There's nothing groundbreaking about an alienated teenager, but when the role is conquered with as much skill as Mia Wasikowska brings to Stoker, it seems fresh in spite of itself. As an outcast whose sexual awakening is also an awakening towards violence, Wasikowska brings a steely intensity to the film and finds a way to let her character flower beneath the veil of a deliberately flat affect. Although the character is at once repulsed and attracted to violence, she never feels inconsistent which is due in no small part to Wasikowska's firm grasp of her complicated psychology. Stoker was one of the first movies of 2013 to really blow me away and though the year had many great things to come, Wasikowska's performance stuck with me all year, it's that good.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is delightful, so delightful that it's kind of amazing that there aren't a host of romantic comedies with her at their center. In Enough Said she shows her romantic comedy chops, though the film is never a simple romantic comedy. As a single mother struggling to come to terms with her daughter's impending departure for college and still stinging from her divorce, she depicts a woman so scared at the prospect of being left alone that she attempts to move her daughter's friend into the void about to be left by her daughter, but also so scared of forging and then losing another connection that she engineers the destruction of her new romantic relationship before it can get too serious. It's a performance that is funny and vulnerable and complex in ways that we no longer expect from this particular genre.
Although the Before movies are ultimately all duets between Jesse and Celine, there's a sense in which Before Midnight is "the Celine movie" of the series. So much of the dramatic momentum of the narrative is rooted in her feelings of having been the over burdened one in the relationship, and though several reviewers dismissed her as having turned into "a bitch," what she really is is fed up with Jesse's seeming inability to recognize any sacrifices but his own. Celine is definitely hard on Jesse in the film's long climactic fight scene (and it's to Deply's credit that she's unafraid to let Celine show such sharp edges), but she's articulate even through her building anger. Not content to coast on the work of the series' previous entries, Delpy instead shows us new facets of her character, ones which may not always be pleasant, but are definitely human.
One of the most powerful things about Octavia Spencer's performance in Fruitvale Station is the way that she underplays things. As the mother of the slain protagonist, she mixes warmth with a sensible, no-nonsense attitude and the "big moments" are not played as big moments for an audience, but as intimate moments that we as the audience are intruding on. When she looks at her son's body and says, "I didn't think they'd hurt my baby," it speaks volumes, distilling one of the film's larger points into a quiet, poignant moment. Though Michael B. Jordan carries most of the film, it's Spencer who, by the necessity of Jordan's absence in the finale, carries the story home with her beautifully subtle performance.
The success of Lea Seydoux's depiction of Emma in Blue is the Warmest Color is a matter of energy as much as anything else. The cool confidence of her performance nicely moderates the more erratic, nervous energy of Adele Exarchopolous' Adele, and though the character does not have the benefit of the film's point-of-view, Emma nevertheless emerges from the film a fully formed person. In lesser hands, Emma would be the archetypal "artist," an enigmatic figure who functions to set in motion the protagonist's awakening and no more, but as played by Seydoux she's distinct, a woman with thoughts, desires and ambitions who exists apart from her relationship with Adele. Though reportedly put through the ringer making the film, the results are there on screen: an absolutely stunning performance.
It must be difficult for an actor to play a character who is, essentially, a happy person. More often than not, we associate acting skill with drama and respond to the portrayal of dramatic emotions like sadness or anger, so making an impression with your ability to play happiness is a bit of an uphill battle. The effort never shows in Greta Gerwig's performance as Frances in Frances Ha, a character who, though she has moments of pathos, tries to put a happy spin on just about every situation. Playing a grown woman struggling to take the final steps into adulthood, Gerwig mixes a nervous energy, a naked desire for affirmation, and a goodness of heart into the characterization, then pulls it all off with a deftly light touch.
Lupita Nyong'o's role in 12 Years a Slave is relatively small, but she is at the center of several of the film's most memorable scenes. As the lightning rod for suffering at the Epps plantation, lusted after an punished for it by the master, hated with intensity by the master's wife, she is treated with brutality in scene after scene, her existence relentlessly painful. In the scene which is bound to be used in Nyong'o's Oscar clip, her character begs for the release of death, whatever will she had left to live having completely left her. It's a fantastically acted scene, but the strengths of the performance are in the moments when she says nothing at all, when her body language, the expression on her face, the way she watches other characters, say it all. Not bad for a film debut.
Barring some unforeseen event, it seems certain that Cate Blanchett will win her second Oscar for her portrayal of Jasmine, a woman fallen from her pedestal and mentally coming apart at the seems. Certainly it is a bravura performance, her character drifting (and then speeding) towards the brink, written off by those around her as a selfish drunk, ending up on a park bench a broken woman with nothing left. Even in broad strokes, the role has Oscar written all over it, but Blanchett doesn't surrender to the temptation towards hamminess and keeps the character grounded in the reality that she's inching further away from. She never seems "crazy," she seems crazy. And the distinction makes all the difference.
One of the strongest aspects of Philomena is the complex way its eponymous character views the tragic events of her past. She is a victim of the institution of the Catholic Church, but remains faithful to Catholicism as a religion and is reluctant to place blame on any one person as an agent of her victimization. She seems, at first, like a simple person with a big heart and a narrow worldview but as the film unfolds, and her complicated relationship with her past is revealed, she emerges as a much less passive character than she at first seemed. Dench allows this progression to occur gradually and masterfully, delivering a performance which alternately delights and breaks your heart.
I'm not sure that any performance this year was more raw and unfettered than that of Adele Exarchopolous in the epic coming-of-age film Blue is the Warmest Color. Guiding her character from adolescence and into early adulthood, an emotionally intense, often painful transition, Exarchopolous puts everything out there, eschewing vanity in favor of the sometimes unflattering realism the film strives for. Adele is a character who doesn't really know who she is yet - even by the end of the film, she's only just starting to figure it out - which would be difficult for any actor to play, but Exarchopolous uses that inherent volatility to her advantage to deliver a performance which pierces the character to the core. Best of the year (female or male), without question.