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.