Nineteen performances from 17 extraordinary actors had my attention in 2019. From quiet rage (Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Waves) to the explosive (Adam Driver in Marriage Story), and everything in between (Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell), 2019 displayed a Technicolor spectrum of human emotion. The performances I’ll remember, in no particular order:
Sterling K. Brown, Waves
The first of three selections from Trey Edward Shults’s South Florida drama about a family in crisis, Brown embodied the reticent strength of the Williams family patriarch. Mentally (and physically) shredded, Brown portrayed his character’s internal turmoil with the complexities of a man fighting his emotions while trying to maintain a household.
Were it not for egregious Oscar category fraud (more on this later), Brown would’ve rightfully earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Kelvin Harrison Jr., Waves
Waves stars Harrison Jr. as Tyler, an overachieving high school student overwhelmed by familial and societal pressures. Rather than leaning into the magnitude of hormone-driven teenage emotion, Harrison Jr. expressed the forced control that his character, an A-student and perfectionist, would exhibit. Waves doesn’t have half of its emotional resonance unless Tyler is a compelling character. Harrison Jr. is capable of that and more.
Taylor Russell, Waves
Russell, playing across from Harrison Jr. as Tyler’s sister, Emily, is yet another nuanced role. Emily, the younger of the two children, doesn’t co-exist with Tyler so much as she lives in his wake (if you’ll excuse a poor wave-related pun). Her development in the second half of Waves defies her family’s expectations of who she was all along. Emily is a fringe character before thriving in her own identity, and Russell’s ability to play both the foreground and background is a testament to her acting chops.
Florence Pugh, Midsommar & Little Women
If 2019 belonged to a single actor, it was undoubtedly Florence Pugh. Pugh flew onto the scene at supersonic speed in 2016’s chronically underrated Lady Macbeth and Park Chan-wook’s John le Carré-adapted miniseries, The Little Drummer Girl in 2018. In 2019, the 24-year-old starred in wrestling comedy Fighting with My Family, became May Queen in horror-comedy Midsommar, and earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for her work as the polarizing Amy March in Little Women. If Pugh can steal the show as Louisa May Alcott’s least popular character, she may well run the world in 10 years.
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
No actor did more to improve their standing than Banderas in 2019. Banderas, an action movie star whose roles have bordered on hammy in the past, delivered a Best Actor-worthy performance in Pain and Glory. Director Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical romantic drama is enhanced by the soul and anguish Banderas brings to the character.
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
The Sandman is unrecognizable as Uncut Gems star Howard Ratner. Sandler’s endearing and pathetic compulsive gambler was one of the two biggest snubs of the 92nd Academy Awards.
Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
Dafoe has received four acting nominations at the Academy Awards. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor three times (Platoon, Shadow of the Vampire, and The Florida Project), and Best Actor once (At Eternity’s Gate). It seems like Dafoe should already have an Oscar, but he’s still waiting. His poetic-but-unhinged performance as lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake was again worthy of a golden statue.
Brad Pitt, Ad Astra & Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
The 92nd Oscars saw Al Pacino (The Irishman), Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes), and Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) nominated for Best Supporting Actor. This, plainly, is category fraud. Each of the three are co-leads, and Pitt chief among them. Best Actor is the most crowded category at the Oscars because of the abundance of multi-faceted lead roles for men. All three movies would then be forced to run two actors in the same category, which no studio will ever do again because doing so could cannibalize votes. (The logical fix is to offer more layered lead roles to women, but what do I know?)
This is a long-winded way to say that although Pitt is fantastic in both Once Upon a Time and Ad Astra, Pitt carries Ad Astra alone. If he were to win, ahem, Best Actor for one movie, Ad Astra is the more difficult role.
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
In Marriage Story, the intense, gargantuan moments swallow the subtle frustrations of a newly divorced dad. Driver punching a hole through a wall is meme-worthy, but the scene fails to convey the emotion that Driver’s character experiences while in a tug-of-war for his son’s affection or seeking out a divorce lawyer for courtroom warfare. Driver has carried the emotional weight of an entire trilogy of Star Wars movies, played an absolute weirdo in Girls, and forced us to care about a bus driver and part-time poet in Paterson. His versatility is his greatest weapon, and it was on full display in Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama.
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
In only two films, Ronan may have established herself as the Robert De Niro to writer-director Greta Gerwig’s Martin Scorsese. The pair are responsible for two of the century’s best coming-of-age stories over the course of just two years.
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Sandler’s absence in the Best Actor category was one of two egregious snubs at the Oscars. Nyong’o’s absence in the Best Actress category was the other. Jordan Peele’s Us was beautiful, terrifying, and flawed, but none of it works without the duality of Nyong’o’s Adelaide.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
DiCaprio’s Oscar should’ve come for his manic performance as the wanton and impulsive Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. The actor wasn’t recognized until two years later for Hugh Glass in the imminently forgettable The Revenant. Joaquin Phoenix was due for a win when he was awarded for Joker, but of the five nominees at the 2020 ceremony, DiCaprio’s weepy, aging Rick Dalton was best in show. With the exception of Jordan Belfort, Rick Dalton is the actor’s best work.
Song Kang-ho, Parasite
Bong Joon-ho’s social thriller is an ensemble movie worthy of Wes Anderson. Members of the Park and Kim families are each given their peach-fuzz-shaving moment in the spotlight, but Song, Bong’s frequent collaborator and the peach shaver himself, is a side-splitting scene-stealer. (This, Academy, is what a Best Supporting Actor performance looks like.)
George MacKay, 1917
In 1917’s 119 minutes, MacKay is war-weary, crestfallen, and entranced. In a film that features Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, and Colin Firth, familiar faces phase in and out, but it’s MacKay who earns our sympathy. The mission-driven soldier navigates the film on his own in the same ways that Pitt pilots Ad Astra.
André Holland, High Flying Bird
Steven Soderbergh’s neglected NBA agent drama saw a muted release on Netflix last February. Holland (Moonlight) brings an unwavering authority to agent Ray Burke (think grown-up Jerry Maguire). Holland, formerly on The Knick (Soderbergh’s Cinemax series about an early 20th-century hospital, not the shitty New York basketball franchise) is primed for a breakout, but until then, the actor will devour every role offered.
Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
Lopez’s performance went unheralded during award season, but the traditionally narrow scope of acting awards aggrandizes period pieces, biopics, and conspicuous roles over the physical and self-aware. Lopez’s command and power over her colleagues and clients was unconventional for voters expecting to bestow another Best Actress award to a weeping mother or portrayal of a dead celebrity.
Elisabeth Moss, Her Smell
Played incorrectly, Moss’s alt-rocking Becky Something had the potential to lampoon her career. Instead, her unruly, vulnerable, and impetuous portrait of a celebrity addict living without checks and balances was excruciating to watch.