1. Isabelle Huppert- Abuse of Weakness- To stare into the deep recesses of Isabelle Huppert’s face as her character tries to regain control of her life and body after a stroke is to watch screen acting of the highest order. Huppert’s intensely physical performance as Maud captures the minutiae of her character’s physical affliction while also creating a portrait of a frustrated director whose inspiration is sparked by a known con man. In realizing Catherine Breillat’s semi-autobiographical vision, Huppert nearly swallows the movie whole.
2. Rosamund Pike- Gone Girl- Gone Girl spends a large chunk of its run-time cruelly answering the opening and closing questions posed by Amy Dunne’s husband Nick: “What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?” Amy is the year’s most sinister enigma, and the calculated chill that Rosamund Pike brings to the role jolts David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s vision to intoxicating, grotesque life. Whether she’s rolling her eyes through one of her parents’ book release parties or [REDACTED] Neil Patrick Harris’ character, Pike tears through the role, the movie and Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) with menacing precision. This was the most on-the-button casting choice of the year.
3. Tilda Swinton- Snowpiercer- Even people who disliked Snowpiercer seem to agree that Tilda Swinton is absolutely phenomenal in it. As the conniving mouthpiece to the conductor/dictator on a train endlessly circling an uninhabitable Earth, she spits each grotesque, didactic talking point with blithe and sincere dedication. Mason is such a lively, off-kilter creation that it’s often hard to pay attention to anyone else when Swinton is on the screen. This is true of most of her roles, though.
4. Philip Seymour Hoffman- A Most Wanted Man- The final lead performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is the only truly great thing in an otherwise serviceable post-9/11 thriller. As he often did, Hoffman commands the screen casually as Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), a spy invisibly fighting the War on Terror on the front lines. It isn’t until the movie’s Chinatown ending that he lets the character explode, making his Sisyphean agent’s despair resonate more deeply than anything else in the movie.
5. Ralph Fiennes- The Grand Budapest Hotel– The year’s greatest tragi-comic performance belongs to Ralph Fiennes, one of the best and most underrated actors working today. In Wes Anderson’s latest, he plays the flamboyant Gustave H, the old-world concierge (and elderly womanizer) of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Fiennes injects the fast-moving, time-span hopping narrative with a crucial humanity, combining it with his character’s biting wit.
6. J.K. Simmons- Whiplash- Fletcher is the conductor of an elite jazz band at a New York conservatory, but he may also be the greatest movie drill sergeant since Full Metal Jacket. As played by J.K. Simmons, he’s a ticking time bomb of unrelenting magnetism. The other students can’t help but be drawn to him, and the main character Andrew (Miles Teller) becomes so entangled in his mind games that he starts to become him.
7. Chadwick Boseman- Get On Up- After the white-washed disaster that was The Help, I was more than a little skeptical going into Tate Taylor’s follow-up film. However, his James Brown biopic is more nimble and honest and often a hell of a lot of fun. This is due in large part to the extraordinarily charismatic turn by Chadwick Boseman, who captures all of the conflicting elements of the Godfather of Soul and gives one of the best music biopic performances in recent memory.
8. Jenny Slate- Obvious Child- The best break-out performance of the year is, hands down, Jenny Slate’s infectious, lively role in Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature Obvious Child. She plays the motor-mouthed comedienne Donna Stern as someone who is almost always on the defensive. She expects everyone to attack her when she gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion, and judging from how dangerous an experience that is in most fictional depictions, her feelings seem justified. Instead, Slate and Robespierre explore the situation with warmth and a biting sense of humor.
9. Marion Cotillard- The Immigrant- What would The Immigrant be without Marion Cotillard’s relentlessly sad face? James Gray’s latest relies heavily on her ability to convey an entire life’s worth of pain and humiliation with every glance and gesture. What’s equally important is Cotillard’s ability to show how Ewa Cybulska is also determined to hold onto her dignity in a new country that attempts to yank it away from her at every opportunity.
10. Uma Thurman- Nymphomaniac- In a single, unforgettable scene, Uma Thurman completely dominates Lars von Trier’s sprawling ode to his own insincerity. Mrs. H tears through the main character’s apartment after she catches her husband mid-tryst. She calmly and comically asks if she can show her children “the whoring bed,” and sits awkwardly at a table with her husband and his mistress before flying into a full blown rage. It’s one of Thurman’s finest moments as an actress, and a wonder to behold.
11. Scarlett Johansson – Under the Skin & Lucy – ScarJo had a hell of a year with these two other-worldly performances. In Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, her unblinking, almost robotic curiosity is put to disturbing effect once it becomes clear she’s an alien visiting Earth to harvest men. In Luc Besson’s less consistent, more rambunctious Lucy, she is equally as good as a woman whose transformation into a superhero hits a few metaphysical rough patches.
12. Jason Schwartzman – Listen Up Philip- Jason Schwartzman was annoying as hell in Alex Ross Perry’s very good second feature. The intimate proximity the director has with his characters makes recently-successful novelist Philip Friedman even more of a ticking time bomb of rage, narcissim and self-loathing. It’s a role that Schwartzman was born to play (I say that lovingly), and his subdued, charming screen presence is put to the test here: even when Philip is in love, he’s still unbearable.
13. Agata Kulesza- Ida- As a former Communist judge who takes a road trip with her novitiate niece, Agata Kulesza exudes a natural regality in Ida. This proves to be an unsuccessful shield as she and the title character reopen the wounds of World War II while searching for their Jewish family’s remains in the Polish countryside. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film is hauntingly still, and Kulesza’s tragic portrayal helps instill its lingering black and white images with a crucial empathy.
14. Gugu Mbatha-Raw- Belle – Though Amma Asante’s Belle leans too heavily on its period costumes and immaculately conceived interiors rather than fully realizing its thematic potential, Gugu Mbatha-Raw still gives an astonishing breakthrough performance as the title character. She conveys the tormented inner life of of a mixed race woman trapped in the racist aristocracy of Britain even as the movie around her becomes stagnant.
15. Jake Gyllenhaal- Nightcrawler – Lou Bloom is a creepily happy monster who spews go-getter business jargon to justify his horrendous deeds as a freelance TV news photographer. As played by Jake Gyllenhaal, he’s Patrick Bateman with a touch of boyish charm, and his crazed eyes and demented grin carry the movie from car crashes to homicides and back. Though the movie as a whole was underwhelming, Gyllenhaal is consistently great.
Disclaimer: This list may be updated when Inherent Vice, Selma, Foxcatcher, Still Alice or any other 2014 movie with a memorable performance is released in Michigan.