Several months ago, nineteen actors and actresses entered the Dolby Theater to see if all of their dreams could come true. And as expected, most of them lost to Renée Zellweger, Laura Dern, Brad Pitt, and Joaquin Phoenix. However, while most of these actors were phenomenal this year (or at least passable), what often tends to be the case is the Academy finds itself playing catch-up – that is to say, rewarding actors for lesser films to apologize for snubs and overlooks in the past. And as always, I thought I’d put a capstone on last year’s Oscar race with the Best Performances By The 2019 Oscar Nominees!
The rules are simple: I take the nineteen nominees and break down the best performances they’ve given. If possible, I will not include the performance they were nominated for this year. My only requirement is that if they were nominated in a previous year of this competition (i.e. Adam Driver, Margot Robbie), I have to pick a different performance. Oh, and since Scarlett Johansson is nominated twice, I’m only using her once. With all that laid out, allow me to present the Best Performances By the 2019 Acting Nominees!
Antonio Banderas: The Skin I Live In
Antonio Banderas has been a looming figure in Spanish and American cinema for four decades. He has dominated everything from dramas like Philadelphia and Fridato action setpieces like The Mask of Zorro and Desperado. He’s also shown his hand as a musician, earning praise for his work in Evita and Nine on Broadway. Hell, some of his best performances have even come in the form of children’s films, including Spy Kids and Shrek 2. But there’s no denying that if I’m going to pick a Banderas performance, it has to come from his work with Spanish legend Pedro Almodóvar, which has spanned a career including Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Matador. However, to me, there’s no Banderas performance in an Almodóvar film greater than his freaky, pained work in The Skin I Live In. Banderas plays the role of Dr. Robert Ledgard as an enigma, at equal points deranged mad scientist, pained widower, and vengeful spirit. It’s a nasty performance, but one not without nuance or heart. And until Pain & Glory, it was the best work in Banderas’ rerpertoire.
Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street
What is there to say about Leonardo DiCaprio that hasn’t already been thought? He’s been a knockout since the nineties, when he dazzled us in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Titanic. He gave us a litany of fascinating, challenging performances in the aughts, including his pained work in The Aviator, his agitated work in The Departed, his grey-hatted hero in Blood Diamond, and his likable work in Catch Me If You Can and Shutter Island. And he of course scared the hell out of us in Django Unchained, going against type as the villainous Calvin Candie. But if there’s one performance that stands out above the rest in DiCaprio’s oeuvre, it’s his work with Martin Scorsese in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio’s performance in the crime epic is nothing less than extraordinary, combining a narcissistic, charismatic sociopath’s charm and passion (the scenes where he sells stocks and pumps up crowds are both thrilling and terrifying) with a hilarious lack of self-awareness and humiliation (The Lemmon Scene is nothing less than the greatest bit of physical comedy in the 21stcentury). It’s a terrific performance, and easily the best of DiCaprio’s already storied career.
Adam Driver: BlacKkKlansman
I mean, at this point, is it a shock to anyone that Adam Driver keeps earning Oscar nominations? He’s a breakout talent, having risen from his days on Girls to becoming a superstar in films such as Star Wars, Paterson, While We’re Young, Inside Llewyn Davis, Silence, and Logan Lucky. Hell, in 2019 alone, he turned in stellar performances in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, The Report, and The Dead Don’t Die. But honestly? I want to shout out Driver’s impeccable work in last year’s BlacKkKlansman, which doesn’t get the love it deserves. Driver’s performance in Klansman is deceptively challenging, a role clothed in hidden layers and fabrications. He’s a Jewish man pretending to be a WASP, a police officer pretending to be a Klansman, a white man pretending to be the face of a black man, and beyond. Driver must convey each of these layers and beliefs in each scene, and do so convincingly and sharply – and the fact that he manages to pull it off is nothing short of miraculous. It’s the best performance in Driver’s filmography, and one of my favorite performances from last year.
