Another year, another slate of movie releases in the history books, and with it a bevy of new characters gracing the big screen. Just like making the movies themselves, though, making a truly memorable character is a major challenge. You have to get them right on the page before you can cast them, for one thing, and it goes without saying that casting can make or break a character before filming even begins; then, after you cast them, you have to style them thoughtfully, frame and shoot them properly, and give the actor or actress plenty of room to stretch out their legs and develop the part on their own terms.
So whether you believe that 2015 was good for the movies or not, it was definitely good for actors. Roles were plentiful and diverse, ranging from staunchly independent efforts to the biggest studio productions imaginable; you have superheroes and boxers, spies and androids, hysterical sidekicks and grizzled freedom fighters, and even more than that in between.
Here are Screen Rant’s picks for the 12 Most Memorable Movie Characters of 2015.
12. Luis, Ant-Man
The only letdown with Luis, erstwhile cellmate and ongoing partner in both friendship and crime to reformed thief Scott Lang, is that he doesn’t get his own shrinking suit at any point in Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man (and frankly, he probably never will going forward). But as sidekicks go, Luis is a blast, and even without Scott’s ability to miniaturize himself, he’s still handy in a pinch when you need a point man in a heist caper. More importantly, he’s totally hilarious.
Ant-Man has a lot to recommend it, especially the smart ways it ducks formulaic superhero movie trappings, but Michael Peña’s scene-stealing charm is the film’s secret weapon. Whether he’s stammering and stuttering because being in the same room as Evangeline Lilly makes him nervous, or whistling “It’s a Small World” while posing as a security guard at the Yellowjacket unveiling ceremony at Pym Technologies’ headquarters, Peña is a hoot. He talks a mile a minute, particularly when making his rambling recollections of past events to Scott, in which each character mentioned in his reveries takes on Luis’ mannerisms and body language. It’s an effective technique that’s made better by Peña’s delivery, and easily pegs Luis as one of 2015’s endearing supporting characters. He probably won’t ever get a solo Marvel movie, but maybe he should.
11. Ilsa Faust, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Without Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation might have been just another entry in the increasingly over-the-top Mission Impossible franchise. With Rebecca Ferguson, the film feels just a little bit more special. It’s not every day that Tom Cruise is matched step for step by one of his co-stars; Cruise is the kind of guy who would headbutt a freight train if you asked him to, and let’s face it, that’s pretty much exactly why he’s one of Hollywood’s most vital box office heroes. Stuntmen and women light themselves on fire because hey, it’s a living. Tom Cruise does it because he loves it. For Ferguson to steal away even part of his spotlight is no small thing, so we should all applaud her for her turn as double agent Ilsa Faust. (No wonder she’s already set for the next Mission Impossible film, and a possible contender to play Captain Marvel.)
When Ethan Hunt first meets Ilsa, it’s in a torture chamber run by a dude who goes by the delightful moniker of “Bone Doctor.” It’s a harsh first impression; we’re (forgivably) led to believe that she’s in line to make Hunt suffer, but in just a few short moments she turns that perception on its head by throwing down with a room full of henchman by herself and holding her own before Hunt frees himself. Their relationship remains prickly from there, but as the film goes on, Faust defines herself as an action-adept and empowered character. She’s thoroughly engrossing for her complexity, and she elevates Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation through her very presence.
10. Bing Bong, Inside Out
The funny thing about Bing Bong is that, as we meet him in Inside Out, he’s already on the road to being forgotten; he’s the imaginary friend of our protagonist, Riley, a young girl who’s down in the dumps after moving with her family from their Minnesota home to San Francisco. But made up or no, he’s integral to helping Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) – two of the emotions in charge of steering Riley’s brain ship – get back to the command center of Riley’s mind and prevent her from becoming emotionally numb.
Bing Bong’s look makes him immediately memorable from a purely visual standpoint – he’s the kind of colorfully goofy chimera that could only be whipped up by the mind of a child – but his final act is what makes him truly unforgettable. It doesn’t matter that he’s the product of a child’s imagination, or that he only exists in the context of Riley; Bing Bong might be a pink cotton candy nougat-filled elephant-cat hybrid who cries candy tears, but he’s made of the same selfless heroism as the Iron Giant.
