The line often blurs between leading and supporting roles, and between comedy and drama. That said, here are my votes for some of the best movie performances of 2013. I hope you’ll seek out the work of all of these great artists, including those whose names are less familiar to you.
Runners-Up: In “Blue Jasmine,” Sally Hawkins finds the hidden layers in the sweet and forgiving Ginger, whose ability to appreciate the simple pleasures of life leaves her infinitely richer than her sister. As Mistress Epps in “12 Years a Slave,” a gurgling cauldron of hatred for the black woman who commands her husband’s sexual attentions, Sarah Paulson imparts malice and danger with a mere puckering of her lips and a tightening of her cheeks. As the daughter her mother has appointed her successor – to a heritage she wants no part of – Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County” shifts strategies, from scene to scene and within scenes, in her attempt to control the uncontrollable. Roberts holds her own with Meryl Streep – no mean feat. The role of Bruce Dern’s harridan wife, Kate, in “Nebraska” is as broad a caricature as Momma in “Throw Momma From the Train,” and June Squibb may be this year’s Anne Ramsey. She had me in convulsions of laughter almost the whole time she’s onscreen.
Winner: The most indelible performance by an actress in a supporting role – by far – belongs to Kristin Scott Thomas as Ryan Gosling’s peroxide-blonde mother, Crystal, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives.” She makes quite the entrance, telling a hotel manager, “I’ve just traveled 10,000 miles to attend the funeral of my firstborn child, and this bitch says I can’t have my room.” Crystal’s not exactly from the June Cleaver school of mothering. She bitches Gosling out for not killing the cop who killed his brother: “You’re obviously too weak. I’ll have to do it myself.” Gosling protests, “Billy raped and killed a 16-year-old girl,” to which Crystal replies, “I’m sure he had his reasons. Now get over here,” pointing down like a man to his dick, “and give your mother a hug.” As he does, she takes the opportunity to cop a few good feels of his package and his ass. When Gosling brings a favorite escort to dinner with Mom, posing her as his girlfriend, Crystal asks about her line of work. “I’m an entertainer,” she answers. “Oh? And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum dumpster of yours?” This is all before Crystal explains to her that Gosling could never compete with his brother; Gosling’s well hung, she says, but his brother was “enormous.”
Runners-Up: As Rodney Baze, back from four tours in Iraq and full of sorrow and frustration, Casey Affleck in “Out of the Furnace” delivers a master class in the use of space and positioning, reacting to his brother’s (Christian Bale) advice not to be too proud to work for a living with a lifetime’s worth of impotent rage, culminating in a primal scream that sent chills down my spine. Daniel Brühl quietly and methodically steals the Formula One rivalry drama “Rush” as Austrian driver Niki Lauda, who’s willing to take exactly a 20% chance of dying every time he races. Brühl’s Lauda is a fresh new character, without social graces, hilariously blunt as to both his and James Hunt’s strengths and weaknesses. He sugarcoats nothing, and usually says exactly what the listener hopes not to hear. In “12 Years a Slave,” Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps believes that punishing his slaves for insufficient industriousness is God’s work: “40, 50, 150 lashes – that’s Scripture.” Fassbender’s characteristically intense performance reaches its apotheosis in the gut-wrenching scene in which Epps’ jealousy passes the breaking point. He ties his slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) to a post and takes his belt to her over and over and over, leaving a lattice of obscenely deep welts on her back, then compels his slave Platt (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take over for him. I’d like to single out two performances by supporting actors in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”: Will Forte as Woody’s put-upon son, David, and (skipping ahead alphabetically) Stacy Keach as Woody’s former business partner, Ed Pegram, who claims Woody owes him thousands of dollars in unrepaid loans. Keach makes a terrific villain, bringing out the jovial menace in Ed’s good-old-boy demeanor and quiet but firm insistence. Forte finds just the right hangdog look for David; his performance is unobtrusive, almost like one long sigh, but he invests David with decency, and gets to deliver (to Ed) the movie’s best line: “What’s the statute of limitations on bullshit?”
