Put simply: If anyone but Malek was playing jittery drug addict/hacker Eliot Alderson, Mr. Robot wouldn't work. The perfect mix of cocky disruptor and broken loner, Malek offers a devastating portrait of what it means to be truly trapped and alone inside your own mentally ill head. Every choice, from the way Elliot moves and speaks (to characters as well as the audience) to the way his captivating eyes flutter off into nothingness, makes Elliot that much more fascinating to watch. Whether experiencing a morphine withdrawal fever dream or crying alone in his apartment because he just wants to be normal Elliot is a fascinating tour guide through the show's slightly off-kilter world.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's wonderfully ridiculous premise is anchored by the even more ridiculous Titus Andromedon, Kimmy's confidant and cheerleader. In playing Titus, a struggling performer perpetually on the verge of a melodramatic breakdown or breakthrough, Burgess steals every scene he's given, bellowing with his impressive singing voice and delivering laugh-out-loud lines with perfect timing. Burgess plays Titus with such magnetic confidence that the character transcends both the "sassy gay friend" and "doting black support system" clichés to become the hilarious hot mess we wish we knew in real life. Hope, exasperation, triumph, sassiness, silliness: Burgess nails it all and, on top of that, gifts us "Peeno Noir."
Every so often a comedian becomes the right person at the right time. They say the things we need to hear when we're ready to hear them. Richard Pryor in 1982. Bill Hicks in 1992. Dave Chappelle in 2004. We're finally starting to listen to women, and Amy Schumer has the hard truths about what it's like to be a woman in America in 2015, whether it was giving us a modern rom-com heroine or astutely eviscerating double standards and rape culture. Between the movie, the show, and the countless magazine covers and interviews, Amy Schumer was unstoppable this year.
The strongest film ensemble of the year didn't have the aid of explosions, superheroes or a particularly sexy story line to work with. But, like the real-life team of crackerjack journalists on whom their characters are based, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Brian d'Arcy James, take their source material and elevate it to edge-of-your-seat entertainment befitting of an action thriller. Keaton and Ruffalo, in particular, bring an appropriate sense of gravitas and urgency to the true story of how the pedophile priest cover-up within the Catholic church was first exposed, while McAdams' understated performance is possibly her best to date.
Cookie is one of TV's most-talked about characters of the year, but she's not just an over-the-top gangstress. Now that Cookie has more gravitas in business and more gentility with the people she love, Henson is believable, strong and seamless through every rapid change, taking Cookie from outrageous to funny to ferocious in a flash. She owns Cookie so thoroughly it's hard to imagine anyone else could do the job. Even clad in an eye-popping wardrobe full of colored fur and loud leather, Henson makes sure our attention remains on her unforgettable character.
We knew Breaking Bad's gruff fixer Mike Ehrmantraut had a gooey center when it came to his granddaughter, but we didn't expect Better Call Saul to use that secret depth to destroy us. Banks' cranky and craggy Mike spent much of the season in a tollbooth, but when he was called on in "Five-O" to show how a Philly cop ended up in Albuquerque, the actor gave us rare glimpses of emotion and showed off every aspect of his range Shedding his stoic, laconic demeanor while recounting the tragic death of his son, Banks steals the entire season. When Mike's voice cracks uttering, "I broke my boy," so do our hearts.
Aaron Sorkin couldn't eschew the traditional biopic in favor of a three-act play without the right band of actors to bring his rapid-fire dialogue to life. Michael Fassbender confidently transforms himself into the cold genius of Steve Jobs, but he balances his unapologetic ambition with just enough humanity to keep everything from falling apart. It's through the characters around Jobs that we see both sides of the man. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, whom Seth Rogen plays with a restrained, years-old rage, and Jeff Daniels' stern Apple CEO are Jobs' punching bags as he ascends toward greatness, while Kate Winslet's no-BS-accepting assistant Joanna Hoffman constantly pulls him back to Earth. Every performer is at the absolute top of their game.
Jaime Camil is part of an ensemble cast of really great, entertaining actors, yet he still manages to steal every scene he's in. He somehow manages to balance Rogelio's self-absorption with enormous heart so you can't help but love his ridiculous outbursts. This is a man who invented a feud with Britney Spears and yet you completely believed his side of the story. Everyone needs more Rogelio in their lives.
