We begin our year in review by looking at some of the most memorable film characters from 2013. It's been an incredibly strong year in cinema overall, and the below ten characters are just a taste of the weird, wild world of this past year in the movie house. These may not strictly be the best performances of the year (though many are, and every actor or actress represented here did marvelous work), but they are the characters you remember long after the film ends.
Alien – James Franco – Spring Breakers
If you’re looking for a reason for why Harmony Korine’s opus of excess Spring Breakers works as well as it does, look no further than Alien, the drug dealer with a heart (and teeth) of gold who’s looking for companionship and finds it in the form of the quartet of uninhibited ladies down in St. Pete for some Spring Break debauchery. The beauty of Franco’s performance is the way he subverts your expectations; he’s got the look of a gangster and the brain of a nerd. He collects stuff, idolizes Scarface, refers to his bed as the Enterprise and plays Britney Spears songs on a white piano by the beach. It’s all in the eyes, and Franco makes Alien one of the most magnetic and unforgettable characters of the year.
Gary King – Simon Pegg – The World’s End
Gary King is the opposite of the kind of person that you would expect to be the lead of a film, especially a comedy. King is a lost a case, a drug addict with a nostalgia complex who can think of nothing better than reliving his past glories and finally completing the twelve pub marathon known as The Golden Mile. His childhood friends, now grown with real lives, real jobs and real families, are barely recognizable to him, but he needs them in order to stoke his self-esteem and enable his various vices. Much of the brilliance of Pegg’s performance lies in how annoying he is for much of the first act of the film, full of bad jokes that leave his companions stone-faced. It’s delightfully subtle, and it’s amazing seeing how his character changes (and doesn’t change) once the world goes crazy around him. An unlikely comic protagonist, but an indelible one.
Jordan Baker – Elizabeth Debicki – The Great Gatsby
There’s not much to like about Baz Luhrmann’s blustery and overly loud adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic. But one thing you can certainly latch onto is Australian unknown Elizabeth Debicki, a striking and incredibly tall beauty who gives off the perfect air of confidence and allure you need from Nick Carraway’s main love interest (though the film doesn’t really care about their relationship, another weakness of its approach). Bolstered by her almost unnatural height (at 6’3” she towers over the 5’8” Tobey Maguire) and some excellent costuming choices, Debicki jumps off the screen and demands your attention. It doesn’t hurt that her acting is quite good in the film’s limited use of her, making Debicki a person to look out for in the future.
Owen – Sam Rockwell – The Way, Way Back
The Way, Way Back is a decent film that I probably liked a bit too much when I first saw it over the summer. Much of the reasoning for my love for the film lied in Sam Rockwell’s performance as Owen, the manager of the water park at which lead character Duncan works in order to escape his terrible home life. Owen is the sort of overgrown man child/surrogate father figure you see so often in high school coming-of-age films, but Rockwell gives him that little extra juice to bring the character to life beyond simply being a mess of clichés. This isn’t surprising considering Rockwell’s track record for creating quirky characters, and this one is no different.
Emily Taylor – Rooney Mara – Side Effects
You can’t talk much about the Emily Taylor character without giving away much of what happens in the third act of Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’s twisty genre flick from early in the year. But what it does represent is another strong performance from Mara, who is quietly putting together a strong IMDB page with four straight great performances (this, Her, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Social Network). She has to do some tricky things here, and there are some really great moments of subterfuge near the end of the film. No one is talking about this film, which makes some sense considering how strong of a year it has been, but it would be a shame for Mara’s subtle and satisfying work to go without fanfare.
Captain Zhang Lei – Honglei Sun – Drug War
Johnnie To’s crazy epic action film is another scrumptious genre effort not unlike Side Effects, and shares another trait in boasting a deeply satisfying lead performance, this time from Honglei Sun’s Captain Zhang. Zhang is a straitlaced cop, but the film elevates itself when he has to go undercover as a drug dealer who is in many ways the exact opposite of Sun, forcing some pretty impressive acting tricks that catch you off guard. Combine that with a performance of one of the best versions of the old “undercover cop forced to take drugs to preserve his cover” scenes that Sun completely nails, and you have a fantastic performance to behold.
Adele – Adele Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Color
It may have been unprecedented for the Cannes Film Festival to present the Palme D’or to both lead actresses alongside their director when Blue is the Warmest Color won the prize, but you can understand why they made that decision after seeing the film. Exarchopoulos gives us such a powerful portrait of a young woman looking for love, sex and anything else she can get her hands on as she makes her way through her formative years. The way this 20 year old woman can so effectively make her character age from 15 to her mid to late twenties over the course of a few hours is remarkable, and reminiscent of similar roles we’ve seen from Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone or Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene. This is likely my favorite performance by anyone from the entire stacked year in film.
Albert – James Gandolfini – Enough Said
I have serious issues with some of the silly almost sitcom-y genre conventions Nicole Holofcener throws into the second and third acts of Enough Said. Luckily, none of that silliness really affects the performance of James Gandolfini (Julia Louis-Dreyfus is another story), whose Albert is a proud but wounded divorced father who finds himself smitten by this woman he bumps into at a party. He is proud and uncompromising in his portrayal (Gandolfini’s last recorded major role before his death this year), and it’s a role you don’t see often in these romantic comedies, where the male has body issues he has to contend with, which is handled with aplomb. I wish the film were better, but Gandolfini is great.
Malkina – Cameron Diaz – The Counselor
The craziest part of the crazy-ass experiment that is The Counselor, Cameron Diaz gives us the performance of her life as the twisted, seductive and downright dangerous wife of a nightclub owner on the border of Mexico. Strutting around in the prints of various apex predators, Diaz stalks the film and chews scenery like no other. The film is infamous for her dalliance with the windshield of a car, which is an impressive performance in its own right for various reasons, but the strength of her performance stretches far beyond the simple physicality of that scene. It’s not easy spouting Cormac McCarthy dialogue, but no one in the film pulls it off quite like Diaz.
Al Cody – Adam Driver – Inside Llewyn Davis
Adam Driver only has two to three scenes in Inside Llewyn Davis that amount to maybe five minutes of screen time, but he’s likely the Coen-y-est of the parade of quirky supporting characters that Llewyn Davis comes into contact with in his travels over the week we follow his life. We first meet Cody in a studio session alongside Timberlake’s Jim and Isaac’s Davis, and he just sits next to them, constantly throwing out these absurd vocalizations while Isaac and Timberlake talk, and proceeds to steal the show during the actual recording of the song. That would be enough in its own right, but we follow up with Cody, and his time on screen ends in a surprisingly bittersweet note; it turns out he has just as many issues as everyone else in the film.