This 2019 awards race might have one of the most crowded acting fields in recent years. Last year delivered so many impressive performances that many of them were either snubbed from nominations or will lose to someone we find unfavorable. So here, we did our best to highlight the best performances of 2019. (They’re all more compelling than Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” so feel free to turn off the TV when he accepts his Oscar.) — Anish Tamhaney, Daily Film Editor
1. Florence Pugh: “Little Women”
In Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of “Little Women” — which was my introduction to Louisa May Alcott’s story — Amy March was so easy to hate. And I did hate her; I longed for Jo’s fierceness and independence, and I denounced Amy for her jealousy and sabotage. I could only ever see her as the anti-Jo, never as a woman of her own.
That is, until Florence Pugh stepped into Amy’s shoes. Her shoes from adolescence into early adulthood, I will add. Unlike previous depictions, Pugh plays Amy in both flashbacks and the present, and at any age steals the show. I smiled every time Pugh’s Amy snuck in a clever dig at Jo. I didn’t resent her for her stance on marriage, or for stealing Laurie. I recognized some of my younger brother’s pain in hers. Not only that, but after all these years I could even see myself in her: I cried when I saw the look of impossible relief on Amy’s face, as she asked for forgiveness from Jo without expecting to receive it. It’s a look I’ve worn myself, many times.
That self-recognition would’ve been inconceivable to a younger me. But the explanation is simple: Pugh finally showed me that Amy is a full person, rather than my hero’s foil. Isn’t that what all great performers force us to confront? It’s dangerous to reproduce troubling sibling dynamics on screen; it’s a feat to undo it, and to get a more complicated hero out of it. On that note, Pugh is the real hero of this adaptation, and we’re the better for it: Our heroes should be hard to love.
— Julianna Morano, Managing Arts Editor
2. Lupita Nyong'o: “Us”
Okay, so this is a little bit of a cheat because Lupita probably deserves two spots on this list. One of them is for her performance as Adelaide, a loving mother with haunting memories in “Us.” The other is for her performance as “Red,” a murderous doppleganger with a robotic instinct for violence and a memorably raspy throat in “Us.” Indeed, it is impossible to articulate the level of acting talent required to pull off roles as hero and villain in a movie simultaneously, but Nyong’o carries the whole movie on her back.
Her stark duality is a feat in and of itself, but she also lends credibility to the film’s mystifying twist ending. We thought we understood Adelaide. But maybe, we no longer do. And the image of her snapping to the offbeats of Lunis’s “I Got 5 On It” comes back to haunt you.
— Anish Tamhaney, Daily Film Editor
3. Ana de Armas: “Knives Out”
In a movie full of familiar faces, Ana de Armas (“Blade Runner 2049”) is one of the least recognizable, dwarfed in the marketing campaign by big names like Daniel Craig (“Spectre”), Jamie Lee Curtis (“True Lies”), Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”) and Chris Evans (“Avengers: Endgame”). Yet from the moment she appears on screen, De Armas seizes the audience’s attention and claims her position as the movie’s main character. Her role as Marta Cabrera, the nurse of the recently deceased Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) and a genuinely kind soul, is a breath of normalcy in comparison with the ignorant and greedy Thrombey family. De Armas’ performance is incredibly compelling, uniting the film around a character who appears to be one of the few people the audience can trust and whose emotions are palpable and relatable. In a movie filled with crazy characters, being the “normal” person is not easy, yet it is a role that De Armas takes on with grace and skill.
—Kari Anderson, For the Daily
4. Honor Swinton Byrne: “The Souvenir”
Honor Swinton Byrne’s performance as Julie in “The Souvenir” is not immediately notable. She is a vehicle for Hogg’s own experience with a shady older man during her time in film school. Nearly everything about her is normal — seemingly too ordinary to be a character in a movie. But it’s precisely this sense of harmless normalcy that gives the film’s building conflict its searing edge. When Julie becomes involved with Anthony (Tom Burke, “Only God Forgives”), all appears well. But it is only when the audience grasps the magnitude of her gravitation toward him despite his money problems, drug problems and alarmingly callous disposition that we realize how hard it is for her to pull away. And we are pulled in, too.
— Anish Tamhaney, Daily Film Editor
1. Roman Griffin Davis: “Jojo Rabbit”
Roman Griffin Davis’ performance in last year’s “Jojo Rabbit” is remarkable and not just by child actor standards. In this role, that of a 10-year-old Nazi youth struggling to decide what he actually believes in, Davis is asked to emote what feels at times like the entire human experience. Not only is he expected to provide much of the film’s humor, his character undergoes several of life’s most momentous emotional experiences — first love, first loss, first realization that maybe the people you’ve looked up to for so long aren’t so great after all. In short, Davis is responsible for carrying the film, and he doesn’t just pull it off. He knocks it out of the park, setting an entirely new standard for what child actors are artistically capable of accomplishing.
— Elise Godfryd, Senior Arts Editor
2. Brad Pitt: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a whirlwind of a film, held together by loose duck tape and one of Brad Pitt’s (“Ad Astra”) best performances in years. In the role of aging stuntman Cliff Booth, Pitt’s laid back charm and easy swagger come together to perfectly embody a man going through the motions but seemingly content to do so. Whole sequences rely entirely on the audience’s capacity to like Brad Pitt, despite the hints at Cliff’s potentially violent past. In the hands of an actor of Pitt’s caliber, it never seems to entirely matter that Cliff Booth may be a murderous maniac. Maybe that’s the point, or maybe Pitt can put on just that good of a show.
— Ian Harris, Daily Arts Writer
3. Adam Driver: “Marriage Story”
The most intense scene in “Marriage Story,” and arguably the most intense scene of Adam Driver’s (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) career, has been meme-ified by the Internet. Many of these memes revolve around the premise of Driver and Johansson’s (“Jojo Rabbit”) big fight resembling the fights people have heard countless times from their neighbors, their extended family, even their own parents. Others simply mock the sheer drama of the scene and the ferocity of Driver’s performance.
For the first, doesn’t this speak to the authenticity of Driver’s performance, that he was able to so accurately replicate the realities of marital strife? For the second, isn’t Driver’s burst of anger justified within the context of the movie? His character before this key moment is emotionally restrained in nearly everything, a pushover in the face of his wife’s demands. The entire movie builds up to this moment when he finally loses it. And his outburst is a completely natural reaction to months and months of emotional and psychological torment. Though it is certainly dramatic, it’s also very human, and Driver makes it work.
— Elise Godfryd, Senior Arts Editor