A gentle TV icon, and a fading TV Western star. A Wall Street stripper with a heart (and watch) of gold and a midtown Manhattan jeweler with balls of brass. A poet with a penchant for partying, and a divorce lawyer who hates losing. A Columbian mob wife, a couple of French lovers, a South Korean con man and an Israeli ex-pat. Two, two, two Lupitas for the price of one! 2019 was the year when a handful of the usual suspects and a whole lot of unexpected names popped up on our Best Performances list. (If you had told us back in January that Jennifer Lopez and Adam Sandler would be generating so much year-end love, we’d have suggested hospitalization.) It was also a great year for double acts, in which actors—some odd couples, some old hands at team-ups—each provided one half of a stunning pas de deux. Here’s our picks, unranked, for the greatest screen turns we saw at the movies this year. Whether or not they win awards or walk red carpets is ultimately irrelevant. They reminded us that film-wise, few things are as powerful as a person opening themselves for the camera.
There was a lot of talk after the first festival screenings of Noah Baumbach’s scorched-earth chronicle of a couple separating about the film tilting in favor of Adam Driver’s Brooklyn playwright over Scarlett Johansson’s Hollywood-transplant actor; he’s the one whose path we closely follow through the film’s Divorce Industrial Complex. (Let’s take a moment to acknowledge what a year the ex-Marine has had, starting with scoring at Sundance courtesy of The Report and ending with being the only one left unscathed by The Rise of Skywalker.) Repeat screenings suggest that the narrative is more balanced than you originally think. But the fact of the matter is, both Driver and Johansson need the other to work in perfect harmony. The more their bohemian creatives descend into accusations and acrimony, the more you see how these performances ironically rely on a mutual give-and-take. Even the stand-out solo turns — Johansson’s long monologue that breaks down how her soon-to-be ex made her feel alive and then made her feel small; his painfully relevant rendition of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” — feel informed by their partner’s absence. And that’s not even taking into account the movie’s centerpiece, a “discussion” that turns into a screaming, sobbing heavyweight bout. Baumbach himself has said that he’d watch these two during takes and forget he’d written the dialogue; it had become, he noted, their movie. He’s absolutely right.
Enter Sandman: From the moment you see the artist formerly known as Happy Gilmore propelling himself through the frame, all forward momentum and everyday-I’m-hustling patter, the star of Uncut Gems has you right in the palm of his clammy hands. The Sandler we see in Josh and Benny Safdies’ cardiac-arrest-inducing character study, however, is neither the manchild who punched Bob Barker nor the usual type of comic actor who’s courted seriousness in the name of chasing awards-season glory. His Howard Ratner, a Manhattan jeweler who’s just stumbled onto a potentially major payday, is a completely livewire creation all its own — the kind of born salesman who can charm you into buying a bling-encrusted Furbie one second then turn his what-did-I-do? everyschlub act into a defense mechanism the next. He’s also a guy who only feels alive teetering on the edge of complete ruin, and who thrives on bullshitting his way out of every tight spot. Which he does, until he doesn’t. Like his sad sack romantic in Punch Drunk Love, it’s the sort of role that requires you to feel sympathy and annoyance at the same time. In other words, it’s right in Sandler’s sweet spot, yet still pushes him into unknown territory. No one else could have done this beautiful fuck-up justice.
Because who else would Pedro Almodóvar get to play his ideal avatar other than the man he turned into a major star all those years ago? With the possible exceptions of Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz, no other actor has been as closely associated with the Spanish filmmaker as Antonio Banderas, and the chance to simply see these two reunite — in a story about an aging cinéaste connecting with a long-estranged collaborator from his glory days, no less — would be enough to excite fans. What we get instead is the opportunity to watch one old friend craft a love letter to the other. With his spiky, vertical hair and graying beard, Banderas is clearly made to resemble his Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down director. The tender way he plays this suffering lion in winter, however, and his ability to make him sympathetic without sanding off the rough edges, is what gives this meta-memory piece its heart. You get why people would become exasperated with this aloof, reclusive artist; you also understand why they feel such affection for him as well. The last part clearly extends offscreen as well. There’s no pity in Banderas’ performance, only pathos and a profound sense of history. He’s given his old mentor a gift.
