The year 2019 was a very good year for cinema, and this award season has been especially competitive with some exciting races. It’s obvious some actors may have even struggled to choose which film they should campaign for, as some of them even had more than one great film.
Some of them managed to show their acting range in those films as well. Laura Dern is always excellent, so it shouldn’t be surprising that she’s the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her wonderful work in “Marriage Story”; and then compare it with “Little Women,” and you have two totally different performances. Chris Evans may never return as one of our favorite superheroes after “Avengers: Endgame,” but he surprised audiences as a villain in “Knives Out,” one of the year’s most acclaimed films. So obviously this year was great for many actors. Here are 10 of them who had a great year with great films:
10. Kelvin Harrison Jr. – “Luce” / “Waves”
He may have caught your attention with his roles in “It Comes at Night” and “Mudbound,” but this is the year he managed to break through with even wider audiences. Sure, “Luce” and “Waves” are still independent movies and they both deserved wider and bigger audiences, but both got high acclaim and brought more spotlight to Harrison as an emerging talent. No doubt these two great films will help him to get even better roles in the future.
“Luce” was one of the best films of this summer and Harrison was excellent as was the rest of the cast, creating a character that is kind of ambiguous; he almost always keeps you guessing throughout the film and by doing that, he manages to deliver a complex performance. And his performance is very central to why “Luce” works so well. Apart from that, he also appeared in one of the most acclaimed films by the studio A24 this year, “Waves.” The drama focuses primarily on the two teenagers: Tyler and his sister. Harrison portrays Tyler and like in “Luce,” he’s somewhat of a family star here again, but this is also a totally different kind of role than that and he absolutely nails it.
9. Scarlett Johansson – “Marriage Story” / “Jojo Rabbit”
Okay, “Jojo Rabbit” does not look like something that would be for all tastes, but given its reception, most of the critics and audiences did actually like it. No wonder it did well at the Academy Awards. Johansson started off the year great as one of the most touching aspects of “Avengers: Endgame,” one of the highest-grossing films of all time. But she didn’t stay there and appeared in this comedy-drama about Jojo Betzler, a 10-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany during the later stages of World War II with his mother, Rosie. He gets more confused when he finds out that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.
Johansson serves as a total warm presence in “Jojo,” but it’s “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s most awarded and one of the most acclaimed films, where she plays an actress going through a painful divorce, and this may very well be the best performance of her career. The argument scene is probably the most memorable and since the second half of the film focuses on Adam Driver’s character, you may remember him more.
But Johansson has a lot of strong scenes in the first half; her first (long) scene with Laura Dern is especially touching and just beautiful to watch. Johansson has never been nominated for an Oscar, though she was often in contention with films like “Lost in Translation” and even “Her,” and these films are here to change that. She’s now both a Best Actress nominee as well as a Best Supporting Actress nominee.
8. Adèle Haenel – “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” / “Deerskin”
Six-time Cesar award nominee Adele Haenel is one of the best actresses of her generation, and she just keeps delivering and getting better and better. Just watch her being likably bratty in “Water Lilies” or being a totally compelling lead in “The Unknown Girl.”
This year she’s got one of her best parts ever – maybe even her best – in Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which got strong reception at Cannes but didn’t get the heat it deserved with awards season in North America. In this brilliantly shot, forbidden affair tale between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait, Haenel absolutely shines as Héloïse, who is to be married off to a Milanese nobleman without her will. Even though it feels more like Noémie Merlant’s character’s story, Heloise’s story is as complex as hers. And watching Haenel’s subtle, sublime work is touching and heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, she also appeared in another Cannes-premiered film, Quentin Dupieux’s “Deerskin,” and as one can expect from its director, it’s a delightfully strange film full of his absurd and surreal humour. Even though the main star here is Jean Dujardin, Haenel somehow steals the show as the more mysterious aspect of the story, and she has a lovely presence. No wonder she’s turning into the best French actress of her generation.
7. Elizabeth Moss – “Us” / “Her Smell”
Elisabeth Moss is beloved for many works. For “Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and so on, and her film career has recently given her even more opportunities to prove her incredible range. In Jordan Peele’s much acclaimed box office success “Us,” the focus was more on Lupita Nyong’o’s excellent performance (which got snubbed by the Oscars!) but let’s not overlook Moss here; she was fantastic with what she was given. It’s a delicious work and one can argue if her screen time as a doppelganger would be longer, she’d get more attention this awards season, at least from the critics groups.
However, her strongest work this year comes in “Her Smell,” a film that is not an easy watch for everybody, but a total tour-de-force for Moss who’s in virtually every scene of the movie. The structure of the film can make it hard to relate at first, but Moss is such a force of nature that you cannot ignore her. When the film takes a more conventional approach in the third act, her performance remains great. The “Heaven” scene is especially one of the most beautiful scenes of the year, if not the most.
In this award season, “Her Smell” didn’t get enough attention, mostly because it’s not a release from a powerful studio; there wasn’t much of a campaign for it. It’s definitely is not an easy film to watch, but the director singlehandedly wrote a campaign letter for her performance, and his words make you feel fascinated by Moss’ incredible work once again.
6. Robert Pattinson – “High Life” / “The Lighthouse”
You know who else had a great year? That guy from “Twilight.” Robert Pattinson, like his co-star Kristen Stewart, went on to do more indie films and arthouse cinema since the Twilight movies ended and got a new fan base for his work in those. And his upcoming commercially appealing, big studio films (“Tanet,” “Batman”) sound exciting as well. So he’s seemingly having a nice balance.
As for this year, well, he had one failure; “Waiting for the Barbarians” was not well received at the Venice Film Festival, but that’s okay when his other film that premiered in Venice “The King” got much better reception and people found his supporting turn very entertaining and almost surprising. “I never thought Robert had it in him” was the common phrase people have used to describe his 2019 performances.
Critics and many cinephiles were impressed by Claire Denis’ ambitious, original “High Life,” the story of an astronaut on an odyssey to a distant black hole who faces the challenges of parenting – and existential panic. The film used Pattinson’s calm presence quite well for a leading role. However, those who want to see Pattinson doing more showy and less subtle, unusual work were more impressed with his performance in “The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers’ much acclaimed follow-up to “The Witch.” Appearing in nearly every scene of the film, Pattinson uses a different accent and overall gives a physically challenging performance that may very well be his best work to date. He holds his own against someone as legendary as Willem Dafoe, which is never an easy task.