Despite popular opinion, actors are regular people. They have to fight for work. Sometimes, they’ll have good years and other times, we won’t hear from them in a while. Each year will have their group of superstars who have achieved success in the box office and awards season. 2016 has been no different, with its own group actors who have caused a stir on the big screen. Compared to some years, 2016 had an increased amount of diversity in its actors. Instead of the overabundance of straight white men, we’ve had a plethora of actors of color and women come onto our radars. This illustrates Hollywood’s movement toward diversity and the type of conversations that are getting started around it. This year, many films and television series have had complex stories about racial identities, challenging stereotypes at every turn.
As the year comes to a close, we look back at the actors who have left a mark in the entertainment industry. Whether they’ve made award winning musicals or starred in multiple Oscar buzz films, these actors/actresses completely ruled 2016 one way or another.
17. Idris Elba
How many actors can say that they starred in three box office hits starring as an animal? Idris Elba and his booming voice have had quite the year in the animation world. With The Jungle Book, Zootopia, and Finding Dory, he’s found himself the co-star of three of Disney’s biggest hits!
Elba has never disappointed us in a film. Even with only his voice, you can tell that he is dedicated to becoming that character, no matter how menacing or funny he is supposed to be. His portrayal of Shere Khan was so threatening and slimy that it felt the tiger’s threat was palpable. He also showed his comedic side in Finding Dory as Fluke, a lazy walrus who doesn’t want to give up his rock.
Elba is no stranger to franchises with supporting roles in Thor, Prometheus, and this summer’s Star Trek Beyond. Fans have been rallying for him to become James Bond for a long time, but this year he finally got his franchise. In March, it was finally announced that the long-in-development The Dark Tower movie was a go—with Elba in the lead. Even though he was in huge box office hits this year, that announcement alone could finally turn him into a superstar.
16. Janelle Monae
One of the more pleasant surprises to come this film this year was Janelle Monae. The Grammy-nominated singer has already won people over with her beautiful voice, and now she has done it again with her acting. This year, Monae decided to take a break from music to pursue an acting career and has already started with a bang. She made her feature film debut in Moonlight, where she plays Teresa—a motherly figure for the lonely Chiron. If there is any critique to be made about Moonlight, it’s that there wasn’t enough Monae. In her few scenes, she’s stern but gentle, showing a stark contrast between her and Chiron’s actual mother.
Monae’s second project of the year was another inspirational tale, Hidden Figures. As an African American woman working at NASA, she helps calculate the mathematics needed to help fuel the first mission to space. Watching her performances, you wouldn’t believe that these are her first two films ever. Monae clearly is a woman of many talents, and she won’t be going away anytime soon.
15. Sarah Paulson
Ever since her debut on American Horror Story, fans have been petitioning for Sarah Paulson to get some sort of recognition. Whether it’s as a witch or a two-headed freak, Paulson embraces the weirdness all around her. But for all her nominations, she has long been overshadowed by Jessica Lange (who never fails to put on a spectacular performance as well).
This year, Paulson finally got her chance on that stage. Ryan Murphy’s new anthology show, American Crime Story debuted this year with the infamous O.J. Simpson case as its first topic. Paulson plays Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor who made the case against the ex-football player. During the course of the trial, Clark was often the receiving end of public outrage. People made fun of her hair, her personal life and blamed her for Simpson’s acquittal. Paulson watched copious amounts of videos to mimic Clark’s mannerisms and read her memoirs to try to understand this woman. All that preparation resulted in an incredible portrayal and an emotional Emmy win for Paulson (who brought Clark as her date to the ceremony).
14. Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson is no stranger to awards shows (she was nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2009), but 2016 has been her year in terms of recognition. After getting nominated twice for her role on Empire, she finally got a Golden Globe this year. Even though we know her as the conniving and charistmatic Cookie, in Hidden Figures Henson turns a complete 180 into Katherine Johnson—an African American woman who helped fuel NASA’s first mission in space.
