It’s time once again to consider the on-screen talent, those men and women who inhabit creations of writers and directors so effectively as to transport us into their world. Once again, I’ve made no distinction between men and women, or between lead and supporting roles (although I have picked out ten notable performances from younger actors), these are just the 25 performances I felt did most to enhance the films in which they appeared.
The one notable separation does come down the line of the sexes: in the past two years, men have made more appearances than women, winning 15-10 in 2011 and 17-8 last year. This was offset by the top performance being female in both cases. Sadly this year, the boys make it a hat-trick of wins with a 15-10 win, and as you’ll see once you’ve got to the bottom, they’ve taken three of the top five spots as well, including the number one. Here’s hoping that, next year, there are enough decent female roles to give the fairer sex a chance of winning this list for once.
25. Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion
We’ll start with the only person to appear on all three of my best performance lists, one of this country’s finest actresses who dipped her first toe into the blockbuster pool this year. Not surprising, given that Tom Cruise has shown a consistent career pattern for matching himself up with high calibre opposition in the acting stakes, and Riseborough acquits herself beautifully as the wife who turns out to be more than meets the eye; she’s the standout in a cast of fine actors delivering so-so performances.
24. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Whatever you think of the politics, and to my mind the most generous view is that ZDT fudges the issue somewhat, the solid iron core of Kathryn Bigelow’s latest is Jessica Chastain’s hypnotic performance. Determination shines through, but there’s never an opportunity to descend into histrionics; instead, Chastain has a controlled urgency and steel that will carry the film through. Would have been interesting to see how this panned out had Bin Laden not been killed during the film’s development, thus creating an entirely different ending.
23. Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back
You want easygoing charisma, but with someone who can deliver heart as well? Sam Rockwell’s your man, baby. With Steve Carell playing against type and most of the rest of the cast delivering solid work, the standouts are the park workers who take Liam James’ Duncan to their hearts. While both Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the film’s creators, deliver noteworthy performances in support it’s Rockwell who’s the main man, in every sense.
22. Simon Pegg, The World’s End
One of the most notable facts of the Cornetto trilogy is how much the actors appearing in multiple films have been able to vary their characters between films. The reluctant heroism of Shaun Riley and the relentless orderliness of Nicholas Angel have here been replaced by a Simon Pegg that’s scruffy, unkempt, fairly loathsome and somewhere past redeemable, but Pegg still manages to find enough greasy charm to keep him at the heart of this apocalypse in waiting, and by the end you’re rooting for him despite yourself.
21. Will Forte, Nebraska
It’s the two older members of the family, Bruce Dern and June Spirgg, that are so far getting all of the awards attention, but you only need to go back and watch MacGruber – Will Forte’s ill-advised Saturday Night Live sketch upgraded to the big screen – to realise what a stretch David Grant could have been. Instead, Forte imbues his devoted sun with a world-weariness but a commitment to his family and gives Dern and Sprigg the chance to walk away with the bigger moments. Hopefully this won’t be a one off for Forte now he’s proven he can do it.
20. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Enough Said
While James Gandolfini has been taken from us too soon, and his performance here is a fitting close to a great career, the biggest achievement of Enough Said is to get me to like Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I don’t know what it’s been about her performances in the likes of Seinfeld (and admittedly I haven’t seen Veep), but here she’s charming and affable, despite her character’s more misguided choices at various junctures. Might be time for me to revisit some of her earlier work.
19. Robert Redford, All Is Lost
When you’ve got one actor in your film with just a handful of lines, you’d better make sure he’s worth looking at. You’d probably struggle to do better than J.C. Chandor did in getting Robert Redford on board, strong enough to be able to build his performance from tiny gestures and small actions. Oh, and getting to bellow the f-word once near the end. But I could stare into the weathered crags of Redford’s face all day.
18. Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Once again, stealing away the true honours from underneath Chris Hemsworth’s necessarily more showy performance as James Hunt, Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda is the – if you’ll pardon the pun – driving force of Ron Howard’s typically emotional but surprisingly effective look at when Formula One was a bit more interesting. It’s to Bruhl’s credit that your sympathies don’t all sit with Hunt, and he manages to retain his bristly edges while having the more interesting relationship. (And was it just me, or did you not recognise Olivia Wilde as Hemsworth’s wife?)
