There was a moment in film history when male actors adhered to the traditional expectations of stardom: Masculine swagger, overconfidence, chiseled good lucks that dare not reveal a sensitive side. Based on this year’s greatest performances, that time is gone for good. Many of the best male lead performances of the year revealed fragile, insecure characters grappling with the changing world around them, even if many of them came from movie stars.
This time last year, there were a lot of famous actors in the spotlight. The world was swooning over Bradley Cooper’s tragic rock star Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born” while Rami Malek overcame the controversies of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to become an Oscar frontrunner. At the same time, cinephiles celebrated one of Ethan Hawke’s greatest performances in “First Reformed” and Steven Yeun’s progression into a major acting talent with Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning.”
This time around, the highlights of the year strike a similar balance: Setting aside the breakouts and supporting roles, the best leading men onscreen this year either pushed their familiar talents in fresh directions, or took the glimmer of talent visible from previous work and transformed it into a higher plane of creative expression. These are the 15 best film performances by actors in 2019; for the best actresses of the year, go here.
Antonio Banderas, “Pain and Glory”
In “Pain and Glory,” Banderas plays filmmaker Salvador Mallo, who medicates his depression and an aching back with a potent cocktail of painkillers, alcohol, and heroin as he looks back on the story of his life in film. Banderas has never given a performance like this: intimate, subtle, emotional, sensitive, responsive. Pedro Almodóvar considered two backup actors because he wasn’t sure his old friend was right for the role. Banderas proved he was.
Banderas struggled with his return to acting with his mentor after 22 years with 2011 psychothriller “The Skin I Live In.” Nonetheless he eagerly took on “Pain and Glory,” playing the aging Spanish auteur who gave him a career launchpad with ’80s films like “Labyrinth of Passion” and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” He stayed away from imitating the director, but he’s there in the spiky hair, the ways he protects his back, the replica of his home in Madrid, and even some of his own clothes. For one key scene, the director surprised Banderas and co-star Leonardo Sbaraglia — playing former lovers who have not seen each other for years — by telling them to go for a deep kiss so erotic that it arouses them both. Banderas steered away from his quiver of movie star tools, instead leaning into the fragility he took away from surviving a mild heart attack two years ago. He threw himself into his director’s hands, and the results are magical. —AT
Christian Bale, “Ford v Ferrari”
At the center of the percussive, bone-rattling, intense race car movie “Ford v Ferrari” are two yin and yang friends and collaborators who need each other. James Mangold’s tight, taut, and emotional entertainment puts moviegoers inside the real-life drama behind race car driver-turned-designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and gifted, tightly-wound driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as they build a radical, new, tough and fast race car (the GT-40) for Henry Ford II, all in order to beat Enzo Ferrari’s racers at the brutal 24-hour Le Mans race in 1966. Oscar winners Damon and Bale play opposite sides of the same coin: Shelby is the Texas showman who can deal with the suits but lives through his friend, who can’t compromise in his quest for the perfect lap. He stays true to himself. Mangold, who worked with Bale on “3:10 to Yuma,” felt the role was close in many ways to Bale, who is a family man. He came to set full of ideas and energy, inspiring his co-stars.
The quiet scenes between Miles and his young son (Noah Jupe) center the movie and buttress all the race scenes to come. “Ford v Ferrari” braids the intimate moments with the action; caring for Miles makes you root for him as he drives, talking himself through the speeding curves of the Le Man endurance test. Bale modeled his accent on the West Birmingham neighborhood in the UK where Miles grew up, and carried a wadded list of sayings from the area to toss off in the car. They weren’t in the script. The outcome of the Le Mans race in the movie is true — there are plenty of photos of it. Bale’s creativity, masculinity, and rebellious spirit drive the movie, and make audiences cry. —AT
Adam Driver, “Marriage Story”
By the time “Marriage Story” hit Netflix, the hype surrounding Adam Driver’s rendition of the Stephen Sondheim number “Being Alive” had already reached the stratosphere. And yes, that late third-act performance, when Driver’s experimental theater director Charlie takes the mic at classic upscale New York eatery the Knickerbocker, certainly showcases much about his talent — a capacity to seem both reserved and animated at once, simmering with emotions and still somehow boxed-in. By then, however, Driver has already delivered his finest performance to date, as the character winds his way through the tumultuous dissolution of his marriage and comes to the conclusion that it’s pretty much his fault.
