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Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk


Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern will probably be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. I say this not to confer legitimacy upon his performance as Woody Grant in Nebraska, but rather to point out that Dern will be run in the lead category, even though his costar Will Forte is in more scenes, has many times more lines, and provides the movie’s point of view. Some of this, of course, is Oscar politicking—but it’s also a testament to the impression Dern makes with relatively few lines and even less traditional emoting. The movie never shows a younger version of Woody in the flesh, but Dern’s shelled version of this aging alcoholic is so vivid that we can picture Woody in his younger years: still taciturn and abrupt, still withholding of affection, but maybe a bit more actively irascible and attentive. It’s evocative, haunting work. Jesse Hassenger


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All Is Lost

Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford


Robert Redford
All Is Lost

In a career that has spanned more than four decades Robert Redford has gone from being a matinee idol to one of America’s most beloved filmmakers, yet all throughout those years the one thing that had evaded him was delivering his one legendary performance. That changed this year when he played an unnamed man who faces the perils of nature by himself in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost. He is the only actor in the film and other than a short narration at the beginning, speaks only once during the running time, but there is so much to “read” in Redford’s face, that words become unnecessary; in his rugged features, his astonishingly beautiful eyes and that cynical smirk (which here allows us to go from comedic relief to pure heartbreak) he conveys an entire lifetime. This ladies and gentlemen, is a movie star, and they truly don’t make them like they used to. Jose Solis


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The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie, Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner


Leonardo DiCaprio
The Wolf of Wall Street

Beginning in 2008, Leonard DiCaprio has given a series of stellar performances (the jokey J. Edgar excluded) which will become endemic of his career as an “adult” movie star. From the misunderstood Revolutionary Road to the dark energies of The Great Gatsby, he has collected a series of characters that any other actor would sell their soul for. So it makes sense that Leo does some of his best and most brilliant work (the “cerebral palsy” scene) in this real life look at the debaucherous days of high finance conman Jordan Belfort. All matinee idol and manchrushes aside, you can see why this wannabe tycoon becomes a multimillionaire huckster. Even when he doesn’t believe it, he can sell you anything, including a place in a Federal Prison. Bill Gibron


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Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson


Joaquin Phoenix

One year after wowing audiences in his “return” to the silver screen as the confused, angry, and gullible Freddie Quell in The Master, Joaquin Phoenix finds new layers of humanity in Her, the latest from director Spike Jonze. As Theodore, a depressed writer going through a divisive divorce, Phoenix makes himself more muted than we’ve ever seen him. He’s easily embarrassed, nervous, and awkward—adjectives inapplicable to anything else in the actor’s canon. After seeing Her, it’s hard to imagine him any other way. Phoenix spends much of the film on his own, aided only by Scarlett Johannson’s voice as the OS Samantha. While her performance is deserving of its own analysis, Phoenix nevertheless holds the screen, virtually by himself. You won’t look away. Ben Travers


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12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard


Chiwetel Ejiofor
12 Years a Slave

Nobility is hard to pull off; just ask anybody who’s had to play a suffering lead in one of Steven Spielberg’s more important dramas. Playing Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor pulls it off without breaking a sweat. With nimble understanding, he shows us everything that a free black man of talent and standing in his community like Northrup would feel on being kidnapped into slavery in 1841: rage, incomprehension, disbelief, desolation, and end-of-the-line defiance. A Shakespearean who’s previously been relegated mostly to second-fiddle roles in mediocre product (Salt, American Gangster), Ejiofor gets his curtain call here and doesn’t waste a second of it. Chris Barsanti

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