If there’s one element uniting 2013’s best lead performances from men, it’s isolation. That’s most obviously true of Robert Redford’s solo turn as the captain of a sinking yacht in All Is Lost, but it’s also there in Bruce Dern’s performance in Nebraska as Woody Grant, an aging Midwesterner whose creeping senility pushes him further from the family he’s long kept at arms’ length, and in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in 12 Years A Slave as Solomon Northup, a man removed by force from the world he knows. It can even be found in Simon Pegg’s work in The World’s End, in which he plays an aging 40-year-old struggling to reconnect with old friends and turn back time in the process. Of the six lead performances from 2013 we chose to single out, Pegg’s is the most flamboyant, but it’s understated compared to James Franco’s instantly immortal supporting turn in Spring Breakers as Alien, a rapper and low-level criminal in a nightmarish corner of paradisiacal Florida. Others found less outrageous ways to stand out, including James Gandolfini, offering some fine, tender work in one of his final roles. (Look for our list of the year's best female performances tomorrow.)
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
The role of a decrepit old man who will not rest until he claims the million-dollar prize he believes he’s won from a Publishers Clearing House-like sweepstakes is just the sort of actor’s showcase that often wins (and is sometimes expressly designed to win) Oscars as de facto lifetime-achievement awards. While Bruce Dern’s long career playing intense, loquacious oddballs certainly deserves recognition, he would be worthy of accolades for Nebraska even if he’d never acted before. His great accomplishment is resisting every opportunity—and there are lots of them—to turn his Woody Grant into a caricature of a crazy, senile old man. Instead, he makes him a fully realized tragic American hero: sullen, moody, prideful, and absolutely unyielding when it comes to his dream. The fragile family unit he builds with the forceful June Squibb and exasperated Will Forte is all too convincing, and the way he clings to his supposed golden ticket is heartbreaking. It’s the achievement of a lifetime; just don’t call it a lifetime-achievement award.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
It’s no big revelation that the life of a slave is grueling and dismal, but knowing that and feeling it, conveying the bone-deep hopelessness of slavery, is another matter. That’s what Chiwetel Ejiofor brings to 12 Years A Slave: not just sympathy, but empathy. Some of the film’s critics objected to focusing on the exceptional story of a free black man sold into slavery and subsequently released, but Ejiofor never lets the audience forget that Solomon Northup’s happy ending—if that’s the right phrase—was far from the norm. The look in his eyes as he’s rescued from captivity on a plantation is as much grief as joy; he knows how fortunate he finally is, and how little he can do to help those who remain.
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel and Ethan Coen reportedly auditioned some well-known singers for the starring role in their story of a struggling folk singer in early 1960s New York before landing on Oscar Isaac, an actor with a musical background. Isaac nails his musical numbers, particularly a solo audition in front of a veteran agent played by F. Murray Abraham. But his ability to convey the toll that hustling from couch to couch and low-paying gig to low-paying gig has taken on him, often with just a world-weary expression, is what makes the performance so powerful. He’s an artist in a state of constant irritation, prone to abuse even those who are kind to him while ignoring everyone else. Isaac does nothing to soften Llewyn, yet his performance makes it impossible not to hope he’ll find a way out of the despairing grind into which he’s fallen, even as the film does little to suggest that’s likely.
Simon Pegg, The World’s End
Connections between the films in Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” don’t extend far beyond its two stars (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), a running gag involving people jumping fences, and the ice-cream treats in question. Yet the nine years between Shaun Of The Dead and The World’s End have put a poignant distance between Pegg’s man-child characters in both films. In the first, he plays a garden-variety bachelor who puts off adult commitments and responsibility for the routine pleasures of sucking down pints with his buddy (Frost) at the local pub. But when that mentality gets applied to a middle-aged man like Pegg’s character in The World’s End, it’s another, much sadder story. Pegg hits all the expected comic beats in rallying his reluctant grown-up buddies on an epic pub crawl, but he finds enormous pathos, too, in his failure to mature after all these years—and in the town’s failure to be the distinctive place he remembers.
Robert Redford, All Is Lost / Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
We couldn’t decide between this year’s pair of brilliant nautically themed performances, so we’re calling a draw and honoring both. Robert Redford had just a few lines of dialogue to tell the audience everything they need to know about his nameless sailor. As one of the most handsome leading men in history, he was an unlikely candidate for an everyman, but writer/director J.C. Chandor correctly intuited that what All Is Lost’s wordless story of survival at sea needed was a presence strong enough to command viewers’ full attention for 106 minutes, and a face that communicated the things his screenplay left unsaid. The immaculately weathered visage of the 77-year-old Sundance Kid fit the bill; it’s truly a picture worth a thousand words. Tom Hanks’ Captain Richard Phillips is bit more talkative, particularly after a band of Somali pirates take him hostage on a tiny, sweltering lifeboat and he’s forced to repeatedly negotiate for his life. But his finest work in Captain Phillips—and maybe the finest work of his entire career—is also a solo tour de force, as his character finally releases all of the emotions he’s pent up through his long ordeal and succumbs to overwhelming shock and grief. So which star had the tougher assignment? The correct answer: both of them.
