Best Supporting Actor of 2016

Best Supporting Actor is often the least exciting acting category for yours truly, but that was not the case this year! Last year’s winner was dance machine Oscar Isaac from Ex Machina, and maybe the only one from my lineup last year that I feel as passionately as I do for the five on this year’s ballot. Those who almost made it: Billy Crudup’s understated sadness in 20th Century Women, Issey Ogata’s Silence slyness, Michael Barbieri’s funny and touching take in Little Men, and Craig Robinson’s charismatic dad in Morris From America. Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders also nearly made my ballot as well for his middle chapter despair, but four slots to one film is a bit excessive.

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Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
His nurturing is instinctive and impulsive, and you see it enacted to more than towards Chiron. Ali allows the more complicated implications to take him by surprise. His final scene is a masterclass in calculation, as Chiron’s questioning puts his compassion and guilt center stage until the shame overcomes him.

Tom Bennett – Love and Friendship
The smarts it takes to play someone so dumb. Bennett breaks up the sameness of Love and Friendship‘s humor while finding his own variety to his Sir James punchy moments. Still the actor defines him not by his doltishness, but by his delight in all things and by his backpedaling reflexes.

Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!
Not just all kooky spaghetti lassos and false teeth, Ehrenreich is hilarious as a young star both smarter than dumber than you expect him to be depending on the moment. Would that it were so simple, he also walked away with a catchphrase. A simmering rage and loyalty make him more than a caricature.

André Holland – Moonlight
Like Ali in the film’s first third, Holland reminds you that the world outside of Chiron is as complex as our hero. Kevin has his own history too, and Holland’s ease and wandering eye bring our understanding of him full circle. He has the prowess to dismantle both Trevante Rhodes’s “Black” and the audience, but he’s just as shaken himself.

Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight
How does Rhodes carry a lifetime of baggage so seamlessly to the pain we’ve already seen from two other younger actors? Chiron is trapped by his history, but Rhodes is most vulnerable at the question of the future. A study in black masculinity elegantly wrought with heart-bursting specificity.

And the Winner is…

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In Review!: “Moonlight”

Set in a Miami of demanding exclamation points, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight presents identity as a question mark. Not only is self-actualization the victim of social norms and expectations, but one’s identity is often out of reach thanks to that very circumstance. As if that weren’t insurmountable enough, there is also trauma grabbing us by the neck to define us. And is our chosen persona something we chase or run from? In Jenkins’s hand, identity is tough to define as we’re always in a state of transition as well.

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Let’s not be so tacky as to call Moonlight universal. The story of young African American Chiron’s developing awareness of his homosexuality within the drug-riddled Miami inner-city may have various points of entry over its triptych for all audiences to relate, but Jenkins never chases anything but the hyper specific. His open-hearted (or bursting hearted) approach to a very exact story is certainly for everybody, but it is not of everybody. The magic of the film’s glorious specificity is how much room it allows for those profound questions of identity politics. How much of who we are is decided for us and what do we get to decide for ourselves?

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