Our favorite performances of 2019

1. Elisabeth Moss- Her Smell- The collaborations between Elisabeth Moss and director Alex Ross Perry have yielded some of the most memorable performances of the last several years, but she reaches electrifying new heights as the punk rocker Becky Something in his latest film. Her Smell is a story of addiction and recovery that is by turns claustrophobic, ruthlessly uncomfortable and, ultimately, incredibly moving. Much of the movie is structured around the horrifying anticipation of what Becky might do next, and Moss’ chaotic physicality and manic line readings build and build until the movie quite literally can’t take it anymore. In the second half, when a newly sober Becky sings Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” to her young daughter, the full emotional scope of Moss’ brilliant performance comes into focus.

2. Joe Pesci- The Irishman- Joe Pesci came out of retirement to deliver perhaps his greatest performance in Martin Scorsese’s mob epic. As Russell Bufalino, the head of a powerful crime family, he holds a quiet power over every scene he’s in. That power is sometimes used to devastating effect, calling attention to moments where the fear and reverence he inspires professionally have no effect, like when he tries to impress an associate’s young daughter.

3. Brad Pitt- Ad Astra/Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood- Brad Pitt gave two career-best performances in two singular films this year, so why choose? James Gray’s Ad Astra is built around close-ups of his endlessly sad face as he plays an astronaut tearing across the solar system in search of his father. He’s at his effortlessly cool best as the stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. His gradual realization that he’s caught at the end of an era both personally and professionally lends the hangout movie part of its subtle melancholy.

4. Lupita Nyong’o- Us- Lupita Nyong’o gives two great performances in Jordan Peele’s Us, one as Adelaide, a woman returning to her haunted past on a family vacation, and the other as Red, her mysterious doppelganger. When Red and doubles of the rest of Adelaide’s family appear menacingly on her lawn, she is caught between protecting her children and reckoning with a dark secret from her past. Watching the lingering effects of that secret play out on her and Red’s faces is disturbing and unforgettable.

5. Paul Walter Hauser- Richard Jewell– Paul Walter Hauser pulled off one of the year’s best balancing acts as the title character in Clint Eastwood’s new film. Richard Jewell is by turns infuriating and sympathetic, a man who was deemed a hero after helping get people to safety during a bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. However, it’s not long before the FBI starts looking at him as their prime suspect. Jewell is reverent of law enforcement to an increasingly uncomfortable degree, and Hauser is devastating when conveying the conflicting emotions at play as his character tries to be deferential to the authorities as they openly mock and try to lock him up.

6. Adam Sandler- Uncut Gems- Adam Sandler and the Safdie brothers are a match made in anxiety heaven in this tale of a New York City jeweler caught up in a sports gambling disaster of his own making. Watching Sandler nervously watch basketball is inherently cinematic, as is seeing him uneasily strut down the street and talk on the phone to various debtors. The true thrill of Uncut Gems, though, is seeing the Safdies build an entire world around the grandiose rage that has defined much of Sandler’s movie career.

7. Robert Pattinson- High Life/The Lighthouse- Robert Pattinson has been on a tear of exciting performances in the last few years, and 2019 saw two incredible additions. Claire Denis’ High Life is a film of extremes, namely wonder and despair. Pattinson channels both of these in his exceptional performance as Monte, a convict sent to experimental exile in outer space. He plays another trapped soul In Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, playing a man slowly losing his mind at a New England lighthouse in the late 19th century. Watching him and Willem Dafoe grumble and growl at each other for nearly two hours is one of the year’s most baffling pleasures.

8. Bill Camp- Dark Waters- Todd Hayne’s legal thriller largely focuses on corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) and his decade-plus battle with chemical behemoth DuPont. But it begins when Bill Camp’s farmer Wilbur Tennant barges into Bilott’s Ohio law firm and demands to be taken seriously. Tennant is certain that DuPont is poisoning his land and cattle, and Camp renders his certainty and increasingly hopeless search for justice with haunting clarity.

9. Vanessa Paradis- Knife + Heart– Gay porn producer Anne has enough on her plate without having to contend with the murders of her cast members. She has shoots to complete, less than enthusiastic actors to wrangle, and a broken romantic relationship with her editor to try and salvage. So when the killing does start, it’s one of several things that push her closer and closer to the edge. Vanessa Paradis plays her as a clash of contrasts, a mix of confident cool and desperate volatility that gives Yann Gonzalez’s movie a troubled emotional center.

10. Park So-dam- Parasite- “Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago.” One of the most memorable film gestures of the year is Park So-dam twitching her fingers along to this jingle before ringing a doorbell. As Ki-jung, the teen daughter of the struggling Kim family, she lends Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite a gleefully conniving energy. When her family’s full plan starts to come into view, her performance becomes crucial to grounding the movie’s many narrative shifts.

Runner-ups: 

Al Pacino- The Irishman

Florence Pugh- Little Women

Juliette Binoche- High Life

Cate Blanchett- Where’d You Go, Bernadette? 

Robert De Niro- The Irishman

Lee Jeong-eun – Parasite

Matthew McConaughey- The Beach Bum

Chris Cooper- It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Adam Driver- Marriage Story

Margot Robbie- Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

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