1. Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Creating one of the most petrifying villains I’ve seen in years, Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a sadistic slaveowner who takes in Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after he’s been almost killed at another plantation. Epps treats his slaves even more brutally, often savagely beating them for not meeting quota while simultaneously praising and sexually abusing Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for being his best slave. The way in which Epps justifies his actions, citing Scripture in one of the movie’s most deplorably mesmerizing scenes, allows the audience to understand the inhumanity some owners showed to fellow humans. Fassbender never relents but also briefly humanizes Epps, only to have that humanity washed away beneath his empty, sad eyes. He’s one of the best actors working today, and it’s a brilliant and unforgettable performance.
2. Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Jared Leto provides the best performance of his career as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Rayon is transgender and battling with AIDS, first meeting the homophobic Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in a hospital room. What becomes so striking about Leto’s performance stems from the beautiful textures of Rayon’s characterization: she’s strong around those that she doesn’t know but shows her fragility around those that are willing to accept who she is. When she visits her father, she dresses as a man even if she no longer identifies as one; his disapproval leads to Rayon hiding her emotions and true self. As Ron becomes accepting of her, Rayon becomes one of the most remarkable characters I’ve encountered in years. She’s a human being that wants to love and be loved, but finds a disease and a rapidly changing society affecting her life. Leto brings intimacy and beauty to this wonderfully realized role.
3. James Gandolfini, Enough Said
James Gandolfini’s performance in Enough Said is overshadowed by his death, but that shouldn’t be a reason to look past his layered, delicate portrayal of an older, kind man struggling with loneliness. He isn’t expecting to find love after having his ex-wife grow tired of him, and her newfound friendship with his current girlfriend complicates matters. It opens up a dichotomy of how one person’s perception of another can be influenced by outside forces; it’s only when we get to know someone deep down that we can see past their faults, the ones that can annoy others. There’s a beauty to the film as a whole, but Gandolfini’s character grows into more than a lovable teddy bear type. There’s a discussion, with his heart broken, as he hides his emotions, with a scene later on showing how open he can be when the person reciprocates. He’s tender and affectionate, even if his looks don’t show that.
4. James Franco, Spring Breakers
“Look at all my shit!” is etched in every viewer’s minds after watching Spring Breakers, and that’s due to its importance for the story and also as a testament for Franco’s performance. As Alien, he’s showy, over-the-top, unpredictable, and “out of this world,” as he likes to describe himself. Spring Breakers is surely the most divisive film of the year, with audiences mostly being repulsed by the movie’s wallowing in excess; I mostly agree, but Franco’s emergence signifies a second life for the film. His rummaging through his bedroom as he gleefully explains everything within is one of my favorite scenes of the year. It’s also remarkable that Franco provides a sound level of logic to a world marked by inane actions: he’s looking for the American Dream, and feels as if he’s achieved it. This is not Franco’s best performance, but it’s his most dedicated, and probably his most excitable.
5. Matthew McConaughey, Mud
Mud wouldn’t work without Matthew McConaughey. It’s really that simple. Mud is a mysterious man living in an airplane stuck in a tree on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, which sounds as much like a gothic fairy tale if I’ve ever heard one. McConaughey contributes vastly to the role because he’s a man who is hoping to change himself, and get back the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon); it feels like he’s been doing the same with his career, returning to roles that he clearly loves, bringing out some of the finest performances of the year. As Mud, he shows a man tormented by a past and a longing for grounding, which he hasn’t found. Mud emerges a developed character near the conclusion, even if his enigmatic qualities remain. McConaughey portrays this effortlessly and helps the film’s poetic ending work tremendously.
6. Geoffrey Rush, The Book Thief
The Book Thief is probably the year’s most underrated film since it was critically ignored upon release and develops characters and themes more fluidly than most wide releases this year. It also features one of my favorite performances of the year in Geoffrey Rush’s Hans, a lovely, warm-hearted man that finds himself lost in a moral predicament. He takes in a young girl but also houses a Jewish refugee because he owes that man’s father, while also facing recruitment from fellow Germans to join Hitler’s cause. Hans stays true to himself as a morally sound individual even if that costs him brutally near the film’s conclusion. Standing up for a man he knows is a good man leads to his enrollment in the army, causing emotional instability in his family. Rush never overstates the role or downplays the serious implications of his actions. It’s a tightrope performance, but one I consider adept and compassionate.
