Christian Bale is one of the best actors of his generation, partly for his talent, and largely for his devotion to his roles. He has an off-balance, almost playful quality to even his darkest roles. In American Hustle, he reminded us that he's also hilarious. As a balding, overweight sad-sack with the charm of a junior Hugh Hefner, Bale toes the line between cartoonishly pathetic and near-huggably appealing.
In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett plays a rich woman who is coming apart at the seams after her scheming husband is arrested for his various acts of financial malfeasance. Jasmine is the kind of rich person we all love to intellectually vilify: ignominious, dismissive, oblivious to the lives of the middle class, coasting on comfort and wealth, ill-equipped to deal with real people. And while she squirms in increasing discomfort and mental disconnect, Blanchett manages to make her rich and, most importantly, sympathetic.
This may be a bit unfair, as Delpy and Hawke have been perfecting these roles over the course of four movies and 20 years. Before Midnight is a film about conversation, particularly about the way a married couple talks. Partly scripted, and partly improvised, these two banter, joke, prod, smile, and intellectualize with the best of them. Individually, they are great, but together, they create a crackling, believable life.
What could have been a broad, goofy “good ol' gal” comic role in Stephen Frears' Philomena is transformed by Judi Dench into a rich and relatable gramma type who, well, just wants to know where her son is. Philomena is a bit clueless, and we're meant to chuckle at her love of shallow things like romance novels, but Dench manages to turn her into a character who is so forgiving and good-hearted, it almost hurts.
Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the best, most aching, most natural screen romances in many years, and most of this stems from the two lead actresses. Exarchopoulos is flighty and perhaps a bit emotionally naïve, while her more experienced counterpart is clearly trying to lift her up. The two women relate, well, the way people actually relate in relationships, complete with all the small doubts, boring chores, and passionate bouts of monkey lovemaking therein.
Alien is the kind of unique cinematic creation that can only be the result of a sublime mania, and who could only exist in a filth nightmare like Spring Breakers. More than just a wild criminal, Alien is, as his name implies, nearly non-human in his devotion to his “shit.” Franco, nearly unrecognizable, makes Alien into a man who is charming, in a pedophile sort of way. He is energetic, devoted, and makes a unique cinematic creature that will referred to and quoted by young cinephiles for years.
On paper, you should hate Frances. She's 27 and has no direction in life. She's couch surfing with a vengeance, and seems to actively denying herself anything beyond the idealistic and aspirational phase that she has held through her 20s. She's just reaching that important epoch when she can't get away with that crap anymore. Greta Gerwig, in Frances Ha, is funny, relatable, and flawed in that everyday sort of way. She wallows in self-pity sometimes, but always with energy and good humor. Frances is a great character.
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best films of the year. The film's anchor is Oscar Isaac as the title character, a man who, like most of the Coen's heroes, seems fated to suffer. For the first time, though, we have a Coen protagonist who seems calmly frustrated by this. He reacts to his continuing plight with a weary acceptance and mounting anger. He's the only human in a Job-like tragedy. And, by the way, you oughtta hear him sing.
Jennifer Lawrence has only continued to impress me, and, like her American Hustle husband, has created a simultaneously pitiable, yet completely heroic floozy. Thuddingly charmless, we still understand why Rosalyn is so appealing. Or maybe it's just that she's not smart enough not to be pushy. Out of her depth, but refusing to be depicted that way, Rosalyn is a sublime comic creation, and Lawrence acts the heck out of it.
Most people would argue that Ron Woodruff from Dallas Buyers Club was McConaughey's more impressive performance, and it was a corker. But I feel that affable Southern rakishness is McConaughey's default mode, and his true triumph of 2013 was creating the Dickensian mystery Mud in, well, Mud. Here is a man who is vaguely threatening, very very cool, and, ultimately naïvely lovelorn. Not a flashy performance at all, and stronger for it. McConaughey turns off his peacock mode to give us something nuanced.
We've all heard tales of wounded alcoholics trying to make relationships work, but we rarely get that story from someone so young. Like many youths, Sutter has affected a philosophy of celebration and hedonism. His party-all-the-time attitude, and his ease with adults, make him a start both in and out of school. Sutter, however, falls in love and, over the course of the sublime The Spectacular Now, we get to see him crack open, fall apart, and finally be vulnerable in a way he didn't know he was capable of. By the end, you're not sure if he'll be okay. But he will.