Some of the greatest acting feats of the year belonged to women who owned every moment in front of the camera, from the star-crossed lovers of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” to the stripper team-up of “Hustlers.” While it’s an understatement to say that blockbusters underserved women this year (bring on “Black Widow”!), the year as a whole was hardly a disappointment, with elaborate period pieces (looking at you, “Little Women,” “A Hidden Life,” and “Portrait”) and genre efforts (hey, “Us” and “Midsommar”) placing powerful women at the center of the frame and showcasing their talents in ways that will resonate for generations to come.
Of course, there we’re plenty of exciting breakout stories this year, as we’ve already documented, but the women who qualify for a list of the best film performances by actresses have fully arrived in every sense of the term. Ahead, the 20 best performances by actresses in 2019.
Awkwafina, “The Farewell”
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“The Farewell” is a masterful film, but it’s also the type of nuanced storytelling that could have easily failed by reaching for a delicate tone that is hard to establish and even harder to maintain. Anchoring director Lulu Wang’s long-take, widescreen shots of a family struggling to hide the truth is a remarkable breakout and star-making performance by Awkwafina, until now known only for her comedic chops. Playing Billi, a young woman who has never felt at home in New York — nor the Chinese community she left at an early age — Awkwafina brings a fish-out-of-water physicality and emotion-on-her-sleeve sincerity that acts as a catalyst for the family to address issues they’d rather leave unspoken. There’s a comedic patience in Wang’s camera and Awkwafina’s performance as they work in harmony, letting humor naturally emanate from awkwardness and the ruse of throwing a wedding to mask saying goodbye. —CO
Adele Hanele and Noemie Merlant, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Let no critic tear asunder a love this pure and enduring. It would be impossible to single out just one of the exquisite performances at the heart of Céline Sciamma’s period masterpiece, which paints in gorgeous detail the tender and ill-fated romance between a portrait artist (Merlant) and her reticent subject (Haenel). At 120 minutes of pure cinematic beauty, every stunning moment is ripe with unspoken desire; the film is built on the kinetically charged glances that pass between the two women.
It’s no easy task for an actor, but Merlant and Haenel fill every silence with a pulsing attraction, simmering just below their stolid propriety and stubborn resistance. But Sciamma loves a good crescendo, and she unleashes the floodwaters with unbridled sensuality in the film’s (multiple) climaxes. Haenel and Merlant excel here, too, falling fervently into the other’s embrace with teenage voraciousness. Then, in their inevitable separation, expelling every heartache with a resolute wisdom beyond their years. Together, their performances make a kind of cinematic alchemy that belongs on the walls of a museum. —JD
Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story”
Few movie stars are more taken for granted than Scarlett Johansson, who has managed to juggle some of the highest-paid acting gigs in the world with some of the riskiest over the past 20 years. Johansson’s ability to blend simmering frustrations with emotional fragility in “Ghost World” and “Lost in Translation” keyed into the unique balance act inherent to her screen presence, but memories of that talent are often obscured by the blinding light of her role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Lest we forget, Johansson took one of the wildest swings in acting history by going from “The Avengers” to “Under the Skin” and “Her” in a one-year period.) With “Marriage Story,” Johansson once again emerges from a giant MCU-shaped cloud to hold the screen on her own pure terms. Noah Baumbach’s wrenching divorce drama gives a lot to her co-star, with Adam Driver’s experimental theater honcho belting out Sondheim in one scene and melting into a puddle of regrets in the next.
However, Johansson delivers the subtler turn, from the pensive eight-minute long monologue she delivers to her attorney documenting the character’s initial attraction to her husband and eventual disappointment in his lack of commitments, to the single tear that crawls down her face while her soon-to-be-ex reads their child a bedtime story. It’s Johansson’s Nicole who works overtime to keep her cool when Driver’s Charlie loses his, as she thinks through every step of a tumultuous process to chart out the next phase of individuality that will define the rest of her life. Through it all, Baumbach’s script does its best not to take sides — but in “Marriage Story,” Johansson delivers such a sophisticated paean to being a woman in the industry, pushing back on biases from every direction, that you can’t help but root for her to take charge. And she does. —EK
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, “Hustlers”
Jennifer Lopez has been rightly lauded for her career-best work in Lorene Scafaria’s fact-based stripper-centric dramedy, turning the tired “… with a heart of gold!” trope into something far more complex and challenging. As Ramona, J-Lo is tasked with bringing the dizzy Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing (or into her fur) and teaching her the ropes (and poles) of a professional path that could break even the toughest of customers. But as good as Lopez is — and yes, she’s more than good enough for the Oscar talk that has followed her since the film debuted this fall — she’s better because of the canny pairing of her with Wu.
