Today, Cate Blanchett makes a vibrant return to capital-A acting in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, a zeitgeist-y star vehicle the Oscar winner expertly pilots. To mark the occasion, and to acknowledge that more than half of 2013 is behind us, I’ve compiled a list of the finest film performances delivered by actors this year, at least until this point. For me, the 15-wide roster grew into something eclectic and surprising, and here’s hoping you share the feeling. Ace turns that came close to making the cut include Gael García Bernal in No, Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby, Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, and Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now, while Mud’s Matthew McConaughey and Berberian Sound Studio’s Toby Jones are among the possible contenders whose work I didn’t see before publication (and, yes, I saw Fruitvale Station). What remains is a mix of triumphs both male and female, lead and supporting, all of which set the bar high for the performances still to come this year.
15. James Franco in Spring Breakers. James Franco is deep in the business of self-parody these days, playing James Franco in This Is the End, and doing some variation of the same with cheeky guest spots in everything from The Iceman to the upcoming Lovelace. But, as proven by his grill-rocking, cornrow-sporting turn in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, the actor is at his best when burying his ubiquitous persona. However indelible the lines of Franco’s Scarface-loving Alien (at least one of you has a friend with a “Look at my sheeee-it!” T-shirt), Spring Breakers is Korine’s show, and that Franco seamlessly blends into the film’s neon fabric initially dulls his impact. In retrospect, though, the disappearing act is quite an achievement, proving Franco was in perfect step with his friend and helmer, and warranting that tired, oft-hyperbolic praise of a performer “vanishing” into his role.
14. Elizabeth Debicki in The Great Gatsby. In The Great Gatsby, Australian newbie Elizabeth Debicki may look like she’s doing her best imitation of Blanchett in The Aviator (right down to the golfing and the Hepburn accent), but, in fact, she’s making a splendid breakthrough as a soon-to-be-meteoric star. As Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire) would-be lover, Jordan Baker, a not-that-innocent bystander to the story’s central triangle, and a statuesque embodiment of the hollowness of status, Debicki is grand, chic, and altogether riveting, the key revelation in a deftly selected cast that gives breath and life to Fitzgerald’s classic figures.
13. Keith Stanfield in Short Term 12. Something’s wrong in the photo above. Critical darling Brie Larson (left) is grabbing all the kudos for her gritty work in Short Term 12, but she, not her co-star Keith Stanfield, should be the one out of focus here, as Stanfield is your top reason to catch this SXSW favorite. A first-time actor, the plausibly tough, yet sad-eyed, young standout stars as Marcus, a senior resident of the film’s teenage foster care facility, whose abuse from his mother has left devastating emotional scars. As of this writing, Stanfield’s rendition of Marcus’s soul-baring personal rap, and his handling of a scene that sees Marcus receive a symbolic, cathartic haircut, are two of the tear-jerkiest filmic moments of 2013. If justice prevails, Stanfield, like Marcus, will walk away from Short Term 12 with a glistening future.
12. Kate Lyn Sheil in Sun Don’t Shine. It’s not easy to describe precisely what Kate Lyn Sheil is doing in Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine, a modest thriller that casts the busy fringe actress as the morally bankrupt Bonnie to Kentucker Audley’s wildly upstaged Clyde. By turns ingratiating, horrifying, unbound, and restrained, Sheil’s performance has equal airs of inexperience and professionalism, which only end up serving her character, the childlike, yet cunning, half of a couple with a deadly secret. With her wide, searing eyes and passionate fits of fear and jealousy, Sheil occasionally recalls Isabelle Adjani’s mad turn in Possession, or, at least, suggests a woman possessed.
11. Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief. Like her new film, The Heat, if Melissa McCarthy’s Identity Thief proves anything, it’s that the Bridesmaids breakout’s talent is neither fluke nor fad, and that her shuffle from bit parts to major roles has been richly deserved indeed. As Diana, a conwoman in everywoman’s clothing, McCarthy gives a performance leagues better than anything to be expected in a mainstream, early-in-the-year release, padding a typically sketched character with layers of hilarity and pathos. Continuing to straddle the line between the knowing and the offensive in regard to her weight, McCarthy is terrific in simply penned moments of remorse and confession, adding tearful depth to her ace timing and formidable physical comedy. She owns Identity Thief with a turn of limitless surprise, making an otherwise adequate comedy soar as a star vehicle.