2013 in Review: The Best Performances of the Year

August: Osage County
2013 has been a good year for movies, but it’s been an even greater year for performances. Actor after actor offered some of the best work of his or her filmographies. Several A-listers and top stars arguably gave the finest work of their careers this year: Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey and others listed below deserve every accolade they get.

I still haven’t seen The Wolf of Wall Street, unfortunately, so I apologize to Mr. DiCaprio for leaving him off the list. (But I’ll hold on the Top Ten Films of 2013 until I see the big bad Wolf.) Other shout-outs go to some of the performers in festival favourites that are being released in 2014 and will likely end up listed once more of you have had a chance to enjoy their films. Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her, Colin Firth in The Railway Man, Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, and Kristen Wiig in Hateship, Friendship are some of the goodies that film buffs can look forward to seeing in 2014. In the meantime, though, let’s toast the best performances—lead and supporting—that we saw in 2013.

The Top Ten Lead Performances of 2013:

1. Meryl Streep in August: Osage County

August: Osage County reminds me why Meryl Streep is the best actress the cinema has ever seen. Violet Weston ranks among the best performances of Streep’s career: she’s up there with Sophie, Miranda Priestly, and Suzanne Vale. This performance is a loud behemoth. Meryl hits the words by Tracey Letts with exclamation point upon exclamation as her virulent Violet cuts her family members with razor sharp judgement. What’s most remarkable about this performance, though, is the effectiveness of the acting trait that truly sets Streep in a league above her peers: it’s her ability to convey shifts in a character’s consciousness. As Violet slips in and out of personas—marked by her wig or bald head—Streep realizes two very different mindsets for her character. One shows Violet playing mean because she likes to; the other shows a terrified and vulnerable woman. Streep’s multi-layered performance gives audiences a woman they can hate, but also one who is worthy of their sympathy as she goes head to head with her co-lead Julia Roberts. This outstanding performance in August: Osage County is the best treat cinema had to offer in 2013.

2. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

In any other year, Cate Blanchett’s performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine would have annihilated this list like a nuclear bomb. She’s a modern day Blanche Dubois as the financially ruined phony Jasmine French. Blanchett excels slipping in and out of Jasmine’s neuroses as her character goes on a bender of meanness worthy of the Weston family and is at her best while delivering Jasmine’s grandiose yammering. It’s no easy task to realize a character full of so many intertextual influences—Tennessee Williams, for one, plus real-life contemporaries that inspired Allen’s film—and offer something so tangible and not the least bit derivative. This is by no means just a performance of a fallen trophy wife with inflections of A Streetcar Named Desire. Cate Blanchett will win the Oscar this year and she deserves it.

3. Robert Redford in All is Lost

How many actors can carry a film with their eyes? Robert Redford speaks nary a word in All is Lost, save for one memorable expletive, but he says a boatload as his aged sailor struggles to stay alive at sea. Redford puts his legacy on the line in All is Lost and the result is a powerfully subtle performance that confirms him as a true maverick.

4. Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a commanding performance as Solomon Northup. He plays Solomon with quiet dignity as the character tries to endure after he is captured and sold into slavery. There isn’t a false note to this performance as Ejiofor shows Solomon undergo a gut-wrenching experience as he hovers between living and surviving, and ultimately finds a kind of kinship with his fellow slaves on the plantation he is so desperate to leave. His performance during the funeral hymn sung for one of the fallen slaves offers some of the most masterful use of the close-up you’ll see this year.

5. Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

Ahoy, sexy! There’s this scene towards the middle of Frances Ha in which Greta Gerwig delivers a captivating monologue at a dinner party. The more Frances awkwardly pours her heart out, the more it’s like watching somebody drown in a pool of her own word vomit. The more she talks, the more confusing she sounds, yet Gerwig performs a kind of inner monologue as Frances’s face contorts and twitches in some sparkling excitement that tells you everything makes perfect sense to Frances in her own way in this moment of kind-of sort-of clarity even if her words make her seem endearingly loony. Everyone has a Frances in his or her group of friends.

