10. Aisling Franciosi – The Nightingale
Give it up for 2019’s most underrated performance in 2019’s most underrated movie. While The Nightingale did well enough critically, it has mostly been absent from awards and year-end lists. This could be due to the fact that it’s a supremely uncomfortable viewing experience that has left people shaken.
In this rape-revenge period thriller, Franciosi plays a servant of the British Army. During her time as a servant, she gets brutally abused by the higher-ups. During the first quarter of the movie, the audience is made to watch this abuse, and it’s frequently hard to stomach. It’s just as hard to look away. Franciosi is hypnotic.
She’s just as hypnotic in the rest of the movie, where she plays a sultry badass with a mission. It’s a joy to see the character’s dedication, but it’s just as exciting to see the actress’s dedication to her role.
9. Saoirse Ronan – Little Women
It wouldn’t be an annual best performance list if it didn’t have an appearance Saoirse Ronan. The young actress is absolutely unstoppable. With four Oscar nominations under her belt, it’s safe to say that she’s becoming a Hollywood favorite, but is it all just a bunch of hype?
The easy answer is no. Saoirse Ronan has more talent in her pinky than most veteran actors have in their entire body. She’s an unstoppable wrecking ball of a performer who consistently puts every ounce of effort into an individual performance. This year is no different.
Ronan takes on the role of Jo March, the second oldest of four sisters. In the past, this role has been taken on by Winona Ryder, Maya Hawke, and Katherine Hepburn, and they’ve all done the timeless role justice. However, there’s something really special about Ronan’s portrayal.
It might be a leap to call it the best of the bunch, especially so soon after release, but it’s certainly near the top of the list. Ronan shows Jo’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. She puts on a performance that’s funny, dramatic, and everything in between. She’s a joy to watch regardless of your history with the source material.
8. Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Given the world’s love for Leonardo DiCaprio, it might be dangerous to claim that he was outperformed in any movie, but sometimes the truth hurts. Brad Pitt is practically a lock for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and it’s easy to see why.
Cliff Booth is a gritty man’s man who wants nothing more than to help his buddy Rick Dalton. His shady past constantly haunts him, but he’s just trying to make it through the days. Besides the shady past, Cliff Booth is just a regular guy, but Brad Pitt turns him into something fascinating.
The tough guy persona is fun to watch, but the inner demons make things far more interesting. Tarantino knows how to work with his cast members, and thank goodness. Inglourious Basterds was great, but now we have definitive proof that these two are a match made in heaven.
7. Florence Pugh – Midsommar
Florence Pugh knocked it out of the park in 2019. While most people are busy praising her award-friendly performance in Little Women, Taste of Cinema is choosing to go for something a little more unconventional. Pugh’s performance in Midsommar is the best of her career.
This isn’t necessarily a radical claim. People adored her in Midsommar, but it’s not the safe choice either, especially when you consider the graphic subject matter that has driven people away from Ari Aster’s daring sophomore effort. People are quick to dismiss performances in horror movies, but like Toni Collette before her, Pugh proves the world wrong.
The young actress perfectly embodies the grudge-holding girlfriend who decides to embark on a rather unpredictable trip. Aster’s screenplay hits all the right marks, but it’s Pugh who holds everything together.
6. Joaquin Phoenix – Joker
Three years ago, Jared Leto tried and failed to become the clown prince of crime in the DC Extended Universe. His performance was slammed for being overly theatrical and, for lack of a better word, cringe-worthy. He was intended to be a staple in DC’s shared universe, but the brutal reactions left his future uncertain.
Fast-forward to 2019. Jared Leto’s performance is now taboo enough to avoid talking about. The mere thought of a reprisal brings shivers down the spines of dramatic comic book fans. Instead, we have a new Joker, but he’s not part of the extended universe. This Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, gets his own standalone movie.
The Joaquin Phoenix Joker doesn’t belong in the DC extended universe. Tonally speaking, he doesn’t mesh with what has come before. To add to that, his story feels out of place in the more fantastical universe that directors have slowly built up. This actually ends up benefiting Phoenix. Thanks to a much darker take on the character that isn’t suited for the Extended Universe, we’re greeted with a performance filled with gut-wrenching emotions.
Near the beginning of the film, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a broken man, but he still has hope. As the film slowly draws to a close, we see our pseudo-protagonist lose all of this hope. The loss of hope is partially covered in the script, but Phoenix ties everything together. His shattered, heartbreaking performance may be tough to sit through, but it’s not because he has “Damaged” tattooed on his forehead. No, it’s because his pain is so very evident.
5. Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story
For the first time in her career, Scarlett Johansson earned an Oscar nomination. Actually, she earned two Oscar nominations, but the better performance is pretty obvious. Although she did a terrific job in Jojo Rabbit, it doesn’t come close to approaching the level of greatness we see in Marriage Story. In Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama, we see a side of Johansson we haven’t seen before. This is a raw performance liable to make the average viewer uncomfortable, but that’s why it’s brilliant.
Johansson plays a woman who’s simply fed up. She’s fed up with her marriage. She’s fed up with her past failures. She’s just done. This isn’t made clear through her words. Instead, we learn this through her body language and tone of voice. We’re able to dissect this character through subtle acting tricks. Baumbach doesn’t need to spell things out for his audience because he has two very capable performers who know how to accentuate their feelings.
These acting skills have been shown to us before. We’ve seen it in Her, Chef, and Lost in Translation. However, those were mere signs of what would come. Scarlett Johansson easily outdoes every prior performance in her career. This isn’t to say her previous works were bad. This is just something special.
4. Adam Sandler – Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems is a visceral nightmare of a film that will leave viewers breathless due to both stress and awe. It’s unlike anything that has come before it. A lot of that can be attributed to the immensely talented Safdie brothers, but they’re hardly the only thing keeping this film afloat. Sandler’s career-defining performance stands out as one of the best of the year. It may not be enough to excuse Jack and Jill or Pixels, but it certainly helps wash away those memories.
Despite what the world believes, Sandler has always been a capable actor. When he distances himself from Happy Madison Productions, he’s able to deliver phenomenal performances. The Meyerowitz Stories, Reign Over Me, Funny People and Punch-Drunk Love aren’t flukes, and neither is Uncut Gems.
In this role, we have a fearless performer who is able to strengthen an already rock-solid script. Sandler has always been charismatic, but we rarely get to see his charisma in anything remotely competent, let alone outstanding. Let’s all pray for another Safdie-Sandler collab.
3. Renee Zellweger – Judy
The frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar deserves a spot near the top of this list. She also deserves to be the frontrunner for best actress because, surprise surprise, she (arguably) gave the best performance of any actress in 2019. Sure, you could argue that a biopic performance is safe, but that seems like the typical Film Twitter backlash.
Zellweger had a lot of material to work with while preparing for this role. She didn’t have to pull some kind of character out of thin air, but that doesn’t matter. On the contrary, it’s even more impressive to see her embody one of the most entertaining performers in the entire world. She steps into Judy Garland’s shoes and dissolves into her skin.
Acting in a biopic is no easy feat. Actors and actresses need to analyze the tiniest mannerisms so they can replicate them perfectly. Zellweger does this and more. As hyperbolic as this may seem, it really feels like she is Judy Garland at times.
2. Adam Driver – Marriage Story
Like costar Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver is positively enchanting in Marriage Story. Like costar Scarlett Johansson, he wears his pain on his sleeve. Like costar Scarlett Johansson, he deserves a spot near the top of this list. His magnetic charisma and undeniable charm can’t be ignored.
Listen, Marriage Story is certainly well-written, but the two leads make the experience worthwhile. Although Adam Driver has a slight edge in this list, he likely wouldn’t be included at all if he didn’t have such chemistry with his costar. The two need each other to form a cohesive whole. Marriage Story is nothing without them, and they are nothing without each other.
This kind of synergy benefits Marriage Story to a great degree. It’s as if every cog goes together. Baumbach’s movie is one big machine and it operates perfectly because every part is in the right place.
1. Antonio Banderas – Pain & Glory
Frequent Almodovar collaborator Antonio Banderas reunited with the director to deliver his best performance in ages. In fact, he may have delivered the best performance of his entire career. Of course, the bar is pretty high. How could he top his work in The Skin I Live In or (the criminally underrated) Evita? Well, it’s pretty easy when you star in something with this much dramatic heft.
Pain & Glory is a vaguely autobiographical account of Pedro Almodovar’s life. It’s far from a beat-for-beat retelling, but the director claims that this is his most personal work to date, and it’s easy to see that. It revolves around a struggling film director who has to deal with drug abuse and making it big after a series of stumbles. It’s both heart-breaking and motivating, which is why it’s so captivating.
It’s also captivating thanks to Banderas, who gives a transformative performance. In this case, transformative doesn’t mean they slapped a bunch of makeup on him. It just means he gave a performance that feels so different than what we’ve seen before. Honestly, he has come a long way since he broke out in Labyrinth of Passion, another Almodovar creation.
Thank goodness he did break out. Watching him grow as an actor has been quite the adventure. After busts like Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever and The Music of Silence, it feels great to watch him command the screen. You’ll want to see it to believe it.