Give it up for the best examples in the art of acting caught by a theatrical camera and projected on screens between the 1st of January 2019 and the 31st of January 2019!
2019 was an extremely weak year for movies overall, as I have constantly stated throughout Listmas and shall probably state an additional few more times before the week is out, but it was an inordinately strong year for performances in movies. When writing out my longlist, I had enough contenders to fill an entire page of my notepad and chopping them down to 10 was a herculean task, nigh-on impossible. In fact, it was. So, I didn’t. Whilst noting down those various potential awardees, I realised that my usual “one performance per film” rule wasn’t going to cut it this year. Fact of the matter is that, whilst there are a few solo turns which stole my heart and stood out from the crop, most of the performances that grabbed me this year are really double-acts where two actors managed to elevate each other into even greater heights than they could already achieve through genuinely electric chemistry, to such an extent that the lines separating both performers kinda dissipated.
Well, as somebody whose first go at this as a regular feature involved throwing men completely in the trash because women trounced them that particular year, I’m not above bending my own rules/criteria to the point of meaninglessness! Therefore, this year’s Top 10 Performances list has been split into two distinct halves. The first five entries cover the solo performances I most enjoyed, as per tradition alternating genders. The second five entries cover the couple performances I couldn’t get enough of. Also, I guess this is technically at Top 15 Performances list now. Sue me. It’s all unranked, like usual, save for our first entry which is, in a walk, the year’s best (and despite being solo is technically a pair and my brain is melting trying to keep track of all this). There are also a bunch of Honourable Mentions, which you can glance at below:
Adam Driver (The Report), Asia Kate Dillon (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum), Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory), Tatiana Maslany (Pink Wall), Constance Wu & Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Asher Angel & Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!)
Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson & Red (Us)
If you were somehow not on my side before about every single casting director for every single movie that Lupita Nyong’o has appeared in between 12 Years a Slave and Us needing to be locked up in actual jail for the crime of wasting her considerable talents, predominately behind thankless mo-cap bit-parts in soulless Disney blockbusters, then a viewing of Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature should sufficiently do the trick. Seriously, Nyong’o is acting so many circles around all of the other apparent frontrunners for Best Acting in any category during this year’s Awards Season that it’s not even funny. Red is the showier of the two roles, unquestionably, and she is blood-chillingly good, moving with alternately a spider-like animalism and a dancer’s grace whilst finding the unsettling humanity required for the ending to hit. But it’s perhaps Adelaide which is the true revelatory achievement; Nyong’o balancing a steely Sigourney Weaver-esque maternal strength, a deep-rooted and subtly-conveyed struggle with PTSD, and bursts of borderline-feral rage into one of horror’s all-time great heroines. Like I said before, you could teach entire acting courses based on Nyong’o’s work here.
Noah Jupe as Otis Lort [12 years old] (Honey Boy)
Perhaps there’s no greater indication of Shia LaBeouf’s redemption arc and growing self-awareness over the last half decade than the fact that he wrote this deeply personal therapeutic art piece about the emotional trauma his father left upon him as a child actor, cast himself as the father-surrogate, and didn’t blow the ultra-promising rising star child actor assigned to play the young LaBeouf expy right off the screen. But in case that observation makes it sound as if I’m crediting LaBeouf with somehow allowing Noah Jupe to turn in such a heartbreaking and multifaceted performance, rest assured that it is Jupe’s work and Jupe’s work alone which justifies the plaudits that should be hurled his way. Young Otis is such a difficult role to play for an actor of any age – requiring one to balance the desperate wannabe macho swagger of a kid trying to ape his dad, the palpable hurt of both the verbal abuse he receives and the psychological damage of having his desires invalidated at every turn, and the brief flashes of carefree precociousness which remind you Otis is still just a 12 year-old boy – yet Jupe makes it look easy. Imagine how good this kid will be when he turns adult-age.