As Destiny (real name: Dorothy), Wu is the wide-eyed neophyte desperate for a mentor, a friend, a sister, and Ramona gives her all of that and more as the duo steadily move from simply stripping to a wide-ranging criminal enterprise. The bond between the pair, one that both Lopez and Wu bring to life through their physicality — a flick of their eyes, a grasp of each other’s hands, a private smile — isn’t just the heart of the film; it’s in the movie’s very spine. Scafaria’s energetic and intelligent feature would move like a freight train without the unlikely BFF-ship, but with both Lopez and Wu turning in their best work yet, it also has the power to hit like one, too. —KE
Elisabeth Moss, “Her Smell”
Moss’ third collaboration with director Alex Ross Perry following “Listen Up Philip” and “Queen of Earth” marked one of the best performances of the Emmy winner’s career. Moss sinks her teeth into the role of Becky Something, a destructive punk rocker whose addiction struggles cost her professional and personal achievements. The power of Moss’ work is the high-wire act she walks between Beck’s loudest moments and most intimate struggles. Moss can be a noxious force of nature when Becky is in free-fall (her manic state made all them more agitated by Perry’s claustrophobic close-ups and long takes), but her performance is at its peak when Moss goes acoustic and strips Becky’s forcefulness to reveal a scared, lonely woman fighting to survive a lifetime of regrets. The latter comes through most powerfully during Moss’ fragile piano cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven.“ It’s one of the best movie moments of 2019. —ZS
Lupita Nyong’o, “Us”
The dual role nature of a character — or characters — like the one Lupita Nyong’o plays in “Us” will always call attention to an actor’s raw skill and range. One moment she’s the coolest, most adoring mom, and a frightening monstrosity the next — sometimes in the same scene, or even the same frame. But the film is also a testament to how much writer-director Jordan Peele is dependent upon Nyong’o’s physicality, grace, and nuance that allow her to move through the film’s dense literal and metaphorical layers. She arrives at emotional outbursts with acute insight, translating unspoken thoughts with such clarity she turns a horror premise into something much bigger than a single genre can hold. The greatest roles in horror movie history are the ones where we see the humanity inside the monster, but Nyong’o and Peele take that to the next level — the same actress recognizing herself in that monster. —CO
Valerie Pachner, “A Hidden Life”
When Terrence Malick took on the true story of war resister Franz Jägerstätter for this timely World War II romantic drama, he cast two fluent English-speakers, German star August Diehl and Austrian actress Valerie Pachner, to play the film’s central couple, the pacifist Austrian farmer and his devoted wife Franziska. Shooting long weeks in the picture-book Dolemites in Northern Italy, Malick introduced Diehl and Pachner to his idiosyncratic long-take filmmaking techniques. Working from a bare bones script, Malick would tell Pachner to use a heavy scythe in the tall wheat, or roll happily with Diehl in the sunlit grass, run around the house with their three small children, or react to pleasant townspeople and then angry ones. She would have to fill the frame for 20 to 30 minutes with activity, followed by hand-held cameras, but it was often an unprepared, relaxed moment that would catch Malick’s fancy.
