Every year, Taste of Cinema takes time out of its busy schedule to rank the best performances of an individual year. This time around, we’ll be looking at the twenty best performances of 2019.
Like always, this list is about as exhaustive as it can get, but it’s not perfect. The author hasn’t seen every movie released because that’s an unrealistic expectation. With that being said, please be aware that certain absences could be because the movie simply wasn’t seen. Also keep in mind that twenty is a relatively small number when you consider the sheer number of yearly releases. There’s a very real chance that a movie barely missed the cut.
This very subjective list features twenty very subjective choices, but they’re choices that absolutely deserve to be seen, especially in the dry January months. Don’t act like you’d rather watch The Grudge.
20. Mary Kay Place – Diane
With fewer than 1,000 votes on IMDb, it’s safe to say that nobody really watched Diane. Despite earning critical acclaim, the film came and went almost immediately. Sure, Place won a couple critics awards here and there, but in general, the general public has heard almost nothing about this hidden gem.
We’re here to remedy that. Diane revolves around a seemingly selfless woman, played by Mary Kate Place, who happens to have several skeletons in her closet. Giving anything else away would ruin the experience, so it’s best to just go in with an open mind and accept whatever is thrown at you. After all, the things being metaphorically thrown at you all add up to an excellent experience.
Of course, given the subject matter of the list, it’s probably easy to predict one of the highlights. Mary Kay Place, who plays the titular character, pours every conceivable emotion into one performance. We rarely get to see her take on lead performances, so it’s refreshing to watch something that almost entirely revolves around her acting chops. At the end of the day, the premise pulls you in, but the star of the show is Place.
19. Jimmie Fails – The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Jimmie Fails was a nobody before the release of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a poignant dramedy about a young man who desperately wants to reclaim his childhood home. After collaborating with childhood friend and director Joe Talbot, the world got a Sundance hit they wouldn’t soon forget. With a near-perfect balance of comedy and drama, this surprise hit is able to tell the perfect story about obsession, and Jimmie Fails is the man to tie it all together.
Fails succeeds because of his effortless ability to make us understand the protagonist’s desperation. Throughout everything, we are made to feel for such a stubborn character. Yes, the hero of the story has flaws, but Fails never wants us to find him unlikable. We’re supposed to feel his pain and understand that his relentless stubbornness comes as a direct result of that.It may be heartbreaking, but it’s a journey worth taking.
18. Taron Egerton – Rocketman
Here’s the cold truth: before the release of Rocketman, it was easy to dismiss Taron Egerton. He was definitely charming in Kingsman, but nothing about him screamed “future Golden Globe winner.” On the one hand, it would be unfair to blame him entirely. He had never really appeared in anything that allowed him to show off his acting gusto. At the same time, it was easy to conclude that he just wasn’t interested in those types of films. On the surface, it seemed as though he was content with playing snarky blockbuster heroes. Thankfully, the naysayers were proven wrong.
Egerton doesn’t pull any punches here. He gives a raw, often uncomfortable performance that highlights Elton John’s most glaring flaws. This isn’t to say he disrespects the famous musician. Rather, he paints the truth. He wants us to see Elton John for who he was, scars and all. Well, mission success.
17. Adele Haenel – Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire technically hasn’t been given a wide release yet, but we’ll count it as a 2019 release since it’s eligible for most major awards. We’re also choosing to count it because we’re looking for any excuse to talk about it. This is head and shoulders above most releases from last year, so it seems appropriate to shower it with praise.
Given the topic of this list, we’ll be placing one of the two leads under a microscope in order to analyze how she enhances an already stellar piece of filmmaking. Adèle Haenel has earned acclaim for her performances in BPM (Beats Per Minute) and The Unknown Girl, but she’s never been a big part of cinephile discussions until now.
Haenel’s dedicated performance comes from the heart. The actress focuses on the beats and rhythms buried beneath the confines of the script. This allows her to shine brighter than she ever has before. It’s hard to call this a breakthrough performance given Haenel’s massive filmography, but let’s hope this pushes her further into the mainstream.
16. Song Kang-ho – Parasite
Parasite recently picked up the SAG award for Best Ensemble, making it the first foreign language film to do so. It faced off against heavy-hitters like The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but against all odds, the voters picked a South Korean movie featuring a cast of South Korean actors. Even with the critical acclaim surrounding the movie, concerns about the validity of the guild’s choice are valid to an extent. How’d this underdog snatch an award from the three-and-a-half hour crime drama featuring De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino?
Here’s a little plot twist: the members of this cast run circles around most of the competition. In particular, South Korean favorite Song Kang-ho delivers a standout performance. As a whole, the ensemble is comprised of winning performance after winning performance, but this one is the cream of the crop, which isn’t exactly surprising given Kang-ho’s years of experience.
Honestly though, Kang-ho seems to use all of his experience and all of his energy. Like the rest of the world, he seems visibly moved by the timeless theme of class warfare. He plays a character so deeply affected by his country’s rampant economic problems, and more importantly, he plays this character well. This kind of authenticity feels rare. This kind of connection to a character feels rare. There are so many small factors that ultimately make this a performance that can’t be missed.
