Best Movie Performances of 2013: Joaquin Phoenix, Sandra Bullock, and More

From Joaquin Phoenix’s loner to Jennifer Lawrence’s fiery housewife, the year’s finest cinematic turns.

Michael Muller/A24 Films, via AP; Gravier Productions/Sony Pictures Classics; Warner Bros. Pictures; Sundance Selects

Michael Muller/A24 Films, via AP; Gravier Productions/Sony Pictures Classics; Warner Bros. Pictures; Sundance Selects

It was, by most accounts, a great year at the movies. There were eye-opening sci-fi films like Her and Gravity; the funky black comedies American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street; impressive indies Short Term 12 and All Is Lost; the list goes on. It’s a tough thing to rate a film performance. For one, it’s entirely subjective—the quality of a given cinematic turn is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. And they’re all so different. But list-making is fun, and it’s good to give credit where credit is due, so without further ado, these are The Daily Beast’s picks for the best movie performances of 2013.

Sundance Selects

1. Adele Exarchopoulos, ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’

As Adele, a feral French teen who consumes all, be it literature, spaghetti, or sex, with rapacious license in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color, newcomer Exarchopoulos is magnetic. She holds you in her grip for the film’s three-hour running time and never lets go, taking you on a psychosexual journey from the experimentation phase, to lust, to first love (with an older artist, played by Lea Seydoux), and then first heartbreak. Exarchopoulos’s performance is fearless. And the 20-year-old actress conveys the twin agonies or infatuation and heartache better than anyone in quite some time. She acts with her entire body, and I’ve never seen an actor—male or female—cry this realistically onscreen, perhaps ever. I’ve heard critics discount Exarchopoulos’s performance on the basis that her director tortured the performance out of her. Absurd. Did they say the same about Hitchcock? About Kubrick? A great performance is a great performance, and Adele Exarchopoulos delivered the finest one of 2013.

Warner Bros. Pictures

2. Joaquin Phoenix, ‘Her’

Right now, Joaquin Phoenix is the greatest actor alive. Don’t believe me? See his previous three films: Two Lovers, I’m Still Here, and The Master. Or better yet, see the finest turn of his career in Spike Jonze’s Her. As Theodore Twombly, a soulful (and melancholy) divorcé who falls for his sentient operation system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), Phoenix is a revelation. For the bulk of the film, he’s acting onscreen by himself, speaking to his OS, and is never less than captivating, whispering sweet nothings on a blissful trip to the beach, engaging in tender phone sex, plucking away at the ukulele, gently sobbing when haunted by memories of his ex-wife, and much more. No other actor right now could pull off a performance of this magnitude.

Short Term 12

3. Brie Larson, ‘Short Term 12’

One of the most criminally overlooked films—and performances—of the year. In Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, Larson plays Grace, a young supervisor at a foster care facility for at-risk teens. She struggles to connect with Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an intense loner who’s about to turn 18, age out, and be released back into his abusive home, as well as Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), her loving co-worker and boyfriend. Grace is a delicate, complicated mystery, and when a young girl arrives at the facility who reminds Grace of herself, the layers begin to unfold. Larson’s performance isn’t the showiest, but there’s a quiet, well, grace to it that lends it an air of constant intrigue. As we get closer and closer to discovering Grace’s darkest secrets, Larson takes us deeper and deeper into the soul of a selfless, courageous young woman. It’s truly a sight to behold.

Francois Duhamel

4. Lupita Nyong’o, ‘12 Years A Slave’

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave may be based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was captured and sold into slavery in 1841, but the most magnetic turn in the film comes courtesy of newcomer Nyong’o as Patsey, the prized “property” of brutal, Bible-thumping slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). As Epps becomes more and more infatuated with Patsey, her treatment gets worse, to the point where, in one of the film’s most horrifying scenes, she’s whipped to within an inch of her life for borrowing a bar of soap. Nyong’o imbues Patsey with an inner grit and determination, making it not only the most devastating performance of the year, but one of the most heroic ones as well.

Ann Marie Fox/Focus Features

5. Matthew McConaughey & Jared Leto, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a homophobic hick, and Rayon (Leto), a kindhearted transsexual, make for quite the odd couple. But when they’re both diagnosed with AIDS, pushing them to the fringes of 1980s society, they partner up to smuggle and sell non-FDA approved anti-viral medications to AIDS-suffering Americans. Yes, they lost a ton of weight for the roles—40 pounds for McConaughey, 31 for Leto—but they’ve also created two indelible, rough-hewn, tenacious trailblazers. They’re two very different characters, the lady and the tramp, but this is the 21st century version of Butch and Sundance—two randy outlaws who’ve banded together to fight impossible odds, and in the process, created an alliance for the ages.

