The Top 20 Performers of 2019
Every so often, through a combination of serendipitous timing and a tireless work ethic, an actor will have multiple movies come out in the same year. Sometimes it’s a character actor popping up as part of multiple large ensembles, or a movie star balancing effects-driven blockbusters and intimate character pieces. Maybe it’s a beloved veteran capitalizing on years of goodwill and affection with a few comeback roles. And in some exciting circumstances, it’s a newcomer who blazes onto our collective cultural consciousness, boldly declaring their presence with a string of electric performances (we’ll call that last one “Chastaining”). The films of 2019 provided us with plenty of examples, as beloved thespians, marvelous mega-stars, and new talents captured our attention and demonstrated their range with their ubiquitous presence. Here are the Top Twenty Performers* who dominated our movie screens in 2019. You love to see ‘em.
Chris Cooper (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Little Women) In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Little Women, Chris Cooper showed us two very different paternal figures—one wracked with guilt, one sick with grief, each heartbreaking in their own way. In both films, he anchored his performances with emotional honesty, suggesting a full life beyond just what we see on screen. Though he doesn’t have a ton of screen time in either film, his presence looms large throughout both of them—which is the hallmark of a truly great character actor. Robert De Niro (The Irishman, Joker) Robert De Niro spent 2019 echoing previous entries in his filmography with the added benefit of gravitas earned through decades of experience. In Joker, his late night talk show host not only recalls Jerry Lewis’s performance opposite him in The King of Comedy, but also a generation of television comedians reflective of the films’ 1970s setting. Meanwhile, The Irishman capitalizes on our collective cultural experience of watching De Niro’s five decade history of playing gangsters and criminals in movies like Mean Streets, Casino, and Goodfellas to emphasize the weight of Frank Sheeran’s life and drive home its themes of reminiscence and regret. De Niro’s stoic, understated performance is excellent on its own, but it’s further amplified by the metatextual impact of watching De Niro (and Scorsese) reckon with the aftereffects of the stories he’s spent his life telling. Together, these performances make for quite the exclamation point on an already illustrious career. Laura Dern (Little Women, Marriage Story) After a near-lifetime of brilliant character work, Laura Dern has developed a natural warmth that radiates off the screen. She uses that innate likeability to mask two very different characters’ depths in Marriage Story and Little Women. Divorce lawyer Nora’s fizzy charm immediately sets her client at ease and disarms her opposing counsel, obscuring the ruthlessness brimming underneath the surface that makes her such an effective advocate. Meanwhile, as she explains to Jo in a pivotal scene, Marmee’s effervescent overlays a deep sadness and “ang[er] all the time.” For both of these women, those displays of warmth are a deliberate choice—a type of battle armor that these characters wear to bolster inner strength and guard against the challenges of the world. Luckily for us, Dern knows exactly how and when to deploy it for maximum effect.
Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story, The Report, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker) In a year full of acclaimed performances by some of the greatest male actors and biggest movie stars of their respective generations—De Niro, Pacino, Hanks, DiCaprio, Pitt—it’s Adam Driver who may be having the biggest year of all. From procedural thriller to marital melodrama and from zombie comedy to space opera, Driver has firmly established himself as not just an actor of tremendous range and extraordinary depth, but a bonafide movie star. Even when the films he’s in are disappointing, Driver consistently delivers interesting performances, challenging and subverting our expectations (his Kylo Ren/Ben Solo remains a highlight of the entire Disney Star Wars trilogy, despite the varying film-to-film quality). And when the material matches his considerable skills, as with Marriage Story, the results are electric.
Chris Evans (Avengers: Endgame, Knives Out) After a decade playing Captain America in the MCU, you could forgive Chris Evans for phoning it in once in a while. Thankfully, Evans’s commitment to the character has stated constant, providing an emotional through-line amidst the superpowered madness of the series. His emotional arc culminated in Avengers: Endgame, which gave him ample opportunity to mine both the pathos and the comedy of the Avengers’ moral center. Then, he gleefully subverted that wholesome persona with his performance as wealthy rascal Ransom Drysdale, a spoiled enfant terrible who manipulates his family and legal authorities in his ruthless effort to secure a share of his grandfather’s fortune. Now that his tenure in the MCU appears to have come to a close, here’s hoping for more Ransoms in his (and our) future. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Luce, Waves) After a series of strong performances in films like It Comes at Night and Mudbound, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., had an incredible breakout year in 2019. With Luce and Waves, he crafted two nuanced and compelling portrayals of adolescent anxiety in wildly different circumstances. As his characters obscure different truths from their family and friends, Harrison keeps them both grounded in a concrete emotional reality, and makes the pressures and complexities of modern teens feel unbearable palpable. It’s a phenomenal one-two punch that has me extremely excited to see what he does next.
