We don’t have categories separating actors from actresses. We don’t have categories lead roles from supporting ones. That stuff is great for awards programs, but as we look back over 2013 it’s not those distinctions that matter. What will stick in our heads are simply some of the year’s best on-screen performances, no matter form whom they came or what part of the movie they comprised.
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Sandra Bullock has to carry the emotional weight of the film through facial expressions and moments of thinking out loud. The effectiveness of her performance is evident in how well she draws the audience into the role. I felt drawn into the mind of Ryan Stone more than any other character in 2013. I felt like I had a clear understanding of what went through her mind over the course of her journey and how the ordeal had changed her.
— Charlie Burroughs
Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness
First off, this wasn’t the most emotionally complex performance of the year, or the most original handling of a character. Hell, it probably wasn’t the performer’s most challenging role this year. But you know what? It was a lot of fun to watch, and that deserves to be recognized. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan drips with menace, forcing the rest of the characters, and the audience, to give him their full attention whenever he’s on screen. But he’s never over-the-top, he’s always firm and focused, carrying out each action, each movement, each line of dialogue with fatal precision. It’s fun to imagine Cumberbatch going on to have a career similar to a another bass-voiced Brit, Christopher Lee, expertly pulling off one villainous role after another, achieving cult status, and still honored several generations down the line.
— Erik Paschall
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners
The man emerges from the terrific ensemble cast, and keeps the twists and turns fresh, isn’t Hugh Jackman (excellent though he is),it’s Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is just perfectly low-key, and that’s how he reels us deeper and deeper into less of an intellectual game and more of a sporting event. Gone are Gyllenhaal’s matinee idol good looks. He is tempered with a tough masculine core, appearing gritty and believable, an everyman dedicated to his job. There is no Cape or Batmobile, no Iron suit or Magic Shield, but Gyllenhaal manages to be a hero without props or accessories.
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
This was one of the toughest picks, requiring lots of Sophie’s Choice-ing on the part that a great many of 2013’s performances could just as easily be handpicked as best in show. Ultimately, I went with the effortlessly charming Isaac, who plays and croons the titular Llewyn Davis with an ease, exasperation and a bewitching charisma, all the while playing a character that’s difficult to always like. Yet the vulnerability in his voice, the expert ways in which he navigates the rough and nearly unendingly cruel set of traps that meet him at every turn is anguishing, moving and alive because of the rare abilities that actor exhibits in making us root for this misbegotten folk singer.
— James Tisch
Joaquin Phoenix, Her
What makes Phoenix’s work here truly remarkable isn’t just that he’s the only character on screen (or at least the only one that matters on the several occasions that he’s alone in a crowd), it’s that in every moment that he’s talking to Samantha, he doesn’t seem like the only character on screen. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is fantastic, yes, but it’s Phoenix who sells it. Samantha comes across as an embodied figure in this strange new world, and it’s Phoenix who does the lion’s share of the work to make that happen. Effortlessly balancing Theodore’s penchant for reclusiveness and a spiteful edge that occasionally crops up with genuine warmth and tenderness, Joaquin Phoenix absolutely became this character. The movie does a bunch of other things well, including strong supporting performances, but Phoenix’s performance is the glue that holds it all together.
— Tim Falkenberg