Assume spoilers for any and all movies included.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
The Runners Up
Samantha Barks – Les Misérables
Between Hugh Jackman’s acting, Anne Hathaway’s singing, and the general eccentricity of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, there wasn’t much spotlight left for Broadway star Samantha Barks. But that didn’t keep her from bringing a captivating misery to the lovesick Eponine.
Charlize Theron – Prometheus
The icy Meredith Vickers is arguably the most intriguing character in Prometheus (ok—2nd most intriguing), with a confused sense of honor and an impassable heart of stone. While the character isn’t developed to a satisfying end, Charlize Theron’s performance remains enchantingly villainous and much fuller than the words on the page.
Emma Stone – The Amazing Spider-Man
So much of The Amazing Spider-Man depends on the chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, which itself would be nothing without Stone’s endless charm and affability. While her Gwen Stacy is a bit too perfect (how many Valedictorians look like that?), she is already a far better love interest than Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson.
Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises
While the initial casting seemed off, it’s hard to deny that Anne Hathaway makes a pretty sensational Catwoman. Her action scenes aren’t flawless, but Hathaway maintains the cunning and allure of Selina Kyle, presenting a lively foil to the persistent stoicism of Bale’s Batman.
Frances McDormand – Moonrise Kingdom
Moonrise Kingdom is as much about its adult characters as it is about its adolescent ones, using the vivid colors of childhood to contrast the monotony of tenured love. McDormand, Bill Murray, and Bruce Willis are all afforded time to wallow in their melancholic boredom, but McDormand’s Laura is the most forthright, bringing us headlong into her tempered sadness.
Amy Adams – The Master
Amy Adams plays enough adorable sweetie pies that it’s easy to forget how truly capable she is as an actress. In The Master, Adams plays Peggy Dodd, the Lady to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Macbeth, quietly whispering directives from the shadows that ring her husband’s spotlight. Where Lancaster Dodd is charismatic and winning, Peggy is calculating, and wary of Dodd’s friendship with Freddie Quell. The character is pivotal to the story, and succeeds thanks to Adams’ grave stoicism.
Alternate: Scarlett Johansson – The Avengers
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The Runners Up
Richard Jenkins & Bradley Whitford – The Cabin in the Woods
You expect the horror in The Cabin in the Woods, but you don’t expect the humor, much of which comes from the pairing of Jenkins and Whitford. As the mysterious overseers of Cabin‘s bizarre central apparatus, the duo are hilariously blasé, presenting a horrifically dirty job as though it were any old white collar nine-to-five.
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
There’s plenty of strong performances in Lincoln, and plenty of great actors, but Tommy Lee Jones pulls away from the pack as the cranky abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. A career politician, Stevens is an exhausted man, and Jones brings this to bear, all the while convincing us that he is one of the few Washington politicians who can truly go toe to toe with the great Abraham Lincoln.
Dwight Henry – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Playing the father to Beasts’ Hush Puppy, Dwight Henry’s Wink is a stormy sentimentalist, refusing to leave the flooded Bathtub even if that means he’s the last man standing. He is a man who prioritizes strength above all else, yet tends to show his heart more than he would like. It’s a remarkable debut, second only to the astonishing Quvenshané Wallis.
Javier Bardem – Skyfall
While much of Skyfall feels like a departure from classic Bond, Bardem’s outré Silva belongs in the pantheon with villains like Blofeld or Goldfinger. He is viciously cruel yet bizarrely sympathetic, and Bardem brings a variety of marvelous idiosyncrasies to the character, resulting in a captivating eccentric who would, were it not for the next entry on the list, be the year’s best villain.
Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained
Leonardo DiCaprio has become so familiar to us as the hero that he’s grown into the sort of actor who’s often impossible to separate from his characters. Not in Django Unchained, where Tarantino has created a character that, while truly evil, is full enough to give DiCaprio something to build on. This southern gentlemen sadist is satire, surely, but he’s also—if Leo’s performance is any indication—a hell of a lot of fun to play.
Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Since the beginning of time, fathers and sons have struggled to understand each other. When the son is an emotionally unstable bipolar and the father an emotionally aloof obsessive compulsive, that divide is much greater. In Silver Linings, Pat and Pat Sr. exhaust themselves staring down this divide, and occasionally cross over it long enough to say what they’re really feeling. In one of the year’s most emotional moments, De Niro delivers a heartbreaking monologue to his son, and while it’s rarer these days to see Robert De Niro so locked into a role, it’s a wonderful reminder that he is still one of the best actors Hollywood has ever known.
Alternates: Michael Fassbender – Prometheus, Tom Hiddleston – The Avengers, Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained, Ben Whishaw – Cloud Atlas, James Gandolfini – Killing Them Softly, Edward Norton – Moonrise Kingdom
The Runners Up
Doona Bae – Cloud Atlas
With all the main actors playing multiple roles, the “ensemble” aspect of Cloud Atlas is unusually exaggerated, yet Doona Bae somehow separates herself from a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, and Halle Berry. As Sonmi-351, Bae makes the journey from curious automaton to mythological revolutionary, and while her’s is a character built on inner strength, it is Sonmi’s (and Bae’s) gentle spirit that is truly affecting.
Rachel Weisz – The Deep Blue Sea
While the character of Hester Collyer lacks the confident feminism of more modern female protagonists, she is played to perfection by Weisz. Torn between a passionless but loving husband and a lustful yet artless lover, Hester is a woman ahead of her time, longing for the best of both men and unable to fathom why such a hunger should have to go unsated.
