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.
3. Michael Fassbender: 12 Years A Slave
A textbook performance. Best Supporting Actor was the only Oscar outcome I really had an issue with. Leto did fine work in Dallas Buyers Club, but I thought Fassbender was miles ahead of him. From the first moment he’s onscreen in that profile close shot the tension onscreen increases exponentially. From a narrative standpoint, supporting characters are meant to introduce a variable to the main storyline that wasn’t present prior to their entrance. Nobody did that more effectively or more importantly than Fassbender did. In the hands of a lessor actor, this role could have been something of a “mustache twirler,” but Fassbender absolutely nails the complexity of this character, a professional dehumanizer who clearly hates himself and attempts to hide behind religion and booze. His every move is threatening, unpredictable, but Fassbender’s brilliance here is in how he doesn’t ever fully boil over, even in the enthralling “whipping sequence.” I really feel that with all the praise heaped at this film, Fassbender’s performance was somehow overlooked and subsequently under-praised. McQueen himself appears to feel the same way, highlighting his performance specifically in so many of his award acceptance speeches. Actors and filmmakers will be studying this performance for a long time to come.
5. Jennifer Lawrence: American Hustle
Lawrence manages to deliver a performance that’s equal parts hilarious, sexy, and maddeningly ridiculous. She’s even better here than she was in Silver Linings. The only thing funnier than “the microwave scene” in 2013 was the “quallude sequence” in The Wolf of Wall Street. “Don’t put metal in the science oven” is now my favorite David Russell line. This is one of those supporting performances that you want to be a bigger part, but its part of why she’s so compelling is that when she’s on screen she dominates and when she’s not you miss her presence. Her manner and her energy remind me a bit of Gena Rowlands, and I do not make that comparison lightly. She’s just a natural with a presence and maturity way beyond her years. When you watch her she comes across as a twenty-year veteran, not someone in their early twenties, and her trophies already accumulated are a testament to that. I would pay money to watch her fold laundry for two hours. She’d get an Oscar nomination for that too.
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.