Runners-Up: Christian Bale in American Hustle delivers a fine, comic performance – abnormal for him - as the lead con man with the bad comb over. Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace delivers an intense performance – as is normal for him – but also a subtle one, which wasn’t as expected given the subject matter – his best moments are his quietest ones. Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips delivered his typical, excellent movie star performance – and then elevated it completely in the final few minutes of the film, showing us the type of trauma we never see in movies. Hugh Jackman in Prisoners delivered his best performance to date as a determined father who will do anything to get his daughter back. Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio is excellent in a tricky role that requires him to be a bland everyman at first, and then descend into madness – while also implying that descent may not have been as long as we suspected. Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station delivered a wonderful, natural performance – which must have been hard since we know how the movie will end before it began, and yet he has to ensure he doesn’t betray that he knows. Vincent Lindon in Bastards was a typical noir hero – and precisely the type of actor American doesn’t have much anymore, which is why American noirs are rarely as good as this. Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club continued his string of impressive performances as a homophobic straight man fighting to stay alive after he finds out he has AIDS. Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt keeps the movie from being one melodramatic turn after another – even if we don’t always believe the movie, we believe him in it. Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now is effortlessly charming, but also shows us the pain and dark side of the class clown. Isaiah Washington in Blue Caprice starts out so seemingly normal, it makes his descent into violence and paranoia all the more chilling.
10. Will Forte in NebraskaBruce Dern deserves all the praise he has received for his performance in Nebraska, but it really is Will Forte’s David that the whole movie hinges upon. He goes on the trip across Montana and Nebraska in part to escape for a while from his own disappointing life – a job he’s doesn’t like, a girlfriend who has just left him – and perhaps to get know his old man, who has been distant his whole life. Forte, best known for playing broad characters (often brilliantly) on Saturday Night Live here delivers a remarkably subtle turn – he gets some big laughs by doing next to nothing (the oft talked about scene where the men in the Grant family all watch football together is the height of how funny Forte can be while doing nothing). It’s also an emotional performance, right down to the very end of the film – particularly in the Publishers Clearing House office where he says simply “No, he just believes what people tell him”. Forte deserves almost as much praise as Dern does for his brilliant performance in Nebraska.
9. Simon Pegg in The World’s EndPegg’s performance in The World’s End is the type that never garners any awards attention because people dismiss as “just a comedic one”. But while that may well have been true of Pegg’s work in Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, his work in The World’s End is far more complex than that. It is a study in addiction and loneliness and about the dangers of over-romanticizing one’s past. Pegg makes no attempt to make his Gary the least bit likable – he bullies his old friends into doing something they do not want to do and then mocks them when they do it wrong – but he remains a sympathetic character – perhaps because Pegg makes him so believable. We all know someone like Gary, don’t we? As the movie progresses, and his demons are laid bare, Pegg takes micro steps towards improvement – even if the ending suggests a backslide. This really is a complex performance. Oh – and he’s hilarious in the movie as well.
8. Ethan Hawke in Before MidnightThe performances of both Hawke and Julie Delphy have been overlooked throughout the trilogy – especially Hawke’s– rarely garnering any sort of year end accolades, and that’s a shame – especially in this third installment. In Before Midnight, Hawke’s Jesse is still recognizably the same, somewhat immature American in love with a French woman. He still talks a good game, and can be charming and funny. But unlike in the first two installments, it becomes clear just how annoying that can be at times – Jesse is always making jokes, never taking things seriously, and while that’s fine with someone you’re having a youthful fling with, it can be annoying when you have to live with it every day. Hawke also taps into a little bit of the darkness that’s always been in Jesse – at times when he and Celine are arguing, it stings. In short, in Before Midnight, Hawke goes deeper than he has in the other two films, and makes Jesse into a real person, not just some sort of romantic ideal. It is among the best work of Hawke’s career.
7. Tye Sheridan in MudTye Sheridan is a young actor, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a great one. I saw him in two films this year – he’s nearly as good in David Gordon Green’s Joe (which will hopefully come out next year) as he is in this film. He plays a boy who is just on the cusp of being a teenager – someone who likes girls, but cannot really talk to them, who wants to be a grown up, but is still believes in some childish things. Sheridan perfectly captures this confused time, as well as his infatuation with the title character, who to him represents how the world should be – even if he doesn’t really know what that means yet. Sheridan’s performance in Mud would be great for an actor of any age – for one of his age, it’s remarkable.
6. Robert Redford in All is LostRobert Redford’s performance in All is Lost is the type of performance that only a movie star of his caliber could give. It is an entirely physical performance as he struggles to keep his yacht afloat long enough to make it to a shipping lane and survive. We really hear Redford’s voice only once – in the opening scene as he reads aloud a letter he writes that only gives the vaguest of hints as to who the man is and what he does. Other than that, it’s all Redford fighting to stay alive in the face of certain death. If we didn’t already have a connection with Redford – from decades of other movies – I do not think the performance would work at all. It’s strange, because All is Lost is an anti-movie star performance that only a movie star could give. Redford, who has admittedly coasted far too often on his undeniable charm and movie star good looks, pushes himself farther than ever before in All is Lost – and gives perhaps the greatest performance of his long career.
