Tashiana Washington in Gimme the Loot
Handily holding her own amid a cast that’s almost entirely male-dominated, breakout novice Tashiana Washington is a natural at conveying the learned toughness of Sophia, a New York girl who was raised among boys, and, as a means of social and literal survival, adopted much of their traits, so she could (somewhat) acceptably pursue the graffiti-writing she loves as much as they do. Asserting that de-glamming isn’t nearly half of the actor’s battle, the gorgeous Washington pairs her rough-and-tough look with a sea of bottled-up feelings, including rage against the machine of the class system, and budding love for her confidant and best friend, Malcolm (Ty Hickson). In Adam Leon’s naturalistic SXSW hit, there’s a scene on a stoop between Sophia and Malcolm in which Washington seems to miss a line, and yet the cameras keep rolling while the actress rolls with it. Her quick rebound plays like the indie version of live theater, and winds up aiding Sophia’s unsure footing when it comes to her growing attraction. Even a stumble is perfect in this green, but exceedingly great, performance.
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
If you can’t imagine the regal Cate Blanchett in shambles, hurriedly talking to herself, like one of those poor, unfortunate souls you see in the corner of the subway car, then you certainly haven’t seen Blue Jasmine, which, in time, will probably come to be known as the source of the definitive Blanchett performance. An unwittingly self-destructive victim plummeting from reality, Jasmine (whose name isn’t even her real name) is all that remains of the posh empire funded by her late, Madoff-ish husband (Alec Baldwin), unless you include the Hermes scarves and Louis Vuitton bags she can’t bring herself to part with. A whirling intersection of the fallen 1 percent and the growth-challenged Hannah Horvath type, the antiheroine crumbles at the thought of any major life decisions, and whether in chirpy flashback or devastating present-day, Blanchett serves up powerhouse schizoid moments that’d make Elizabeth I bow and Sheba Hart blush. By the time Jasmine shudderingly asks, on the verge of collapse, for her signature, snob-motif drink, demanding, “Who do I have to sleep with around here to get a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon?!” you’re laughing through the torment of watching a woman disintegrate.
Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt
Having already shown American viewers his way with hauntingly layered composure on NBC’s Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen takes things even deeper with his sympathetic role in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, giving Lucas, his wrongfully demonized small-town teacher, a wealth of dimension that’s so restrained, it’s even frustrating. After being accused of sexual misconduct by his friend’s confused young daughter, Lucas, by way of Mikkelsen’s marvelous instincts of when and how to emote, goes through the motions of damage control in a manner that’s markedly civilized when compared to his finger-pointing, witch-hunting neighbors. Like the wild prey he ironically becomes, the seemingly gentle single father only reacts when forced into a corner, and when he does, the result is as agonizing as it is cathartic. Mikkelsen’s captivating efforts deservedly won him the Best Actor prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer
Taking that Mikkelsen-esque approach and running with it to the breaking point, Andrea Riseborough gets her Falconetti on in James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, playing MI5-targeted IRA member Colette McVeigh in a near-wordless fashion that’s all about what’s emitted from her utterly indelible face. In Riseborough’s hands, Colette is an unbreakable enigma, whose nuance-laden stoicism is the core of this tense and sparing thriller’s uncertain allegiances. Safely rebounding from the generally poor reception of Madonna’s W.E., which, in highlighting the notorious Wallis Simpson, foreshadowed Riseborough’s taste for risk, the brunette Brit has had a busy year, with additional parts in Disconnect and Oblivion. But it’s this knockout, seat-pinning turn that blows any doubts of the scary-smart actress’ gifts to smithereens, like an unexpected bomb left silently on the stairs of a subway stop.
Suzanne Clément in Laurence Anyways
It’s bad practice to make premature declarations, but to hell with it: The thought of 2013 offering a better performance than Suzanne Clément’s in Laurence Anyways seems as absurd a fantasy as Paula Deen being invited to the premiere of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Of the many brilliant choices made by director Xavier Dolan, including practically back-burnering the transition of his transgendered title character (Melvil Poupaud) in favor of exploring her relationship with Clément’s Fred (sit and digest all that bird-flipping to heteronormativity), the bravest and greatest is his ultimate positioning of Fred as the sympathetic lead, a move that yields indescribable rewards from his fiercely talented leading lady. Take your pick of a scene that, with due respect, stands heads and tails above any from anyone else on this list: The subtext-swathed outburst at an elderly waitress who thinks belittling small talk is acceptable; the shattering revelation of [spoiler alert!] an abortion that further tears open proceedings that already feel like a gaping wound; or the centerpiece, flip-flopped coming-out dazzler, wherein a dolled-up Fred makes a fateful choice to be spectacularly numb, and Clément exudes enough fabulosity for 10 films. As portrayed by the actress, the feelings of this character—whom you’ve never seen before, despite the common presumptions—are so terribly palpable that even the memory of them can elicit tears. As someone else behind the scenes here put it, this performance, also rewarded at Cannes, is legendary.