There are a few strange quirks about the year 2019 in feature film performance. Unusually — and it will be interesting to see how this translates to the Oscars — it feels like the men had the edge in terms of the sheer volume of masterful, often career-redefining acting, making the Best Actor category likely the more competitive one than Best Actress, which will be the first time that’s been the case in a while. And it also feels like it’s been an unusually terrific year for ensemble performances — films with such strong casts working so symphonically together it seems unfair to single one castmember out for special praise (hasn’t stopped us, though!). Given that we have no ensemble category, consider this our grateful shout out to the entires line-ups of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” and Alejandro Landes’ “Monos” — recently, and very unjustly, knocked out of the Best International Feature race.
But enough about Academy Awards — we haven’t got much influence over them, we’ve plenty of time still to get mad at each other about them, and Lord knows, as last year’s (admittedly weak) Best Actor race proves, they get it wrong as often as they get it right. As opposed to us: here is our infallible list of the 30 performances of 2019 that most amazed, amused, and moved us.
More best of year and decade content is here too, the 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2020, The 100 Best Films Of The Decade, the 25 Best Films Of 2019, the Best Performances Of The Decade, Best Cinematography of the Decade, Best Soundtracks of the Decade, Best TV of the Decade, Best TV of 2019, Best Posters, and Trailers of 2019 and more to come.
30. Jessie Buckley in “Wild Rose”
As a single mother of two Rose-Lynn stroppily leaves prison, you see the ankle tag first, but the white leather cowboy boots immediately after. Jessie Buckley is a chameleonic, paradoxical actor – effervescent as the ambitious country singer, but also showing frustration as the worlds of employment and child-rearing just won’t give her a break. The Irish performer dons a thick Glaswegian accent and transforms as a stubborn, independent young woman, fighting against what she loves in pursuit of what she wants. And in every single musical moment, she entirely lights up: in “Peace in This House” and “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” in particular, every trace of pent-up anxiety melts away, as Buckley’s voice pierces through the noise with crystal clarity. As much in her determination to find the future, she deserves as in her fight to take care of her loved ones, Rose-Lynn is a trailblazer and entirely alive thanks to Buckley’s incandescent talent. – Ella Kemp
29. Michael B. Jordan/Jamie Foxx in “Just Mercy”
Destin Daniel Cretton‘s film, based on the true story of equal justice pioneer Bryan Stevenson and wrongly convicted death row inmate Walter McMillian, balances the obviously inspirational with a subtler power. And if that makes the movie at once better than some of its peers and a bit removed from its full potential, stars Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx cannot be faulted, doing all the heavy lifting in both registers. Jordan embodies Stevenson’s wisdom and ferocity in the courtroom and behind the scenes; Foxx captures a perfect read of a justifiably jaded man who must hold onto whatever silver lining he can in a system that has little, if any, regard for his life or innocence. It’s a pair of strong leads for a film that depends so much on them, though special mentions also go to the supporting cast of Rob Morgan, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Rafe Spall — all superb. – Cory Woodroof
28. Renee Zellweger in “Judy”
If Renee Zellweger wins the Academy Award for Best Actress at next February’s ceremony, there will those who feel the Academy has yet again valued biopic imitation over anything more nuanced. But impressive Zellweger’s comeback isn’t just an impression. Judy Garland’s story is a Hollywood tragedy in every way, and despite the film’s flaws, it does shine a light on how studios used to take advantage of their young talents. As such, Zellweger has many moments where she shows the humanity Garland had, that the headlines never allowed her. But it’s the tight-frame moments that burn into the screen: with a swirl of triumph, failure, confidence, and confusion all in a close-up, Zellweger does most of the acting here in her face, all glances and glares and wide-eyed shock as her falling star streaks beyond the horizon — it hurts to watch her fade away. Critique the film if you wish, but honor the performance as a masterclass in breathing life and love into a historical figure. – CW
27. Daniel Kaluuya in “Queen and Slim”
It’s pretty fascinating, the way Melina Matsoukas‘ provocative riff on the lovers-on-the-run genre, written by Lena Waithe plays with the “Bonnie & Clyde” formula. The most obvious subversion is racial and social, with the central pair neither white nor criminal, just an ordinary young Black couple on the way back from an unsuccessful Tinder date. But that ordinariness is part of what makes “Queen & Slim” so unusual, and it’s brilliantly embodied by luminous newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith and the reliably genius Daniel Kaluuya. Kaluuya’s “Slim” is almost the anti-Clyde: not only is there, at the outset, little chemistry between the couple (the date was clearly a bust) but even as the odds mount unjustly against them and they begin to spark off one another, he remains curiously recessive, especially compared to “Queen”‘s expanding confidence and swagger. Not every actor could play this interiorized a character and make him compelling, but Kaluuya brings a quality of quiet, ironic watchfulness to this archetypal story, and might just be the most subversive thing about it.
26. Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir”
It takes a special talent to play a character who is unformed and just coming into their own as a human being, but Honor Swinton Byrne brings just that to Joanna Hogg’s tragic anti-romance. “The Souvenir” tells the story of Julie, an aspiring film student, and Anthony, the toxic, narcissistic drug addict she finds herself falling for, but it’s Swinton Byrne who provides the emotional center. Throughout “The Souvenir,” she brilliantly channels the idea of a young person cobbling together a composite identity because she’s not totally sure who she is yet, while also making Julie charming and likable. That’s why it’s so difficult to watch her put through the wringer by a calculating, heartless sociopath (for the record, Tom Burke, playing Anthony, is also excellent). By the time “The Souvenir” has come to its rueful, ambiguous conclusion, Julie seems to be gesturing towards a brighter future – although if next year’s “The Souvenir: Part II” is similarly bleak, that suggestion of hope might be a fleeting one. – Nick Laskin
25. Julianne Moore in “Gloria Bell”
Julianne Moore has enjoyed no shortage of iconic film roles throughout her career, but often the characters she plays are brittle and somewhat extreme, living life on the knife’s edge separating stability from cosmic flux. So it could be a surprise to some that her work in Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria Bell” is so subtle, so warm, and lived-in. Moore is an undeniably glamorous performer, but in “Gloria Bell,” she is nothing less or more than a totally recognizable human being: the type of person you might see dancing the night away at a middle-aged singles bar. There’s a profound sense of loneliness at the core of the film and the scenes where Moore is simply by herself are a big part of what makes the film so sublime, although it should be said that she has quite a scene partner here, John Turturro. But in the end, it is Moore’s film, and she imbues her portrait of this lovely, kind-hearted woman with deep fortitude and authenticity: by the time the movie has arrived at its ebullient climax, it’s very clear that this is just Gloria Bell’s world and we’re all simply living in it. – NL
24. Beanie Feldstein in “Booksmart”
Bounding onto the screen, bursting with energy and A-grades and confidence all the more the endearing for being occasionally misplaced, Molly, Beanie Feldstein’s breakout role in Olivia Wilde‘s completely delightful high-school comedy, is one of the purest pleasures of the year. Ably matched by her best friend Amy, played by Feldstein’s slyly hilarious partner in crime Kaitlyn Dever, Molly is exactly the girl that high school movies don’t get made about: a bookish, future-directed, tiresomely goal-oriented Good Student. But she’s not a drip either — she’s free from the usual neuroses we see in the heroines of school-set movies. Feldstein, you can just feel, loves the character inhabiting her most dazzling moments and her most unworthy with the same all-in brio that Molly brings to everything she does. Seldom are teenage girls treated with this much respect, as though they’re real, fully-formed, funny, weird people.
23. Andre Holland in “High Flying Bird”
If, like us, you’ve been ride-or-die for Andre Holland since “The Knick” you finally got your wish when Steven Soderbergh cast Holland as Ray, the lead in his rat-a-tat-tat sports drama. Holland has an inherently suave, smooth quality that usually comes through in the quieter characters he gets to play. But here he translates his air of studied introspection into a fast-talking, sports-agent slickness to keep pace with Tarell Alvin McCraney’s fabulously staccato, wordy screenplay, and the result is something of a revelation. The soulfulness we’re used to from him is still there, but it lies beneath Ray’s incessant, insinuating patter, his graft and his grift in trying to get back on top and to reestablish the relevance of the sport that he and his clients are currently locked out of by the NBA. There is, as Ray says a “game on top of the game” — that is, the one being played by the owners and corporations. But Holland’s performance gets at the game underneath the game too, the backstage maneuvering, handshake dealmaking and personal compromise that, in today’s highly stage-managed, sports-celebrity world, has to happen before anyone even steps onto a court.
22. Joe Pesci in “The Irishman”
It may be some time before we can properly grasp the scope of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent, melancholic project. It still feels like we’re standing too close, and it’s just too damn big, to be able to fully take it in — the way it celebrates, memorializes, and subtly rebukes the genre he defined. For now, let’s look at the things we can grasp: the subversion of De Niro playing “meek”; the ghost of bombast previous in Al Pacino‘s Jimmy Hoffa; and most immediately impressive of all, the quiet calculation of Joe Pesci’s mob boss, Russell Bufalino. A million miles from the psycho pipsqueak character he’s played so often before, his Bufalino carries his authority undemonstratively, almost regretfully, like plotting power grabs and ordering murder is an unfortunate condition he’s afflicted with, an ulcer he takes care not to aggravate with angry words. It’s a role that lives in between the dramatic moments, in the dunking of bread into grape juice, or a weary bloodstained walk upstairs, or a fleeting look of desolation when he cannot get a child to like him.
21. Zhao Tao in “Ash is Purest White”
Zhao Tao has appeared in all but one of her husband Jia Zhangke‘s films, but this year’s “Ash is Purest White” feels like a culmination — it is the best role Jia has ever written for her, and she is the best she has ever been within it. It is a love story, or rather it is the story of the grimly determined love that Qiao (Zhao) feels for her gangster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) even when he rejects her, in slavish devotion to some arcane code. The role of gangster’s moll is traditionally sidelined, but with Zhao’s riveting performance, harsh and intoxicating as Chinese rice wine, Qiao is centralized to become the focus of every scene. As Qiao goes toe-to-toe with the predominantly male crew around Bin, matching them in ruthlessness while being more isolated than they could ever imagine, the idea of the doggedly loyal bad-girl girlfriend is subtly transformed — Qiao is from a coalmining background but Zhao gives her the hardness and brilliance of a diamond that sometimes flashes fire from its fathomless depths.