Here’s the best performances of 2013, broken up into the four categories we tend to expect them in:
10. Tye Sheridan (Mud) – Directing child actors is tricky, but Jeff Nichols found a one in a million performer in Tye Sheridan, who stars as the kinder of the two kids in Mud. His quiet fascination when meeting McConaughey’s titular antihero is strong, but what makes Sheridan’s performance a real standout is the way he deals with Ellis’s adolescent longing. His character’s romance isn’t always as deftly handled as it should be, but Sheridan’s sweetness helps provide a strong center for a sometimes ambling film.
9. Bruce Dern (Nebraska) – Veteran character actor Dern gets the showcase of a lifetime as Woody Grant, the old man who believes himself to be the winner of $1 million. At different turns sullen, matter-of-fact or lost in a mixture of sadness and possible dementia, Dern turns what could have been a caricature of a grumpy old man into a fully realized portrait of an old man who desperately needs something good and new in his life.
8. Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) – Of the two leads of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, Ethan Hawke is almost undoubtedly the more limited performer. And yet, Jesse is the role he was born to play, showing up in the third installment as a former charmer who’s gone from cynicism to sentimentality. Hawke can’t rely on his boyish good looks anymore, and he makes that work for his character. Jesse isn’t always sympathetic – Hawke plays his passive-aggression perfectly – but he’s become a familiar old friend someone we want to check in on and make sure he’s doing OK.
7. Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra) – Michael Douglas’s recent award accepting speeches for his role as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra have been embarrassing, with Douglas playing up a gay joke in a way that recalls an uncomfortable night with an older relative. But there’s none of that in Douglas’s rich performance, at once flamboyant and grounded, full of vanity, fear, and a smothering need to love and be loved. It’s Douglas’s best work in over a decade, and it’s as vulnerable as we’ve ever seen him.
6. Simon Pegg (The World’s End) – Simon Pegg has always been a gifted comic performer and an actor of immense charm and likability. Much of that is present in The World’s End, but there’s a new recklessness and self-centeredness that we’ve never seen to his work, the sign of a boy who never grew up. As the film goes on and the character grows more complicated, Pegg scales new heights as a dramatic actor, playing a man of deep-rooted sadness and debilitating addiction with almost nothing left going for him. It’s the most wounded performance of the year, and one of the best.
5. Robert Redford (All Is Lost) – The hero of All Is Lost is referred to only as Our Man, played with intense focus and utility by Redford in what might be the best work of his career. The film likely could have worked with a lesser-known actor in the role, but Redford gives it another dimension. We see one of the last great movie stars stripped of his strength, of his class, and, now at 77 years old, of his once-youthful good looks. It’s easy enough to believe that Our Man is capable of doing the arduous tasks at hand, but they also clearly take a toll on his body, already worn down by age and lord knows what other hardships before the sea, the sun, and the salt take their toll. Great performances are borne not of words, but of action, and Redford’s single-minded struggle to live is more than enough to keep us invested in his survival.
4. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) – Chiwetel Ejiofor has been a first-rate actor for many years, but he finally gets his due in 12 Years a Slave as Solomon Northup. Played with quiet desperation by Ejiofor, Solomon is both dignified and reticent, an educated man who knows his smallest indiscretion could get him killed. His gait changes as he tries to hide the decorum with which he was raised, and he learns to be pragmatic to self-destructive degrees. In the film’s final scene (no spoilers – it’s based on a true story), the character’s mental and spiritual anguish are barely held back, and it’s hard not to choke up as Ejiofor croaks out, “Forgive my appearance…I have had…a difficult time…”
3. Joaquin Phoenix (Her) – Joaquin Phoenix gave the best performance of last year in The Master. He comes close to matching it in Her, playing a man who’s every bit as inward as soft-spoken as Freddie Quell was raw and erratic. He’s sensitive, sweet, and more than a little pathetic, someone who’s clearly uncomfortable in his own skin and around other people. Phoenix never judges his character’s strangeness, nor does he ever seem to strain. He plays a man whose first notion is to retreat, and whose longing for a human connection, hell, any connection, is all too recognizable. Between this, The Master, and Two Lovers, it’s safe to say that he’s the most interesting actor working today.
2. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) – In a revelatory performance, Isaac doesn’t sand off any of Llewyn’s rough edges. He’s an asshole, plain and simple, albeit a talented and strangely sympathetic one. To some degree it’s fun to see his selfish sad-sack kicked around (literally, at one point) and scolded by a wonderfully downbeat Carey Mulligan, whose Jean dubs him “King Midas’s idiot brother”, who turns everything he touches to shit. Indeed, as funny as Llewyn’s setbacks often are, he has integrity to go with his big dreams. His failure might be at least partially of his own doing, and his commitment to his ideal view of the folk music scene turns him into a judgmental prick, but he doesn’t compromise for a career he doesn’t want. He’s another Coen hero who’s trying to define himself, and where his place is in the world, if there even is one.
1. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) –DiCaprio’s collaboration with Martin Scorsese has yielded some of his best work, but he tops himself as Jordan Belfort, the Crazy Glue that holds The Wolf of Wall Street together. DiCaprio’s previous films with Scorsese often saw him as a man pulled at all sides, ready to fall apart at any moment. Wolf sees that, but it also mixes in the charm he showed in Titanic, Catch Me if You Can, and the early parts of The Aviator with a newer, more deranged side that’s as funny as it is unsettling. The monologues he gives to his disciples could serve as a Bible for future Gordon Gekko wannabe douchebags, a portrait of the most undisciplined side of the American Dream. And that’s not even taking into account the actor’s previously untapped comedic gifts, which culminate in a physical slapstick scene involving some particularly potent Quaaludes that’s the funniest of Scorsese’s career. There’s not a shred of DiCaprio that’s going for likability, or even respectability. He embodies the most toxic and perverted side of capitalism, the kind that we keep coming back to even as we’re burned every time.
Honorable Mentions: Ali Mosaffa (The Past), Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now), Sun Honglei (Drug War), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty), Louis Koo (Drug War), Ben Affleck (To the Wonder), Toby Jones (Berberian Sound Studio), Tony Leung (The Grandmaster), Christian Bale (American Hustle), Jonathan Groff (C.O.G.), Michael Cera (Crystal Fairy), Tom Hanks (the last ten minutes of Captain Phillips)
10. Sandra Bullock (Gravity) – Truthfully speaking, I’ve never been fond of Sandra Bullock in the past. She’s struck me as a performer totally lacking in warmth, someone who was always managed to grind every scene to a halt with her one-note performances. But Bullock carries most of Gravity on her shoulders giving the best, most vulnerable and focused performance of her career. As Stone, she’s a character whose need to survive goes from basic human instinct to more soulful places. A late scene with Stone at her lowest ebb, slowly and quietly coming to terms with the likelihood of her death only furthers the film’s sense that life is a gift.
9. Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now) – Playing the polar opposite of her confident character in The Descendants, Shailene Woodley steals The Spectacular Now as a shy, sweet, studious girl who falls in love with a charming but troubled boy (an excellent Miles Teller). Woodley plays the awkwardness of a first relationship (and first sexual experience) perfectly, always somewhat hesitant but nevertheless happy to be in love.
8. Bérénice Bejo (The Past) – Bejo broke onto the scene with her endlessly charming work in The Artist, but she dials down the megawatt smile to play a mother caught in the middle of the ire of both her daughter and stepson, for reasons that become increasingly complicated. She’s often hysterical but never unreasonable, a woman trying to make the best of an impossible situation.
7. Suzanne Clément (Laurence Anyways) – Xavier Dolan’s often brilliant, messy third film Laurence Anyways is about Laurence (Melvil Pompaud) transitioning from being a man to being a woman, but Suzanne Clément leaves a stronger impression as his put-upon girlfriend Frédérique (or “Fred”). Brassy and spirited, Fred tries to go along with her beloved Laurence, but she can’t help that she wants to be held by a man, or that Laurence’s decision has forced her to make some life-altering choices of her own. The film is fiercely on the side of Laurence, but it never loses sympathy for Fred or her desires.
6. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is all over the place, floundering as a portrait of class struggles (the Woodman never could really get that right), and using its protagonist’s mental illness as a device to turn on and off at its convenience. And yet the film sort of works anyway, thanks mostly to an extraordinary performance by Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. It’s a BIG performance, filled with tics and mood swings, but she grounds it in Jasmine’s deep dissatisfaction and sells it in a way that doesn’t feel distractingly mannered in the way that, say Meryl Streep’s version would (review ends here as I am murdered by the Screen Actors Guild).
5. Brie Larson (Short Term 12) – Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 goes down a wrongheaded, melodramatic path after its acutely observed first half, yet it doesn’t totally go off the rails. Brie Larson is there to ground it. As Grace, a supervisor at a foster-care center for at-risk teens, she deals with her teens with a measure of patience and smart-aleckness (as a response to the smart-asses she watches over). But her understanding of their situation goes beyond empathy, and Larson plays Grace’s attempts tries to hide her own lingering pain from her experiences with extraordinary restraint and compassion.
4. Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) – Few actresses this year had as difficult of a job as Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color. She’s not just the emotional ballast for the film, but she’s thrown in the midst of a narrative that’s dizzyingly strange and has very little dialogue. Yet Seimetz throws herself into the role of Kris, a woman whose past traumas have scarred her to the point where she can barely connect with anyone, and a connection to an equally damaged person (director Shane Carruth) has its own extraordinary difficulties. Upstream Color’s meaning might be difficult to grasp, but Seimetz’s palpable pain and longing serves as a perfect way in to the intoxicating puzzle.
3. Adéle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) – One of those rare, star-making “Holy shit, wbo is that?” performances. Every superlative thrown at Exarchopoulos is warranted: she’s an absolute natural, at once intelligent but naïve, happy to be in love but confused about how to handle it. We’re with her every step of the way as she winds up sadder but a little bit wiser, maybe recalling our own formative experiences along the way.
2. Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) – The eternally effervescent Greta Gerwig found her best showcase yet in Frances Ha. Gerwig gives a funny, empathetic performance as a woman whose flightiness barely hides that her neediness and deep insecurity. A great early scene shows her with a friend, and when she gives the “well, I guess I should get going” spiel where she expects to be asked to stay, she’s instead given detailed directions to the subway station. Baumbach and Gerwig don’t excuse their characters’ behavior or attitudes, but the film’s warmth and understanding for them helps make Frances Ha one of the most poignant late coming-of-age films in recent memory. Adapting to adulthood is difficult, but it’s not impossible. It’s all just a matter of adjusting expectations.
1. Julie Delpy (Before Midnight) – In a sense, comparing Julie Delpy’s work in Before Midnight to everyone else this year is unfair. She has 18 years of past work with Celine, and the character as grown with her. Having gone from romantic to pragmatic, Celine tests whether or not her relationship with Jesse is meant to last. It’s hard to give Delpy more credit for Before Midnight’s astounding final minutes than co-star Ethan Hawke, and yet, its her extrapolations of Jesse’s poorly chosen words, her anger at his passive-aggression, her belief that she has to leave Jesse behind that breaks the most hearts in the film.
Honorable Mentions: Mia Wasikowska (Stoker), Cosmina Stratan (Beyond the Hills), Anne Doval (I Killed My Mother), Rooney Mara (Side Effects), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said), Olivia Wilde (Drinking Buddies), Sharni Vinson (You’re Next), Amy Adams (American Hustle), Olga Kurylenko (To the Wonder), Amy Acker (Much Ado About Nothing), Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim), Amber Heard (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane)
Best Supporting Actor:
10. Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) – Cooper is never better than when paired with David O. Russell, who channels his comedic gifts here into playing someone much less charming than Pat of Silving Linings Playbook, someone who’s willing to get everyone else killed in order to accomplish something great. It’s easy to see the megalomaniacal side of Russell (think the guy who fought George Clooney on the set of Three Kings) in Cooper’s work here. He’s a man made of coked-up hubris and half-mad ambition, someone in the process of self-destruction. Would that half of American Hustle were as fascinating as he was.
