Our Favorite Single-Ballot 2013 Best Performance Picks

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by Steve Greene
January 3, 2014 9:44 AM
6 Comments
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It's been a few weeks since we published the results of our annual year-end critics poll. "12 Years a Slave," "Before Midnight," "Her" and "Gravity" led the way in the Best Film category, but there were ten other areas where respondents could single out their favorite work of the year. 

In the spirit of keeping some of the noteworthy cinematic achievements of 2013 alive in the new year (and highlighting some inspired choices by our Criticwire members in the process), here a handful of picks that only appeared on a single ballot. (For each selection, we've included a link to the critic's ballot so you can see what other performances made their cut.)

Michael Polley in "Stories We Tell
Best Supporting Performance on Christopher Campbell's ballot

Because of certain genre conventions, documentaries rarely get considered in any performance category. But with certain docs (see: last year’s “The Imposter”), performing becomes such a central thematic throughline that it’s difficult not to recognize one of them. The way that Michael, who over the course of the film's production essentially learns a new way of how to perform as a father, is brought into the story is a perfect example of the sincerity of “Stories We Tell.” Had the sequences in the recording studio come off as either joyful, exuberant cooperation or begrudging obligatory retreading of past injustices, they would have destroyed the careful balance between filmmaker subject and family that Sarah Polley takes so much care to establish.

Nathan Fillion in "Much Ado About Nothing"
Best Supporting Performance on Dan Kois' ballot 

The entire cast of "Much Ado About Nothing," like last year’s “Les Miserables,” never quite seems like a cohesive bunch. Some members of the ensemble seem more adept with handling Shakespearean language than others, while some are more steeped in whimsy than their onscreen counterparts. It's not until Fillion pops up that the film finds a rhythm that ropes in everyone for the final acts. Like Michael Keaton in Kenneth Branagh’s version twenty years prior, Fillion adds some levity to Dogberry's twisting of English turns of phrase with a dash of unintentional mischief, even when he's the one trying to bring some sense of order.

"John Dies at the End."

"John Dies at the End"
Best Ensemble on Luke Y. Thompson's ballot

In the opening scenes of Don Coscarelli’s “John Dies at the End,” it’s hard not to see Giamatti alongside a twentysomething searching for answers and think this makes the unlikeliest companion piece to “Cosmopolis.” But even with the distinct, stylized nature of the proceedings, no one gets swallowed up in Cult Classic Ambition. There's enough of a general self-awareness among the cast that the plot and fictional universe around them is so other-worldly bonkers that there's no need to amp up the craziness. If you submit to the film the way the actors do, the result is one of the more enjoyable film experiences of the year.

Maribel Verdú in "Blancanieves"
Best Supporting Performance on Daniel Walber's ballot 

What good is a Snow White story without a strong Wicked Queen? The script puts enough of a twist on it to keep it from seeming like a rehashing of the classic fairy tale, but the menace at the core is the key to making this feel like its own story rather than an experiment. Instead of overindulging in villainess tics to compensate for the film's lack of dialogue, Verdú excels at playing Encarna with a tinge of omniscience. Like her wispy predecessor in the classic Disney animated version, she's playing more of a presence than a person, lending an added element of danger beyond the inherent ones in the film's standout bullfighting scenes.

Sharlto Copley in "Europa Report"
Best Supporting Performance on Matt Prigge's ballot 

Copley drew some critical ire for his larger-than-film supporting turns in “Elysium” and “Oldboy,” but it’s his role in “Europa Report” that is most indicative of how he might best be used in a larger ensemble. There are few loud personalities in this crew of space travelers, but in a diverse, everyman crew. When the consequences of space travel finally begin to set in, the spectrum of emotion in James Corrigan's final moments encompass terror, awe and sadness, deepening the real sense of loss. The film's impressive low-budget sci-fi trimmings carry more potency when it has a compelling human story at its core.

Andrea Riseborough in "Oblivion"
Best Supporting Performance on Peter Labuza's ballot

Much like Olga Kurylenko, who garnered a three mentions in the poll for her role in Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder," Riseborough has a deceptively difficult task here (especially for big-budget fare) due to the enigmatic nature of her character. She's working within the framework of a limited emotional range and very few distinguishing characteristics from fellow cogs in "Oblivion"'s post-apocalyptic society. Many decried the sci-fi blender approach to the plot of the film, but Riseborough keeps her character from becoming made-to-order, cookie-cutter eye candy that a lesser film would insist on relegating to the background. Alongside her powerful, subtle work as a reluctant informant under IRA pressure in "Shadow Dancer," 2013 was a year where Riseborough proved that she can do a lot with a little.