Leading Marvel's first female-fronted project is an intimidating task, but Atwell easily proved a hero doesn't need a Y chromosome or powers to be super. Thanks to Atwell, Captain America's ex became a fully realized character who is smart, fun, capable and vulnerable all at once. And so while the SSR will never give Peggy enough credit, we know Atwell's value and anyone else's opinion doesn't really matter.
All the other TV producers must be crying foul because Fargo -- and its sprawling, stellar cast -- is so good in its second season that it's just not fair. On one hand, Patrick Wilson, Cristin Milioti, Ted Danson, Jean Smart and Rachel Keller will tear up your heart and give you all the feels. On the other hand, the insane criminals are alternately so casually bloodthirsty yet strangely charming, that you cringe and laugh in the same breath. Although we could list pretty much everyone in this cast, particular shout-outs go to Nick Offerman (as the drunken lawyer with the gift of gab), Bokeem Woodbine (as the hitman with a penchant for quotations), Jeffrey Donovan (as the dangerously egotistical Dodd) and Kirsten Dunst, who, as beautician-turned-sociopath Peggy Blumquist, is such a revelation of cold-blooded yet clueless "Minnesota nice" that if she doesn't get an Emmy for this, we may have to run over someone with a car. OK, then!
A lot of people went to the movies this summer to see Mad Max expecting it to be a Tom Hardy show, but what they got was a fierce punch in the face thanks to Theron's powerhouse performance as Imperator Furiosa. Make no mistake -- this is her movie and Theron redefines the phrase "strong female role," as Furiosa breaks free from the tyrannical Immortan Joe and leads the charge with her insane fight sequences and command of her badass girl squad. Furiosa, thanks to Theron's range and gravitas, is arguably the best film heroine since Aliens' Ripley.
Mendelsohn is nothing but pure gold as black sheep Danny Rayburn. It's easy to hate Danny and his chip-on-the-shoulder defiance upon his return to his estranged family in the Florida Keys -- especially opposite Coach Taylor -- but whenever Danny frustrated us, Mendelsohn, with that off-kilter smile and teeming charisma, simultaneously disarmed us in cheeky and at times heartbreaking fashion. Few could juggle those shifts, and so well, in a character who, as it turned out, is as dark as the label placed on him.
Larson and Tremblay are so believable as a hopelessly devoted mother and son, who spend years held captive in a garden shed, that they manage to bring lightness into what easily could've been a bleak affair. With the entire film filtered through the young Jack's eyes, it's a testament to the 9-year-old Tremblay that he not only makes Jack's discovery of life outside Room so beautiful, but also the years he spent trapped inside. Larson is equally extraordinary, imbuing Ma with natural amounts of warmth, bitterness, understanding and courage. And it only melts our hearts more to discover that Larson and Tremblay bonded so much on set they're now even BFFs in real life.
Mad Men's swan song certainly didn't reinvent Don Draper and it didn't provide Hamm a noisy showcase like "The Suitcase," but the seven-time Emmy loser (finally!) righted that wrong by going even deeper into his character's fascinatingly devastating search for self as he left his broken life behind and drove across the country. Hamm continued to do more with silent stares than any actor on TV, as evidenced by his character's emotional breakthrough as he wordlessly realized he's not alone in the world. The pain that gives way to relief and acceptance in his eyes says more than any amount of dialogue ever could. And whether or not Don used that enlightenment to sell the world a Coke, there's not debating that the TV landscape will somehow be lesser with Don Draper in it.
We all know DiCaprio can do physical acting, but that's nothing compared to this. Playing real-life fur trapper Hugh Glass who was left for dead after a bear attack, DiCaprio fills the screen with a visceral, all-consuming performance, boiling with blood-curdling rage as Glass seeks revenge on his former companions. It's entrancing, frightening -- and might finally win Leo the Oscar the Internet so desperately wants for him.
There is nothing like seeing the perfect marriage between an actor and a part. Ronan is enchanting as Eilis, an Irish immigrant navigating her way through her new life in Brooklyn in 1952. From the first few frames of Eilis' dead-end existence in Ireland, Ronan subtly charts her growth from homesick, overwhelmed lost soul to confident, purposeful young woman with a magnetic, relatable naturalism. It's a performance as warm and inviting as a home, which, as Eilis learns, is where you make it.
