Anaïs Demoustier in Bird People: To look at her, she's like a little French Shailene Woodley. To watch her act in Pascale Ferran's delicate, lovely film about isolation and curiosity in modern-day Paris is to see just how far an open face can take you.
Félix de Givry in Eden: As the main character Paul, de Givry is the throughline for Mia Hansen-Løve's ode to electronic music. He plays a character who could so easily fall into the trap of being a self-obsessed pretty-boy jackass, but de Givry gives him enough relatable earnestness and untainted joy for his music that you stay firmly on his side.
Sam Claflin in The Riot Club: Say what you will about his suitability as Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games (you could start by saying that his Riot Club co-star Max Irons might have made for a better casting choice there), but Claflin is unnervingly perfect as a privileged Oxford lad whose weaknesses get swiftly papered over with a galvanized sneering hatred of those lower on the food chain.
Rosario Dawson in Top Five: Chris Rock's statement on celebrity and authenticity is a funny movie, but about half as funny (and a third as wise) as it thinks it is. The one unambigious victory it achieves is that it gives a showcase for Rosario Dawson, as a Times reporter digging below the surface of Rock's actor/comedian/tell-it-like-it-is-er. She's not doing Cordelia in King Lear, but her performance is an excellent reminder to dull-witted casting directors everywhere that she's one of our most naturally captivating and charismatic actresses, and she gets nowhere near the amount of work that she should.
Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years: I keep saying that Anna Kendrick in Into the Woods is going to be 2014's version of Anne Hathaway. It's partly a troll tactic meant to rile up Kendrick's growing legion of haters, but I do think it's a real possibility. I kind of hope it doesn't happen, though, because it would definitely burn people out before they get to see her lovely, accomplished work as one-half of the doomed couple in Richard LaGravenese's adaptation of the Jason Robert Brown cult musical.
Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher: I've already written about the Oscar prospects of Channing Tatum and Steve Carell, but I think my favorite performance in Bennett Miller's chilly, deliberate American grotesque is Ruffalo's. Particularly because he gets so much done with the physical language of his character, from his hunchy gait to the way his face turns up like he's going to say something, before thinking better of it and sticking with what he knows, like a headlock or a half-nelson.
Anne Dorval in Mommy: A film like Xavier Dolan's Mommy is created seemingly with the purpose of getting you to rave about its lead character. There's a combination of strength and trash, of bawdiness and shocking moments of vulnerability, that are utterly irresistible. The film's strengths lie in how Dorval's nothing-held-back performance is pitched for audience satisfaction — the way her Diane will tell someone to fuck off or strike a defiant posture with her wild, barely controlled son — only to be peppered with moments where we're hauled back to earth and Diane is left unable to deal with the simple reality that she can't handle her own darling child.