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The 12 Best Acting Performances at Sundance 2013

January 30, 2013  |  10:09am

Sundance isn’t just a chance for indie directors to get their films noticed; it’s also an opportunity for new acting talent to emerge and for established actors to try something different. The following list represents our dozen favorite acting performances at Sundance 2012. Honorable mentions go to: Brit Marling in The East, Gael Garcia Bernal in No, Kathryn Hahnin Afternoon Delight, Kaya Scodelario in Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes and Rosemarie Dewitt in Touchy Feely.

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12. Emile Hirsch, Prince Avalanche
There are only four actors with lines in David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche (five including the voice of Lynn Shelton), but the majority of the film takes place with just two—Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch—isolated in a post-fire wilderness. Both actors give nuanced, funny, touching performances playing characters unlike we’ve seen from either actor before—Hirsch as the boorish, ignorant man-child Lance and Rudd as his stiff, self-sufficient, by-the-numbers boss. The film is neither as substantial as Green’s George Washington nor as laugh-a-minute as his recent broad comedy Pineapple Express, but it’s an opportunity for the actors to stretch themselves, and Hirsch responds in kind.—Josh Jackson

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11. Amy Ryan, Breathe In
Guy Pearce is one of the greatest working actors today, and turns in a marvelously restrained performance in Breathe In. Felicity Jones is an emerging star and obviously has a great rapport with director Drake Doremus (she also starred in last year’s Grand Jury winner Like Crazy). But for my money, the most devastating performance in this film comes from Amy Ryan, as Pearce’s wife. Her character loosely falls into the “plastic smile and pretend everything’s great” category, but Ryan makes sure the character doesn’t fall into stereotype. Megan knows her marriage to Keith is in trouble, even before Sophie arrives in their lives. She just doesn’t know what to do about it. You’d think that the most devastating climax to an infidelity drama would be a wife finding her husband out and being blindsided, having no idea he was capable. Ryan shows us that what’s even more devastating is when the wife’s worst suspicions are confirmed.—Michael Dunaway

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10. Moises Arias, Toy’s House
If Toy’s House is this year’s (less raunchy) Superbad, Moises Arias is this year’s McLover. Providing most of the laughs (at least in the scenes without Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman), Arias’ Biaggo is a new kind of weird. Arias may have cut his acting teeth on The Disney Channel with shows like Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Chris Galletta’s script give him room to let his natural, strange charisma steal the show.—Josh Jackson

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9. Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color
It’s no small task to play a character who can’t even begin to fathom what is happening in her life or why, but Amy Seimetz creates a poignant connection in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. Seimetz (who’s also the writer/director of unreleased festival hit Sun Don’t Shine) has a wonderfully emotive face, which is key in a film with no dialogue. She reminds us that while her character lives with fear and confusion, so do we all.—Jeremy Mathews

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8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon’s Addiction
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has already proven his range in indie films like Hesher and Mysterious Skin, but he continues to challenge himself even when he’s in the director’s chair. Don Jon is as unlikable as Hesher, a porn addict obsessed with his own body, his car and his streak of taking different women home, but Gordon-Levitt’s humanity still shows through, making his transformation throughout the film believable. Don Jon isn’t just unlike any character Gordon-Levitt has portrayed; he’s not quite like anyone we’ve seen on screen before—a triply impressive feat, since JGL wrote the screenplay, as well.—Josh Jackson

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7. Hadas Yaron, Fill The Void
It’s always tough to cast a lead role that has a small number of lines. Acting in silence is perhaps the most difficult acting of all. It helps though, if your actor has the huge, marvelously expressive eyes of Hadas Yaron. As Shira Mendelman, the youngest daughter of the Orthodox Israeli family in Fill the Void, she’s able to capture all the confusion, excitement and anxiety of a girl slowly becoming a woman, mostly with just her facial expressions. And when grief comes, she adds a palate of purples and grays to her performance that shades everything in its glow. It’s an exciting performance from a new talent.—Michael Dunaway

