blanchettCate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

I went into Blue Jasmine with high expectations. Let’s face it: Cate Blanchett. In a Woody Allen film. Playing a modern day Blanche Dubois. Not to mention the high praise that the ticket man at my local theatre – an old guy named Ernie – gave before I walked into the screening (“By far the best performance she’s ever given!”). Thankfully, all this build-up didn’t result in a major letdown. No amount of praise for Blanchett’s performance here is an exaggeration. As Jasmine French, we see a side of Blanchett that has up to this point never been fully culled, yet the performance is, as ever, stellar.

Whether or not you enjoyed Allen’s film as a whole, the consensus this year is that Cate Blanchett has delivered one of if not THE best performance of her career, as a New York high society wife fallen from her life of excess thanks to the unsavory dealings of her investor husband (Alec Baldwin). Jasmine – formerly suffering under the dull name of Jeanette – has in every way invented her lush, pretentious life. She is an out-of-touch, broken woman whose fragility and talent for lying continually recalls Blanche Dubois of A Streetcar Named Desire. Playing one of Allen’s least likeable characters, Blanchett lends the role a poignant agony. Compared to her fellow actors in the film, whose roles are basically comedic at heart, it frequently seems like Blanchett is in a wholly separate, much more melancholy film. It may be cliché to proclaim that Blanchett carries the film, but she truly exists on another plane. – Katherine Springer

peggSimon Pegg in The World’s End

Though Judd Apatow has received the lion’s share of the blame and praise for the proliferation of man-children in recent cinematic comedies, Edgar Wright has to shoulder his portion of the burden. Throughout Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy”, his star and co-writer Simon Pegg has played characters who haven’t quite managed to become fully functioning adults. In the trilogy’s concluding entry The World’s End, Pegg brings that same essential character to its logical and tragic extreme.

As Gary “The” King, Pegg is again a man who never grew up, mentally trapped in a world long gone. To him, the quest to complete an epic pub crawl through his boyhood village with his oldest friends is nothing less than the culmination of everything good in his life…as well as a distraction from the waste that the rest of it has been. Pegg perfectly lands a balancing act between the irritating man that King has become and the damaged soul that he tries to hide. While The World’s End begins as a comedy, the gradual stripping away of King’s bravado reveals the damage done to a boy who never managed to leave home. Pegg has played men who don’t know what to do with their lives before, but never in such a raw manner. He forces you to consider him somewhere between pitiable and disgusting, but his performance is never less than absolutely human. – Nathan Kamal

slaveChiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

In 12 Years a Slave, we watch Chiwetel Ejiofor’s enslaved free man, Soloman Northup, endure endless torture. It’s tempting, though certainly not right, to see his anguish as worse than that of most other slaves. Northup, who actually existed and was able to publish a book, on which the film is based, about his life after being freed, had a horrifically out-of-reach idea of the freedom he was being denied, but that didn’t make the violence, verbal vitriol and back-breaking labor he endured more difficult for him than for any other slave. Northup’s past as a free man does, however, make his story more relatable to an audience member in 2013, simply because 99.9% of that audience will never have experienced pure, legal slavery the way it recently existed in America. And being relatable is essential to this movie’s terrible power. Without it, we’d be able to shrug it off as another exercise in cinematic verisimilitude, the product of talented craftsmen trying to teach us a lesson that we can ignore because we’ve seen it all before (or at least we’ve heard the lectures). But because we relate to Northup’s sense of freedom as a basic right, the movie is horrifying, and therefore successful. And Ejiofor is the essence of that relatability. He’s skilled enough to convey a range of anguishes in an unbroken close-up with only his face, and if that were all he were required to do, I think his performance as Northup would still have been great. But Ejiofor also lets Northup speak eloquently, and lose his temper with other slaves, and grovel for his life, and equivocate and lie, and slowly lose his sense of himself as a person. It’s an uncomfortably close and pained performance and the most affecting one in recent memory. – Alex Peterson

phillipsTom Hanks in Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks walked off with an Oscar for his portrayal of AIDS patient Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia, though likely it was not so much for his sensitive performance as for a scene where he breaks down crying to Maria Callas singing “La Momma Morta.” Hanks isn’t a stranger to emotional roles. Just think about his tearful farewell to Jenny in Forrest Gump, his screaming at a volleyball in Cast Away or his schmaltzy little “earn this” moment in Saving Private Ryan. But with this year’s Captain Phillips, Hanks did some genuine earning, turning in his most organically emotional scene in a multi-decade acting career.

