2013 was a thrilling year for movies. It started in January with the Sundance Film Festival, where small, independently made gems like the very different romances The Spectacular Now and Don Jon premiered; then in Cannes, in May, Blue Is the Warmest Color, a three-hour lesbian-coming-of-age saga, won the Palme d’Or; and the cinematic calendar came to a close during the “serious” holiday season, with breakthrough films as varied as American Hustle, a dark comedy about the ABSCAM sting in the ’70s, and Her, an unexpectedly deep love story between a man and his computer’s operating system. It was a year full of surprises, marked by diversity and gravitas. The black experience in America was given a loud, powerful voice: Lee Daniels’ The Butler chronicled decades of civil rights history against the backdrop of the White House; in Fruitvale Station, Michael B. Jordan was endearing and frustrating as Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old African-American who was killed by a policeman in Oakland, California, on New Year’s Day 2009; and the brilliantly realized 12 Years a Slave told the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was sold into slavery. 12 Years, which was directed by the artist Steve McQueen and starred Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a tortured slave, combined remarkable acting, stunning imagery, and haunting atrocities. It may have been the most meaningful movie of the year, as its larger theme—the resilience of the human spirit under severe duress—is universal.
Just as the films of 2013 detailed the struggles and difficulties of race, there was a twin fascination with isolation, especially for white characters, who found themselves lost and alone in space (Gravity), on a boat (All Is Lost), or in the Midwest (Nebraska), where Bruce Dern went on an ill-conceived quest for fortune. And then there was Matthew McConaughey, who portrayed an angry AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club, fighting for his life in conservative 1980s Texas. McConaughey, who also played an escaped convict with a romantic streak in Mud, is having his own personal best year in movies—he’s forsaken the golden boy rom-com world for roles that are darker and more vivid. One of his costars in Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto, who played Rayon, a drag queen, also transcended the usual clichés: His makeup was not perfect, and the dresses were not couture, but his soul was definitely female. These characters may have families and friends, but there are no happy communities in these films, no joyous moments of acceptance. Instead, there is a constant push for survival and sanity.
That search for humanity and a sense of self is the common thread in the 35 performances we’re spotlighting in this issue. The best roles were complex and challenging: Ben Foster played a young soldier fighting in Afghanistan in Lone Survivor; in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Idris Elba portrayed the late anti-apartheid activist who was incarcerated for 27 years; Cate Blanchett was stripped of her identity in Blue Jasmine. These characters were not always likable: While Blanchett was riveting, she was also infuriating. Likewise, Jennifer Lawrence, as a manipulative, accident-prone wife and mother in American Hustle, was charismatic and unbalanced. And, in a breakout performance as a counselor working with troubled children in Short Term 12, Brie Larson was almost as prickly and devoted as Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks, playing P.L. Travers, the tenacious woman who believed passionately in the power of her creation, Mary Poppins.
Loneliness permeated the movies in 2013: Casey Affleck, as a traumatized Iraq war veteran in Out of the Furnace, and Joaquin Phoenix, as Theodore in Her, whose job was to write touching personal letters for people he’d never met, were connected by their disconnectedness. Affleck’s character found solace in bare-knuckle boxing; Phoenix’s looked for acceptance in the alluring voice of his computer, played by Scarlett Johansson. As he fantasized about her physical form, Theodore forgot that he was (still) alone.
Which is what movies, especially great movies, do: They unite an audience with stories of individuals who have suffered, triumphed, loved, lost. At its best, film is a glimpse into a fully realized world and, in 2013, those worlds were gloriously, heartbreakingly human.
Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
“I was at the Oscars, waiting to hear if my name was called, and I kept thinking, Cakewalk, cakewalk, cakewalk. I thought, Why is ‘cakewalk’ stuck in my head? And then, as I started to walk up the stairs and the fabric from my dress tucked under my feet, I realized my stylist had told me, ‘Kick, walk, kick, walk.’ You are supposed to kick the dress out while you walk, and I totally forgot because I was thinking about cake! And that’s why I fell.”
Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club and Mud
“I wanted to shake up my relationship with my career. I didn’t want to do romantic comedies or action adventures anymore, so when those projects came in, I said no. For about eight months, I kept saying no, no, no—and then there was nothing being offered to say no to. That was scary, but I was looking to be scared. Finally, the target drew the arrow: I started getting calls to play characters. And here we are.”
Dolce & Gabbana jacket, shirt, and pants; Bruno Magli shoes.
Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave
“When I got the role in 12 Years a Slave, I called my father and said, ‘Daddy, I got a part in a movie! Do you know Brad Pitt?’ And he said, ‘I’ve heard of him, but I don’t know him personally.’ I said, ‘Well—he’s producing this movie, and he’s really big in Hollywood.’ My father paused and then said, ‘So you have a job! Good. Congratulations! And good night!’ That call put everything in perspective.
Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane dress; Ana Khouri necklace.
Will Ferrell in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
“We shot a musical number for Anchorman 2 called ‘It’s a Great Big World.’ It’s about Ron Burgundy and the news team walking into a 24-hour station and seeing all the television monitors. He dances and stumbles onto all these people in the office. Someone says, ‘I’m gay,’ and Ron sings, ‘If I were gay for a day, there’s nothing I wouldn’t say.’ It wasn’t one of our funnier things. It was cut from the film.”
Howler Brothers jacket; 7 For All Mankind T-shirt; Leisure Society by Shane Baum shorts.
Lea Seydoux in Blue Is the Warmest Color
“I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen. He is my god. When he cast me in Midnight in Paris, he was already shooting the film. He saw a picture of me and called me up and asked how long my hair was. I told him, ‘It’s around my shoulders.’ He said, ‘Okay, cool, see you tomorrow on set.’ I hadn’t read the script, and I hadn’t read for him, but I said, ‘Of course.’ When God calls, you answer.”
John Galliano dress.
Casey Affleck in Out of the Furnace
“I sobbed and sobbed when I saw The Elephant Man. My brother and I watched it on a little black and white TV set in my father’s apartment. I’m sure I also saw, you know, The Goonies as a child, but The Elephant Man haunted me.”
Calvin Klein Underwear T-shirt; Gap pants.
Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
“I played Stringer Bell, a drug dealer, on The Wire, and the power of that part was amazing. Real drug dealers and thugs would think I was truly a gangster. They gave me a lot of respect— they’d hand me cocaine as a kind of salute. At times I had to remind myself that I was just an actor.”
Rag & Bone shirt; Cartier watch.
Brie Larson in Short Term 12
“The first job I booked was a skit, a fake Barbie commercial for the Jay Leno show called Malibu Mudslide Barbie. I was 8, and I looked perfectly American-cute, but I had an evil streak. In the sketch, I’m playing with the Barbies and a bucket of mud is poured on top of them. I was so excited: I had lines, I had a dressing room with my name on it, and I was being talked to like an actor. I thought I was on my way to stardom.”
James Franco in Spring Breakers
“I had cornrows in Spring Breakers, which helped me get into character. They were so itchy. Once you have that hairstyle, you’re suddenly in a weird club. People come up to you and talk about cornrows. Oftentimes, those other cornrow people would have guns. I never broke character—I needed to feel like that self-invented gangster at all times. To me, he is an example of the scary things that can happen when you get everything you want.”
Gucci jacket and jeans; Guess T-shirt.
Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
“I am not quite pro-Disneyland. I first went there as a teenager, and it was a confusing place for a girl from England: Something about the merging of dark, ancient Europe and 1950s America was very strange. I remember my father saying, ‘Why do they call them “restrooms” at Disneyland? I don’t want to have a rest.’ ”
Dolce & Gabbana slip.
Amy Adams in American Hustle and Her
“I learned to like auditions. I didn’t get most of the jobs, so I viewed auditions as my only opportunity to act. I was invested: I would dress the part. When I tried out for Catch Me If You Can, my character had braces, and I wore teeth-whitening trays to the audition—I wanted the sensation of something awkward being in my mouth, of sounding lispy. Amazingly, I got the part.”
Blumarine gown; Van Cleef & Arpels earrings and bracelet.
Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station
“I was on All My Children at 17, and I had to do my first ever sex scene. I like to make things real, and it was one of those moments. He [pointing at his crotch] doesn’t know there’s a script, so I said to the actress, ‘I apologize if he moves, and I apologize if he doesn’t.’ Everything worked out cool: It’s not a sex tape.”
Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci vest.
Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies and Her
“When I was around 5, people started saying, not necessarily in a positive way, ‘Uh oh—I think we have an actress on our hands!’ Now I understand that they thought I was overly theatrical, but at the time, I said, ‘Really? Why, thank you. I will become a child star!’ Sadly, my parents would not let me get an agent. They flat out refused, which I thought was abusive.”
Roberto Cavalli gown; Harry Winston bracelet; Manolo Blahnik sandals.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon
“My professional crush is on Orson Welles. The first thing he did that rocked the planet was The War of the Worlds, a fake radio broadcast where he convinced Americans that they were being invaded by Martians. And then he made Citizen Kane. So, fuck it— I’m just going to aim high.”
Dior Homme shirt; Dolce & Gabbana tie; Levi’s jeans.
Chris Hemsworth in Rush and Thor: The Dark World
“I auditioned for Thor, and I didn’t get called back. I was intimidated by the director, Kenneth Branagh—to me, he is Shakespeare. My brother, Liam, was luckier. He was one of the final five guys up for the part, but none of them were quite right. My manager said, ‘If you liked Liam, maybe you’ll also like his older brother.’ This time, I was pissed off. I didn’t care about Shakespeare anymore; swagger got me the part.”
Dolce & Gabbana jacket; AllSaints T-shirt.
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine and The Monuments Men
“For a lot of women, clothes don’t reflect who they are—but who they want to be. The wardrobe of my character in Blue Jasmine is the last vestige of her former life as a wealthy lady. She loses everything when her husband’s shady business is exposed, and I spent a lot of time thinking about which clothes she would hide from the Feds. I knew she would keep her Chanel jacket. It might be somewhat frayed, but she needed to use it as a mask.”
Ralph Lauren Collection dress.
Michael Shannon in The Iceman and Man of Steel
“I kind of fell into acting in high school. I did it because I really enjoyed taking a break from being myself. When I was young, they always gave me fatherly parts. There were other tall dudes, but they said, ‘You could be the old guy.’ I guess it’s because I’m naturally crotchety.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
“Steve McQueen called me up one day and said, ‘I want you to do this thing.’ It was 12 Years a Slave. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t immediately say yes, that there was any conversation to be had. But it wasn’t an easy yes. I needed to read the book. And while I was reading, I slipped down the rabbit hole. It took me a while to get out. I finished the book in floods of tears. Only then did I say yes.”
Prada tuxedo; Thomas Pink shirt; Alexander Olch tie; Cartier.
Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
“In Before Midnight, I show my breasts. I decided, Okay, it has to be like I’m alone in the room with my boyfriend. I blocked out the fact that I was topless, and I worked all day on the set with my breasts showing. I never put on a robe, even between takes.”
Vivienne Westwood Gold Label dress.
Mickey Sumner in Frances Ha
“The first movie I saw in a theater was Raiders of the Lost Ark. My dad picked us all up from school and took us. It was also the first time I was allowed to drink Coca-Cola. The movie terrified me: Everyone burned. But Harrison Ford was just so gorgeous. That and the Coca-Cola made up for my terror.”
Miu Miu dress; Prada bracelet; Manolo Blahnik sandals.
Penelope Cruz in Twice Born
“I have made five films with Pedro Almodóvar, and in four of those movies, I am pregnant and have a baby. Now that I’m a mother, I would play those delivery scenes differently. Before, I would scream very loud during the birth. Now that I’ve actually had children, I would show more pain and scream less. It sounds backwards and may be less dramatic, but more pain, smaller screaming is the reality.”
Emporio Armani dress; Chopard earrings and necklace.