9. Charlie Day (Pacific Rim) – As my colleague Loren Greenblatt said, Charlie Day is to Pacific Rim what Jeff Goldblum was to Jurassic Park. The film’s Guillermo Del Toro stand-in, he’s made entirely of boyish enthusiasm, credibly spitting out the film’s pseudoscientific dialogue in a rapid-fire pace while still serving as a great source of comic relief. More than anything else, though, Day was the heart of Pacific Rim, someone who tried to save the day through scientific inquisitiveness and human collaboration. He was the human element in the monsters vs. robots movie.
8. David Cross (It’s a Disaster) – David Cross has always had a gift for comic awkwardness, but It’s a Disaster showed that he might be at his best when he’s doing very little. As the odd man out at a couples brunch turned apocalypse suvivors, he spent most of the movie reacting to the insanity around him, underplaying Glenn’s discomfort with politeness rather than exasperation. And then there’s the film’s final fifteen minutes, where Glenn’s reaction to his inevitable death was one of the year’s most unexpected moments.
7. Arnold Schwarzenegger (Escape Plan) – Yes. Escape Plan won’t go down as one of the best film’s of Schwarzenegger’s career, but it’s easily the most engaged work he’s done in years. He mixes his trademark self-awareness with a liveliness more reminiscent of his Terminator 2/Total Recall heyday than his too-jokey later projects. He’s as fun as ever when wielding a machine-gun, but more memorable still is a confrontation with Caviezel involving a pen, a piece of paper, and a tale of his youthful artistic ambitions in one of the best “fuck you” moments in recent memory
6. James Gandolfini (Enough Said) – It’s hard to think of Enough Said without thinking of the profound hole James Gandolfini’s death has left behind. The film gives Gandolfini a new role, and the film largely works because he’s so unpretentious as Albert, a slobby but sweet middle-aged man in love. The depths of his hurt when Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Eva pokes fun of his quirks (his inability to whisper, his odd tendency when eating guacamole) in front of her friends registers so strongly that it’s hard to imagine this is the same actor who terrified us as Tony Soprano. It’s hard to believe that this is one of his last roles, rather than the start of a new point in his career.
5. Denis O’Hare (C.O.G.) – The year’s most underrated performance. As Jon, a Born Again Christian who takes Jonathan Groff’s Samuel in, he’s one of the year’s most unpredictable characters. In a different, lesser film, he could have been either a reductive caricature of a religious fundamentalist or a glib mentor type. Instead, he’s one of the most complex characters of the year, someone who’s both giving and impatient, warm but with a real nasty side, an open wound of a character who defies expectation at every turn.
4. Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) – Who would’ve thought that Jonah Hill would make a terrific Joe Pesci replacement? Hill’s improvisational gifts get their best test here and help add to what’s the blackest and funniest comedy of the year (the guiltiest laugh I’ve had all year comes from his line about what he’d do with if he had a mentally retarded kid). As Donnie, a Jewish guy who’s tried to look as WASPy as possible (shiny choppers, horn-rimmed glasses, sweater combinations), he does whatever he can to match his boss’s debauchery. He’s an unpredictable presence, the one guy in the movie who might be a little too weird even for someone as depraved as Jordan Belfort.
3. James Franco (Spring Breakers) – I’m tempted to just quote Franco’s entire “LOOK AT MY SHIT!” speech and leave it at that. Would anyone argue? Franco’s Alien was the year’s biggest, loudest character, and one of its funniest (I wish I enjoyed the film as much as I enjoyed him). But Franco makes the character more than just a caricature or a monster, someone who’s tried to fill his life with all of this “shit” to cover up a sadness and emptiness to his core.
