Critics Conversation: The Great Film Performances of 2019

40rev_performances_W_Comp - Publicity - H 2019

The Hollywood Reporter's movie reviewers welcome Adam Driver to the pantheon of greats, debate Jennifer Lopez's 'Hustlers' hype, pledge allegiance to Timothée Chalamet and celebrate career bests (Antonio Banderas), breakouts (Taylor Russell) and more.

JON FROSCH: Let's not beat around the bush: I think it's been a perfectly fine, but not outstanding year for movies. That said, 2019 has been rich in striking feats of acting of all types — from big and bravura to subtle and shaded to whatever the hell Robert Pattinson was doing in The King (a performance so exuberantly bad it actually goes beyond bad and circles back around to good?) — and from various corners of the film world. Part of our job as critics is to tune out the din of awards buzz and point people to work they may have overlooked, not yet seen or aren't aware of.

But sometimes performances are "in the conversation" because they deserve to be. That's the case with my favorites this year, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as the couple at the center of Noah Baumbach's simultaneously mournful and mirthful, and exhilaratingly great, Marriage Story. Watching them, I felt that unmistakable alchemical spark of actors truly connecting with their roles, inspired by the material, their director and each other.

I count myself among the Driver faithful — those of us who have been rhapsodizing about his odd magnetism (the overripe features and thick voice, the looming physicality that can feel by turns dangerous and gentle, ungainly and graceful) since the Girls days. Marriage Story not only confirms him as our most distinctive leading man; it moves him definitively into the realm of the greats. Driver's genius as Charlie, the charming, charismatic, self-absorbed New York theater director whose actress wife Nicole (Johansson) leaves him for the other coast, is allowing us to see him from both the inside and the outside — and to appreciate the gulf between the two. Charlie may be a great guy, but he hasn't been a great husband, and Driver turns the character's reckoning with that reality (from obliviousness to a kind of raging denial to chastened acceptance and perhaps understanding) into a roller-coaster ride right into his very core.

As for Johansson, we've grown so accustomed to watching her kick ass in ultra-tight body suits or pout imperviously that it's a jolt to see her playing someone as vulnerable as Nicole. The actress hits notes of emotional fragility that pierce the heart: Nicole's face crumpling as she steps into the hallway after Charlie gives her feedback on her final night in his play; the way she tries to hold it together, then cracks, upon sitting down at her first meeting with divorce lawyer Nora (a peerless Laura Dern). But Nicole isn't blameless, and there's nothing sanctifying or self-pitying in Johansson's portrayal. This is a woman who has, in some ways, enabled her husband's narcissism — partly because she loved him so much — and Johansson infuses her characterization with a palpable conflictedness, adding layers of longing and resentment, guilt and defiance, resilience and trepidation to Nicole's deep foundation of generosity.

DAVID ROONEY: I couldn't agree more on the beauty of Marriage Story, such an agonizingly lived-in and empathetic take on an experience that anyone who's ever been bruised by the end of a long relationship will see themselves in. But can we take a moment to appreciate the slyly knowing humor of Dern's priceless turn as a laser-focused yet cozily chummy divorce lawyer, which doubles as a delicious riff on the slick synthesis of superficiality and sincerity of an unmistakably L.A. professional type?

And I'm glad you give Johansson her due for a performance full of complex shadings that risks being overshadowed by the deserving attention around Driver's extraordinary work, with his mesmerizing jangle of raw nerves. He's such an exciting actor, always bringing that element of danger and unpredictability; I found him just shattering here. (He was also on Broadway this year in Burn This, giving a performance of such animalistic ferocity he can lay claim to being the new Brando.) Let's not talk about his piano bar performance of Sondheim's "Being Alive" since I'll be reduced to puddles of tears again, but it does make me hope Baumbach's idea of doing a screen adaptation with Driver of Company, the musical that song comes from, eventually happens.

It's been a remarkable year for leading men. Alongside Driver, I'd mention Joaquin Phoenix's astonishing deep dive into the tortured psychology of the title character in Joker, whatever you think of the movie; the evolution of his physicality alone as Arthur Fleck gradually finds the full force of his deranged power is fascinating to watch. Robert De Niro is doing some of his most soulfully introspective work in years in The Irishman, and Jonathan Pryce conveys a full spectrum of spiritual strength, contrition and self-castigation for his character's human frailties in an exquisite performance in The Two Popes.