9. Mark Watney, The Martian
It is popular to joke about how much money Hollywood has spent rescuing Matt Damon; Saving Private Ryan saw him trapped behind enemy lines while Interstellar left him stranded in space. Ridley Scott took a page from Christopher Nolan with his most recent film, The Martian, which gave Damon a better rounded character to fulfill in Mark Watney, a botanist who finds himself left behind on Mars when a manned mission to the Red Planet goes down the tubes thanks to a nasty and unexpected dust storm. Against all odds, Watney survives, contines to face overwhelming complications of life on a harsh planet, and survives some more.
Why play what is essentially the same part in two movies in a row? Maybe the better question is, why not? Watney falls pretty squarely in Damon’s wheelhouse as an actor: he’s unfailingly decent, he’s incredibly likable, and both characteristics make it really easy to root for him. The film is straightforward and grounded in contrast to the metaphysically inclined Interstellar, which makes it more of a crowd-pleaser, but that, too, suits Damon; he runs with the film’s comparative simplicity, and in the process the picture becomes focused around a humanist bent. Watney is the kind of mainstream blockbuster hero we need more of – fundamentally good people who make it out of conflict alive through brains rather than brawn.
8. Ava, Ex Machina
2015 has been quite a year for Alicia Vikander, even if you account for her part in February’s almost-so-bad-it’s-good Seventh Son; she’s everywhere, from The Danish Girl to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Burnt to Testament of Youth (which, admittedly, opened in Britain last year and simply didn’t secure a US release until this past June). Calling her a “star on the rise” hardly does the Swedish actress’ burgeoning profile justice. But she is at her best, and most enigmatic, in Alex Garland’s science fiction thriller Ex Machina, where she finds humanity, or the appearance of it, in a decidedly inhuman character – Ava, an artificial intelligence housed within a synthetic frame.
In Ex Machina, brilliant science bro Nathan (Oscar Isaac, also enjoying a great 2015) builds Ava for the purposes of subjecting her to a Turing test; he wants to see if she is sophisticated enough to persuade her tester that she is fully human. In this case, the tester is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, co-starring with Isaac in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), an employee at Nathan’s company and perhaps the perfect candidate to administer the Turing test. Set between their opposite axes of masculinity, though, is Vikander’s cool, seductive work as Ava. As Ex Machina ends, you may come to see her as a victim of the male gaze, but you won’t be able to stop thinking about her, either, which is proof enough of the character’s indelibility.
7. Commandant, Beasts of No Nation
Over the course of his career, Idris Elba has canceled apocalypses, fought against apartheid, guarded the Bifröst, and run a drug dealing empire; in each of these roles, and in everything else he does (including DJing under the name “Big Driis”), Elba brings a confidence that would read as arrogance in actors of lesser poise and allure. You might not expect these qualities to be of great importance to a character like the Commandant, the chief supporting character in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, because a merciless warlord doesn’t exactly sound like a good showcase for an actor’s charisma. You would be wrong.
Turns out that the best way to ensnare disenchanted young boys into your child army is by appealing to their need for justice by way of fatherly magnetism. The Commandant is a real hardass, but he’s also compassionate and gregarious, or at least he gives the impression of being both; he also believes that what he is doing in service to the NDF, a fictitious rebel faction fighting the government of the film’s (appropriately) nameless country, is right. Combined, all of those details make him a menacing heavy to newcomer Abraham Attah’s vulnerable protagonist, Agu, a child orphaned by senseless war and in search of both a new family and a new purpose. The Commandant’s imposing bravado is textbook Elba; he’s a strutting lion who is as boastful and proud as he is predatory.
6. Adi Rukun, The Look of Silence
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Adi Rukun isn’t a “character.” He’s a real human being spun from flesh and blood rather than the stuff of fiction. He’s also the center of Joshua Oppenheimer’s celebrated, award-winning documentary The Look of Silence, the follow up to Oppenheimer’s equally lauded 2013 film The Act of Killing. But don’t let the documentarian aspect put you off. Adi might not fit the “character” mold in the way that the rest of the entries on this list do – he certainly isn’t the guardian of a powerful cosmic gem, or an AI with a robotic body – but he cuts as compelling a figure as any of them.
