Elisabeth Moss, Lupita Nyong’o, and Keanu Reeves lead our critics survey of the best movie performances of 2019 (so far).
(Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: With 2019 almost half-over, what is the best movie performance of the year so far?
Kaitlyn Dever (“Booksmart”)
Annapurna Pictures / UAR
I’ve turned over Kaitlyn Dever’s performance in “Booksmart” in my head again and again over the past month or so, and every time I consider it, I find myself impressed even more. It isn’t the showiest turn–hell, it isn’t even the most immediately memorable performance in its own movie–but Dever’s subtly funny, eternally awkward Amy is the connective tissue that keeps a film that occasionally feels like a series of stitched-together music videos from spiraling too far off the deep end. From drug trips to heartbreaks to cringe-inducing romantic encounters, Dever switches gears with a subtle finesse that feels both natural and hilariously unexpected. The film’s best scene, in fact, relies on her to run through a gamut of emotions–nervousness to euphoria to confusion to heartache to betrayal–in a wordless long take, and she knocks it out of the park. On your first watch, you rightfully gravitate towards the titanic performances of Beanie Feldstein or Billie Lourd, but Dever’s brilliance reveals itself on re-watch, when you realize how she fills each crevice of this film with undeniable heart. It’s often no fun being the straight man in a film as unapologetically bonkers as “Booksmart,” but Kaitlyn Dever here shows both how necessary it is and how great the role can be in the hands of a true talent.
Taron Edgerton (“Rocketman”)
The race for Best Actor is going to be Taron Edgerton’s to lose — he crushed it in “Rocketman” last month. Musical performances are never easy and we know this because some actors have been terrible in musical roles on screen. Edgerton absolutely owns the role as the legendary Elton John. It’s very unlikely that we’ll see a similar performance this year.
Masahiro Higashide (“Asako I & II”)
When narrowing down the performances that have stuck with me the longest so far this year, there was a common theme of duality that persisted. From Lupita Nyong’o’s devastating dual work as pursuant and victim and vice versa in “Us” to Deng Chao’s similarly pronounced distinction in “Shadow” between two vastly different characters, there’s been little shortage of actors playing two mirroring characters this year and, with these two and my pick, have demonstrated the best acting of the year so far. Masahiro Higashide isn’t a well known name (stateside at least) but, for the few people who saw the aching “Asako I & II” they know he is an immense talent. As both the enigmatic Baku and deeply kind hearted Ryôhei, Higashide is a wonder of subtleties, sinking deep into the little, inbetween moments that would have leading lady, the titular Asako, falling for both men.
Higashide utilizes silence. With Baku, he’s purposefully, ruefully defiant, owing nothing to the world or the connections he made but warm enough to Asako so that when he reappears later on, we don’t lack understanding of Asako’s catastrophic actions. Comparatively, Ryôhei is sociable, an earnest and good man without the “nice guy” caveat that so often attaches itself to that descriptor and he uses his moments of silence to be reactionary, taking everything in around him. It’s a beautiful performance because we fall for him through his looks of longing, of love and compassion – anger too later on. It’s hardly a broad performance or one that immediately sinks its teeth into you, but it lingers and hangs over you like a second skin. It’s warm and unguarded, completely devoid of vanity performative tricks that might’ve made him simply good and forgettable. Instead, his is a performance that months later I’ve yet to forget, or even stop thinking about, it reveals something new to uncover the longer time passes.
Brie Larson (“Captain Marvel”)
Brie Larson as Captain Marvel (née Carol Danvers) in the eponymous film was a powerhouse. Larson’s strong acting chops are well-known (and well-honored, too; with multiple awards wins, including an Oscar for Best Actress, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA, all for her work in “Room”). In lesser hands, the superhero (super-heroine?) might have been corny and over-the-top. Larson added nuance, humor, strength, and subtlety in her skilled portrayal of Captain Marvel. I’m excited to see what she’ll do next.
