Gloria header

5. Paulina Garcia - "Gloria"
If we're going to split hairs, then no, "Gloria" isn't technically a 2013 film by the criteria that we normally judge these things by: Sebastian Lelio's film doesn't hit theaters until next month, missing the 2013 cut-off by barely two weeks. But we're making an exception: partly because it premiered at Berlin in February 2013, partly because the film's already been released in much of the world, and mainly because we have no desire to wait another twelve months to talk about a performance of this caliber. The Chilean actress—best known for her theater work back home—plays a fifty-something divorcee, still glamorous, but deeply lonely after her children have left home, who immerses herself in the world of singles dances, and becomes drawn to an older man still tied up in his own family. Like a sort of South American Mike Leigh heroine, Gloria can be maddening in her self-deception and repetition of past mistakes. But you also love her from the first frame to the last (particularly after her glorious late-in-the-game revenge), with Garcia giving a performance of tremendous warmth and vivacity. Quite rightly, she won the Best Actress prize at Berlin in February, and if there was any justice, she'd be nominated alongside Bullock, Streep, Blanchett, et al. at the Oscars. Still, with Chile currently putting out some of the most exciting cinema around, we sincerely hope there's more to come from Garcia soon.

12 Years A Slave
"12 Years a Slave"

4. Lupita Nyong'o - "12 Years a Slave"
Turns out that our comments section can occasionally be good for something other than baffling witch-doctor-related spam and various creative ways to tell us to go fuck ourselves: months and months ago, when Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" was barely in the can, we were tipped off that one of the standout performances of the film came from someone called Lupita Nyong'o. And they were absolutely right, because now, the Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised actress, cast in the film soon after her graduation from Yale last year, is on her way to an Oscar nomination after a truly extraordinary performance. Nyong'o doesn't really register in the film until almost halfway through, but once Patsey, the tortured slave so beloved by Michael Fassbender's cruel slave master, arrives, she's not quickly forgotten. Other characters get far more screen time, but every second of Patsey is truly wrenching, from that unforgettable whipping scene to her desperate plea to Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon for him to kill her, rather than let her live any further in the world she can never escape. It's a performance of fierce anger and compassion, and if Nyong'o can pull something like this off at her first time at bat, imagine what she can do a decade from now.

Captain Phillips,

3. Barkhad Abdi - “Captain Phillips”
If necessity is the mother of invention then perhaps desperation is the bastard offspring of survival and necessity. In Paul Greengrass’ kinetic snapshot of the pirating of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, Barkhad Abdi plays Muse, a Somali man forced to turn hijacker because of his dire economic circumstances. Starving literally and figuratively, Muse claws his way to the top of his dismal food chain, dispensing one of his rivals to become the pirate leader. However, we get the sense the Somali man isn’t violent by nature, but that his grim situation has transformed him into the zenith of desperation. Naturally, Abdi plays Muse like a wide-eyed starving rat; all raw nerves, skeletal psyche and false sniggering ego. But his puffed up, inflated self-worth, belies what’s underneath: a scared human being forced to suck up what wicked reserves he has inside to pull off this heist and feed himself and his family. What’s more Abdi goes toe to toe with Tom Hanks in what is one of his strongest performances to date. Not bad for a unknown first-time actor who has to somehow inject some sense of humanity into a character who would otherwise be seen as a one-note villain. In over his head, distressed and dangerously despairing, Abdi’s portrait of hopelessness is truly a haunting thing to witness.

Short Term 12

2. Brie Larson - "Short Term 12"
Brie Larson’s been around a long time (seriously, she was a Disney TV movie and sitcom star in middle school) and she’s built up quite the roster of credits and respect in shows such as Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and in films like  “Greenberg,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and “21 Jump Street.” But 2013 was the year of Brie, with impressive turns as Miles Teller’s ex in the Sundance hit “The Spectacular Now,” and as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sister in his directorial debut (another Sundance hit) “Don Jon.” But it wasn’t until SXSW when Larson got to show off her leading lady chops in that festival’s big winner “Short Term 12.” Often cast in the blonde mean girl roles (see: ‘Spectacular Now,’ ‘Scott Pilgrim’), Larson is decidedly dressed down as Grace, a supervisor at a foster care facility who is dealing with her current life challenges as they collide with the ramifications of her troubled past. It’s a role that demands a lot of Larson, as she has to demonstrate all sides of Grace: her strength as well as her weakness, her deep mourning for herself and others, and her joy in the small victories; her fear and her fearlessness. It’s a deeply physical role that she inhabits fully, whether she’s biking out her anxiety, chasing down a wayward kid, or unleashing her rage on the windshield of a car (in an Oscar-reel worthy moment). In our review from SXSW, we said Larson “manages to convey her character as someone fierce and strong and steely, and also utterly fragile, delicate, scared and broken. It’s an incredible emotional and physical performance.” She’s stunning in this role, proving her might, her vulnerability and just how darn watchable she is. She’s been here all along, but she’s proven she’s got talent to last. The Gotham Awards agreed with us: she scooped up the Best Actress statuette just last night, and has also snagged a nom for Best Actress from the Independent Spirits.

Blue Is The Warmest Color

1. Adèle Exarchopoulos - "Blue is the Warmest Color"
Seemingly moments after "Blue is the Warmest Color" won the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the discussion turned from the relative merits of the film to just about anything else—the prolonged lesbian sex scenes, the original comic book author's displeasure with the adaptation, the endless infighting between various members of the creative team. And it's a shame, too, because lost in that shuffle was the rightful praise of the fearless lead performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos, who was 18 at the time of the film's production. Exarchopoulos' performance borders on the miraculous; she's able to portray a teenager consumed by a fiery love affair with a blue-haired girl (Léa Seydoux, just as electric but more seasoned) and, somehow, an older version of that same girl, one who has loved and lost and matured greatly along the way. Part of that transformation is physical; in earlier parts of the movie she's less a personality than an engine, eating and fucking and throwing herself around. In the later sequences she's more measured, nuanced, and exacting, even her posture becomes more rigid (and, whether she actually did or not, she seems to have slimmed down as well). The sex sequences are feats of infinite bravery, as well, but Exarchopoulos is even sexier in one of the movie's non-sex scenes, where she's sprawled out, nude, a cigarette dangling precariously from her upturned mouth, her arty lover sketching her nearby. Watching "Blue is the Warmest Color," we couldn't help but get that sinking sensation in the pit of our stomach. Exarchopoulos perfectly captures, in a beautifully rendered performance full of wit and grace, the sensation of falling in love with someone and knowing that, no matter how much you try and fight and wish it to be true, that you'll never, ever, as long as you live get over that person. This year, we felt as though we just couldn't get over Exarchopoulos' performance either.

Honorable Mentions: It's not due for release until 2014, but we were struck by newcomer Mackenzie Davis in Drake Doremus' "Breathe In," expect big things from her down the line. While it was overshadowed somewhat by "This Is The End" and "The World's End," apocalyptic indie-comedy "It's A Disaster" gave David Cross and Julia Stiles their best, wickedly funny comedic roles in years, while giving great showcases to less familiar big-screen faces like Erinn Hayes, Rachel Boston, America Ferrera, Kevin M. Brennan, Blaise Miller and Jeff Grace. And for all the film's flaws, we were very impressed by newcomer Lydia Wilson in Richard Curtis' "About Time." Anyone else we've missed? Let us know in the comments section.

- Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Diana Drumm, Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Cory Everett