For too long, it feels like we’ve taken Alfre Woodard for granted. Yes, she’s been nominated for an Oscar, has won Golden Globes and Emmys, and was a key part of ensemble TV shows like St. Elsewhere and two-hander indies like Passion Fish. But her name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as, say, Meryl Streep or Glenn Close or Viola Davis — and in a perfect world, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s capital-punishment drama would instantly change all of that. Playing a warden who’s witnessed more than her share of executions, Woodard exudes an existential weariness that suggests it’s a matter of when, rather than if, this woman will reached her breaking point. She communicates most of this through a series of smaller moments, expressions, gestures: the way she shuts down when her husband (Wendell Pierce) tries to get her to open up, or how her defenses go up when a death-row inmate (Aldis Hodge) breaks down. It’s a finely crafted portrayal of someone bottoming out, done in the subtle way that you’ve come to expect from this actor. And then comes the sequence that knocks you over: a view to a death, told completely through her extended reaction to what’s happening. You can see the soul leak out of this woman in real time. It’s the most compelling five minutes imaginable, and it never leaves her face.
We’d seen Awkwafina, a.k.a. Nora Lum, steal scenes, display broad-comedy chops and, as her hip-hop alter ego, drop a lot of profane science. There was no indication whether she could shoulder something dramatic like writer-director Lulu Wang’s personal tale of terminal illnesses and loved ones, however — which somehow makes what the young actor pulls off here that much more impressive. Forced to confront the news of her grandmother’s recent cancer diagnosis, her character Billi has to maintain the familial lie that everything’s hunky dory — the idea being that the elderly woman will simply lose the will to live if she knows time’s almost up. The fact that she has to keep the ruse up while visiting her Nai Nai in China, a place the Americanized Billi is no longer familiar with, while also grieving ups the acting degree of difficulty. Awkwafina, thankfully, understands the need for layering all of this in without going for the easy emotional moments; more importantly (and ironically), she manages to get at the truth of this experience in a way that’s both heartbreaking and life-affirming. I saw this movie in January, right after it premiered at Sundance. I have thought about this performance every single day since then.
It’s that old teen-movie chestnut: the one-crazy-night narrative, when it all comes down to what happens from dusk til dawn at the house party, the 7-11 parking lot, the backyard hook-up, the emerging-older-and-wiser ride back home. Luckily for filmmaker Olivia Wilde, she has two wild cards up her sleeve that will make a world of difference here. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever could each carry a film on their own without breaking a sweat; pair them together as two brainiacs who have to cram four years worth of high-school oats-sowing into the 24 hours before graduation, and you have a bag-of-dynamite double act. From their first scene together — a pre-school runway show/dance-off in the streets, set to a tune only the two of them can hear — you get a immediately get a sketch of a long, storied friendship/study partnership in a few interactions. The rapport only gets better and funnier from there, while the bond between these two becomes tougher to break even when it’s severely tested. Each of them get lovely solo moments (we’re partial to Feldstein’s dreamy dance sequence and Dever’s empowering karaoke jam ourselves). Together, they turn the movie into a choice duet.
Call them the Butch and Sundance of Bendict Canyon (a movie that, not coincidentally, came out in 1969), call them the alt-universe Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds we deserve, call them the yin and the yang of late-stage studio system meltdown: just don’t call Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton over the hill. They’re not ready to go riding into that fake sunset just yet. Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie is a lot of things: an ode to a bygone era, a tribute to forgotten B-list actors and famous victims, an anxiety attack over the notions of aging and irrelevance, a chance to indulge in hippie cosplay and rewrite history with a happy ending. But at the center of it all is a buddy comedy, in which a TV star and his stuntman counsel each other, crack open beers, and have each other’s backs. It’s not a stretch to say that these roles play to Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio’s strengths as honest-to-God movie stars—the charm, the presence, the 1,000 watt grins—and challenges them as actors; neither is simply coasting by on old tricks and tics. It’s also not a stretch to say they each give career-best performances, or something damn close to them. DiCaprio’s trailer-trashing breakdown has already become justly celebrated, as has Pitt’s Spahn Ranch visit. But for our money, OUATIH is at its best when it’s just these two guys, shooting the shit and complimenting the other’s smooth leap.
Those of us who remember seeing 2016’s Lady Macbeth and thinking “Who the hell is that actor?!” felt like the rest of the world caught up to us in 2019 — this was the year that Florence Pugh finally broke big, courtesy of the momentum of last winter’s The Little Drummer Girl TV miniseries, her role as a female wrestler in the underrated Fighting With My Family and turning Amy March into the secret MVP of Little Women. But it was Pugh’s work in Ari Aster’s folk-horror flick that brought her real strengths as a performer into focus: a penchant for finding the pressure points in her characters, an ability to pivot from extreme vulnerability to steely resolve in a nanosecond, and possessing the hardest working frown in show business. As a young woman slowly suspecting that the Swedish summer festival she’s attending may have a slightly sinister agenda, Pugh gives you the sense of what it’s like to be in the middle of a waking nightmare. She also reminds you that Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary is really a break-up movie at heart, playing off of bad boyfriend Jack Reynor in a way that earns your sympathy and your cringes. Her heroine starts off as an audience surrogate, navigating us through this strange Pagan world. She ends the film as someone who has come into full bloom, one brightly colored spring flower at a time.