The newest James with a late-night show arrived with less fanfare than Stephen Colbert at The Late Show, but he's been stealthily stealing the spotlight from his lead-in. Charming, affable, Corden has put his own British twist on the format by talking to all his guests at once. Corden isn't that good of an interviewer, but his irrepressible enthusiasm can sell any mundane conversation. He's also introduced the most fun recurring bit in late night: Carpool Karaoke, where he and a singer drive around Los Angeles and belt out songs like no one's watching. It's a very simple premise, and would be boring if lead by a performer without Corden's charisma.
Jessica Jones was not a well-known superhero when the Netflix series debuted, but thanks to Ritter, she became one of Marvel's inspiring heroines. As the misanthropic private eye, Ritter captures the depth of a woman who has survived unspeakable trauma and perseveres. Being blessed with the ability to deliver a punchline as well as a punch, Ritter also gives Jessica a humorous edge that stops the show from becoming suffocatingly dark.
Pixar made magic again in 2015 when it dared to explore what would happen if feelings had feelings in Inside Out, and no one drove that heartwarming message home better than Smith as the voice of Sadness. While the downer emotion may have grated on Joy's nerves, she endeared herself to everyone watching. Breaking your heart in all the best ways, Smith's melancholic yet warm vocal inflections give Sadness a universally insecure feeling we could all relate to, and by the end, she was the one you were rooting for.
As two women in forbidden love in the '50s, Blanchett and Mara burn up the screen with their rapturous chemistry. Theirs is not a love affair built on declarations or PDA, but rather on evocative knowing glances and gestures. Mara is quietly sensational, capturing the confusion and suffocation in Therese, a shy shopgirl who wants to explore as much as she observes as an aspiring photographer. Blanchett, meanwhile, imbues her older, sophisticated titular character with a seductive fearlessness and restraint. Her blistering line reading of "I'm starved" to Therese over lunch will stay with you for days.
Is there anyone who's having more fun than Rob Lowe? While Dean Sanderson could've easily been a classic idiotic douchey TV star, in Lowe's preposterously gleeful hands, he's the ideal alchemy of camp and sincerity. The Grinder's tonal register is at total ridiculousness, but Lowe always knows when to pull back just a tad to let the real moments play for this fake lawyer. And there's nothing more real than Lowe's flawless chemistry with Savage. The Wonder Years alum is in his element as the bemused, neurotic little brother, calibrating Stewart's exasperation so that he's never a killjoy or a goober, but a realistic complement to Dean's delusional optimist. This is one Shadow Boy we're happy is back in the limelight.
Being marooned in space has become a popular premise for Hollywood blockbusters ('sup Gravity and Interstellar), but one-man shows can get pretty monotonous (again, Interstellar). Damon spends a lot of time alone in the space epic, but brings just the right dose of witty humor and grit to the struggle so you never got bored or find him grating. He also makes science projects feel cool again. Did anyone else want to go home and plant a garden just so they could say, "I am the best botanist on this planet"?
The MVP of Season 3 of The Americans wasn't Keri Russell or Matthew Rhys or even the wigs. It's 17-year-old Taylor, who has turned Paige into ultimate source of intrigue and complexity on the spy drama. After Paige learns her parents' secret, Taylor plays her confusion, anger, vulnerability and sadness with a depth and confidence that belies her years. It all builds until the payoff in the finale, when Paige tells Pastor Tim in a scene, and performance, that is as liberating as it is upsetting. What will Paige do next? As long as Taylor is playing her, we can't wait to find out.
Imagine, for a moment, how you would feel if you were Trevor Noah on Sept. 27, 2015, the day before he began his tenure as host of The Daily Show. You're a relatively unknown foreigner taking over for the man a huge segment of America turned to in order to help them make sense of the world. You can't even properly pluralize "woman." How scared are you? What makes you think you can pull this off? But somehow, once the cameras are on, you're totally confident. You're acknowledging that you can't replace your predecessor, but you're not going to try to be him. You're flashing a huge, playful grin when you make them groan with a "too soon?" joke. Any doubt you may have had was unfounded. You got this.
Melissa McCarthy is the undisputed star of this summer popcorn spoof, but her performance wouldn't be as noteworthy if not for Byrne's villainous straight woman by her side. Borrowing some traits from the shrew she played in Bridesmaids, Byrne further cements herself as the perfect foil to McCarthy's outsize humor (and proves that her two-time co-star isn't the only one who can rock a ridiculous wig like nobody's business). Somebody sign her up for The Heat 2, STAT.
