Monday, December 30, 2019

Great Performances of 2019

by Adam Riske and Patrick Bromley
Who gave our favorite performances in 2019? Read on and find out.

Adam: I’ll start with a short caveat that I’m not including performances from movies that will be on my top 10 list. I’ll save those for a later discussion, which is cool because it allows me an opportunity to highlight my favorite performances of 2019 from movies I liked (or even in some cases didn’t like). My first pick is Lupita Nyong’o in Us. I didn’t care for the movie overall (it was too busy with subtext and lost track of being scary or, for me, entertaining), but it’s easy to admire the range Nyong’o brings to her dual performance in the film. She’s doing a lot of different things, alternating between very showy and very subtle styles from scene to scene. Us is at its most interesting any time she’s on screen. I’ve been a fan of Nyong’o in other movies, but this was the performance(s) of hers where her reputation as one of the best actors working today really clicked for me.
Patrick: She’s so good in that movie! I’m with you in liking but not loving Us, which I’ve only felt worse about as I’ve seen it pop up on countless year-end lists, but I’m not mixed at all on Lupita Nyong’o’s work at the center of the movie. I was very happy to see her take home Best Actress at the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, because she was my top choice. And it’s all about me.

My first pick will be Alessandro Nivola in The Art of Self Defense. He’s an actor who first came on my radar as Pollux Troy in Face/Off over 20 years ago, but I’ve never really had an opinion on him. Even when I’ve seen him be good in stuff, he’s never made much of an impression. He’s so, so funny in The Art of Self Defense, a movie that kind of came and went without making any noise. That’s too bad, because it’s very funny and very much about the kind of toxic masculinity that’s on everyone’s minds these days. I love how Nivola approaches his sensei character -- a guy who doesn’t seem very bright but is totally sincere until he isn’t. If there was any justice, this would lead to a bunch of new roles for the actor. I suspect it won’t, though.

Adam: I had Alessandro Nivola on my list too! I echo everything you said about his performance and the movie. It’s underseen and very good. I like how Nivola modulates his performance. When he’s supposed to go dark, he certainly does so but he doesn’t overplay it. It’s all part of the same even keel temperament.

My next pick is Shia LeBeouf in Honey Boy and The Peanut Butter Falcon. I went through a period of not being a Shia LeBeouf fan anymore, but I never doubted how talented he was when he was a child actor in Even Stevens or Holes or as a young adult in something like Disturbia. He had a weird, possessed comedic energy that was fascinating to watch. LeBeouf made an awkward transition to grown-up roles (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps comes to mind as an example where he’s miscast), but man did he come back with some incredible performances this year. He’s almost uncomfortably intense and alert in both Honey Boy and The Peanut Butter Falcon, however it’s in a way where you can’t take your eyes off what he’s doing. Honey Boy is a blessing for his career because it’s like an instructional manual explaining why he is the way he is. I saw that movie first and when I watched The Peanut Butter Falcon (can I stop typing that?) next, it really elevated that performance with a backstory that contextualized his brooding and antisocial behavior. I can’t wait to see what Shia LeBeouf does next and I think 2019 is the year of not only his comeback, but almost a total re-invention.

Patrick: Good call on Shia LeBeouf. I was a fan of him back when he was making The Battle of Shaker Heights on HBO’s Project Greenlight but grew wary of him both professionally and publicly after a pretty short time. Watching Honey Boy made me feel guilty for turning my back on him, considering what he had been through. I hope you’re right about his comeback.
My next pick is Barbara Crampton in Culture Shock, director Gigi Saul Guerrero’s entry into Hulu’s Into the Dark series. The movie is one of the better installments of that series, which I’ve found fairly uneven to this point (though I haven’t seen the two latest entries for Thanksgiving and Christmas). Barbara Crampton’s performance as a too-friendly neighbor is funny and energetic and somehow “off” in the very best way -- she lets us know there’s something bigger going on by pitching her performance just so. She’s the standout of the film, and I’m so excited to be able to include her on this list because she's the best of us.