As the wiggerish “Alien” in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” James Franco bails Selena Gomez and her gal pals out of County and takes them to his crib – a garishly furnished arsenal with Benjamins strewn about the floor like sawdust – with promises of “spring break forever.” Franco’s doing an SNL skit, but a great one, laugh-out-loud funny – the most fully realized conception of a white rapper since Brian Austin Green on “90210.” In “A.C.O.D.,” Richard Jenkins unleashes the comic genius he first showed as the beleaguered editor of the San Juan Sun in “The Rum Diary.” Here, as Adam Scott’s long-divorced father, who still hates ex Catherine O’Hara with white-hot passion, he had me in hysterics even before launching into his verbal attacks. When Scott arranges dinner for him and O’Hara - to avert disaster at his brother’s upcoming wedding - Jenkins leans into the table as if to maximize the potential energy of the boom he’s about to lower. As the permanent-fixture drama coach at Kingston High in “The English Teacher,” Nathan Lane gets hold of an alum’s new play and immediately brings it to the principal. If he has to stage “The Importance of Being Earnest” for the fifth time, he’ll explode, and “If you picked our productions, we’d do ‘Our Town’ twice a year!” The principal agrees to stage the play if Lane and Julianne Moore cut the everybody-kills-himself ending. Moore won’t budge, but Lane accedes. “Don’t worry,” he tells Moore outside, “We won’t cut it. When you’re in there, you’ve just got to keep it moving.” Lane’s delivery of this line – with the practiced jadedness born of a lifetime in high-school theater - had me sitting up in bed at night still laughing. Jared Leto’s transvestite Rayon is the heart and soul of the AIDS-drugs drama “Dallas Buyers Club.” Leto humanizes Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof with humor and tart-tongued wit, as when Rayon tells Ron, “Honey, anyone who plays cards like you doesn’t have five thousand dollars.” Finally, no rundown of 2013 would be complete without mention of Mark L. Young as Scottie P., the inked and stringy-haired ride operator Emma Roberts takes up with at a carnival in “We’re the Millers.” Everything Scottie P. says – in a voice so high it could be mimicked but scarcely duplicated – made me laugh out loud, and his “No Ragrets” tattoo is the icing on the cake.
Winner: In “This is Martin Bonner,” Richmond Arquette plays Travis Holloway, who’s just completed a 12-year sentence in Reno for DUI manslaughter. His slightly pale, slightly pudgy frame tucked into a dated denim jacket, his eyes vigilant if not quite darting, Travis looks every inch a man just out of a long stretch in stir, but Arquette keeps us waiting for an explosion that never comes. Travis agrees to engage a prostitute who solicits him, his motivations a mix of kindness, protectiveness, loneliness and pent-up sexual need. Nothing goes wrong. He accompanies his new friend Martin to one of the soccer matches Martin referees and does not make an inappropriate advance toward any of the athletic young women. His daughter comes up from Arizona to visit him. They meet for lunch at a Carrows. There is no manufactured melodrama, no shouting matches or tearful absolution. Arquette’s performance is a minor miracle of courageous quietude.
Runners-Up: In the title role of the divorce and child-custody drama “What Maisie Knew,” Onata Aprile admirably eschews precocity, showing us with her eyes just how much she knows, how jealously she clings to the few solid things in her life of constant flux. The best ensemble of child actors this year belongs to Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” about a group home for at-risk kids. I especially admired the work of Kaitlyn Dever as Jayden, a “cutter” and “biter.” Dever plays Jayden with just the right mix of blasé bravado and deeply repressed vulnerability. A scene in which she shows Brie Larson’s Grace some illustrations for a children’s story she’s written called “Nina the Octopus” is one of the most moving of the year. As Henry, the son of Kate Winslet’s Adele, Gattlin Griffith is the soul of “Labor Day.” We see in Griffith’s big eyes Henry’s intelligence, alertness and filial protectiveness – and, eventually, the first sign of a thawing that might leave room for the unlikeliest of makeshift families. Pint-sized Jackson Nicoll gets more big laughs than does Johnny Knoxville in “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.” Nicoll has better instincts, letting scenes play out longer before the big reveal and allowing the comic tension to build. He also shows a game physicality that should stand him in good stead going forward. In “The Hunt,” Klara, a cute blonde moppet with a crush on her kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelsen), borrows language she overheard her older brother and his friend throw around to accuse Mikkelsen of something he didn’t do. As Klara, young Annika Wedderkopp is a mini-marvel of instinctive emotional truthfulness.
