The 5 Best Leading Male Performances of 2013


I have way too many fragments of a Best Performances of 2013 list to not write something up. The idea to break apart the list by, for lack of a better term, Oscar category was born out of the desire to highlight some stellar supporting work, which sometimes gets ignored when talking about the very best acting in a particular year. But that’s to come later.

I start with my own personal Best Actor lineup. This past year was arguably the greatest in recent memory for leading male performances. As many as ten guys had legitimate shots at Best Actor Oscar nominations; one can only wonder what Tom Hanks’s or Robert Redford’s respective candidacy looks like for the 2013 or 2015 Oscars. For 2014, they’re awards also-rans.

They didn’t make the cut for my lineup of five, either. Both are worthy honorable mentions, alongside Mud‘s Tye Sheridan, Her‘s Joaquin Phoenix, Prisoners‘ Jake Gyllenhaal (an unquestionable leading turn, and the best of Gyllenhaal’s career), The Spectacular Now‘s Miles Teller, and Reality‘s Aniello Arena.

The four co-runners-up are listed below in alphabetical order. Following that is my choice for Best Actor 2014.

Bruce Dern, Nebraska
When it comes to performances being almost nothing like the person behind them, Bruce Dern has few rivals in 2013. The veteran actor owns old age in Alexander Payne’s bitterly funny coming-home dramedy. His Woody is a man of few words, but he speaks with purpose. That purpose is sometimes misguided, but it’s always meaningful to him, which makes his stubbornness and generally cantankerous attitude oddly endearing. It’s great to see Dern doing such outstanding work in 2013.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
The hubbub of the holidays prevented me from writing in depth on Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, but I’ll use this space to come out as a detractor. The film is overlong, repetitive, and quite unpleasant, but man oh man, Leo goes balls to the fucking wall. Right around the time I started to feel a little tired of DiCaprio’s work, he comes out with two of his strongest performances ever. This work somehow manages to top his work in Django Unchained in the crazy department. While it hardly needs to be said again, the quaaludes scene is simply wild.

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Like Dern, Isaac gives a performance that’s completely lived-in and void of anything resembling artificial. There’s an inherent sadness to the material that doesn’t make itself known without Isaac, but thankfully, that sadness is only rarely Isaac’s guiding emotion. In other words, he lets this brilliant material speak for itself in a decidedly unshowy, but no less impactful way.

Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt
This film’s home run scene occurs late as an entire small Danish town is gathered for a Christmas celebration. Mikkelsen’s Lucas is laid bare; he remarks to another character that he has absolutely nothing left. The intense sadness of his isolation isn’t lost on anyone in attendance (or anyone watching in a theater or at home), and while he’s still a pariah, no one feels good about his anguish. Regret paints every gorgeous frame of the film, but as we look into the soul of this betrayed and distraught man, that regret is replaced for a brief moment by something more frightening. Mikkelsen puts a face on absolute human destruction. It’s indescribably powerful and the best work this terrific actor has ever done.

And my choice for the best performance by an actor in a leading role in 2013 is…

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
I’ve always admired the actor, but frankly, I never really thought he had a performance like this in him. The remarkable thing about Steve McQueen’s film is the unfussy way he presents unspeakable cruelty and intense, INTENSE emotion. He can do so because of Ejiofor, who doesn’t need flashy direction or crafty twists of plot to sell us on his character’s transformation; he lives it. Just watch the “Roll Jordan Roll” sequence—my favorite in the film because it sums up that transformation in mere minutes. Of course, it’s more impactful coming at the end of two brutal, brilliant hours, but it ought to give you an idea of why Ejiofor’s is one of the most acclaimed performances of 2013 and my favorite from a leading man.

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