Adam: I don’t have Hulu. I feel like I should have Hulu if for no other reason than to support Barbara Crampton.

My next pick is the 2019 output of Florence Pugh. She’s in one movie that will certainly make my top 10, so I’ll call out her performances here in two movies that will not: Little Women and Fighting with My Family. Her range across those two films is quite something. In Fighting with My Family, she gives an impressively athletic performance on top of one with more complexity than usual for the hero of a sports film. In Little Women, I can’t reconcile why she’s playing both Amy as a middle-schooler and a young adult woman, but she’s so charismatic at both that her performance overshadows the miscasting. I kept being distracted (in a good way) by all the little ticks and noises she’d make in her scenes during Little Women. I like when actors make tons of actable choices like that because it says to me, they have the part down cold where they’re just behaving as that person by the time the camera rolls. She’s an amazing actress with a strong sense of joy in her performances. And I might be in love with her.

Patrick: This was the year of Florence Pugh and I couldn’t be happier. She was my favorite part of Little Women, but I still haven’t seen Fighting with My Family. I have to rectify that.

Next I’ll go with Samara Weaving in Ready or Not. I liked that movie (I didn’t love it nearly as much as its trailer made me want to), and Samara Weaving is 75% of the reason why. She’s so beautiful but never leads with that, instead projecting charisma and expert comic timing to come at every line delivery in a way that’s just a little bit unexpected. She has to do a lot of heavy lifting in Ready or Not and is totally game for everything that movie throws at her, which is good because it lives or dies by how much we’re able to invest in her character. I know I had her on this list a few years ago for Mayhem (and possibly The Babysitter?), and now I’m ready for her to become a full-fledged star. She’s been the best part of enough movies that it’s time for her to become a household name.

Adam: I had Samara Weaving on my list too, so I’m glad you chose her for one of your picks. I wasn’t a fan of Ready or Not, but the level of success the film achieved for me was all because of Samara Weaving. There’s a lot of “there” there.
My next picks are peas in a pod: Dennis Quaid in The Intruder and John Travolta in The Fanatic. Both actors give insane turns as their film’s titular characters and their gusto elevates each movie to the realm of nirvana. I would give anything to watch a documentary of Quaid and Travolta writing notes in their scripts and workshopping their characters. Travolta, for better and worse, goes all-in on his portrayal of Moose. It’s a fearless performance of zero vanity or self-awareness. Quaid blessedly knows he’s in a Michael Ealy-Screen Gems train wreck and decides to play his part like a rabid dog and show everyone else up. The “Everything needs to gross $1B” era of Hollywood filmmaking has jettisoned older leading men like Quaid and Travolta (or neuters them in movies that don’t utilize their better attributes) and The Intruder and The Fanatic are what happens when you put race cars in a red for too long: they blow.

Patrick: John Travolta IS Moose.

I haven’t seen The Intruder yet and can’t comment, but you’re right about older leading men being left behind. I guess they finally know what it’s like to be any Hollywood actress over 30 since pretty much forever. I do love the idea of a crazy Dennis Quaid performance, though, since he’s usually cast as white bread and plays his roles accordingly. I’m looking at you, Cap Rooney.
I’ve already named two of your picks, so I’m going to hold back on choosing who I want to choose next (hint: he stole the year’s best action movie) and go with Keanu Reeves in Always Be My Maybe. It’s a charming but mostly forgettable romantic comedy from Netflix (the fact that it’s one of the best romantic comedies of the year is really saying something about the state of that particular genre), but comes alive when Keanu appears as himself halfway through the film. I think you and I have talked offline about how the sequence goes on a scene too long -- it should have ended with the restaurant stuff -- but none of that can be laid at the feet of Keanu, who is hilarious as an exaggerated version of himself as a giant Hollywood douchebag. He’s so funny, and he rarely gets to be funny. That’s one of the major reasons I’m so excited for Bill and Ted Face the Music, but there are a lot of reasons to be excited for that movie.