17. Matthew McConaughey, Mud
2014 looks like being another peak in the Matthew McConaughey Career Renaissance™, from Dallas Buyers Club to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But the last few years haven’t been so bad either, and McConaughey follows up last year’s deliciously evil turn in Killer Joe with this more amenable, but still layered, turn in Jeff Nichols Twain-like exploration of the characters around the Mississippi river. He’s backed up by a great cast, with everyone from Michael Shannon to Reese Witherspoon turning in decent work and the young actors (saluted in that top 10) both excellent. Yet McConaughey still manages to steal the show.
16. Ben Kingsley, Iron Man Three
On the off-chance you’ve not yet seen Iron Man Three or been spoiled by reading the internet, I won’t blow the game here, but Ben Kingsley’s performance was one of the most unexpected delights of a mixed summer of blockbusters. While everyone was keen to see the pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Shane Black reunited, and it didn’t disappoint, it was Sir Ben who helped elevate this to the position of the best movie yet to come out of the Avengers franchises.
15. Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Given the heightened sense of reality that exists in this, as much as any of Tarantino’s epics over the years, it’s no surprise that the actors really get to go to town. In a wider field than five, it would have been easily conceivable to see the names of both Leo and Samuel L. Jackson nominated alongside eventual Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. All three performances are remarkable, but for me it’s DiCaprio, continuing his run of films I actually like him in (stretching back to 2010’s Shutter Island), his was the most memorable role for my money.
14. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
While I didn’t completely fall for the charms of Frances Ha, with neither enough knowledge of the French New Wave or the subsequent films which inspired this, Frances herself still had an undeniable charm, even among the anarchy of her disintegrating life. Gerwig has graduated from the mumblecore but still retains an element of fragility, but this is a Frances who would like to put her life back on track – if only she could work out which track.
13. Kristin Scott Thomas, Only God Forgives
Thanks to the vagaries of distribution, I probably see more French films in a year than I do British films. That said, I probably see more French films with Kristin Scott Thomas in a year than I do British films. While both she and the films are normally well worth watching, it’s been great to see Kristin out of her comfort zone this year, and sinking her teeth into the role with such relish. Her memorable shrew dominates the film, and while Ryan Gosling elevates brooding to an art form, it’s Scott Thomas that most will remember of the English speaking actors when the credits roll.
12. Jude Law, Side Effects
It’s been a year when people have been willing to set aside their preconceptions, most famously when Mark Kermode admitted Gravity should be seen in 3D. I will hold my hands up and say that I would have put money on going my entire life without seeing Jude Law in one of these lists. Thankfully putting the dodgy Australian accent of Contagion behind him, his latest collaboration with Steven Soderbergh sees him filling out the kind of role that Cary Grant or James Stewart would have taken six decades ago. Law is magnetic as he seeks to claw back his life, and Rooney Mara’s also worth a mention.
11. Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Welcome to the blog of seemingly the only person in the universe who didn’t enjoy Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine. There are plenty of performances of note in the film, from Andrew Dice Clay to Bobby Cannavale, but in the midst of them Blanchett felt too earnest, too actorly for me (and I know many would say I’m missing the point, that that’s what she was supposed to be, but it didn’t engage with me). The one performance which really did is Sally Hawkins’ more naturalistic turn as Jasmine’s sister Ginger. I was surprised to discover Hawkins is two years younger than me, but I mean that as a compliment.
10. Brie Larson, Short Term 12
More top quality performances than you can shake a stick at in Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, although I do wish Cretton hadn’t quite wrapped everything up with such neat bows at the end. That doesn’t detract from any of the performances, but Larson takes her opportunity to showcase her talents. While I appreciate what he was going for in Don Jon with the silent sister, when you see what Larson’s capable of here it’s a crying shame that she didn’t get more to do there.
9. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
We may never truly know the extent of the challenge Sandra Bullock faced here, but with the acting constrained to hitherto unseen levels by the technical demands of making the space environment realistic, it’s to the testament of Bullock that she still manages to deliver a gripping performance within the confines of Alfonso Cuaron’s technological bubble. She’s well complemented by George Clooney, but Bullock proves that her The Blind Side Oscar was no fluke. (We’ll overlook The Heat and the possible proof that her Razzie was no fluke either.)
