1. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street- A career-best performance for DiCaprio in his thrilling latest collaboration with Martin Scorsese. He gives off machine-gun bursts of energy as Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort and shows an amazing knack for both physical and verbal comedy that his often-serious portrayals don’t let him bring out. It’s both loud and rambunctious and deeply nuanced. (Added Dec. 30)
2. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha- This fantastic turn is the stunning result of Greta Gerwig’s New Wave collaboration with director Noah Baumbach. While also serving as co-writer of the movie, Gerwig captures a rocky period of this 27-year-old dancer wannabe’s life with a contagious charm. The movie is very much built around her unpredictability, and she captures the pain and anxiety of post-college youth without overplaying her hand. She is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose dreams are her own.
3. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s latest simply wouldn’t have been as good without this thunderous performance from Cate Blanchett. She manages the difficult task of creating a loathsome woman that also elicits pity. After a long string of privileged existence, Jasmine is finally forced to confront the depths of her mental instability when her Madoff-esque husband is caught. Blanchett gazes unflinchingly into the abyss of depression with raw feeling and crucial sympathy.
4. Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave- I can’t think of any movie character in recent memory as haunting as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave. Lupita Nyong’o registers the psychological trauma of having her body offered up to her lustful master, and how unbearably sick she is of being alive. Though she works harder than anyone else on the plantation, she is trapped in a bitter feud between the plantation owner and his jealous wife. This leads to the movie’s most disturbing and devastating scene: a 10-minute long whipping sequence that stays pinned to Nyong’o’s torment. When Soloman Northup is freed, it’s the shot of Patsey watching him leave, knowing it will never happen to her, that registers.
5. Adele Exachopoulos, Blue Is the Warmest Color- Though Blue Is the Warmest color suffers because of its director’s straight male gaze imposed on a lesbian love story, it also certainly flourishes because of its lead actresses. In fact, when this year’s Cannes jury gave it the top prize, it awarded director Abdellatif Kechiche as well as the two women at the story’s core. Adele Exachopoulos is at the volatile core of this three-hour saga, portraying a woman not just in the midst of a passionate love affair but also of finding a place in the world. It’s a heartbreaking role, and a star-making performance.
6. James Franco, Spring Breakers- I can’t really stand James Franco’s public persona, however real it actually is. When he reviewed Spring Breakers himself in November, I was probably rolling my eyes harder than anyone. Yet when I look back on performances that left an impact on me, Alien is undeniably toward the top of the list. He is such a desperate front of a man, unbearable and grotesque but also weirdly charming. Am I still talking about Alien or are we back to Franco already?
7. Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street- Hill brings his Apatowian comedic sensibilities to Scorsese territory with fantastic results. As Donnie Azoff, he is a dementedly unhinged spurt of jaw-dropping dialogue and goldfish-swallowing theatrics. Give him a damn trophy, someone. (Added Dec. 30)
8. Judi Dench, Philomena- Dame Judi manages the odd acting feat of exercising remarkable restraint while simultaneously stealing nearly every scene she’s in. Philomena Lee is a devout Catholic who was extremely wronged by the church, not only when they sold her baby for adoption but years later when they lied to keep her from finding him. Dench anchors the movie in a kind of comedic/dramatic tightrope and makes it look effortless.
9. Chiwetel Ejiofer, 12 Years A Slave- Ejiofer’s eyes are pools of despair that director Steve McQueen uses to devastating effect in this movie. A free man sold into slavery, he captures Solomon Northup’s gradual realizations about the cost of survival as well as his attempts to latch on to dignity in an unimaginably evil world.
10. Julie Delpy, Before Midnight- Delpy’s feminist battle cry is at the beating heart of the latest Richard Linklater romantic talkie. Celine is sick of the bullshit that comes with years of marriage to a writer (Ethan Hawke), and resentful (and terrified) that she may be becoming somewhat of a homemaker. Though her emotions flare, this is an honest, hilarious performance that the script (which she co-wrote with Hawke and Linklater) treats with genuine empathy.
11. Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight- Hawke isn’t given as intense of a role as Delpy in this installment, but he’s still brilliant at conveying Jesse’s post-divorce discontent. It’s especially obvious in the opening sequence, when he drops his son off at the airport to go back to his mother in America. That pain gradually unfolds over the rest of the movie, and sparks the fierce hotel argument sequence between him and Celine.
12. Bruce Dern, Nebraska- Dern conveys a lifetime of disappointment without saying much in Alexander Payne’s latest dramedy. Woody Grant is stubbornly single-minded in his determination to collect a bogus million-dollar jackpot, but Dern illustrates the sad, bitter reasons for that determination.
13. Lea Seydoux, Blue Is the Warmest Color- Though she’s clearly second fiddle in the movie, Seydoux is still amazingly expressive during the relentless close-ups Kechiche uses on her. She is especially thrilling during the emotionally volatile break-up scene. However, Blue Is the Warmest Color is most affecting while it builds up the passionate love between the her and Adele.
14. Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station- Oscar Grant III was murdered on New Year’s Day 2009. Fruitvale Station follows him on the last day of 2008 before he’s profiled by the police at a BART Station in Oakland. This leads to him being shot, and the moment is horrifying in its brutality. Jordan’s performance is casual before that though. He gives the movie a looseness that balances the rigid, overly-stylized trappings of its debut director, Ryan Coogler.
15. Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine- I’m glad Sally Hawkins found her way into this movie. Her character could have easily been engulfed by Blanchett’s performance, but the two create a potent sister relationship with an uncomfortable history.
16. Christian Bale, American Hustle- Bale is weirdly relaxed in David O. Russell’s latest, exuding a wide spectrum of deceitful emotions without the intensity and grit he’s known for. Irving Rosenfeld is an oafish con man who slowly realizes that everyone else is, too, and Bale plays the character with just the right amount of charm to make him (a little bit) likable.
17. June Squibb, Nebraska- Squibb turns Kate Grant into more than a castrating caricature that she seems to be at first. Over the course of the movie, she becomes a remarkably kind but still tough-skinned woman, looking at what her son will do for his father and knowing she would never be as lavished or indulged.
18. James Gandolfini, Enough Said- Though the movie left much to be desired, Gandolfini gave a warm, sensitive turn in this Nicole Holofcener romance. Unfortunately, it’s one of the last great performances we’ll see from the late actor.
19. Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave- Fassbender holds nothing back in this vicious portrayal of plantation owner Edwin Epps. It’s a flinch-inducing, sadistic role that required this kind of deep devotion.
20. Amy Seimetz- Upstream Color- Seimetz anchors Shane Carruth’s latest feature with a confused, emotionally volatile performance as a woman who is stripped of her identity in a mind-control experiment and begins merging memories with a man she’s falling in love with.