Florence Pugh as Dani Ardor (Midsommar)
I do not know what Ari Aster does to get his actresses to emit such distressing cries of grief on the regular. Following on from Toni Collette delivering one of the all-time great horror movie turns in last year’s Hereditary, Florence Pugh almost matches it with her role as the insecure, anxiety-depression-and-grief-riddled Dani, a woman forever on the verge of losing it altogether only to find a weird solace in the arms of the Hårga. Pugh in general had a twelve months for the history books, any one of her three star-making performances could slot into here and you wouldn’t hear a peep of dissent from me – whether that be the wounded charm offensive of Saraya Knight in Fighting with My Family, or the quietly tragic yet commanding interpretation she helps provide of Amy March in Little Women – but it’s her crushingly believable Midsommar performance that’s my personal favourite. Mainly because I’ve lived the deep-seated anxiety and depression she so accurately conveys through her performance, one which would have irreparably crippled Aster’s ability to visually communicate those feelings had Pugh been any less as incredible as she is. As mentioned, I’ve experienced the kind of uncontrollable panic attack that Dani goes through in my day-to-day life, so I can vouch for its authenticity. Plus, that ending with be nothing without her specific facial acting.
Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino (The Irishman)
Joe Pesci had effectively been retired for two entire decades before being cast in The Irishman. He’d done a little cameo work here, a little advertisement work there, and also starred with Helen Mirren in some bizarre swiftly forgotten dreck called Love Ranch – plus apparently dubbing an obscure Russian animated movie called A Warrior’s Tail, what?! – but the fact of the matter is Pesci had not been an actor for a long while… yet not only are there no signs of ring-rust with his performance as Russell Bufalino, his return to acting may actually be the best he has ever given. Perhaps some of that comes as a result of casting him against type, Bufalino being a preternaturally calm and affable mob boss rather than the hair-trigger temper of previous Pesci rogues. Nevertheles,s his work is at once warmly inviting, sternly controlled, and eventually painfully pathetic. But it’s his tone and demeanour during the stretch where Bufalino is telling Frank Sheeran it’s what it is with regards to Jimmy Hoffa that secures his work here as some of his most chilling and indisputably finest, a firm reminder to maybe not seek out mobsters for your surrogate father figures.
Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something (Her Smell)
Quick, name a bad Elisabeth Moss performance. Specifically a time where Moss’s performance was what sank her role. If there’s been one this half-decade, I am yet to see it. Moss is someone who always gives her absolute all to whatever role she has been asked to play, a fact which Alex Ross Perry weaponizes to malicious effect with his rivetingly off-putting Her Smell and the hurricane that is Becky Something. Moss is so relentlessly compelling and so skilled a performer that she is capable of deliberately repelling viewers thanks to Becky’s constant fucked-up abrasive egotism, reeling them back in at just the right moment by letting slip the deep-seated psychological damage fuelling Becky’s self-destruction, then snapping at those who fall for the bait with uncomfortable disdain. She’s such a magnetic performer in spite, nay, because of those very things that Perry is able to milk an ungodly amount of tension in his third of five acts from her not being on-screen, only to then, in the act following, have her tear both her and the audience’s hearts out with a phenomenally underplayed emotional awakening.
Cristian Ortega & Lorn Macdonald as Johnno & Spanner (Beats)
Look, I’m fairly certain that Beats is not actually meant to be fully taken as a queer love story, although director Brian Welsh definitely doesn’t go out of his way to shut down any such read with his shot choices and staging, but aOrtega and Macdonald display more evident sexual chemistry as Johnno and Spanner than most actual married real-life hetero couples. Ortega’s perpetually terrified emasculation is horribly relatable and immediately endearing, you really just want to give Johnno a big hug at all times and tell him it’s gonna be alright, whilst Macdonald chafes with a vulnerability and insecurity beneath his performatively swaggering exterior that reveals Spanner’s frustration with having his entire life taken out of his hands. But both men come alive when they share the screen, a light glistening in each other’s eyes as it becomes self-evident how much one completes the other and their growing bittersweet realisation over the course of the film of that fact. There was no better romantic moment in 2019 than when Oretga and Macdonald elatedly exclaimed their love for each other at the Revolt rave.