That’s explicitly because he’s an actual person, born to a legacy of state-sanctioned horrors and thereby seemingly destined to confront them. Adi’s older brother was executed during Indonesia’s communist purge between 1965 and 1966, which Oppenheimer focused on in The Act of Killing. In The Look of Silence, Adi, in the present day, tracks down the men who killed his brother and baldly questions them about why they did what they did, and whether they feel any remorse. That takes a level of bravery that even most superheroes aren’t capable of. There are shreds of reality in every fictional character, for sure, but people like Adi have lived the sort of dramatic, gut-wrenching stories most authors wish they could come up with on their own.
5. Major Marquis Warren, the Hateful Eight
Samuel L. Jackson has had a banner 2015; in addition to his Avengers duties, he got to play POTUS in Big Game, a Bond villain (pretty much) in Kingsman: The Secret Service, and the sharply-dressed narrator of Spike Lee’s Chi-raq. But his role in Quentin Tarantino’s polarizing eighth joint, The Hateful Eight, is his best, not just from the last three hundred and sixty five days, give or take, but from the last half a decade of his career. That would be Major Marquis Warren, a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter who’s en route to Red Rock, Wyoming with a few dead bodies in tow and a hefty reward waiting for him at his destination – assuming he gets there alive himself.
Warren is every bit the smooth-talking gunslinger you’d expect him to be in a Tarantino Western, quick on the draw but just as dangerous for his BS detector as for his marksmanship. In short, he’s a classic Jackson character, amplified and made more complex by Tarantino’s dialogue and characterization. Learning more of Warren, the barbarities he commits in the name of vengeance, and the lies he tells to protect himself during the Reconstruction Era, we may find it harder to root for him. But Warren is one of the few truly just characters in a cast that’s populated by liars, killers, thieves, and virulent bigots. If not because of Jackson’s charm, then you’ll want to throw in with Warren just to see some frontier justice done.
4. Sin-Dee & Alexandra, Tangerine
If you look to the movies to take you on an amusement park ride, consider buying a ticket to Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine; the film begins and ends at a donut shop and surges like a whirlwind in between, with the audience sucked into its high-energy character yarn like airborne debris. Tangerine is a remarkable effort for a number of reasons – if you pay attention to the trades, you’re no doubt aware that Baker and his crew shot the whole damn thing on iPhone 5s’ outfitted with anamorphic adapters – but it sears itself on our thoughts thanks to the contributions of transgender stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, respectively cast as sex workers Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra.
These girls are two sides of the same coin: Sin-Dee is a keyed-up bundle of sass while Alexandra is considerably more graceful. (Just don’t try to cheat or intimidate her, though, because she’ll quite happily kick your butt.) But for all their differences, they’re markedly similar to one another as well as to the audience, which is part of Tangerine’s point. Are you a Sin-Dee, fiery and prone to drama? Or are you an Alexandra, proud and dignified but fierce when occasion demands? Whoever you best identify with, you can’t help but gravitate toward them whether they’re together or separate (and it’s worth noting now that they spend the better part of the film away from each other, doing their own things). Tangerine sets an electric stage for both actresses, and they own it through genuine, experiential performances. Together, they make a strikingly real character duo you’ll be happy to spend eighty minutes tearing around town with.
3. Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed, Creed
Creed sets a pretty heft task before its star, Michael B. Jordan: convincingly portray the son of Apollo Creed, the great boxer portrayed by the equally great Carl Weathers until Rocky IV. So Jordan has to riff on Apollo, which means he has to riff on Weathers, and he has to do this while also bringing his own fire to Ryan Coogler’s contribution to the longstanding, iconic franchise, and if that wasn’t enough, he still has to make his audience forget about his involvement in August’s calamitous Fantastic Four. Amazing how two reboots of two separate series can turn out so very differently from one another. Where Fantastic Four flounders, Creed triumphs, and largely on the back of Jordan’s wildly successful performance as Donnie Creed.