Joaquin Phoenix: Her
There are few actors who give their all to every performance in quite the same way as Joaquin Phoenix. After all, the man became a public nuisance for a year and a half just to make a mockumentary that bombed. But Phoenix has been a hurricane of an actor since the beginning, when he terrifically played the villainous Commodus in Gladiator. And he hasn’t slowed down since – he’s played Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, an alcoholic gunman in The Sisters Brothers, and an insane man looking for meaning in a broken world in The Master. I was sorely tempted to select The Master or his spiritual twist on Taxi Driver in You Were Never Really Here, but at the end of the day, I couldn’t pass up choosing his performance in one of my favorite films of all time, Her. Phoenix is remarkable in his against-type turn as Theodore Twombly, a man who has all the pieces to being a good, loving human, but can’t make the human connection necessary to do so. In every scene, you can feel Phoenix’s heartbreak, as well as his soulfulness. Phoenix sells his relationship with an Alexa-esque AI, and shows us a man who has been broken down by failed relationships, the rise of technology, and his own personality flaws. It’s a terrific performance from a terrific film.
Jonathan Pryce: Brazil
Jonathan Pryce is perhaps your favorite actor that you didn’t realize you loved. Perhaps best known to the mainstream as Elizabeth’s Swann’s father in Pirates of the Caribbean and the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones, Pryce has been a staple of cinema for decades now. His great performances range from Evita to Glengarry Glen Ross, from The New World to Listen Up Phillip, and of course his villainous Bond turn in Tomorrow Never Dies. And if I were more theater-based, I would perhaps go with his iconic turn in Miss Saigon, despite its more troubling aspects. However, in my mind, there are few performances as iconic as what Pryce does as Sam Lowry in Brazil. A cross between 1984, Doctor Strangelove, and Monty Python, Pryce plays his dystopian protagonist with the same reluctance and aggravation as Graham Chapman in Life Of Brian. Pryce is a loving man whose circumstances grow more and more insane, including two government agents who invade his home and destroy it and a demotion to half an office where he battles for control of one desk with a man through the wall. It’s a physical, lovely, funny, and tragic performance, and a testament to Pryce’s abilities as an actor.
Cynthia Erivo: Bad Times At The El Royale
Some performers break out with the magnitude of an atomic bomb. Such is the case for Cynthia Erivo. Known for her Tony-winning theatre work in The Color Purple, Erivo has appeared in exactly three films, with each performance better than the last. She’s nominated this year for her terrific work in Harriet, and I loved her subtle straight man in last year’s thrilling Widows. But the performance I remember the most from this wunderkind is Bad Times At The El Royale. In Bad Times, Erivo plays Darlene Sweet, the only honest patron of the El Royale Hotel. Erivo gives Darlene the feist and intellect necessary to pull of a noir protagonist, whether she’s going toe-to-toe with Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, or a Manson-esque Chris Hemsworth. Her dialogue is biting and perfectly timed, and when she sings – whoa boy, look out. Bad Times at the El Royale is a forgotten treat, and it deserves recognition, if only to see Erivo give a master class performance.
Scarlett Johansson: Her
A double nominee this year, Scarlett Johansson has belonged to Marvel for so long that most people forget that she emerged on the scene as an acclaimed indie actress. Long before she was Black Widow, Johansson stole the scene as Rebecca, a teenaged outsider in Ghost World. She stole the world’s hearts in Lost In Translation, played the foil in The Prestige, embodied Esther Williams in Hail Caesar!, and creeped out the world in Under The Skin. But once again, I have to go with one of the performances in Her, a film that never ceases to amaze no matter how many times you see it. It’s easy to overlook how great Johansson is in this film – after all, as the disembodied voice of an AI program named Samantha, she isn’t even onscreen. But Johansson gives enough emotion and performance to turn Samantha into a three-dimensional figure, an Annie Hall for the next generation. While Samantha is, at first, a program designed to cater to the needs of Phoenix’s Theodore, we watch as she grows beyond this capacity and towards a new enlightenment. We grow fond of her and connect with her as she forms independent thoughts and emotions, has highs and lows, and eventually cheer as she leaves this plane to find spirituality. It’s a truly shocking performance, and one that I can’t get out of my mind all these years later.
Saoirse Ronan: Brooklyn
It must make every other performer in Hollywood livid that Saoirse Ronan is not only this great an actress, but she has done so by the age of 25. Since emerging on the scene with Atonement, she has been the best part of The Lovely Bones and Mary Queen of Scots, had an action hit in Hanna, received a nomination for revitalizing the high school comedy in Lady Bird, and had memorable turns in Lost River, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Way Back. But assuming I can’t pick Atonement again (checks rules…nope), then I will go with her equally remarkable turn in 2015’s Brooklyn. Ronan’s performance is a work of art in Brooklyn, embodying the trials and tribulations of an immigrant in New York without the overt romanticism nor the exaggerated dourness. She is a woman who has been separated from everyone she knows and loves, and is slowly forced to come out of her self-built shell. And the film finds brilliant ways to portray her struggle between her old and new homes, portrayed as romantic suitors of the highest order. The handsomeness of the men certainly makes the chemistry feel real, but what sells their connection is Ronan’s fiery spirit, her wide-eyed optimism, and her inherent magnetism. Eilis is one of the greatest characters of the 2010s, and that is in no small part thanks to Saoirse Ronan’s talent as a performer.
