This is the fourth consecutive year that I have put this list together and each year has been tougher than the one before. To take all of the films I saw this year and consider all of the worthy performances in order to boil them down to 10 wimpy spots is difficult, especially in such a great year for movies. But you guys pay me to make the tough decisions so I've done the best I can. Please keep in mind that this list is a collection of my ten favorite performances of 2013, not necessarily the ten best performances. Quality definitely counts but, for example, I would never suggest that Steve Carell should get an Oscar nomination for his work in Anchorman 2 but I certainly considered him for this list. So keep that in mind as you peruse my top 10 favorite performances of 2013. Note: Due to the movie industry's brilliant insistence on preventing the average viewer from seeing great smaller movies, I have yet to see Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, and Lone Survivor along with a handful of other films that I suspect might have had an impact on this list. Thanks Hollywood!
Honorable Mention: Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth - Niki Lauda and James Hunt, Rush
Rush has been somewhat overlooked during the pre-Oscar season and that's a real shame because it is a terrific movie and the leads are phenomenal. Bruhl has a decent shot at a Supporting Actor nomination and his is definitely the better performance of the two but Hemsworth has a stage presence that few young actors do these days. And it is their fiery, intense chemistry with one another that drives the film.
10. Ben Kingsley - The Mandarin, Iron Man 3
To talk about this role in depth is to spoil a significant plot point within Iron Man 3 so if you haven't seen this movie yet, SPOILER ALERT. The twist, turning Kingsley from the deadly supervillain Mandarin into the bumbling, strung-out street actor Trevor was a completely unexpected stroke of genius and Kingsley pulled it off perfectly.
9. Tye Sheridan - Ellis, Mud
There's almost nothing harder to do in Hollywood, in my opinion, than basing your entire film on a child actor. Director Jeff Nichols put great faith in Sheridan in Mud and Sheridan rewards that faith time and time again. He is an absolute revelation here and the strength of his performance grows every time I watch the movie.
8. Michael B. Jordan - Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station
Jordan made a name for himself with TV viewers some time ago with his turns on The Wire, Parenthood, and perhaps especially Friday Night Lights. This year he got the chance to truly put his talents on display on the big screen and he came through brilliantly. This was a very difficult, nuanced role and Jordan is so good in it that he completely outshines the rest of the film.
7. Tom Hanks - Captain Richard Phillips, Captain Phillips
As I was watching Captain Phillips, well aware of the buzz surrounding it and Hanks' performance, I kept thinking, "This is really good but it's hardly great." And then Hanks goes BONKERS in the last 10 minutes and it brings the whole stinking thing together into one of the most polished finished products of the year. Also, it's always nice to see Hanks doing something worthwhile and not another Da Vinci Code movie.
6. Chiwetel Ejiofor - Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave
In one of the most brutal, unflinching, challenging roles of the year (or any year), Ejiofor made a name for himself with a captivating and heart-wrenching performance that will not soon be forgotten. He's one of the front runners for Best Actor and that honor is completely deserved. As a film, I found 12 Years a Slave to be somewhat flawed but Ejiofor's portrayal absolutely is NOT.
5. Will Forte - David Grant, Nebraska
Look, I'm a huge Forte fan so I'm completely biased. But to have the guy from MacGruber pull off one of the great straight-man performances of the year is a major accomplishment. Nebraska is the first "serious" project that Forte has been a part of and while Bruce Dern is getting all of the attention, you could make the case (and I would agree) that it is Forte's performance that truly holds the movie together. He just NAILED this part.
4. Leonardo DiCaprio - Jordan Belfort, Wolf of Wall Street
No movie or performance has drawn more criticism/discussion in 2013 than Wolf of Wall Street and DiCaprio. I get it. The film is rife with debauchery and general horribleness and that makes it an easy target. But the truth of the matter is, no film in recent memory works so aggressively against its own protagonist as Wolf does. It's all about showing what a miserable, cretinous human this guy is and I didn't find any "glorification" of his actions whatsoever. As such, DiCaprio is tasked with playing a wholly unlikable, loathsome character that somehow keeps you engrossed. You don't come to like Belfort the way you do Don Draper or Walter White but you stick around to see out his inevitable downfall. It's an EXTREMELY difficult thing to pull off and DiCaprio does it so well that I'm inclined to consider this his greatest work which is, of course, saying quite something.
3. Matthew McConauhey - Mud and Ron Woodruff, Mud and Dallas Buyers Club
2013 will henceforth be known as The Year of McConaughey. If that sounds ridiculous to you or if you think the guy from Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Sahara can't possibly be a GOOD actor, I insist that you see one of these movies. His turn in Mud is an understated, subtle piece of acting that I fell in love with while his work in DBC is much more assertive but nonetheless powerful (and probably more so, given that he is likely to get a Best Actor nomination for it). I couldn't choose between the two so here they sit together, bookends on The Year of McConaughey.
2. The Cast of American Hustle (Notably, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Louis CK)
American Hustle, like most of David O. Russell's other films, didn't quite pull it together enough for me to become the truly great movie it could have been. But the performances are another story. When I sat down to make this list, three of the first five names I wrote down all came from this film so here they all sit together. Bale is more charismatic than he's been in years, Cooper goes ever so slightly against type in a glorious way, Adams is intoxicating, and Lawrence is very likely going to win yet another Oscar (and deservedly so). She's just soooo good, you guys. And let's not forget stand-up comedian Louis CK in a very small, very under-appreciated role that he crushes.
1. Sam Rockwell - Owen, The Way Way Back
Rockwell has been doing incredible work for over 20 years now and not once has he been put up for a significant award. That's probably not going to change this year and that's a crying shame because his work here is nothing short of perfection. Always a slightly off-beat, quirky guy, he uses that in the most extraordinary ways here to deliver a very strong, personal performance that resonates on any number of levels. GIVE THIS MAN AN AWARD, HOLLYWOOD. He stinking deserves any adulation we can throw his way.
And just for good measure, Five Smaller Roles That Deserve Special Mention:
Sean Penn - Sean O'Connell, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
He's on screen for about five minutes and all that does is remind you of how GREAT Sean Penn can be when he's invested in a character.
Kyle Chandler - Tommy, The Spectacular Now
I like The Spectacular Now less and less the more I think about it but the one scene that truly hits home is totally owned by Chandler.
Allison Janney - Betty, The Way Way Back
At the top of her game, what woman is funnier than Allison Janney? Maybe Tina Fey and Amy Poehler but that's where the list ends for me.
Bob Odenkirk - Ross Grant, Nebraska/Spectacular Now
Again, not a fan of The Spectacular Now but in a tiny role, Odenkirk is fantastic and as Forte's opposite in Nebraska, he fits perfectly. Can we just get Bob Odenkirk in all of the movies?
Bill Nighy - Dad, About Time
I loved About Time (more to come later this week) and thought the whole cast was great but I think it's Nighy that gives the movie its emotional punch and it's great to see him doing something worthwhile.