The 10 Most Overlooked Film Performances of 2013

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As you’ve presumably noticed, critics’ awards and year-end-list-making seasons are upon us, and though the Oscar nominations are a good month or so away, it’s pretty easy, from the names that have dominated the conversation thus far, to tell which ones we’re gonna see on those ballots (Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Joaquin Phoenix, Jared Leto, and June Squibb all seem pretty safe bets). But there was so much fine acting in motion pictures this year that some genuinely great performances are in danger of being ignored — so consider this a “for your consideration” post, spotlighting a few excellent actors whom not enough people are talking about.

Lindsay Burdge in A Teacher

Newcomer Burdge gives one of the most morally tricky performances of the year, playing a high school teacher in the middle of a wildly inappropriate affair with a student. It’s a bold, risky piece of work — she lays it all out, masterfully conveying how the relationship’s taboo nature initially gives it an extra charge, but ultimately reverts her into an unsteadily lovesick teenager.

Isaiah Washington in Blue Caprice

Washington is, to put it mildly, a divisive figure, and about the only way he could get people talking about something other than his noisy departure from Gray’s Anatomy a few years back was to disappear and do the work. And his work in Blue Caprice is astonishing. Washington gets into the head of a genuinely sick man, quietly conveying how years of muted rage, self-righteousness, and mental illness turned him into a mass murderer — and the skill with which he manipulated his accomplice. This is scary, sharp, powerful acting.

Sam Rockwell in The Way Way Back

That Rockwell’s cheerfully laid-back performance is inspired by Bill Murray’s similar work in Meatballs decades back is a matter of public record, but this is no pale imitation; Rockwell doesn’t just get at the laughs, but the underlying neediness of the character, investing him with a layer of melancholy hardened by years of arrested development. Yet he never tips too far in that direction, making this delicate turn a confirmation that similar taste in characters isn’t all Murray and Rockwell have in common.

Amy Adams in Her

Ms. Adams’ dazzling work in American Hustle is getting plenty of chatter these days, and for good reason: it’s a raw, fierce, bravura turn. It’s the kind of attention-getting performance that will get an Academy Award nomination — and will cause voters to bypass the totally disparate things she’s up to in Her. Her character (who shares the actor’s first name, and that doesn’t feel like a coincidence) is an old friend of Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore, and the easy comfort of her work extends to their relationship onscreen; she seems the kind of quietly wonderful person you can easily take for granted, so here’s hoping the performance isn’t regarded in the same way.

Alice Eve in Some Velvet Morning

Ms. Eve got most of her ink in 2013 thanks to that inexplicable and gratuitous underwear scene in Star Trek: Into Darkness, and that’s a shame — she’s a sturdy, bracing presence on screen, and her work in Neil LaBute’s piercing Some Velvet Morning may be the best performance of the year that no one’s talking about. LaBute’s duet script is a constantly shifting power-play, and Eve (and Stanley Tucci, excellent as well) handles each transition with spiky aplomb. But the performative nature of her character lends the picture an extra kick, and the seamlessness of her work adds another dimension to LaBute’s narrative trickery.

Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine

When the cast list hit for Woody Allen’s latest, one name prompted head-scratching across the land. Mixed in among the Oscar- and Emmy-friendly likes of Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, and Alec Baldwin was Andrew Dice Clay, the ‘90s stand-up sensation whose filmography was mostly comprised of straight-to-video junk and the likes of Ford Fairlaine. It could have been stunt casting, but Clay’s presence adds a layer of reality to his outsider status; when his character looks uncomfortable and outclassed in the company of Blanchett and Baldwin’s one-percenters, you wonder if the actor felt that way too. He needn’t have; his performance has an unstudied naturalism and quiet dignity, making Dice the year’s most unexpected and unlikely comeback kid.

Simon Pegg in The World’s End

It is by now taken as gospel that comic performances aren’t given the same respect (and, thus, awards recognition) as dramatic ones, even though most actors worth their salt will tell you the funny stuff is exponentially more difficult. And with that in mind, let us praise the work of Simon Pegg, who digs into the psyche of a deeply delusional alcoholic desperately clinging to the past — and does so not only convincingly, but chalking up laughs along the way.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said

Likewise, JLD (and I’m all for the way we’ve apparently decided she’s enough of a cultural force to warrant using just the initials) has such a beautifully, painstakingly well-defined comic persona that it’s easy to overlook the subtle, remarkable things she’s doing in Nicole Holofcener’s quietly wonderful romantic comedy/drama. She gets at the sadness of empty-nesters, the complexity of middle-aged relationships, and the happiness of maybe-love, all the while keeping audience sympathy in the midst of the story’s central deception (which is no easy feat). She earned a Golden Globe nomination for her work — but that was in the Comedy/Musical category, and that qualifier seems destined to remain affixed to her seriously excellent work.

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha / Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

Gerwig and Delpy were likewise applauded by the Golden Globe folks, and seem just as likely to be forgotten by Oscar voters. But both crafted remarkable portraits of complicated women, twisting in knots (in different yet equally thoughtful ways) over who they are and who they’re supposed to be — and both co-wrote those films themselves, proving once again that about the only way to guarantee complex roles for women is to create them.