The 25 Best Movie Performances of 2013

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2013 was a great, if intensely unusual, year for film performances. For our #1 and #3 performers, it was 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.


12. Amy Adams in American Hustle

We’ve seen Amy Adams effortlessly embody sunshine sweetness (Junebug), cold calculation (The Master), badass bartender (The Fighter) and Disney princess (Enchanted), but even that incredible range of roles couldn’t prepare us for the startlingly sexy social-climbing con artist she slips into for her second collaboration with director David O. Russell. Working with one of the year’s strongest ensemble casts, Adams keeps viewers guessing where her true loyalties lie in a juicy love triangle with Christian Bale’s smooth-talking married schlub and Bradley Cooper’s high-strung intensely ambitious FBI agent. Look beyond the fake British accent and cleavage-revealing dresses she dons as faux-aristocrat Edith Greensley and you’ll see Adams lay bare the soul beneath the con.—Geoff Berkshire (review here)


11. June Squibb in Nebraska

June Squibb first collaborated with director Alexander Payne on About Schmidt—she played Schmidt’s wife who dies early on—but she’s given a real platform with their second pairing. In Nebraska, she’s Kate Grant, the much-exasperated wife of Woody (Bruce Dern), whose endless foolishness has slowly sharpened her BS-detector over time. Nebraska can sometimes overdo its maudlin, wistful examination of family and mortality, but Squibb’s wonderfully grumpy performance keeps the film on its toes—just like Kate’s endlessly funny brusqueness keeps her mopey kin from tripping into despair.—Tim Grierson (review here)


10. Léa Seydoux in Blue Is the Warmest Color

Blue Is the Warmest Color focuses on Adèle Exarchopoulos’s main character Adèle, but this French romantic drama wouldn’t have its considerable power without superb supporting work from Léa Seydoux. As Emma, Seydoux is the embodiment of sophistication, confidence and beauty—we can understand why the younger, less sexually experienced Adèle would fall for her immediately. American audiences had previously known Seydoux from bit parts in Midnight in Paris and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but Blue allowed her to demonstrate real range, playing Emma as not just a love interest but as an equally complicated, evolving woman who both enchants and intimidates Adèle.—Tim Grierson (review here)


9. Matthew McConaughey in Mud

Every now and then, having personal contact with directors and actors yields some great inside information that can really illuminate a film or a performance. Knowing director Jeff Nichols a bit and having spent a little bit of time with actor Matthew McConaughey, let me give you a secret to unlocking McConaughey’s stunningly good peformance as the titular character in Mud—Jeff Nichols’ favorite actor, and one of McConaughey’s, is Paul Newman. And this is certainly a Newmanesque performance, hearkening back to an almost-lost ideal of manhood that Newman embodied. There’s no “alright alright alright” in this performance; Mud is a nearly broken man, and the little swagger he has seems desperate, not cocksure. We never quite know how much of the truth we’re getting from him, but the one shining beacon that is unassailable is his love for Reese Witherspoon’s Juniper. The lengths to which he’ll go to win her back are astounding, and make Mud feel less like a film and more like an epic American novel, Huck Finn meets The Great Gatsby. And McConaughey, though technically not the protagonist of the film, towers over it.—Michael Dunaway (review here)


8. Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

When I first heard the conceit of Dallas Buyers Club—Matthew McConaughey loses weight, plays a resilient character with AIDS—I have to admit that my cynical side emerged. It sounded like pure Oscar bait, and I wasn’t sure McConaughey would have the chops to transcend his rom-com leading man sensibilities. I was doubtful, and I was wrong. Because in Ron Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey is a changed man, and not just bodily. He’s flinty and gaunt, with a new, earth-bound charisma that looks nothing like the two-dimensional debonair flash of his acting past. Woodroof operates with the hard cunning of a desperate survivor, and McConaughey disappears completely into the role, evincing the man’s irresistible rage and hunger for life in the face of the kind of corporate enemies who will kill you with a polite smile and a tepid apology. Woodroof is their opposite; every electron is humming, every vein is pulsing, every word is burning. It takes a force of nature to battle an institution, and in channeling this vitality, McConaughey transformed his entire career.—Shane Ryan (review here)


7. Joaquin Phoenix in Her

With his self-indulgent, year-long viral marketing stunt, I’m Still Here, hopefully exorcized from his career (and psyche?) Joaquin Phoenix very quickly set the foundation rebuilding filmic good will with his potent turn as the soul-starved vet, Freddie Quell, in P.T. Anderson’s The Master. And now, with his captivatingly humane work in Spike Jonze’s Her, as a man learning to let go of his failed marriage through a disambiguated intimacy with his PC’s artificial intelligence, the new door seems to have swung shut on that misstep of 2010. Sure, it certainly doesn’t hurt that his PC’s voice has the smoky timbre of Scarlett Johansson, but Jonze’s script calls for some seriously heavy lifting as Phoenix capably establishes his shield coming down while playing against, well, nobody else physically present in front of the lens. It’s a boldy vulnerable performance that few others—if any— could have inhabited in the way Jonze’s brilliantly sweet, thoughtful bit of speculative fiction required.—Scott Wold