After doing some brave work in multiple roles in last year’s Cloud Atlas, Hanks continued to push himself in the title role of the Paul Greengrass-helmed Phillips, as the true-to-life sea captain whose ship was hijacked by Somali pirates. Hanks is all hard edges as the no-bullshit captain who is eventually taken hostage on a cramped escape vessel in an excruciating final sequence that ends with a stand-off between the hijackers and Navy SEALs. It’s after the action that Hanks gets his chance to shine. In the film’s final moments, Hanks elevates a very good performance into one of his best ever as the shocked captain breaks down in tears during a physical exam after his rescue. It’s one of those moments that transcends acting, where Tom Hanks stops being “Tom Hanks” and becomes a man beaten down by terror and broken by stress. It’s a powerful thing and easily one of the best performances of 2013. – David Harris

martin-bonnerPaul Eenhoorn in This Is Martin Bonner

This year’s Best Actor contender’s slate is filled with Big Performances, with all their virtues and drawbacks, but for me the most magnetic work of the year was Paul Eenhoorn’s blissfully understated work in the title role of This Is Martin Bonner. So light is Eenhoorn’s touch, so humble and willing to surrender the spotlight, that, title notwithstanding, this rarely even feels like Martin’s film. Instead, Eenhoorn often plays second fiddle to Travis (Richmond Arquette), the inmate he helps rehabilitate, a man who never broaches recidivism but who nonetheless struggles to reacclimate to society. Eenhoorn plays Martin with the patience of a man too timid to tell someone no, and that of a new but dependable friend whose desire to be of assistance leads him to be benignly taken advantage of.

Above all, Eenhoorn’s performance is a rare and elegant depiction of old age in an independent film scene obsessed with youth. His performance neither romanticizes nor shrinks from aging but instead views it as the simple fact of life that it is, filled with wistfulness and regret but also experience and some sense of peace. If that sounds a little “We ain’t so different after all,” well, maybe we really aren’t, and Eenhoorn reminds viewers that one’s life, and therefore one’s capacity to face and overcome drama, does not stop at 40. – Jake Cole

frances1Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

When it’s happening in Frances Ha, I swear I could watch Greta Gerwig running and dancing down New York streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” for hours. It’s not simply because it’s an exuberant high point in Noah Baumbach’s beautifully-made film (by far the best of his career), but because it’s a blessed moment of freedom and relief for Gerwig’s Frances, a rare instance where she’s free from anxiety and self-doubt. Across the rest of the film, Gerwig provides such a compelling, convincing portrait of a person made weary by the gradual, inevitable progression into adulthood, when the hopeful expectations of youth finally extinguish, leaving a smoky tendril of memories. The old reassurances and reinforcements are gone, friends are moving on, there’s a sense that there’s no longer plenty of time to figure things out and it’s time to start considering which compromise is least onerous.

Gerwig plays every bit of this with marvelous skill and empathy, showing the ways that Frances gets lost within herself, especially given her tendency to finesse the truth to hide her mounting desperation from others. She co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach (hardly her first such effort, since she assembled a few writing credits back when she came close to being forever pigeonholed as the mumblecore It Girl), and her deep understanding of the character comes through in every scene. Gerwig delivers a splendidly understated star turn. Even more impressively, it’s a performance that finds the depth in a character so beset by worry that she isn’t even sure she has a story that’s worth telling. – Dan Seeger

museumhours2Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer in Museum Hours

