One of the sick pleasures I get from movies is a good performance trapped in a mediocre or lousy film. It’s easy to see, say, Adam Driver spilling his guts in Marriage Story, put your finger on your nose, and predict a Best Actor Oscar. I do this kind of thing all the time. (And I’ll do it here.) But it takes a little more time and a little more investment to look at the perfectly adequate slate of releases in the middle of February and find something that draws you in, to become enlivened by a person exposing their core. This year is littered with brilliant work, full of roles that have drawn obvious acclaim. There were more still that may not seem as obvious.
Billy Eichner, The Lion King
In July, Kate Knibbs summed up Eichner’s essence perfectly: “In real-life performances, Eichner uses his lanky physicality to accentuate his comedy, lurching toward surprised interview subjects on the Manhattan sidewalks of Billy on the Street. In The Lion King, his booming voice lends tiny Timon an extra dose of bluster; so much confident cynicism in such a small package.” Voice acting is an invisible art and so much of Eichner’s appeal has hinged on his size and explosiveness. His Timon is something different—fierce but tender, musical but brash. It’s the reason to see a story you’ve literally seen before.
Jessica Rothe, Happy Death Day 2U
Rothe is the star of my favorite active horror series, the loopy, Back to the Future–ish Happy Death Day. Her character, Tree, is forced to live—and die—the same day over and over again, a kind nouveau-slasher twist on Groundhog Day. This movie shouldn’t work—it’s derivative, arch, low-budget, and an unnecessary sequel. But its verve and wit is channeled through Rothe, who whips from caustic to sweet to frenetic in a matter of seconds. She is one of the most entertaining film presences I’ve seen in years, and in a different decade might have her choice of plum Nora Ephron– or James Brooks–scripted parts. Keep an eye on her.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Spider-Man: Far From Home
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is one of the most important movies of the decade. That fiasco led Gyllenhaal to reexamine his career and pursue a different kind of movie acting. It resulted in a series of physically extravagant, emotionally volatile, and ruthlessly weird performances. I love them all. His decision to return to the big-top franchise movie world this summer isn’t a gambit to get back to square-jawed leading-man mode.
He plays Mysterio, the special effects wizard who dupes Peter Parker into friendship and out of a valuable MacGuffin. It would have been impossible without Prince of Persia. “I think I learned a lot from that movie in that I spend a lot of time trying to be very thoughtful about the roles that I pick and why I’m picking them,” Gyllenhaal said earlier this year. “And you’re bound to slip up and be like, ‘That wasn’t right for me,’ or ‘That didn’t fit perfectly.’ There have been a number of roles like that. And then a number of roles that do.” Mysterio, a frustrated creative who can’t see past his own narcissism, is a perfect commentary on the vanity of celebrity.
Jonah Hill, The Beach Bum
This movie landed like a felled seagull, but it sure looked like everyone had fun making it. Hill shows up for five minutes as Lewis, an agent for Moondog, the titular poet-bum played by Matthew McConaughey, and he smacks on the scenery like it’s a wad of Big League Chew. Mash Hill’s three iconic roles—Donnie Azoff in The Wolf of Wall Street, Peter Brand in Moneyball, and Seth in Superbad—together, dip them in Florida bacchanalia, and add a dash of New York literary zest. Et voilà—a bum’s confidante.
Mary Kay Place, Diane
The grande dame of hiding in plain sight character actresses, Place has been fascinating and elusive for decades on screen playing pragmatic women surrounded by foolish men. Kent Jones’s intimate portrait of a woman reckoning with the end of life would make for a nice double feature with his friend Martin Scorsese’s similarly grave clock-watchers in The Irishman.
Charlize Theron, Long Shot and Bombshell
If nominations come calling, Theron will be recognized for her Megyn Kelly transformation in the Fox News drama. But her work in 2019’s criminally underseen Long Shot is one of the most incisive portraits of a politician I’ve ever seen. Fearful of polling numbers, perception, and her own feelings, Theron’s Charlotte Field is a bundle of perfectly manicured gloss masking a nerdy, almost inhuman personality underneath the smart pant suits and coiffure. Field isn’t a particularly persuasive figure, which makes her the perfect candidate for 2019.
Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe, Honey Boy
LaBeouf’s wrenching autobiographical portrait of his childhood as a young actor is one of the most surreal movie experiences of the year: LaBeouf plays his own domineering, manipulative father as the 14-year-old Jupe captures what made the one-time Even Stevens star such a charismatic force at such a young age. The psychological hoops narrow as you fall into their performances, which are some of the most captivating and heartbreaking of the year.
Rebecca Ferguson, Doctor Sleep
Mike Flanagan’s sequel to The Shining came and went quickly—a function of odd timing and soft marketing. (That title, sheesh.) But track it down if you can, because it features one of the more delicious villains in recent history: Rose the Hat, played by Ferguson as a kind of Stevie Nicks vampire yoga instructor. She relishes this part in a way her other American work in Mission: Impossible and The Girl on the Train has never allowed.
The Alligators, Crawl
Speaking of great villains, how about the damn gators? One of the year’s purely visceral pleasures, Alexandre Aja’s return to B-grade A+ horror delivered an old-school monster movie set in a hurricane-ravaged bayou as a father and daughter attempt to elude a pack of bloodthirsty reptilian beasts. The CGI is cheap, dirty, and glorious. But the teeth look real.
Andrew Garfield, Under the Silver Lake
I love this movie and I love Garfield’s instincts after an ill-fated run at Spider-Man sent him to a story about a blinkered fanboy trapped in the paranoia of his own fandom. David Robert Mitchell’s quixotic, absurdist third film isn’t just one of the most misunderstood movies of the year, it’s one of the best showcases for an actor who works best when he’s in opposition to his looks and natural charm. Let Garfield eat.
Elisabeth Moss, Her Smell
And let Lis sing! Moss’s tour de force as Becky Something, a wrung-out relic of ’90s alternative rock glory—think riot grrrl meets Liz Phair meets Courtney Love meets Viva—isn’t just a beautifully rendered portrait of the artist as junkie genius. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry shows the full life cycle of promise, payoff, regret, and redemption across his five-chapter tale, fully powered by a performer who conveys rage and sadness with an almost-routine regularity. If this movie were released in November, with slightly glossier distribution and promotion, it’d be in all your Oscar conversations.
Alec Baldwin, Motherless Brooklyn
I forgot what a legendary Heat Check movie actor Baldwin can be when he gives a shit. His late turn in Edward Norton’s long-gestating passion project/quasi-adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel is as a thinly veiled Robert Moses, the power broker of mid-20th century New York. Leaning into his blunt-force New Yorkishness, Baldwin barks and lectures like a wizened rock monster, preaching the future while trying to protect a racist past. It’s like his SNL Donald Trump with all of the protectionist rage and none of the buffoonery. Norton’s film takes a little while to find its groove, but when Baldwin comes into the center of the story’s scope, it achieves a rare dread with tragic consequences.
Maya Erskine, Plus One
Possibly the most winning and eerily recognizable romantic comedy performance in more than a decade. Erskine has earned acclaim for her Hulu series with longtime collaborator Anna Konkle, but what wowed me was her work in this small but highly effective lark about a pair of wastrel best buds (Erskine and Jack Quaid) who team up for a summer of wedding-buddydom. It may shock you to learn that they fall for each other and then maybe it seems like things won’t work out until they do. Erskine brings a kind of crude-breezy sarcasm hiding an intense vulnerability to the slow-burn part, one that the male lead would have gotten 20 or 30 years ago. Erskine is hilarious, but also so easy to watch. She holds your gaze.
Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell
Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of the Atlanta Olympics bombing and the man wrongfully accused in its aftermath is a gripping if predictable evocation of all of his greatest themes—a rejection of governmental authority and the media, the shunting of the ordinary citizen, and a treacherous relationship to lethal violence. But in Hauser he has an ace in the hole: an enormously empathetic, unvarnished performance from a guy best known to audiences as the moron in I, Tonya who conspired with Tonya Harding’s husband to break Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecap. Hauser is altogether different here, a simple but righteous totem for Eastwood to weaponize.
Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Waves
I’m on the record about this one. Two extraordinary young performers hold one half of this tenuously designed movie, staple-bound by a ferocious Brown trying desperately to keep it all together. They need each other to survive, just as the father, daughter, and son in Trey Edwards Shults’s movie need each other.
Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose
My new favorite actress, a multihyphenate who got her start on a BBC talent competition show and has evolved into one of the most dynamic screen actors around. Wild Rose is a simple story about a down-on-her-luck Scottish woman just released from prison but eager to make good on her dream of country and Western music stardom. When Buckley lets it rip, as she does frequently in the movie, we can see some electric combination of Loretta Lynn, Wynonna Judd, and Miranda Lambert. But in Glasgow. The performance of “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” that closes the film is one of the few hair-standing-on-end movie moments I haven’t forgotten from this year.
Song Kang-ho and Cho Yeo-jeong, Parasite
A pair of parents, operating at cross purposes—one a low-class and duplicitous father, the other a wealthy helicopter mother. Neither innocent, neither particularly guilty, but they ride on a collision course throughout Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece, finally to meet a devastating fate. But what’s gotten lost in the discourse about this wonderful movie is just how funny it is, and no one is funnier than Cho Yeo-jeong as the epitome of Seoul nouveau riche, dropping English phrases in her conversations and mousily orchestrating unnecessary therapy and training for her children. The charm, so discreet.
Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
One of the few big, bold, strange performances this year, Majors swallows Jimmie Fails’s script about a San Franciscan trying to reclaim his family home and regurgitates something uncanny as Fails’s best friend, Mont. It’s the kind of character we might find in a Charles Burnett script directed by David Lynch—tactile but not of this planet. Majors instantaneously entered my “Will watch him in anything” camp.
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Ad Astra
Please see my colleague Brian Phillips for matters of Pitt.
Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
This is a bit like praising watermelon at a BBQ. Don’t trust anyone who says they don’t like it. To this point, no single movie, television show, music video, Instagram Story, talk-show appearance, selfie, perfume ad, or red-carpet moment better utilized J.Lo’s talent than Lorene Scafaria’s movie. Lopez is a physical performer, more boxer than ballerina, and she stalks this movie, circling every scene ready to pounce. As she unfurls her fur early in the film and welcomes Constance Wu’s Destiny into her arms, Lopez’s Ramona slips the latch on the gates to hell. Mesmerizing in every frame.
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Imagine your friend and close collaborator—in my case, we can say The Ringer’s Chris Ryan—comes to you and says, “I’d like you to be me in a movie in which I survey my life, reckon with heartbreaks past, and shoot heroin.” Would you do it? Antonio Banderas did, in his eighth team-up with the iconoclastic Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. Together, they create a character—an elegant, self-destructive filmmaker named Salvador Mallo—that transcends autofiction and becomes something more sublime. This kind of professional union with personal consequences is so rare, and so rarely public. Banderas is as unmannered and subtle as he’s ever been here, and in Almodóvar, he returns the favor to a friend: a muse for the muse.
Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
HARK! The funniest and scariest movie of the year is seen through the eyes of Robert Pattinson’s lighthouse keeper apprentice, but we can feel it in our bones when Dafoe’s eyes bulge, his beard bristles, and his voice soars. HAAAAAAAAAARK! Rambling on in a Melville-ese sailor rabble, Dafoe’s Thomas Wake is like Falstaff without the squandered status, a masturbating, farting, drunken madman trapped in a giant erection, tantalized by the light at its tip. Dafoe is too good for things like Oscars or Golden Globes. He deserves an awards show of his own, with a statuette befitting his power and commitment. HAAAAAAARK!
Zhao Tao, Ash Is Purest White
If we need a third film to complete a triple feature with The Irishman and Diane, Jia Zhangke’s latest could do the trick. Or maybe it’d be better with Pain and Glory, as the film stars Jia’s wife and longtime muse Zhao, who plays the abandoned girlfriend of a mob figure fighting to return to her lover. One part gangster epic, one part prison saga, one part melodrama, Jia stages Zhao’s character at three distinct and radically different moments in time, and she responds with a quiet but overwhelming power.