Never mind the pedigree; Honor Swinton Byrne may descend from acting and art-world royalty, yet the keen feeling and intelligence she brings to Joanna Hogg’s semiautobiographical tale is 100-percent her own. There’s very little sense of technique in what this 22-year-old newcomer is doing on screen, which is not a polite way of saying Byrne doesn’t know what she’s doing. No, what you get from observing this relatively untested performer play a young film school student experiencing her first toxic, codependent relationship is the notion of peeking in on intimate moments of a life, the kind you’re not supposed to see; there’s both a voyeuristic rush and a slight tinge of shame in seeing someone be so emotionally open and unembellished for the camera. It never feels like you’re watching someone capital-A acting, which is one of the highest compliments you can pay a performer, especially in a project like this. And still, Byrne holds her own against Tom Burke’s charming cad, her mother Tilda Swinton’s aristocratic biddy and, in one great dinner scene, Richard Ayoade’s know-it-all. A sequel to this artistic coming-of-age tale is on the horizon. There’s the feeling we’re just starting to see what she’s capable of.
Neil Jordan’s psychological thriller about a young waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) who returns a lost purse to an older woman (Isabelle Huppert) — and inadvertently falls into a trap — is the sort of movie that is neither tony enough nor trashy enough to find a proper groove. But it does contain one hell of a beautifully unhinged performance from Huppert, who seems to be the only person capable of attaining the level of high camp needed here. Her lonelyhearts New Yorker seems innocent enough at first — just your run-of-the-mill needy, narcissistic mother figure prone to texting someone two dozen times a day. Once she starts getting testy about being ignored and throws a tantrum in the middle of the restaurant, however…that’s when the fun starts. Rather than playing this damaged stalker as a self-destructive ice queen (see: The Piano Teacher), Huppert opts for mondo-psycho histrionics; it’s as if someone showed the venerable French actress Fatal Attraction and she thought, Hmm, not big enough. She could have played this sort of part in her sleep. The fact that gives it a manic 110-percent instead nearly saves the film. Somewhere up there, Bette Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson is watching this and smiling.
No character in 2019 got a better introduction scene than the one that Lorene Scafaria’s real-life caper thriller gives to Lopez’s alpha stripper Ramona — a now famous poledance set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” one that leaves audience members as slack-jawed as Constance Wu’s men’s-club beta. It immediately gives you the sense that This Is A Woman Who Knows What She’s Doing, And Is Not To Be Fucked With. Then, a few sequences later, we see Ramona snuggle this new recruit into her massive fur coat, at which point Jenny from the Block immediately walks away with the entire film like it was some Wall Street d-bag’s credit card. Whether you think Lopez has been underrated as an actor or not is almost beside the point — this is one of those rare examples when the performer and the part are a perfect match, full stop. It completely weaponizes the good and the bad of the Renaissance woman’s public persona over the last decade, as well as bringing something out in her that feels deeper and more dangerous than usual. And the way she reads the movie’s final kiss-off line, tying her glamour gang’s long-game con into a much bigger-picture scam, is absolutely genius.
Everyone loves Laura Dern — give her any role, whether it’s a spaceship commander willing to sacrifice herself, or an angry Monterey housewife, or the mother of literature’s most beloved little women, and she’ll nail it. We’ll humbly suggest, however, that Nora, the lawyer she plays in Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama, deserves pride of place in the Dern-theon. You could argue that her apex-predator attorney is an Angeleno variation on her Big Little Lies character Renata, but that’s giving her push-pull, seduce-and-destroy act here short shrift. Watch how she draws Scarlett Johansson’s client in with a folksy bit of pop wisdom (“Wasn’t it Tom Petty who said ‘the waiting is the hardest part’?”) then casually mentions she helped the rock star’s ex get part of that song in a settlement. Listen to the way she turns a reply to Ray Liotta’s lawyer about not having it both ways (“Really? Why not?”) into a coyish line reading that sarcastically sugarcoats her attack. Don’t even get us started on the mothers-vs.-fathers speech she gives near the end. Her Nora is the closest thing Marriage Story has to a villain. She gives her a sunny smile wide enough to see the fangs.
