Each year that I do this, I find certain performances stick with me in the moment, while others only come into focus as I’m culling my massive list of actors. Either way, these are the kinds of performances that, for my money, captured some measure of real-world, human experience. If you see enough movies, there’s no shortage of performances that truly “wow” you. It’s only a matter of seeing them.
As per usual, these are preferential as opposed to “best” performances. As such, I’ve ranked the five performances in each category based on what they meant to me personally, not as some objective comparison. I’ve offered my five favorites in each category (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Lead Actor, and Lead Actress) as well as five honorable mentions in alphabetical order. We start with…
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Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, Hustlers
Carmiña Martínez as Úrsula, Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano)
Idina Menzel as Dinah Ratner, Uncut Gems
Fatma Mohamed as Miss Luckmoore, In Fabric
Park So-dam as Kim Ki-jung, Parasite (Gisaengchung)
5. Hazar Ergüçlü as Hatice
The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Ağacı)
Ergüçlü gets precisely one scene in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s coming-of-age epic, but it’s all she needs to haunt the rest of the film. Playing an old flame of the film’s hero, she carves out an entire arc for the buoyant but mysterious Hatice. She seems excited for the joys that still await her in life, but also teems with regret, recognizing the pains that that will gnaw through the years many years before they begin. What begins as a friendly, casual reunion leads to a surprising development (to say the least) when Hatice actually bites our hero. Thanks to Ergüçlü, we understand the raging storm of desire and grief that informs such an impulse. It may be one scene, but within it, Ergüçlü becomes a remarkable lead.
4. Julianne Nicholson as Dr. Sarah Watson
Prisoner to a child soldier platoon somewhere in South America, Nicholson’s Dr. Watson appears emotionally and physically drained for much of Alejandro Landes’s mesmerizing survival film. But not to worry; none of that hinders Nicholson’s emotionally expressive range. She plays a person who’s had to adapt to survive her circumstances—and must reckon with who she’s become as a result. And amazingly, Nicholson defies passivity in the role: the film gives her plenty of room to establish Dr. Watson’s agency and resilience. As we watch her navigate several key moral decisions, we see a character struggling to hold on to who she was, while embracing who she is with steely resolve.
3. Laura Dern as Nora Fanshaw
Dern has long been overdue for Oscar glory, and I’m thankful she won it for such a juicy role. Her Nora possesses the kind of cruel efficiency you’d expect from a high-profile divorce lawyer, but with the effortless charm and outward friendliness of a close, charismatic friend. Her first scene with Scarlett Johansson’s potential client Nicole goes beyond even that, playing like a seduction (choreographed right down to the rhythm of the conversation). But don’t let the deliberate machinations fool you: Nora is a true believer—the smoke and mirrors prove reflective of her real feelings toward marriage and divorce. Dern captures both Nora’s talents and resentments in one brilliant performance.
2. Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat
Leading a cult of youth-stealing murderers, Ferguson has plenty of villainous potential to work with. And man oh man, does she sink her fangs into it with gusto; you never doubt Rose’s powers to seduce new recruits or prey upon newfound victims. In both cases, the approach is the same: instill a sense of trust, wielding her playful allure and faux-Earth Mother persona. It’s all the more disturbing when you consider just how much Rose styles herself as a kind of New Age healer, trusting in her instincts despite the damage she leaves in her wake. So beguiling are her powers, you get the sense that her targets know exactly what they’re getting into…and yet they go, and gladly.
1. Florence Pugh as Amy March
Make no mistake; 2019 was Pugh’s year, with stellar lead performances in films as diametrically opposed in tone as Fighting with My Family and Midsommar. But it’s her turn as the youngest March sister in Greta Gerwig’s masterful adaptation that looms largest for me. That’s especially impressive when you consider Pugh is playing child, adult, and all the range in between, meaning we actually witness Amy’s growth through the film (albeit in non-linear fashion). Note especially how Pugh keeps notes of Amy’s immaturity into adulthood and foreshadows her hard-won wisdom even in youth. Amy may feel that she’s fighting to escape her older sister Jo’s shadow, but Pugh imbues her with the kind of flair and intellect we can only hope Amy will one day see herself.
My Favorite Supporting Actors
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Moises Arias as Patagrande, Monos
Christian Bale as Ken Miles, Ford v Ferrari
Timothée Chalamet as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, Little Women
Aldis Hodge as Anthony Woods, Clemency
Liao Fan as Bin, Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)
5. Alessandro Nivola as Sensei
The Art of Self-Defense
It’s rare to see toxic masculinity portrayed with the delicate, unassuming quality that Nivola has here. Approaching the role of “Sensei” with a sort of musing, alien detachment, he talks calmy, almost banally, about his approach to martial arts. And contrary to the film’s title, he puts less emphasis on self-defense than on brute force and cheap subterfuge. But don’t let the collected demeanor fool you; his fists speak just as matter-of-factly. Nivola’s offbeat performance doesn’t diminish the power of Sensei’s moral rot—it amplifies it, giving us a man who sees his own toxicity as objective pragmatism. It’s a disturbing portrait of how easily human beings can justify selfish cruelty.