Ann Lupo (“In Reality”)
The best performance I’ve seen this year digs deep into independent film and comes from a 2018 festival darling and award winner that made its theatrical bow and VOD release this past spring. The do-it-all autobiographical performance of Ann Lupo in her film “In Reality” blew me away recently at the inaugural Rom Com Film Festival. In an ultra-whimsical and hyper-edited stream-of-consciousness kind of movie, Ann Lupo puts herself through the emotional roller coaster of a twenty-something struggling artist finding, figuring out, and losing love. Every bit of spirited fantasy is matched by a punch of poignant truth as Ann plays out each incarnation of her internalized feelings and outward personality in different flavors and characterizations. For all of her flair on-screen, Ann Lupo is also a force behind the camera directing, writing, producing, and editing this passion project. She is an untapped creative talent deserving of bigger things.
Jonathan Majors (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”)
Jonathan Majors’ performance in “The Last Black in San Francisco” sticks with me. Playing Montgomery, the best friend of Jimmie Fails, his character: a playwright and a Black man who doesn’t quite fit in with his hyper-masculine surroundings, expresses empathy to a fault: from Jimmie to the Greek chorus of thugs outside his door.
Majors’s most stunning work, in a cascade of incredible deliveries and postures, occurs during the one-man play. Covering each half of his body with a different costume, he plays two of the hyper-masculine thugs, at once, in an argument. Then, in a sudden twist, morphs into a pastor of a sermon: the same pastor, preaching about toxic water, the audience and Fails derides from the outset. His character takes these outcasts, bullies, and victims and treats them as one: as humans, in a swirling wash of personas.
And, when Montgomery turns his sermon to the audience of characters watching his play, asking them to define the life of their fallen loved one; when he questions Jimmie’s underselling of his self-worth—an identity directly tied to the ownership of his grandfather’s home—he actualizes the importance of empathy and self-truth. Majors doesn’t miss a beat in this scene, in this film. A part rife with pitfalls for the ecstatic over-actor, Majors nimbly displays the idiosyncratic tendencies of Montgomery: the sudden outbursts, the quiet near-mumbling voice, and his inquisitive walk, with his undeniable heart, in the breakout performance of 2019.
It’s a close race between the dual leads of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and Robert Pattinson in “High Life,” but I’m going to go with Jonathan Majors as Montgomery Allen–lovingly known as Mont–in Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot’s Sundance hit. It’s a testament to Majors’ performance (and recency) that I have a hard time imagining him as anyone other than the charming, gentle, warm, eclectic theatre nerd and best friend of Jimmie (who plays himself in the film). Some will want to call it a supporting role, but it’s simply not one. If Jimmie is the driving narrative force, Mont is the infectious tone and pervasive mood. If Jimmie is the body of the film, Mont is its heart. Over its 121-minute runtime, he covers the full spectrum of emotions with fresh, mesmerizing idiosyncrasy. And his climactic monologue performance within his performance is absolutely awe-inspiring.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is absolutely Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot’s success story through and through — coming out of the gate with some of the best lead performance and directorial work of the year so far — but I still can’t get Jonathan Major’s heart-stopping, achingly layered performance as Jimmie’s best friend Mont out of my head. Like Jimmie, he’s out of lockstep with the community around him, a dreamer languishing in the margins. But his dogged support of Jimmie and his own creativity, his curiosity about the communities that lie just out of reach, are so beautifully rendered. There’s a soulfulness to his eyes, a deep well of curiosity that invites you in; you want to see San Fransisco through them.
Talbot may be the film’s director, but Mont yearns to direct the world of the film itself, whether de-escalating a street fight outside by pretending he’s directing them in a scene or crafting a one-man show about the shooting death of one of his friends. “Last Black Man” is a film in part about how black men have to forge their own worlds to stave off the cruelty of the one they really live in; while Jimmie does this through the house, Mont does this through art, and the way Majors manifests that dream is unlike anything I’ve seen in years.
