Looking Back: Joey Picks 10 Best Performances by an Actor in 2013

December 23, 2013

Best Performances by an Actor in 2013

The year is almost over folks, and with that brings the deluge of lists that we all look forward to reading and agreeing/disagreeing with from fellow cinephiles. For my part, I'm delivering a two-part look at the Best Performances of 2013, split up between performances from actors and actresses. This was a year full of performances to rave about, so I'm thrilled to be able to give my personal favorites a moment in the sun, starting with just the actors here in this first part. From relative newcomers like Will Forte to old veterans like Bruce Dern (both in the same movie), wherever you looked, there was someone giving a performance for the ages, and it was a pleasure to watch all of them on the big screen throughout this year.

Something I noticed this year was that, as we've seen in many years past, the male performances of note greatly outnumber the female ones, at least in terms of the Oscar race. Best Actor and Supporting Actor are stacked races, while Actress and Supporting Actress are relatively lean. In some ways, that makes narrowing down this male list a bit tough, and a couple of future Academy Award nominees won't be showing up here.

Below are the ten best performances by an actor this year. When mixed with the best female performance list (coming later today), you'll have my top 20 performances of 2013. I'll be curious to see your favorites in the comments section afterwards when all is said and done, but for now, let's get the show on the road!

#10. Ryan Gosling - The Place Beyond the Pines

Ryan Gosling

There's something about the way Gosling works with Derek Cianfrance that brings out an extra little X factor into his work. Here, he's more internalized that in Blue Valentine, but nearly as good playing a motorcycle stunt man driven (no pun intended) to rob banks in order to try and support his young son. Where the plot of The Place Beyond the Pines goes is best left unsaid, but his performance and character on the whole hangs over every single frame of the movie. It's an underrated performance and one well worth citing here on this list.

#9. Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers Club (hat tip to The Wolf of Wall Street)

Matthew McConaughey

Even more so than last year, 2013 has been the year of McConaughey impressing folks with his newfound versatility. From earlier this year in Mud to his scene stealing performance in The Wolf of Wall Street (had he gotten one more scene, I might have cited that as his main noteworthy role actually), McConaughey delivered. Especially with his Oscar bait performance in Dallas Buyers Club, the man showed off skills that few thought he had just a few short years ago. He perfectly conveys the transformation of a straight bigot with AIDS going from almost a lost cause to a hero. He's very deserving of that first Academy Award nomination likely headed his way soon.

#8. Will Forte - Nebraska

Will Forte

I was as shocked as you were that Forte was as good in this film as he turned out to be. Hardly the first choice for this part in Nebraska, he winds up being an incredibly pleasant surprise. Forte is your entryway into the story and the most relatable character Alexander Payne has shown us in a long time, and a lot of the credit is his. He completely buries himself in the role, never mugging for the camera, and showing us the talent that we all hope to see more of going forward in the future.

#7. Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club

Jared Leto

It's hard to steal a film right out from under a powerhouse performance by McConaughey, but Leto was able to do just that in Dallas Buyers Club. As a transgender woman, Leto is almost unrecognizable, turning in an acting job that very well might be winning him an Oscar. Very much the heart and soul of the movie, Leto has the hardest role, yet he pulls it off brilliantly. One can only hope he's caught the acting bug again and won't solely concentrate on music going forward, since if this is what he has inside him, it'd be a crime to deprive audience of it in the years to come.

#6. Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks

Hanks is very solid as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, but it's his performance as Richard Phillips in this flick that reminded me why he's one of our best. Captain Phillips showcases Hanks at his everyman best, but it's not until his final scene where he's able to break down that you really see Hanks putting on a clinic. That might be one of his best individual acting moments ever, and it's the moment that stays with you long after the movie is over.

#5. Joaquin Phoenix - Her

Joaquin Phoenix

Never before has Phoenix played so lovable a character as he does here in Her, and man was it a beautiful sight to see. Phoenix may look a bit like Leonard from "The Big Bang Theory" here, but his Theodore is a complex and unique creation. You feel for this man so much, and that's a credit to Phoenix. This is a performance different than he's ever done before, but it's one of his very best.

#4. Jake Gyllenhaal - Prisoners

Jake Gyllenhaal

A career best turn from Gyllenhaal, he helped elevate this thriller to the special level that it was able to reach. His Detective Loki is far from your normal cinematic cop in just about every way possible. Gyllenhaal plays him with the perfect combination of intensity and humanity, granting the character some extra pathos. It's a performance that's been forgotten a bit this year, especially during the precursors, and that's a real shame. He's the best part of Prisoners, for my money at least.

#3. Bruce Dern - Nebraska

Bruce Dern

Every year or two we get a crusty old veteran thrown back into the spotlight with a lead performance, but rarely are they as good as Dern is in this one. He's a real treasure here, showing you this ordinary man in a downright extraordinary way. Dern is happily in the Best Actor conversation for this cagey performance in Nebraska, but more importantly than that, we have the likely promise of more noteworthy roles from him.