But my favorite is Antonio Banderas as the onscreen alter ego of director Pedro Almodovar in the devastatingly good Pain and Glory. There's so much moving evidence of deep personal friendship — let's go ahead and call it love — in this apotheosis of the long collaboration between actor and director. Banderas' ability to convey the debilitating collision of chronic physical pain with artistic stasis and romantic disillusionment crushed me, and the director ties it so eloquently to the scenes of childhood sexual awakening (with equally illuminating work from another Almodovar fixture, Penelope Cruz).

TODD MCCARTHY: Both David and Jon gushing over Adam Driver serves as a reminder of how viscerally we react to the physicality of actors. The exuberant enthusiasm you two share (with many others, of course) for Driver pushed a button with me. What is a critic supposed to say or write when an important actor is someone you just don't like to look at? Well, guess what? Driver had that effect on me for years. From the start, I found him unappealing and, all considerations of talent to the side, someone I simply didn't want to be watching; it was a visceral reaction, plain and simple, impossible to explain.

But a reckoning finally took place with Marriage Story. I was startled into an acknowledgment of his full talent by his turbulent but nuanced work in this intimate film and, like David, was utterly blind-sided by his rendition of "Being Alive" at the end. Driver had to work extra-hard to earn my respect and enthusiasm and, having done so, he's now very decisively got it. I'll be right in line with David at the first screening of Company, which I hope one day happens.

And I agree with Jon about Johansson. Escaping from Marvel, she came through in a way I was beginning to suspect she wouldn't anymore, with a full-fledged dramatic performance rich in fluctuations of heart and mind and absolute commitment to the finer points of characterization. She was a standout in a year where there was a noticeable paucity of deep-dish dramatic roles for women.

SHERI LINDEN: It certainly has been a remarkable movie year for men. Even in Little Women, it isn't the sisters who truly compel but Timothée Chalamet's gloriously weird, awkward and transparently smitten Laurie.

A couple of films do etch indelible portraits of sisterhood, though: the Brazilian gem Invisible Life, with its heartrending depiction of cruelly severed blood ties and undying hope, the siblings portrayed with exquisite longing by Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler. And then, occupying a very different place on the spectrum, there's the forged sisterhood of strip-club dancers in Hustlers. Jennifer Lopez's take-no-prisoners Ramona is self-confidence personified, and as she mentors a newbie (Constance Wu) and they conspire to tilt the scales in favor of their tribe of working women and against their Wall Street clientele, the two actresses reveal, without the slightest fussiness, their characters' shifting and ever more entangled depths of ferocity and vulnerability.

But back to the men, whose most memorable performances this year tend toward gentleness rather than ferocity. In a number of cases the characters are past their prime, taking stock of their lives and trying to find a way forward. I'm thinking of the translucent soulfulness of Banderas in Pain and Glory, and of a doubt-plagued Leonardo DiCaprio and a warily understated, career-best Brad Pitt, perfectly matched as showbiz denizens on the precipice of has-been status in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

A surrogate father-son bond is the heart of The Irishman, which takes Martin Scorsese's familiar male-centric mob milieu to uncharacteristically elegiac depths. As a hitman looking back on an achingly conflicted life with late-dawning self-awareness, De Niro delivers a performance so involving that it transcends the distracting digital de-aging, and Joe Pesci goes toe-to-toe with him, beat for riveting beat, with a piercing, preternatural quietness that's at once protective and menacing.

FROSCH: Sheri, it's our annual Chalamet praise-fest! This guy is just so damn good that I fear we (and by "we," I mean everyone else) are already taking him for granted. Between the unearthed high-school rap videos and the global heartthrob-ery, he's become meme bait — which, I'm afraid, may prevent some viewers from receiving his work with the seriousness it deserves ("Haha, look at Timmy in Medieval armor!"). His shrewd, fiercely contained turn in The King — you can see his Hal always thinking, strategizing, ruminating — was under-appreciated. And, as you point out, he's the most poignant and unpredictable element of Greta Gerwig's Little Women ensemble — the one who really takes his character and runs with it, conjuring a rich, idiosyncratic inner world beyond what's on the page (his declaration of love to Saiorse Ronan's resistant Jo is a scene of swoony, panicky heartache for the ages). This is an actor whose every performance feels shaped by a deep emotional intelligence, an ability to burrow his way to the essence of the person he's embodying and a willingness to play against, or beyond, expectations. I can't wait 'til he shares the screen with Adam Driver.

