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).
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.
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.
7. Bobby Sommer (“Museum Hours”)
The best screen debut of the year is hiding in this delicate platonic romance, the narrative debut of longtime documentarian Jem Cohen. Sommer plays middle-aged museum guard Johann, whose low key gig at Vienna’s grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum allows him to befriend the distant Anne (Canadian songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara), a woman of the same generation who’s in town to deal with her cousin’s debilitating illness. Sensing Anne’s isolation in the big city, a physically overwhelming sensation that reflects her inner turmoil, Johann quickly forms a bond with the woman and keeps her company around town.
A soft-spoken gay man whose lover died years earlier, Johann copes with a similar estrangement from his surroundings and confesses to spending his free time at home playing online poker. Over the course of extensive conversations, however, their personalities emerge with sharp definition, as they talk about music, career paths and life philosophies. As Johann blends with his surroundings, the museum takes over, its majestic archways and high ceilings forming a wordless poem. Still, in spite of such ostentatious displays, “Museum Hours” retains its humanity, and even breaks its serious pose for flashes of humor (as when Johann notes that he’s asked for bathroom directions more than anything else). Cohen’s discursive approach veers in and out of reality with a seamless rhythm, but Sommer’s gentle face and sweet-natured delivery provides the wandering story with its anchor. He’s as much a guide for the audience as he is for the melancholic Anne.
It doesn’t take long to establish the challenge of Matthew McConaughey’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” both for him and viewers implicitly asked to accept it. The emaciated actor, playing a straight man who just learned he has AIDS, glares at his doctor and fires back that there’s no way he’s got “that Rock-cock-sucking-Hudson bullshit.” McConaughey, who shed nearly a quarter of his body weight for the role, makes clear the artificial nature of his screen presence from the outset, then spends most of the movie strengthening its credibility. To its credit, “Dallas Buyers Club” provides McConaughey with sufficient room to gradually make this challenging persona more palatable, but like the character’s battle to survive, it’s no easy proposition.
Based on the true life story of Ron Woodruff, a Texan electrician diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, “Dallas Buyers Club” covers the immediate aftermath of Woodruff’s diagnosis, which initially arrived with the expectation that he would be dead within a month — even though he lived another seven years. Facing impossible odds for the time, Woodruff fought to get his hands on unapproved experimental medications and eventually got in the business of selling it to other ailing locals. McConaughey’s chaotic performance outdoes the entire movie in making that unorthodox journey into an authentic plight.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s script, the movie emphasizes Woodruff’s transition from spiteful trailer trash cliché to medical activist a little too bluntly, though Vallée largely counteracts that issue with a noticeably restrained tone that foregrounds McConaughey’s increasingly believable embodiment of the character. While so many of the actor’s recent performances have been gloriously over-the-top, “Dallas Buyers Club” shows his ability to burrow inside a personality nothing like the smooth-talkers that he usually plays. He’s both pathetic and driven, usually at the same time, yielding not his most fascinatingly paradoxical performance but also his best.
5. Jonah Heldenbergh (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”)
The premise of writer-director Felix Van Groeningen’s drama, based on the play by Johan Heldenbergh (who stars in the lead role), hails from one of the chief clichés of sentimental fiction: It’s a cancer story. Heldenbergh plays Didier, a bearded banjo player at the center of a band that enlists the spunky Elise (Veerle Baetens) as co-vocalist once the duo becomes romantically involved. The narrative shifts between the joyful days of their initial romance and seven years later, when their young daughter is in the late stages of cancer. Needless to say, it’s a seriously downbeat scenario that offers little in the way of respite for its protagonists as they face one hurdle after another in a Job-like series of trials.
But the traditionally mopey premise is frequently enlivened by the music, all of which can be found in the vibrant soundtrack (credited to The Broken Circle Breakdown Bluegrass Band, which was formed after production on the film). More than that, it’s Heldenbergh, a bearish man whose hardened features obscure his gentle soul, who gives the story its profoundly affecting core. Growing increasingly dogmatic as he expresses frustration for the lack of care available for the couple’s ailing child, Heldenbergh expresses himself better when he’s engaged in a song. That ongoing contrast between the artist’s instability in life and coherence in song results in a uniformly heartbreaking embodiment of grief’s ever-changing nature.
