Friday, January 31, 2014

Taking On 2013: Top Performances

It's time to move things along, we have been living in the past for far too long! Even though we have taken the time to go through the best supporting performances, it's now time to get on to the leads, those figures who are asked to shoulder the entire load of a film. So who ended up being the best of the best? I guess it's time to take a look and find out.

Lead Actor: Female

5. Adele Exarchopoulos - Blue Is The Warmest Color

For about three hours the camera in Blue Is The Warmest Color is fixed, often in a close up, on the face of Exarchopoulos, and in that time she is asked to enter womanhood in a time of sexual discovery. Much was made about the sex scenes in Blue Is The Warmest Color, but ultimately those are minor parts of what is a heartbreaking, frustrating journey that Exarchopoulos takes as she progresses through life. In this time she spans an emotional spectrum that, regardless of one's native language, is communicated wonderfully.

4. Shailene Woodley - The Spectacular Now

Woodley's breakout performance seemingly came a couple of years ago in The Descendants, and while she was noticeable there she didn't really stand out to me in quite the same way she does in The Spectacular Now. There were claims that her character was underwritten, and while I could partially see some of that, the way she injects life to what could easily just be a romantic interest is striking. Opposite Teller, who gives an incredible performance, she needed to both match him without losing the character's humanity in the process. And her ability to manage that is one of her greatest strengths in the role.

3. Rin Takanashi - Like Someone In Love

Playing an escort, one would assume that then entire role is about concealing oneself in order to indulge a client's fantasy, and even though it is indicated that Takanashi's character is asked to do this at some point, much of the film has her breaking down a type of facade. It's a particularly challenging role because she is asked to conceal emotion, but also project a deep sense of sadness and personality. Yet she is able to bring this sense of self to the character, she's an actor on screen but with purpose.

2. Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha

Last year as the lead in Damsels In Distress, Greta Gerwig was a complete force on the screen. She returns in similar fashion this year in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha as the titular Frances. While the overwhelming positivity that is on the surface of the Frances character is generally the most immediate striking aspect about her personality, and how Gerwig portrays and inhabits all of these actions, the sense of sadness and uncertainty that she attempts to conceal is what stood out most to me about her performance. It requires an incredible grasp on both the character (which makes sense, since Gerwig was one of the writers of the script) and a tremendous balance to pull off, each of which Gerwig manages masterfully.

1. Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine

This will come up in the Top Films post, but 2013 was pretty much defined by this concept of a decaying American Dream. While most of the films that explored this concept were anchored by men, Blanchett's turn as Jasmine in Woody Allen's latest is a work at which I marvel. Since her turn in I'm Not There, Blanchett has not really made much noise in my own personal rankings despite being able to recognize her talent, but here she completely takes over the screen in a turn that is occasionally charming and incredibly heartbreaking. Some of this is a result of the script, but the way Blanchett conveys such profound sadness while also easily shifting towards ignorance is a worthy return to this list.

Honorable Mentions

Emma Watson - The Bling Ring
Brie Larson - Short Term 12
Amy Seimetz - Upstream Color

Lead Actor: Male

5. Miles Teller - The Spectacular Now

Perhaps 2013 had no greater surprise than the emergence of Miles Teller as the lead in The Spectacular Now. I was only vaguely familiar with Teller's role in 21 & Over, and as such was ready to just relegate him to the role of generic teen frat actor. But between this and what I am hearing about his Sundance winning turn in 2014's Whiplash he has definitely proven himself as a name to watch.

4. Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf Of Wall Street

It should come, at this point, as little surprise that DiCaprio is great in a film. He was fantastic earlier last year in The Great Gatsby, and as an almost modern day Jay Gatsby he is even better in Scorsese's open letter to indulgence, eccentricity, and the brutality of the American financial institution. This film contains few moments where DiCaprio doesn't completely command the camera's attention. He is a titanic force (nailed it), and through his rises and falls it's impossible to look away.

3. Bruce Dern - Nebraska

The past few Alexander Payne films I have seen (and really every Payne film I have seen that wasn't Election) were a bit of disappointments, but even in something like The Descendants having an actor like Clooney at the center of it meant there would be at least a performance worth watching; however, for when you tell me that Bruce Dern is playing a slightly disenchanted old man who doesn't emote that much I would be skeptical that he was worth watching. Thankfully, I would be incorrect in this case, as in Dern's haggard face there is a depth of emotion that defines Willie perfectly, in all his glory and his profound sadness. For a much crazier Dern performance, check out Twixt. Hard to believe it's the same guy.

2. Oscar Issac - Inside Llewyn Davis

There are a ton of layers to the Coen brothers's latest film, and at the center of everything is Issac's quasi-Bob Dylan Llewyn Davis. It's easy to marvel at Issac's vocal work, the genuine sense of restlessness that he brings to the songs his character sings throughout the film, but that kind of loses sight of the great range of emotion in which he works. When he's asked to play comedic parts he easily slides in to the role, when his character needs to emote confusion or pain he does it seemingly without effort. It's tough to watch the world run all over Llewyn, but Issac makes it worth watching.

1. Joaquin Phoenix - Her

Between The Master, I'm Still Here, and 2013's Her and The Immigrant, there is little doubt that Joaquin Phoenix picked up right where he left off. I'm attempting to save my thoughts on The Immigrant until it gets a non-festival only release in 2014, and either way I definitely think that Phoenix's work in Her is the better performance. What is most impressive about Phoenix isn't just the genuine emotion he brings to his role, but rather the realization that a lot of it is simply him acting by himself. He's not in a position where he's reacting to much because there are many portions of the film where his character is drifting along with nothing but the disembodied voice of Samantha. I mentioned in my Supporting Actors article that if either two members of the film's core romance were off for even a second the entire film falls apart. Phoenix makes sure that doesn't happen.

Honorable Mentions

Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips
Leonardo DiCaprio - The Great Gatsby
Michael Cera - Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus And 2012

And with that we can now properly wrap up all of the previous year in cinema within the coming days when we take a look at the definitive Best Films Of 2013. Until then let me know some of your favorite performances below in the comments!


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  1. It's always cool to see Greta Gerwig's performance in Frances Ha get such a high spot, and I love your comment on the great Damsels in Distress. I was hoping for more consideration for her during awards season, but I understand why it didn't really happen.

    1. Thanks! I really look forward to any vehicle that Gerwig has from here on out because even though it doesn't appear at first that she is playing vastly different roles, watching her in these past couple of films it becomes increasingly obvious that she is doing some subtly varied work, which I really appreciate.

      As a side note, I should have listed a Special Mention for Michael Cera for killing it in 2013, another guy who doesn't get enough credit for the varied work he turns in on a consistent basis.