5. Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
In their eight collaborations together, Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodovar have developed an impactful actor-director relationship in which they both have been able to challenge each other. With Pain and Glory, the two once again show their trust with one another, as Banderas plays the character Salvador Mallo, a legendary filmmaker who is reflecting on his career and childhood. It’s obviously an autobiographical tale for Almodovar and includes many references to his past films, and Banderas delivers all the wit and pensiveness that define his frequent collaborator.
Banderas does a great job at reflection; Mallo sees his life through the films he created and the stories he told, and the fragments of his history are told through windows into the art he created. It makes sense that Mallo would be so possessive over his films, and Banderas is able to find humor in a character that is looking for new experiences and settling old feuds. As he struggles with a potentially lethal illness and considers retirement, Mallo rediscovers filmmaking as a means of therapy and digs deep into his childhood for answers, and this personal statement from Almodovor and Banderas about their own careers makes for a powerful experience.
4. Shia Labeouf, Honey Boy
While Shia Labeouf has often been mocked for his strange publicity decisions and performances in the Transformers films, he’s clearly an extremely talented actor, and in the last few years he’s proven his merit in films like American Honey, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and The Company You Keep. Labeouf does what is clearly his most challenging work to date in Honey Boy; not only did he write the screenplay for this autobiographical tale of a child actor going through therapy, but he stars as a fictionalized version of his own father, a failed rodeo clown who uses his son’s career to live out the Hollywood dreams he never achieved.
Labeouf adds so many subtle ticks and repressed emotions to the role that could only be achieved by knowing the subject first hand; while it is clear that Laebouf wants to show the struggles that he went through and how his father’s manipulation and neglect harmed him, he doesn’t portray his father as a complete monster, and hints at the ways in which the two have come to grips with each other.
Part of what makes the character so irresponsible is how he treats his son as a companion and buddy but not a child, but it’s also this emotional honesty that allows Labeouf to make the character vulnerable. The personal nature of Honey Boy makes it a cathartic experience for Labeouf, but it’s also the deepest and most realized performance he has ever given.
3. Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
While she’s now primarily known for her role as Black Widow within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s easy to forget the many dramatic and subversive performances that Scarlett Johansson has given in such films as Match Point, Lost in Translation, The Prestige, and Ghost World among others. Johansson is fun to watch as a charismatic action hero, but she can also bring emotional authenticity to compelling characters, and in Noah Baumbach’s latest masterpiece Marriage Story, Johansson brings raw pathos to the role of Nicole, an actress who feels that she’s lost her career and purpose as a result of her marriage to Charlie (Adam Driver). As Nicole begins to make revelations about what she sacrificed, she’s forced to recontextualize all the happy memories she thought she had.
What makes the film so brilliant is that both characters ultimately love each other, and the legal process only complicates and confuses the feelings that they have. Nicole’s thinking is warped by her lawyer Nora (Laura Dern), who encourages her to be more openly hostile towards her husband throughout the course of their custody battle, and Johansson shows how easily manipulated people can be by legal minutiae. Marriage Story doesn’t have the same hostility, loud arguments, and bitterness that most divorce films do, and it’s the quiet moments of regret and reconciliation that Johansson brings to life that makes the story even more heartbreaking.
2. Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Joe Pesci’s relationship with Martin Scorsese is legendary, and throughout films like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, Pesci has excelled at playing a very specific type of character: the loud, hostile, scene stealing sidekick. With The Irishman, Pesci provides a very different take on the mobster with his performance as Russell Bufalino, and is so quietly powerful and reserved in his mannerisms that it’s unlike anything else he’s ever done. The danger that his character presents is never lost, and through the ways in which other characters react to him, Bufalino’s reputation precedes him.
There’s a bluntness to the way Bufalino explains his life’s work, and his admission to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) that the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa is inevitable shows the level of experience that Bufalino has with making tough decisions. Like many of the characters in the film, Bufalino’s life seems to pass him by as he grows jealous of the way in which Frank’s daughters idolize Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and the scenes in which he and Frank are left abandoned and alone in their twilight years are just heartbreaking. Pesci came out of retirement to give this performance, and it’s well worth it because it’s the most emotionally powerful and subtle performance he’s ever given.
1. Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
While he’s known as one of the most famous movie stars in history, it’s remarkable how many great films Brad Pitt has starred in over the course of his illustrious career. Pitt has worked with many of the industry’s best directors and gave another memorable performance this year in James Gray’s emotional space epic Ad Astra, but it was his performance as stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that topped his entire career. Tarantino’s celebration of the Golden Age of filmmaking is personified by the friendship between Booth and actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Pitt is perfectly cast as the loyal friend who sticks with his lifelong companion until the end.
The arrogance that Booth displays when he faces off against Bruce Lee and makes his way to Spawn Ranch makes for an interesting satire of Pitt’s own star power, but there’s an undercurrent of sweetness to Booth’s relationship with Dalton as they both reflect on their equally declining careers. There’s never a sense of jealousy in the way Booth admires his friend, and Pitt once again shows his talent for physical comedy during the film’s hectic confrontation with members of the Manson Family. Pitt brings humanity to the character without ever sacrificing his charisma, and for an actor with such an impressive filmography to deliver his finest performance to date is truly worth celebrating.