15. Lupita Nyong’o – Us
It’s hard to find a performer with as much versatility as Lupita Nyong’o. The woman can do anything, so a double role in a Jordan Peele directed horror flick hardly seems out of her element. In fact, it practically seems like the next logical step after beefy awards performances and showy blockbuster performances.
Let’s set aside genre stereotypes for a second. We can’t put Us in the same category as something like The Turning. This isn’t some hastily stitched together amalgamation of jump scares. This is a Jordan Peele movie, and as such, it needs to be treated a little differently.
So what does that mean for Lupita? Basically, it means she has more to work with. The script asks for two very different performances. Adelaide, the protagonist, may look the same as her doppelganger, but she sure as hell doesn’t act the same. The doppelganger character will make your skin crawl, but it’s not necessarily a better performance. The two roles allow us to see different albeit impressive sides of the same actress.
Both characters show serious amounts of talent. One could argue that you don’t even need to see both roles to appreciate what Lupita is doing. Still, her performance lands a spot on this list precisely because we get two for the price of one. This is how dual roles need to be done.
14. Shia LaBeouf – Honey Boy
It takes a lot of balls for someone to step up to the plate and play a fictionalized version of own their father. In Honey Boy, a deeply personal autobiographical tale, Shia LeBeouf does just that. Following countless controversies involving bizarre publicity stunts and alcohol-related mishaps, the once in-demand star delivers a comeback performance we didn’t know we needed.
Actually, he delivers one of two comeback performances. The Peanut Butter Falcon gave us a taste of this Shia LaBeouf renaissance, and then Honey Boy came along and tied everything together. Though both very different roles, he fully commits to each of them. Honey Boy just happens to give the paper bag wearing actor more to work with in the end.
This is a dark, often uneasy performance, which makes sense considering the fact that this is a dark, often uneasy experience as a whole. LaBeouf spits out profanities with an acid tongue. He’s borderline insufferable, but that’s why we keep watching. The actor has an unparalleled ability to leave viewers in a trance, so sit back and enjoy the magic.
13. Awkwafina – The Farewell
Last year, the usually comedic Awkwafina decided to buckle down and show us a more somber side of herself. Though billed as a comedy, The Farewell is in a different category than Crazy Rich Asians. Previously, her goal as an actress was to make you laugh. This time around, that seems like more of an added bonus.
As usual, Awkwafina is funny, but that’s such a small factor in the grand scheme of things. Sure, she’s funny, but she’s also radiant in other ways. This melancholy story needs some kind of balance between funny and serious. Strictly funny won’t cut it, and neither will strictly serious. Awkwafina finds that balance and then some.
12. Willem Dafoe – The Lighthouse
Willem Dafoe’s Oscar snub is absolutely criminal, but maybe the Academy just isn’t ready to award a character who happens to be a chronic farter. All jokes aside, Willem Dafoe strikes a masterful balance between the serious and the absurd in his role as Thomas Wake. Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch is a genre-defying spectacle that clearly needed a performer known for chameleon-like qualities. As such, Dafoe is a natural choice.
There’s a rhythmic quality to his performance in The Lighthouse. At times, it feels as though he’s reading off-tempo sheet music. There’s a lot of intricacy to his performance, but he follows along without missing a beat.
He’s left to do this little song and dance with the help of Robert Pattinson and nobody else. Excess characters are absent due to the isolated setting. This means that the two leads must have some sort of chemistry. They need to feed off one another, and luckily they do.
Frankly, the movie wouldn’t work without this kind of chemistry. Yes, the aforementioned “rhythmic quality” helps, but it’s only a fraction of a larger piece. When all of these larger pieces fit together, you’re left with something awe-inspiring.
11. Eddie Murphy – Dolemite Is My Name
Dolemite Is My Name is a revelatory celebration of black culture. It’s a pitch perfect reminder of why blaxploitation became such a beloved subgenre back in the 1970s. It’s not just a fun movie; it’s also an important movie. This is largely due to the celebratory nature of the story, but this film has one more trick up its sleeve: Eddie Murphy.
Save for a couple family movies and a failed comeback attempt, Murphy had been largely absent during the 2010s. Prior to Dolemite Is My Name, the decade only really brought him a Razzie nomination, so could you blame him for taking a step back and rethinking his career?
It turns out that, in order for Murphy to succeed, he needed to start from square one. He became famous because of his foul-mouthed R-rated comedies, so it only seems appropriate that his comeback role would be a foul-mouthed R-rated comedy.
It succeeded where Mr. Church, his previous comeback attempt, failed. Rather than throwing Murphy into a problematic after-school special, Dolemite Is My Name gives the actor something he can really sink his teeth into. This is a role tailor-made for Murphy, and that’s why it works.
Murphy’s future could be very bright if he continues to accept roles that fit him like a glove. With the upcoming release of Coming 2 America, it’s starting to look like that’s a possibility. Sure, he could scoop up every potential box office success like he started doing in the early aughts, but maybe he’s beginning to realize that Dr. Dolittle 2 isn’t as rewarding as something like this.