The Best Performances Of 2014

The right director and the right script don't mean anything without the right actor. Performers are the ones who bridge the gap between the minds behind the camera and the ones in front of the screen. It is their personalities that draw us in, their expressions that tell the story, and their faces that we remember.

There were no shortage of great performances this year, across all genres and all budgets. Inevitably, a few stood out above the rest. See our list of the best performances of 2014 after the jump.

The Best Overlooked Performances

Let's start with some hidden gems, listed in no particular order. These are the performances that didn't make our top 10 (and wouldn't necessarily have made our top 15) but seemed worthy of a shoutout. Some were exceptional performances hampered by unexceptional writing, others were the best parts of truly terrible films, and one is a potential breakthrough you may never get to see.

Tessa Thompson in Dear White People

Tessa Thompson in Dear White People

For all its audacity and wit, Dear White People was a bit of a scattered mess. Still, it was crystal clear on a few points and one of those was that Tessa Thompson should be a big, big star. She positively crackles as Sam, a film student and the host of the college radio show "Dear White People." She can do cool, poised elegance and she can do righteous fury. Either way, she's impossible to ignore.

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Zoey Deutch in Vampire Academy

To the extent that Vampire Academy works at all, it's thanks to Zoey Deutch. The relative newcomer shines bright and clear even when the film around her devolves into convoluted mythology and sub-Mean Girls high school drama. And should any superhero films be looking to cast a fresh young lead, she looks equally comfortable delivering punches and snappy one-liners.

Eva Green in Sin City A Dame to Kill For

Eva Green in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

It's not clear that even Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller knew what they were going for with the muddled Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, but Eva Green definitely did. She played Ava Lord, the dame of the title, like the world's femme fatale-iest femme fatale. Ava never walked when she could slink, never talked when she could purr. Those choices made her one of the film's only highlights.

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Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a dud of a movie: bloated but paper-thin, crammed with action yet devoid of life. The only time it snaps into focus is whenever Martin Freeman wanders onto the screen. Freeman's easy warmth grounds the film, reminding us why The Hobbit was beloved enough to adapt in the first place.

Randall Park in The Interview

Randall Park in The Interview

The Interview should have been Randall Park's breakout performance. He's a hoot as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, a pitiful man-child with crippling daddy issues and a secret margarita addiction. It's just that when this brat throws tantrums, the entire world is in danger. Park finds the fine line between softening a bad person and making them likable, and then gleefully shimmies down that line to the tune of a Katy Perry soundtrack.

On the next page, we get to our top 10.

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10. Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne's performance as Stephen Hawking could feel gimmicky, but it doesn't because Redmayne avoids the temptation to overplay Hawking's tics. Instead, he internalizes Hawking's disabilities and plays him (especially in the early years) as a man fighting to break free of them. It's just a shame the movie seems more interested in Hawking's outer deterioration than his inner life. Whenever he's allowed, Redmayne proves able to convey awe or shame or jealousy with just a blink of an eye.

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

9. Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

Donna Stern was one of the year's most engaging heroines, more likable than the girls of Girls but no less honest feeling. And Jenny Slate is the one who brought her to life, with her loosey-goosey charm and R-rated sense of humor.

Jack O'Connell in Starred Up

8. Jack O'Connell in Starred Up

Angry and violent and frustratingly impulsive, prisoner Eric Love is hard to like. The actor playing Eric, Jack O'Connell, is not. O'Connell is a firecracker from start to finish. It's no surprise he commands the screen in his bigger moments, such as his memorable attack on one unfortunate security guard, but O'Connell burns just as brightly when Eric is simply sitting and thinking. On the rare occasions that O'Connell lets Eric's armor slip, it feels completely earned.

Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer

7. Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer

Tilda Swinton had not one but four roles this year, and she looked completely unrecognizable in each one. Probably her most memorable performance, though, was in Snowpiercer. Mason is a grotesque human being, inside and out, but she's the kind of grotesque you don't ever want to look away from because she's just so weird and hilarious. That classroom scene alone should be proof that Swinton needs to do more comedies, stat.

