Many of my favorite male performances of 2013 were of men standing toe to toe with desperation. With a conflict so large (or mysterious, or dangerous), they had to sink to their lowest point before clawing their way out. Whether the men found resolve or perished in self-loathing, all of these performances were thrilling to watch unfold. I hope you enjoy my picks, and as always, feel free to share some of your own.
15. Shane Carruth – Upstream Color
Due to the catalogue of duties Shane Carruth had on Upstream Color, not enough credit has been given to his acting abilities. It was fascinating to explore how two people handle the same confounding circumstances differently. One (Amy Seimetz’s Kris) shuts down, the other (Carruth’s Jeff) rebels. A wholly believable performance from one of cinema’s most pronounced renaissance men.
14. Matthew McConaughey & Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
as Ron Woodroof & Rayon
Similarly to how I paired Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins’ respective Blue Jasmine performances, I think it is crucial to issue equal praise to both McConaughey and Leto for their work in Dallas Buyers Club. Both are flashy, rather perfect performances that caused each actor to do things they hadn’t yet done.
13. Bruce Dern – Nebraska
as Woody Grant
Did Woody Grant really believe his million dollars was waiting? Or was it an excuse to give his life purpose? Honestly, I still don’t know, but my God if I wasn’t completely absorbed in watching a skilled vet like Dern try to figure it out.
12. Casey Affleck – Out of the Furnace
as Rodney Baze
Rodney Baze is one of the guys America has given up on. A young man with no formal education who, despite hating what war has done to him, reenlists for another tour, simply because he has no other option. There was an anger to Rodney that I was utterly drawn to. A reckless fire I couldn’t take my eyes off of.
11. Hugh Jackman – Prisoners
as Keller Dover
I love watching what people do when pushed to their limit. How would you react if your child went missing? Would you sit and swallow pills? Search tirelessly? Or would you stand with your hand on a shower handle, wondering when you’ll get answers. Jackson’s Keller Dover was a hellish and convincing portrayal of paternal instinct.
10. Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
When a young Somali-American kid living in Minneapolis answered an open casting call for the new Tom Hanks movie, no one expected the strength of performance that would follow. Abdi became a part of Captain Phillips by chance, and delivered a startling portrait of conflicted morals. You really believed that Muse had no other choice than what was chosen for him.
9. Joaquin Phoenix – Her
as Theodore Twombly
Us believing that a man can find kinship in his new digital operating system shouldn’t be possible. But Phoenix sold his portrayal of Theodore Twombly with a perfect balance of delicate restraint and unabashed love. One of the year’s most subtly challenging roles.
8. Robert Redford – All Is Lost
as Our Man
I still, for the life of me, cannot think of another actor Redford’s age who could pull off what the man did in this film. What he did with a look, or sunken shoulders. With a smirk, or a glance of certain doom. A performance that gives meaning to the term tour de force.
7. James Franco – Spring Breakers
I’m always a fan of an actor (especially a young one) risking their image with a dangerous film role. That was Alien, the weed smokin’, shit talkin’, dope dealin’, gang bangin’ manic thug of Spring Breakers. Alien was the most entertaining personification of the American Dream in years.
6. Leonardo DiCpario – The Wolf of Wall Street
as Jordan Belfort
I would never accuse Leonardo DiCpario of playing it safe. The man consistently takes on daring roles, and his career has flourished as a result. But Jordan Belfort’s character wasn’t a mere challenge, it was an Everest-sized obstacle that few actors would dare try to mount. Hilarious, bold, and completely brilliant; how the hell is DiCaprio ever going to top this?
5. Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
as Oscar Grant III
I’ve read a lot of criticism that Fruitvale Station painted its subject out to be a saint. I couldn’t disagree more. As fearlessly played by Michael B. Jordan, Oscar Grant was a flawed man. A flawed man deciding that, on this particular New Year’s Eve, he was going to start shaping up and getting right. If only it wasn’t too late. If only.
4. Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Much of the frustration of The Hunt is based on Lucas’ apparent lack of fight. He rarely defends himself against the heinous charges he’s accused of, leaving us sick with anguish. But Lucas wasn’t apathetic, he was tired. How loud do you have to scream for someone to finally hear you?
3. Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
as Captain Richard Phillips
It’s that final scene. That shock. That terror. That confusion. What Hanks did in his final scene of the film is nothing short of revelatory. He completely redefined what he’s capable of as an actor, and how far he’s willing to go to stay true to a character. It’s the scene of the year, and I will never forget it.
2. Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
as Solomon Northup
I don’t know what scared me more about 12 Years a Slave: the anticipation of another random act of violence, or fearing that Solomon’s intelligence would seal his fate. Imagine having to live with the fact that intellect was a threat, and threats were eliminated. It’s that knowledge of danger that Ejiofor played so well. When I rewatched the film recently, I found myself deeply shaken by Ejiofor’s second scene with Brad Pitt. There’s a moment when Solomon has to make a choice: tell this man the truth and risk freedom (or death), or keep quiet and live (or die) as a slave. Ejiofor realized Solomon’s torment to startling degrees, resulting in a deeply unsettling and wholly committed performance.
1. Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
as Edwin Epps
We’re getting into De Niro/Scorsese territory here. Kinski and Herzog, Mifune and Kurosawa. Perhaps that praise seems rushed, but after three flawless collaborations, director Steve McQueen and star Michael Fassbender have more than proved their cinematic worth. The two create men of conflict, suffering their own inner hell. In Hunger, Fassbender played an activist so stubborn in his beliefs, he was willing to die to make a point. In Shame, the actor mercilessly encapsulated the compulsions of addiction. And now, with 12 Years a Slave, we have the most haunting portrayal of a slave owner in cinema’s history. What makes Edwin Epps so terrifying is the way McQueen and Fassbender managed to make him into a real person. He isn’t a caricature of evil, nor the Devil incarnate – he’s simply a man doing what he knows to be right.
There are so many layers to Fassbender’s work here, such limitless depth that a few mere paragraphs simply can’t do justice. The complexities of Edwin Epps are boundless. Whether he’s confounded by the blindness of love, or using a human being as a post to literally lean on, there is no end to Epps’ anguish. No conclusion to his pain. A man of conflict, forever suffering in his own inner hell.