Ben Affleck, Triple Frontier
He looks like shit, and it’s on purpose. As Redfly, the de facto leader of a bunch of fucked-over special-ops soldiers looking to pull one last job, Affleck embraces the paunch, the sagging eyelids, and graying beard of a man his age. Redfly is selling real estate, badly, just trying to get by when his old pals come knocking with a plan to invade a South American drug lord’s home for that final score. The crew is worthy, but it’s Affleck who raises the stakes on this old-fashioned actioner. A more vain star would muscle up for a bro down. My guy looks like he just crushed a sixer of Natty Light and a box of Cheez-Its. All praise due.
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Has an actor ever inverted their persona so profoundly? To many, Pesci is the bombastic, Napoleonic disruptor in Goodfellas and Casino, a stick of dynamite with a short wick. To others, he’s a seriocomic buffoon, arguing with hicks in court while donning a red velvet suit in My Cousin Vinny. But in Martin Scorsese’s latest, the defiantly patient The Irishman, Pesci recalibrates. His voice goes hushed. His face has widened, his nose now resembling something like an overgrown peach. And his manner is still. Russell Bufalino, the Philadelphia mafioso he portrays, is something new. An ambassador of the way things are, a mentor to Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, and a middle man with gravitas. Pesci is back and we’ve never seen this before. I hope we see him again.
Florence Pugh, Little Women, Midsommar, and Fighting With My Family
If Jessie Buckley is my new favorite actress, Florence Pugh is my new yardstick. Would a movie be improved if its star were replaced by Pugh? In virtually every case, yes. Pugh as Frank’s wordless daughter in The Irishman? Yes. Pugh as Nicole in Marriage Story? Yes. Pugh as Thanos? Indisputably yes. Her trifecta of roles this year indicate an uncommon versatility. But in every role, she’s a fire hydrant of force, tightly wound but ready to blow. She storms around these three movies, circling their conflict, pushing the issue. She’s an irritant, a boss, a badass. It’s exciting when an actor is at this stage. Let’s not take it for granted.
Sharon Stone, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
In Martin Scorsese’s other 2019 movie, there is a deliriously entertaining subplot about a teenage Stone becoming obsessed and entangled with Bob Dylan during his Rolling Thunder tour in the mid-’70s. It’s all bullshit, an imagined encounter from old pals up to their usual tricks. But Stone commits to the bit so deeply that they had me fooled the first time I saw it. We’re not getting enough Sharon Stone in our movies these days.
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Sometimes you get to do it all. No one went for it harder than Nyong’o in Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out. Her dual role is the high-wire act of the year and she reaches—with raw vocal choices, stilted physical bearing, and odd mannerisms. It’s capital-A acting, just not in the way that, say, George C. Scott might have done it. Instead, Nyong’o has to encapsulate trauma from two angles, in the same body. And she can never give away the twist, not with a gesture, not with a wink. It’s an amazing piece of work in a movie that hinges on it.
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
At one point during Noah Baumbach’s 11th film, Driver’s character, a finicky, self-absorbed New York theater director named Charlie, accidentally cuts himself and begins to bleed everywhere. It’s a tidy metaphor for everything Driver does in the film—he lets it all out, almost uncontrollably, making a mess of himself and his surroundings. Charlie is an artist and maybe even a genius, but he doesn’t have much figured out. He’s a thrash of contradiction. His character is empathetic and yet so ugly, flawed and sweet, lumbering and menacing, venal and sophisticated. Driver is definitively the movie star of our time, as comfortable in Kylo Ren’s cloak as in a Spike Lee comedy about the KKK. He remains coiled in The Report as a Senate staffer who’s devoted years of his life to investigating the U.S. torture program, but he sings Sondheim for Baumbach. Driver, it seems, can do anything. Franchise entertainment. Small character work. Prestige television. Docudrama. Comedy. He’s what we’ve been waiting for.