Driver gives Charlie a prickly obstinance in the movie’s earlier scenes, as he grapples with the decision by his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johannson) to end their relationship and seek custody of their child. But the actor conveys a subtle evolution from scene to scene, as Charlie’s impractical resolve gives way to the fragile being beneath the surface, and his simmering frustrations erupt in a brawl for the ages that concludes with the grown man collapsing into tears. When Charlie finally loses his cool, Driver unleashes a kind of brutal intensity that might even jangle Kylo Ren’s nerves. The actor has always excelled at projecting a passive-aggressive armor, but “Marriage Story” deepens that potential by injecting it with a naturalistic polish. After three previous collaborations with Baumbach, the actor-director chemistry couldn’t be more clearly defined, as “Marriage Story” taps into every facet of Driver’s creative strengths to amplify them in a whole new way. He’s a revelation. —EK
Leonardo DiCaprio, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Over a nearly three-decade career, DiCaprio has never come close in the slightest to facing the kind of irrelevance that looms over Rick Dalton’s fading Hollywood stardom. But how perfectly he captures that feeling of desperation in Quentin Tarantino’s love-letter to an industry gone by. Rick vacillates between vanity and self-pity as he mulls an offer to revive his career by starring in spaghetti Westerns while pouring himself into a bit part as a villain in a new TV series. So many great scenes follow: Rick’s ritual of rehearsing his lines while lounging on a raft in his pool; his conversation about acting as craft with eight-year-old Trudy Styler (Julia Butters); adding his commentary while watching an episode of another show in which he plays a villain, “FBI,” with his stuntman Cliff (Brad Pitt); accosting a group of hippies, blender in hand, who’ve driven up his private drive. Because of DiCaprio’s total lack of irony in playing this faded TV star, you come to invest in him so much — it’s as committed and sincere as any performance he’s given. DiCaprio leaves such a mark that he leaves you even thinking that Rick is a good actor. And he didn’t even need to eat bison liver to do it. —CB
Jimmy Fails, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is Jimmy Fails’ story, and it’s easy to see how, in retrospect, it would have been a mistake to bring in an actor with more experience to anchor it. Where a thespian with “greater range” might be looking for a more concrete plot motivation, there’s a purity of purpose and matter-of-fact cadence that Fails’ brings to his quixotic pursuit to regain (and maintain) his family home, and ultimately his city, at the heart of what makes the film work. It’s a deeply felt performance, one in which you can feel Fails, alongside his co-creator Joe Talbot, almost directing the film. The rhythms of the supporting cast are attuned to Fails’ delivery, the whimsical beauty of Adam Newport-Berra’s photography of the city is the lens through which our hero sees it, the melancholic undertone is written on his face with gut-wrenching reaction shots. The painful story of “urban renewal” is given a personal history through “Last Black Man,” which makes a smart choice by not putting a filter between its beating heart and the audience. —CO
Song Kang-Ho, “Parasite”
The most raw and electrifying moments in a Song Kang-ho performance tend to be found in the transitional states between emotions, or in the liminal spaces where they’re layered on top of each other — when happiness melts into horror, or duty is salted with revenge — which helps to explain why the world’s most elastic filmmaker can hardly make a movie without him.