LINDEN: I wouldn't have thought to call Driver the new Brando, as David does, but the comparison makes perfect sense. I've found myself making a similar comparison: Chalamet's work in Little Women and in The King might not immediately bring to mind Montgomery Clift, but when I reflect on his performances over the past couple of years, I see him as an inheritor of Clift's elegant transmutation of emotional complexity, unpredictability and physical nuance. When was the last time a new generation of actors brought to mind such towering figures of the cinematic pantheon?

ROONEY: I like that comparison, Sheri. The back-to-back impact of Chalamet's deeply thoughtful work as the reluctant monarch in The King, growing steadily more steely as he grapples with the conflicts of his royal inheritance, and the aching emotion of his Laurie in Little Women shows that we're still seeing new aspects of an extraordinary range this young actor is only beginning to explore. It's going to be thrilling to watch him continue to develop his already formidable craft.

FROSCH: All hail! I want to come back to two performances Sheri singled out, examples of movie-star acting at its purest and most sublime: Lopez in Hustlers and Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, both in glorious command of their magnetism. Some of that, of course, has to do with their physical beauty, and how adroitly they and their directors deploy it: Pitt's aging stuntman Cliff Booth peeling off his T-shirt to fix the antenna on the roof and Lopez's seasoned stripper-turned-swindler Ramona working the pole to Fiona Apple's "Criminal" made for two of the most winkingly pleasurable screen moments of the year. These are relaxed, effortless-feeling performances that some may dismiss as A-listers playing variations on their own public personas. But that would be to underestimate the knowing wit, superb control and potent undertows of wistfulness in both these turns.

ROONEY: I'm in the camp that thinks Lopez is cleverly painting a knowing gloss on her own celebrity — and doing it in high style, I'll admit. The film had been so hyped that I went in hoping for the resurrection of the appealingly natural screen presence of Selena and Out of Sight (even the hilariously silly Anaconda). But the consecration of the superstar J.Lo Industrial Complex pretty much killed that authenticity for me, and the endless slo-mo popping champagne corks, money showers and female power struts didn't help me see Ramona as much more than J.Lo winking at the camera. That said, it's a triumph for the 50-plus generation that two of the sexiest screen moments of the year, as Jon points out, were Lopez polishing that stripper pole with her thong and Brad Pitt shedding his T-shirt.

FROSCH: David, I've been underwhelmed by pretty much every Lopez performance since her indelible turn in Out of Sight. But I think you're selling her short here. Ramona is scrappy, ruthless and brazenly self-serving, but the actress gives her a nurturing warmth that never feels like a con. There's a wonderful moment at the end when Ramona's face softens as she looks at a photo of Destiny (Wu), the younger dancer she's led astray and fallen out with. As directed by Lorene Scafaria, Lopez never sentimentalizes Ramona; there's no pandering, no effort to convince us of a heart of gold beating beneath her massive furs. What the performance does do, beautifully, is push us to recognize that honest feelings can coexist with dishonest instincts — that people are complicated in ways that don't always add up to a neat, psychologically comprehensible package.

LINDEN: I lost patience with Hustlers' endless flow of bubbly and repetitive scenes of "we're on top of the world" glam indulgence. But in Lopez's performance, particularly her interactions with Wu and a closing monologue that cuts clean through the froufrou, I found something that stayed with me. The native New Yorker in me recognized real, matter-of-fact Bronx moxie in her character; it's not the furs and heels that give Ramona her strut but her hard-won self-awareness and understanding of the way the world works.

Meanwhile, another industry vet who dazzled was Eddie Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name, which lifted my spirits more than any feature this year. It's hardly a surprise that Murphy has the comic chops to play unstoppable Blaxploitation entrepreneur Rudy Ray Moore. But what's notable is the way, without shifting gears into actorly mannerisms, he signals the feelings of neglect and injured pride that drive a man who has already fallen into obscurity when his story opens. More introspective than the film itself, Murphy's performance deepens the comedy. And Wesley Snipes, as the actor turned auteur who deigns to partner with Moore, ups the frivolity, going out on a campy limb and owning it.

