20. Liam Neeson (The Grey)
Neeson portrays a character whose resolve is as steely as his imposing physique, but he gives him a human side that reveals itself in different forms throughout. It’s a layered creation and fascinating in the way it enriches the screen persona Neeson has shaped for himself in the past few years.
19. Yilmaz Erdogan (Rhino Season)
Erdogan’s villain is as vulnerable as he is menacing, which makes this portrayal of a sexually repressed, morally indecipherable character all the more terrifying. He perfectly captures the psyche of religious fundamentalist men in post-revolutionary Iran, those whose rise to power was catalyzed by the very norms that impeded them in the pre-Islamic era.
18. Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy)
Yet another adventurous, challenging undertaking by American cinema’s most audacious actress. And yet another successful turn. Kidman brings subtlety to a character whose every trait is unsubtle and makes an inaccessible woman incredibly sympathetic. She’s in command of Charlotte; it’s Charlotte who’s absolutely unhinged.
17. Amy Adams (The Master)
It’s a reflective performance, one that slyly changes tonal course over the film. But despite the space she leaves for the audience to interpret her character, the subtext remains the same for me throughout: she’s ‘The Master’ to all. Peggy blends into the background but her controlling presence is always felt.
16. Nina Hoss (Barbara)
Who knew there could be so many facets to the poker face? Nina Hoss’s ice-cold titular anti-hero is anchoring one of the most challenging films of the year, but she does so with grace and gravitas. Hoss shapes an imposing persona for a character who’s treading on thin ice on the inside. The performance is mesmerizing from start to finish.
15. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)
Maya is insular, isolated and completely inaccessible to an audience that doesn’t inhabit her world. Chastain smartly chooses to play her like a blank slate, a woman with nothing but unwavering will power. She allows us to project onto her our feelings during the film’s most mundane and riveting moments alike, until that final vortex of emotions drains her of all her might.
14. Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
The most poignant performance of the year. Henry withholds his emotions from the audience just as he does from Hushpuppy, but never leaves any doubt that there is a softer side to his personality lurking just under the skin. It’s hard not to break down to tears when that side finally comes to the foreground.
13. Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)
Cooper had an amazing year, turning around a career centered on pretty-boy leading roles to becoming the central figure in projects by two of America’s most exciting filmmakers. In Russell’s film, his performance as the unstable Pat is heartfelt and fittingly jittery. His soul-searching, sky-blue gaze tells the story of the film.
12. Matthias Schoenaarts and Marion Cotillard (Rust & Bone)
Two performances connected by physical bruising and heartbreak. Both convey effortless, genuine emotions against the film’s heavily manipulated stylistic exercises. These might feel like rough sketches quite often but the messiness only strengthens the emotional punch of the unlikely relationship between Stephanie and Ali.
11. Olivia Munn (Magic Mike)
Her Joanna transcends her limited screen time and forms a character more complicated and compelling than the screenplay demands. It’s an intricate performance, subconsciously giving off an uneasy vibe about Joanna that pays off when her character’s arc descends.
10. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Creating a fine balance between steely confidence, nervy emotional undertones and unsubtle sexuality reminiscent of the greatest works of Barbara Stanwyck, Lawrence broadens her range with this assured performance and reasserts herself as Hollywood’s biggest young star.
9. Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Dane DeHaan (The Place Beyond the Pines)
These three performances are completely intertwined despite the minimal time the actors share on the screen. Pines is a finely crafted, edge-of-the-seat thriller, but it’s surprisingly DeHaan’s prodigiously confident intensity, Cooper’s guilt-ridden nervousness and Gosling’s cool and delicate demeanor that become the film’s main talking point.
8. Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
The most personal performance of the year; a smart and sensitive turn that not only anchors the film, but becomes a character completely inseparable from the actress who embodies it. Gerwig’s performance is touching and vivacious, a product of her kooky humor and the authenticity of emotion carried over from her mumblecore background.
7. Saskia Rosendahl (Lore)
Carrying not just the burden of the film, but also the enormous burden on Hannelore’s shoulders, this young actress’ remarkable debut is the focal point of one of the year’s most difficult films, one that actively but unsuccessfully tries to distract from her magnetic force. Rosendahl balances perfectly Lore‘s tough-as-nails sternness with the insecurities and longing in an adolescent woman.
6. Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike)
Not quite parodying, but certainly magnifying the traits that the public has come to recognize the man with outside his films. This role fits McConaughey like a glove leather tights. Fully aware of that, he takes Dallas and goes balls to the wall without forgetting that he is a human being, not a caricature. This is a career-defining performance.
5. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
What can be said about this master of the craft that hasn’t been said already? His mimicry is unsurprisingly convincing. His voice is skillfully altered. His posture defines the character. But most importantly, his Lincoln is a grand work of artistry because it’s an understated, grounded portrayal of a national hero, without over the top theatrics.
4. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed)
Unlike Kate, whose biggest struggle with sobriety is honesty, Winstead’s beautiful performance thrives on openness. It’s a work of heartbreaking sincerity and glass-thin vulnerability that, along with the marvelous film that contains it, remains criminally underseen.
3. Denis Lavant (Holy Motors)
The most committed performance of the year. Carax’s universe is wild and often uncontrollable, but even when he fails, Lavant can be counted on to save the day. He destabilizes everything we establish about Monsieur Oscar at every turn, digging deeper and deeper into his psyche and exploring new facets of man’s cognitive capacity. Each of his creations is more compelling than the one before it.
2. Jean Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
Amour has been labeled Haneke’s most accessible film. That’s true to an extent, but I maintain that fact has more to do with the gut-wrenching portrayal of love in the final stages of life by these two legendary actors that with Haneke’s script. Riva’s methodical mastery of her disability is countered by Trintignant’s vivid authenticity, and they both move us in equal measure.
1. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)
The yin to the other’s yang. The man to the other’s beast. Restraint versus agitation. External peace versus internal quarrel. But at many points during The Master, this pas de deux of superb harmony blurs all the lines above as Freddie and Lancaster zigzag among the many facets of man’s being between themselves. These are two of America’s finest actors at their very peak; their styles are wildly different but their chsemistry is uncanny. They live their characters with body and soul.