2. Matthew McConaughey (Mud) – Matthew McConaughey gave a number of strong performances this year, but the highlight was the titular in Mud. It’s one of the most challenging roles of McConaughey’s career, a character of many contradictions: he’s a likable man, but clearly dangerous. He’s a mythic figure and yet one of the year’s most human characters. He’s an unstable man, but that doesn’t make him a bad one. And for all of the lies he tells, McConaughey makes his emotionally wounded character deeply sympathetic.
1. Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) – Michael Fassbender is Steve McQueen’s go-to guy, and he does his best work yet as Epps, a slaver who’s at once vicious and pathetic, dominant over his property but dependent on alcohol, and attracted to pretty young slave Patsy, who lives in everlasting hell because of it. Fassbender plays a monster of a man, but he doesn’t deny Epps his humanity, however nasty he might be. He’s ultimately as pathetic as he is evil, a sick man who’s part of a sick society.
Honorable Mentions: Nick Frost (The World’s End), Javier Bardem (The Counselor), Tahar Rahim (The Past), Adam Driver (Inside Llewyn Davis), Jacob Loflin (Mud), Elyes Aguis (The Past), John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis), Dwayne Johnson (Pain & Gain), Matthew McConaughey (The Wolf of Wall Street), Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Bradley Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines), Hao Ping (Drug War), Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12), Matthew Goode (Stoker), Danny McBride (This Is the End)
Best Supporting Actress:
10. Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) – The Wolf of Wall Street has such a huge cast that it’s hard to single out just a few memorable performers. But Margot Robbie has some of the best moments of the film as Jordan Belfort’s second wife, Naomi. She’s first stunned by Jordan’s charisma and wealth, but she soon becomes one of the closest things to an audience surrogate, someone who’s sick of Jordan’s shit and isn’t afraid to tell him so.
9. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) – Now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, from The Hunger Games to David O. Russell’s films to her winning public personality, Jennifer Lawrence might be risking overexposure. But it’s hard to complain too much when she’s as good as she is as the most haywire character in American Hustle. As the unstable Rosalyn, she’s not a totally bad person, but she acts before she thinks and is equally ready as Bradley Cooper’s self-important FBI agent to see everyone else fall. She didn’t have the biggest role in American Hustle, but she easily stole the whole damn thing.
8. Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) – It’s one thing to make an impression in a strong movie. It’s another to make an impression in a weak one. I’ve never seen Elizabeth Debicki in another movie, but she was perfect as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby, perhaps the only performer in the film who captured her character completely. Cynical and droll, she stole every scene she was in. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
7. Cristina Flutur (Beyond the Hills) – With 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu established a gift for getting great performances out of little-known actresses. He does it again with Beyond the Hills, which features two great performances from Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur as a young nun and her mentally unstable friend, respectively. Flutur in particular shows a gift for seeming unhinged without going over the top, and the way her character’s pain and longing for her friend registers on her face is nothing short of miraculous.
6. Gaby Hoffman (Crystal Fairy) – Sebastíen Silva’s odd comedy Crystal Fairy is headlined by a very good performance from Michael Cera as a self-centered American abroad, but Gaby Hoffman is just as strong as the more benign but equally self-absorbed Crystal Fairy, whose insistence that everyone use magic pebbles in their drug brew and beer or reveal their deepest, darkest fears makes a perfect clash with Cera. Crystal Fairy, for all of her openness regarding nudity and personal beliefs, seems to use much of her hippy-dippy manic-pixie style as a way to deflect her actual fears, something that’s confirmed in the climactic campfire scene. The Big Reveal is more than a little contrived, and feels a bit programmatic compared to the rest of the film, but Hoffman acts the hell out of it, and its her vulnerability that makes Cera’s turnaround so believable.
5. Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) – Most of the praise for Blue is the Warmest Color understandably went to Adéle Exarchopolous’s star-making performance as the film’s lovestruck protagonist. But Léa Seydoux, best known for minor roles in Midnight in Paris and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, is a truly magnetic presence as Emma, funny, articulate, and talented; it’s easy to see why Adèle might fall so easily for her. And in her final scenes with Exarchopolous, Seydoux’s heartbreak is palpable as she tries to move past the pain her lover has inflicted upon her.
4. June Squibb (Nebraska) – Squibb appeared in an earlier Alexander Payne film, as Jack Nicholson’s late wife in About Schmidt, but she gets a real showcase in Nebraska. True, much of the role falls under “funny old coot”, though she does it so well (talking about her husband’s obliviousness and idiocy well within earshot, lifting up her skirt over an old beau’s grave to show him what he’s been missing) that it’s hard to complain. But her barbed insults bely a need to protect the ones she loves, and while Payne gives her a big, emotional (if still grouchy) Oscar clip to tell off her greedy relatives, she makes it feel totally natural, and a big “fuck yeah!” moment to boot.
3. Zhang Ziyi (The Grandmaster) – Wong Kar-wai’s excellent (and still underrated in some circles) The Grandmaster follows Ip Man, played very well by the great Tony Leung, but it’s Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er who acts as the heart of the movie. Gong’s gender has kept her from being recognized as a martial artist, but if anything she’s made up for that with fierce determination and protectiveness of her family. She’s given a terrific foil in the malevolent Ma San, not to mention a great battle on a train platform that outdoes nearly every other fight scene in recent memory. But it’s her tragic arc that ultimately makes her so memorable- her choices, while noble, also limit what she can share Ip (in terms of both martial arts knowledge and romance) by the end.
2. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) – 12 Years a Slave could easily have been a painful victim narrative, all suffering and no soul, had the wrong person been cast as Patsy. But Lupita Nyong’o brings more than just anguish (although she certainly does that well). Patsy is someone who has to keep everything inside, for fear not only of the wrath of her smitten master, but of his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). When she finally can’t take it anyone and makes a choice to disobey her master, it’s a choice made out of deep desperation and spiritual exhaustion, one that will not make her life happier, exactly, but might make it very slightly more bearable.
1. Scarlett Johansson (Her) – Scarlett Johansson’s status as a sex symbol often overshadows how good she can be when she’s cast in the right role. Her does the unthinkable – separating her from her body – and asks her rely only on her husky, immediately identifiable voice. It’s a tricky role, one that could easily have fallen into familiar territory had it been too cold (Jonze replaced the originally cast Samantha Morton with Johansson). But Johansson’s smoky timbre has a liveliness and warmth to it that fits Samantha’s openness to the world around her, as well as a sense of desire that’s required to believe in the film’s conceit. Do we see Johansson when we hear Samantha’s voice? Maybe. Do we believe that a machine, something built to satisfy a person’s needs, can develop their own needs that people might not be able to satisfy? Sure. Do we feel just as much for the difficulties Samantha goes through as we do for Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly. Oh yeah.
Honorable Mentions: Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave), Pauline Burlet (The Past), Mickey Sumner (Frances Ha), Rachel Boston (It’s a Disaster), Nicole Kidman (Stoker), Jena Malone (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Nathalie Baye (Laurence Anyways), Amy Adams (Her), America Ferrara (It’s a Disaster), Julia Stiles (It’s a Disaster), Rooney Mara (Her), Olivia Wilde (Her), (Short Term 12), Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler)
BONUS – Best Ensemble:
1. 12 Years a Slave
2. The Past
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
5. Short Term 12
6. The World’s End
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
8. Computer Chess
9. It’s a Disaster
10. American Hustle
Honorable Mentions: The Spectacular Now, The Counselor, Behind the Candelabra, Beyond the Hills, No, Drug War, This Is the End, Frances Ha, Blue is the Warmest Color, C.O.G., Crystal Fairy, Mud, The Great Beauty, Blue Jasmine, Prince Avalanche