Unlike many of the actors we're discussing, Marc Maron is certainly not known for his range — he tends to play versions of his cranky-wise boomer self. But in Lynn Shelton's Sword of Trust, he uses that comfort zone to distill his character's story into an improvised and quietly soul-shaking monologue.

In a very different vein, I was moved by the friendship brought to testy but tender life by Jonathan Pryce, whom you mentioned, David, and Anthony Hopkins through the incisive colloquy of The Two Popes. Switching gears yet again within the realm of male friendship, The Last Black Man in San Francisco gives us two characters whose bond is rooted in the here and now but charged with a yearning that's as dreamy as it is urgent. Played by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors with intriguing, low-boil humor and subtlety, this pair arrive onscreen as wholly new, category-defying characters, the chemistry between them unforced and mysterious.

MCCARTHY: Sheri, I'm with you on those two — their interplay enriches one of the most unusual, unclassifiable and head-turning films of the year. And I can only echo the praise for the clear male standouts you all have identified. Nobody delivered more moment-to-moment pleasure with a performance in 2019 than Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The best intellectual vaudeville team of the year was Hopkins and Pryce in The Two Popes; only great old pros simultaneously collaborating and competing with one another are capable of generating so many moments of wit and nuance. No other actor could have matched what Banderas delivered for Almodovar in Pain and Glory. Murphy was drop-dead hilarious in Dolemite (Snipes was wonderful as well). Chalamet did it for me again with his unexpectedly quiet and observant takes on iconic literary roles. Phoenix hardly needs further accolades for his alarmingly effective rendition of Joker. And what can you say about De Niro, Pesci and Pacino other than they're among the greats of all time and we'll never see their like again?

Working with fewer substantial parts, actresses this year often went the broad and showy route, from the energized and spot-on turns by the mighty trio in Bombshell to Dern letting loose in Marriage Story with her most wonderfully amusing performance in ages. In addition to Johansson on the dramatic side, there was one performance that came out of nowhere and was all the more welcome for it. Portraying a 70ish woman of a type you almost never see as the lead in a film, Mary Kay Place was wonderful in Kent Jones' Diane. This religious, initially semi-solitary woman lives in a forlorn neck of the woods, and keeps her thoughts mostly to herself. But the way she gradually unloads on her pathetic druggie son, and the manner in which the character wonderfully expands in the second half, is remarkable.

FROSCH: I agree that it's been a richer year for men than women — and that Mary Kay Place is an absolute treasure in Diane — though I do want to give kudos to a few other actresses who showed us new corners of their talent. Lupita Nyong'o delivered a brilliantly freaky double turn in Us. Octavia Spencer, freed from sidekick duty, is the best thing in Luce, conveying a quietly mounting rage and drawing out unsettling ambiguities as a high-school history teacher locked in conflict with a star student (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). And I'm not sure I've ever seen exhaustion — physical, moral, spiritual — played quite like Alfre Woodard does it as a prison warden overseeing executions in Clemency. I haven't been able to shake this haunted, haunting performance since watching the movie weeks ago.

ROONEY: Thank you for mentioning the great Woodard for what must rank as one of the most powerful performances this year, all the more so because it's so internalized. It takes an actor of uncommon intelligence to transmit so much with their eyes alone. The terrible burden of Woodard's character accumulates a searing force over a succession of quiet scenes, especially her gut-wrenching exchanges with the prisoner played with sobering dignity by Aldis Hodge. The kind of introspective performance Woodard is giving often goes unnoticed at awards time in favor of showier work like the marathon display of squinting, pouting and hand fluttering — she's like Betty Boop on Ritalin — in the overpraised Renee — sorry, Judy.

But I share your admiration, Jon, for Nyong'o's transfixing virtuosity in Us, giving us bone-chilling fear right alongside merciless ferocity. I found Charlize Theron's performance in the thoroughly unsurprising Bombshell mesmerizing, partly for the work of the makeup and hair department in turning her into a terrifyingly gorgeous fembot, but that wouldn't have amounted to much without all that panther-like grace and coolly appraising side-eye.

One of the more surprising turns of the year was Awkwafina in Lulu Wang's minor-key charmer The Farewell. The Queens rapper-turned-actress had been a comedic scene-stealer in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, but her performance here as a woman caught between two cultures, and between family loyalty and her own moral compass, was measured yet surging with real emotion.