“Parasite” is Song’s fourth genre-bending collaboration with Bong Joon Ho, but none of their extraordinary previous efforts (“Memories of Murder,” “The Host,” and “Snowpiercer”) have been quite so dependent on the actor’s capacity to occupy several different spaces at once, nor so informed by his character’s unstable self-conflict. Song plays Kim Ki-taek, the patriarch of a poor Seoul family whose fortunes start to change when, one by one, they each scheme their way into being employed by the nouveau riche family who lives up the hill. The violent tragicomedy that erupts from there boasts as deep an ensemble as any (and every) movie Bong has ever made, but Song is the story’s broken heart. —DE
George Mackay, “1917”
If Sam Mendes’ ambitious single-take war epic is destined to make any single player a star, it’s George MacKay, who has long been the best thing in a number of far smaller films (from the otherwise dismal “Ophelia” to the underseen “Marrowbone”). War-weary Lance Corporal Schofield is the most adult role the British actor has played yet, but one that relies on his puppy-dog eyes to further sell the great horror of WWI and the many young men it stole from the world. Initially resistant to the insane mission he and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are assigned at the start of the film — one gets the sense from both scripted hints and MacKay’s own wondrous physical performance that he’s undertaken such crazy ideas before, and knows how they tend to end — his Schofield is soon pushed into even greater service than Blake. If baby-faced Blake is the film’s heart, it’s MacKay who emerges as its brave and fractured soul. MacKay might be our next great leading man, but his work in “1917” makes the solid argument that he’s already arrived at that rarefied level. —KE
Eddie Murphy, “Dolemite Is My Name”
There are certain stars who, when they walk onto the screen, bring a presence and familiarity that goes beyond whatever the role. Eddie Murphy has been hiding that shoot-from-hip, rated-R devious charm that made his a star from us for years now via kids movies and the role-within-a-role of “Bowfinger.” It’s not simply nice to have him back in “Dolemite,” and to see he still very much has “it,” but to witness how he uses that star power to bring to life the audacious spirit of Rudy Ray Moore. It’s a performance packed with love and reverence, not only for Murphy’s old friend Moore, but for creative endeavors as a whole. With the help of Ruth Carter’s costumes, Murphy inhabits Moore’s character by developing his own performance persona. It’s a biopic that doesn’t need the tragic left-hand turn to explore the danger of success, and instead celebrates — largely through Murphy/Moore turning his spotlight on the supporting cast, especially Da’Vine Joy Randolph — by revealing the beautiful performative talent in people who don’t expect to be stars. —CO
Matthew McConaughey, “The Beach Bum”
Of course it’s not the kind of role that would ever get awards recognition, but in a better world it would be: Matthew McConaughey’s “Moondog” doesn’t have any particular goals he’s trying to pursue, no real obstacles he aims to overcome, no “importance” to history or interest in social change; in fact, there’s very little transformation required from McConaughey himself to play him. But this suntanned poet soaking up life in Miami and the Florida Keys in all its surreal glory is more than just a character: he’s a walking worldview, a repudiation of the Type-A personality made flesh, a prophet of letting life happen to you rather than always being in the driver’s seat.
Not that little happens in Harmony Korine’s latest Floridian masterpiece: a lot happens that Moondog has to deal with, including an unexpected inheritance, an even more unexpected literary prize, and Martin Lawrence’s bloodily hilarious encounter with a shark. McConaughey greets all these developments in this Coppertone-drenched picaresque pretty much the same way each time, his mouth slightly agape, his shoulders bobbing like he’s about to fall off a balance beam, a spacey laugh erupting from his throat. He’s full circle to David Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused” but without even a hint of that character’s latent menace or vanity: Moondog is the Platonic ideal of a McConaughey character. —CB
Andre Holland, “High Flying Bird”
The Steven Soderbergh-directed sports drama provided a long-overdue leading man opportunity for the under-used and uber-talented Andre Holland, who delivers a dynamic performance. Holland got his big break playing a supporting character in Soderbergh’s Cinemax television series “The Knick,” but in “High Flying Bird,” it’s entirely his show, and he takes full advantage of it. It’s a George Clooney-esque “Ocean’s 11” performance, imbuing his character with a similar kind of cunning charm. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s turbocharged, dialogue-heavy script gives the film’s talented cast, led by Holland as a slick, fast-talking agent, plenty to chew on. Holland typically plays fairly restrained characters, so this was an exciting changeup for him, and he looks like he’s having the time of his life being decisive and fierce in the least pretentious way. He’s clearly in control of every moment, delivering a layered performance with near-perfect beats. Audiences rarely get to see him unleashed like this, and it’s quite a spectacle to behold. It demands repeat viewings and shows why he is already considered one of the best actors of his generation. —TO
Robert Pattinson, “High Life”
As tightly coiled and hidden a performance as you’ll find this year, Robert Pattinson still burns with intensity as Monte, an inmate given a life sentence working aboard a prison ship in deep space. Claire Denis directs each shot with such a high level of precision, in her framings, the blocking of the actors, and their highly-controlled performances, that the feeling is one of airlessness and claustrophobia — a suffocating vibe perfectly suited to both a submarine-style space odyssey and prison story. Pattinson is on Denis’ chilly wavelength: We get to know him mostly via his isolation from other characters (he refuses to be touched) and the obsessive sameness of his daily routine, including shot after shot of Monte’s meticulous shaving ritual (with a sharp edge in place of an actual razor). This is a character who defines himself by being remote, and yet his soulful arc puts him on the path toward being a caregiver — something Pattinson conveys entirely through Monte’s commitment to process and routine, and the variations that inevitably occur. Where it all ends up is like a more mysterious version of “Interstellar,” but also a far more emotional one. —CB
Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”
Love it or hate it, “Joker” has instigated more debate than any other movie released this year. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine Todd Phillips’ gritty supervillain origin story generating so much attention without the nightmarish performance at its center. As Arthur Fleck, the brooding Gotham dweller coping with a hodgepodge of mental illnesses and career setbacks, Phoenix channels some of his best performances in recent memory — from “The Master” to “You Were Never Really Here” — to become a man defined by the dark forces consuming him from every direction.