Lucas Hedges (Honey Boy, Waves) In Honey Boy, Lucas Hedges took on the daunting task of playing Otis, a character not-so-loosely-based on screenwriter (and co-star) Shia LaBeouf, himself a former teen phenom and actor not unlike Hedges himself. It’s a role that would be challenging enough given our own cultural associations with LaBeouf’s persona and career, and that difficulty is compounded by requiring Hedges to calibrate his performance against the younger version of his character, played brilliantly by Noah Jupe (more on him later!). The intensity and angst of his performance in Honey Boy is balanced by the kindness he brings to Waves. His entrance in that film’s back half brings a welcome dose of calm to an audience that desperately needs a respite, and in so doing provides the perfect catalyst that allows Taylor Russell’s Emily to open up and take control of the narrative. It’s a selfless performance that highlights Hedges’s strength as a deeply empathetic actor. Scarlett Johansson (Avengers: Endgame, Jojo Rabbit, Marriage Story) Scarlett Johansson has been a superstar headlining blockbusters for so long that it can be easy to forget what a talented actor she is. Even in a movie as epic and wide-ranging as Avengers: Endgame, she manages to find unexpected emotional depth. She manages to balance the varying tones of Jojo Rabbit better than any of the rest of the cast, deftly shifting between comedy and pathos as appropriate for each moment. But she’s never been better than in Marriage Story. Her extended monologue in her attorney’s office is the finest work of her career. Noah Jupe (Ford v. Ferrari, Honey Boy) In 2019, Noah Jupe added to a string of compelling performances with Ford v. Ferrari, holding his own opposite the likes of Christian Bale and Matt Damon and proving himself once again to be one of the most compelling child actors working today. But with Honey Boy, he moved into the spotlight, giving a performance of remarkable depth and carrying the whole film on his shoulders. He’s not just a great child actor; he’s a great actor. Full stop. Brie Larson (Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Just Mercy) In their nineteenth feature film, The Marvel Cinematic Universe finally (finally!) turned the reins over to a solo female superhero when Brie Larson took the screen as Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel. Due to some memory loss shenanigans, Larson has to play a bit of an enigma for a large portion of the action, but she carries the film through sheer force of movie star charm. Plus, her chemistry with co-star Samuel L. Jackson is delightful. She reprised her role in Avengers: Endgame, and then used her megawatt movie star cachet and Oscar-winning pedigree to lend credibility to Just Mercy, a small civil rights drama reuniting her with her Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton. Muting her star power, she delivers a strong supporting performance, amplifying her co-stars and contributing to the overall success of the film. Tracy Letts (Ford v. Ferrari, Little Women) I first encountered Tracy Letts through his Pulitzer Prize-winning work as a playwright. When I read August: Osage County in high school, I never expected that the writer behind that play would become one of my favorite screen presences. Letts is remarkably skilled at adopting a patrician air onscreen, and he uses that high-status persona to great comedic effect in both Ford v. Ferrari and Little Women. As Henry Ford II, he is domineering, but his arrogance hides a deep insecurity. When a high-speed experience rattles his confidence, Letts deploys that contradiction hilariously. Similarly, his literary publisher in Little Women is stuffy and dismissive, and his bewilderment when faced with Jo March’s literary propositions is equally amusing. Rob Morgan (Just Mercy, Last Black Man in San Francisco) You may not know Rob Morgan’s name, but you probably know his face. That’s because he’s been turning in fantastic supporting performances in film and TV over the last several years. He continues that pattern in Just Mercy and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, stealing scenes and creating fully rounded characters despite his limited screentime. In Just Mercy, his Herbert Richardson, a death row inmate who acknowledges his wrongdoing and has made peace with his fate, is meek and unassuming, but Morgan imbues him with a deep sense of humanity that culminates in the film’s most deeply moving scene. Meanwhile, as Jimmie Fails, Sr. in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, he doesn’t appear until late in the film, but when he does, you immediately understand who he is and how his absence has shaped everything that has taken place up to that point. Lupita Nyong’o (Little Monsters, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, Us) In the six years since her Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o has been woefully underutilized in live action films. Fortunately in 2019, filmmakers across genres began to reverse that trend. In zombie comedy Little Monsters, Nyong’o elevated what was otherwise a largely forgettable film with her winsome performance. She reprised her role as Maz Kanata (a character who honestly probably should’ve been the focus of her own trilogy) in the latest entry in the Star Wars saga, but her crowning achievement was her double-lead role in Jordan Peele’s Us. Nyong’o delineates Adelaide and Red so clearly that you have to remind yourself that they’re played by the same actress, and she shades both performances with such nuance that Us’s ultimate twist is fully earned and still (for me, at least) unpredictable.