#2. Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio

Who knew that DiCaprio was an ace physical comedian? He's a comic genius here, delivering the best performance of his career in my humble little opinion. The Wolf of Wall Street is hilarious, with his performance one of the main reasons why. From one of his opening monologues about the drugs that he uses to his Quaalude-riddled attempt to open a car door, DiCaprio turns in the funniest performance ever in a Martin Scorsese film. It's also the comedic performance of 2013 for me, besides just being one of the best of the year overall.

#1. Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac

The male performance of the year for me, Isaac doesn't just act his ass off, he sings his heart out as well. I don't think that this role would have been the same in anyone else's hands. Simply put, the movie wouldn't exist without Isaac. No one else could combine the acting skills and musical talent required to pull it off here in Inside Llewyn Davis. You love his character even when you shouldn't, and that's because of his work in the film. It's likely going to get ignored come Oscar time, no pun intended, but it wins top honors from me.

Honorable Mentions - Bradley Cooper - American Hustle/The Place Beyond the Pines, Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave, Michael B. Jordan - Fruitvale Station, Robert Redford - All is Lost, and Miles Teller - The Spectacular Now

There, my friends, are the best male performances of 2013 for me. My second part of the best performances of 2013, focusing solely on actresses will be arriving later today. Keep an eye out over the coming week for more of our year-end lists including my picks for the Best Scenes of 2013, in addition to other posts from our own Ethan Anderton about the Best Official Movie Posters of 2013 and more. In the meantime, I'm turning things over to you now though for some respectful back and forth. What were your favorite performances from actors in 2013? Did I mention most of them? Which ones did I miss? Sound off now!

Find more posts: Editorial, Looking Back



Fantastic list though I still think that Bale isn't getting enough credit for American Hustle. He was phenomenal in that film, totally made me forget who he is.

Matthew Curione on Dec 23, 2013


Thank you kindly...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


I also think both Hugh Jackman and Jake Gylenhaal's performances were great!. Christian Bale in American Hustle and Woody Harrelson in Out of the Furnace were also two convincing standout perfomances IMO.

Sherlon on Dec 23, 2013


Bale is quite good as well, though I wasn't huge on any part of Out of the Furnace personally...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Jackman was great in Prisoners, Jake was good.

Chiroptera Exsanguination on Dec 23, 2013


I'd switch that around, but to each their own...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


i thought Jake was amazing and Jackman was good

iamNotLegend on Dec 23, 2013



Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Great list there, so well done.

Kim on Dec 23, 2013


Much obliged...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


I asked on the other part too, but just in case here too: what does your combined actor/actress list look like?

Kim on Dec 28, 2013


No worries, and here it is again: 10. Brie Larson 9. Jennifer Lawrence 8. Joaquin Phoenix 7. Shailene Woodley 6. Jake Gyllenhaal 5. Bruce Dern 4. Scarlett Johansson 3. Leonardo DiCaprio 2. Oscar Isaac 1. Adèle Exarchopoulos

Joey Magidson on Dec 29, 2013


Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave for me.

Indianamcclain on Dec 23, 2013


You're not alone there either...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


My personal favorite so far is Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty.

DavideCoppola on Dec 23, 2013


Duly noted...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


How could you forget Michael Fassbender's performance in 12 years a slave, i thought it was one of the best of the year.

Zade_92 on Dec 23, 2013


I didn't forget it, I just didn't feel it was worth citing. I personally much preferred him in Shame...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


I did love him in shame, that internal struggle he displayed was brilliant, but i thought he portrayed an even stronger internal struggle in 12 years a slave that just moved me. I loved the scenes with him and Sara Paulson, she's becoming such a force in acting. Anyway I just felt that Michael brilliantly illustrated the internal struggle that some slave owners went through, he knew what he was doing to Solomon was grossly inhumane but he couldn't help but go along with it because that was the world he lived in and that struggle he showed is what I believe should land him a supporting actor nomination. Just my opinion though.

Zade_92 on Dec 23, 2013


He's hardly bad, I just had other names that I felt were more deserving here...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Fair enough, I'm really eager to see Inside Llewyn Davis now!

Zade_92 on Dec 23, 2013


I highly recommend it...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


The best supporting role performance of the year!

Chiroptera Exsanguination on Dec 23, 2013


Well, not for me, at least...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Great retrospective. I agree with the ones I've seen, and look forward to seeing the ones I haven't.

mylesedwardhughes on Dec 23, 2013


Appreciate the kind words!

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Joaquin Phoenix Will Forte Tom Hanks Leonardo DiCaprio Jake Gyllenhaal Matthew McConaughey Oscar Isaac Ryan Gosling Bruce Dern Jared Leto

Ehsan Davodi on Dec 23, 2013


Those are my ten, so I obviously can't quibble with the order much...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Yes joey but i think in this list Phoenix & Forte are better than the others. Truly choosing between Forte/Hanks/Leo/Gyllenhaal are very very hard decision. Anyway i really have good time while watching this actors.

Ehsan Davodi on Dec 23, 2013


I contemplated having Phoenix as my #1, actually...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Idris Elba in mandela was another fantastic performance

Jordan Alford on Dec 26, 2013


There were no shortage of top notch performances this year, no doubt about that...