James McAvoy (“Glass”)
There have been a few great performances this year so far–shout out to RDJ and Keanu–but no one has demonstrated more commitment and capability than James McAvoy in “Glass”. Every character he plays as “the Horde” is distinct, each with their own voice, own physicality, and distinctive wants and interests in each scene. McAvoy is incredible to watch, digging into every character, even ones that pop out for mere moments, and delivering on every single one of them. None is more effective or chilling than Patricia, the twisted marm who oversees all the multiple personalities contained in the Horde. McAvoy is so good as Patricia that she probably deserves her own movie–I could watch McAvoy inhabit her precise, prissy exterior while keeping a tight lid on whatever screaming nightmare drives Patricia’s need for control for an entire two hours, uninterrupted. McAvoy is always fun to watch, and “Glass” is an excuse for him to go to town and play as many characters as possible with total commitment. He single-handedly makes “Glass” watchable.
Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), staff writer at Nerdist
It’s a shame that James McAvoy is doing his best work in a film series that hasn’t exactly taken off critically. But his performance in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass,” where he plays a man with 24 distinct personalities, is truly next-level. Whatever you think of the film around him, it’s hard not to be drawn into his balletic, strange, impressively physical roles, where he oscillates between an innocent child, a prim older woman, a literal beast, among others, and he does it without costume changes or even much of a showy effort. He’ll never win awards or even much attention for his work, but it’s truly a masterclass performance, and one folks should be studying in acting school.
Matthew McConaughey (“The Beach Bum”)
Even as many performances may have outstripped it for technical prowess, there’s only one performance this year so symbiotically tied to the film that it’s not only hard to imagine the movie working without him, it’s hard to imagine the movie existing without him. I’m speaking, of course, of Mr. Matthew David McConaughey’s turn as Moondog in “The Beach Bum,” a performance that trades on our decades of accrued understanding of what we talk about when we talk about Matthew McConaughey—as both a performer and a public figure—in service of conjuring a character who could well be grotesque and repulsive without the borderline-superhuman joy, charisma, and surprising pathos that the star brings to the role. It’s not a performance likely to crack any awards season short list, but for his service in keeping aloft Harmony Korine’s impossible object of a film (which, it should be noted, boasts a supporting cast of ringers all of whom deserve honorable-mention status, from Isla Fisher to Martin Lawrence to Zac Efron’s JNCO jeans and panini press haircut), we have no choice but to stan a legend.
Julianne Moore (“Gloria Bell”)
It’s not uncommon for film critics (or fans) to lament Oscars going to certain performers for the “wrong movie,” but I understand why this happens. Someone like, say, Julianne Moore will have a great career, but often in small movies or supporting roles, so when the opportunity comes to reward her for a showy lead in a Serious Issue Drama like “Still Alice,” of course the Academy jumps at the chance, even if it’s not her most interesting performance (even, indeed, if you vaguely suspect that maybe some of the voters didn’t even necessarily bother seeing it). But it is a shame that they jumped the gun on “Still Alice” when a movie as good as “Gloria Bell” followed just a few years later, featuring some of Moore’s best-ever work.
Moore appears in nearly every scene of Sebastián Lelio’s American remake of his own Chilean film, and it’s tempting to designate her title character as a sort of lady normcore: She’s a divorced mother of two adult children, living on her own, working at a vaguely unfulfilling job, trying to stay sweet and sunny and optimistic while staving off middle-aged loneliness. Lelio cuts his movie like a version “Frances Ha” set along the Boomer/Gen-X divide, which means the movie is extremely concise, but also gives Moore a lot of seemingly offhand, low-key scenes: Gloria at work, Gloria at a dance club for older singles, Gloria alone in her apartment, Gloria visiting her kids. She uses these small moments to build a gorgeous, full picture of this character, in both her quiet desperation and her ultimate strength. It’s a performance so clear, unaffected, and true that there’s no way it will be under any kind of awards consideration at year’s end. But it sure deserves to be.
Elisabeth Moss (“Her Smell”)
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
There’s a remarkable piece by François Truffaut, from 1955, that I read in a recently published French collection, in which he discusses three then-new films and praises three performances in them that struck him as exceptional—but the films are documentaries and the “actors” are their subjects (the writers André Gide and François Mauriac, and the biologist and adventurer Alain Bombard). In the same spirit of adventure, I was all prepared to make reference to a noteworthy nonfiction film, but let’s keep it simple: Elisabeth Moss, in “Her Smell.”