"Prince Avalanche."

Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in "Prince Avalanche"
Best Supporting Performance on Scott MacDonald's ballot and Best Lead Performance on Jette Kernion's ballot

Despite respectable showings among the Best of Sundance and Best of SXSW results, Rudd and Hirsch only appeared on one ballot each. Perhaps since much of the conversation following its release centered on the relative achievements of its director, the duo at the center was left as somewhat of an afterthought, despite carrying a heavy narrative burden all by themselves. Having a lo-fi buddy comedy out in the wilderness without the two characters actually being friends for most of the film is a risky proposition, but both Rudd and Hirsch are able to carve out distinguishable personalities without being simple diametric opposites. In testier moments, when the two are able to find some common ground, it's clear that the film doesn't work unless the two can be both distinct halves (the young man and the man of simple living he's hoping to avoid becoming) and a single unit at the same time. 

F. Murray Abraham in "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Best Supporting Performance on Peter Labuza's ballot 

Even if Abraham’s entire screentime consisted of the best quote of 2013, that would be merit enough for inclusion on this list. But what makes the character and the performance so crucial is the potent mixture of miniscule hope and soul-crushing indifference. When Llewyn makes his way to Chicago, it’s clear he’s up against a toughened judge of talent. From performance to reaction, “The Death of Queen Jane” sequence is a carefully placed house of cards until Bud Grossman swiftly collapses it with a single, dismissive bit of condemnation. Whether you find that bit of cynicism delicious or horrifically blunt, it's a moment that, like the film's Möbius strip bookends, is carefully seeded long before it happens.

Angela McEwan in "Nebraska"
Best Supporting Performance on Sam Adams' ballot 

Much as the Chicago diversion in “Inside Llewyn Davis” has been overshadowed by its placement in the film and the (deserved) praise heaped on the “Please Mr. Kennedy” sequence, Angela McEwan has been largely drowned out by the attention given to her castmate June Squibb. One of 2013’s one-scene wonders, the character of Peg Nagy is the ideal antithesis to any charge that Payne is holding up the members of this town as objects of ridicule. McEwan's scene effectively becomes the film's pivot point, bridging our understanding of Woody (Bruce Dern) and his son's. Through the relatively short interaction at the newspaper office, Peg's tale of loss and recovery helps cements Woody's vulnerability while also showing that he still has friends in the town even as his dreams and control are slipping away.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey in "The Wolf of Wall Street"








Matthew McConaughey and Kyle Chandler in "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Best Supporting Performance on Mark Salisbury's and James Rocchi's ballots

Like Copley, McConaughey was another actor with three divergent roles in 2013. In the voiceover narration and fourth wall breakage, Belfort describes being drawn to greed like any other addictive substance. But it’s McConaughey that represents the first supplier, the confirmation that although the riches they’re trading exist purely in abstract form, the spoils are tangible. Even with the three-hour runtime, there's not much room for Mark Hanna to work his magic on Belfort - we need to see all that necessary enticement come from a single lunch break. All the charm, swagger and charisma McConaughey had to bottle up for most of "Mud" and "Dallas Buyers Club" manifests itself in a handful of drink orders and chest thumps.

In a film that thrives on excess, it only makes sense that Wall Street's antithesis would come in the form of the film's most grounded performance. Through Kyle Chandler, Agent Denham becomes a foil for his financial freewheeler adversaries without veering into allegorical, flag-waving high morality. Chandler’s charge is to be a methodical, workmanlike hunter, handwriting his ambitions while his “enemies” do their work on state-of-the-art computers. When the empire starts to crumble, he’s there with a look of stern disappointment rather than a "gotcha" grin. And his demeanor in that final subway ride home is one of the film's clearest indications that no one in this tale is allowed any sense of finality, triumphant or otherwise.

A few other performance choices worth noting:

Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Side Effects" - Melissa Anderson

Ben Kingsley in "Iron Man 3" - Daniel Loria

Ben Affleck in "To the Wonder" and Adam Driver in "Frances Ha"  - Adam Batty 

Michaela Watkins in "Afternoon Delight" - Robert Horton

Stanley Tucci in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" - Kristy Puchko

Tucci and Alice Eve in "Some Velvet Morning" - Matt Brennan 

Daniella Kertesz in "World War Z" - Michael Nordine 

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Any unheralded performance choices that went mostly overlooked at end-of-the-year list time? Let us know in the comments.