Winner: No contest: Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone in Jeff Nichols’ “Mud.” Child actors capable of this kind of understated honesty – neither performance includes an instant of exaggeration or playing to the camera – are exceedingly rare, and almost never American. These are performances of such lived-in perfection that if you drove down to this sleepy river town, you’d expect to find Ellis and Neckbone riding their bikes alongside you. Sheridan and Lofland bring honor to the craft of child acting.
Runners-Up: In Matteo Garrone’s “Reality,” the Neapolitan fishmonger Luciano auditions for the Italian “Big Brother” at his kids’ request and slowly becomes obsessed. When two unfamiliar ladies buy some snapper and clams at his pesceteria and mention they’re in from Rome, Luciano’s sure they’re spies sent to vet his application. With Luciano sprawled on his couch for hours at a time, watching the simpering inanities of the show, his marriage nears the breaking point. Aniello Arena keeps Luciano from being a mere butt of jokes; his poignant and empathic performance reveals that in him which is universal. That Arena is a lifer in an Italian prison and shot the film on a series of daylong furloughs only heightens the film’s uniquity. In Ken Loach’s “The Angels’ Share,” Paul Brannigan plays Robbie Emerson, a young Glaswegian with a knocked-up girlfriend, a rap sheet of street thuggery, and a thirst for decent employment. He does so without affect. It’s a remarkably reactive performance, in the best sense. This is not an actor waiting for his scenemate to finish so he can recite his lines. He has the rare gift of listening and responding in a real and human way. The Simon of “Simon Killer” is a recent neuroscience graduate floating through a summer in Paris with little to tie him down. Brady Corbet brings to Simon a shyness and self-effacing quality (he’s forever apologizing for his high-school French) that contrasts intriguingly with his size and stature. In the title role of the exceedingly small-scale “This is Martin Bonner,” Paul Eenhoorn makes a lot out of a little, creating a complete character with a lifetime’s worth of backstory and genuine generosity in his heart. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” would degenerate into gratuitousness without the exceptional work of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a New York violinist and family man deceived, drugged, enchained and sent by rail to a plantation in New Orleans. Ejiofor imparts sunken-eyed sadness, abiding dignity and fierce intelligence to Solomon, filling out a man with whom we get to spend precious little time before his horrific predicament.
In the one-of-a-kind Belgian bluegrass-and-cancer crazy quilt “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Johan Heldenberg plays Didier, a father contemplating the death of his very young daughter, Maybelle. With stellar support from Veerle Baetens as his wife and bandmate Elise, Heldenberg lays bare Didier’s pain. At their lowest moments, he and Elise allow themselves to say things – each blaming the other for Maybelle’s disease – that they immediately regret but can never retract. Jake M. Johnson, who made a strong impression in 2012’s “Safety Not Guaranteed,” delivers a lived-in performance as Luke, a blue-collar worker at a small Chicago brewery, in Joe Swanberg’s relationship study “Drinking Buddies.” You feel that if you stopped by for a tasting, Luke would be there hosing down the machines. Johnson is ready for prime time; I hope he’ll continue to find substantial roles worthy of his talent in major 2014 releases. In “A Hijacking,” the smartest of several 2013 movies involving Somali pirates, Soren Malling plays Peter Ludvigsen, the CEO of the Danish line whose cargo ship the pirates overrun a couple of scant days from harbor. Peter decides to negotiate personally with their liaison, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), setting the stage for a gripping game-theoretic thriller with the lean and wiry Malling at its intellectual core. As Alex, a twentysomething Jewish drug dealer who’s lived in Paris all his life but sees the opportunity for a fresh start in Tel Aviv in Elie Wajeman’s “Aliyah,” Pio Marmaï is a discovery: strong and stoic, with dark, sunken eyes that bespeak an internal life behind Alex’s glib surface. In “The Attack,” director Ziad Doueiri and star Ali Suliman combine to craft a compelling character study of a highly accomplished surgeon of Palestinian descent, living in Tel Aviv, who discovers after attending to several victims of a restaurant suicide bombing that the bomber was his wife.