Cookie is a no bullshit kind of gal, whereas Katherine is an awkward bookworm similar to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle. She talks her way into an executive meeting and wows everyone (including astronaut John Glenn played by Glen Powell) with her math skills. At Q&As, Henson has repeatedly said how important women like Katherine are to young girls. At a sneak peek of the film, she wiped back her tears and said, “If I had known about these women coming up, maybe I would have aspired to be a rocket scientist.”
Henson’s never-ending love for her work has made her one of the most entertaining actors to watch this year. Whether it’s her enthusiastic acceptance speech at the Golden Globes or her inspirational words about Hidden Figures, let’s hope that Henson will never change.
13. Kate McKinnon
2016 has been an especially dark year; we have lost more beloved celebrities than usual (R.I.P David Bowie) and American politics has been particularly fraught and ominous. But, thankfully, we’ve had comedy to help us get through this tough time, thanks to Kate McKinnon.
McKinnon has been on SNL for a few years now and inherited the Hillary Clinton role from Amy Poehler. Her impressions have been spot on and one of the best parts of this election cycle. After Hillary’s surprising loss, McKinnon didn’t leave us empty handed; the Saturday after the election, SNL’s cold open was McKinnon (as Clinton) emotionally singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the piano. It was the closure that the American people needed. This past weekend, McKinnon put on one last skit as Clinton. Parodying the famous card scene in Love Actually, she begged the electors to think about what they were doing. It was a bittersweet takeoff but a fine conclusion to a crappy political season.
The Emmy voters also took notice of her work this year. At this year’s Emmy Awards, she won an acting award for SNL—the first actress from the show to get that sort of recognition. It has not only pumped her name up on SNL but also in the film industry, where she was one of four hilarious female Ghostbusters and had a supporting role in Office Christmas Party.
12. Felicity Jones
Felicity Jones may already have an Oscar under her belt, but she continues the hustle. Her biggest film this year was a little indie called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As Jyn Erso, she helps the rebel alliance retrieve the Death Star plans and save a galaxy ruled by terror. She is the second woman to lead a Star Wars film and puts on a strong, intense performance. The film earned rave reviews, praising Jones for her efforts. To add to her impressive feat, she was also the highest paid actor in the film, marking a huge step in gender pay equality. For her first leading role in a major franchise, that’s very impressive.
For the sake of keeping her Oscar film trend going, she also co-stars in A Monster Calls as a terminally ill mother. Her role isn’t likely to be huge but it shows two vastly different sides to Jones: a tough franchise hero and a heartbreaking character actor.
11. Alden Ehrenreich
How does one go from an indie actor with only a few projects under his belt to a headlining a huge blockbuster? Alden Ehrenreich has had quite the lucky year, from landing a part in a Coen Brothers film to being named the title role in the future Han Solo spin-off movie.
Up until 2016, Ehrenreich’s only big claim to fame was a teen fantasy film adaptation called Beautiful Creatures. Since then, he’s had a few small roles here and there (notably in Chan-wook Park’s Stoker), but nothing as substantial as this year’s performances. And Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply showed off his wholesome, romantic lead potential.
Though he doesn’t look that much like Harrison Ford’s character, his portrayal of a dim-witted Western actor in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! proves that he can be both funny and charming. Whether he can be as suave as Ford is yet to be seen, though being directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller should help him out.
10. Sterling K. Brown
“If you haven’t done shows that are on everyone’s radar, then you’re something out of nowhere,” says Sterling K. Brown in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Despite working over two decades, Hollywood is finally starting to notice the Emmy winning actor. Even though he has had roles on Army Wives and Supernatural, he struck gold with not one but two successful series this year.
In The People vs O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story, he plays Christopher Darden, the court prosecutor who is desperate to get the jury back on his side in this infamous case. He won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series, which prompted a standing ovation for the talented star (the first ever to happen at the Emmys). He continues to showcase his talent in the brand new series, This is Us, as Randall—the adopted son of Rebecca and Jack. As a man who struggles to belong, Brown plays the character with such intensity that you can’t look away whenever he’s on screen. He also demonstrated his comedic chops in Office Christmas Party.
