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by Eric Kohn
December 11, 2013 12:44 PM
14 Comments
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Critic's Picks: The Top 10 Best Male Lead Performances of 2013 According to Indiewire's Film Critic

Alex Karpovsky in "Red Flag."

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.

READ MORE: Indiewire 2013 Awards Season Spotlight

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.

14 Comments

  • Sam | March 26, 2014 6:10 PMReply

    Tom Hanks!?!?!? Where is Tom Hanks??

  • FP | December 30, 2013 8:29 PMReply

    Entirely agree with your top 4, and glad to see that Broken Circle Breakdown's lead is also mentioned. Too bad the excellent Mads Mikkelsen from The Hunt isn't mentioned, it would round out the top Foreign Language selections for this year's Oscars. For me, Dern beat out Isaac at Cannes as a lifetime prize, less in terms of individual performance. He was better in Monster, or Big Love for that matter. Dern acting ornery and drunk is no big deal. And anyone bringing up DiCaprio should just stop. The Scorsese experiments just don't work. I don't care if The Departed was their biggest success, almost every actor in that one blew DiCaprio away, as they do in most DiCaprio movies, except for Blood Diamond. Both should move on.

  • david | December 30, 2013 1:18 PMReply

    I don't know if it is a lead performance or not but how bout some love for john Gallagher Jr for " Short term 12? I haven't seen any love for him this awards season I would put his performance up against any male performance this year he was fabulous in "Short Term 12

  • John Mason | December 16, 2013 7:21 AMReply

    No C.Bale? He gave not one but two superb, wildly different performances and not one mention?

  • Mel | December 16, 2013 5:45 AMReply

    How can you forget the best performance of the year? Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt.

  • Greg Cwik | December 11, 2013 8:36 PMReply

    Protean tastes as always, Eric. I love the love for Karpovsky, who has been adding a subtle, somber earnestness to the hyper-silly (but hyper-fun) GIRLS for two seasons now.
    The best male performances of the year, in mine own humble eyes, are Phoenix in HER, Fassbender (supporting role, though) in 12 YEARS, and Oscar Isaac in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Isaac in particular makes an unlikeable loser empathetic, which is harder than being simply sympathetic. I still think Phoenix's turn in THE MASTER is even better than DDL in THERE WILL BE BLOOD--far more subtle, slightly more unsettling, but I've been comlaining about that for long enough...

  • RANDALL | December 11, 2013 5:38 PMReply

    I'm just curious,did you miss SOMEONE in your 'top ten best male performances of 2013'?BRUCE DERN in Nebraska,one of the best performances by a real actor(exception to Mr Redford,another real actor).

  • Amelia | December 11, 2013 4:04 PMReply

    Yes. Thank-you for mentioning Broken Circle Breakdown; the most under appreciated film this award season. And thank-you for including Mr. Redford's tour de force in leu of other middle of the ocean dramas in theaters recently.

    SAG award nominations were less than inspired. This list is wonderfully, contrastingly and acutely accurate. Gracias.

    ~amelia

  • Clemency | December 11, 2013 3:24 PMReply

    Alex Karpovsky? Really? For two films simultaneously? Neither of which made any substantial impact? That doesn't even make sense. Is this for Best Male Performance, or Indie Personality We Are Under Some Kind of Obligation to Promote No Matter How Mediocre and Forgettable His Work Is?

  • Eric | December 11, 2013 6:08 PM

    Don't you get enough McConaughey love from other lists? I've greatly enjoyed Karpovsky's work for several years and these two performances are pretty remarkable testaments to his dexterity.

  • Clemency | December 11, 2013 3:30 PM

    Seriously, why does Karpovsky get his "Best Male Perfomance" cobbled together from two films, while McConuaghey's (for example) is just one? (He could've easily been praised for Mud as well, a performance 100x more skillful than either of Karpovsky's.) I don't think those Karpovsky movies were even very highly rated by critics, which is weird in this list that's supposed to be a reflection of critic's opinions. Could you guys at least make your Karpovsky promotional duties a little less transparent?

  • Kyle | December 11, 2013 2:35 PMReply

    No Bruce Dern for Nebraska? Interesting.

  • Imdiym | December 11, 2013 2:30 PMReply

    no dicaprio? im calling bs

  • Serge Morten | December 11, 2013 2:48 PM

    Really, IMDIYM? What kind of B.S. do you suppose is being pulled here? A majority of critics thought DiCaprio's was among the best performances of the year, but collectively decided not to vote for him in support of some hidden agenda? Very interesting theory. Maybe you could elaborate for us.