12. Joaquin Phoenix, in 'Her'
Joaquin Phoenix had to play a man so lonely and emotionally available that he’d fall in love with a computer operating system, and he was up to the challenge. The confusion, delight, heartache and difficult personal growth that springs from every relationship are captured sweetly and thoughtfully on his sympathetic face, and he did it all acting opposite a disembodied voice (played by a similarly wonderful Scarlett Johansson).
11. Tom Hanks, in 'Captain Phillips'
Tom Hanks turns in a characteristically capable performance in Captain Phillips as a man kidnapped by pirates, but only at the end, when the Post-Traumatic Stress kicks in, do we see in clear, damaging detail every single compartmentalized emotion come hurling forth at once, recontextualizing Hanks’s every subtle on-camera decision and marking a high point in the fine actor’s already impressive career.
10. Sandra Bullock, in 'Gravity'
Embodying the everyperson through a distinct character is a triumphant feat for any actor, but Sandra Bullock did it in Gravity wearing a cumbersome space suit that limited her movement and covered everything but her face, and she did it on wires entirely in front of a green screen. The harrowing journey that was Gravity would have been nothing if Sandra Bullock hadn’t turned in her very best performance. Fortunately, she was up to the challenge.
9. Berenice Bejo, in 'The Past'
A foul temper is a tough trait to humanize, but The Past’s Berenice Bejo pulls off the mighty feat, revealing a woman with a monumental flaw but also all the positive emotional qualities that leads her to indulge in her anger. She’s the highlight of a rich cast, and without the perfect sale of her imperfect heroine, the whole house of cards would have collapsed.
8. Miles Teller, in 'The Spectacular Now'
Miles Teller has the wisdom to portray immaturity without judgment or excuses. In The Spectacular Now he plays Sutter, a teenager with an alcohol problem, whose desperate need to live in the moment, and for others, results in a pathological and selfish niceness that makes everyone feel better about themselves… except for Sutter.
7. Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy, in 'Before Midnight'
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have been playing the loquacious lovers Jesse and Celine for 20 years, so by now they make it look easy, but the level of familiarity, comfort and subtle detail with which they convey that shared history made the stars of Before Midnight feel like the most real romantic partners we’ve ever seen on camera. Dear god, what a glorious fight they have, from the little seeds planted at the beginning of the film to the mighty oak of pent up frustration that springs forth at the end.
6. The Entire Cast of 'August: Osage County'
August: Osage County is just an okay movie, but the every member of the sweeping, all-star ensemble cast turns in one of their best performances thanks in large to the juicy dialogue and soap operatic backstories provided by screenwriter Tracy Letts. Meryl Streep is superbly cruel as the drug-addled matriarch, Benedict Cumberbatch excels at conveying absolute weakness, and the list goes on, but extra credit goes to Julia Roberts for a career-best turn as a woman consumed by uncontrollable, indelibly connected sympathy and spite.
5. Leonardo DiCaprio, in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
The funniest performance of the year, a cavalcade of bravado and acrobatic limbs and superb comic timing, Leonardo DiCaprio gives perhaps his best of many exceptional performances in The Wolf of Wall Street. The scene where he fights a protracted, losing battle against a tiny flight of stairs is destined for his lifetime achievement highlight reel, and one of the most unforgettble things anyone saw on screen in 2013.
4. Oscar Isaac, in 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
Many Coen Bros. movies have heroes beset on all sides by the cruel machinations of fate and their own individual frailties, but none have ever strived so hard to maintain their dignity throughout the process as Llewyn Davis. Oscar Isaac sings his heart out, tries to be a good person, fails miserably, and ultimately encapsulates the heart of the talented also-ran we all fear we will become.
3. James Franco, in 'Spring Breakers'
James Franco creates the most instantly iconic character of 2013 in Alien, a metallic grilled, corn-rowed, polyamorous, drug dealing lothario with the growl of a sick puppy, the sex appeal of a strip club emcee and the confidence of God. Alien is the kind of persona that’s so distinct and memorable it feels like he’s existed forever. In Spring Breakers, James Franco and director Harmony Korine simply made the formal introduction.
2. Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopolous, in 'Blue is the Warmest Color'
Adele Exarchopolous captures the essence of youth and exploration in Blue is the Warmest Color, and Lea Seydoux captures the essence of a slightly older young woman falling for someone less mature than she is. Victims of universal human flaws, pure understanding and relatable lust, their powerhouse performances culminate in a penultimate scene that captures every complex, passionate, confused emotion an actor could conceivably be capable of. It’s one of the best acted scenes ever filmed, from two of the best actors of the year.
1. Cate Blanchett, in 'Blue Jasmine'
Cate Blanchett gives one of the better performances I have ever seen in Blue Jasmine, a realistic portrayal of a woman detaching from reality, desperately trying to cling to the ego that defined her identity and anxiously fighting the grim fact that her bourgeois former lifestyle may be gone forever. Her eye-line shifts to infinitesimal degrees to signify the shift between actual presence and a sudden trip to a fantasy realm of happiness and simultaneous persecution. Wow. A masterpiece of craft and sensitivity, monstrousness and absolute victimization.