Runners-Up: Amy Adams in American Hustle is wonderfully sexy and funny – and brings some real emotion to the role – British accent or not. Onata Aprile in What Maisie Knew is that rare child actress who delivers a completely natural performance. Veerle Baetens in The Broken Circle Breakdown is heartbreaking as a mother dealing with the loss of her child. Judi Dench in Philomena elevates a rather safe, middlebrow film with a surprisingly subtle performance. Emile Dequenne in Our Children delivers a quietly devastating performance as a woman who does the unthinkable – but at least makes you understand her character. Olga Kurylenko in To the Wonder is mesmerizing in Malick’s latest film. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Enough Said brings a deft comedic hand to the film, which helps make her character likable no matter what she does. Rooney Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a woman torn between her past and the future – trying to determine what to do next Saskia Rosendahl in Lore does a great job with a very difficult role as the daughter of a Nazi as the war ends, and her sexual awakening begins. Kate Lynn Shiel in Sun Don’t Shine delivered a complex performance, which I’m still trying to wrap my head around – what does that last scene mean? Cosmina Stratan & Cristina Flutur in Beyond the Hills are great as a pair of childhood friends, whose bond is tested by one’s faith and one’s lack of the same. Barbara Sukowa in Hannah Arendt is wonderful as the stubborn intellectual, who knows she is right and refuses to back down. Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now delivers a complex performance as a wallflower coming out of her shell.
10. Mia Wasikowska in StokerThe talented young actress – who have been able to switch between big Hollywood films like Alice in Wonderland and indies like The Kids Are All Right early in her career – gives what may be her best performance to date in this stylish thriller by Korean master Park Chan-wook. She plays the ever shy title character – a teenage girl reeling from the death of her father, and confused by the sudden appearance of her Uncle Charlie that she didn’t even know she had. For most of the movie, we fear for her – she seems to be in the clutches of Charlie, not to mention her mother. But as the film moves along, the role gets more and more complicated – the turning point being a shower scene that reveals what is really going on with her. A talented young actress, whose promise is through the roof.
9. Julia Roberts in August: Osage CountyThe movie seems determined to make Roberts’ Barbara into a sympathetic character – it cuts out some of her husband’s damning criticism of her, and gives her an undeserved happy ending (at least in the version I saw at TIFF) – but Roberts herself seems to completely grasp her characters, hard edges and all, and delivers her best performance in years (and yes, I know she’s gotten more attention from awards groups in the Supporting Actress category – but Barbara is not just a lead in the film – she’s the lead). Barbara is the oldest sister – the one everyone looks to as a peacekeeper, but with her own life in turmoil, she cannot quite do that anymore. Her scenes going toe-to-toe with Streep are probably the best in the movie – Roberts does not allow herself to be intimidated by Streep as she eats the scenery all around her. As she has gotten older, Roberts has become a more daring, more confident actress – and this is one of her very best performances.
8. Meryl Streep in August: Osage CountyI remember talking to my wife not long after seeing the play on Broadway, and we both agreed that when they made August: Osage County into a movie, Meryl Streep would be cast as Violet Weston. We were right, of course because Streep gets offered pretty much every great role for women over the age of 50 (and there are far too few of them out there). There is nothing subtle about what Streep does in the movie – she goes way past over the top – but I feel that was a choice that was appropriate for the movie, and the character. Streep, who too often gets nominated for Oscars for doing an impression (see Julia & Julia or The Iron Lady), here digs deep and delivers a truly exceptional performance. The highlight of the performance is obviously the dinner scene where she’s “truth telling” – but Streep’s whole performance is a larger than life masterwork. No, it’s not subtle – but it shouldn’t be subtle. Streep nails it.
7. Sandra Bullock in GravityMany actors would get lost in all the special effects and cinematic spectacle than Alfonso Cuaron puts on the screen in Gravity. It’s such a stunning technical achievement that playing a realistic character in amongst all the special effects must have been a daunting task. But Sandra Bullock was more than up for it – she uses her natural, movie star charm to win the audience over almost immediately, and as the film movies along, her performance becomes deeper, richer, more emotional and more human. Bullock has taken a lot of flak since her Oscar win for The Blind Side four years ago – some of it deserved, much of it not – but in Gravity she delivers her best performance to date. She is perhaps the biggest movie star of the year – but here, she shows just how good she can be.