James Franco, Spring Breakers
There was no 2013 performance bigger than James Franco’s in Spring Breakers. The apex of the wild performance-art romp that has constituted his life and career of late found Franco appearing in Harmony Korine’s provocation about girls gone wild, and murderous, during a bloody spring-break crime spree. Franco plays Alien, the living embodiment of everything that’s grotesque, repellent, and secretly kind of awesome about the excesses of youth culture: He’s a cornrowed, drug-dealing, machine-gun-toting Pied Piper to a phalanx of debauched thrill seekers played by a gaggle of Disney alums in fluorescent bikinis. Franco made Alien a combination of Kevin Federline, Disney’s Big Bad Wolf, Tony Montana, and every parent’s worst nightmare about who their daughters will hook up with in college. With him, Franco and Korine created a monster for the ages.
David Cross, It’s A Disaster
With credits like I’m Not There, Ghost World, and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind on his résumé, David Cross is no stranger to quality films, in spite of his lower-quality films involving the comical misadventures of singing chipmunks. But movies have never really known what to do with Cross, at least until Todd Berger’s wonderful little apocalyptic sleeper It’s A Disaster. The film taps into Cross’ overlooked gifts as a straight man by casting him as an unassuming date thrust into the complicated group dynamics and long-simmering resentments of some eccentric friends. (Matters are already awkward before the inopportune arrival of the apocalypse.) Cross’ acting in It’s A Disaster is largely a matter of reacting. In Jack Benny fashion, he gets some of the film’s biggest laughs just from subtle reaction shots, and when the film takes a second dramatic shift into even darker territory with Cross as the catalyst, he nails the twists, comedically and dramatically.
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
In 12 Years A Slave, Michael Fassbender portrays a hardened racist suffering for his sins in ways his own ideology would never allow him to see. Fassbender’s Epps is a vile, brutal man, but he’s also a buffoon, misinterpreting scripture and getting constantly tripped up by his own emotions. Were he just a monster, it would be easy to write him off as a historical artifact, but Fassbender plays him as a man—a troublesome, complicated, twisted character who can’t be easily filed away and forgotten.
Matthew McConaughey, Mud
After one chance meeting with a charismatic but cracked homeless stranger who calls himself “Mud,” tough but naïve Arkansas teenager Ellis (Tye Sheridan) seems willing to do anything on the man’s behalf, from lying to the police to playing go-between with Mud’s girlfriend. Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to Take Shelter revolves around the way Ellis idolizes Mud, taking him as an embodiment of outlaw cool and deathless romantic devotion. But for Ellis’ dedication to ring true, Mud has to be played by a man who brings across all these things convincingly and casually. Enter Matthew McConaughey, one of few actors who could have pulled it off. His portrayal of Mud is a tightrope walk of a performance that makes the man seem charming enough to sway a suspicious 14-year-old, but sincere enough to not seem predatory in the process. He comes across as slightly dangerous—an obsessive, a possible pathological liar, and a confessed murderer—but at the same time, he radiates heart, and a sense that he’s just a good man stuck in a bad situation. Though Mud’s name is the title of the movie, it’s really Ellis’ story. But the film couldn’t work without McConaughey’s terrific assist, and the layers he brings to the role help keep viewers guessing about where that story will go.
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
It’s a testament to James Gandolfini’s greatness that when film critics started naming their favorite Gandolfini performances after his death, they covered virtually every film in which he’d appeared. Even so, there’s something special about his work in Enough Said as a divorced dad who starts dating a masseuse (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who inadvertently—at first, anyway—has his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) as friend and client. Despite Gandolfini’s fits of rage in his most famous role as Tony Soprano, his style is to underplay, knowing the bigness of his body and voice will carry over without him needing to overdo it. His scenes with Louis-Dreyfus, written with such relaxed wit and wisdom by writer-director Nicole Holofcener, have an ease appropriate to middle-aged people who have loved and lost before, and are tentatively getting to know each other. And despite all the terrible things his ex-wife says about him, Gandolfini makes his character appealing despite his quirks, suggesting a gentle masculinity that’s strong and reassuring—and the ideal way to remember him.