Charlize Theron: Monster
It’s easy to forget, thanks to her many other talents and excessive beauty, that Charlize Theron is also a phenomenal actress. She has dazzled us many times over, from Young Adult to North Country, from Mad Max: Fury Road to Atomic Blonde, and from Kubo and the Two Strings to this year’s Long Shot. But who are we kidding; Charlize Theron’s best performance is as Aileen Wuournos in Monster. Normally it is an obnoxious, ostentatious show of grandeur when an otherwise gorgeous actor or actress gains weight and “uglies themselves up,” but Theron’s smart enough to know that the performance doesn’t end at the makeup – it requires something underneath to elevate the film. Theron’s Wuournos is a wounded beast, a woman who has been wronged by society, forgotten by those around her, and is striking back through violence and crime. It’s hard to condone her actions as she seduces and murders prospective johns on the crime spree that leads to her inevitable arrest, but it’s also hard to condemn her. Theron adds layers behind the eyes that force you to empathize for her, even though you know she’s too far gone to be saved. It’s a tragic, wonderful performance that shows an actress at the top of her game.
Renée Zellweger: Chicago
It’s been years since she made her presence felt on the silver screen, but there was a time when Renée Zellweger was the biggest star on the planet. Beyond her Oscar winning role in Cold Mountain, Zellweger has managed to dazzle as a love interest in Jerry Maguire, a Doris Day throwback in Down With Love, and of course there’s her remarkable work in Bridget Jones’ Diary. But it’s hard to imagine a better performance from Zellweger than her fiery, manipulative Roxie Hart in Chicago. Roxie is the peak of Musical Theatre for most women, and the idea of a movie star with no clear singing ability (at the time) taking on the role was controversial, to say the least. But not only does Zellweger command the role in dialogue and performance, but she also dazzles in song and dance ability as well. She sings the hell out of “Roxie” and “Funny Honey,” and her big dance finale with Catherine Zeta-Jones is as extravagant and impressive as it should be. Chicago has been oft-maligned as one of the lesser winners, but make no mistake: regardless of the film’s quality and legacy, Zellweger’s performance will stand the test of time.
Tom Hanks: Big
It’s shocking to think that this is Tom Hanks’ first Oscar nomination in almost twenty years. I mean, he’s Tom Hanks! He’s a living legend! Yet despite these clear snubs and his magnanimous legacy, it is clear that Hanks has left an iconic path of great performances behind. Whether in comedies like Splash, A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, or You’ve Got Mail to dramas like Philadelphia,Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, or Bridge of Spies, Hanks has made his mark on the last forty years of cinema. And that’s not even mentioning Toy Story! But despite all these fantastic performances and groundbreaking turns, it is his first Academy Award nomination for Big that I want to honor tonight. Hanks is so effortlessly charming in a seemingly simplistic role. As Josh Baskins, he portrays a 13-year-old transformed into a grown man. Hanks is so effortlessly great, he removes any semblance of a façade that he is anything other than a child at heart. Each movement, reaction shot, and character choice create an impression of magical realism. We believe that this is a young boy transported into the real world, instead of a grown man pretending to be a child. Much of Hanks’ later career features him playing himself-as-good-man, and he’s quite good at being America’s conscience. But the performances I love from him are the ones like Big – where reality and fiction blend, and a new character springs from the ether that is Hanks’ mind.