4. Jonathan Majors as Montgomery “Mont” Allen
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Mont plays Sancho Panza to Jimmie Fails’s Don Quixote, steadying him in his perpetual quest for self-assertion (and reclamation of his homestead). But Majors doesn’t settle for playing sidekick; he balances Mont’s genuine affection for his friend with a kind of artistic distance. Indeed, he is always watching; observe how Majors’s face seems to drink in both the beauty and grotesquerie of San Francisco with an open heart. He affects the air of a great artist on the verge of a breakthrough, but he can easily offer emotional support when it’s called for by the people he cares about. Here’s hoping Majors’s part in the next Ant-Man movie gives him this kind of chance to shine.
3. Murat Cemcir as Idris Karasu
The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Ağacı)
We’ve seen the smugly charming, totally irresponsible dad archetype many times before. But in Cemcir’s capable hands, Idris registers as a much more playful riff on the familiar character type. For one, Idris is far from easily rattled—even huge gambling losses can’t seem to wipe away his big toothy grin; his self-confidence appears to transcend the realities of his failings. And in spite of his continued scheming, Cemcir manages to radiate a warmth of feeling and genuine sincerity for his family, especially toward the film’s hero, even when prattling on about anything else. We’re not just registering the character; we’re registering our hero’s reckoning and eventual reconciliation with his complicated mess of a father.
2. Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino
If you’ve seen Pesci in a Martin Scorsese film before, you think you know exactly what you’re getting, right? Dead. Wrong. Pesci’s performance here as Bufalino is a study in control. Here is a mover-and-shaker who can afford to take his time, because of his trust in the network of lackeys underneath him. He has a kind of low-key friendliness, his dialogue calm and measured, every potential action meditated upon. He seldom loses his cool, and even that feels like part of some grand master plan. At a certain point, it seems like Scorsese made an active decision to cast Pesci as the exact opposite character he’s played so many times before. And yet it never feels like stunt casting; he just fits naturally and humbly in the role.
1. Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake
This will be the second time Dafoe has shown up in my top spot for this category, as distinct from the good-natured Bobby in The Florida Project as you can get. Dafoe’s Wake seems plucked from another era entirely, divorced as much from the reality of Robert Pattinson’s fellow lighthouse keeper as from that of any present-day landlubber. Bent low and croaking like the Sea Captain from The Simpsons, Dafoe defies any definition—he’s at times wistful, gratingly demanding, utterly clueless, and suspiciously probing. And when things become increasingly surreal, he more than meets the occasion, assuming bestial forms through physicality alone. Oh, and he delivers the greatest sea-yarn as death wish in cinematic history.
My Favorite Leading Actresses
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Ana Brun as Chela, The Heiresses (Las herederas)
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla / Ása, Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Sheila, In Fabric
Scarlett Johansson as Nicole Barber, Marriage Story
Zhao Tao as Qiao, Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)
5. Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams
If more moviegoers had the stomach for a hard look at our criminal justice system, Woodard may have garnered more raves for her nuanced, unflinching portrayal of a conflicted prison warden. She’s adept at playing brief, quiet moments as well as longer set-pieces that capture her character’s gradual descent into despair (in the film’s climax, you can actually see Bernadine’s soul leaving her body entirely). Woodard makes us understand how Bernadine justifies her role, both as consummate professional and stickler for the rules. In Bernadine’s eyes, she is the last best hope for the prisoners under her watch. But as Woodard proves, that hope may not be enough – indeed, it may actually enable systematic injustice.
4. Noémie Merlant as Marianne & Adèle Haenel as Héloïse
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)
I simply couldn’t do this list without including both principal actresses from Céline Sciamma’s simmering romance. Both Merlant and Haenel convey longing for one another in the subtlest of looks and gestures, tapping into their inherent giddiness while maintaining the requisite secrecy of the time. Of course, this in no way implies that they cast similar presences in the film. Merlant provides our window into Marianne’s memories with a reliable equanimity, very much at odds with her intensity of feeling. And Haenel fulfills Marianne’s projections of idolatry while decidedly looking back, determined to claim a level of autonomy in a world that grants her none. Together they form an indelible bond, the kind of bond the outside world can only guess at.
3. Mary Kay Place as Diane
Diane doesn’t seem like the kind of character who’d get a full-blown movie about her. She doesn’t betray a lot, and in fact, spends most of her day doing things for others. Leave it to Place, then, to imbue that fundamental decency with a deep sense of regret and penance that can never be paid. And when her hidden emotions do reveal themselves, Place has cultivated Diane’s hardened exterior so well that those emotional outbursts feel like hammer blows. As for the moments when she cuts loose? Well, cries for help seldom appear so liberating. This is the kind of performance that keeps peeling back its layers with such delicate subtlety, that even her final moments leave us with tantalizing mystery.
2. Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson / Red
Since winning an Oscar for her first feature film role, Nyong’o has been steadily building a resume of quietly brilliant performances. In her latest, she plays a dual role that only becomes more amazing once a key revelation comes to light. Suffice to say she’s not simply playing exact opposites (even with the conceit of a film about doubles); she’s embodying two very distinct people, giving each impressive life. Her halting, rasping voice as the imposing “Red” channels a lifetime of pain and retribution, tapping into both our fears and sympathies. And as Adelaide, Nyong’o’s reactions are everything: lending gravity to the moment while subtly betraying the character’s deeper secrets. These are the absolutely delicious roles, and Nyong’o devours them.
1. Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something
Channeling the glam-punk divas of the ’90s, Moss sheds not only ego but all inhibition. Her Becky is all about personas, necessitated by a life in the music industry. Watch how Moss pulls out these various personas, usually in the same scene, like an amalgamation of coping mechanisms and purposeful provocations. Alex Ross Perry’s camera often (deliberately) struggles to keep up with her, moving as she does to the rhythm of her own whims. And while Becky may be self-destructive, Moss humanizes her with searing compassion. A solo piano rendition of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” plays like the fragments of a broken soul—desperate to heal, wondering if it’s still possible.
My Favorite Leading Actors
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo, Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)
Deng Chao as Commander Ziyu / Jingzhou, Shadow (Yǐng)
George MacKay as Lance Corporal William Schofield, 1917
Mads Mikkelsen as Overgård, Arctic
Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, Ad Astra
5. Félix Maritaud as Léo
It’s nearly impossible to watch Maritaud in this film without holding one’s breath; his Léo will seemingly go to the ends of the earth, with no regard for his physical or mental health, to achieve the smallest measure of intimacy. Precisely what kind of intimacy Léo craves is left a mystery, but Maritaud conveys that quest with a casual matter-of-factness. As a hustler somehow surviving day-to-day, Léo provides the kinds of pleasures to his clients that go beyond carnal satisfaction; he has an innate need to nurture, to comfort, to make people feel needed. Thanks to Maritaud, we want Léo find love, but we recognize the experience he craves may not even reside on our earthly plane.
4. Song Kang-ho as Kim Ki-taek
It feels disingenuous to single out any one performer from Parasite’s impeccable ensemble (especially considering how deftly director Bong Joon-ho employs them), but Song’s embattled patriarch is just that good. He seems to actively resist standing out, as if the character is lying in wait, anticipating his chance to capitalize. That same patience hides not only Ki-taek’s pain but also his deep-seated shame, what with his own social position and the family he feels very much responsible for. While he may not give voice to it, he carries it within his body in nearly every scene. And when Ki-taek does eventually expel his shame in an act of horrible violence, it’s all been fostered by Song’s deceptive wallflower presence.
3. Franz Rogowski as Georg
A restless desperation dogs Rogowski’s Georg, a man who appears to be in motion even when he’s standing still. Rogowski captures that paradox so well, with frantic eyes that look onward to his promised refuge in North America, while drifting inexorably back to the sights of his temporary home in Marseille. Caught between safety and danger, Rogowski’s portrayal sees a refugee embracing his transience, never committing to any of his given options if it would mean cutting off the others. That level of wishy-washiness may not seem like a compelling portrait on paper, but Rogowski cuts it with debonair charm and roguish ingenuity. The same man capable of sudden, decisive acts can also slow down to tenderly sing a children’s folksong.
2. Adam Driver as Charlie Barber
Before we get to Charlie’s showstopping interpretation of “Being Alive” (which seems utterly spontaneous in Driver’s hands), we see quite the gamut of emotions, and our sympathies can’t help but swing wildly as a result. There’s no attempt made by Driver or the film to sand off Charlie’s rougher edges; he’s frequently impatient, prone to sudden violent bursts of anger, and stubborn to the point of masochism. But that doesn’t mean he’s a monster, either; Driver chooses the right moments to show Charlie’s subtle adjustments to his situation, including his coming-to-terms with his ex-wife’s own needs and desires. Driver doesn’t hold anything back—and as a result, we see all the immaturity and grace of being human.
1. André Holland as Ray Burke
High Flying Bird
Dumped unceremoniously on Netflix with little fanfare, Stephen Soderbergh’s basketball heist film features a grand showcase for Holland, who plays the kind of power player typically featured in the films or plays of David Mamet. In a film that jumps from one conversation to another, Holland delivers his dialogue as if he’s still savoring the words as they leave his mouth. That’s not to say Holland strives to become center of attention (especially when he’s sharing the screen with some very talented co-stars); rather, he’s constantly adjusting Ray’s strategies depending on who he’s talking to. Ray feels like the kind of character who always wanted to be the smartest guy in the room—and then strove to become it. Few performances this year carry such a compelling aura—and this much pure fun.
And we shall leave it there for now. Next up will by my Top 10 Films of 2019. Stay tuned!