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1. Robert Redford, All is Lost

Robert Redford’s performance in All is Lost is one of the great performances in modern cinema. It relies heavily on silent film techniques and asks him to provide emotion to a nameless, effectively dialogue-free role. As “Our Man,” Redford is stranded at sea in his boat after a shipping container breaks into the hull; he prepares for the worst. Redford delivers a monologue in the film’s opening moments as he apologizes to his loved ones, although we’re not entirely sure for what. The film’s undertones of financial ruin can certainly emerge there, particularly when relating Redford to the baby boomer generation and the way in which the economy is looking over the average man. All is Lost is a masterpiece, and Redford’s transformative, nuanced performance is probably my favorite of 2013. 

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2. Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

By the 2014 Oscars, everyone will know how to pronounce Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s been an outstanding character actor for the past few years, and finally got the role that will define his career: Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s masterpiece 12 Years a Slave. Ejiofor captures the essence of a lost life, portraying Northup as a happy family man in the 1840s before he’s sold into slavery. His humanity is torn apart by sadistic slaveowners and near-death experiences. I held my breath while Solomon dangled from a noose as his feet did a tiptoe act of survival; it’s a downright horrifying scene. But Ejiofor’s finest scene may be when he attends another slave’s funeral, and everyone else sings while he looks on; finally, he gives in and slowly builds in volume before soulfully, tearfully singing. His reunion with his family at the end of the film reduced me to tears; it’s one of the most emotionally affecting performances I’ve seen. 

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3. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey’s transformation into one of Hollywood’s most reliable, exciting actors is astonishing. Who would’ve thought that the heartthrob in mostly terrible romantic comedies for the past decade could demonstrate his talents through various dramatic works? Dallas Buyers Club allows him to create a balanced, far-from-saintly character in Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texan that finds out he has AIDS. His perception is narrowed to the point that he only believes homosexuals can get that disease; more specifically, he uses the word “fags.” He becomes an outcast from his homophobic friends, realizes the implications of the disease and its effect on a person’s life, and transforms in front of our eyes. It’s such an effortlessly remarkable performance that its difficulty cannot be understated. 

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4. Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

My favorite film character of 2013 is Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis. He’s a folk singer barely surviving in 1960s New York, playing small shows and jumping from couch to couch and friend to friend on a nightly basis. Llewyn is never an overly likable person. He’s often self-absorbed, judgmental, and unforgiving, but Isaac never plays him as a bad human being. He’s just an unlucky, unfortunate, and talented man being pushed aside because his music is not accessible. There’s a tragic scene where he plays his heart out in a particularly brilliant song in hopes of getting signed to a record deal, and it’s a strong argument of art vs. commerce in American culture. Llewyn is a sad sack of a man, and Isaac plays him compassionately and vividly. He falls into this character, and helps us fall in love with him as a human being. 

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5. Christian Bale, Out of the Furnace

Christian Bale is probably the most consistent actor working today, turning in nuanced roles that are almost always understated and reserved, but never unimpressive. Bale’s Russell Baze is a man devoted to the people in his life, even if he doesn’t live a particularly fulfilling one: he works long days at a mill and gets drunk almost nightly. One night, he drives home and doesn’t pay attention to the road, killing a mother and her child; he goes to jail for manslaughter and gets out four years later, with his world changed substantially. A scene where he talks with his past girlfriend and breaks down emotionally is remarkably complex and works masterfully because of Bale’s restraint; later scenes reflect upon this man’s broken nature. Bale is terrific in American Hustle, too, but this is his better, bolder, and more affecting performance. 

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6. Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Nebraska has one of my favorite ensembles of the year, with Will Forte and June Squibb delivering terrific supporting turns, but it’s Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant that anchors the film emotionally. He’s a has-been alcoholic that never really achieved much in his life and finds the opportunity to assign meaning to a simple existence: he won a million dollars. The audience and every other character in the film know that it’s a scam and surely won’t result in anything, but Grant has an optimism that is all too rare in film and, more importantly, the real world. Woody is a likable, borderline senile old man, but he’s marked by his affecting traits. Near the end of the film, a woman remarks that it’s “too bad” that Woody believes what people tell him; Dern gives us insight into a man with a potentially dark childhood and creates a beautiful portrait of a man. 

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7. Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt

I wish more people knew how talented Mads Mikkelsen is. He’s a quiet, still relatively unknown actor who plays Hannibal Lecter on television and traditionally gets assigned the role of quiet brute or villain. In The Hunt, however, he plays a man accused of sexually abusing children due to a simple, harsh lie that a young girl creates about him. He’s a kind man, loves his dog, and starts a stable relationship. It’s only when the persecution comes down on him that he evolves into a emotionally unrestrained man lost for what he can do. Mikkelsen puts compassion into the role and doesn’t make him a perfect saint; his outbursts affect how people see him, but they’re justified. I’m not sure there’s a more subtle performance this year than this one, and that shows how outstanding it truly is. 

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8. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio is my favorite actor working today and that’s largely due to his work with Martin Scorsese. Here, as Jordan Belfort, he’s a naive, up-and-coming man thrust into the world of Wall Street. He understands how to sell stocks, how to acquire wealth, and learns the ins and outs of what needs to be done to survive: a lot of sex and a whole lot of drugs. DiCaprio is more unhinged than he usually is and seems to be having a blast with a clearly juicy role, giving Belfort very few redeemable traits and crafting a monster near the film’s conclusion. He becomes a shell of the man that he wanted to be, ruins his family life, and attempts to start again. Only in America. DiCaprio’s Belfort is misogynistic, greedy, and batshit crazy, and he’s a joy to watch.

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9. Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station stands as one of the year’s most emotionally trying films, and Michael B. Jordan’s lead performance as Oscar Grant is his best. Oscar is far from the saint that the naysayers of the film seem to claim; there’s a particularly telling scene in a grocery store where he changes dialects four different times in order to communicate with various people in his life, jumping from amicable to hostile in a heartbeat. Ultimately, though, Oscar is a guy looking to better himself, and the story progresses over a day as we see his transformation to become a better man, not just for himself, but also for his family. Jordan is a truly remarkable actor, one that people seem to ignore even though he’s the highlight of almost everything he’s in. Here, he provides Oscar with an effortless love of life, only to have it taken away. It’s a very impressive performance.

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10. Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight

Before Midnight works because of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, each providing their roles with the most humanity of any characters this year. The film’s a masterpiece and one of the most definitive works in romantic cinema, and Hawke’s Jesse is dissected more thoroughly than he was in the first two films combined. He writes and often includes real-life experiences in his works, leading to a climactic argument in the hotel room pictured above that’s an amazingly biting exchange of love and hate. Jesse is not a perfect man, even more so than Celine; he’s sometimes unlikable, but always loves his wife. They argue about pretty much anything and embody the typical bickering couple in real life. It’s only that Hawke provides Jesse with tenderness that it brings the performance even more heft.

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Honorable Mention: Isaiah Washington, Blue Caprice

A film that no one saw, Blue Caprice is a harrowing look at the Beltway sniper that terrorized Americans years ago. Isaiah Washington, in arguably his best performance, puts together a portrait of a destroyed man with simple ambitions. After starting to raise a young kid and guide him down a corrupted path (with Tequan Richmond as Lee delivering an even more impressive performance), Washington never budges from his character’s hardened shell. He seems to be a compassionless individual except for his romantic relationships, which even then feel callous and empty. It’s a difficult performance to explain because there’s nothing particularly showy, much like the film itself, but it’s stylistically intelligent and beyond captivating. It feels like a transformation of self, and Washington makes this man a horrifying presence.

Written by Eric Forthun