2014 is already a month and a half old, but it’s always fun to indulge in more end-of-the-year superlatives. You can read the countdowns of my Top 20 films here and here, but in this post I’ll share some of my favorite lead and supporting performances of the year. In past years, I’ve struggled to come up with even 10 performances worth celebrating, but 2013 gave us such strong work in all four categories: Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. Please feel free to add a comment and share your own thoughts below.

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Actor:

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
  • Ethan Hawke – Before Midnight
  • Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
  • Joaquin Phoenix – Her

Ethan Hawke has created a completely lived-in relationship over three film with Julie Delpy; Michael B. Jordan carries a heavy burden and highlights the humanity behind the tragedy of Fruitvale Station; Chiwetel Ejiofor’s alert eyes keep his performance active even when his character is forced into passivity; Joaquin Phoenix conveys a huge range of emotions, from the agony to the ecstasy of love; Oscar Isaac, commanding every scene of Inside Llewyn Davis, uses both his music and a deep sadness to make an unlikeable character nonetheless compelling and relatable.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said

Best Actress:

  • Juliette Binoche – Camille Claudel, 1915
  • Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
  • Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
  • Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Enough Said

Julie Delpy is exposed and prickly in Before Midnight but never loses the audience’s empathy; Cate Blanchett and Juliette Binoche both betray a crumbling psyche with the subtlety of their faces; Greta Gerwig is boisterous, preposterous and lovable all at the same time; Julia Louis-Dreyfus shows how adept a performer she is, using her familiar but underrated comedic skill to suggest greater depth beneath her comedy.

James Franco in Spring Breakers

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
  • James Franco – Spring Breakers
  • James Gandolfini – Enough Said
  • Jiang Wu – A Touch of Sin
  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – Pain & Gain

The Rock has a surprisingly deft touch with absurdist comedy for such a physical performer; Jiang Wu shows a coiled rage and lets it explode in one segment of A Touch of Sin; James Gandolfini shows a new dimension of romantic charm in a performer who will be sorely missed; Michael Fassbender continues his streak of excellence showing the confusion and ignorance that make a monster nonetheless human; James Franco takes a blatant cartoon and reveals layers of vulnerability, longing and menace beneath the dark tanning oil.

Lupita N’yongo in 12 Years a Slave

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
  • Scarlett Johansson – Her
  • Rachel McAdams – To the Wonder
  • Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
  • Shailene Woodley – The Spectacular Now

Shailene Woodley never lets her character lose individuality next to the overbearing lead of The Spectacular Now; Rachel McAdams justifies the attention of Malick’s swirling camera and creates a complete affair within a few short scenes; Scarlett Johansson, with just her voice, shows an entity discovering its own selfhood; Sally Hawkins is magnificently underplayed and the yin to Blanchett’s yang; Lupita N’yongo finds a quiet strength against overwhelming suffering.

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