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages, Screen Rant, RogerEbert.Com
Elisabeth Moss delivers a gnarly and nuanced performance in “Her Smell.” Director Alex Ross Perry channels the raw energy of Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization,” while infusing tender moments that ground so many real-life rock biopics. As the lead singer of the fictional punk rock group Something She, Moss taps into the vocal rhythms of someone melting down in real time; an artist who believes that constant rambling will be interpreted as free-form poetry, or will end with a grand epiphany. And it’s thrilling to see Moss embrace the madness and conjure up various facial expressions that hold up next to John Mayer’s legendary guitar face.
“Her Smell” ultimately shifts gears, allowing for Moss to underline Becky’s vulnerability and personal growth as a woman and mother. She finds a different type of performance rhythm, as the character attempts to find peace of mind while reflecting on the past and her mistakes. It’s a surprising narrative turn and showcases Moss’ ability to convey all the emotions connected with new beginnings, much like she did with Peggy Olson in AMC’s “Mad Men.” Suddenly, the performance becomes less about vocal delivery and more about non-verbally reacting to information that had previously been drowned out. Moss provides a layered interpretation of someone who actively seeks to become a better person after burning numerous bridges.
Elisabeth Moss turned in an incredible, intelligent and indelible performance in “Her Smell.” Her work as Becky Something, a punk rock riot grrrl spiraling out of control in front of her family and band-mates, is genuinely haunting and one of the best performances this year. She brings pathos and gravitas to the mascara and glitter-smeared character tightrope walking between the bipolar extremes of violent and vulnerable, gritty and gracious, caustic and caring, severe and serene. Moss perfectly portrays the tortured inner psyche of a performer caught in a struggle with sobriety, fame and the creative process. She’s real, raw and revelatory. She also picks up on the dark comedy of the situations and leans into those comedic moments with adept skill. Plus, she performs a refined rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” that’s moving and poignant in her hands. It’s a career-defining role – one I’m not soon to forget.
Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield) The Movie Minute, themovieminute.com
The performance I can’t shake is Elizabeth Moss’s Becky Something in Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell”. Astonishing in just how far she (and Perry) go, we watch as helplessly as does everyone else when rock star Becky, under the influence, spews as much hatred as she does guts. And yet, while all of us may want to give up on her, we don’t. Moss, somehow, teeters on the line of revulsion and magnetism, pushing us away and yet never letting us go. It is a jaw dropping piece of work and, frankly, almost groundbreaking for an actress. We are almost used to actors growling around in their addiction, almost pleading for us to help them out. Roles even close to that are rare for women, especially as the centerpiece of a film, not just a juicy supporting character part. Moss is ferocious here and, while her Becky is not an easy woman to watch, we can’t help but do just that. We watch. In awe.
Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”)
As a massive fan of the coming out party that was Rory Culkin’s peerless performance in “Lords of Chaos,” I’d love to herald it as the best of the year so far. But, let’s face it, six months in and nothing has even come close to touching Lupita Nyong’o in “Us.” A barnstorming dual performance loaded with wit, nuance, nervous energy, menace, and with the creep factor turned up to 11, it blew everything, and everybody, else out of the water. So much of what Nyong’o does here is communicated wordlessly, from her wide eyes as a mother terrified for her children’s safety to her slowly stalking psychopath. And, of course, that voice as the villain/antihero of the piece.
As Adelaide/Red, Nyong’o is tasked with accurately portraying two characters who are simultaneously at odds with each other and yet inextricably linked. The great triumph of her dual performance is that we don’t even know to even question her motivations until it’s too late. Right up until the film’s final moments, it’s still not totally clear who she really is. Many actors, even great ones, would struggle to discern Adelaide and Red from each other. Nyong’o is so effortlessly engaging as both it’s easy to forget there aren’t actually two of her onscreen.
