Matthew Goode – Stoker
Perhaps the most overlooked performance on this list. The scene where Charles Stoker (Matthew Goode) and Richard (Dermot Mulroney) are together in the car is both funny and dramatic, and that’s not an easy balance to play. You’re laughing, but not exactly laughing at Charlie. Goode plays him with vulnerability, charm, danger, and childishness, and all those ingredients make for the heart and darkness of Park Chan-wook‘s estranged thriller.
Bradley Cooper – The Place Beyond the Pines
With Bradley Cooper’s face watching the television, talking with the therapist, and reacting to his father, Cooper and director Derek Cianfrance tell you everything you have to know about his character Avery without exposition. It’s all in how Cooper handles himself in the role.
Playing the criminal with a heart of a gold is one thing, but Cooper had the tougher job: making you empathize with a selfish careerist haunted by a mistake. Cooper makes you feel the pain in Avery’s success.
Sean Penn – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
This is the Sean Penn we need more of. Over the past few years he has undergone wild transformations or played at big emotions, so it’s a real joy to see him come back to a performance that requires him not to yell, wear a wig, or chew up the scenery until there are no scraps left.
That’s not a diss on his bonkers turn in Gangster Squad, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has the quiet kind of performance from Penn that gives us a rest from the insanity. Penn doesn’t waste a second of his screen time to live up to the legend that is Sean O’Connell. By the end, he brings a much needed heft to the film.
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Great Gatsby
Leonardo DiCaprio is going to receive a ton nominations for The Wolf of Wall Street. All that acclaim is deserved, because he gives Martin Scorsese one of his best performances, but he also did the same for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. It’s a role that not even Robert Redford could pull off, but DiCaprio found the humanity in Gatsby. No matter how hyper Luhrmann and his camera got, DiCaprio still found the film’s heart, making Gatsby’s final minutes onscreen truly heartbreaking.