Saturday, January 4, 2014

Top 15 Male Performances of 2013

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
as Jeff

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
as Muse

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
as Alien

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
as Lucas

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.


  1. For me as of right now (as I will see Her next weekend),

    1. Leonardo diCaprio-The Wolf of Wall Street
    2. Chiwetel Ejiofor-12 Years a Slave
    3. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai-The Grandmaster
    4. Michael Fassbender-12 Years a Slave
    5. Matthew McConaughey/Jared Leto-Dallas Buyers Club
    6. Bruce Dern-Nebraska
    7. Christian Bale-American Hustle
    8. Michael B. Jordan-Fruitvale Station
    9. Oscar Isaac-Inside Llewyn Davis
    10. Michael Douglas/Matt Damon-Behind the Candelabra

    Honorable Mentions: Bradley Cooper/Jeremy Renner-American Hustle, Miles Teller-The Spectacular Now, James McAvoy-Trance, Tom Hanks/Barkhad Abdi-Captain Phillips, Sam Rockwell-The Way, Way Back, Andrew "Dice" Clay-Blue Jasmine, Ryan Gosling/Vithaya Pansringarm-Only God Forgives, James Gandolfini-Enough Said, and Jude Law-Side Effects.

    1. Another excellent list. Did you see the extended/original version of The Grandmaster, or the shorter one? Hell, is the original even available in the States? Either way, Leung was great in that film.

      And Dice... man, how great was he in Blue Jasmine? I really loved his work.

      Random question but did you ever get around to seeing Upstream Color? I honestly forgot. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that one.

    2. I have yet to see Upstream Color which I hope to do either this month or next month.

      I saw 2 versions of The Grandmaster which I mentioned in my review. I downloaded the full-length 130-minute version of the film (which I still have) and saw the shorter American version in the theaters. I recommend the long version as I think there was much more emotional weight in the story and less exposition. Fucking Harvey Weinstein, I would so like to kick him in the nuts.

    3. I know right... it's like, "Hey, Harv, Americans want to see the full version, trust me."

      I'll have to try and track down the full version though. I've heard great things.

  2. My favorite wasTye Sheridan from Mud, that kid carried the movie and sold the emotion. His buddy was great also.

    1. I loved Sheridan in that film, I thought he stole the show. His friend was definitely great as well. Terrific child acting.

  3. 2013 was too rich with great performances. I only nominate 5 of these, but I can't argue with any of your picks. I LOVE 'em all, Joaquin Phoenix unseen. Wonderful list man!

    1. Thanks dude! It really was a performance-rich year. Hard to narrow it down to just five noms. I'm so anxious to see who the Academy nominates.

  4. 12 Years A Slave has become that movie that I like a lot, but love nothing in it. It's weird. I do think Fassy was very good, but I don't see him making into my list at all.

    My favourite male performance so far is still Franco in Spring Breakers. Leo *might* change that. Others in my top 10, were I to make one, would be Hanks for Captain Phillips, Simon Pegg (who was OHMYGODSOFUCKINGBRILLIANT in The World's End), Tye Sheridan, Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Sidiqui in The Lunchbox, Matthew Goode, Jonah Hill as Jonah Hill, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bradley Cooper for American Hustle, and George Clooney for Gravity.

    1. I know what you mean about your stance on 12 Years. You appreciate it, but you don't enjoy it. Fair enough, tough movie to love.

      Love your picks and I LOVE that Franco still tops your list. What a nut he was in that film.

    2. Oh Leo like obliterated my entire list. I loved his performance more than all of these put together.

    3. He was a fuckin' beast in that flick, wasn't he? The more I think about him in that movie, the more I love him.

  5. A good friend of mine said something very interesting about Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave. He said "Fassbender dives so far into Epps' filth, his depravity, his shamelessness that you forget how incredibly handsome Michael Fassbender is."

    Although my friend wanted to cement his crush on Michael Fassbender, this statement holds so much fucking value in my eyes. Fassbender, like Bob De Niro, like Klaus Kinski or Toshiro Mifune as you listed, disappears in his roles when he collaborates with McQueen. You still see Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Erik Lensherr, The Counsellor, etc, but it's something about McQueen, he knows how to throw Fassy right into the role.

    I agree with this wholeheartedly, So many scenes of Fassbender's Epps being the worst human being but still, at the end of the day, being a human being. He never ventures into caricature. He's never mustache twirling nor does he have "humanizing" moments.

    Where I would call Brandon Sullivan, Fassbender's Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta--I would liken Edwin Epps to De Niro's Max Cady. A terrible force of nature of a man, monstrous, layered...

    Fuck man, Fassbender is great.

    1. This comment kicks ass. I agree with everything you said so much, and I fucking LOVE your comparisons of Fassbender's characters to De Niro's respective performances for Scorsese. So spot on. I also agree that, while Fassbender is my favorite actor right now, he never disappears quite as deeply as he does when he works with McQueen.

    2. I can speak as a girl who fairly regularly has sexual cravings for Fassy, that after each of his McQueen movies, I've found it super hard to even look at a picture of his. Especially Epps. Gotta give both him and McQueen that.

    3. Ha! Well, thanks for that insight Nik :)

  6. Incredible list Alex. As much as I did dislike Upstream Color. The acting was still quite good. Oh and it was cool to read that Barkhad Abdi was from my home town

    1. Thanks buddy. Really happy to hear you appreciate the acting in Upstream. And I loved that story about Abdi... just a regular movie buff going in for an audition. Incredible.