7. Will Forte, Nebraska
Nebraska is one of the more character-driven films in 2013, and Will Forte’s David Grant perfectly levels out Bruce Dern’s Woody. As Woody’s son, David has dealt with an alcoholic, delusional father who now believes that he has won one million dollars. David’s girlfriend also recently broke up with him, not necessarily because he was a disrespectful boyfriend, but because he was also concerned with his father and couldn’t commit to marrying her. Simply put, his father was holding him back. The movie’s not only about Woody’s journey to advancing himself but also in David’s letting go of his father’s problems; particularly in an exchange near the end of the film, David is a character marked by his love and hope for the future. Forte masters this performance and fits David perfectly, leading to one of the more understated, but remarkable, performances of the year.
8. Casey Affleck, Out of the Furnace
Casey Affleck continues to fly under the radar as one of Hollywood’s secret talents, with his work in Out of the Furnace standing as some of his best. As a troubled war veteran coming back to an America that has pretty much taken all it can from him, Rodney never emerges as a sad sack. Affleck portrays him as an emotionally uneasy worker that tirelessly pursues a path that will bring him prosperity; he believes fighting other men, sometimes to the brink of death Fight Club-style, can lead to that type of economic happiness. Unfortunately for him, he’s trapped in a world of people that pretty much line the scum of the Earth. This is a complex performance that comes full circle in Affleck’s voiceover near the middle of the film that perfectly encapsulates his battle with his inner demons, and we feel for him as an individual despite his mistakes. He’s a flawed human being.
9. Stanley Tucci, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Stanley Tucci delivers an exceptionally zany performance in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, returning as Caesar Flickerman with his massive, white smile and maniacal, hilarious laugh. I’m not sure if a drama has held a funnier performance than this one, and that’s largely a testament to Tucci’s energy on stage. Since his character performs in front of millions in people, the performance feels even more forced and insincere, which makes the cheesy jokes and energetic nature of Tucci’s boasts all the more enjoyable. Tucci remains an enigma in Hollywood, a star who’s never broken out of the character actor shell. He’s terrific in a minor film, Some Velvet Morning, that just opened a few weeks ago, and shows with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire that he can fill a small supporting role with more entertainment than most blockbusters can deliver in a two-hour plus running time.
10. Bill Nighy, About Time
Perhaps the best performance in a romantic comedy this year is Bill Nighy’s father figure in About Time. Explaining to his son that the men in the family can travel back in time to relive most of their life moments (with some specific exceptions to the rule), James Lake is the most compassionate individual Nighy has ever played. He loves his family dearly, hopes to spend as much time with them as he can, and has mastered the way to live life to its absolute fullest while indulging in one of his favorite pastimes: reading. He can spend moments with his family and relive them again to see not what could have happened differently, but the small details he may have missed. It’s such a joyous celebration of life that Nighy is perfect for the role, and even if the film is overly sentimental, it feels warranted whenever he’s on screen.
Honorable Mention: Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
You have to hand it to Jonah Hill: first he’s possessed by a demon and exorcised in This is the End, and now he’s amped up on drugs and married to his cousin in The Wolf of Wall Street. As Donnie Azoff, he’s hilarious but also grounded in a way that no one could’ve expected five years ago. He seemed destined for fratboy antics for most of his career, but he’s emerged as a dramatically talented actor with the capability to infuse a role with satire and pathos. Donnie seems to be in better shape than his partner, Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio), but Hill lets his man get out of control, over-indulging in drugs, exposing himself in Jordan’s house at a party, and discussing midgets as if they’re objects. Hill is over-the-top much like Scorsese’s film, and he’s a joy to watch.