8. Hugh Jackman, Prisoners
His most memorable turn might have been as Jean Valjean in award-bothering warblefest Les Misérables, but Jackman managed to channel the same amount of raw power into the unlikely named Keller Dover. Denis Villeneuve put together a cast of wall to wall quality and most of the adults – including Jake Gyllenhall, Maria Bello, Terence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo – deserve a mention, but Jackman takes the honours. Special mention also for looking the most buffed of anyone ever in The Wolverine, in what’s been a good year for Jackman.
7. Michael Douglas, Behind The Candelabra
I’m old enough to just about remember Liberace appearing on our TV screens, and also just about old enough to witness my elderly relatives being utterly charmed by him. Michael Douglas captures perfectly the effervescence of Liberace’s public persona, but also carries off a compelling portrayal of the man out of the limelight. Matt Damon and Rob Lowe give variously solid and entertaining support, but this is Douglas’ show.
6. John Hawkes, The Sessions
When portraying a disabled real-life figure, the actor often has to go to extreme lengths to capture that, and John Hawkes risked permanent disfigurement in his attempts to portray poet and journalist Mark O’Brien. If that wasn’t enough, all O’Brien’s looking for is to see if his atrophied body is capable of having sex. Hawkes succeeds in making O’Brien sympathetic, his humanity shining through despite Hawkes’ performance being so limited by the restrictions of the physical disability he was portraying. In another year, this would have won a hatful of awards.
5. Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
She’s on screen for barely ten minutes, but her performance dominates the film, almost unbalancing the first half, and wipes away any doubts that anyone might have had about Hathaway being a proper actress. In all the debates about whether or not Russell Crowe could sing (he can, he just doesn’t have the stage vibrato of the likes of Jackman), the one performance that took all the credit was Hathaway’s. We should all be thankful that the definitive I Dreamed A Dream is no longer Susan Boyle’s.
4. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
In the terms of the old footballing cliché, it’s a performance of two halves, Saint. The majority of Hanks’ performance is the defiant captain, attempting to keep his crew calm and to react as best he can to the invasion of Somali pirates. It’s all decent enough, but Hanks can do this stuff in his sleep. It’s the last fifteen minutes where Hanks truly reminds us why he’s already the holder of two Academy Awards, with a performance that quite literally took my breath away. It’s also testament to Paul Greengrass’ continuing ability to match big spectacle with quality performances, but it wouldn’t have worked without Hanks in the title role.
3. James McAvoy, Filth
Ever since he came to prominence on TV’s Shameless, James McAvoy has been looking for a showcase for his vast talents, and in Filth he may just have found it. Let loose to be as abhorrent as possible, McAvoy is a magnetic screen presence, always looking to up the shock factor and as comfortable with the black humour as the even bleaker drama. Also memorable in the slightly disappointing Trance, hopefully McAvoy will get a chance to add more layers to his young Charles Xavier this year in Days Of Future Past.
2. Adele Exarchopolous, Blue Is The Warmest Colour
You have to feel slightly sorry for Lea Seydoux, giving an astonishing performance but still managing to be slightly overshadowed by Adele Exarchopolous’s incredible portrayal of the twists and turns of young love. To be stripped bare physically is one thing, but the naked emotion that Adele shows in her relationship with Emma is the all-consuming heart of the film. I still maintain the same points could have been said in less than three hours, but if Exarchopoulos doesn’t get some recognition for this come awards season, then something is seriously wrong.
1. Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
So, for the first time my performance of the year is won by a man, but there is a suspicion of cheating here. It’s difficult to believe that Steven Spielberg didn’t hop in a souped-up Delorean and head back to the 1860s, bringing back with him possibly the most revered American president with him. That Daniel Day Lewis is a great actor would never have been in question, but that Spielberg pursued him for almost a decade shows just how essential his performance is to the success of Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic.
It doesn’t feel enough to even say that Daniel Day Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln; Lewis inhabits every fibre and pore of Lincoln, and his usual meticulous preparation and method (no-one was allowed to talk to him in their natural accent on set, all having to effect their character when talking to him), but it results in a performance that was without equal over the course of the year. From acting in 20 films, he’s had five Academy Award nominations and three wins and he must surely qualify as the finest actor of his generation. Daniel Day Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln IS my top performance of 2013.