Anthony Hopkins: The Silence of The Lambs
Do I even have to embrace the subterfuge? We all know that Anthony Hopkins is a living legend, and the British master has graced us with elegance and charm in everything from The Elephant Man to Howards End to Nixon, and even steals blockbusters like The Mask of Zorro. But is there any performance as iconic in Hopkins’ filmography that comes close to matching Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector in Silence of the Lambs? Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal is iconic, from his precise delivery to his sinister gaze to his calm demeanor. Yet despite the awards, despite the claims of “greatest villain of all time,” it is easy to underestimate truly how great Hopkins is in the role. After all, he’s that memorable with only sixteen minutes of screentime out of 120. Hopkins’ performance is so great because despite his cold, evil exterior, Hopkins plays Hannibal as good. He’s a man who wants to help save people, and wants to feel a connection to Clarice. He’s just unfortunately trapped in the mind and body of a sociopathic cannibal with a proclivity for killing. It creates a dichotomy, as you never know where he stands at any given time, and allows for Hopkins to create layers and dimensions to a character that would otherwise be a stereotypical boogeyman. Next year, he’s slated to make an awards return with a painful, brilliant turn in The Father. But even if it is a tour-du-force performance, just like this year’s The Two Popes, it won’t change a thing. Hopkins is, and always will be, Dr. Hannibal Lector.”
Al Pacino: The Godfather
Honestly, Al Pacino may be the greatest actor to ever live. At the very least, he’s got to be in the conversation. Take a look at his filmography from 1971 to 1979. That is a master class in acting. I could easily choose from Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, or …And Justice For All as his Best Performance. I could also choose Glengarry Glen Ross, Heat, or his work on the miniseries Angels In America. But come on. If there’s going to be a Pacino performance on this list, it’s got to be his work in The Godfather – parts I and II. Because Brando’s Vito Corleone is so iconic, it is easy to forget that the true lead of the franchise is Pacino’s Michael. Pacino plays Michael close to the chest, never revealing the darkness that hides beneath. It’s hard to say when that darkness first manifested – was it the war? Was it when he realized the cost of protecting his family? Or was it always there, looming behind Michael’s dead eyes? Watching his journey from a loving boyfriend and war hero to vicious mob leader willing to kill his own brother to maintain power is a bitter pill to swallow, but it works both because of the time we spend with the character and Pacino’s complete immersion into the role. It is one of Pacino’s best performances – and, quite frankly, one of the best performances of all time.
Joe Pesci: Goodfellas
Joe Pesci may be the best actor around who so clearly hates acting. He’s retired about 17 times so far, and yet has given us such a wide variety of characters. And while he mostly plays New York street toughs, they couldn’t be more different. I mean, there’s his performance as a put-upon brother in Raging Bull, his comedic performance as lawyer Vinny Gambino in My Cousin Vinny, and of course his performance as a bumbling crook in the holiday classic Home Alone. And that’s not to mention his works in the Lethal Weapon franchise or his memorable turn in JFK (he may be one of the only good parts of that film). But come on. Was it going to be anything other than Goodfellas? Pesci is so great when he lets himself off the hook, as he does as Italian mafioso Tommy DeVito, and watching him become more and more unstable as the pressure of the world he inhabits – not to mention his own insecurities – are brought to the forefront. He’s a rabid dog that cannot be controlled, and yet you can’t put him down because he’s your rabid dog. It’s an iconic performance in a great film, and it is easily Pesci’s best in a quiet, yet impressive career.
Brad Pitt: Snatch
Some actors are too pretty for their own good. No actor has (in a sense) suffered as much as Brad Pitt for his beauty. Despite having a keen sense of timing and wide range of depth, he has often been trapped in thankless franchise roles due to studio contracts and to support the several kids adopted with ex-wife Angelina Jolie. Still, while his career has many blemishes due to his blockbuster performances, he’s still managed to create many a wide variety of incredible performances across multiple genres. His performances in Babel, Seven, Fight Club, 12 Monkeys, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Moneyball all possess a spectacle of range and pathos, but my favorite performances of his are the ones that showcase his comedic chops. Think Ocean’s Eleven, Burn After Reading, True Romance, and Thelma and Louise. But is there any Pitt performance as weird or as hilarious as his role in Snatch? As “One Punch” Mickey O’Neill, Pitt is a tweakish Irish Gypsy, known for his boxing ability and exceissve drinking. While not a major character, Pitt steals the film anytime he’s brought in to interact with Jason Statham’s stressed out promoter. His dialogue is unintelligible, thanks to an intentionally over-the-top accent that would be a reckless character choice in anyone else’s hands, and he carries himself with such charisma and confidence, it elevates the film to new heights. It’s a testament to Pitt’s comedic chops, and a testament to his acting ability.