It’s certainly a challenge to make the filming of art pieces – not to mention the filming of people carefully considering art pieces – into a cinematic experience, something that director Jem Cohen carries off with great success in Museum Hours. Yet he couldn’t have pulled this off without the quietly attuned work of Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, who have perhaps the hardest task here, capturing the subtle facial changes that accompany the absorption of art, an act that might seem natural but can easily turn stilted through multiple camera set-ups and dozens of takes. The key here is the fine differences between O’Hara’s Ann, a stranger in this ancient repository of treasures, and Sommer’s Johann, a museum guard who looks upon them day after day, reveling in their complexities. The template for each performance is set up in these interpretative differences, the story of one person seeing a city for the first time and another learning to see it anew. These shifts are conveyed with startling immediacy by O’Hara, the real-life Canadian folk singer, and Sommer, both relative amateurs in terms of acting. There may have been flashier, louder and generally more impressive performances in 2013, but the restrained, perfectly calibrated duo at the core of this movie is something else entirely. As Johann notes: “I’ve had my share of loud, and now I have my share of quiet.” – Jesse Cataldo

spectacularShailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now

Calling someone “the girl next door” is kind of a backhanded compliment. On one hand, it denotes accessibility—the girl next door is someone you can get a beer with, someone approachable and easygoing. But it also suggests innocence and a lack of flavor—you don’t desire the girl next door, she’s just sort of there, perfectly pleasant but ultimately unremarkable. In The Spectacular Now, Shailene Woodley plays the consummate girl next door while being anything but unremarkable, and certainly not flavorless. She is accessible, though. In fact, she’s downright natural, which is exactly what makes her performance one of the year’s very best. As the lovelorn Aimee Finecky, Woodley exudes a sort of charmed innocence. Aimee’s bemusement with the romantic advances of local heartthrob Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, who delivers a strong performance himself) are demonstrated in Woodley’s calculated yet organically executed facial movements: befuddled blinks, slight twists of the head, and the occasional rolls of the eye indicate Aimee’s genuine disbelief of the situation. As the film progresses, Aimee’s uncertainty recedes as she grows more comfortable and confident with herself, requiring Woodley to unfurl a whole new range of emotions. In a way, she almost becomes a whole new character by the time the film ends, and her transformation is crucial to the film’s success. It’s a subtly painstaking performance, but Woodley, with equal parts grace and charm, conceals the gears of her craft behind her natural yet incredibly alluring presence. – Drew Hunt

deverKaitlyn Dever in Short Term 12

Jayden, a young teenager sent to a foster care facility by her well-to-do dad, is the character in Short Term 12 who could most easily have been played as mere stereotype. As written, Jayden is just another troubled teen girl made up of equal parts eyeliner, earbuds and attitude. But actress Kaitlyn Dever gives her real life, moving quickly beyond the default surliness that masks Jayden’s emotional pain, allowing her to be almost composed and relaxed in key moments. This is especially important once the 20-something caretaker Grace (Brie Larson) begins to identify a little too closely with the teen. Dever maintains a balance between Jayden’s own struggles and Grace’s obsession with her, never allowing the character to become entirely identified as a victim, something that would be all to easy once it’s revealed that her mere existence is bothersome both to her own father and to the caretaker in charge of helping her. Most impressively, Dever’s line readings at a climactic scene turn her from angry teenager to the film’s unexpected voice of reason. The screenplay came perilously close to fashioning Jayden as a caricature, but Dever remained determined to make the character real, and in doing so, created a stand-out performance that helped make Short Term 12 one of the finest films of the year. – Stacia Kissick Jones

james-franco-spring-breakersJames Franco in Spring Breakers

“Look at my shit!” exclaims James Franco’s rapper/gangster Alien, in Spring Breakers. This is not the kind of scintillating repartee that typically reaps laurels for the professional actor, especially when spoken in the persona of a white man with dreadlocks and a grill who performs fellatio on a silencer. But it’s all part of another busy year for Franco the renaissance man. In 2013 alone the actor/director/artist/writer had five feature film credits to his name just as a director, in addition to a dozen acting credits. The multi-faceted Franco even took on the role of a critic this year, contributing reviews of 12 Years a Slave and the book The Disaster Artist, actor Greg Sestero’s memoir of working with Tommy Wiseau on The Room. Pop culture consumers might understandably be suffering from Franco Fatigue, similar to a few years back when Jude Law was in every other movie released. Except this time it’s worse: Franco’s an artist! But he owns Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, his infectiously hammy performance grounding a divisive film in the sinister joy of excess. The actor completely inhabits the role of Alien, conveying his character’s sinister charisma just by flashing gold teeth. The character was inspired by Houston rapper Riff Raff, and hip-hop connoisseurs lamented that the part did not go to the real deal, but Franco steals the show out from under the rest of the film’s Day-Glo bikini hype. – Pat Padua

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