It’s rare enough to see an actor give a single defining performance in a movie; in Jordan Peele’s return-of-the-repressed horror film, Lupita Nyong’o gives you two. She’s Adelaide Wilson, a loving mom and wife who returns to the scene of an old childhood trauma on her family’s summer vacation. And she’s Red, the woman’s double — part of a gang of doppelgängers that are terrorizing the Wilsons for reasons that will soon become apparent. It’s not just the differences between the way the women look and speak (scared versus spooky, quivering versus raspier than a crypt door opening), but the manner in which the actor gives you completely separate physical presences, emotional beats, scarred psyches, fractured grips on reality. You forget you’re watching the same performer essay both parts, even (and especially) when they share scenes together. Peele’s state-of-our-nation scary movie underlines the fact that we’ve seen the enemy, and it’s…well, see the title. Nyong’o makes that idea manifest, even as she allows each character to have their own tragedies and triumphs. She respects them enough to fully realize each person individually. You fear for one of them going in. You leave the theater feeling sorrow for them both.
Diane is what you’d call “a giver”: she visits terminally ill relatives, volunteers at a soup kitchen, lends a hand at family dinners, lends support to her struggling addict of a son, lends a shoulder to cry on for her friends. There’s a dutiful aspect to what she does — that being there for people is what’s expected of her. There’s also a deep well of regret and anger that’s fueling her interactions with relatives and neighbors, as well as a sense of sorrow at how life just seems to slip away from you day by day. Mary Kay Place gives you all of this in Kent Jones’ extraordinary portrait of a woman on the verge of an existential breakdown; she also makes you feel that you’re witnessing every passing thought, fleeting moment of liberation and bone-deep sense of despair as the title character experiences it. Whether she’s losing her patience with her adult kid (a hat tip to Jake Lacy as well, who leans into the less-than-positive qualities of this manchild) or dancing drunkenly in front of a tavern jukebox, Place presents a recognizably flawed human being without judgement. Thanks to her, you’re reminded that everyone knows a Diane in their family, or among their old pals, or staring back at them in the mirror.
The joke was that Matthew McConaughey playing a dissolute hedonist on an epic bender wasn’t going to require a chameleonic transformation; the man’s practice of the Zen art of fun have been well documented over the years. Harmony Korine’s look at an aging party boy who never get the memo that spring break only lasts for a week, however, is pure Fear and Loathing in the Florida Keys — and anyone who thinks the actor is treating this exercise in screen debauchery as a documentary or a joke isn’t paying attention. His poet Moondog (because what else could he be named, really?) may be content to piss away his days in Margaritaville, but there’s a glorious method to all the improvisational madness happening in every free-form encounter here. It’s like McConaughey decided to play the living embodiment of a Jimmy Buffett song as a bop-jazz solo, zinging off of Snoop Dogg’s herb-smoking here and Martin Lawrence’s seafaring insanity there. The modus operandi is: Just keep wingin’ it. You can sum up the movie as having the good taste to live like trash, or maybe the bad taste to live really well and NGAF. Either way, McConaughey plays Moondog like a conquering hero, ripping bongs hits while Rome burns around him. Awright, awright.
There’s something very familiar about the role that Natalia Reyes takes on in Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s gangster epic, set within the indigenous communities of Colombia. We meet her in the middle of a ritual, a girl becoming a woman via an elaborate dance ceremony; we see her become the wife of a druglord, the mother of his children, and a silent partner; and through her, we learn that no amount of well-heeled privilege can spare someone from tragedy. What could merely be the Colombian version of Carmela Soprano, however, gets treated the same way that everything else in this extremely regional riff on the rise-and-fall crime narrative (based on an actual gang war during the early ’80s), which is to say turned slightly inside out. And that’s where Reyes comes in, giving her kingpin spouse a quiet presence while a tickertape of information and planning is scrolling out behind her eyes. Between this and her woefully underappreciated turn in Terminator: Dark Fate, this actor suggests a talent that’s just started to get tapped.
Another double act, another film in which two performers need to sync up with each other in make things work, another unabashed triumph. Céline Sciamma’s love story between a painter (Merlant) and the subject (Haenel) of a commissioned portrait relies on the tension that leads up to passion, and the clandestine way it must be hidden because of the latter’s obligations regarding matrimonial promises. These two actors give you the freedom of finally giving in to their mutual attraction, but we also see the enjoyment of the companionship they find in each other; the class differences; the heavy burden of a death that’s set this whole thing in motion; and the idea that their time in paradise is indeed finite. It’s swoonworthy for sure, and also heartbreaking. But the thrill of watching both women test the other’s limits, and then try to hold on to what little happiness they’ve found, is a huge part of the pleasure of watching them watch each other.
