Film Feature: The Best Lead Performances of 2013

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A fictional folk singer who feels real, a real moneymaker who feels fictional, a young woman dealing with her own wounds by helping to heal those of others, and a student discovering her sexuality through the first passionate relationship of her life — 2013 was one of the best years for lead performances in decades.

While it wasn’t overly difficult to get to a top five in each of the two major acting categories (although I do wish I could have squeezed Robert Redford & Amy Adams in and extended to six), picking a winner was just aggravating. I would really be happy if any of these ten incredible performances earned a trophy at some point during awards season. Which ten? Read on…

The Best Actors of 2013

Five Runner-ups (in alphabetical order): Christian Bale (“American Hustle”), Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”), Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners”), Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”), and Robert Redford (“All is Lost”)

Bruce Dern as Woody Grant in “Nebraska”

Bruce Dern as Woody Grant in Nebraska
Photo credit: Paramount

The first few scenes of Bruce Dern shambling down a freeway shoulder in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” made me nervous. I was concerned that we were headed quickly toward the caricature of the old, Midwestern drunk. And then Dern begins to work his magic. Giving the best performance of his notable career, he perfectly grounds this character through the small decisions and the clear back story he sells us in his eyes. The actor disappears and we see an old man who has avoided emotion and purpose for most of his life realizing that perhaps he needs both as it comes to an end. Considering my #1 pick in this category is looking less and less likely to be in the Oscar race, Dern seems to be the man I’ll be rooting for the night of the Academy Awards.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave”

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

The issues I have with Steve McQueen’s adored “12 Years a Slave” are balanced by what I see there in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s breathtakingly subtle work. Some have written about how the supporting cast often steals focus from the saga of Solomon Northup but it always comes back to the center for me through the sheer commitment to character by its lead performer. As it so often is, it’s the little things in Ejiofor’s work — the grief in his eyes, the desperation in his slumped shoulders, the moment of expression in his voice when he allows himself to sing — that add up to harrowing, unforgettable realism.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis
Photo credit: CBS Films

Llewyn Davis could have been such a cliche — the put-upon, integrity-laden folk singer. It’s the kind of part that practically orders an actor to fall back on crutches like costumes and mannerisms. And yet Davis feels completely, totally real from minute one. Before he’s done with his first song. And about those songs. The way that Isaac uses music and lyrics to express things that his character cannot in the real world is incredible. Again, in most years, this would be my favorite performance of the year. It’s that good.

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in “Her”

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in Her
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Given that the arc of Spike Jonze’s incredible “Her” is that of a man who falls in love with his operating system, much of the film consists of essentially a one-man show for Joaquin Phoenix, as his romantic partner in the film is never seen. And Phoenix is utterly fantastic, perfectly sketching a man who has romantically lost his way and showing us how he finds it again. We’ll be writing about “Her” a lot in the next few weeks as it finally gets released but what you need to know is that none of this high-concept brilliance works AT ALL without the relatable humanity given it by Joaquin Phoenix.

The Best Actor of 2013: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street
Photo credit: Paramount

Leonardo DiCaprio, easily one of the best actors of his generation, is a true force of nature in Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, the story of a man who lived in and for the moment. Like a Wall Street version of Alien from “Spring Breakers,” Jordan Belfort is always the richest, smartest, and most in-demand person in the room. And there is no actor who could have sold this role with this degree of screen charisma like Leo. Jordan Belfort is an awful human being — he’s a drug addict who steals from his clients like a con man and thinks little of anyone he deems beneath him. And yet DiCaprio finds a way to keep us engaged. We don’t check out of the movie like we would with a lesser performer. We don’t exactly “root for” Jordan Belfort but we can’t wait to see what he does next. There was no more captivating performance by an actor this year.

On to page two for the actresses of 2013, an equally amazing group…

MTN's picture

Best Actress

I am SO in agreement with your assessment of Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”.
We are invested in her survival. We care about her. That you mention this
is so on the mark. She deserves the Oscar. Hopefully award season voters
will consider the intensity of her work in this film and not fall back on old
common performances. Sandra jumped through hoops to make ” Gravity”
the amazing film that it is.

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