Adam: I’ve only seen the Keanu Reeves moments from Always Be My Maybe, but yes, the joke goes on too long in clip montage form too. Can I tell you my dumb reason for not watching Always Be My Maybe? It’s because I like Mariah Carey’s song “Always Be My Baby” enough where punning it felt disrespectful. Ok, maybe not “disrespectful,” but I’ve picked a side. It feels good to come to terms with that nonsensical admission. P.S. I had Keanu Reeves on my list as an honorable mention for his delightful voice work in Toy Story 4. The man continues to amaze.

My next pick is Rosa Salazar in Alita: Battle Angel, a movie I’ve found myself remembering with affection throughout the year. It’s so dorky and sincere that I find it irresistible. Much of the reason for the film’s success is the wide-eyed optimism Rosa Salazar brings to her performance as Alita. I’m not much of a fan of dystopia cinema, but her openness as a character helped dispel much of that and made Alita: Battle Angel more of a Pinocchio story than I was expecting. It’s a motion capture performance that felt different and nicely planted somewhere between sincerity and artifice. I really hope there’s a sequel.

Patrick: Alita will be making an appearance on one of my lists. And if you like Rosa Salazar, you should check out a movie she made a few years back called Nite Owls. She’s so good in it.

Mariah Carey appreciates your loyalty.

I’ll name Kristen Stewart in Charlie’s Angels for my next pick. Rob called out her performance in his review and he’s absolutely right: she’s really the only reason to see the movie. I know you walked out of this one, but the only thing you missed is K-Stew having a great time entertaining herself by being a different movie than everyone else. I still don’t think she’s especially well-suited for tentpole movies of this size, but she appears to have picked up on that too and adjusted her performance accordingly. If she’s not going to fit in, then she might as well stand out in a quirky and unique way. She’s been so good in so many dramas over the last few years that it’s great to see her cutting loose and having fun on screen.

Adam: No argument from me here. I agree that she’s the best part of the hour I saw of Charlie’s Angels and is an incredibly talented actress altogether. It’s so weird that she’s in Underwater. That movie looks like it came out the same weekend as Virus.
Next, I’ll go with the pick I think you were saving for me earlier and that’s Mark Dacascos in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum. I’m not as fluent in Mark Dacascos’ filmography as those who followed him to the DTV arena, but I’ve always dug the guy based on his contribution the immaculate 1993 actioner Only the Strong. I had only associated Dacascos with hero roles until John Wick 3, so it was great to see him go-to-town playing a quirky bad guy enforcer. His performance reminded me of Antonio Banderas in Assassins and The Expendables 3, where he’s a killer that can also barely mask being a fanboy to his heroes. It’s an interesting dynamic the Dacascos character gets in John Wick 3 with the audience, too, because he’s speaking for many of us watching the movie as he fawns over the greatness that is John Wick as a character and Keanu Reeves as an action star. It’s such a gleeful performance.

Patrick: I love how Mark Dacascos could have been some Expendables-style stunt casting (and I guess in some ways is), but the way the part is written and (especially) played makes him such a wonderful and unexpected surprise. The comedy of the performance takes nothing away from his menace, either. I don’t know how anyone could steal John Wick 3 away from Keanu and his knife fight, but Dacascos manages to do it.

Speaking of stealing movies, I’d like to mention Jerry O’Connell in Satanic Panic. He only has one scene in Chelsea Stardust’s second feature, but it might just be the best scene in the movie. I love how Jerry O’Connell has reinvented himself as a go-to douchebag in the last 10 years (I think it was Piranha that helped him corner this market), and Satanic Panic finds him in expert douchebag mode. His physicality, his every line delivery makes me laugh every time I’ve seen the movie. (Tangent: AJ Bowen gives him a run for his money in the film.) Satanic Panic is probably the year’s best horror comedy, and Jerry O’Connell is the funniest part about it.