Patricia Arquette in Boyhood

6. Patricia Arquette in Boyhood

Patricia Arquette's performance in Boyhood almost doesn't feel like a performance at all; it's that delicate and naturalistic. But of course it is one, and a great performance at that. As Mason's mother, Olivia is certainly a supporting character in Boyhood, but you wouldn't know it from Arquette's work. She breathes so much life into Olivia that the film feels like it could have conceivably been named Motherhood.

Find out our five favorite performances of 2014 on the next page.

David Oyelowo in Selma

5. David Oyelowo in Selma

David Oyelowo had the choice of playing Martin Luther King, Jr. as a great legend or as an ordinary person. Somehow, he manages to do both. His performance in Selma took the King we've seen in old textbook photos and brought him to life in vivid color.

Oyelowo captured King's larger-than-life quality — the powerful charisma that inspired thousands to stand with him and fight. Oyelowo's King gets up on a podium in 1965, and his words ring with urgency in 2014. At the same time, however, Oyelowo's portrayal of King felt intimate. He exposes King as a flawed being who might snap at his wife or give into his own fears. King doesn't come across a lesser man for having struggles; he seems like a greater one for having overcome them.

Best scene: Wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts Martin about his alleged infidelities.

GONE GIRL

4. Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

At one point in Gone Girl, a character notes that Amy Dunne is "the kind of girl that attracts admirers." Rosamund Pike made it easy to see why. Gone Girl goes through more twists and turns than perhaps any other movie this year, and it's a great credit to Pike's performance that it never completely went off the rails. (Spoilers for Gone Girl follow.)

Amy Dunne isn't really one role but several, nested together like dolls. At times, not even Amy seems sure if she's acting or being "herself." Pike, on the other hand, knows exactly what she's doing. She gets to the core of who Amy is, and maintains a firm grasp on it even as Amy herself swings from Cool Girl to vengeful demon and back again. In every incarnation, she's nothing short of mesmerizing.

Best scene: Amy reacts to not-so-subtle hints from her ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris).

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

3. Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

At various points in her career, Scarlett Johansson has been accused of being a blank actress coasting on a pretty face. She's since proven, many times over, that she can be far more than that, but in Under the Skin she turns that blankness and beauty to her advantage. Johansson deliberately perches right at the edge of Uncanny Valley here. Her friendliest smile can't quite mask the cold detachment at her core.

But then something changes for this predatory alien. Johansson does incredible work during this transformation, inching her unnamed character ever closer to humanity without quite reaching it. She makes everything we've grown used to about human life — the kindness of strangers, the assholery of other strangers, fear, joy, and even the taste of chocolate cake — feel foreign and new again.

Best scene: Johansson's character targets a man (Adam Pearson) with neurofibromatosis.

Essie Davis in The Babadook

2. Essie Davis in The Babadook

Part of what makes The Babadook so resonant is the way it taps into real-life terrors, and part of what makes that possible is Essie Davis. The Aussie actress doesn't play Amelia, the widowed mother of an unruly son, like a typical horror movie victim. There's a rawness and a sensitivity to her performance that wouldn't be out of place in an intimate family drama.

Amelia starts the film at the end of a rapidly fraying rope, and Davis allowed us to see each little fiber as it falls away. Exhaustion, grief, loneliness, and parental ambivalence chip away at Amelia's being until she's sitting fully clothed in a bathtub, a dull glaze falling across her eyes. Davis never lost sight of Amelia's humanity, and as a result her descent into madness was as heartbreaking as it was terrifying.

Best scene: Amelia stops her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) from making a phone call.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

1. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal isn't just convincing as crime journalist Lou Bloom. He makes it momentarily impossible to believe he could be anyone but Lou Bloom. Gyllenhaal reportedly dropped 30 pounds for the role, and he looks hungrier than he ever has here. But his transformation goes far beyond that.

It was in the way he moved — unnervingly still, like a predator waiting to pounce on prey. It was in the way he talked — calm and articulate, but with an insistent, unrelenting edge. It was in the way he looked at things, his big blue eyes quietly taking everything in. Lou Bloom is capitalist ambition incarnate, a unique creature that nevertheless felt unnervingly familiar. Nightcrawler set a new high for Gyllenhaal, who's been on the best streak of his career for the past few years.

Best scene: Lou and his boss Nina (Rene Russo) have drinks at a Mexican restaurant.