Paolo Sorrentino muse Toni Servillo turned the Italian director’s 2008 biopic “Il Divo” into an eccentric portrait of a man driven to madness by power. Seen in contrast to that role, Servillo’s turn as fictional upper class writer Jep Gambardella in Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” shows the actor’s truly chameleonic ability to enliven any character Sorrentino decides to put on screen. To a certain extent, “The Great Beauty” is a fantasy film lost in the vivid corners of its lead character’s mind. Despite the many stylistic flourishes the give the shaggy narrative an elevated poetic sensibility, it’s Servillo’s smarmy expression that strengthens the movie’s ideas about the jaded worldview afflicting Italy’s affluent citizenry in the Berlusconi age.
More than once, the movie flashes back to Jep’s ebullient youth, with images of lost love and poignant exchanges tellingly juxtaposed with his listless present, when even high art strikes him as a feeble punchline. There’s a modicum of plot involving his tenuous romance with a stripper (Sabrina Ferilli) and a wizened nun (Sonia Gessner) who falls into Jep’s social circle to remind them of their empty lives. For the most part, though, “The Great Beauty” wanders through its setting with a mixture of awe and contempt that mirrors Jep’s agnostic outlook. He’s a haunting creation seemingly convinced he’s too smart for the world and yet desperate to cling onto it through the echoes of his lost innocence. Sorrentino’s flashy techniques are as excessive as the party life he portrays, but Servillo provides an emotional foundation that grounds the overwhelming extravagance in a supremely memorable portrait of a man out of sync with reality.
3. Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”)
Light on plot, heavy on melody and feeling, “Inside Llewyn Davis” takes some inspiration from the career of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, but avoids the trappings of a biopic or making broad pronouncements about the era. Instead, the nomadic Llewyn’s fleeting misadventures, which find him drifting from one couch to the next while struggling to justify his career, lead to a delicate, restrained portrait that results in a different kind of movie than anything else the sibling directors have made before. As much as the Coen brothers deserve credit for the unique mood, however, Isaac’s quiet, angst-riddled embodiment of Llewyn holds their vision together.
Llewyn is harder to like than a lot of Coen-certified screw-ups. He lashes out at everyone around him while leeching off generosity wherever possible; the only time he shows any real concern for another being’s well-being is when he loses track of the neighbor’s cat. But there’s a strongly relatable quality to Llewyn’s passive aggressive ways that makes him more realistic than the majority of the Coens’ plucky creations. Beyond that, it’s his musicality that enables him to become a legitimately sympathetic personality.
This is an especially potent equation in “Llewyn Davis,” as Isaac’s character spends much of the movie drifting from place to place in hopes of landing new opportunities; it’s no spoiler to reveal that he’s enmeshed in a lost cause, because Llewyn gave up on his hopes a long time ago. You can hear the beauty and the tragedy of that reality whenever he stops whining to the people around him and picks up the guitar.
2. Robert Redford (“All Is Lost”)
Robert Redford spends the duration of J.C. Chandor’s second film fighting for his life while lost at sea, hardly speaking at all. While simplistic to describe, the movie is an impressively realized work of minimalist storytelling that foregrounds Redford’s physicality more than any other role in his celebrated career. His compelling screen presence and the implications behind his increasingly desperate situation infuse each scene with an overarching profundity. Virtually each shot is a reminder that he’s one of America’s great actors.
Redford’s performance defines the movie to an almost shockingly experimental degree. The movie can be interpreted as an eloquent treatise on the aging process itself: Redford’s handsome visage and its now wizened details reckon with the fleeting nature of youth, a concept that takes on intriguing ramifications in the context of stardom. “All Is Lost” doesn’t reinvent Redford’s appeal so much as amplify it.
It’s hard to imagine Steve McQueen’s tale of a kidnapped free man in the 1840’s who was sold into slavery without Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role. As real-life victim Solomon Northup, Ejiofor maintains a raw intimacy that provides an empathetic center to the horrors of the times. Almost immediately after its first public screening, “12 Years a Slave” generated serious discussion about Ejiofor as the Oscar frontrunner for Best Actor. It’s about time more people appreciated Ejiofor’s understated talents, but forget about that for a moment. “12 Years a Slave” is more than an essential movie about slavery, although it certainly deals with history in many sharp-minded, provocative ways. The movie works because it turns Northup’s situation into a relatable situation. Faced with the daunting task of imbuing a remote dilemma with realism, Ejiofor matches McQueen’s filmmaking skill. The actor’s expression alone conveys a wholly unique set of emotions, blending exasperation, fear and rage that intensifies with each scene. Never sugar-coating its darkest aspects, “12 Years a Slave” avoids the pratfalls of trumpeting its importance. Ejiofor’s frantic expressions speak volumes, bringing the past life and consequently rooting it in the present.