Best Performances

This year’s 33 brightest stars, up close and unscripted.

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Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Click here to see the full portfolio.

Best Performances

This year’s 33 brightest stars, up close and unscripted.

In 2012, sex all but disappeared from the movies. Perhaps because it was an election year, perhaps because America has been absorbed by a longing for heroes, the films this year were largely devoid of physical passion. Even James Bond, notorious for his tantalizing, exotic affairs, was nearly chaste in Skyfall. The Bond girl in the latest chapter was his boss and maternal figure, M, who stands for England in all its historic glory. Similarly, the runaway hit of the holiday season was Lincoln, in which Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly gives voice and humanity to the greatness of what government can do: pass a law that ends a war and frees the oppressed. And while the creation of the Amendment that abolished slavery in America represents a kind of sexy happy-ending history lesson, the couplings in the film are mostly legislative. Zero Dark Thirty is another, more contemporary, slice of American-history-in-action, and though the war still rages, it also ends with a victory—the death of Osama bin Laden. The movie follows a CIA analyst named Maya, portrayed with intensity and steel by Jessica Chastain, who believes she has found the arch-terrorist’s lair and will not rest until he is killed. Although Maya works with a team of men and some women, she seems to exist as an island. It’s entirely possible that her goals could be pursued even with human interaction, but that might compromise her hero status in the viewer’s eyes.

When a movie did explore messier territory—as in Silver Linings Playbook, in which Jennifer Lawrence is riveting as an unbalanced and very sexy widow, or Rust and Bone, a French film starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard as mismatched and emotionally damaged lovers—it seemed to be harder for audiences in 2012 to embrace. A film as chilly and complex as The Master, despite a thrilling performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a charismatic cult leader, failed at the box office; and The Deep Blue Sea, in which Rachel Weisz compellingly plays a woman who sacrifices her status and sanity for a love affair with an unworthy man, barely received notice when it was released. Even the wonderfully libidinous Matthew McConaughey, who had a banner year playing a hit man in Killer Joe, a secretive journalist in The Paperboy, and a sleazy male stripper in Magic Mike, was curiously chaste in all those movies. He may have taken his clothes off, but he never had a love scene. In fact, Magic Mike, which was a box office smash, was weirdly devoid of sex: The movie bumped and grinded, but it was, at heart, a tale of American commerce and entrepreneurship.

Perversely, the most romantic film of the year may have been Bernie, the true story of a gay man, played with affection by Jack Black, who became involved with an older, rich harridan and, in a moment of insanity, killed her. Nobody missed the wealthy widow for months, and Bernie spent her money enriching the small Texas town in which he lived. Eventually he was found guilty and is currently serving time in prison, but the movie makes a case for his actions: Bernie loved her, as much as it was possible, and he put her fortune to excellent use. Like Lincoln and the heroine of Zero Dark Thirty, he fought for the greater good.

Bernie didn’t attract much of an audience—it’s a quirky film and not a simplistic tale of right and wrong. If you believe, as I do, that movies reflect the pulse of the culture, then we are living in times defined by sanitized extremes. The gray area—the place where lives are not tidy and resolution is not easy—is where art thrives. For this portfolio, we have chosen 33 actors and actresses who complicate even the most pristine canvases. From Denzel Washington, who hits bottom as a troubled airline pilot in Flight, to Rebel Wilson, who delights as a misfit a cappella singer in Pitch Perfect, to Kerry Washington, who plays a rebellious slave in Django Unchained, we’ve homed in on performances that are unique and alive. Every movie could benefit from a jolt of complexity. Take Zero Dark Thirty, for example. There is one moment that, for me, makes the film great: Maya is bereft after bin Laden has been shot. Her task has been completed, her plan has been realized, but her identity is fused with her quest—and without it, who is she? Maya has won her battle, but she needs to dream another dream. Now, that movie would be interesting to see.