Adam: Nice pick. I need to re-watch Satanic Panic again early next October. I was in Scary Movie Month overload by the time we had Scary Movie Night, so I wasn’t doing the movie any favors. I remember being surprised he was only in one scene, but what a scene!

My next choice is one I’ve talked about before, Mackenzie Davis in Terminator: Dark Fate. At first the movie isn't bad and much of that has to do with the charisma Davis brings to her part as this film’s T-800 basically. The movie gets worse in the second and third acts with nonsense action set pieces and aged legacy stars doing their best, which is a shame because the new elements brought to the movie at the beginning are what work best about it. Davis is a credible action star and I loved her no-nonsense attitude, whether it’s throwing shade at Sarah Connor or, in my favorite scene of the movie, going to a pharmacy in need of medicine and when the pharmacist slows her down she just says “Fuck it” and breaks in taking what she needs before she passes out. I want Mackenzie Davis to have a Geena Davis era (era) of her career. She’s been good before but here she felt like a movie star.

Patrick: I completely missed Terminator: Dark Fate. I know it will be on Blu-ray before we know it, but it’s the first Terminator movie I will not have seen on the big screen and that bothers me. I like Mackenzie Davis in everything, though, so it’s nice to hear she makes the most of her role and outshines everyone else. Justice for Tully.
My next pick is Jennifer Carpenter in Dragged Across Concrete. I have a complicated relationship with that movie and an even more complicated relationship with her storyline in it -- I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling things for those who haven’t seen it and still want to -- but none of my problems have anything to do with her performance. She’s so good, in fact, that I invested in her plight more in one scene than I did any of the other (admittedly scummy) characters in the span of a two and a half hour movie. She’s so good, in fact, that I still haven’t been able to forgive the movie for how it handles her character many, many months after seeing it. I can’t think of anything that upset me more in a 2019 movie.

Adam: We pretty much see eye-to-eye on that sequence of Dragged Across Concrete. It’s even more upsetting because of how good Jennifer Carpenter is at playing someone fragile.
My next pick is a pair of performances in Richard Jewell by Paul Walter Hauser and Kathy Bates. Hauser plays the title character and Bates plays Jewell’s mother. The actors work off one another beautifully. Their scenes together before the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games are some of the best I can recall of a mother & son who you can clearly see are nice people that mean the world to each other. Their dynamic deepens after Jewell becomes a bombing suspect, with Bates (who’s always good) heartbreakingly playing a protective mother who’s powerless to do anything for her son. I wanted to give her a hug many times during the movie. Hauser is phenomenal at bringing many different shades to his role. Sometimes he’s protective of his mom and cares more about what the investigation is doing to her; other times he’s passive because he still believes that the people investigating him are law enforcement worthy of respect, and finally he has to change and stop being affable & non-confrontational in order to fight for his rights and assert his innocence. It’s a rich performance made all the more enjoyable because I’d only seen Hauser up to this point playing clownish characters in films like I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman. This movie made me a big fan of his.

Patrick: Another movie I haven’t seen! It’s a lot of work to will myself to check out late-period Clint Eastwood movies, though I know you said this one was surprisingly good. The Olivia Wilde controversy is putting me off. Exactly how many threesomes does Clint give himself this time?

Adam: There’s no threesomes but there is a scene of hundreds of extras doing the Macarena while Olivia Wilde dances up on Jon Hamm.

Patrick: I want to single out Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon, another indie that kind of came and went without much fanfare (it’s streaming on Amazon Prime now!). Bell was in danger of being typecast as comic seasoning -- a supporting player who would show up, crush her few scenes and make them better even when the rest of the film surrounding them was garbage. She was on track to becoming a more tolerable Rebel Wilson. But then Brittany Runs a Marathon comes along and gives her a much-deserved starring role as a slacker who takes up running because her doctor puts some fear into her, but it slowly comes to represent much more than just a way to get healthy. The movie is really solid and ought to make Bell a household name (if only more people saw it) because she gets to be raw and dramatic and, of course, very funny throughout. It’s a star-making performance.