6. Greta Gerwig in Frances HaGerwig’s performance in director Noah Baumbach’s last film – Greenberg – was the first step for her to cross over from mumblecore to the mainstream. For someone like me, Gerwig’s character in that film clearly outshined Ben Stiller (who was delivering one of his best performances, so that’s an accomplishment). With Frances Ha, Baumbach showed he was smart enough to put Gerwig front and center in a movie – and co-wrote the movie with her to give it an uniquely female perspective. The resulting film is an utter and complete delight – and it all rests on the shoulders of Gerwig’s lovable performance. Had Gerwig played the role wrong, the whole movie could have seemed like annoying navel gazing – a relentlessly twee annoyance. But because Gerwig is so good in the lead – so completely real and sympathetic – the film is actually one of the most enjoyable comedies of the year. Gerwig never oversells her character, never tries to make her too sympathetic – which, of course, makes her all the more so. Here’s hoping Gerwig continues her transfer to the mainstream successfully.
5. Julie Delphy in Before MidnightJulie Delphy’s work in Before Midnight in the best work of her career. More so than Hawke’s Jesse, Delphy’s Celine has grown and changed from one film to the next, and her performance across the three films is a wonderful showcase of the changes this woman goes through. Delphy also goes a little deeper in Before Midnight than in previous installments – making her Celine a more complex character. If Hawke makes us see how annoying it can be with someone who makes jokes all the time, Delphy makes us see how someone as neurotic as Celine can be charming when you first meet them, but can wear on your nerves when you’re with them every day. I know some critics have gone as far as to take sides between Jesse and Celine – but I think that somewhat misses the point. Both have their positives and their negatives, and it’s to Delphy’s credit that she brings both out in Celine during the course of this movie. I love this series, and Hawke’s Jesse – but why I really want there to be a fourth installment in 2022 is to see just how Celine will become by then, and to allow Delphy to play one of the most complex roles in modern movies.
4. Cate Blanchatt in Blue JasmineCate Blanchatt’s performance in Blue Jasmine is one of the best the brilliant actress has ever given. The character is an obvious take on Blanche DuBois, and while Blanchatt’s performance does tap into the same nervous, frayed insanity of that famed character, her performance goes well beyond that as well. She plays a woman who has been willfully ignorant of her husband’s scams, and now has to fend for herself – so she hides behind a wall of delusions that will eventually come crashing down around her. It would have been easy to make the character into a caricature – or a hateful woman the audience despises – but Blanchatt goes far deeper than that in this performance, turning a character we don’t like into a human being – who almost gets our sympathy. Woody Allen wrote a great role for Blanchatt here – the type any actress would kill for – but Blanchatt goes well beyond what’s on the page to deliver this tour de force performance.
3. Brie Larson in Short Term 12Brie Larson has done some good work in the last few years in a variety of roles – but it’s her work in Short Term 12 that should make her a star. This is a brilliant performance where she plays a damaged young woman struggling to help damaged teenagers live their day-to-day lives. Larson keeps her cards close to her chest – she doesn’t want to let anyone into her world, to see who damaged she is – she fears she could be broken and never be whole again. It is a remarkably sensitive, subtle performance – even when she lets loose, it feels natural and real for her character. Here is a character you naturally feel for and root for – and Larson delivers one of the very best performances of the year in a very difficult role.
2. Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest ColorYoung Exarchopoulos is at the center of every scene of Blue is the Warmest Color – the camera almost never leaves her body and often shows her face in close-up, which highlight Exarchopoulos’ every subtle gesture and movement. Like the mess of hair that she can do nothing with, her Adele is a confused mess – trying to figure out where she belongs, and who she really is. The film is really a coming of age film for her – she plays a girl who falls madly, deeply in love and then is forced into an adult relationship which simply leaves her more confused. As with many teenagers, her actions can sometimes be careless, and end up hurting those around her, even if that is not her intention. The film at times can go overboard – every scene in the film, not just the sex scenes, extends perhaps a little too long, and yet even when that is the case, Exarchopoulos never loses our attention or affection. This is a wonderful performance by an actress we should be hearing about for a long time.
1. Amy Seimetz in Upstream ColorI do not think any actor had a more difficult role to play in 2013 than Seimetz does in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. The role begins as she is essentially kidnapped, and force fed a strange worm, which turns her into a zombie so she can be scammed out of all her money. When that wears off, she is a confused and broken woman, trying desperately to put the pieces of her broken life back together again – a journey that ends with her coddling a pig. Upstream Color is such a complex movie from a writing and directing standpoint, that Seimetz has been unfairly overlooked for much of the year for her performance – but her contribution is key because it grounds the film in a recognizable emotional reality – no matter how crazy the movie gets, you can always find your bearings through Seimetz’s performance. This was the year Seimetz also made a wonderful directorial debut – with Sun Don’t Shine – and had a small, but memorable role in the mumblecore/horror film You’re Next (“Nobody ever believes in me!”). I had no idea who Seimetz was at the beginning of the year – it’s likely I’ll never forget her now.