9. Lin-Manuel Miranda
Though technically not a film actor (not until 2018 anyway), Lin Manuel Miranda’s impact on the arts deserves a spot on this list. His Tony award-winning musical, Hamilton has surpassed so many barriers and became a cultural phenomenon. Now, he has become a powerhouse at Disney—writing music for huge pictures such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Moana. To add on to his already impressive resume, it was also announced that he will be collaborating on the live action The Little Mermaid adaptation, the Mary Poppins sequel, and his own future film called Vivo.
Along with paving the way to potentially becoming the youngest EGOT winner, he also was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year. There are not many people who can brag about having that much recognition. And as if he’s not busy enough, he also recently announced that he will be producing Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles as both a film and a television series. At only 36 years of age, Miranda has proved that sleep is overrated.
8. Ryan Reynolds
2016 may have looked good for the independent film industry, but it didn’t fare too well for blockbusters. Big-budget bonanzas such as Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad disappointed critics and certain fans, despite starring big name superheroes. However, one of the most memorable blockbusters this year had the smallest budget and superhero attached.
With only $45 million to use, Ryan Reynolds and Tim Miller created a spectacle with Deadpool. For over 10 years, Deadpool has been Reynolds’ passion project. Studios considered it too risky because the R-rated humor could alienate a huge part of the superhero film demographic. Fortunately, the rating didn’t hinder the film at all. It allowed Reynolds the freedom to hold nothing back and portray the character as he’s meant to be portrayed: a foul-mouthed a-hole.
7. Riz Ahmed
On the surface, it may seem like Riz Ahmed hasn’t done much but, in terms of representation, he has helped dissolve racial barriers. Lucasfilm has taken already taken the big step and started casting minorities in bigger roles (as seen with Poe and Finn in The Force Awakens). Besides Felicity Jones, the Rogue One heroes were entirely played by actors of color. Ahmed’s inclusion in particular opened up a conversation: Where are the South Asian and Middle Eastern actors?
Ahmed was already on people’s radars after his stunning performance in Nightcrawler, but he laid relatively low until scoring a role in 2016’s Jason Bourne. It wasn’t until later in the year that Ahmed landed two career defining roles in The Night of and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The Night of has been praised over and over, especially for Ahmed’s performance. The role nabbed him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Limited Series. Ahmed’s inclusion in the awards race is a symbol of hope for South Asian representation.
6. Michael Shannon
For years, Michael Shannon has been considered an indie darling, only appearing in a few limited release films a year. Nowadays, his reputation has seemed to have grown, especially with this year. In 2016 alone, he has appeared in seven films, with three of them receiving huge critical acclaim. Some of his big name films this year included: Midnight Special, Loving, and Nocturnal Animals. From a loving father to a maverick detective, Shannon is always able to excel in his varied roles. We never just see Shannon act; we see incredibly different personalities come into play.
The only time he has been nominated for an Oscar was in 2008 for his work in Revolutionary Road. Unfortunately, he has been continuously overlooked during awards season (with 2016 being no different). Regardless of how he does with Academy voters, Shannon has had a very successful year with the movie-goers. He continues to take on compelling roles and shows us how wide his range is.
5. Amy Adams
After Leonardo Dicaprio finally won his Oscar, fans were speculating on who should get the golden statue next; the answer is Amy Adams. Adams has been working hard for years but always seemed to be overshadowed by a bigger performance. However, this year she seems to be doing the overshadowing. In 2016, she has starred in three huge films, with two of them being big Oscar contenders. She swayed the audience with her linguistic skills in Arrival and illustrated the flaws of materialism in Nocturnal Animals. If the Oscars follow suit with the other awards shows, she could be looking at her sixth nomination (and hopefully, her first win).