5. Chiwetal Ejiofor, 12 Years a SlaveWhat Chiwetel Ejiofor does in 12 Years a Slave is quietly remarkable. His Solomon Northup is a man of quiet dignity, who has to keep his down and simply survive for years on end in hopes that eventually he can gain his freedom. I know to some, his performance seemed passive – but it never did to me. Solomon is always alert, always thinking, always plotting. But as he says he has to remain “hardened” until he can gain his freedom. It is a quietly remarkable performance in its subtlety. When his big moments do come – and they do come like when he is forced to whip Patesy, or when he is finally reunited with his family – he is excellent. But it is in his quietest moments of repose that I admired the performance the most. Ejiofor has always been a great actor – Stephen Frears Dirty Pretty Things should have made him a bigger star a decade ago – and he’s finally getting the credit he has richly deserved for so long now.
4. Bruce Dern in NebraskaBruce Dern is one of those actors who has been frequently great over the years, but rarely gets the kind of roles that win awards. In many ways, that’s because Dern has always seemed just a little bit unhinged and dangerous. After numerous other bigger name veterans (Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman) passed on Nebraska, Dern was given the opportunity to play Woody Grant – and now it’s impossible to see anyone else in the role. His Woody is a stubborn, drunken perhaps senile old man – he wants what he wants, and no one is going to stop him. He has always been distant from his family – one son has given up on him, although Forte’s David hasn’t completely. Throughout the movie, Woody goes from being a standard issue old coot, into a sympathetic, recognizably human character – a man who has had a hard life, but he isn’t going to complain about it. It’s also one of the funniest performances of the year (“That’s not my air compressor”), which Dern also nails. I know sometimes the Academy gets criticized for giving awards to old people to make up for past slights – well in Dern’s case he deserves it for the performance in Nebraska alone. It may well be the best work of his career.
3. Joaquin Phoenix in HerJoaquin Phoenix topped himself last year with his terrific performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. This year, he delivered an almost equally brilliant performance in Spike Jonze’s Her – and what makes it even more impressive is that his Theodore here is completely different from last year’s Freddie. Theodore is a quiet, introverted man – he believes, or at least wants to believe, in love but he struggles to form actual human connections with people. Then he meets Samantha, and everything changes – it doesn’t matter to him that she is an operating system, he has finally found someone who understands him. Joaquin Phoenix spends almost as much time acting against no one as Sandra Bullock in Gravity or Robert Redford in All is Lost this year – the difference is that Phoenix has to make you believe that he is actually interacting with someone else – just a voice on the phone. It is a difficult performance, but once again Phoenix dives in headlong into the performance, and comes up with a winning, funny, sweet, touching and somewhat, oddly creepy performance. Without Phoenix’s wonderful work, I don’t think Spike Jonze’s film works at all. Because it does, the film works brilliantly.
2. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall StreetI think Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street is – strangely – like those by Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips and Robert Redford in All is Lost. What I mean by that is that all three are anti-movie star performances that only a major movie star could deliver. DiCaprio’s performance may be even more brave than either of those two however, as he has to the courage play a truly despicable character. Would audiences follow anyone other than a charming, likable actor like DiCaprio this far into depravity? Not likely. DiCaprio is one of the best actors currently working because he doesn’t seem all that interested in protecting some sort of good guy image – he uses his star power to get interesting, complex movies made – which is the case with this movie. The performance itself is brilliant – a full out, balls to the wall fit of depravity for nearly three hours. It further solidifies him as one of the best, most daring movie stars around.
1. Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn DavisThe Coen Brothers apparently auditioned every actor/singer and singer/actor they could find before finally settling on Oscar Isaac to play the title character in their 1960s folk music film. I’m not sure what made them pick Isaac, but they could not have done a better job. Isaac is brilliant when Llewyn appears on stage, or when he’s singing at any point – his voice perfectly suited to the folk music he sings, and his performances are full of emotional. When he’s offstage, Isaac is equally brilliant – he makes Llewyn into a prickly personality – selfish, egotistical, more than a little bit of an asshole. His life is coming apart at the seams, and he’s not dealing with it all that well. It’s these two Llewyn’s – the onstage guy capable of such beautiful music – and the offstage guy who fucks everything up – that make up the performance by Isaac, who somehow manages to make Llewyn into a sympathetic character, even if I’m not 100% sure he deserves our sympathy. He is at least partially responsible for the mess he’s in – and he certainly doesn’t make it easy for himself – or for anyone else. That Isaac embodies these contractions, and turns Llewyn Davis into one of the most memorable in the entire Coen filmography is commendable. The fact that he’s able to do all of that, and still made me cry at the end of the movie, when he finally launches into Fare Thee Well – is what makes this the best performance of the year.