The label “supporting actor” shouldn’t only describe actors in secondary roles. All actors support the movies they’re in (or, at least, they should). Nevertheless, the best kind of supporting actors aren’t positioned at the center of a movie’s plot but end up defining it anyway. It’s not just about stealing the scene — it’s about complimenting it so the entire picture makes sense. Here are 10 unsung heroes who epitomized the art of the supporting role in movies released this year. Some of them are more familiar than others, but in each case, their prominence in the projects they appeared in rank among the best discoveries of 2013.
Nick Offerman, “Somebody Up There Likes Me”
Bob Byington’s alternately touching and surreal comedy covers 35 years in the life of a man named Max (Byington regular Keith Poulson) as he falls in love with waitress Lyla (Jess Weixler) and starts a family with her. Poulson and Weixler both deliver amusingly deadpan performances, but it’s Offerman who elevates the material to absurdist heights. As Max’s righthand man Sal, Offerman presents himself as the humorless guru guiding Max through his various ups and downs — when in fact the older man is the real loose cannon. Therein lies the essence of Offerman’s humor: There’s a wicked, chaotic sensibility lurking beneath his poker-faced exterior. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” capitalizes on that talent.
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as a man kidnapped into slavery is crucial to making Steve McQueen’s tense period drama into a deeply personal experience. Yet it’s Fassbender’s icy turn as twisted plantation owner Edwin Epps that injects the movie with pervasively terrifying atmosphere that drives home the central historical argument: that slavery was an industry sustained by psychopaths.
Film critic Gerald Peary exudes an amusing blend of sheepishness and consternation in Andrew Bujalski’s hilarious black-and-white portrait of an early eighties technology conference. As professor and chess champ Pat Henderson, Peary epitomizes the movie’s coy perspective on the gap between personality and intellect at heart of its man-versus-machine plot. Henderson takes on the comic role of emcee for the event, as various students’ computers pair off against each other in a running attempt to highlight the strongest software. He’s a guide to the burgeoning uncertainties of the digital age, when we’re never quite sure if we’re the slaves or the masters, and his delivery renders that question hilariously ambiguous.
George Clooney, “Gravity”
“Gravity” is chiefly a roller coaster ride engineered by Alfonso Cuarón’s investment in pushing the language of cinema to new extremes. But a lot of people think that it’s Sandra Bullock, as one of two frantic survivors driving around the planet after the shuttle gets smashed apart, who brings the sense of fear to life. And it’s true — she’s appropriately freaked out for much of the running time. However, it’s Clooney’s ongoing sense of calm — he even makes a joke about his looks as the duo hurtle toward a black abyss — that gives “Gravity” a liveliness outside of its technological bells and whistles. The actor’s suave demeanor is as much a tool as anything else Cuarón uses to make “Gravity” so remarkable: While the movie starts by pointing out that life in space is impossible, Clooney brings plenty of it to each of his lines.
James Franco, “Spring Breakers”
“Gangster mysticism” is the way Harmony Korine describes the mentality of the young girls drawn to a life of crime after a beach party-gone-wrong experience in “Spring Breakers.” But it’s Franco as pimp-cum-arms dealer Alien who brings that notion to vivid, twisted life. Inhabiting a character better than he has in any of his other recent meta performances, Franco is at once an absurd cartoon and a frightening manifestation of rebellious extremes. In other words, he’s the entire Korine oeuvre boiled down to a singularly memorable creation.
Lea Seydoux, “Blue Is the Warmest Color”
Adele Exarchopoulous is the main discovery of Abdellatif Kechiche’s tender coming of age story, but Seydoux demonstrates a more intensely committed performance than anything else in her steadily rising career. As the blue-haired art student who seduces the young Adele and opens up her world both intellectually and erotically, Seydoux projects an aura of confidence and wit that’s wonderfully alluring — and terrifying, once the couple’s relationship is on the rocks. In essence, she’s the catalyst for the movie’s powerfully emotional payoff.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve probably already figured out that Jonah Hill is the secret weapon of Martin Scorsese’s demented look at Wall Street scammer Jordan Belfort’s early nineties rise. As Belfort’s wildcard business partner Donny, Hill’s most accomplished performance to date exists on an entirely different plane from anything he’s done before. Wacky, flamboyant and utterly unpredictable, he’s more effective than even leading man Leonardo DiCaprio at conveying the maniacal outcome of too much wealth.
Jia Zhangke’s anthology film covering a wide of variety problems with violence afflicting contemporary Chinese society is a tense experience from its first scene to its last. Yet the most powerful sequence that stands out above all of them involves the plight of the sauna staffer played by Jia’s wife Tao, as she’s assaulted by a pair of horny clients and winds up taking violent measures to respond. By the end of the movie, she winds up at the scene of the setting where an earlier story took place, driving home the movie’s cycle-of-violence theme in wonderfully provocative terms. More than anything else, she is the face of the movie’s powerful message.
James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
As the sweet-natured source of attraction for neurotic masseuse Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in Nicole Holofcener’s good-natured mid-life romcom, the late Gandolfini delivers his best performance in a movie, period. Underutilized in many features beforehand (he was often great, but his presence was fleeting), he’s a fully realized creation here. As the good-natured suitor Albert (Gandolfini), who doesn’t realize that Eva has been treating his ex-wife Marianne (Catherine Keener) and secretly gleaning information from her about his flaws, Gandolfini is both charming and witty in equal measures. More than that, he maintains a genuine feel unlike anything else seen in American movies made on this scale — which suggests the actor was tragically cut down in his prime, but at least he got to realize his potential first.
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
The outcome of “12 Years a Slave” is right there in its title: Kidnapped free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) makes his way back to a better life after a dozen years stuck in the hellacious world of various plantations. Yet the tragedy never ends for abused slave Patsey, portrayed by Nyong’o with a mixture of desperation and resignation that carries the full weight of McQueen’s bleak vision to its mesmerizing conclusion. Her horrific act of despondence, when she asks Northup to put her out of her misery, is particularly haunting because it’s delivered with a smile. Her final appearance in the movie, as she quietly tumbles to the ground in soft focus, brilliantly accentuates the way dark chapters in history are in constant danger of fading to the background. In “12 Years a Slave,” Nyong’o does a formidable job of making sure that doesn’t happen.