Runners-Up: Casey Affleck in Out of the Furnace proves once again why he really should get more attention and roles – even if he doesn’t seem to want them – as his intense performance here is the film’s emotional core. Javier Bardem in The Counselor perfectly delivers McCarthy’s long, complex monologues. Bradley Cooper and Louis CK in American Hustle make an excellent comic duo – Cooper is great throughout the film as the FBI agent, whose ego gets out of control, but he elevates his game when opposite C.K. – their scenes are perhaps the best in the movie. Chris Cooper in August: Osage County was the one male actor, except for a pitch perfect one scene by Sam Shepherd, who completely nailed his character in this large ensemble piece. Paul Dano in 12 Years a Slave leaves a definite impression in only a few short scenes. Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine played a normal guy to simple perfection. Nathan Fillion in Much Ado About Nothing is best in show in Joss Whedon’s modern day retelling of the Shakespeare play – every time he opened his mouth, I laughed. Ben Foster in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints gives the least showy performance of his career – a quietly heartbreaking performance. Paul Giamatti in 12 Years a Slave had only a few scenes, but they are devastating in how casually he can deliver such hate filled dialogue. Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines anchors the first of the three segments of the movie, and is so good, the movie never quite lives up to him once he leaves. Dwayne Johnson in Pain & Gain is delightfully off kilter as a gentle giant, turned drug fueled murderer. Brad Pitt in The Counselor delivered perhaps my favorite performance in the film – all wry humor – and handled the monologues with ease. Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12 delivered a quiet, but emotionally devastating performance – especially when he opens up and raps. Wu Jiang in A Touch of Sin plays a stubborn character that gradually becomes fed up with the corruption he sees all around him.
10. John Goodman in Inside Llewyn Davis
John Goodman is always so great when he is in a Coen brother’s movie that it almost becomes easy to overlook him. While his performance in Inside Llewyn Davis does not reach the heights of his work in Barton Fink or The Big Lebowski (two movies he easily should have at least been nominated for Oscars for) – it’s still great work. As an aging, overweight, heroin addicted jazz musician, who shares a ride with Llewyn to Chicago (or most of the way anyway), Goodman once again delivers a larger than life comedic performance. He is the one character in the movie who may be an even bigger asshole than Llewyn - the preview makes him look like a comedic character, which he is – but his performance in the movie makes him more than just comic relief, but someone Llewyn sees perhaps a little of his future self in. Goodman is one of those actors who is great in pretty much everything – it’s time he starts getting more recognition for it.
9. Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers ClubJared Leto took a few years off acting before being drawn back in with this showcase role in Jean-Marc Vallee’s AIDS film. On the surface, Leto’s role looks like pure Oscar bait – he gets to play gay, sick and a cross dresser – those three things by themselves usually make people say a performance is “brave”. And yet Leto goes well beyond the surface level, making Rayon into a fully functional, tragic character that buoys much of the movie, and helps to humanize the lead played by Matthew McConaughey. When Leto leaves the movie, the film deflates a little bit – it misses his presence in the final scenes. Before now, I’ve never been quite sold on Leto as an actor – he was wonderful in Requiem for a Dream, but not much else. Here, he takes what could have been a showy, one note role and turns into something far more than that. That’s what great actors do, and perhaps Leto’s career is just warming up.
It couldn’t have been easy for newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who has to share his every scene with a veteran like Tom Hanks at the top of his game – but Abdi more than holds his own. In fact, he does far more than that as he creates a three dimensional character – someone who we can understand, even if we do not like what he does. The three other hijackers in Captain Phillips are fairly one note characters – but Abdi is far from that, as we first get to see him in his small village – where there is little to no opportunity for him to do anything but live a life of crime. As he gets on the boat, and takes Hanks hostage, many of the best scenes in the movie are the tense standoffs between the two men – with Abdi as a business man who simply wants to get his money, and who will not back down no matter how unlikely him receiving it becomes. This is a great debut performance for an actor who I hope will be able to find some roles suitable for his talent.
7. Jake Gyllenhaal in, PrisonersJake Gyllenhaal has made a career out of playing likable guys – some of his characters may be flawed, but they are all in the end decent guys. In Prisoners, Gyllenhaal makes no effort to make his Detective Loki into a nice guy – he’s a cop who is good at his job, but doesn’t play well with others (hence why he has no partner) – and he has little patience for grieving families who do little except get in his way as he tries to find their missing girls. On the page, I’m sure Loki looked like a more boring, straight ahead no-nonsense movie cop – but Gyllenhaal makes him much more than that – a bundle of nervous ticks, a violent temper – perhaps a little bit of OCD – that Gyllenhaal doesn’t dwell on, but places it unmistakably in the background. This is what a great performance is – elevating the material, which is precisely what he does in this – one of the year’s most overlooked performances.
