Mandatory Best of 2019: Ranking the 10 Greatest Actors of the Year
It takes a thousand little things to go right to make even a decent movie, but no piece of the puzzle is as important (or relatable) as the actor. A great performance can elevate a mediocre film to cult status, connecting deep inside the part of our brain that is purely human, forever emblazoning a character in our minds as a part of us. Actors (as opposed to straight-up movie stars) often have a thankless job. They put themselves up there on the big screen for all to see and more often than not, get picked apart. But every once in a while, a performance is so spot-on and so compelling that we as an audience have no choice but to celebrate their work as an achievement. Here are the 10 greatest actors of 2019.
Photo: Sony Pictures
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10. Matthew Rhys
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may be marketed as a biopic about Fred Rogers, with Tom Hanks (ingeniously cast) as the beloved icon. But it’s Matthew Rhys’ endearing performance as the journalist who seeks to unravel Mr. Rogers' saintliness and thus, prove the world a terrible place, that gives the film its heartbeat. Rhys has a relatability that’s put to good use here. His entrenched sadness shows itself in the round edges of his eyes and the corners of his smile as it flutters just a little with the weight of melancholia. His journey from the spurned boy with a broken heart to true believer in the goodness of others is a flawlessly inflected evolution. In a time where kindness has taken a backseat to judgment and rage, Matthew Rhys’ sensitive and heartfelt performance makes us a believer in the goodness in us all.
9. André Holland
André Holland’s face is a wonderful canvas that can darken to the depths of gloom or brighten with Christmas Day wonder at the drop of a hat. In High Flying Bird, he plays a sports agent who’s busy manipulating the playing field during an NBA players strike. Though his large eyes are typically utilized to bear witness to the world around him, this role gives Holland a chance to flex some new muscle as a selfish, meddling, fast-talking schemer. And he delivers the goods with precision.
8. Eddie Murphy
Once upon a time, Eddie Murphy was the undisputed king of comedy. His brash, confident manner quickly led to leading roles in Hollywood movies like Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places. But after a decade in the spotlight, Murphy lost his edge and became a caricature of a funny man instead of the genuine article. Most believed he would rise again, but after more than a decade on the sidelines, even ardent fans began to wonder if he would ever return. With the success of Dolemite Is My Name, Murphy seems to be riding back into the limelight on glistening 24-inch rims. Who doesn't love a well-deserved comeback?
7. Leonardo DiCaprio
How often does Leonardo DiCaprio turn in a bad performance? And while his raw vulnerability has jumped off the screen for years, it’s his comedic grandiosity that now tickles audiences. With a perfect window into self-loathing, DiCaprio takes the tragic figure of Rick Dalton, a soon-to-be washed-out leading man, and makes everything about him laughable in the most searing way. Never in short supply of charisma, it’s DiCaprio’s ability to smolder underneath that pays off in wonderful ways when the mask finally disintegrates in an explosion of fear and loathing that feels wholly real, while at the same time being of purely cinematic proportions.
6. Robert DeNiro
Robert DeNiro was once considered the finest dramatic actor on the planet. But sustaining that mantel over a 40-year span can be tricky. So DeNiro branched out. He made a string of thrillers. They were good. He tried comedy. He was funny. But somewhere along the way, we lost touch with the Robert DeNiro of legend, the one whose twinkling eye hid a tempest brewing beneath the frightening grin. With Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, DeNiro recaptures all of that old power, while adding a new layer of truth and frailty to his performance that grounds the legend in a more human way. It’s a triumphant performance and a rebirth of classic DeNiro.
5. Adam Driver
Ever since his days as Lena Dunham's strangely charismatic love interest on HBO’s Girls, Adam Driver has brought a unique set of qualities to the screen. His intelligence, inscrutable sensitivity, and pensiveness easily spill into full-blown rage. His strongest qualities as an actor still power him through his latest outing as an ego-centric New Yorker grappling with the blowback of a failed marriage in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story. With a quiet simplicity, Driver unfurls all the nuance of everyday psychosis for all to see, peeling back the wallpaper on the barriers we build to insulate our egos. Watching the walls crumble in real time (as life inevitably calls us on our bullshit) is supremely captured in Driver’s effortless performance. It’s funny, poignant, and constantly heartbreaking.
4. Shia LaBeouf
Behind the outward charisma that made Shia LaBeouf a teen star, there lived a manic energy, a dogged anxiety, and a need to please that made his performances unpredictable and quietly explosive. It turns out this trait was not an acting tool but a survival tool, which LaBeouf explores in Honey Boy, a personal film about growing up in the pressure cooker of poverty with an abusive father. Then, as if to balance the grim explorations of his childhood, Labeouf delivers an uplifting performance in The Peanut Butter Falcon, proving that despite the detour of recent years, he’s still a talented actor at heart.
3. Brad Pitt
One of the few leading men who can telegraph a moment with sincerity, Pitt can still hold a shot better than anyone in the biz. But despite his movie star trappings, in 2019, he managed to artfully play two sides of the same coin. One, an ode to classic American masculinity with its brawn, bravado, and cool-headed ability to kick ass in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The other, a deeply internalized take on the same bravado that points to a fragile and fractured mental state as the origin of this behavior in Ad Astra. As the first two decades of the century reach their conclusion, Pitt has sense and courage enough to show the evolution of modern man in back-to-back performances, letting out the hurt, the longing, and the need to connect, while never losing the wherewithal that spurs men toward great deeds.
2. Robert Pattinson
There’s a singular ferocity to Robert Pattinson. After launching one great performance into the stratosphere as a soulful convict shot into space against his will in the movie High Life, he followed that up by going toe-to-toe with Willem Dafoe at his most frightening in The Lighthouse. Dafoe's Ahab-like figure has raw power and a perverse need for exertion that is first witnessed, then matched by Pattinson who disappears completely into this role. We can safely say a certain twilight no longer casts a shadow on the prolific Robert Pattinson.
1. Jonathan Majors
The actor who played Mont, the best friend of the protagonist in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, might be a classically trained actor, but that doesn’t mean he can’t throw out his toolbox to roll with the punches of this whimsically unpredictable film. Taking the classic archetype of the loyal, free-wheeling sidekick, Majors elevates the role to new heights, pinning down a performance filled with clarity and soulfulness. It's a portrait of a genuinely dear friend as surreal and absurd as real life. Well played, Mr. Majors.