Mom is in charge! On Fresh Off the Boat's second season, Wu's dynamic performance is what allows Jessica to be ruthless enough to keep the Huang household in line, land killer bargains and yet still come off as loving (tough love, yo). This strength is also why her character had the unenviable task of summing up the plight of Asian representation on TV in one of the most meta story lines of the season. Protective and hyper-vigilant, Jessica is the driving force behind the Huangs to achieve more, and it's all thanks to Wu, who brings the necessary energy and evil glint in her eye.
On a show full of manipulating, degenerate reality show producers, somehow Zimmer's character Quinn King stood out from the pack -- as both the best and worst of them. Sure, she was sleeping with a married man and wanted good drama at the expense of the Everlasting contestants' sanity, but a look in Zimmer's eyes, a quality in her voice also revealed the kernel of heart that was constantly breaking and re-breaking inside of her. Quinn is an awful person, but Zimmer made us love her despite those faults.
After his Oscar-winning performance in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne could be the sixth person to win back-to-back Oscars with another mesmerizing transformation. As transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, Redmayne disappears into the role, embodying Lili's awkward, gradual blossoming with delicate modulation and grace. Lili's journey dovetails with that of her wife Gerda, the film's other Danish girl. Vikander breaks your heart with her compelling portrait of a woman reconciling her yearning for her old life and husband with her 'til-death-do-us-part dedication to help Lili through it all.
After 10 years chewing scenery on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, many expected D'Onofrio to deliver a cartoonish portrayal of the Daredevil villain Kingpin. Instead, D'Onofrio built Wilson Fisk into a stoic, wounded man who is so convinced he's helping the city that you almost start to believe him. Whether D'Onofrio is cracking skulls or making omelettes, it's a beautifully nuanced performance that elevates the entire series.
With all due respect to Kate McKinnon's impression of Hillary Clinton as a cynical cyborg willing to do anything to win, it was Larry David as the presidential candidate from Vermont who won SNL's first Democratic debate sketch (as the real Sanders did at the real debate too). David's uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to Sanders is SNL's most fortuitous coincidence since Tina Fey and Sarah Palin, and David makes the most of it. His performance of Sanders as a cranky old cheapskate is both affectionate and needling. And bonus points to David for shouting "Trump's a racist" during that candidate's monologue moments after Sanders' second SNL appearance. McKinnon-as-Clinton will be here again next year, but for now SNL is feeling the Bern.
While everyone slept, cried or wouldn't dare make a big move lest they get blood on their hands this summer, Johnny Mac was the only one who made us expect the unexpected. A wonderful weirdo who's just the right degree left of center, the Rockstar Dentist didn't win, but he single-handedly jolted the season with his hysterical (and loud) Diary Room sessions, unbridled laugh, helpful dental knowledge, charming self-awareness and random, offbeat sense of humor. This is a guy who took a shower in a hoodie and repeatedly disarmed Julie Chen on live TV. It's tempting to dismiss him as an annoying character who's trying too hard, but the reality is that JMac's ineffable personality is as genuine and strong as his chinstrap game.
The saying goes, "Dance like no one's watching." Well, Left Shark did just that and rocked our world. During Katy Perry's Super Bowl halftime show, she was joined by two shark-costumed backup dancers, but it was the shark on stage left who stole the show by stepping and voguing completely out of sync. With his giant toothy smile, Left Shark (performed by dancer Bryan Gaw) taught us that really, you don't have to give a flip(per) as long as you moved with joy in your two-chambered heart.
It's almost unfathomable that Isaac is in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina and Show Me a Hero in the same year. How did former Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko become an outer space fighter pilot? Because Isaac became the idealistic Wasicsko and Ex Machina's villainous CEO Nathan Bateman. His level of commitment and ability to inhabit both of the very different parts puts him in the same caliber of actor as Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio. What do you prefer, gritty realism or heady sci-fi? Isaac is great at both.
The entire cast of FX's dysfunctional comedy deserves props for their always self-centered, yet hilarious performances. This season, however, Cash brought an extra dimension to her character Gretchen when it was revealed she suffers from depression. At times heartbreaking, other times heartless, Cash brought complexity to a portrayal of depression in a way that was both deft and honest.