Meanwhile, foreign-language performances tend to be overlooked by the big awards bodies, but that's where some of the real jewels were this year. Besides Banderas, I have to mention the entire ensemble of Parasite; newcomer Tom Mercier's riveting verbal and physical dynamism as a self-exiled man struggling to reinvent himself in Synonyms; and, in addition to the ravishing actresses from Invisible Life whom Sheri praised, the appearance late in that film of the magnificent Fernanda Montenegro, the humanity and hurt of a lifetime written across her face. That performance also served to freshen the wound of her being passed over for the best actress Oscar for Central Station in favor of Gwyneth Paltrow, benefiting from the bullish Weinstein push on Shakespeare in Love.

MCCARTHY: David, I also loved Mercier's utterly no-holds-barred, agonizingly physical portrait of an Israeli man defecting to Paris in Synonyms, while the equally fine Franz Rogowski gave a very different performance, seeming to move in slow motion as a refugee stuck in a fictionally politicized Marseilles in Christian Petzold's Transit.

FROSCH: Agreed on all, and I'll add a handful of Frenchies to the mix of great "foreign" performances: Nora Hamzawi, the prickly heart (and sharp-tongued scene stealer) of Olivier Assayas' inspired comedy of Gallic angst, Non-Fiction; Vincent Lacoste and Pierre Deladonchamps, their radiant flirtiness giving way to melancholy as May-December lovers cheated by time in Christophe Honore's Sorry Angel; and Felix Maritaud as a hustler whose sexual exploits mask a gnawing, increasingly desperate emotional hunger in Camille Vidal-Naquet's Sauvage/Wild.

What young up-and-comers caught your eye this year? One standout for me was Camila Morrone as a Montana high-school senior stuck in an ever-tightening knot of co-dependency with her troubled veteran father (James Badge Dale, also terrific) in Annabelle Attanasio's Mickey and the Bear. Her unfussy freshness and emotional transparency reminded me of Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color. And I fell hard for non-pros Chris Galust and Lauren "Lolo" Spencer in Kirill Mikhanovsky's fabulous ode to the messy, scalding, sometimes life-saving American melting pot Give Me Liberty. As a stressed-out Milwaukee medical transport driver and one of his charges, a no-nonsense young African-American woman with ALS, these two flaunted 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.

LINDEN: Jon, I share your enthusiasm for Morrone and Dale in Mickey and the Bear — finding unexpected grace notes in a simple, well-told story — and for the leads in Give Me Liberty, who put a distinctive comic spin on serious questions of youthful identity and purpose. In two of the year's most visceral dramas, a couple of relative newcomers explore the same burning questions, making strong impressions with revelatory, profoundly affecting portrayals of young people caught in the crossfire. In one case — Taylor Russell's luminous turn in the exceptional Waves — that crossfire is figurative, the emotional fallout of a Florida family's brutal unraveling. Her teenage character, Emily, grapples with grief and guilt and, in a couple of scenes of breathtaking tenderness — one with Lucas Hedges as Emily's first love, one with an eye-opening Sterling K. Brown as her demanding father — Russell reveals nothing less than the power of empathy, and the particular courage it requires to forgive not just others but oneself.

The crossfire is literal for George MacKay's British soldier in Sam Mendes' heart-pounding World War I drama 1917. Sent on a desperate mission into enemy territory, his character stares down death in countless guises and sometimes evades it by sheer luck. But in MacKay's performance, for long stretches devoid of dialogue, he's not merely someone to root for, and no simple symbol of valor. Like Russell's Emily, even as he's shattered by anguish, his commitment to life is redoubled.

ROONEY: I also adored Waves' Russell as the good daughter whose vulnerability and shyness flower into a stirring sense of the decisive, compassionate woman she chooses to become, elevating the film from sorrow to hope and wide-open possibility in its exultant closing image. And Jon, count me among the cheerleaders for Give Me Liberty and the poignant, funny, tetchy and exhilaratingly real back-and-forth between Galust and Spencer's characters in a quasi-romance that almost demands a sequel.

FROSCH: I love love love the idea of a Give Me Liberty sequel. Give Me More Liberty, Motherf***ers!? Stranger things in Hollywood have happened.

A version of this story appears in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.