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. Here are the folks that made to the list –
Nicole Kidman in ‘Bombshell’
Awkwafina in ‘The Farewell’
Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Laura Dern in ‘Little Women’
Laura Dern in ‘Marriage Story’
Dakota Fanning and Margaret Qualley in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in ‘Booksmart’
Now to the main list –
Renee Zellweger in ‘Judy’
Mere seconds into this film you realize you are not watching anyone other than Judy Garland. Period. In a performance that is a triumph, Zellweger somehow attaches herself to the very soul of Judy Garland in the last year of her life where she struggled to find work. Broken and traumatized by her youth, she is nearing the end of her life, an alcoholic, popping pills at a dangerous rate yet still able to set foot on stage and wow the audiences who adore her. Zellweger completely inhabits Garland, magically doing her own singing, but more, nailing her voice, her body movements, her speech patterns, even that bizarre stance Garland possessed. It is a performance for the ages and huge comeback for this Oscar winner.
Scarlett Johansson in ‘Jojo Rabbit’
In a dazzling comic supporting role, Johansson is cheerful, sunny and we learn courageous as a young mother in the final days of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. As she raises a ten-year-old Nazi zealot who adores Hitler, to the extent his imaginary friend is Hitler himself, she does not share the belief in the Nazis or Adolf. In fact, she is hiding a teenaged Jewish girl in her closet, who she protects as her own and fighting the Nazis in her own personal way. Though her actions doom her, she inspires her son to see the truth she sees instead of what he believes. A lovely comedic performance that should grab the Oscar for supporting actress in a just world.
Scarlett Johansson in ‘Marriage Story’
And again Johansson in a staggering performance as a seething young mother and wife who has given up her acting career to allow her gifted husband to ascend the theatrical ladder in New York. When she decides to take a role in LA, she files for divorce, which he does not want, but she does, just to get her life back. Quietly raging, she wants to keep it civil but finds her fury boiling over, culminating in a horrific argument with him in his apartment in which they say the vilest things that of course they do not mean. Incredibly despite her anger, she still loves him, she admits that to herself, and always will, which ends the film with hope. A naked, raw and visceral performance that leaves the audience exhausted and gutted.
Charlize Theron in ‘Bombshell’
Portraying Fox news star Megan Kelly, who went after Donald Trump for his treatment of women, and her boss Roger Aisles for sexual harassment, the actress radiates intelligence throughout. Yet underneath that fierce intellect is a vulnerability that Theron has rarely shown onscreen before, this is a woman who has been traumatized yet remains dedicated to her work. Her work, in fact, is what sustains her and Aisles impacts even that due to his ongoing friendship with the Presidential candidate not unlike him. The actress disappears into the role, gentle makeup makes her look like Kelly, but watch her eyes, that is where she inhabits Kelly.
Margot Robbie in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
Proof an actor does not have to say a lot to anchor a film but can do so with their mere presence. As the lovely, doomed Sharon Tate, massacred by the Manson minions, Robbie is a bright light of beauty and goodness, which by all accounts she was indeed. Watching herself on screen, giggling with joy that the audience likes her, dancing and partying in the Playboy mansion with the elite of Hollywood, she is simply luminous and unforgettable. And her final scenes? Haunting, like seeing ghosts who have cheated death.
Florence Pugh in ‘Midsommar’
Watching this film I was astonished by the level of grief this young actress maintained throughout, it must have exhausted her on set. Taken to Sweden by her boyfriend after her parents are killed in a murder-suicide by her unstable sister, she is pulled into the cult, seeming to belong. Being within the cult offers her a chance to lash out at that same boyfriend for his treatment of her, for cheating on her, and that terrifying smirk on her face at the end of the film says she has achieved her goal. Fully immersed into the strange cult, she is terrifying.
Saoirse Ronan in ‘Little Women’
Ronan is a good bet to become the greatest actress on-screen since Meryl Streep, again displaying her intense, dazzling talents as Jo in this fine adaptation of the Alcott classic. Shifting gears from the modern ‘Lady Bird’ (2017) to this period piece, Ronan is once again perfect in the role, adding a touch of modernism to her Jo, giving audiences the absolute definitive screen Jo. Knowing with every fibre of her soul that she is a writer, she goes at the art with a ferocity that is shocking, surprising even her publisher, leaving him a bit in awe of her. Us too.
Cynthia Erivo in ‘Harriet’
Though the film was not the masterpiece we had hoped for, in fact, ‘Harriet’ was a crushing disappointment, Erivo was superb as Harriet Tubman, one of the heroes of the Underground Railroad. Escaping from slavery, making her way to Philadelphia where blacks where free, able to own their business, create their own lives, she is stunned by what she sees and wants those she left behind to experience what she is enjoying. So back she goes, over and over, risking her life to lead more black slaves to the promised land. Erivo is brilliant, but the film does not dig deep enough, give her enough to do. What she does is magnificent, but I wanted more and we had an actress ready to give us just that.
Jennifer Lopez in ‘Hustlers’
A confident, movie star performance from Lopez, long stuck in romantic comedies when she proved her acting chops twenty years ago in ‘Out of Sight’ (1998). Her first scene is performing a pole dance in which she holds the audience in the palm of her hand, brilliant, bold, sexual. Shocking in its confidence, bold in her sexuality, she is superb from the first moment we lay eyes on her through to the end. As the leader of a group of dancers who decide to hustle men out of their hard-earned money, Lopez has never been better and might never be this good again.
Julia Butters in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
Onscreen just ten minutes, give or take a minute, this young actress commands the screen as a precocious eight-year-old actress who knows more about the Method than actors who have been in the business years. Her first scene with Di Caprio is brash, blistering with confidence but her second, where we get to watch her work is a revelation. And when she whispers encouragement to Di Caprio, we know he is hearing the greatest review he will ever need. I hope the Academy recognizes her…I hope.
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