Pachner is exquisitely intimate with Diehl, often in closeup — when he returns from army training she throws herself into his arms as if to devour him. After her husband refuses to declare a loyalty oath to Hitler, he brings the wrath of the village down on his family, and is sent off to jail for refusing to fight. Franziska sticks by him and must persevere on the farm alone, without social support. Also accompanying Malick’s stunning cinematography for this chilling anti-Hitler narrative are Diehl and Pachner’s voiceovers — recorded over and over again during the three-year editing process — that express their inner feelings, posing philosophical, spiritual questions that are as relevant today as they were in Hitler’s prime. —AT
Mary Kay Place, “Diane”
It’s been a very long time since the world was given a new reason to celebrate Mary Kay Place’s acting talents, at least as the central force behind one of her many projects stretching back through the decades, but “Diane” makes up for missed time. Kent Jones’ narrative directorial debut finds Place as the eponymous aging woman as she grapples with a world coming apart from every direction, contending the imminent death of her cancer-stricken cousin (Deirdre O’Connell) and the heroin addiction of her grown son (Jake Lacy) while working to keep her cool. Place gives Diane the uncertainty of a woman who can hear the ticking time bomb of old-age settling in even as she wrestles with whether there’s anything she can do to diffuse it.
She’s not always so successful, but that’s where Place’s remarkable transformation comes into play: The actress portrays the contradictions of being older and wiser while still at the mercy of an ambivalent existence that tosses her around and dares her to lose her composure. Jones’ perceptive script gradually drifts into Place’s subjectivity, as the actress brings so much richness to her role every closeup takes on a remarkable naturalistic quality that borders on documentary. Place works wonders with her eyes, as she often gazes into the abstract nature of the dwindling world surrounding her. It’s the ultimate “OK, boomer” character study: a window into what it means to get old and wrestle for some solid terrain. Diane may not have the easiest time finding some measure of stability, but at 70, Place has delivered one of the most grounded, nuanced performances of the year. —EK
Florence Pugh, “Midsommar”
There’s a moment in Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” in which Florence Pugh’s performance becomes so horrifically real that to watch her is to experience unrelenting suffering. Pugh’s Dani has just witnessed her boyfriend Christian (Jay Reynor) cheating on her in a ritualistic cult sex orgy. Dani, surrounded by many of the women from the village she has been staying in, drops to the floor and lets out a series of screams that push her far over the edge of a nervous breakdown. Pugh’s outburst embodies an unbearable and sickening agony that is impossible for the viewer to shake. The entirety of “Midsommar” builds to this emotional break, and it’s how Pugh balances Dani’s naivety with the character’s increasing urgency to control her own relationship that makes her work a standout of 2019. The scariest thing about her screams might be the shades of rehabilitation Pugh sneaks into them. Dani is at once broken and putting herself back together, albeit in disturbing fashion. —ZS
Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”
At just 25 years old, this three-time Academy Award nominee has yet to turn in a flat-footed performance. The rare child actor who arrived on the big screen full-formed and preternaturally mature (her work in “Atonement” isn’t simply “kid actor good,” it’s great), Ronan has only continued to evolve over the past decade, getting better with every part. She’s avoided pigeonholing, easily moving from compelling contemporary projects (“How I Live Now,” “Lost River”) to beautiful period pieces (“Brooklyn,” “Mary Queen of Scots”), eschewing any attempts to age her up or keep her playing kiddos.
The main thread between Ronan roles: playing unique women who often defy easy categorization. Just two films into what looks to be a long-term cinematic bond with director Greta Gerwig — a partnership that has notably included both the contemporary (“Lady Bird”) and this year’s handsomely-mounted throwback “Little Women” — and Ronan is continuing to work her magic, again cast as a trailblazing woman making her own way in the world. While Jo March has been dramatized many times before, Ronan adds a vibrancy and modernity to the role that is wholly new, and a perfect fit for Gerwig’s meta-textual, updated take on the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. Gerwig’s film also affords Ronan the chance to bounce between the usual Jo affectations (the fiery ambition, the desire to help her family, a real panache for striving across big open fields) and a softer side that is forced to reckon with her mistakes and misdeeds. During a final-act speech that weaves together the film’s themes, Ronan avoids cliches and histrionics, delivering big emotional bluster alongside nothing less than world-weary truth-telling. She looks exhausted by the end, but also freed, open, honest — just as Jo should be. —KE
Mame Sane, “Atlantics”
Leave it to a one-time actress to know how to cast and direct a newcomer to such a dazzling performance. Filmmaker Mati Diop’s breathtaking feature debut is full of richly textured performances, but undoubtedly they all hang around Mame Sané, who plays Ada, the film’s central figure. In the delicately rendered first half, Ada serves as a spirited and sympathetic guide through the atmospheric world Diop so artfully crafts. Sané plays Ada with a grounded innocence, almost as if she is watching the events of her life swirl around her.
