Top 15 Acting Performances of 2013

Last year, I made a similar list. Acting has become more and more the most fascinating part of movie-making, at least to me, so I am always on the lookout for great performances. Consider this a Spoiler Warning


15. Sam Rockwell – The Way Way Back

Every year, comedy continues to be one of those genres that isn’t necessarily considered when it comes to the end of the year award stuff. That said, The Way Way Back was one of the funnier, more heartfelt movies of the year. It was overly sentimental, but in a time when so many movies seem to rev up the grit, I was happy to see an over-correction. It’s MVP is clearly Sam Rockwell, a guy who consistently delivers in each of his performances. He channels his inner Bill Murray making a lovable theme park slacker and then adds an air of sadness. He’s a guy who throws a perpetual summer party, but running it in New England means eventually it has to end when the summer is over.

Her ScarJo

14. Scarlett Johansson – Her

There was a mini shit storm when the Hollywood Foreign Press (the people who run the Golden Globes) decided to disqualify Johansson’s portrayal of an artificial intelligence because it was just voice acting. That’s pretty lame HFP. Who cares if all she did was talk into a microphone in a sound booth? Voice acting is still acting, an often ignored and under-appreciated style of acting. More so than any of her other roles, she crafted a unique character with an interesting point of view and motivation. She made a disembodied voice feel like a flesh and blood character sitting in her scenes. How can that not be an accomplishment?

Matthew McConaughey

13. Matthew McConaughey – Mud

Welcome to the McConaissance! McConaughey has hopefully put the romantic comedies behind him for good proving to everyone that they weren’t wrong when they called him the next Paul Newman. Mud was a tiny movie in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t as controversial as Killer Joe or as compelling as Dallas Buyer’s Club. He plays the titular character playing spiritual mentor to a lost young kid. He always knows the right thing to say, even when he is hypocritical, and he never makes this relationship with the young kid under his wing feel creepy.

Blue is the Warmest Color

12. Léa Seydoux – Blue Is The Warmest Color

Blue is the Warmest Color is a coming of age tale but not Seydoux’s. She still plays such a lynchpin to it though. She is the control, the experiment that has no real journey to go on. She already made it to whatever level of emotional and sexual maturity she needed to reach by this time in her life. That might sound like something that would be easy to portray, but I disagree. It requires a certain level of subtlety for that kind of maturity, on top of which we need to believe that Adele falls for her beyond primal sexual urges. Seydoux owns a role that in any other movie would just be walking genitalia, a MacGuffin for the protagonist to desire, and makes her feel real.

Cate Blanchett Blue Jasmine

11. Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett’s Oscar win is well-deserved for such an interesting duality of character. She is essentially playing two characters. There is Jeanette, the given name of her character, who was once a lower class New Yorker before marrying a ponzi schemer and becoming Jasmine, a wealthy debutante with all the cheesy affectations you would expect. When the rich lifestyle is stripped from her, she struggles with returning to Jeanette. She essentially has a self-fulfilling multiple personality disorder slipping back and forth but not without a sympathetic anxiety attack here and there. It is a darkly funny look at loss when we construct our identity on what we have instead of who we are.


10. Tye Sheridan – Mud

Tye Sheridan was about 15 or 16 years old when he filmed Mud as the young boy who finds McConaughey hiding in the woods. Before that, he was turning heads in the Tree of Life as the son of Brad Pitt. At such a young age, you would never expect a child actor to carry such emotional maturity into a role. In a sad twist of fate, Sheridan is experiencing first love with an upperclass girl from his school just as his parents’ marriage starts to dissolve. You can already sense that his heart is broken before anyone can really disappoint him, but he sees aiding McConaughey’s lovestruck hobo as a grand gesture to piece his heart (and faith in love) back together.

12 Years a Slave

9. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Director Steve McQueen sets out to paint a picture of slavery that is like looking through a time machine into the real deal. One of his movie’s biggest strengths is Lupita Nyong’o. She plays one of the slaves on the plantation who looks like she has been through this before time and time again. When we first meet her, she is without identity, sitting on the set like a power tool. She is a slave through and through, but when she is punished for not being more, whether her gifts for good work are taken from her or she is objectified as a sex slave by her owner, she can’t hold on to the sense of being furniture. She melts into a personification of sadness.


8. Kaitlyn Dever – Short Term 12

Child actors are hit and miss. It is difficult to entrust them with emotionally weighty stuff. The deep and compelling performances are usually informed by maturity and experience. That is what makes Dever (and Sheridan earlier in the list) so impressive. As Jayden, the new girl at Short Term 12, a foster care facility, she creates a charmingly roguish young girl. She comes from a broken home and is hiding behind a hard shell of sarcastic wit. Her comedic timing is slick and helps keep her character likable even when she’s a major pain in the ass. Her wit also makes it all the more off-putting (in a good way) when the bomb she’s cooping up stops ticking and explodes in a fit of rage.