Alternately subdued and flamboyant, horrific and hilarious, Phoenix bathes Fleck in contradictions that define the movie’s unsettling tone; more than that, he gives his entire body over to the role with a singular kind of commitment rarely seen in American cinema. His spindly frame suggests a creature of German Expressionism wandering into 1980’s urban milieu, struggling to make sense of the world around him and eventually giving up. Watching “Joker,” one can’t deny the sense that Phoenix has done more than tackle an overexposed comic-book character with aplomb; he’s reinventing the Joker from the ground up. The actor has managed to inhabit the Joker’s psyche, dragging a pop culture figure down to Earth and making him seem real. It’s a transgressive achievement that turns this controversial movie into an acting showcase for the ages. —EK
Brad Pitt, “Ad Astra”
“Ad Astra” begins with Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride enjoying some very special “me” time in his happy place high above the Earth. In his own quiet way, he’s as much a parody of masculinity as Tyler Durden; the perfect hero for a movie that’s less tormented by the vastness of space than it by the smallness of man. Pitt understands the part in his bones, and delivers a performance that weaponizes passivity into a lethal form of self-defense. The actor is a vacuum unto himself, and he wears the kind of empty and contented expression that would make Tyler Durden want to punch him in his perfect face. And then Roy falls to Earth. A massive and mysterious electrical surge causes the antenna to go haywire, and everyone standing on it is sent tumbling down (thankfully, with a parachute). It’s a perfect microcosm for the film to come: The further Roy travels into outer space, the closer he plummets to home. Even when seen through Pitt’s eyes, the action seems like it’s happening to someone else. Every part of Roy’s journey erases itself — every stride he takes in his father’s footsteps moves him further away from becoming his own man. —DE
Ashton Sanders, “Native Son”
Aston Sanders single-handedly carries Rashid Johnson’s film in every scene. The movie tasks him with steering a modern version of literary anti-hero Bigger Thomas through some very complex and disturbing terrain. As a hero in Richard Wright’s provocative 1939 novel, Bigger is too abstract for his own good. But Johnson’s script, with Sanders, in the role, do plenty of the heavy lifting to try and fill him in.
While the film itself doesn’t always hold together, Sanders’ emotionally rich performance helps keep it engaging throughout He makes Bigger’s rough situation into a relatable one, as the audience feels his anxiety, dread, and exasperation with the world around him. The way the actor is able to tell much of the character’s story through facial expressions and subtle mannerisms, carrying himself with a certain authoritative swagger — despite such a slender and even feeble physique — is spellbinding to watch. Sanders turns Wright’s novel into a singular portrait of why he’s such a tremendous onscreen talent. It’s a performance from the young “Moonlight” breakout that, much like what he did in that Oscar-winning film, lingers long after the credits roll. —TO
Adam Sandler, “Uncut Gems”
Adam Sandler has embodied many obnoxious, self-absorbed figures over the years, but with “Uncut Gems,” he plays the most contemptible character in a 30-year career. Directors Joshua and Benny Safdie’s followup to “Good Time” is on that same wavelength — abrasive, deranged, driven by an insuppressible blur of movement and noise. It’s also a riveting high-wire act, pairing cosmic visuals with the gritty energy of a dark psychological thriller and sudden bursts of frantic comedy, and it’s the first movie to truly commune with Sandler’s performative strengths since “Punch-Drunk Love.”
Take the frenetic saga of Howard Ratner — a fast-talking jeweler always chasing the next big score — add some lowbrow punchlines, and “Uncut Gems” might have worked just fine as one of those late-nineties Happy Madison yukfests, sandwiched somewhere in “The Waterboy” and “Big Daddy.” Instead, it upgrades the Sandler persona to a more credible milieu, intensifying his most assaultive characteristics even as it gives him room to find some measure of soul. Sandler has always excelled at making us sympathize with reprobates, but the movies often struggles to keep up. “Uncut Gems” gets at the essence of the genius that’s been hiding in plain sight all along. —EK