That’s a powerful choice for what Diop is setting up; such is the harsh reality for a girl of no means growing up in Senegal. But as things start to take a turn toward the ephemeral, and Ada begins putting the pieces together, Sané turns Ada’s teen rebelliousness into a fierce determination to uncover the mystery. Her poise, naturalism, and magnetism suggests the skills of a far more experienced actor. With any luck, her career is just beginning. —JD
Molly Shannon, “Wild Nights With Emily”
Molly Shannon as gay Emily Dickinson. Can you name a more deliciously unpredictable casting decision? Shannon lights up the screen in everything she does, from the unhinged comedy of “Superstar” to the wrenching fearlessness of “Other People.” In “Wild Nights,” she teamed up with college buddy and independent filmmaker Madeleine Olnek to bring both qualities to an oddball comedy about Emily Dickinson. In Shannon’s hands, Dickinson is eccentric, lustful, and ambitious. The stripped down production gives her the space to shine, there are no fancy lights or make-up to hide the way Emily’s wildly fluctuating emotions register on her expressive face. In one moment she is high with love, the next despondent, the next giddy like a schoolgirl. These are qualities at the core of Shannon’s being, and they are as present in all of her roles as they are here. She has always been a performer who leaves everything on the field, no matter how small the arena. —JD
Honor Swinton, “The Souvenir”
Okay, it’s true: Honor Swinton Byrne is Tilda’s daughter. But any shadow that might cast on the newcomer’s film debut in Joanna Hogg’s intimate and autobiographical character study melts away from the moment this astonishing young performer takes over the screen. As Julie, a British film student working towards sorting out her career while enmeshed in an ill-fated romance with drug addict Tom (Tom Burke), Swinton Byrne delivers a role defined by quiet snippets of intellectual yearning, sexual curiosity, and existential confusion. Hogg often lingers on the actress’ face as she processes new information about the people around her while uncertain how to chart a path forward. It’s a wondrous experience to watch Julie waking up to the world around her and coming to terms with its limitations; few “star is born” moments feel this raw and real, to the point where one has to wonder if Hogg’s personal experiences behind the drama are less relevant than Swinton Byrne’s own coming of age experiences as they unfold in front of the camera. With a “Souvenir” sequel on the way, the story of this breakthrough talent is just getting started, but the first installment leaves no doubt that she’s already arrived. —EK
Zhao Tao, “Ash Is Purest White”
Chinese master Jia Jhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White” drops us into a pocket of the jianghu underworld, where small-time gangster Bin (Fan Liao) owns a decent little nightclub. It’s not hard to understand what Qiao (Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and favorite actress), might see in him. By all indications the most beautiful girl in town, Qiao flits around like a newly hatched butterfly — the insect is embroidered into most of her shirts, just in case we don’t catch her preening confidence. But Jia has a real love for his characters, and would never dare to write them off as arrogant or intimidating. Bin has reservoirs of hidden mercy, while Qiao tenderly cares for her father, who’s fallen into drunken disrepair since the local mine went under.
An illegal gun triggers the problem, sending Quiao to prison; she’s released into a very different world. As the movie grows more episodic from there, Zhao takes control of the narrative as she wends her way through China’s Three Gorges area in search of resolution. There’s a feeling that we’re being treated to a revue of all the women who Zhao has played for her husband, as the actress’ early scenes recall her work in 2001’s “Unknown Pleasures” before the 2006 section finds Qiao maturing into a character who more closely resembles the one Zhao played that year in “Still Life.” Above all else, this movie is a monument to her talents. —DE
Charlize Theron, “Bombshell”
Lionsgate / screencap
The statuesque South African movie star makes what she does look too easy. But sometimes a dramatic physical transformation can be the key to Oscar attention. Theron won her first Oscar when she shocked Hollywood by destroying her beauty in order to play serial killer Aileen Wournos in “Monster.” Egregiously overlooked for her athletic (and laconic) role as one-armed Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Theron can do anything: action, drama, comedy, romance.