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6 Comments

  • Jayne Hasselroth | January 17, 2014 11:45 AMReply

    Best Looking...Best Actor...Kyle Chandler!

  • Andres | January 6, 2014 9:52 AMReply

    Agreed on Kyle Chandler. That yacht scene with Leo was excellent!

  • Kelly Brandt | January 4, 2014 8:05 PMReply

    MICHAEL SHANNON in Mud or anything really.
    TAVI GEVINSON in Mud- outstanding performance by a young actor. The camera was on him practically in every shot.

    Why this young man wasn't recognized is beyond me. He carried the film as we, the audience, experienced the whole story through his youthful, romantic eyes.

  • Mikey | January 4, 2014 9:20 AMReply

    I must add a few more surefire likely Oscar snubs that deserve attention. Yes, Meryl is amazing in "August: Osage County" but I'd much rather see Amy Adams get another nomination for "American Hustle". It's been a while since Julia Roberts has been recognized & she is brilliant in the film. But Margo Martindale outshines both Streep & Roberts & deserves a nom. Onward--Chris Cooper & Ewan McGregor are fantastic in supporting roles here! McGregor is overdue praise from the Academy. Should have been AT LEAST nominated for "Moulin Rouge!", but last year should have gotten in the Supporting category for "The Impossible". His performance was every bit as desperate & gripping as his Oscar-nominated co-star's, Naomi Watts. Perhaps his day will come, or has his ship sailed?
    Here's another bet: No Jennifer Garner for "Dallas Buyers Club" in a beautifully subdued performance. She also should have received a Supporting nomination previous for "Juno".
    And as much as I like Scarlett Johansson--somebody strike me dead if she is nominated for her "voice-only" performance in "Her". They have always ruled that voice-overs are not eligible for Oscars. If that were so we'd have seen nominations in the past for actors like Robin Williams for "Aladdin" and Andy Serkis as Gollum in "Lord of the Rings". Can we please just have a new BEST VOICE OVER PERFORMANCE category & stop debating! If they allow Johansson in this year, they open a big can of worms for years to come...

  • Mikey | January 4, 2014 8:48 AMReply

    I must state that Sally Hawkins & Bobby Cannavale are being shrouded by a deserved acclaimed (and sure Oscar-winning) performance from Cate Blanchett. Hawkins delivered a finely nuanced, delicate portrayal of a fragile woman who is swayed easily at her sister's criticism at times. But when Hawkins "gets it", she shows it with conviction that I was not sure her character had! And Cannavale plays such a genuine, sensitive rarity of a man with such natural charisma & buoyant charm. They both are deserved Oscar nominations, though it will not happen. Woody Allen's sharp, honest script, & Blanchett's stunning portrayal of a spoon-fed woman suddenly facing real life with mental issues are a SURE BET for noms. This is Allen's best film since "Midnight in Paris" & "Bullets Over Broadway". I have also noted that he often directs his actors to Oscar noms & usually wins (see: Diane Keaton, Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest (twice!), Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruz, Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Chaz Palminteri, Judy Davis, Martin Landau, Mariel Hemingway, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, and even HIMSELF! If "Blue Jasmine gets a nomination for his classic writing, it will be his 24th Oscar nomination. That is quite commendable considering his first film was made in 1965 and almost 50 years later he has made 48 films that still get critical acclaim & awards! Gotta love his undeniable talent, if not he as a person...

  • David | January 3, 2014 10:08 AMReply

    Dennis Quaid delivers a career best performance in At Any Price, a very undervalued film in general. He perfectly portrays an American patriarch who projects pride and strength while secretly imploding and growing more and more desperate as his failures and sins catch up with him. Another is Gemma Arterton in Neil Jordan's Byzantium. Often thought of as a pouting sex symbol who maybe can/maybe cannot act due to pictures such as Quantum of Solace and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, she is amazing here as a fierce and protective vampire mother. It is a big, bold, vivacious performance, and she connects perfectly with co-star Saoirse Ronan as her undead daughter. Together, they truly sell the unique relationship: a loving bond complicated by the demands of eternal life.

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