6. Stacy Keach in NebraskaThe great performance in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska that seemingly no one is mentioning is Stacy Keach’s as Woody’s long ago friend and rival – Ed Pegram. He enters the movie all smiles – welcoming his old friend Woody back to town with a hearty handshake and a pat on the back. Throughout the movie though, as news of Woody’s “winnings” become public knowledge, Keach’s charm turns somewhat dangerous and threatening – that sweet voice of his turns a little bit darker, that smile a little bit more menacing. It really is masterful character work for an actor who, like the star of film Bruce Dern, delivered some great performances back in the 1970s and 1980s, but who Hollywood never quite found the perfect role for. Ed Pegram is perfect for Stacy Keach – and shows that perhaps it’s not too late for him to do some great work.
5. Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall StreetJonah Hill delivers his best performance to date as Donnie Azoff – Jordan Belfort’s right hand man who may in fact be an even bigger asshole than his boss. There is no redeeming qualities to Donnie – he is an amoral asshole from the beginning, who enjoys his larger than life lifestyle perhaps because it allows him to be as big of a jerk as he becomes – telling off employees, humiliating them, eating their live fish, pissing on subpoenas, telling off his underlings, etc. There is not an ounce of vanity in Hill’s performance – he goes from broke. Hill’s big screen image so far is pretty much that of a lovable asshole – in The Wolf of Wall Street, he drops the lovable part and is just all out, total asshole. And he’s perfect in it.
4. Matthew McConaughey in MudMatthew McConaughey has been on a roll in the past few years – giving excellent and very different, performances in films like The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Bernie, The Paperboy and Dallas Buyers Club. I’m not sure his work in Mud is the best of his career (that may be Killer Joe) – but it’s very close and he is just about perfect in the role. When I saw Jeff Nichols cast McConaughey in the title role of his latest film, I assumed it was some sort of concession to commercialism that prevented him from casting his favorite Michael Shannon (who has a different, smaller role). After seeing the film, I knew why he chose McConaughey – he is the perfect blend of Southern charm, romanticism tinged with a little bit of danger for the character. You have to have an actor like McConaughey in this role for the film as a whole to work – to buy that Sheridan’s character that do everything he does for this stranger – and McConaughey nailed it. A few years ago, I probably would have ranked McConaughey on my list of the worst actors in Hollywood – now he’s one of my favorites. All it took was for him to start trying.
3. James Gandolfini in Enough SaidThe late, great James Gandolfini will always been known to most as Tony Soprano. His iconic performance on The Sopranos truly is the best work he ever did in his career. But if one were silly enough to question his range, all you would have to do is watch Enough Said – where Gandolfini plays the sweet, lovable slob Albert who falls for Julia Louis Dreyfuss. Because of his physical appearance, Gandolfini was most often cast as gangsters and heavies – but here, he has pitch perfect, subtle comic timing and surprising chemistry with Dreyfuss. For me, his sweet comic turn is the best work he’s ever done in a movie – a performance that is funny, perceptive, quiet, subtle – and in one moment, that Gandolfini underplays perfectly, heartbreaking. I know some think that the love some awards groups have given him this season is a sympathy vote – a last chance to award a favorite actor. But Gandolfini earns all the praise he has received for this movie.
2. Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a SlaveThe collaboration between director Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender has already produced three great movies, and three great performances from Fassbender. His role in 12 Years a Slave is striking because while he plays the cruelest and most sadistic of the slave owners in the movie, the performance never edges into caricature – McQueen has even said he feels sympathy for the character, as he is in love Patsey but has no idea how to handle that. I’m not sure I would go that far, but I would say that his character remains a human monster – someone who either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care (probably both) just how cruel he’s being – and that goes for the physical abuse he inflicts, or the strange moments when he wakes up his slaves in the middle of the night for music and dancing – and doesn’t realize how degrading they feel it is. Fassbender has quickly become one of the best actors working – and while I still think his performance in McQueen’s Shame is the best work he has done, this is close to it. A brilliant performance by a brilliant actor.
1. James Franco in Spring BreakersThere is perhaps no single character this year more memorable than James Franco’s Alien – a drug dealer and violent criminal who thinks he has found four beautiful girls to exploit and gets more than he’s bargained for. Franco – who performance art extremes sometimes make you question what the hell he’s doing – is the perfect actor to play Alien – a man who will shout “Look at all my fucking stuff” without a trace of irony or self-awareness. Franco’s Alien is scary and creepy – one of the best scenes of the year has him tell Selena Gomez before she exits the movie “Your friends are staying here – and when I’m with them, I’ll be thinking about you” is just about the creepiest thing I heard at the movies all year. Then there is the strange three way “sex scene” with Franco and Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson – who turn the tables on him with his own guns. Franco’s Alien is a rapper, a drug dealer and an all-around worthless human being – and he’s the perfect encapsulation of American culture right now. I may not always respond to Franco – but when he nails it, he nails it. His performance in Spring Breakers is the best work he has ever done by far.