Adam: Nice! I started that movie but didn’t finish it which isn’t a comment on the film’s quality. I was binging Scorsese that week and I didn’t want to break the spell.

Next, I’ll pick Billie Lourd from Booksmart. There are a lot of funny performances in the film (which is very well-directed by Olivia Wilde), but the sections that made me laugh most were the more bizarre/silly beats and Lourd was at the center of many of them. Nothing from her small role in the new Star Wars trilogy would indicate she had a comedic performance in her like this, so the sense of discovery was part of the fun. She does a great job of playing an exaggerated version of the type of person in high school that had an air of intriguing mystery to them but were clearly basket cases too.

Patrick: I like how willing Olivia Wilde and Billie Lourd were to keep going with the joke of that character. It was a welcome element of absurdity in an otherwise pretty grounded (and very good!) movie.
I’ll stick with comedies and mention Maya Erskine in Plus One. I only watched the movie on the recommendation of JB, who said it was better than he expected. He was right. She and Jack Quaid (son of fellow “great performances” nominee Dennis) have nice chemistry and the writing is surprisingly strong for an independent romantic comedy (the second one on this list!), but it’s really Erskine’s movie. Like so many of the other actors I’ve mentioned on this list, she has a way of coming at all of her dialogue from some weird canted angle so her performance never hits the familiar beats of every movie in this genre. She has a way of surprising us all the time. I’m excited to see her in more stuff.

Adam: That’s awesome. I haven’t seen Plus One, but you’ve piqued my interest. My last main pick (before rattling off some honorable mentions) is Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton John in Rocketman. Instead of imitation or filling a Greatest Hits quota, Egerton’s performance is more interested in Elton John as a person, specifically his emotional well-being. As a result, the performance is soulful and lends the film a vulnerable spirit with affecting high points. Rocketman does what the best biopics do: leaving you feeling you know everything you need to know about the subject and the work that came from their experiences. Egerton has been good in the past (e.g. as the cocky recruit in Kingsman: The Secret Service), but his work in Rocketman was different and even better.

Patrick: Just the fact that he does his own singing is so impressive and makes this performance light years better than Rami Malek’s OSCAR WINNING turn in Bohemian Rhapsody. I didn’t really think I needed an Elton John biopic but was surprised at how much I enjoyed Rocketman, in large part thanks to Egerton’s performance. The music doesn’t hurt, either. I love the portrayal of the friendship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

My last pick will be Taylor Russell in Waves. She got on my radar early in the year with Escape Room, but her work in Waves is totally spectacular. I have issues with the movie -- mostly directorial choices made by Trey Edward Shults, a man determined to frustrate me -- but the acting is fantastic all around. Russell is the total standout, with a performance that is both strong and sensitive and utterly human. All of her stuff more than makes up for any of the problems I have.

What are your honorable mentions?
Adam: Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, Ben Mendelsohn in Captain Marvel, Kaya Scodelario in Crawl, Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes in Dolemite Is My Name, Sheri Moon Zombie in 3 From Hell, Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse and Motherless Brooklyn, Scarlett Johansson in Jojo Rabbit, Ben Affleck in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Jake Gyllenhaal in Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Who are your honorable mentions?

Patrick: So many good calls! I’ll mention Adam Driver in Marriage Story, Mia Wasikowska in Piercing, Bill Hader in It: Chapter 2, Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory, Elisabeth Moss in Us and Her Smell, Charlize Theron in Bombshell and Long Shot, Lauryn Canny in Darlin’, Daniel Kaluuya in Queen and Slim. There are so many I know I’m forgetting.

Adam: Nice!

Readers - leave a comment below with your favorite performances!