Kaitlyn Dever & Beanie Feldstein as Amy Antsler & Molly Davidson (Booksmart)
As mentioned in the film’s Top 20 write-up, Dever and Feldstein have such an immediate and overflowing chemistry together that, even before the razor-sharp screenplay completed the job of crafting two of the most enjoyable protagonists in movies all year, I’d gladly follow them both around on Amy and Molly’s further adventures for literal years. Even getting away from just how naturally they replicate the proudly emotionally-intense bond of best friend young women today, their comic instincts are in perfect lock-step with each other. I find myself constantly thinking about the exchange where Amy asks Molly to list a famous person whose life greatly improved by breaking the rules, a simple exchange which doesn’t read all that immediately funny on paper, and how their respective line deliveries, including one of the best begrudgingly respectful line reads of “goddammit” I have experienced in forever, utterly slay me. Dissertations could be written about their recurring compliment wars and the deliveries thereof. I could watch a hundred lesser buddy-comedies so long as they were toplined by the reunion of this pairing, for real.
Lesley Manville & Liam Neeson as Joan & Tom (Ordinary Love)
It’s a sentiment I often impart when I talk about a great performance in one of these articles – hell, I’ve done it at least twice in this year’s instalment already – that the movie it features in would be nothing if not for this particular performance. Cliché and somewhat hyperbole, I’m aware, but in the case of Ordinary Love the movie really would be nothing without Neeson and Manville’s keenly observed and truthfully low-key pair of performances. The entire conceit of the film is built around a frank, natural and wholly undramatic depiction of an aging couple dealing with a late in life cancer diagnosis, so if either of those two gave a performance any less tired, sweet, or quietly devastating and real-feeling than the one they do then the entire endeavour would, bluntly, have been shot dead before it even left the starting blocks. There were so many sequences of the pair just casually interacting, having circular not-arguments and jokes to themselves, which felt ripped straight from the similar relationship my grandparents shared, that’s how exactly Manville and Neeson nail that particular dynamic.
Awkwafina & Zhao Shuzhen as Billi Wang & Nai Nai (The Farewell)
Speaking of nailing dynamics which remind me heavily of my grandparents and interactions with said. In a way, I kinda feel bad not giving Awkwafina a solo entry for her genuinely revelatory lead turn as the directionless disillusioned and (once the plot kicks in) morally-conflicted Billi, a performance of terrific emotional nuance that, much as I had adored her in her pair of 2018 scene-stealing turns (from Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians), I had absolutely no idea she was capable of pulling off. But when putting the list together, I ended up being stuck at a crossroads once realising that giving Awkwafina a solo entry would mean having to deny the equally as magnificent Zhao Shuzhen as the instantly endearing and delightfully fussy Nai Nai, a performance which balances warmth and matriarchal stubbornness with such perfection that a character who could theoretically have ended up a short-hand stereotype instead became one of 2019’s best realised. So, I opted to have them share a space instead rather than choose. Back off, I still feel guilty that by doing so I had to leave Diana Lin out in the cold.
Eddie Murphy & Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Rudy Ray Moore & Lady Reed (Dolemite is My Name)
Dolemite had been earmarked as Eddie Murphy’s long-overdue comeback showcase, that much we all anticipated and gladly welcomed. To be sure, Murphy is terrific as Rudy Ray Moore, that electric spark when Rudy first starts putting the Dolemite character together is legitimately thrilling and the way Murphy twists his classic fast-talking hustler archetype to reveal its deployment as a mask for deep-rooted insecurities, with Moore’s constant string of beaming self-belief fake-it-til-you-make-it sales pitches being just as much for himself as those he’s pitching to, is inspired. But who would’ve thought that he would nearly be upstaged by an out-of-nowhere star-making turn (if there’s any justice) by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, oozing charm and eventually a joyous spirit that is the very definition of winning? Whenever these two end up sharing the screen, which is admittedly not as often as I personally would’ve liked, the results are pure magic; the platonic friendship is already sweet enough on paper, but the playful and encouraging spirit that exists between the two actors vaults things well over the top.
Tomorrow: the first part of my now 5th Annual Sham of an Awards.
Callum Petch left a dent in your home screen.