Kathy Bates: Misery
It is unfair to hold Richard Jewell’s abysmal plot or Bates’ uneven performance against her. After all, it’s not her fault the Academy nominated her for phoning it in. Thankfully, it’s easy to imagine her earning this nomination for any one of the multitudes of fantastic performances from her storied career. Bates has been showing us folksy charm and unmatched charisma for years. Not only has she wowed in her Oscar nominated turns in Primary Colors and About Schmidt, but she has turned a legacy of supporting performances and cameos into a master class in character acting. She’s a major reason The Waterboy is a cult classic, she brought iconic characters to life in Midnight in Paris and Titanic, and she brought her spitfire personality to Revolution Road, The Blind Side, Annie, and even The Office. But come on, what else can I pick but Misery? Annie Wilkes is one of Stephen King’s best characters, and Kathy Bates brings her to life in terrifying detail. Bates captures the character’s mood swings brilliantly, one minute embodying happy, chipper goodness and the next swinging to psychotic extremes. She is able to change everything about her performance at the drop of a hat, including composure, mannerisms, and even her vocal tics. It is a masterful, awesome performance, and it’s the role she’ll be remembered for.
Laura Dern: Big Little Lies
Laura Dern, at this point, is more famous for being an icon for her actual film work. This is a bit of a disservice to her talent. I mean, look how great she is in Wild at Heart as Marilyn Monroe-as-Dorothy Gale! Or Dr. Ellie Sttler in Jurassic Park. Or her roles as loving mothers that still feel three-dimensional and unique in Little Women and Wild. And I was sorely tempted to choose her role in The Tale as a woman slowly and horrifically coming to terms with her own sexual abuse as a child. But honestly, if we’re going to talk about Laura Dern’s best role, and her legacy as an actress, we have to look at the role that changed her career trajectory: Big Little Lies. Who knew that all those years being perceived as a spoiled Hollywood heiress would allow her to channel that energy into playing a spoiled millionaire narcissist? Dern chews on every line like it’s the finest of caviar, and times out her dialogue with a commanding presence. Whenever Renata Klein shows up, the show is elevated from your average movie-of-the-month to Camp Of The Highest Order. It is an indelible performance, one that defined a decade and changed a career. And it is easily Dern’s best performance to date.
Florence Pugh: Midsommar
I both love and hate when the Academy nominates a young firecracker. It’s exciting to watch a new artist find success, but it’s hell to find another great performance in their miniscule filmographies. But that is not the case with Florence Pugh, who has received the acclaim in her first ten performances (by the age of 23!) that most don’t find in a twenty-year career. Pugh is an immense talent, able to convey a wide array of emotions in lovably charismatic ways. Her performance as Paige in Fighting With My Family is charmingly fun. Her Lady Macbeth is commanding and sexy (the necessary ingredients for an erotic thriller). And she steals the flawed Outlaw King out from under Chris Pine. But if there’s one performance I absolutely adore from her, it’s 2019’s Midsommar. Pugh’s Dani is a mess of nerves in an impossible-to-recreate way. The way she dry-heave cries whenever emotionally crushed is matched only by the utter freedom she expresses upon losing her mind. It is a complex, fascinating character, and the fact that Pugh can make Dani work – and work so realistically and beautifully – is a sign that the 23-year-old is destined for superstardom, and there’s nothing standing in her way.
Margot Robbie: I, Tonya
And finally, we have my beloved Margot Robbie. After standing out in The Wolf of Wall Street all those years ago, Robbie has transformed herself into one of the biggest stars on the planet. She’s worked her way into becoming the next Michelle Pfeiffer – an impossibly beautiful superstar who trades off dazzling blockbusters with intimate character dramas. My only regret is that in 2017, for her last nomination, I already used her effortless Wall Street performance as my selection – meaning I’m going to have to find a new film to pick from. Which to choose from? Do I go with her flowy role as a queen in Mary Queen of Scots? Her beautiful, personal performance as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood? Or what about one of her phenomenal entries as Harley Quinn (she’s even great in Suicide Squad)? But at the end of the day, I have to give the edge to her incredible, Best Of 2017 performance as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Robbie’s Harding is a wounded, feral animal, broken from a life of abuse and poor messaging who got screwed by the system, and eventually tried to screw the system back. Every moment of dark comedy, triumphant accomplishment, and heartbreaking tragedy is sold by Robbie’s remarkable talent, expressive face, and outpouring of energy. She is a star in the making, and I, Tonya is a cornerstone in what is sure to be an illustrious career.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed all of the great performances from these great actors, and I hope that all the nominees will continue giving us great performances for years to come.