Francois Duhamel

6. Christian Bale, ‘American Hustle’

There hasn’t been nearly enough chatter about Bale’s performance as Irving Rosenfeld, a talented con artist who gets roped into an elaborate FBI plot involving fake Arab sheiks, local and state politicians, and the mob. The film opens with a continuous take of Bale meticulously applying Irv’s hideous comb-over and that, as well as his other bizarre quirks, including dancing like nobody’s watching to Duke Ellington, lounging around with his sizeable gut exposed (Bale put on 43 pounds for the role), and conning everyone from his fiery housewife (Jennifer Lawrence) to a hotshot FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), are utterly captivating. Bale’s been known to keep parts of himself walled off onscreen; a reluctance to convey vulnerability. But here, he opens himself up, and has a ball. Oh, and he totally nails the New York-Jew accent.

Michael Muller/A24 Films, via AP

7. James Franco, ‘Spring Breakers’

With all due respect to the Gig Young’s and Martin Landau’s of the world, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar should be awarded to actors that create singular characters that overshadow the rest of the performances in a film (see: Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider, and Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction). Alien, James Franco’s demented fugazi crime lord/rapper in Harmony Korine’s gonzo satire Spring Breakers, is one of those characters. Sporting a grill, cornrows, tattoos, and guns, and speaking in a bastardized southern drawl, Franco’s created a Great Gatsby for the MTV generation; an emotionally fragile, self-made fool; a caricature of a renegade hero.

Despina Spyrou/Sony Pictures Classics

8. Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy, ‘Before Midnight’

The third chapter in filmmaker Richard Linklater and star-co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s romantic saga sees stubborn American Jesse (Hawke) and his frantic wife, Celine (Delpy), air out all their dirty laundry during a family vacation on the Greek islands, culminating in a 30-minute argument inside a hotel room that is a master class in acting, and writing. These two actors are getting overlooked because they’re so damn good at portraying these two bickering, neurotic, hyper-literate lovebirds, which is a shame, because acting this good deserves recognition. 

Warner Bros. Pictures

9. Sandra Bullock, ‘Gravity’

There’s a dearth of kick-ass women in film—it’s a shame, and needs to be rectified—but as Ryan Stone, a medical engineer marooned in space in Alfonso Cuarón’s riveting Gravity, Bullock’s helped create one of the most kick-ass heroines in recent memory. Whether she’s dodging not one—but two—space debris explosions, spinning wildly into the great unknown, describing the loss of her daughter, or promising she’ll fight for her and survive, Bullock is an incredible badass who will stop at nothing to live on—like Odysseus in space.

Wilson Webb/Warner Bros. Pictures, via AP

10. Jake Gyllenhaal, ‘Prisoners’

When Denis Villaneuve’s gloomy thriller Prisoners was announced as one of the hotly-anticipated “sneak previews” at the Telluride Film Festival, people were confused. Hugh Jackman as a carpenter named Keller Dover? Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki? But much to our collective surprise, this neo-noir about a group of children being snatched up in broad daylight and a father—and detective—who will stop at nothing to find them is a gripping flick, thanks in no small measure to Gyllenhaal’s fantastic turn. His Loki has tattoos, slicked back hair, and an eye-twitch, and while these character quirks go largely unexplained, they add to his mysterious, hyper-intense aura. He’ll have you on the edge of your seat.

Francois Duhamel

11. Amy Adams, ‘American Hustle’

As Sydney Prosser, Adams has never been more glamorous. Decked out in furs or chest-bearing dresses, she’s the female member of a gonzo Rat Pack; a saucy con artist who could talk the pants right off you. But there are several layers to Sydney. She’s conning herself, a small-town girl and former stripper, into thinking she’s this sultry vixen; she’s conning her partner-in-crime, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), into thinking she’s double-crossing him; and she’s conning FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), into thinking she’s a delicate British heiress who wants to jump his bones. She’s the Bonnie to Irv’s Clyde.

Alison Rosa/CBS Films, via AP

12. Oscar Isaac, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

Isaac was a talented character best known for playing Carey Mulligan’s shady fiancé in Drive before the Coen Brothers cast him as Llewyn Davis, a petulant singer-songwriter struggling to navigate the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. As Davis, Isaac fully embodies the mind, body, and soul of the tortured artist—a man with greatness in him who can’t get out of his own way. And the musical numbers, all performed live by Isaac, are something else. When he performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Café, you’ll wish you were an A&R agent sitting in the crowd, ready to sign him to a record deal.

Merie W. Wallace/Paramount Pictures, via AP

13. June Squibb, ‘Nebraska’

Kate (Squibb), the thorny wife of ex-boozehound Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) in Alexander Payne’s dramedy Nebraska, may have a sweet, lil ol’ granny exterior, but she is an absolute force of nature—and a total riot. She’s constantly riding Woody, a dementia-addled old man who becomes fixated on a “winning” publisher’s clearing house ticket he received in the mail, and gossiping about everyone around her. She’s mad as hell and doesn’t give a damn anymore, and there’s nothing funnier than a sweet old lady giving people the business. Call her Bad Grandma.

Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures, via AP

14. Leonardo DiCaprio, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Nobody hates Leonardo DiCaprio more than the Academy, which explains why the 39-year-old actor wasn’t Oscar-nominated for either The Departed or Django Unchained. All the good-looking stars, from Brando to Clooney, have had to ugly themselves to win Oscars, which is patently absurd. Anyway, as Jordan Belfort, the swaggering leader of a gang of money-laundering, stock-inflating, prostitute-sexing, coke-snorting, lude-popping stockbrokers, DiCaprio delivers his most high-octane, zany performance yet. We see him do everything from breakdancing to getting a candle shoved up his butt by a dominatrix, and the actor is completely game. When he goes catatonic after doing too many ludes and tries to make his way back to his house from the local country club, you’ll be floored.

Jaap Buitendijk

15. Chiwetel Ejiofor, ‘12 Years A Slave’

Much ink has been spilled over the flashy supporting turns in 12 Years A Slave, but Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon Northup, a freeman who, in 1841, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum South, is the spiritual backbone of the film. It’s a graceful yet quietly intense turn, and filmmaker Steve McQueen’s often holds his camera on Solomon’s haunted, broken face, allowing it to serve as a compass for the audience. The scene where Ejiofor’s Northup is left hanging by a tree—in one of many long, continuous takes—is masterfully done. It’s about time that Ejiofor, who’s been brilliant ever since bursting onto the scene in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, gets his due.

Gravier Productions/Sony Pictures Classics

16. Cate Blanchett, ‘Blue Jasmine’

I would’ve loved Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine, the exasperated, Serenity Now! protagonist of Woody Allen’s dark dramedy, a lot more if I hadn’t recently seen it when she played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (the same goes for Bradley Cooper in American Hustle/Silver Linings Playbook). Nevertheless, as a wealthy woman that has the rug completely pulled out from under her when her Madoff-like husband goes to prison for fraud, Blanchett is so manic and compelling, you think her head will separate from her body at any moment. She’s the queen of “showy” performances, be it this, The Aviator, or I’m Not There, and one of the best actresses around.

Columbia Pictures

17. Tom Hanks, ‘Captain Phillips’

In Paul Greengrass’s gritty thriller, Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, the real-life captain of the Maersk Alabama, a shipping vessel that was hijacked by a crew of Somali pirates. After the crew outwits the pirates, Phillips is taken hostage aboard a lifeboat. He’s eventually freed, and the last five minutes of the film, with Hanks in the infirmary just after the horrific ordeal, will absolutely floor you. “In the scene, Phillips is completely shell-shocked,” I wrote. “He can barely make out what the woman in the infirmary is saying. He slowly removes his shirt as medical personnel clean the Somali blood off his face. Then it all hits him. Phillips, who has remained a paragon of composure throughout his terrifying ordeal, begins to sob. Then convulse. He can’t stop sobbing… In that mesmerizing five-minute sequence, shot very tight, Hanks goes to a place he hasn’t been since Philadelphia. And when this generation’s Jimmy Stewart breaks down, well, we all follow suit.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

18. Scarlett Johansson, ‘Her’

As Samantha, the sentient operating system that falls in love with brokenhearted romantic Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) in Spike Jonze’s Her, Johansson does the unthinkable: she makes a voice-only role come thrillingly alive. Her Samantha is more than an OS—she’s a funny, charming, sexy, soothing, witty, wildly intelligent being—and her lifelike nature is mostly due to Johansson’s outstandingly expressive turn. We really believe that Theodore would fall for Samantha... body be damned.

Jaap Buitendijk

19. Daniel Brühl, ‘Rush’

While Ron Howard’s film went largely overlooked in the U.S., grossing just $26 million, one of Germany’s finest acting talents has gotten some well-deserved kudos, receiving SAG and Golden Globe nominations for his turn as Niki Lauda, the shrewd, calculating Austrian Formula One driver—and foil to swaggering, womanizing Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). Brühl not only nails the Austrian accent, but also makes us feel genuine compassion for the favorite, which is no easy task. It’s a snappy, finely-calibrated performance that elevates Howard’s film above and beyond its car-racing trappings.

Daniel Daza

20. Robert Redford, ‘All Is Lost’

The impossibly good-looking 77-year-old in the only actor we really see as a man marooned at sea in J.C. Chandor’s survival saga, and he only utters a handful of words, but Redford commands the screen for the film’s entire 100-minute running time through sheer gravitas. As Redford’s seaman struggles to troubleshoot his way out of his impossible predicament, we’re with him step-for-step, as he tantalizes us with just a series of winks, shrugs, yells, and scowls. It’s a very impressive achievement, and a monument to Redford’s watchability.

Francois Duhamel

21. Jennifer Lawrence, ‘American Hustle'

She really can do no wrong, can she? As Rosalyn, the fiery “Real Housewife of Long Island” to con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), Lawrence is chaos personified; the type of woman that will own the room when entertaining friends and colleagues, and burn it down as soon as they leave. Every time Lawrence pops up onscreen, whether she’s seducing mobsters, sassing—and then smooching—her husband’s mistress, played by Amy Adams, or flailing about her house with washing gloves on singing along to Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” you can’t take your eyes off her. Lawrence is, at just 23 years of age, the heir apparent to Meryl Streep and, one could argue, the most naturally gifted young actress on the planet.