical with a melancholic twist. Emma Stone was radiant and heartbreaking as Mia, an aspiring actress who follows her dreams rather than a man.
Unlike musicals of the past, La La Land did not have a happy ending. Instead, like real life, it was wistful and complicated, and yet the only choice was to go forward. Art saved Mia—as we pray that it can save us all.
In that optimistic mood, we selected the 29 actors who shone brightest this past year. It is our fervent hope that their performances remind the world of what great films can do: bring us together.