6. Robert Redford in All is Lost

In a physical role that exemplifies the fragility of life in the face of Mother Nature, the fit, capable yet nonetheless 77-year-old Redford hoists himself up the mast, gets tossed around the cabin as the boat roils in the water and is swept overboard. He also demonstrates remarkable ingenuity—the camera content to sit with him while he thinks, his face lighting up when he sparks on an idea—and dignity, pausing to shave before he abandons ship. And practicality: He risks life and limb to return to his sinking vessel for a sextant, not personal mementos.—Annlee Ellingson (review here)


5. James Franco in Spring Breakers

Watching James Franco in Spring Breakers, one has to ask: Is this a put-on? But the scarier question is, What if it’s not? The brilliance of his portrayal of Alien, a Scarface-aspiring dirt-bag, is that no matter how outlandishly over-the-top it goes—“Look at my shit!”—there remains a deeply unsettling edge to the performance that suggests a white-trash nightmare who could do real damage to those around him. We laugh at Franco as Alien, but the laughs get stuck in our throat: Just like the movie, his performance is a wickedly satiric look at our worst impressions of youth culture—until it gets so frighteningly real that we’re left dazed and amazed.—Tim Grierson (review here)

4. Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave


“Cruelty” is not an easy emotion to play. Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” while reporting on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in the early ‘60s. It’s a perfect descriptor of systems that encourage conformity in the service of human mistreatment, and slavery in the United States is no exception. Otherwise decent men like Ford, the slaveowner played by Benedict Cumberbatch in 12 Years a Slave, fell into the category of those who found it in themselves to abide evil because it was so commonplace. Within that spectrum, though, there are men who are cruel on an individual level; they indulge their dark sides and use the evil framework to bring excessive pain to others. Edwin Epps, the sadistic plantation owner played by Michael Fassbender, fell into this latter category. His task was to portray a historical atrocity, but to remove the history from the equation and convey this raw, personal evil with an immediacy that destroyed the larger context and functioned as pure, timeless terror. He succeeded by preserving a vestige of humanity; the suggestion of a pained heart, lurking somewhere below the drunken, tyrannical surface, was like a guidepost showing the incredulous exactly how someone can become a man like Epps. It was not beyond belief; we could see a sliver of ourselves in Fassbender’s sneer, and the flick of a wrist holding a whip. How better to convey the horror of slavery than to show us our own reflection? This was evil, and there was nothing banal about it.—Shane Ryan (review here)


3. Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color

We get so many coming-of-age movies each year that it’s easy to become cynical about their predictable story arcs. Then along comes Blue Is the Warmest Color, which is fraught with the real pain and joy of first love. The film’s emotional center is Adèle Exarchopoulos, who plays Adèle, a young woman grappling with her burgeoning homosexuality as well as her uncertain future. With fresh-faced honesty, Exarchopoulos makes the character heartbreakingly real: a girl stumbling into adulthood who has to learn to love herself before she can truly love someone else.—Tim Grierson (review here)


2. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight

A cheat, but an unavoidable one. Along with Richard Linklater, these two have created possibly the strongest trilogy ever (it’s probably not a coincidence that it’s also, as Hawke proudly proclaims, “the lowest-grossing film trilogy in history”). What’s even more amazing is that the films keep getting better. The trio are older, wiser and better writers, and of course Delpy and Hawke just keep getting better and better as actors. They’re at the top of their game in Midnight, where they create possibly the most fully realized portrait of a mature relationship ever put to celluloid. We’ve all been privileged to watch Jesse and Celine go through life together; some of us have even grown up with them. See you in nine more years.—Michael Dunaway (review here)


1. Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

If the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis can be thought of as a companion piece to their A Serious Man—stories about ordinary men at the mercy of fate and luck—then it’s worth noting that both films featured breakthrough performances from exceptional, little-known actors. A Serious Man introduced audiences to the respected TV and theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg, and now Inside Llewyn Davis demonstrates that Oscar Isaac will no longer be considered just a fine character actor. Distinctive in everything from Sucker Punch to Robin Hood to Drive, this Julliard-trained, theater-seasoned actor grew up playing in different rock and punk bands, and he brings all those different disciplines to his portrayal of Llewyn Davis, a struggling solo artist in the early-‘60s New York folk scene. It’s a performance of enormous subtlety that balances on a knife’s edge between tragedy and comedy: Many of us recognize in ourselves Llewyn’s thwarted ambitions and soulful searching for his place in the world, and yet we also see the personal failings that may keep him (and us) from any sort of happy ending. Beautifully reserved yet hinting at his character’s unknowable depths of sadness and frustration, Isaac gives Inside Llewyn Davis its spirit, its humor, its beautiful poignancy. In the process, a fine character actor becomes an indisputably great star.—Tim Grierson (review here)