Joey Magidson on Dec 26, 2013


I've got to disagree completely on Forte and quite a bit on Dern.

Chiroptera Exsanguination on Dec 23, 2013


I also think Jake G is too high on the list (and I loved him in the role) and I think Leto's performance is getting a little overblown just because he played gay/drag/trans. Also loved that role but I feel like it wasn't that amazing to me. Lastly I felt Bale was missing from the list πŸ™‚

Chiroptera Exsanguination on Dec 23, 2013


Duly noted...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


You're certainly entitled to disagree...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


I know I'm in the vast minority with my opinion on both of those. I just really felt that both performances were pretty hollow.

Chiroptera Exsanguination on Dec 23, 2013


Fair enough...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


So... You didn't really like Nebraska.

Jaleel White on Dec 23, 2013


I didn't. I thought the movie and the performances were weak. The lady who played Forte's mom was alright though. And Stacy Keach.

Chiroptera Exsanguination on Dec 23, 2013


June Squibb, who might just show up on my Actresses piece, which just went live, by the by...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Yes! Couldn't recall her name and I didn't feel it necessitated a googling on my phone.

Chiroptera Exsanguination on Dec 23, 2013


No worries.

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Apparently not...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


I'm glad Matthew McConaughey made it on to the list, but why so low? This was easily his best performance yet and it was really convincing and compelling. I really hope he wins an Oscar for this, he definitely should have been above Jake G. Don't get me wrong, great list and I appreciate your input on all of these performances, great choices!

Zade_92 on Dec 23, 2013


Honestly, there's no one good answer. Initially I just settled on the 20 best performances to me, then I started shaving it down, and once I got to the ten, I really only knew who my #1 was. Aside from that, it was just where the list felt right to me, if that makes sense...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Great to see Gyllenhaal so high on the list. He OWNED that movie.

Robert MacFarlane on Dec 23, 2013


That he did...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Jared Leto's part was a lot flashier, but I thought Matthew "Alright Alright Alright" McConaughey was much better, more subtle... Agree to disagree, I guess!! Also... no James Franco lovin'? πŸ™

Greg dinskisk on Dec 23, 2013


And I concur with whomever said Gyllenhaal being high on the list is good!!! He too was fantastic, deserves to be part of the Oscar conversation...

Greg dinskisk on Dec 23, 2013


Agreed, obviously...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Franco was under consideration for an honorable mention citation...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!!!!!!! πŸ˜‰

Greg dinskisk on Dec 23, 2013


Ha, apologies then...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Normally every major award institution. like The Academy, split the performances in leading and supporting.

PARANAM on Dec 23, 2013


That they do, and here we have six lead performances and four supporting ones. If you want to get picky, take McConaughey out to see my Lead five and add Bradley Cooper from honorable mentions to get my Supporting five...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Cool. I can live with that.

PARANAM on Dec 23, 2013


Glad to hear it...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Gosling is a 1-trick pony. The dude doesn't even speak 99% of the time in any single movie.

ff on Dec 23, 2013


Good thing acting is much more than just delivering dialogue...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


I agree with you, except 'looking cool' doesn't quite cut it for me as 'acting'.

ff on Dec 23, 2013


Maybe not, but emotional depth portrayed silently does cut it for me...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013


Def wouldn't say its a bad list its pretty darn good. But I find some omissions egregious. Michael Fassbender for one. His venomous, lethal, yet broken performance has everything you could ask for in a movie that featured some of the best performances this year ( again that part is obviously my opinion...actually all of it is...lol) While I would put Gylen. on this list (more like 10) I do not think he owned a movie that might even have surpassed 12 years in ensemble cast ( I found Leo, and Dano also entertaining in parts ). For my money Jackman owned the movie or at least co owned. Visceral, lived in, everyman these words come to mind, and all of them counter the very fiber of Jackman, that is the def of acting. I would not have Gos nor Forte on this list. Forte was good but good for Forte, I could not stomach putting his performance over Fass or Jackman, and Gos while just outside I would not simply because he just wasn't given as much to do, and to follow but not completely the "ff" person it was a bit reminiscent of Drive, and Only God Forgives.

David on Dec 23, 2013


Appreciate your comment...

Joey Magidson on Dec 23, 2013



Rock n Rollllll on Dec 24, 2013


For a performance? I enjoyed their voice work, but no one in the cast came close to Johansson in Her for me...

Joey Magidson on Dec 24, 2013


Jake Gyllenhaal's Prisoners hair deserves a nod all on its own.

triguous on Dec 26, 2013


Well played...

Joey Magidson on Dec 26, 2013


Nice list!

Moriah Kreppein on Jan 11, 2014


Thank you.

Joey Magidson on Jan 12, 2014


A very good assortment of the year's best.

Marty on Jan 15, 2014


I appreciate that, much obliged.

Joey Magidson on Jan 15, 2014


Can't really argue with much of that list. I don't think either would crack it, but two of my favorite performances from this year that were overlooked were Redford in All Is Lost, and especially Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight.

Brian on Jan 17, 2014


Both are certainly strong bits of acting, no argument here.

Joey Magidson on Jan 17, 2014

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