In a year filled with great achievements in acting, narrowing down ten for each gender was no easy task. When creating this list, I grouped together lead roles with supporting, because both should be considered when discussing the finest of the year. At the end of the day, it was a very good year for performance, with at least seven for the ages. Great actors and some breakthroughs made this one of the finest years for the art form in five years.
Honourable Mentions –
Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Two Popes’
Adam Driver in ‘The Report’
Robert Downey Jr. in ‘Avengers – Endgame’
Tracey Letts in ‘Ford vs. Ferrari’
Tom Hanks in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood’
Now to the main list –
1. Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Joker’
Adam Driver in ‘Marriage Story’
I could not decide and went back and forth for hours before deciding the only fair thing to do was to award both the top spot. Phoenix was astonishing as the deeply troubled man who becomes the arch enemy of Batman, a bizarre, bold performance that recalled Malcolm MacDowell in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) and Jack Nicholson in ‘The Departed’ (2006) merged with Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), a time bomb, while managing to be quite original. Phoenix has been astounding before, ‘The Master’ (2012) comes to mind, but this went to another level.
Driver was heartbreaking as a husband and father in the throes of anguish during a divorce he does not want. The fight scene is among the most harrowing emotional moments of the year, but where he really gets you is in the reading of a letter she wrote about his fine qualities. Driver establishes himnself as one of the finest actors of this generation. His singing in the restaurant the Sondheim song, is heartbreak incarnate. One of the most gifted young actors to emerge in the last three years, this guy is Brando great, a once in a generation talent.
Adam Sandler in ‘Uncut Gems’
A career-altering performance from the comic that is as good as anything De Niro or Pacino did in the seventies, a brilliant, turbulent, wildly intense performance about a degenerate gambler who owes the wrong people money and is on the run. Fast-talking, manipulative, a pathological liar, a cheat, energetic and jittery, Sandler is electrifying in the role that could and damn well should land him a well deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Who thought? Seriously who would have believed this astonishing piece of acting?
Joe Pesci in ‘The Irishman’
In a complete reversal of what we might have expected from Joe Pesci, the dangerous hot head killer in both ‘Goodfellas’ (1990) and ‘Casino’ (1995), Pesci is stunning as Russell Bufalino, the very powerful mafia chieftain with ties to Jimmy Hoffa. Never raising his voice, always reasonable, his calm is almost his greatest weapon and there is no question he is dangerous. An astonishingly complex performance from a great actor I wish worked more often.
Al Pacino in ‘The Irishman’
As Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino does his finest work in years, easily in the twenty-two years since ‘Donnie Brasco’ (1997). For once his bombast and overwhelming presence on the screen work perfectly for the character. Pacino settles into the role in the first moments he is onscreen, and never lets up until the realization he is being shot. Usually, I struggle with his volume, with his bombastic approach to his roles, but Jimmy Hoffa is a perfect fit. He could win an Oscar, and this time he would deserve it.
Brad Pitt in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
A big Hollywood movie star performance from Pitt is among the best work of his career. Portraying a stunt man for a fading TV star, a lethal human being who takes on Bruce Lee of all people, Pitt steals every scene he is in. His wary walking about the Manson family is a thing of beauty, knowing the danger, refusing to give the girls an edge and beating the so-called tough guy senseless. Fearless even in the face of terrible danger, his character is a thing of beauty. Exceptional.
Taron Egerton in ‘Rocketman’
Though Rami Malek won the Academy Award last year as Freddie Mercury in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2018), Edgerton blows past him with his startling transformation into Elton John, a much better performance. Sadly I doubt he has a chance of winning but I hope, for his superb work in which he did his own singing, he should at least be nominated. Exciting and brave, Egerton soars. But sadly honouring Malek last year could cost this fine performance even a nomination, which would be to the shame of the Academy.
Leonardo Di Caprio in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
As a declining, nearly washed-up TV actor, who travels to Italy to make spaghetti westerns and becomes a major star, Di Caprio does some of the very best work of his career. Longing to be a true actor, to be accepted as a great actor, he understands his own limitations all too well. Great Di Caprio brings layers of emotion to the character, not on the page. Obviously, based on Clint Eastwood, the scenes with Julia Butters, a gifted child actress are both funny and very revealing.
Eddie Murphy in ‘Dolemite is My Name’
How great to see Murphy back in a role worthy of his talents after criminally losing the Academy Award for his superb work in ‘Dreamgirls’ (2006). He shines very bright as blaxploitation icon Dolemite who never understood why black Americans were not being represented in movies. Thus, perhaps lacking in great talent, he set out to change it, with a ton of ambition behind him but little talent. Murphy is remarkable throughout giving the finest performance of his career,
Christian Bale in ‘Ford vs. Ferrari’
Another complete inhabitation of a character for this extraordinary actor, our generations man of a thousand faces, and shapes. As hot-tempered but gifted British racing driver Ken Miles, Bale sinks his teeth into the role with an ease that has become his legend. Watch him listen to the engine, as though nothing else in the world matters to him, or drive the car at deadly speeds with absolute confidence. He portrays this character as he acts, fearlessly.
Robert De Niro in ‘The Irishman’
Like Pacino, it has been a long time since De Niro has done really exceptional work, but here as long-time hitman Frank Sheeran, he is brilliant. Working for Russell Bufalino, he follows orders, and is soon best friend to Jimmy Hoffa, taking out who they want out, as well as a bodyguard and best friend to Hoffa and Bufalino when necessary. All the while his daughter suspects what he does, what he is, which will become his greatest regret. Powerful melancholy and altogether brilliant, he captures superbly the terrible consequences of choosing such a life can have.
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