6. Kate Winslet in Labor Day

Labor Day could have easily misfired into the realm of the ridiculous or the farfetched, but the film is sold almost entirely on the strength of its performances. Kate Winslet offers a heartbreaking turn as Adele, a divorced suburban mother who has virtually forgotten how to love, who is brought to life by her affection for her son, Henry (a strong Gattlin Griffin), and by her cautious interest in a mysterious stranger named Frank (Josh Brolin—more on him below.) Winslet expresses how Adele has all but resigned from life and her restrained portrait of Adele’s suffocating melancholy allows Labor Day to achieve the effortless poignancy and catharsis of its unconventional yet wholly believable love story.

7. Judi Dench in Philomena

Judi Dench makes acting look easy with her effortlessly impeccable performance as Philomena Lee. Dench navigates Philomena’s delicate mix of humour and heartache playing the daft Philomena. Dench never plays her character for laughs, though, and finds the humour by contrasting Philomena’s faith in drug store novels and the Catholic Church against Steve Coogan’s stodgy stickler Martin Sixsmith. Philomena’s innocence and high spirits make the final turn of Dench’s performance especially devastating: anyone not moved when Philomena returns to Roscrea must be made of stone.

8. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are a marriage made in movie heaven as Jesse and Celine. It’s been a thrill to watch them mature in the Before trilogy and Before Midnight is the culmination of both their work. Hawke is calm and assured while Delpy is perfectly neurotic as their energy finds a kind of fusion. You can’t take one without the other, so Before Midnight is a tumultuous high for the trilogy as Hawke and Delpy find a synergy to their performance they haven’t hit before. It must be the perfect marriage of their talents after 18 years of sharing a story as they trade barbs in a kind of call-and-response dance number of George and Martha craziness.

9. Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer

How Andrea Riseborough isn’t a bigger star continually amazes me. Her work in James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer is the kind of jaw-dropper that deserves to catapult a younger talent into stardom. Her performance as Collette, an IRA member turned MI: 5 informant in 1990s Belgium realizes her character’s fear and desperation so ferociously that the viewer is always on Collette’s side no matter how deep into trouble the character gets. Her expressive, malleable face is a stealthy weapon, though, as the calculated Collette is always one move ahead, manipulating her onscreen counterparts and surprising us with every turn.

10. Cara Gee in Empire of Dirt

Cara Gee gives the best performance in any Canadian film this year. She’s fierce as Lena, the troubled middle in three generations of women that form the layered family drama of Empire of Dirt. Lena’s an angry and lost character, but Gee always finds a middle ground in the performance as Lena leads her daughter and mother to find a kind catharsis as the ghosts of the past come full circle. Gee’s final monologue is a powerful tour-de-force that exposes every layer of the character and strips Lena bare in an intimate confessional.

The Top Ten Supporting Performances of 2013:

1. James Gandolfini in Enough Said

James Gandolfini’s performance in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said reveals a side of his ability as an actor that he hadn’t shown before. Gandolfini certainly had a funny bone while playing Tony Soprano—remember that episode where he whacked the guy during the college tour with Meadow?—but he shows a droll skill for comedic timing as Albert charms his way into Eva’s heart in Enough Said. Gandolfini is like a big teddy bear as Fat Albert proves to be a sensitive and vulnerable when he’s caught in the middle of the film’s odd triangle.

2. Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine

Every Blanche needs a Stella, so Sally Hawkins is the perfect counterpart to Cate Blanchett’s showy lead in Blue Jasmine. Hawkins is heartbreaking as her Ginger gets taken advantage of by all the smooth operators in Allen’s film. She offers someone to root for, thus balancing Blanchett’s deliciously unlikable Jasmine. But Hawkins starts to mirror her onscreen sister after a while and shows what a destructive force Jasmine can be as she infects everyone around her. Like the onscreen pairs of Streep and Roberts or Hawke and Delpy, the teamwork of Blanchett and Hawkins lets one performance act as an extension of the other. This seems like what great acting is all about: creating a believable relationship with another actor and making the drama a satisfying game of give and get.

3. Oprah Winfrey in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Chalk this up as the most surprising performance of the year. Oprah Winfrey is dead sexy as the boozy matriarch of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Her smoldering screen presence uses her gargantuan star persona to great effect as she works her character Gloria with the mojo that’s become the Oprah hallmark. One wishes she acted more. (Or rocked out in disco suits more often, at least.)