Now she’s on the verge of landing her third Oscar nomination for channeling powerful Fox anchor Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell,” which she also produced. She first asked director Jay Roach for notes on Charles Randolph’s script about the three women at Fox News who brought down sexual harasser Roger Ailes. She then brought on the Emmy-winning director (“Game Change,” “Recount”), and saved the film by finding financier Bron and distributor Lionsgate when Annapurna fell out weeks before production. And after meeting makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji on the set of Netflix series “Mindhunter,” which she produced, Theron lured him to “Bombshell” to morph her into Kelly. This could be a repeat of Gary Oldman’s “Darkest Hour,” when both the actor and the man who turned him into Winston Churchill took home Oscars. That would make all of Theron’s struggles with her false eyelids worth the trouble.
But the performance isn’t just about hair and makeup. Theron plays Kelly as a strong, charismatic, driven achiever who strides across a room with authority, gets along with her boss Ailes at this stage of her career, and does not want to lose her place at the top. She must make the choice of whether to do the right thing. Theron knows what she is doing. —AT
Tessa Thompson, “Little Woods”
Tessa Thompson is the strongest asset in Nia DaCosta’s North Dakota-set indie drama “Little Woods,” which follows two estranged sisters who are driven to extremes when their mother dies, leaving them with one week to pay back her mortgage. Thompson is compelling as a woman who has to make hard choices, in a performance that elevates a rather pedestrian script, getting right to the heart of a character that reflects the struggles of women trying to simply exist within a patriarchy. It’s a world in which socio-economic insecurities outweigh any worries about sexual predators and drug dealers. Thompson puts a human face on critical timely issues in a leading lady showcase that allows her to demonstrate her range as an actress, in ways that she just doesn’t get to in any of her more mainstream Hollywood movie roles. It’s a challenge she clearly relishes, understanding and communicating the film’s ambitions. Both actress and filmmaker undeniably create some truly magnificent moments that rank as some of the year’s finest. —TO
Jodie Turner-Smith, “Queen & Slim”
In “Queen & Slim,” model-turned-actress Jodie Turner-Smith is compelling as an aloof and conscientious criminal defense attorney who is both sincere and pessimistic in equal measure. As Queen, she’s captivating in a character arc that sees her grow from being initially impermeable, to unguarded, and, in the end, a courageous warrior. Her chemistry with co-star Daniel Kaluuya is natural. As the yin to the other’s yang, their moments of affection beautifully punctuate what is an extremely stressful narrative. Her gradual realization that their fate is sealed reaches a heartbreaking extreme.
And while Kaluuya is of course solid as the wide-eyed, earnestly sweet Slim, it’s Turner-Smith who surprises: She delivers an elegant, layered performance, depicting her character’s interiority with effortless confidence as she evolves. In her first feature film lead, she makes a grand debut that is sure to help put her on the map, even though she’s been acting for a few years now. Her character’s tiger-striped mini-dress and reptile skin boots are almost destined to become iconic, and no matter what she does next, this role will mark a key turning point. —TO
Alfre Woodard, “Clemency”
“Clemency” is the type of film that succeeds or fails on the basis of its lead performance alone. The character of Bernadine Williams, a prison warden responsible for overseeing executions, has a steely persona she projects to the world: She cares about the inmates she oversees but cares about carrying out their sentences just as much. Then there’s how she really feels about her work and its fuzzy morality, which she has to keep hidden.
Leave it to Alfre Woodard to pull off this dynamic: She’s the kind of actor who projects the richest of internal lives for her characters, and Bernadine Williams is her greatest achievement to date. When the wall between her external and internal self finally collapses during one of the more harrowing, heartbreaking scenes in recent memory, it’s captured entirely in a long-take close-up of her face. And even still, it’s Woodard’s restraint, her lack of histrionics, that truly brings you into the emotion of the moment. It’s not acting you’re watching, but genuine empathy — imbued with a moral urgency by Woodard and her director Chinonye Chukwu that makes “Clemency” the closest 2019 equivalent to last year’s “First Reformed.” How do we know what we’re doing is right? If they aren’t right, do our actions have any meaning at all? “Clemency” gets to the heart of that question through Woodard’s affecting turn. —CB