It took me a while to see Jordan Peele’s “Us,” since I missed it at SXSW and horror is never my preferred genre. However, once I did make it to the theater, post-opening, I was blown away by Lupita Nyong’o’s lead performance. Or, rather, lead TWIN performances, given that she delivers two contrasting parts, each equally fascinating and powerful, as Adelaide and her shadow self. Since Nyong’o first exploded on the film scene with her Oscar-winning role in Steve McQueen’s masterful 2013 “12 Years a Slave” (which also won the Oscar that year for Best Picture), her awesome talent has never been in doubt, but she really ups the ante here. Simultaneously touching and frightening, she is the driving force behind the movie’s existential punch. Bring us more Lupita, now and evermore.
I thought this question was going to be hard when I first read it. But, nah. It’s easy: Lupita Nyong’o in “Us.”
It’s one of those performances you appreciate on the first watch — she’s playing two different characters and gives both an incredible amount of humanity. But the nuances really become apparent on the second watch, after you know the twist. All of Adelaide’s worries, her fierce protection of her children, and the way she comforts the untethered versions of her kids, is all recontextualized but only believable from Nyong’o’s carefully laid ground work.
It’s in her movements — from Adelaide’s introverted hunches to Red’s stilted dancing — Nyong’o tells the story of each version of her character from body movements alone. My favorite sequence, and the one that most exemplifies the differences between the two, is the dance number in the tunnels. Red’s dance is practiced, clean, and smooth; Adelaide’s out of sync, clunky, a fight for survival. As for us, we cheer for both of them.
Keanu Reeves (“Always Be My Maybe”)
“May I ask, do you have any dishes that play with time? The concept of time?” From my perch, there have been precious few memorable performances in 2019 so far (Lupita Nyong’o in “Us,” Beanie Feldstein in “Booksmart,” and, I guess, Robert Downey Jr. in “Avengers: Endgame” are pretty much the only standouts that people seemed to rally around?), but one legend was born: Keanu Reeves as “himself” in “Always Be My Maybe.” Reeves has been famous for decades, but he really exploded this year in a way that recalls that moment in time when Ryan Gosling was a meme or the 12 months when people loved Jennifer Lawrence. All of that Keanu energy culminated with Netflix’s charming rom-com, where he plays the worst version of himself to hilarious results. “Keanu Reeves,” as played by Reeves, is the most pretentious douche, an alpha male refined by years of being told yes; it’s what Reeves would be if he believed in the RTs. (That his mere presence helped spawn a parody rap song, “I Punched Keanu Reeves,” is simply the cherry on top.) Most actors would kill for this kind of opportunity. In the year of our Reeves, however, it just feels expected. Who else is going to play “Keanu Reeves” better than Keanu himself?
Emma Thompson (“Late Night”)
The best performance so far this year comes from Emma Thompson in the regrettably under-seen “Late Night.” She plays Katherine Newbury, a late night comedy talk show host who’s in danger of losing her job. Thompson creates a vivid, three-dimensional character who’s funny but cranky, demanding yet vulnerable. We like and care about her, even when she isn’t being the nicest person in the world (which is fairly often). Plus, she makes all of this hilarious! In a career full of great performances, this one might be Thompson’s best.
Tessa Thompson (“Little Woods”)
Andrea Thompson, @ areelofonesown, The Young Folks, The Chicago Reader, Film Girl Film Festival
I’m going with Tessa Thompson in “Little Woods.” This modern Western is every bit as gritty as its predecessors, but absolutely feminine in that it revolves around two sisters’ struggles to survive in a destitute North Dakota town that is increasingly short on options.
Thompson is equally determined, desperate, steely, and vulnerable as Ollie, a former drug smuggler who takes up her criminal activities again when she’s just days away from her parole ending after her sister Deb (Lily James) finds herself desperate and on the verge of homelessness. As their situation becomes more dire, the sisters take greater risks, ones that will either ruin or save them.
Thompson’s performance in “Little Woods” just might be the best in her career. She’s a force to be reckoned with as Ollie’s struggles to somehow escape unscathed from the forces threatening to drag her down, whether it’s evading predatory smugglers or desperately trying to hide her contraband when her parole officer drops by for an unannounced visit. We don’t have to worry about seeing less of Tessa Thompson, but I hope I get to see her in more indie fare like this, even if it seems to mostly come and leave theaters unnoticed.