4. Josh Brolin in Labor Day

Add Brolin and Winslet to the great onscreen pairs of 2013. The actors sell every frame of the suburban Stockholm syndrome romance of Labor Day, and Brolin’s natural performance as the man eager to feed Adele’s hunger makes this film the warmest and most affecting love story this year. Frank’s lust for life brings a stirring passion to Labor Day as Brolin reignites his character’s desire to become a family man again after escaping the same isolation from which he saves Adele.

5. Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle

Jennifer Lawrence continues to amaze me. She outdid herself in her second turn as Katniss in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and she one-upped her Oscar winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook with her second collaboration with David O. Russell, American Hustle. Lawrence steals the show from an ensemble of heavy players in her electrifying performance as the fast and flirty wife of Christian Bale’s combed-over con artist. The best thing about Lawrence’s work is that she always seems to be having fun while entertaining her audience.

6. Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave

Third time’s a charm for Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen. The Shame and Hunger star scores another bravura performance with his chilling incarnation of evil as slave driver Edwin Epps. Mixing a perverse cocktail of desire and self-loathing, Fassbender shows Epps to be a brutal spawn of a cruel system. To watch Fassbender take his character through flickers of both pain and pleasure as Epps flail whips Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey during the film’s climactic whipping scene is to witness an unnerving incarnation of a sadistic system.

7. Margo Martindale in August: Osage County

August: Osage County could have filled the list of top supporting performances in its entirety, but the stand-out of the film’s ensemble, Margo Martindale, wins the title of “best in show” among the support actors of the film. She’s a hoot (as always) as Meryl Streep’s onscreen sister, Mattie Fae, dropping candid invitations to feel her sweaty back or trading quips with her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper) as she pours a stiff glass of booze. Mattie seems to offer the lone ally to lighten the mood for the audience until she reveals her own set of mean genes with full force. However, Martindale shows Mattie Fae’s humour as a kind of defense mechanism that she used to survive her sister’s wickedness.

8. Marie Brassard in Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

It’s hard to say much about Marie Brassard’s playfully mesmerizing performance in Vic + Flo Saw a Bear without revealing too much about the film. She gives a beguiling enigmatic turn as the mysterious character that stumbles in to Vic and Flo’s quiet country getaway and then bares her teeth in a delightfully sinister reversal of character. Like Tom Hollander’s effeminate whistling muscle man in Joe Wright’s Hanna, Marie Brassard’s Jackie is the best kind of baddie, for we never quite know who she is or what she is capable of doing.

9. Julianne Moore in What Maisie Knew

What happened to What Maisie Knew? Maisie, a highlight at TIFF 2012, was virtually dumped by distributors for no good reason. It’s a shame, since Julianne Moore offers one of her better performances as Maisie’s messed-up mommy, Susanna. Susanna is the novel’s most ingenious infidelity to the novel by Henry James, as Moore’s sympathetic performance as the troubled mother radically shifts the dynamics of the family drama. She’s a one-dimensional monster in the book; however, Moore’s Susanna is ultimately a touching portrait of a woman who loves her daughter desperately, yet simply has no idea how to be mother.

10. Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12

Hat’s off to Keith Stanfield for his captivating turn as Markus in Short Term 12. His performance of “So You Know What It’s Like” is a bravura rap number that brings the film to another level during its first act. Stanfield’s performance of the song is a spot-on realization for expression the unsayable as Markus becomes more agitated and involved as the song reaches its angry crescendo.

Special Citation – Best Supporting Cat-tor:

Cats have a notorious reputation for being un-directable actors. They’re not like dogs, which can bark and roll over while a trainer dangles hot dogs behind the camera. Ulysses therefore takes cat acting to its finest as the cat of Inside Llewyn Davis offers an infectiously humorous side kick to Oscar Isaac’s wayfaring folk singer. This cat has a true personality, whether he’s lapping up milk or looking through the glass of the subway window with a curious gaze. There’s a kind of soul-searching to this cat for which the Coen Brothers can take credit.

Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order): Veerle Baetens in The Broken Circle Breakdown, Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Rosemarie DeWitt in Touchy Feely, Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color, Gheorghiu in Child’s Pose, Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, Brie Larson in Short Term 12, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, Fabrice Luchini in In the House, Rooney Mara in Side Effects, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, Sarah Paulson in 12 Years a Slave, Jennifer Podemski, Empire of Dirt, Julia Roberts in August: Osage County, Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives, Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks.

What are your favourite performances of 2013?

Also in the Year in Review:

Up next: The Best Films of 2013!