Adams always presents a type of grace in her roles. She conveys her emotions so softly and reservedly. But her quiet nature allows for her facial expressions to do all the talking. She could be the girl next door or the brooding ex-wife and we wouldn’t be able to tell that she was acting.
4. Andrew Garfield
After being repeatedly criticized for his role as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield is back with a bang. After staying relatively low profile in 2015, Garfield brought out his serious acting chops for two huge Oscar contenders. He starred in Mel Gibson’s comeback, Hacksaw Ridge, as the real-life conscientious objector Desmond Doss— who contributed in the war with medical aid instead of guns. Garfield had already impressed audiences with his southern accent and quiet demeanor, but he decided that one Oscar-bait film wasn’t enough. He was also cast in Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence. In Scorsese’s 23-years-in-the-making passion project, Garfield plays a Jesuit priest who begins to question his faith while searching for his kidnapped mentor.
Given his recent win of the Spotlight Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival– an award that traditionally indicates a forthcoming Oscar nomination– Garfield’s chances are looking good this year. But if he loses out on the Best Actor race in awards season, we at least know that this won’t be the last we see of him in these types of roles. With all of these faith-based parts on his resume, Garfield could be well on his way to playing Jesus Christ sometime soon.
3. Ruth Negga
Ruth Negga had already begun to make a name for herself on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but shot up in popularity just this year. In the first season of Preacher, Negga played the loose cannon, Tulip, to perfection (despite the criticism of her race). Negga was both destructive and emotional in her portrayal, giving the television character more layers than her comic counterpart. She didn’t want to create a cliched sexy badass but rather a character who was more nuanced and subtle.
In just the past few months, she has also added her name into the running for the Best Actress Oscar. Her role as Mildred Loving in Loving is quiet but conveyed dignity, class, and reservation. She carefully steers through the male dominated waters and “plays the game” to get her way. Through these subtle expressions, Negga succeeds at capturing her audience. She’s able to make the Lovings’ issues more vivid and introduces this important couple to audiences all over the world. For her efforts, she snagged a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.
2. Mahershala Ali
You might know Mahershala Ali as Remy Danton on House of Cards, but his career has sky-rocketed this year. This past September, he hopped onto another Netflix show, Luke Cage, and played the complex, layered villain, Cottonmouth. But his true talent lies in Barry Jenkins’ achingly beautiful Moonlight. As a sympathetic drug dealer, Ali brings out his human side and becomes a father figure to a lonely little boy. Jenkins’ wonderful screenplay and direction showed that looks can be deceiving, dismantling misconceptions of black masculinity. Ali’s acting has been catching the eyes of voters and gaining nominations left and right (with most of them resulting in wins). He is currently the favorite to win Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.
But 2016 won’t be the last we see of Ali; It has also been announced that he will be co starring in Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, a science epic based off the manga Battle Angel Alita. This gig could potentially be a big franchise role and boost him up into stardom.
1. The Kids From Stranger Things
It’s hard to tell whether Stranger Things got so popular because of the show’s quality or because of the child stars. Stranger Things was full of ’80s nostalgia, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful without the talented group of munchkins that lead the show.
Stranger Things revolves around a group of friends (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin) trying to find their missing friend (Noah Schnapp) with the help of a mysterious girl (Millie Bobby Brown). No one expected the show to be such a hit or that these kids would be so dang adorable. They put on such convincing performances and embraced the B-style campiness of the show.
However, their fame wasn’t limited to the nine episode season; they immediately became pop culture celebrities.They’ve appeared on talk shows and Buzzfeed, trying out old school toys for the first time (and making us cry about our old age); Brown has also appeared on magazine covers and has been called the “next big thing.” They’ve even met President Obama, who apparently is one of their biggest fans.
With a second season premiering next year, theories have been rampant on the internet. Is Will truly okay? Will the gang have to go back to the Upside Down? And, most importantly, will Eleven ever get her Eggos?
Check out our list of actors who should have an equally great 2017, and tell us which actors rocked your worlds in 2016 in the comments!