The 25 Best Movie Performances of 2013

Movies Lists

2013 was a great, if intensely unusual, year for film performances. For our #1 and #3 performers, it was each actor’s first time playing the lead in a major film. For the two actors that share our #2 spot, it was their third time each just playing these two characters. Our #4 and #5 actors appear in supporting roles, an unusually high placement for that category of performance. Our #7 actor talks mostly to a computer, and our #6 actor says virtually nothing at all. Here are our favorite performances from a year to remember.

25. Kate Lyn Sheil in Sun Don’t Shine
I’ve seen a lot of Kate Sheil’s performances, and I’ve never ever seen her be less than fascinating onscreen. But her performance in Sun Don’t Shine is goes beyond that. Maybe it’s having a director, Amy Seimetz, who is herself one of the most fascinating young actors around. Maybe it’s her co-lead Kentucker Audley, himself a formidable actor and director. Maybe it’s the Terence Malick-tribute vibe. Maybe she was just uniquely plugged in to the material. Whatever it was, Sheil is mesmerizing in every frame here, even more so for her impenetrability. She sometimes doesn’t look like she’s doing much, but she’s doing it all. Just keep watching—not that you’ll be able to look away.—Michael Dunaway

24. Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now
Shailene Woodley gives a performance of such fragility and power that the rest of the movie feels dull by comparison. Without her, scenes are routine. With her, there’s a hint of magic.—Jeremy Mathews (review here)

23. Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Ejiofor brings imposing physicality and intimidating intellect to the role, and thus Northup poses a threat to his enemies—even if they can’t articulate it as such. Confronted by a slave who won’t blindly follow orders, Tibeats strings him up, and Northup hangs in a noose from a tree, toes slipping in mud, the sound of his choking mingling with the soft chatter of insects while life, including children playing, goes on around him. It is awful to watch, and again McQueen doesn’t cut away, the minutes standing in for the hours Northup actually hangs there.—Annlee Ellingson (review here)

22. Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now
YA adaptations are big business in Hollywood, but The Spectacular Now injected a welcome dose of indie-flavored reality to the world of high school romance. That wouldn’t be possible without Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley delivering two of the most grounded teen performances this side of TV’s Friday Night Lights. For Teller, that means playing alcohol-fueled life of the party Sutter Keely without resorting to addiction cliches, and locating the wounded psyche beneath a charming facade. In a lesser film, Teller would be the wacky comic relief. In The Spectacular Now, he breaks your heart.—Geoff Berhshire (review here)

21. Daniel Brühl in Rush
There’s more than whiff of Antonio Salieri—Mozart’s conniving, anguished nemesis in Amadeus—to race car driver Niki Lauda, the seeming villain of director Ron Howard’s underrated Rush. Like Salieri, Lauda has devoted his life to his craft, only to be cursed to be born at the same time as a flashier, cockier star—in this case, James Hunt (an equally great Chris Hemsworth). Played by Daniel Brühl, Lauda is a magnificently complex figure: a competitive, ungracious, lonely misanthrope who has put aside just about everything else in his life so he can be a champion. For Lauda, the racetrack was the only sanctuary from a world in which he never felt comfortable. Brühl doesn’t ask us to love (or even like) Lauda, but the actor’s commitment to his character’s merciless fire makes us respect the man.—Tim Grierson (review here)

20. Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
The small victories and defeats of the titular character, played honestly and without judgement by Greta Gerwig, skim by in a series of micro-scenes that sometimes only include a single action plucked from her daily life: a swipe of a plastic grocery bag or the surcharge at an ATM. In her heart, Frances is a dancer. In reality, she is barely an understudy. This dichotomy defines her character, and the film grows beautifully out of it. —Joe Peeler (review here)

19. Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
Leto’s performance is showier then McConaughey’s, but the actor doesn’t reduce Rayon to an adorable and/or campy cliché. Rayon (a fictional creation inspired by several real people) has her failings just as Woodroof does, and Leto convincingly embodies the push-pull conflicts within the character: her strong sense of self but also her self-destructive tendencies.—Tim Grierson (review here)

18. Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is already deeply ensconced in the nightmarish institution of slavery in the American South when he meets Lupita N’yongo’s Patsey. Once he does, his life (and the film) is never the same. A prolific cotton picker who arouses her monstrous master (Michael Fassbender) and infuriates his scornful wife (Sarah Paulson), Patsey’s suffering seemingly knows no bounds. Of course, no one involved in this impeccable film would’ve been content reducing Patsey to a one dimensional martyr and her part in the story’s devastating climax will haunt you long after the credits roll. N’yongo’s work is extraordinary, but even more exciting? This is the 30-year-old’s American film debut, and we suspect we’ve only seen the beginning of what she has to offer.—Geoff Berkshire (review here)

17. Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips
Once the plot truly gets moving, Hanks gamely disappears into the role, giving perhaps his most powerful performance since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Using his inherent movie star prowess, Hanks is able to embody both Phillips’ authoritative nature as well as successfully sell his cool-headed approach to the situation. Much of the film’s latter half, meanwhile, is predicated on his reactions and interactions with the pirates as well as his growing desperation. Watching the slow, quiet erosion of Phillips’ composure proves only slightly more harrowing than the film’s suspenseful set pieces. The character’s emotional arc eventually builds to a scene that, without spoiling anything, is so potent and raw that you almost can’t stand to watch because Hanks endows the moment with such an aching sense of reality.—Marz Rozeman (review here)

16. James Gandolfini in Enough Said
Gandolfini’s cooly confident performance as a man who knows exactly who he is (a big-bellied slob) and what he wants out of a relationship plays perfectly against a woman who builds defense mechanisms to protect herself—and her heart—from getting it wrong again the second time around.—Christine Ziemba (review here)

15. Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station
Jordan is quite good at making Oscar believably low-key and mundane. Coogler never lets the audience forget that Oscar had no idea his life was ending on that day, and Jordan gives the character an agreeable nonchalance, his worries only extending as far as finding a job and trying to put some distance between himself and his old ways. Intriguingly, Fruitvale Station argues that Oscar wasn’t really that special—he was just an average guy. And so the movie’s lack of grandness is quite appropriate: In its modest way, the film reminds us that nobody is really that special—but that we all still deserve better than what happened to Oscar.—Tim Grierson (review here)

14. Robin Weigert in Concussion
Robin Weigert’s lead role in Concussion, of a lesbian housewife who suffers a blow to the head and begins to act out sexually in sometimes disturbing ways, could have easily slid into stereotype. Perhaps worse, it could have been needlessly exploitative and sensationalistic. It’s none of those things, however. Under the expert direction of Stacie Passon (one of our Best New Filmmakers of 2013), Weigert’s Abby is a living, breathing person exploring a side of her she never imagined existed. Weigert is in nearly every scene, and she’s utterly transfixing whenever she’s on screen, intensely and vibrantly alive.—Michael Dunaway (review here)

13. Brie Larson in Short Term 12
At the heart of the film is Grace, who only initially seems to be fittingly named. In the most accomplished turn of her career, Larson brings a fierce determination to her character when she’s in the workplace. However, when she’s alone with Mason—her supposed intimate—we see how she remains tormented by her traumatic past, unable to find a lasting peace or open up completely. It’s an understated, affecting depiction of how the ramifications of childhood abuse linger into adulthood.—Curtis Woloschuk (review here)

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