Hollywood Reporter Film Critics Pick the 25 Best Performances of the Year

7:30 AM 12/16/2019

by Jon Frosch, Sheri Linden, and Todd McCarthy

Screen vets showing new shades of their talent, dazzling newcomers, a handful of heartbreaking duos and more — here, in alphabetical order, are the defining turns of 2019.

Hustlers - Clemency - Synonyms - Marriage Story - Publicity Stills - Split - H 2019
Courtesy of Films

It was a year of so many stellar screen performances that no list of 25 could possibly cover them all.

Hence such omissions as the expertly gauged interplay between Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as distinctly different men of God, approaching one another with prickly caution and forging an unexpectedly deep connection in The Two Popes.

Absent, too, are star turns from some of the more overtly Oscar-baity showcases of 2019, among them Renée Zellweger's full immersion into the title role of Judy, creditably doing her own singing and zealously re-creating the iconic Judy Garland's stage performances during her tragic decline; and Cynthia Erivo's flinty determination in a less flashy, but also more dutiful biodrama, Harriet, about legendary Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman.

Our top 25 instead recognizes work that harnesses movie-star luster with seemingly effortless megawatt intensity, like Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers; head-turning portrayals by newcomers like Tom Mercier in Synonyms, Taylor Russell in Waves and Chris Galust and Lolo Spencer in Give Me Liberty; and infinitely complex characterizations from gifted American actresses given the rare but welcome chance to carry a movie, like Mary Kay Place in Diane and Alfre Woodard in Clemency.

It was also a year of exceptional performances in international films, as evidenced by the representation of exquisite work in movies from Spain, Brazil and an especially strong contingent from France.

  • Awkwafina

    The Queens rapper-turned-actress had been a comedic scene-stealer in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, but her work as a woman caught between two cultures, between tradition and modernity, family loyalty and her own moral compass, was measured yet surging with real feeling, particularly in her scenes opposite the wonderful Zhao Shuzhen as her cherished grandmother. — DAVID ROONEY

  • Antonio Banderas

    Playing the alter ego of director Pedro Almodóvar, Banderas is devastatingly good, the long friendship between the frequent collaborators evident in every tender scene as his character weathers the debilitating collision of chronic physical pain, artistic stasis, drug dependency and romantic disillusionment. It's the most soulful work of his long career. — D.R.

  • Timothée Chalamet

    Chalamet’s deeply felt performances over the past couple of years place him in a rare lineage: His elegant transmutation of emotional complexity, unpredictability and physical nuance recalls cinema great Montgomery Clift. In this latest spin on a literary classic, the young star’s gloriously weird, awkward and transparently smitten would-be suitor, Laurie, holds the screen with breathtaking romantic fervor. — SHERI LINDEN

  • Pierre Deladonchamps and Vincent Lacoste

    Playing a 35-year-old writer dying of AIDS and the 22-year-old student who falls for him, French actors Deladonchamps and Lacoste boasted luminously flirty chemistry — making the melancholy that sets in between their characters as mortality looms all the more aching. There were other swoony, gorgeously acted near-romances this year (Saoirse Ronan’s Jo and Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie in Little Women, for example), but none quite as haunted and tender. — JON FROSCH

  • Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson

    As the couple at the center of Noah Baumbach's masterwork, the stars delivered the deepest, most alive and attuned turns of their careers. Driver's Charlie, the charming, self-absorbed New York theater director whose wife, Nicole, leaves him for the other coast, may be a great guy, but he hasn't been a great husband, and the actor turns the character's reckoning with that reality into a roller-coaster ride right into his very core. Johansson, meanwhile, makes you feel the clashing impulses and instincts — anger and longing, defiance and guilt, boldness and trepidation — in every step of Nicole's transition into life without Charlie. Lots of performances break your heart; these two do that, then piece it back together again. — J.F.

  • Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler

    It's ironic that a great movie about sisterhood involves siblings who spend most of the action cruelly separated. But the bond etched early in Karim Ainouz's lush melodrama is indelible, thanks to the unique intensity of these relative screen newcomers, their emotions roiling from painful yearning through edge-of-insanity frustration to enervated vulnerability, and finally, heartbroken resignation. — D.R.

  • Chris Galust and Lolo Spencer

    Kirill Mikhanovsky’s tour-de-force tale of American struggle and solidarity careens from crisis to crisis, but its two remarkable leads — Galust plays a stressed-out Milwaukee medical transport driver and Spencer one of his charges, a no-nonsense young African American woman with ALS — provide a spiky, push-pull moral center amid the chaos. The pair flaunt the kind of crack timing, finely calibrated charisma and ability to register subtle shifts in mood and feeling that performers with résumés a hundred times as long would envy. — J.F.