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6. Casey Affleck, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Playing a charismatic escaped convict hell-bent on reuniting with his wife, Casey Affleck delivers another performance loaded with grand and small gestures that linger in the memory. Since he and his co-lead, Rooney Mara, spend so little time on screen with one another, it’s important that their early scenes make a big impact. Affleck makes sure they do just that with a virtuoso performance in the opening shot, as his character chases and romances his woman in a long single take.—Jeremy Mathews

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5. Robin Weigert, Concussion
Concussion’s plot has the potential for a rather trashy shock film: A middle-aged mother whose wife never has sex with her becomes a high-class lesbian prostitute. But Robin Weigert’s performance captures all the nuance of Concussion’s smart screenplay. She conveys compulsion, pleasure, shame and guilt, often at the same time.—Jeremy Mathews

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4. Matthew McConaughey, Mud
When Matthew McConaughey first appears on the screen as the title character in Jeff Nichols’ Mud, he’s come out of nowhere and subtly makes his presence known to the pair of boys exploring the island as if it’s no big deal that a man is living in a boat that’s been tossed into a tree by the last hurricane. The audience has every reason not to trust this character—a wanted murderer on the run who’s involving a couple of kids in a dangerous plot. But McConaughey offers such a complex performance that you never know what to expect from Mud. In a movie full of great performances from Reese Witherspoon, Ty Sheridan, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, McConaughey stands out—and even keeps his shirt on through most of the film.—Josh Jackson

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3. Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
There’s a hilarious sequence in Richard Linklater’s fantastic Before Midnight where Julie Delpy’s Celine teasingly (or perhaps not so teasingly) suggests that Ethan Hawke’s Jesse would prefer her to be a vapid bimbo, and she imitates one, curling her hair and adopting a Marilyn Monroe tone, mouthing inanities. It’s a very funny bit, but it’s also a bit of cognitive dissonance to see Celine, who we’ve come to know so well over three movies, even pretending to be so flighty. The same could be said for Julie Delpy herself; it’s not until you see her subverting that bombshell eprsona that you fully appreciate the position she’s come to occupy in cinema—beautiful, yes, but also tough as nails, potent, not one to suffer fools gladly (or at all). And there’s so much more to Delpy’s subtle performance here; while in the first film (Before Sunrise) she was wise far beyond her years (and far beyond Hawke’s Jesse), and in the second film (Before Sunset) she was a neurotic mess in obvious need of saving, here, as a middle-aged woman, she’s learned to cope with her life better. She probably even does actually have a lot more peace than her mid-thirties self did. But there are still major issues lurking deep inside, and Delpy deftly plays them without ever completely bringing them to the surface. Hawke is wonderful in Before Midnight, btu Delpy turns in one of the best performances of her storied career.—Michael Dunaway

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2. Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now
If The Descendants didn’t already prove Shailene Woodley is a force to be reckoned with, The Spectacular Now certainly does. Woodley embodies young love’s innocence, hope and fragility. Playing the shy, smart love interest of Miles Teller’s hip drunken teen, she dominates every frame she’s in with sweet hesitations and a nervous smile.—Jeremy Mathews

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1. Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale
It’s sometimes a chicken-and-egg question, separating actors’ roles from their performance strengths. Did we fall in love with Michael B. Jordan because he played Wallace in The Wire and Vince Howard in Friday Night Lights? Or did we fall in love with those characters because of something inherent in Jordan himself (or in his performances)? Either way, it was a brilliant choice to cast him as the lead of Fruitvale as Oscar, the young African American man killed by subway police in Oakland on New Year’s Eve 2009. The film is based, of course, on a true story, which gives it even more resonance. More than anything else, though, Jordan is a near-perfect embodiment of the unrealized potential of a young life cut down too soon. Because he’s so effortlessly charismatic and earnest, we’re in love with him before he even speaks a word. We don’t even hold the bad choices Oscar makes against him; it’s so obvious that he’s struggling to build a life better than the one that his background would seem to dictate. We know what’s coming at the end of the film, so there are no surprises. We just spend Oscar’s last day with him, and largely because of Jordan’s performance, he lives, and matters to us. Jordan immediately catapults himself into the Oscar conversation.—Michael Dunaway

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