It’s official: I am better than the BAFTAs or the Golden Globes. The British voters nominated entirely white actors for their acting awards, making the lily-white, all-male-directors-nominating Globes look like a poster child for diversity. (At least they actually had an Asian-American actress win. Congratulations, Awkwafina.) Anyway, their backwardness makes me feel superior, and it’s great news for you, too. You don’t have to waste time caring about those silly dog-and-white-pony shows. You just have to scroll down and read my picks for the best lead performances of the year.
For shame, Hollywood. You had this guy for more than 20 years and never gave him a showcase like Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical drama Pain and Glory. Undoubtedly Banderas’ years in America have been productive (to say nothing of lucrative), but his portrayal of a film director finding enough closure to go on with his career shows us depths of grief, resignation, and hope that went untapped in his movies on our shores.
Even if his performance in The Irishman were the first he had ever given, it would be enough to establish his greatness. Just watch the scene after he has just killed Jimmy Hoffa, then calls his distraught widow and tries to assure her that her husband must be alive someplace. In Martin Scorsese’s film, he draws a portrait of a man whose last vestige of humanity has been taken by the mob.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson
I’ll have more to say about them when I run my review of Marriage Story. I will say that it’s not often that a movie has one performance that scares me just by being so good. This one has two.
Kelvin Harrison Jr.
You’re in a film with Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Tim Roth, and you wind up outshining all of them? You’re doing something right. That’s what this young actor did in Luce, and while he was also good in Waves, his performance as a former African child soldier-turned-model American student sticks a cold knife in your ribs at the end.
I guess people are still holding her behavior in the early ’00s against her, or maybe they simply didn’t see American Woman. Roadside Attractions is putting on an awards-season push for Renée Zellweger, but Miller’s performance is the better one as a Pennsylvania grandmother who finds herself only in the aftermath of her daughter’s murder.
It’s possible that Gloria Bell would have failed entirely if a lesser actress had taken the lead role. With her in it, that film emerged superior to the Chilean film that it remade because of how her character became of a piece with all of the previous roles that we’ve seen her in. This isn’t to slight her actual performance, which (unlike the Banderas and DeNiro performances here) makes aging look like it still has the possibility for joy.
She was also good in Us, but she is a torrent of lava in Her Smell as a rock star who drives everyone away with her drug abuse and verbal abuse. We see her as the dictatorial diva, the clean-and-sober shut-in who has lost her money and custody of her child, and then the reformed singer who has retaken control. The whole movie is worth seeing for the spellbinding scene in which she sits at a piano and plays Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” for her daughter.
Everyone’s talking about Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, but Murphy’s performance in Dolemite Is My Name is the dramatic turn by a Saturday Night Live icon that people should be talking up for awards. As standup comic Rudy Ray Moore, Murphy not only brings the comedy skills but also the frustration that drives Moore to create first his rhyming character and then the movies based on him.
“Once upon a time, there was a girl, and the girl had a shadow.” Somebody hold me. — Us
Haley Lu Richardson
If you’re looking for a left-field pick, how about her turn in Five Feet Apart? Her self-deprecating sense of humor dried out the weepiness in this film as a cystic fibrosis patient who falls in love with another CFer whom she can’t touch. The movie could have been unbearable and cloying, but she brings depth and complexity to her gravely ill character.
I’ve said this about other actors, but I really should just reserve a spot for her on this list every year. She has the benefit of a terrific ensemble behind her in Little Women, but behind the rambunctious behavior (check her dancing on the porch with Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie), you can feel her chafing at the constraints of Concord and the social norms that tell her and her literary heroine to get married.
Too often in his English-speaking roles, this Belgian actor has been cast as bland heroes (Far From the Madding Crowd) or bland villains (Red Sparrow). However, his English-speaking role in The Mustang is reminiscent of the scary, out-of-control antiheroes he played in Europe. His performance as a convicted killer who finds his humanity by working with horses is indelible.
Honorable mention: Awkwafina, The Farewell; Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose; Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Elle Fanning, Teen Spirit; Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, Booksmart; Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Fast Color; Joaquin Phoenix, Joker; Florence Pugh, Midsommar; Samara Weaving, Ready or Not; Renée Zellweger, Judy.