Review of 2013: Top 10 lead acting performances of the year

The Popcorn Muncher's Review of 2013

The dust has settled on 2013 and the best and worst films of the year have been decided. But, with awards season on the way and sure to get things wrong, what were the best acting performances of the year?

It has been a big year for enormous lead roles, with Robert Downey Jr donning the metal for Iron Man 3 and Martin Freeman returning to the role he was seemingly born to play in The Desolation of Smaug.

But here’s the pick of those performances, taking in everything from broad comedy to weighty historical biopic.


10. Richard Dormer – Good Vibrations

Richard Dormer as Terri Hooley in Good Vibrations

This biopic of Irish record producer Terri Hooley came from nowhere to become one of the best indie releases of 2013. Chronicling Hooley’s life from opening a tiny record shop to scoring a massive hit with Teenage Kicks and beyond, the film deals with the excesses of the punk movement against the backdrop of the Troubles.

Dormer’s performance in Good Vibrations is enormous. He balances the broadly comedic with the outright touching as he deals with his wife’s pregnancy and the extraordinary blindness of big English record labels.

The ending, as Dormer addresses fans at a huge gig, is a heart-wrenching moment for all of the right reasons, cementing Good Vibrations as an excellent, uplifting tale of ambition and success.


9. Emma Thompson – Saving Mr Banks

Emma Thompson as PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks

At the centre of John Lee Hancock’s moving portrayal of the development of Mary Poppins is an excellent, brittle performance from Emma Thompson as author PL Travers.

Thompson completely nails the uptight, prissy Travers as she fights against Walt Disney’s desire to turn her beloved literary character into a feel-good movie. She hates music, hates animation and can’t stand schmaltz, so she of course hated the final film.

Thompson carries all of this off perfectly throughout Saving Mr Banks, balancing the hard-edged Travers with the softer side gained through her difficult, grief-stricken childhood loss. Expect a Best Actress nomination.


8. Simon Pegg – The World’s End

Simon Pegg as Gary King in The World's End

Comedy movies aren’t well known for drawing acclaimed performances from their actors. However, playing completely against type, Simon Pegg’s portrayal of man-child Gary King in The World’s End is certainly worth talking about.

The final entry in Pegg and director Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy was a departure for the comedy star. In previous films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, he played the relatively straight man to Nick Frost’s slacker/goofball, but here those roles are reversed.

Pegg moves into the more zany role with great gusto and, though he is an awful character at the beginning, he goes on a real journey throughout the film.


7. Naomi Watts – The Impossible

Naomi Watts as Maria Bennett in The Impossible

Right at the start of 2013, Boxing Day tsunami drama The Impossible stormed into cinemas and left a gibbering mess of tearful audience members in its wake. Most of the tears were drawn by the affecting central performance from Naomi Watts, who certainly fared better here than in her other 2013 lead Diana.

Watts is the emotional beating heart of the movie, with her suffering providing many of the film’s most heart-breaking moments. Breakout star Tom Holland provides ample support as her caring son, but it’s the Oscar-nominated Watts that packs the real punch.

Right up until the end, we never know whether Watts is going to pull through and be reunited with her family. What we do know is that, either way, there will be tears.


6. Sandra Bullock – Gravity

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in Gravity

Mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity was one of the most highly acclaimed films of 2013. Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama sacrificed plot complexity in favour of jaw-dropping visual flair. The stripped-down approach to narrative left a huge amount of storytelling work at the door of the film’s star – the wonderful Sandra Bullock.

Thankfully, Bullock is more than good enough to do the job. With minimal dialogue, emotion is conveyed by panicked breathing and eye movements.

Surrounded by CGI beauty and majesty, Bullock still manages to ensure that the viewer’s eye cannot be taken off her as she completely arrests the vision with her magnetic performance of someone completely out of their depth in the inky void of space.


5. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Fifth Estate

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate

Recently branded the financial flop of the year and given a lukewarm reception by critics, The Fifth Estate was an efficient techno-thriller charting the rise of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. At its centre was a chameleon-like performance from British darling Benedict Cumberbatch as one of the most controversial men in the world today.

Cumberbatch disappears into the role of the hacker turned political activist who destabilises corporations and governments with his whistle-blowing website. He nails the unusual Aussie accent and Assange’s distinctive mannerisms, as well as bringing a real inner fury to the man that seems as if it is constantly threatening to escape.

In amongst his villainous supporting roles throughout 2013, it was great to see Cumberbatch getting to stretch his acting muscles in The Fifth Estate to portray a man of real complexity.


4. Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine

Inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire, Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, is anchored by a truly remarkable central performance from Cate Blanchett. If she has a second Oscar in her awards cabinet this year, no-one will be at all surprised.

Blanchett blusters in and out of the film as she imposes herself on the household of her sister, who lives a radically different life to the champagne-swilling she had been used to whilst married.

Her character’s gradual descent into all-out madness is handled perfectly by Allen and Blanchett, never straying into pantomime or over-the-top comedy. This is a performance that is balanced, measured and incredibly professional.


3. Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks as Cpt Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips

The ever-reliable Tom Hanks hits another home run in Captain Phillips – a gripping, almost unbearably tense thriller about a freighter captain kidnapped by Somalian pirates.

Hanks balances stiff stoicism with heart-breaking vulnerability as his character attempts to manage the worst case scenario playing out in front of him. When he breaks down completely in a late scene, it is one of the most affecting and touching bits of acting seen this year.

After Captain Phillips, I felt emotionally wrung-out and exhausted by the sheer tension and power of what I had witnessed. And at the centre of all of that was Tom Hanks’ towering performance. Expect an Oscar nom, at the very least.


2. Mia Wasikowska – Stoker

Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker in Stoker

One of the more unusual movies of last year was Oldboy director Park Chan-wook’s English language debut Stoker. At its centre was a nuanced, symbolic turn from Alice In Wonderland star Mia Wasikowska, who experiences a bizarre sexual awakening when her mysterious uncle arrives in the wake of her father’s death.

Intitially meek and innocent, Wasikowska’s India is a character who develops slowly throughout Stoker as the narrative winds towards its dark finale. Even in the more sexually charged teens, she resists the urge to overact and maintains her meek innocence, albeit with an increasingly sharp edge.

It’s a complex role that is simplified to perfection by Wasikowska’s performance. Tim Burton blockbusters notwithstanding, this woman is one to watch.


1. Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln

It couldn’t really be anyone else in the number one spot. The most decorated actor in Oscar history, Daniel Day-Lewis, sealed his position amongst the greats with his performance in weighty biopic Lincoln.

His performance is free of undeserved reverence, portraying Abe as a leader of divisions, rather than an unequivocally perfect hero. The vocal performance is sheer genius and there isn’t a single body movement out of place, with DDL’s commitments to ‘method’ showing through.

A work of towering brilliance, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is the best acting performance of 2013 by a long way.


Do you agree with me about the best lead acting performances of 2013? Let me know in the comments section below.

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