By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 11, 2013 at 12:44PM
The American movie star has been facing a crisis for several years now. It's been ages since Tom Cruise or Will Smith took on a widely acclaimed role, and box office receipts suggest that few celebrity faces have the power to elevate a movie's profile on the strength of their screen presence alone. These days, it's the content that matters more than the people who bring it to life: Genre, subject matter, and other granular details tend to overwhelm discussions about great performances. The male star, that hallowed archetype that sustains the iconic weight of faces ranging from James Dean to John Wayne, has largely become a fossil. Indeed, the only significant male performance this year in which an actor's recognizable face played into the strength of his role -- Robert Redford in "All Is Lost" -- focused on the possibility of his imminent death at any moment.
The upside of this situation is that the more intriguing male actors working today readily stand out better than ever. The following ranked list takes a look at several male performances in 2013 U.S. releases that, in some cases, single-handedly carried the projects they appeared in (and in other cases, saved them).
10. Alex Karpovsky ("Red Flag"/"Rubberneck")
Lost in the hype of the so-called mumblecore movement when it first erupted out of the SXSW scene, Alex Karpovsky was not as prolific or media-savvy as Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers, but his interests as both actor and filmmaker have more complex ingredients. Over the last five years, Karpovsky has directed a wide variety of projects, including two released together this year: A tense thriller, "Rubberneck," in which he also stars, as he does in "Red Flag," a quasi-autobiographical comedy about his experience on the road with his one of his earlier movies. While much of the world has started to know his face as garrulous truth-teller Ray on Lena Dunham's "Girls," where he's as vocal as any of the female protagonists, Karpovsky can also be glimpsed in any number of other recent movies (including a memorable dinner scene during "Inside Llewyn Davis"). But it's "Rubberneck" and "Red Flag" that best demonstrate the range of his distinct screen presence.
In the the comedically superb "Red Flag," Karpovsky plays himself as he travels around the country with his 2008 feature "Woodpecker" while reeling from a recent breakup. This could be a recipe for excessive self-indulgence, but the meta quality of "Red Flag" is entirely irrelevant to its low key charm -- anchored, as always, by Karpovsky's loopy, neurotic delivery and lanky physicality.
"Rubberneck" takes him outside his safety zone. Here, his character's shy demeanor often clashes with his self-effacing ramblings to amusingly ironic effect. He's still a headcase in "Rubberneck," but has reigned in the neuroses, burying them in the texture of his compelling new drama. Using elements of a real story and running with them, Karpovsky plays lonely bachelor Paul, whose introverted ways begin to evolve after a sensual weekend tryst with a lab partner whom he can't stop fawning over; the obsession leads to morbid results. "Rubberneck" has more in common with the growing Karpovsky oeuvre than it may appear -- and even inadvertently critiques it. Were it not for his amusing delivery, Karpovsky's obsessive onscreen personas would likely come across as maniacs not unlike Paul. The movie smartly interrogates the qualities that make any character likable. (What if the Karpovsky character who crashed at Dunham's pad in "Tiny Furniture" turned out to be a killer? In retrospect, all the signs are there.) Karpovsky's zaniness combines elements of Woody Allen and Andy Kaufman into a delectable formula that it's now more than safe to say he has turned into his own thing.
9. Michael B. Jordan ("Fruitvale Station")
Michael B. Jordan isn't exactly a newcomer or the major discovery that acclaim for his performance in "Fruitvale Station" might suggest -- he first gained notice on "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," after all -- but "Fruitvale Station" provides him with a new platform. Ryan Coogler's depiction of the final day in the life of 22-year-old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant, who was abruptly shot by a police officer in 2009 after an altercation that didn't call for it, derives much of its power from Jordan's neatly calibrated delivery. While some have argued that the movie suffers from depicting its ill-fated hero in quasi-messianic terms as he attempts to clean up his act while gradually careening toward his tragic fate, even that criticism implies the strength of the pathos emanating from Jordan's character.
His take on Oscar emanates a confused energy that typifies the struggles of the lower class with a shocking amount of realism scarcely found in American movies today. In "Fruitvale Station," Jordan is a hot-tempered young dad passionate about making his life work in spite of the countless mistakes on his hands. Forget the Jimmy Stewart mold; Jordan's performance provides a new paradigm for the everyman performance. For more on Michael B. Jordan, check out Indiewire's profile of the actor in our Awards Season Spotlight section.
8. Joaquin Phoenix ("Her")
When we first see Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in an unflattering closeup at the start of Spike Jonze's "Her," the mustachioed sad sack is dictating one of the innumerable canned love letters that he composes for his drab job. Despite that scene-setter, "Her" is neither workplace satire nor highfalutin treatise on the death of physical media. As the story fleshes out Theordore's solitary life, his conundrum has a familiar rhythm: He lies around in his cramped apartment haunted by flashbacks of his ex (Rooney Mara) and engages in lazy, hilariously unsatisfying phone sex. There's a gentle, melancholic quality to Theodore's routine as he goes through the motions of an unremarkable life -- until the day his new operating system arrives, asks him a few mechanical questions and promptly launches his new digital companion (tenderly voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who calls herself Samantha.
Phoenix's ability to sustain the credibility of their developing romance is an astonishing feat: He's both comical, somber and oddly relatable at once. It's a distinct contrast to any of his other recent performances, from his unsettlingly sloven roles in "I'm Still Here" and "The Master" to his recent turn as a charismatic showrunner in James Grey's "The Immigrant," illustrating a stunning range. But "Her" towers above all those recent achievements simply by introducing a likability to Phoenix that perfectly suits the way this near-future story comments on the way modern complaisance has allowed technology to consume our lives. If you feel for Theodore, you feel for the world. As much as Jonze's screenplay navigates this fascinating terrain, it's Phoenix's performance that eloquently delivers the message.