By Steve Greene | Criticwire January 3, 2014 at 9:44AM
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Any unheralded performance choices that went mostly overlooked at end-of-the-year list time? Let us know in the comments.