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
The word is out on Jennifer Lawrence, and in no small part thanks to her role in Silver Linings Playbook. As Tiffany, Lawrence is manic and unpredictable, but lovably so, particularly when held up next to the more dramatically afflicted Pat. Russell has a tendency to write the character a bit too perfectly, though this is rarely problematic as Lawrence handles the part with a confidence few actresses her age could believably muster. As she bursts with an intrinsic strength, she also manages to convey a winsome vulnerability, and in the valley of these two extremes the character blooms.
Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables
It’s hard to call Anne Hathaway a lead in Les Misérables, and were a lesser actress to have won the role of Fantine I doubt she would have ended up on this list. But Hathaway’s work is impossible to ignore, as she creates a character whose misery is distressingly authentic. As perhaps the most miserable of all The Miserables, Hathaway’s Fantine personifies anguish, and her pivotal “I Dreamed A Dream” is both immaculately performed and terribly heart-rending.
Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Few women had the opportunity to carry a film the way Jessica Chastain was asked to carry Zero Dark Thirty, which is ultimately irrelevant, as Chastain’s turn as the bullheaded Maya would sit near the top of this list regardless of her competition. With an inexhaustible strength and a myopic drive, Maya is a character you simply can’t stop watching, and Chastain delivers the role with a steady hand, never going too far past the truth of the woman and her situation. Only in the briefest moments does she allow the hard shell of this CIA operative to fall away, revealing the faded heart of a character not granted the luxury of having one.
Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Very few children are truly capable of acting, far more often simply playing themselves, saying the lines a director tells them to say, standing where a director tells them to stand, etc. Occasionally though, a child actor truly becomes the character she is asked to play, existing within the skin of a different person. While not every scene of Beasts of the Southern Wild finds the 6-year-old Quvenshané Wallis truly acting, there are enough thrilling performance moments to call this one of the best acting jobs we’ve ever seen from a child, particularly one so young. Sure, Wallis is playing some version of herself, but the degree to which Director Benh Zeitlin is able to pull a true performance from his young star is nothing short of revelatory. It’s entirely possible that this is the highlight of young Quvenshané Wallis’ acting career, as a 6-year-old’s ability to authentically play a character has very little to do with what kind of actor that child will become, but Wallis deserves recognition for what, to me, looks very much like one of the best performances of the year.
Alternates: Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games, Kara Hayward – Moonrise Kingdom
The Runners Up
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
What makes Bradley Cooper’s Pat Solitano such an intriguing character is his inability to, in any given scenario, do the thing we all know he’s supposed to do. A lot of humor is culled from Pat’s general inelegance, which would feel insensitive to individuals afflicted with bipolar and other mental illnesses were it not for the fact that Russell brings just as much honesty to the character. Cooper’s talent for conveying the nuances of, not just bipolar and depression, but the more commonplace maladies of family and love, is fantastic, and results in a career-best performance.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Looper
Playing a younger version of an actor as familiar to audiences as Bruce Willis is the kind of task that can really only succeed if it’s executed to perfection, and in Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt succeeds. As Joe he brings to mind the Willis of a bygone era, and assembles the familiar Willis mannerisms into an alarmingly well articulated likeness. This isn’t a role for scenery-chewing, yet Gordon-Levitt still manages to steal each and every scene.
Hugh Jackman – Les Misérables
Anne Hathaway has garnered most of the conversation, and while she is a fantastic Fantine, it’s Hugh Jackman who ultimately brings the most to Les Misérables. Hooper’s choice to have the actors sing live benefits Jackman considerably, allowing him to fully emote and show off his alarmingly great voice. Through Jean Valjean’s journey Jackman is wildly stirring, bringing to life one of literature’s most thoroughly sympathetic characters. While people tend to look at Jackman and see Wolverine, it’s roles like this one that, in the end, will truly define him as the remarkable actor he is.
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
Philip Seymour Hoffman is not a supporting role in The Master, despite what the Academy thinks. While the film begins with the wild-eyed Freddie Quell, it is ultimately about the relationship between Quell and Lancaster Dodd, with the two characters sharing much of the focus. And Hoffman is as dominantly on display as ever, commanding rooms as the suave, despotic Dodd. While this could have been a character built solely on a commandeering self-assuredness, Anderson and Hoffman bring a vulnerability to Dodd that layers the character and his Cause. This is another in a long line of virtuoso performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, and its position as third on my list speaks volumes about the two remaining actors.
Daniel Day Lewis – Lincoln
My first thought after Lincoln was, “Daniel Day Lewis may be the best movie actor of all time.” And I stand by that. The sheer volume of disparate roles in which Lewis has acted expertly is astonishing in and of itself, but when you dig into those performances it begins to take on a level of genius. As our nation’s most distinguished president, Lewis is charming, affable, intellectual, savvy, manipulative, and measured. While the film doesn’t offer many opportunities for the character to reveal the scope of his anger, the moments when it does are spectacular, and reveal an actor thoroughly in control of his craft.
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
The Master, a film which is supremely well written and directed, is overshadowed by Joaquin Phoenix. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, both of whom give “Top 5 Career Performances” in the film, are overshadowed by Joaquin Phoenix. His Freddie Quell is a monstrous, id-driven, alcoholic sociopath. He is bent and emaciated by the ghosts of his past and the weight of his aimless future. For Freddie, Lancaster Dodd is a way to salvation, yet you’re left with the impression that Freddie has seen plenty of roads to salvation, and none have succeeded in bringing him any closer to humanity. And while all these characteristics should collude to build a horror, Freddie Quell is closer to a Frankenstein monster, his ultimate quality a somber naiveté to the finer details of simply being a person.
Alternates: Anders Danielsen Lie – Oslo, August 31st, Jack Black – Bernie, Denzel Washington – Flight, Liam Neeson – The Grey, Christian Bale – The Dark Knight Rises, Suraj Sharma – Life of Pi