Matthew McConaughey

7. Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

If you needed any more proof that McConaughey is invested in his new career path as prestige character actor, look no further than the Dallas Buyers Club. He throws out his leading man rom-com muscles for the gaunt frame of the real life HIV sufferer, Ron Woodroof. Taking place in a time when HIV was simply a “gay disease,” McConaughey subverts his charm as a womanizing man’s man. Already painfully thin, once he gets the news of his disease, he starts to melt and deteriorate, not just as a living thing, but as a man. Or at least what he thinks a man should be. The irony is he builds himself back up as a better man, a symbol of the limitlessness of the human spirit and a reminder that these big kinds of problems are not just one social group’s isolated issues, but everyone’s.


6. Amy Seimetz – Upstream Color

Ever since the lo-sci time travel tale Primer made its release, I have been patiently waiting for Shane Carruth to make a second feature. This year, he finally did. It stars Amy Seimetz as the victim of a con artist who uses hypnosis to control his victims. She spends much of the first part of the movie in a trance, like a puppet who was aware that their strings were being pulled but couldn’t stop itself from moving. It was crushing. She spends the rest of the movie suffering from side effects. She has some control, but every once in awhile, it is as if she is sleep-walking or controlled by an invisible force. She walks an incredibly thin line between wanting to act and needing to act that it is easy to get lost in her own motivations. It is a definitively original performance unlike any thing else I have seen.

Blue is the Warmest Color

5. Adèle Exarchopoulos -Blue Is The Warmest Color

Adele (both the name of the actor and the character) is a young French girl when she falls for a blue-haired artist, Emma (played by Lea Seydoux counted earlier in the list). Adele is under going a sexual awakening, coming to terms with her attraction to lovers of the same sex while navigating the confusing worlds of first love and first sexual experiences, too often confused for the same thing. Adele is not just the lead character of the movie, she is the movie, more so than any other actor this year fully embodied their film. The camera confidently zooms in on Adele’s face leaving her no place to hide when experiencing the extreme highs and lows of her romantic experiences. This puts a lot of trust in the actress who luckily needs no subtitles (I’m exaggerating, you should certainly use subtitles if you don’t speak French) to explain the dense and complicated feelings she is processing.

Hugh Jackman

4. Hugh Jackman – Prisoners

You are currently visiting a site called House of Geekery so I totally expect you to know who Hugh Jackman is. He’s the guy who has been playing Wolverine in 7 X-Men movies (for those keeping score at home, that’s all of them). Well, the traits that have made Jackman a great Wolverine (untapped anger and a quiet thoughtfulness) are cranked to eleven in this dark family thriller. He grits his teeth and forces himself to feel every emotion and every impulse. His blood boils. His eyes well. He is a complete mess of emotions, which is dangerous area to play in, because you could easily end up melodramatic, but Jackman has the perfect cocktail of sadness and anger. That cocktail hijacks the steady and sorrowful tone of the movie and makes it more erratic and electrified.


3. Brie Larson – Short Term 12

I love Brie Larson. She is cute as a button and charming as….something really charming. She is clearly destined for greatness in terms of acting, and I think the Academy made a big mistake this year overlooking her performance in Short Term 12. The mirroring between Larson and her co-star, Dever, is obvious. They both have bad histories, and they are trying to hide behind their inherent charm. Dever is a reminder to Larson’s deep-seated trauma. It slowly eats away at her tough exterior revealing an honest portrayal of guilt, shame, and fear, characterized by its subtlety and downplayed emotions rather than an emotional outpouring. Even though playing with emotions can be just as useful, it is impressive how well you can tell a story with some simple steadfastness.

Dallas Buyers Club

2. Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

After a long hiatus as a rock star, Jared Leto returns to acting with a vengeance in the role of Rayon, a transgendered HIV victim, who teams up with McConaughey’s unruly Woodroff to sell unapproved medication to their fellow HIV sufferers. His casting has gained some controversy from the LGBT circles who see a missed opportunity for an actual transgendered actress. Maybe they have a point, but it doesn’t diminish the great work that Leto put in. Undergoing a similar transformation as McConaughey, Leto seems to disappear more into his role as the wise-cracking trans-woman so confident in the person she wants to be, her only identity crisis comes when she looks in the mirror, Leto’s most compelling moment in the movie.

12 Years a Slave

1. Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave

I feel like I have mentioned this many times before, but Steve McQueen puts his main characters through metaphorical Hell testing the physical, emotional, and psychological limits of both his characters and his actors. He essentially makes more dramatic and compelling body horror movies, and he does this by choosing lead actors willing to go the distance. Instead of his usual collaborator, Michael Fassbender, he has cast Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor is definitely up to the task. He represents the true dehumanizing effect of human bondage. His once thriving joyful personality has retreated leaving a history of pain and suffering written across his face.