When Clinton had to testify again in October before the Benghazi Committee about the 2012 terrorist attack on the American diplomatic compound, many saw the hearing -- scheduled to last eight hours -- as theater designed to wear the presidential candidate down and make her look bad, and we could've seen a rightfully angry, exasperated and totally over-it Clinton, indignant at this colossal waste of time. Well, we did, and it was amazing. Clinton answered all the questions while simultaneously becoming the human form of DGAF. After 11 hours, nobody learned anything new about the attacks, but they did learn more about Clinton. She's tough, has a bladder of steel and gets that dirt off her shoulder.
The last time a "villain" stole a film from Tom Hanks, he went on to earn an Oscar nomination (Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips). Rylance might just do the same. Though he plays real-life convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, Rylance is no mustache-twirling evildoer. Instead, he makes Abel entirely sympathetic, undercutting the severity of his circumstance with magnificently droll humor and low-key pragmatism that Abel winds up being your favorite character. "You don't seem alarmed," Hanks' James B. Donovan says to Abel. Abel, without missing a beat: "Would it help?"
Eichner delights by being an extreme, lovable version of the New Yorker stereotype - pushy, loud, critical, hilarious - and as Billy on the Street has matured, so too has his willingness to be completely, existentially absurd. Even as the star power from his A-list guests gave the show more cachet, Eichner's hissy fits over pop culture trivia remain as funny and true to the show's premise as they are uncomfortable. On Difficult People, Eichner's perpetual outrage is dampened, slightly, to become an ever-present aggravation and exhaustion that's equally tickling and more relatable.
While Tatiana Maslany rightfully draws the lion's share of praise for portraying multiple clones on BBC America's sci-fi drama, Millen took on that challenge this season to play her male counterpart. In portraying the Castor clones, however, Millen had to tease out far more subtle differences due to their regimented military upbringing. Ranging from psychotic to earnest, he somehow made each performance powerful and indelible.
As Mary Jane, a TV personality juggling career, family, friends and love, Union excellently captures her characters' pressures - much of it self-imposed - and the actual fragility hiding underneath her exterior. Her portrayal of a Type-A character is slightly handicapped by her cute dimples and warm smile, but she succeeds at being curt and demanding but also expressing the befuddlement she experiences when her control issues alienate people. In all her scenes, it's the occasional, momentary "Huh?" on Union's face that's so real - the recognition that she truly believes it's her way or the highway, and she really is being Mary Jane.
Aziz Ansari was making a point about diversity in the entertainment industry when he cast his real parents as his TV parents. But as it turns out, he was also casting two hilarious actors whose experiences and personalities could make his writing come to life in exciting, authentic ways. Shoukath, in particular, stands out for how unique his character Ramesh Shah is in the TV landscape: a man who worked really, really hard to earn the right to be a goofy sitcom dad and who says "man" in the funniest way possible.
The couple with the best onscreen chemistry this TV season isn't playing a couple at all. As siblings Alex and Valerie, Dewey and Watkins allow us to feel all the highs and lows of modern dating right along with their unlucky-in-love characters. Watkins is at her best when she's conveying Valerie's awkwardly vulnerable side with a single look, while Dewey pulls off the difficult task of making his frequently oblivious playboy alternately exasperating and empathetic.
The alternating narrators of The Affair -- played by Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson -- may be providing us with divergent perspectives on the same story, but they're also weaving intriguing tales in their own right. Love Noah or hate him (and chances are, you probably hate him), West has done an admirable job of making one of television's most despicable characters also one of its most fascinating to watch, while Wilson avoids sending the perpetually weepy Alison into maudlin territory. As for Tierney's jilted wife Helen, look no further than Episode 4, when her one-woman party turns disastrous, to showcase the ER alum's range. And Jackson, who's given the least material to work with, has infused Cole with a quiet, simmering rage that adds tension to scenes even when he's not present.
Season 5 of Shameless became the season of Ian as the middle Gallagher brother had to come to terms with his bi-polar diagnosis. Monaghan played the highs and lows of Ian's disorder with heartbreaking grace as he went from being on top of the world to feeling like the world was swallowing him whole. Putting the shoe on the other foot, Monaghan made the world his stage during a villainous three-episode arc to kick of Season 2 of Gotham. As proto-Joker Jerome, Monaghan was the rare mass murderer who could unnerve us with his creepily unhinged worldview while also making us lean in closer to see the madness.