2. Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street
The best work of his career by a wide margin. He’s never been more charismatic, funnier, or taken more risks. As in Django, he looks like he’s having more fun here than usual. He’s looser, braver, and stranger in The Wolf of Wall Street than in any of his other work. Part of what made this picture so spectacular is that everybody involved clearly just “went for it.” He and Scorsese have been great together before, but this feels like the culmination of many years of collaboration and trust. It may not be DeNiro in Raging Bull (nothing is), but it’s pretty damn special. Staying on Raging Bull, there’s a through-line connecting the two films in the way that they both center around a frank and uncompromising portrayal of a multidimensional human being that most people would find morally repugnant. It is no small feat to pull off performances like these. The breadth and scope of DiCaprio’s performance in Wolf cannot be overstated. He’s just spectacular in this and he never gets boring for the entire three hour run-time. He’s in almost every scene and his figure looms in the few that he’s not. It’s a classic performance in a classic film.
6. Chewitel Ejiofor: 12 Years A Slave
I find it incredible how this performance got lost in the shuffle of awards season. Were I a member of the AMPAS, he would have been my second choice for Best Actor after my #2 pick from this list, and I thought 2013 was the best Lead Actor pool in recent memory. I’m not quite sure the average viewer is aware of the physical toll this part must have taken on him, to say nothing of the mental aspects. I’ve been a fan of his for years, and this is his masterpiece. My favorite moments of his in this film are all dialogue-free: his reactions in big moments, his gracious smile, the singing of the spiritual at the funeral, and any moment in which he’s listening. He’s just got “that face” and he can communicate and do so much with it. He can do anything.
8. Christian Bale: American Hustle
The thing I love the most about David O. Russell as a filmmaker is his ability to take extremely flawed characters and give them a narrative space to truly thrive in. I consider it his trademark as a writer and director. He takes individuals most people would condescend to and shows us why and how they’re remarkable. Christian Bale literally embodies this quality in American Hustle. He’s bald, overweight, etc., but at all times he appears to be completely comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is, which of course makes him a good con man. It’s a fine counterpoint to Bradley Cooper’s character, who has no idea who he is. We see this with their respective “hair” sequences. The film is about deception and role playing, and Bale’s character is the only one who doesn’t switch. His sincerity and relative decency in this role makes the whole thing work. Also, they shot this film in my hometown, so thumbs up for that.