  7. Great to see the double act of Captain Phillips included here. Can't wait to see 12 Years a Slave. Mikkelsen was brilliant in The Hunt. Glad to see him listed so highly!

    1. Mads stunned me in that film. Such emotive work. Really curious to hear your thoughts on 12 Years a Slave.

  8. Haven't seen most of them, but came for 12 Years a Slave.

    "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" -- That part was so powerful. Love it. Was just waiting for it to be the 2nd time he got fucked over for reaching out to a white man in confidence.

    I primarily came to compare Fassbender's Edwin Epps to Fiennes's Amon Goeth on basically all levels. On the grand scale, of course Goeth was worse. Though, internally, I think I could argue Epps was more fucked up.

    1. It's a very interesting comparison. I think if given the opportunity, Epps would've been just as deadly as Goeth. I mean... if Epps' plantation was as big as Płaszów, I'm sure he would've done as much human damage as Goeth. What fucked up men.

  9. My list would be topped by Leonardo DiCaprio (probably my favourite performance of the year thus far) and Tom Hanks, but hey, I haven't seen at all that much. Can't wait to see 12 Years a Slave once it finally hits our shores, and it is quite cool to see Michael Fassbender topping this list. Steve McQueen really does bring out the best in him - I'd say that his performances in both Hunger and Shame are in my top ten performances of all time.

    1. I think you'll really appreciate Fassbender's work in 12 Years. What command that man has. Wow.

      Leo KILLED Wolf. I loved his performance in that.

  10. Although incomplete at this point, Fassbender has a strong hold on #1 for my list as well... He was just amazing

    1. Oh that's so cool... I love hearing that. Will look forward to your list!

  11. If James Franco got a supporting actor nomination I would respect the Academy so much!! 2013 was a great year for film, no doubt.

    1. Seriously! Can you imagine if that happened? It'd be fantastic.

  12. I love what you rote about Hanks. That ending was unreal. I couldn't stop crying. That ending pushed him towards couple of spots on my line up and he is my win now. So awesome to see Mikkelsen on your list, he is number 2 for me, right after Hanks.

    I don't nominate Fassbender. I don't know, his work there just didn't do anything for me. I thought smaller characters like the ones played by Cumberbatch and Giamatii were far more interesting than his.

    1. Hanks and Mikkelsen were both so damn strong. They played tormented so well in their respective roles. Really stunning stuff.

  13. Great list Alex. I'm a big Fassbender fan and it's great to see him top it but I'm very happy at your inclusion of Mikkelsen and Michael B. Jordan. Two outstanding shows.

    1. Thanks Mark. Fassbender was so strong and startling in that film. Really floored me. So happy to hear your praise for Mikkelsen and Jordan as well.

  14. Not seen all of these yet. That was remarkable work by James Franco, kudos for highlighting it! Also that might just be Mads Mikkelsen's career high-point, so good in The Hunt. Fruitvale Station I had mixed feelings about how the story was told, though there's no denying the solid acting. Matthew Goode in Stoker was pretty good, I thought, just to add a name to the list. Nice work, Alex!

    1. Thanks man! I do think The Hunt captures Mikkelsen's best work to do. But he's a damn fine actor all around. Goode was so creepy in Stoker - I really dug that performance.

  15. Some incredible performances. Tom Hanks has had a great year - one of his best, surely. Fassbender continues to amaze, Chiwetel Ejiofor gets better when you didn't think it was possible, and Matthew McConaughey is turning out great performances after great performances (picking some of his best roles). Great list Alex...there are still plenty of films on it I've yet to see though: looking forward to experiencing your recommendations.

    1. Thanks so much Dan! So happy to hear you dig the picks. This really was a great year for performances, no question. So many of them rattled me to the core.

  16. Great list, Alex. The male performances that really impressed me last year are much more than 15, but a similar list from me would look this:

    1) Michael Fassbender - 12 Years A Slave
    2) Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf Of Wall Street
    3) Michael Shannon - The Iceman
    4) Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewyn Davis
    5) Joaquin Phoenix - Her
    6) Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club
    7) Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave
    8) Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers Club
    9) Christian Bale - American Hustle
    10) Jake Gyllenhaal - Prisoners
    11) Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips
    12) James Franco - Spring Breakers
    13) Bruce Dern - Nebraska
    14) Robert Redford - All is lost
    15) Bradley Cooper - The place beyond the pines

    I wanted madly to include Madds Mikkelsen in "The Hunt" on my list, but it was released in November 2012 in Greece, where I live and I saw it in theaters back then. Such an exceptional performance from a truly exceptional actor. Mikkelsen is one of those actors that are simply incapable of giving a bad performance. But he really outshined even himself as Lucas. I'm in awe of his work in Thomas Vinterberg's chilling film. Michael Fassbender is by far my first choice on this list for his gigantic performance in "12 Years A Slave". Mere words indeed cannot do justice to his commitment to his role. It's one of the greatest performances of the 21st Century. It's quite amazing that the same goes for the phenomenal work done by DiCaprio and Shannon in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" and "The Iceman", respectively. Such a terrific year for performances, both male and female.

    1. Makes me so happy that we fully agree on Fassbender's work in 12 Years a Slave. Gigantic is the perfect way to describe it. What ferocious power that man has. Also, I know we've talked about Shannon's work in The Iceman before, but I recently rewatched that film and wow... that man is just so good. I love him in everything.