Winner: The best performance by an actor in a leading role this year belongs to the actor whose films I most look forward to now: Matthew McConaughey. Over the past two years, McConaughey has shown he can command the screen with the ease and aplomb of a great master. In “Mud,” he holds us in his thrall as surely as the mysterious and vaguely menacing Mud holds Ellis and Neckbone in his.
Runners-Up: The deepest category of the year begins with a performance of exquisite lightness: that of Amy Acker as Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s one-off “Much Ado About Nothing.” Acker, a ringer for Rebecca Hall, brings the same wit to Beatrice’s weariness (and wariness) of the male of the species as Hall brought to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Her interplay with Alexis Denisof’s Benedick is the best thing about Whedon’s trifle. Make a 180-degree turn to Juliette Binoche in Bruno Dumont’s “Camille Claudel, 1915.” As the French sculptor, involuntarily institutionalized by her family, Binoche is challenged to give a nub-raw performance, and responds with a profoundly empathetic and intuitively connected portrayal that’s perhaps the most unforgettable of her career. Judi Dench occupies almost every scene of the tearjerker “Philomena,” and rises to the occasion with a lovely, understated performance that captures a lifetime of shame and regret with just a casting down of the eyes. Veteran Danish actress Trine Dyrholm owns the appealing and funny romantic comedy “Love is All You Need” as Ida, a hairdresser who comes home from a round of chemotherapy to find her husband in flagrante delicto with another woman. It’s the courage to underplay that marks Dyrholm as such a fine actress, registering a range of feelings with the subtlest of inflections and sidelong glances. I won’t soon forget her telling Pierce Brosnan’s Philip, “You’re so aw-ful. And stu-pid.” Cast in the lead in Jill Soloway’s “Afternoon Delight,” Kathryn Hahn gives a bravura performance, playing a hundred notes without hitting a false one. Not conventionally beautiful, she may never again be given such an opportunity, but she accomplishes more here than most actresses do in a career. I was thrilled to see Gaby Hoffmann receive a Spirit nomination for her work in the title role in Sebastián Silva’s “Crystal Fairy.” She’s nothing less than a force of nature, but I especially treasured the quiet moments when Hoffmann lets us know she’s in on the joke.
As Grace, who runs the group home in “Short Term 12,” Brie Larson is riveting, a revelation. You can’t take your eyes off her. In a film distinguished by its courage to leave much unsaid and unexplained, Larson remains true to Grace without ever revealing more than we are meant to know. (In a completely different part, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sister in “Don Jon,” Larson had me weeping with laughter without saying a word, just by the angle of her facial expression.) Amanda Seyfried opened my eyes with her work as Linda Lovelace in “Lovelace.” She captures the sweetness and pure heart of a young woman who would come to be defined by the 17 days she spent in the pornography industry. In certain scenes opposite chameleonic Peter Sarsgaard as Linda’s controlling and abusive husband Chuck, Seyfried’s face registers a play of emotions that defies description. Meryl Streep would be my first runner-up as the towering matriarch Violet Weston in “August: Osage County.” Streep brings grandeur to Violet commensurate with Tracy Letts’ conception of an alpha woman, capable of casual disdain and targeted disparagement, who dominates all around her with her words and her will. Veteran German actress Barbara Sukowa gives a terrific performance in the title role of the biopic “Hannah Arendt,” taking us into Arendt’s brilliant life of the mind. As we watch her study the Nazi Adolf Eichmann at his war-crimes trial in Jerusalem, we see her wheels turning. She can’t get over the gap between the mediocrity of the man and the enormity of his atrocities. It was in her trial reports for The New Yorker that Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil.” Perennial award nominee Kate Winslet turns in an admirably restrained performance as Adele, an agoraphobic divorced mother of one, in Jason Reitman’s impeccably observed “Labor Day.” Winslet finds Adele’s still-flickering need for human connection among the emotional carnage life has wrought upon her.
Winner: Again, no contest: To choose anyone but Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” would constitute a crime. Jasmine French is the sort of showpiece role for which a great actress waits all her life, usually in vain. Blanchett gives us not only a breathtakingly credible portrait of a woman on the verge but every rung on her descent, every sin of omission and commission paid for with a lifetime of regret and recrimination, every humiliation and newly dashed hope. For the first time, she connects with the audience on an emotional level, plumbing uproarious laughs but building to a final scene more terrifying, in its own way, than any in recent memory.