  • Nora Hamzawi

    The most surprising element of the central quartet in Olivier Assayas' inspired comedy of French angst, Hamzawi plays a woman so busy putting out fires for her politician boss that she barely registers her husband's existential crisis. The actress is hilariously acerbic — an expert slinger of retorts and one-liners — but periodically pierces her character's prickly persona with shards of vulnerability. It's the best kind of scene-stealing. — J.F.

  • Jennifer Lopez

    A master class in movie-star magnetism, and also something more. Scrappy, self-serving Ramona struts, scams and works a pole with slinky ferocity, but Lopez gives her a nurturing warmth and, ultimately, a wistfulness that feel true. Without ever sentimentalizing Ramona — there's no straining to suggest a heart of gold beating beneath her massive furs — the performance pushes us to recognize that honest feelings can coexist with dishonest instincts, that people are complicated in ways that don't always add up. — J.F.

  • George MacKay

    Bravura visual storytelling is crucial to this heart-pounding World War I drama, but its emotional impact rests on MacKay's often wordless performance. His British soldier, sent on a desperate mission into enemy territory, stares down death in countless guises and sometimes evades it by sheer luck. MacKay gives us no simple symbol of valor, but someone who, shattered by anguish, redoubles his commitment to life. — S.L.

  • Tom Mercier

    Mercier most commonly appears in this film either dressed in a long, gold overcoat or without a stitch, which entirely reflects the extremes the first-time actor endures and illuminates in his stops-out, agonizingly physical portrait of an Israeli who defects to Paris — a man without a country. — TODD MCCARTHY

  • Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel

    The slow-burn chemistry between an artist (Merlant) and her initially unwilling subject (Haenel) — who’s also an unwilling bride-to-be — ignites this sensuous and beautifully measured period piece. The leads create unforgettable figures, clear-eyed and defiant in complementary ways, who embolden each other, their stolen glances blossoming into a love as cleansing and perilous as the wave-lashed Brittany setting. — S.L.


  • Eddie Murphy

    It’s no surprise that Murphy has the comic chops to play unstoppable Blaxploitation entrepreneur Rudy Ray Moore. But as raucous as his performance is, it’s introspective too — more so than the film itself — and lends full-blooded weight to the laughs. Without shifting gears into actorly mannerisms, and never missing a comedy beat, Murphy signals the injured pride driving a man who’s hell-bent on escaping the also-ran shadows. — S.L.

  • Lupita Nyong'o

    Perhaps the most mesmerizingly unsettling element of Jordan Peele's allegorical home-invasion chiller is Nyong'o's bifurcated performance as both the grounded wife and mother who has worked hard to overcome childhood trauma and the same woman's vengeful flipside, an emissary from a shadow dimension come to claim what's hers. Wielding scissors.— D.R.

  • Joe Pesci

    As one character puts it in Martin Scorsese’s elegiac saga of American crime and politics, "You'd never know it by looking at this guy, but all roads lead back to Russell." Played with piercing restraint by Pesci — in the most resoundingly welcome return from movie retirement in memory — mob don Russell wields words of vague indirection with lethal precision, sometimes while making a salad. The film's surrogate father-son bond between him and the title character hitman (a magnificent Robert De Niro) is its heart, and Pesci's exquisite fusion of paternal warmth and soft-spoken menace is riveting. — S.L.

  • Joaquin Phoenix

    Bringing unexpected pathos as well as astonishing physicality to Batman's cackling archnemesis, Phoenix traces a twisted arc from pathetically disenfranchised nobody to messianic madman, inspiring vigilante violence across an eerily real Gotham City riven by an ever-widening wealth and power divide. — D.R.

  • Brad Pitt

    From the second he shows up in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt has the audience on his side, and it stays with this self-confident, diffident, madly appealing loner in a way that demonstrates star power at maximum voltage. Nobody delivered more moment-to-moment pleasure onscreen this year. — T.M.

  • Mary Kay Place

    Seldom does a longtime character actor enjoy a late-career chance to star in her own film, but so has Place been blessed with Kent Jones’ low-key but full-bodied portrait in which she resonantly explores a self-sacrificing 70-year-old’s past and present dealing with small-town life and a drug-addicted son. The way both the character and the performance expand in the movie’s second half is remarkable. — T.M.


  • Taylor Russell

    There's an operatic intensity to Trey Edward Shults' drama, and at its still center is Russell's luminous portrayal of a teenager grappling with grief and guilt. In the story of a family’s brutal unraveling, she's the essence of courage and empathy. The film's shift toward a hard-won expansiveness lives and breathes in a revelatory performance of aching, quiet grace. — S.L.

  • Alfre Woodard

    As a death row prison warden, Woodard does arguably the best work of her distinguished career, internalizing the terrible burden, the moral conflict and the sheer mental, physical and emotional exhaustion that comes with the responsibility of taking a life. The performance is all the more remarkable for its unerring restraint, so much of it communicated in the eyes alone. — D.R.