Everyone has rightfully praised Bong Joon Ho’s crossover hit for its pitch-perfect direction, an airtight script, that incredible midpoint twist and the way it somehow skews both specific and universal in its cutting commentary on class structures. When folks have talked about the actors, they’ve often tended to lavish compliments on the entire ensemble, and given that there’s not a bad performance in this tale of two families, it does seem a little perverse to single out one person among the many. But there’s a moment in this South Korean drama/thriller/comedy/you-name-it that sticks out: The rich Mr. Park is talking to his driver, Mr. Kim. He’s going off about the smell of people on the subway, how they stink of cabbage and quiet desperation and failure. We watch Kim sniff himself, wondering if he, too, gives off a distinctly working-class odor. And then you see something shift inside him, a sort of internal deflation. It’s this “small” thing that really makes what happens in the third act feel inevitable — and that’s thanks to Song Kang Ho. A regular collaborator with Director Bong and a familiar presence to anyone regularly dipping into Korean cinema over the years, he’s the quiet linchpin of this standout film. His dad has been a sort of peripheral goof and a genial presence so far. Then Song reveals the hurt that lies just beneath Mr. Kim’s surface, realizing he’ll never get past his station in life no matter what uniform he puts on. Parasite wows you. But Song devastates you.
There’s a lot going on in Trey Shults’ supersized family melodrama, and a lot of wonderful exchanges between actors. (Among the movie’s many attributes are the fact that it proves Kelvin Harrison Jr. is star material, that people need to cast Taylor Russell and Hamilton almuna Renée Elise Goldsberry in more things ASAP, and that Lucas Hedges can make everything a little bit better.) But Sterling K. Brown’s dad stands out, for a number of reasons. One, he’s the key player holding both the agony and the ecstasy storylines together; two, he has to make a patriarch whose insane drive is both a feature and a bug seem fatalistically stern yet sympathetic; and three, he has to let viewers realize that his arc is as much a part of the film’s journey as the kids’. Naturally, he hits all of these marks and more. But should you somehow not think he’s one of the finest actors working today, check out the scene between his character and Russell’s young woman. He comes in like the lamb instead of the lion, apologizing for not being there for her more. Then he opens up to his daughter about his problems, begins weeping, and recovers enough to hear her confession. Brown gives you what this man is going through, then gives his scene partner all the room she needs to unload. “All we have is now,” he finally says. And you sense this man finally taking one giant leap towards his own healing.
When Marielle Heller’s movie was first announced, complete with early shots of Tom Hanks in that telltale cardigan-and-sneakers get-up, everyone assumed it would be a Fred Rogers biopic. Spoiler alert: It is not. (There’s a really great doc if you want the full Fred life-story scoop.) It’s the tale of the friendship of a journalist (Matthew Rhys) based loosely on Esquire journalist Tom Junod and the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host, with the TV icon acting as a sort of Magical Celebrity Life Coach. And the more cynical among us couldn’t be blamed for thinking that getting one of America’s top-notch nice guys to play another of our nation’s gentle giants was merely high-concept stunt casting. So imagine the surprise viewers got when they saw what Hanks did with this oft-imitated public figure, how he brought out the man behind the “saintly” myth, the way he manages to turn Rogers into a sort of blank slate for people to project things on. Go directly to the sequence where the reporter and the older man are sitting in the latter’s apartment. Rogers asks about his interviewer’s mother, and finds out she died when he was a boy. Hanks makes a choice to close his eyes briefly and take the news in — it’s as if he’s absorbing the pain. Then he takes a beat and says that he imagines she loved him very much. So much of acting is listening, and you can feel Rogers really hearing every word and responding in kind, and in kindness.
He’s an ex-judo champion and dancer, blessed with a heavy-lidded, pugilistic handsomeness that’s earned him comparisons to Belmondo and Brando — and the 23-year-old Israeli Tom Mercier is the engine that makes filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s fish-outta-water character study run. Playing an ex-pat trying to exorcise his home country’s militaristic mindset and start a new life in Paris, this first-time actor lends a restlessness and intensity to the movie’s righteously angry young man; he’s just as good at giving great brooding glares as he is spitting out volleys of rapid French verbiage. But Mercier also knows when to employ a graceful physicality usually associated with silent comedians (dig how he kicks a wall without breaking his stride at the 45-second mark here), and who can turn a loaf of bread into a ridiculous yet irresistible mid-dance tool of seduction. You always read about those right-outta-the-gate breakout performances that turn unknown actors into stars. Consider this Exhibit A.