Maybe nobody should be surprised. Jordan has always been a self-possessed actor brimming with cocksure brio, and that kind of energetic swagger is exactly what Creed needs from him. But that’s not the only thing Jordan brings to the role and to the film; in the climax, he’s vulnerable at a time when we expect him to be stoic, admitting to Sylvester Stallone that his greatest goal throughout their journey together has been to prove that he isn’t a mistake. If you weren’t already tearing up before that moment, Jordan’s delivery will leave a lump in your throat. It’s a heartbreaking line, and it’s a great counterpoint to both Donnie’s self-assured facade as well as his ferocious skills in the ring. Add all of these qualities together, and you end up with one of 2015’s most refreshingly vital character portraits.
2. Rey, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Look, the truth is that you could write a list of the most memorable movie characters of 2015 and populate about half of it with Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ primary and supporting cast: Maz Kanata, BB-8, Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe Dameron, and so on and so forth. But that would be super unfair to every other awesome character who made 2015 worthy of remembrance, so let’s let Rey, the desert scavenger turned Jedi hopeful, serve as the figurehead here. She is, after all, a balancing element for both the Force and for the Star Wars franchise, a necessary breath of fresh air in a series that is historically wanting for compelling female characters.
We meet Rey as she goes about her daily routine on the planet Jakku, scrounging scraps and exchanging them for pitiful rewards; by the time Star Wars: The Force Awakens ends, she has broken out of that thankless grind and made new friends, joined herself to a meaningful purpose, helped disrupt the nefarious First Order’s plans for galactic conquest, and bested Sith Lord fanboy Kylo Ren in single combat. That’s quite the transformation, but then, Daisy Ridley is quite an actress. (Her casting might be J.J. Abrams’ single best decision in the whole movie.) Ask all the questions and plot all the theories you like about Rey’s backstory, future, and as-yet-unknown parentage; all that matters is that she has helped redefine Star Wars for a new generation of fans.
1. Furiosa, Mad Max: Fury Road
Maybe it’s the buzz cut. Maybe it’s the robot arm. But there is something about Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s tough as nails heroine in George Miller’s unprecedented and thoroughly amazing Mad Max: Fury Road, fast becoming the film to beat in the 2015-2016 awards season. Furiosa takes a co-lead role to Tom Hardy’s reticent, mumbly Max Rockatansky; the movie is only nominally about him, though, because the person who drives the script’s central conflict is Furiosa herself. Max is just out for survival (at first). Furiosa is out to make a difference, to do good in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is their dying world.
So Mad Max: Fury Road ends up being Furiosa’s movie instead of Max’s, much to the chagrin of gender partisans who tried to have the film boycotted. Theron is one of our most gifted and commanding movie stars, and she takes every opportunity available to add layer upon layer of nuance and flare alike to her performance. Furiosa looks indomitable; she takes no guff, she gives and takes orders only from herself, and she’s as good with a gun as she is in a fistfight. But she also cares, deeply, about her mission to free Joe’s prisoner trophy wives – Angharad, Capable, Toast, the Dag, and Cheedo – and has fully invested herself in its success. (The film doesn’t really elaborate on that element, but it doesn’t need to handhold the audience to clarify Furiosa’s personal interests.)
She’s strong, she’s mysterious, and she’s wholly devoted to her righteous cause. There’s no denying it: Furiosa is a heroine for the ages, and maybe today’s age especially.
That, of course, is just a taster of the characters 2015 gave audiences; the siblings Sharpe from Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, Grandma‘s Elle Reid, David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, the reticent title character of The Assassin each fit the bill, too. (And congratulations to Paul Bettany, who finally gets to make a lasting physical impression on the MCU with The Avengers: Age of Ultron as The Vision rather than just donate his dulcet, plummy tones to J.A.R.V.I.S.’s vocal track.)
Which characters did you connect with the most this year? Which ones do you think you’ll look back on fondly years from now? Let us know in the comments section!