Bruce Dern in Nebraska
“My parents did not approve of my career. My mother said, ‘You might think you’re doing entertaining films, but I can’t take your grandfather to The Trip. He doesn’t even know what LSD is, and that’s what the movie is about. And why, oh, why would you be on a motorcycle in nine consecutive films? Why can’t you be like Henry Fonda?’ And, full circle: The director Alexander Payne’s first choice for my character in Nebraska was Henry Fonda. He wasn’t here, so I lucked out.”
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
“I was in character throughout the shooting of Dallas Buyers Club, and the world would react to me as a man dressed as a woman. One day, on a break, I walked through Whole Foods. I got three distinct looks: Who is that?, What is that?, and I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like it.”
Burberry Brit coat; T by Alexander Wang T-shirt.
Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
“When I was 12, I realized that I would never be a professional dancer. In ballet, if your body is not right, it becomes self-flagellation, which is, I guess, its own pleasure, but that wasn’t enough for me. Before I quit, I played Clara in The Nutcracker with the Sacramento Ballet, which was a very big deal. My teacher said to me, ‘You know, they only gave you the part because of your personality.’ For the rest of my life, that tape has been in my head: I feel like everything I’ve achieved was because of my personality, rather than my ability.”
Valentino dress; Miu Miu shoes.
Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street
“Goodfellas is the reason I make movies, and when I heard that there was a part in a [Martin] Scorsese movie that I would be great for, I said I would die to do it. I flew to New York to read for him. They took me into the audition room, and the air conditioner was busted and it was about 100 degrees. I started pouring sweat. I was literally dripping, but I couldn’t decide whether to be über polite and say nothing or complain. I finally told Scorsese that it was too hot to concentrate, and he let me read the scenes in his refrigerated office. I was like, All right, no turning back. Afterward, I didn’t care whether or not I got the role. I walked all the way home from uptown to downtown thinking, That was the greatest thing ever.”
Calvin Klein Collection suit; Prada shirt; Burberry London tie; Alexander Olch pocket square; Tom Ford cummerbund; Patek Philippe watch; Common Projects shoes.
Dane Dehaan in Kill Your Darlings
“When I auditioned for Lucien Carr in Kill Your Darlings, I felt it would be helpful if I dressed the part. I think it’s useful to have the air of the character about you—I try to fool the director into thinking that’s who I am. For Lucien, I was preppy and snarky. At the end of my audition, the director asked, ‘What are you doing in February?’ I looked at him and said, ‘You tell me’—that was very Lucien Carr. The director later told me that my response was one of the main reasons he cast me.”
Marc Jacobs cardigan; A.P.C. shirt; Rag & Bone jeans; Bottega Veneta bracelet.
Scarlett Johansson in Her
“My character, Samantha, doesn’t have a body. She’s just a voice. And yet the vocal work was extremely intimate. I spent all of my hours in a little sound booth, and when I spoke the sex scenes, the windows definitely fogged up. Spike [Jonze, the director] knocked on the door and asked, ‘Whoa—are you okay?’ I said, ‘I just want to throw a little heat into this life.’ ”
Vivienne Westwood Couture dress.
Ben Foster in Kill Your Darlings, Lone Survivor, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
“I like being around soldiers. I like people—policemen, enlisted men—who have a warrior ethos. Forget the politics; these men are noble. By playing soldiers, I’m proud to say, I’ve become a good shot. Making a movie is not like war. No one’s claiming it’s war, but when you take out a target at 300 yards, it feels pretty damn good. It’s like a drug. Having said that, I wish somebody would cast me in a romantic comedy.”
Vivienne Westwood Man blazer and pants; Dolce & Gabbana shirt; Richard James tie; Louis Vuitton shoes.
Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now
“When I saw Titanic, I wasn’t allowed to look when Kate Winslet took her robe off and posed naked for Leonardo DiCaprio. My parents were in the room, and they made me turn my face so that I didn’t see her breasts. We had French doors to our backyard, and I could see the scene reflected in the glass. I remember thinking, Oh, my God—one day I’m going to have those, and it’s so exciting.”
Amanda Seyfried in Lovelace
“Deep Throat is a disgusting film. It’s not artistic, even though it was the first feature-length porn movie to be released in theaters. It does have a plot, which is funny. But the long scenes of people having sex were not interesting to me. I watched 20 minutes, and that was enough.”