7 comments:

  1. I agree with Nyong'o, I thought she put in the best performance of anyone this year. Spectacular in every sense.

    On top of your picks I'd like to shine a light on Baykali Ganambarr in the Nightingale, playing Billy the Aborigine tracker. Every scene required him to show a complex range of emotion and I thought he was great.

    I'd also like to tag on a second performance in Ready or Not. While Weaving does steal the show, I loved Melanie Scorfano's performance as the coke addicted sister who can't stop fucking up. She doesn't get a ton of screen time, but her comedic timing is great.

    And finally, and I may catch flak for this, but I really liked Mel Gibson's performance in Dragged Across Concrete. I know no one is getting in line to praise Gibson, but I thought he was the perfect asshole to play the exact asshole Zahler wrote. There's a certain kind of pathetic indifference inherent in the kind of person Gibson embodies here. A righteousness that is so vapid, thin and hypocritical that it's impossible to defend. Perhaps its unintentional, or even stunt casting, but I think he played itperfectly.

    An additional shootout to Rebecca Ferguson in Doctor Sleep (my god), all those weird fucking Swedes in Midsommar and the entire cast of Knives Out (which I'm sure you'll get to.)

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    1. Brian, great call on Baykali Ganambarr. He was excellent. And Melanie Scorfano did make me laugh every time she appeared in Ready or Not.

      Thanks for the reminder that I really need to watch Doctor Sleep (and for that matter, Dragged Across Concrete).

      I have so much love for every Knives Out performance... I could spend a year watching outtakes from that movie.

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    2. Thanks Rosie! I like your list as well, it's reminded me that High Life has been sitting there on Amazon Prime unwatched for months. Months! I should remedy that.

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  2. Ahh I love this list! So many good performances this year, and you guys have named a bunch of my faves already. Patrick, thank you for calling out Keanu as Keanu in Always Be My Maybe--one of my favorites of the year for sure! And Adam, Shia LaBeouf is absolutely the comeback of the year in my opinion. Honey Boy floored me, and while I have yet to watch PBF, the previous look great.

    Favorites you didn't mention:
    Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose
    Kelvin Harrison, Jr. in Luce
    Melissa McCarthy and Domhnall Gleeson in The Kitchen
    Christian Bale and Tracy Letts in Ford v Ferrari
    Juliette Binoche in High Life
    Violet Nelson in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
    Juan Ramon Lopez in Tigers are Not Afraid
    Mary Kay Place in Diane
    George MacKay in 1917
    Zendaya in Spider-man: Far From Home

    I also have lots more that I'll talk about in my Top 10 so I should stop but this was a really good year for performances, even in movies that I liked but didn't love. (A lot of the ones above I did love but just saying...)

    Can't wait to see other people's picks!

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  3. I'm sure it's just recency bias, but I just came back from Uncut Gems and there was one scene Sandler almost made me cry in. I did that little "pre-cry" breathing. So that was amazing. Otherwise similarly when Leo broke down in the trailer. Those are my two. Which both happen to be scenes of addicts breaking down. So maybe that's more on me? Hah.

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  4. I'll throw out a couple I appreciated that seem to be getting overlooked. Zoey Deutch-Zombieland 2. By far the best thing in the film. June Diane Raphael-Longshot. So good as the loyal pitbull with zero time for bullshit. Matthias Schoenaerts and Bruce Dern-The Mustang. Schoenaerts looks like hes going to explode any second but makes you want to hang out with him until he does explode. Dern does what Dern does best and plays an old cowboy. Mathew McConaughey-The Beach Bum aka Mathew McConaughey-on a tuesday with a typewriter. And perhaps the best performance of the year by anything not named Rebecca Fergussen? Sayuri, Cerberus, and Siren - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Come on who didn't fall in love with Brandy?

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  5. Watched Peanut Butter Falcon last night. Shia Lebeouf made me believe this guy who I never once saw shower - or could even believe he did throughout the entire story - was really attractive by the end.

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