Al Pacino (The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) It feels like it’s been ages since Al Pacino was fully engaged in a major film role, and this year, he did it twice. He’s a comedic delight in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, making a memorable impression in just a handful of scenes as the client whose blunt assessment knocks Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) off his axis. Lest his comeback be construed as some kind of torch passing to the next generation (DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), he followed up Hollywood by reuniting with fellow icon Robert De Niro and teaming up with Martin Scorsese and Joe Pesci for the first time to deliver his most electric performance in decades. As Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, Pacino’s presence is so charismatic, you fully understand not only why De Niro’s Frank Sheehan would be drawn into Hoffa’s orbit, but also how the nation became captivated by his overwhelming force of personality. He energizes the entire film, amplifying De Niro’s stoicism and Pesci’s restraint by contrast and reminding all of us why he’s one of the greatest screen actors we’ve ever seen. Florence Pugh (Fighting With My Family, Little Women, Midsommar) If there’s one undisputed breakthrough star of 2019, its Florence Pugh. With standout performances across three genres, Pugh firmly cemented herself among the brightest talents of Hollywood’s next generation. She kicked off the year with Fighting With My Family, carrying the sports dramedy with an overwhelming dose of charm. She followed that up with Midsommar, in which she had the daunting task of keeping the the audience grounded with real emotion as she falls deeper into a Scandinavian nightmare of increasing madness. Her raw rendition of Dani’s grief is searing, packing a stronger punch than any of Midsommar’s other horrors. But her most impressive work came as Amy March in the the standout performance of Little Women’s ensemble. It’s no small feat to appear opposite the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, and Meryl Streep and walk away as the cast MVP. But Pugh’s Amy is a genuine wonder. In lesser hands she could’ve been nothing more than a brat or a villain, but Pugh turns her into the unexpected heart of the film. Brad Pitt (Ad Astra, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) In recent years, Brad Pitt has moved behind the camera, using his movie star clout to produce films like Selma, 12 Years a Slave, and Moonlight. But in 2019, he reminded us how he built that moviestar reputation in the first place with a pair of diametrically opposed performances. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his Cliff Booth is the essence of laconic cool, playing the straight man to DiCaprio’s volatile and spiraling Rick Dalton. Pitt’s aloof stuntman is the spine of the film, and his performance is key to balancing the ensemble. In James Gray’s Ad Astra, Pitt again takes center stage, and the entire film rests on his performance. Shot mostly in closeup, Pitt employs incredible restraint, bringing the audience along with him through his emotional journey through space and time. It’s a beautifully understated performance, deeply affecting in its subtlety. He’s never been better. Margot Robbie (Bombshell, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) Margot Robbie has become such an integral part of the cinematic landscape that it can be hard to remember that her breakthrough performance in The Wolf of Wall Street came just six years ago. In the time since, she’s revealed herself to be an actor of remarkable range and skill. In Bombshell, she is tasked with playing one of the only major fictional characters in the ensemble, and her portrayal of Kayla is so compelling that you could be forgiven for believing that she, too, is based on a real person. Her work in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood begins from the opposite end of this spectrum: Sharon Tate was a real person, but her tragic death has made it easy to view her as an icon, rather than as an individual. Yet, Robbie sidesteps the potential trap, emphasizing Sharon’s essential humanity instead of reducing her to a symbol. It’s all the more remarkable given that she does most of that without the benefit of any dialogue.
Will Smith (Aladdin, Gemini Man) 2019 saw Will Smith make a grand cinematic return, stepping back into the spotlight in the kind of movies that made him the onetime king of the summer blockbuster. Neither of his big outings was without risk, though; in Gemini Man, he had to juggle two characters and keep both of his performances grounded among Ang Lee’s technological experimentation. Meanwhile in Aladdin, he faced the daunting challenge of distinguishing his performance as the genie from his predecessor in the role: the late, great Robin Williams. Although neither film is an unqualified success, Smith stands out as the best part of both, coasting on the strength of his unparalleled movie star charisma. It’s good to have him back. Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, Uncut Gems) No matter the setting, genre, or character, Lakeith Stanfield manages to feel perfectly natural. It’s an incredible skill, especially when he’s appearing in films as different in tone as Knives Out and Uncut Gems playing characters as wildly different as Detective Elliott and Demany. In Knives Out, Stanfield’s no-nonsense detective is a perfect foil to Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, and his mundanity amplifies the zaniness of the rest of the ensemble by contrast. He turns the insanity up all on his own in Uncut Gems, perfectly straddling the worlds of NBA entourages and the seedy underbelly of New York jewelry scene. Over the past few years, he’s become an always-welcome presence, making every film in which he appears even better, and this year was no exception. Charlize Theron (Bombshell, Long Shot) It’s easy to imagine a different career for Charlize Theron. Her wit, beauty, and confidence serve her well as an actress, of course, but her particular skill set seems equally well-suited to the worlds of television journalism and electoral politics. So it’s no surprise that, in Bombshell and Long Shot, Theron continues her streak of fantastic performances. As Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, she goes beyond mere imitation (though, thanks to incredible prosthetics and her own vocal work, it’s an uncanny likeness) to render Kelly’s internal moral conflict in compelling detail. And in the criminally underseen Long Shot, her Charlotte Field radiates intelligence and competence, which Theron thinly layers over a deeper level of insecurity and anxieties. In both films, you can actively see her characters thinking in real time, and Theron knows how to calibrate her presence for drama and comedy as needed. Those are twenty of the most ubiquitous and accomplished performers of 2019. Who were some of your favorites--on the list or otherwise? Let us know in the comments!