Some people think that actors get too much credit. After all, hundreds of people are involved in the production of a movie, but usually it’s only the actors who get to do the red carpet interviews and go on late night talk shows. But there’s a reason that actors get center stage: they’re the ones with a direct line to our hearts. They make themselves emotionally available for our benefit. They connect. And if they do it well, we remember their performances for our whole lives. Here’s a short list of the performances from 2019 I’ll be thinking about years in the future:
Margot Robbie in “Bombshell” and “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”
Despite her early appearances in dark fare like “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Suicide Squad,” Robbie has a sunny innocence and naivete that was finally put to great use in 2019. In “Bombshell,” a mesmerizing account of sexual harassment at Fox News, she plays an idealistic young reporter whose soul is corrupted by a predatory Roger Ailes. As Sharon Tate in “Hollywood,” she is a symbol of unfulfilled promise who is given the second chance real life robbed her of. As our world gets wearier, Robbie is proving to be one of our most useful – and hopeful – actors.
Lupita Nyong’o in “Us”
Nyong’o, who burst onto the scene with her Oscar-winning turn in “12 Years a Slave,” gets more than the role of a lifetime in Jordan Peele’s horror smash. She gets two: Adelaide, a middle-class mother of two haunted by a childhood trauma, and Red, her mysterious, violent doppelganger. As the latter, Nyong’o gives a bravura performance that is both physically transformative and intellectually curious. Her throaty, scratchy timbre and robotic movements are eventually revealed to have a narrative source, but for most of the film they just bewilder the hell out of us.
Tom Hanks in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
At first glance, the casting of Hanks as Fred Rogers in this film based on a magazine profile seems almost too perfect. The nicest guy in Hollywood playing the nicest guy on Earth. That’s probably why Hanks’s publicists have been telling anyone who will listen about all the choices Hanks made – like methodically slowing his speaking voice – to portray the beloved PBS star. They want to make sure people see the acting, but they needn’t have bothered. Hanks is unmistakably great as Rogers, turning a canonized figured into someone more human and complex than we could have imagined. With just a cocked head and half-shut eye, Hanks hints at an ocean of darkness beneath Rogers’ placid exterior.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. in “Luce”
Harrison has had a breakout year, with his starring roles in both “Luce” and “Waves.” The latter has a better chance of making an impact in this awards season, but his work in “Luce” is more impressive. The film is a thorny drama about an exemplary high school student, who was adopted from a war-torn African country as a child and raised by white parents. He is accused by his teacher of trying to incite violence after writing a controversial paper. The film tells the story mostly through the eyes of his parents (played marvelously by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts), which makes Luce a slippery figure. As the adults in his life try to interrogate his motives while maintaining their political correctness, Harrison oscillates between innocence and guilt and back again before our very eyes, sometimes within the same scene.
Timothee Chalamet in “Little Women”
I’ll be honest: I never quite got the enthusiasm for Chalamet, based on his work in “Call Me By Your Name” and the forgettable “Beautiful Boy.” But he’s electric as Laurie in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” The latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book is the best one yet, with each of its actresses putting a unique stamp on their iconic roles. Chalamet, however, commands the screen when he’s on it. His Laurie is cool and collected when called for, but when his heart breaks, it breaks out loud. In his fateful scene with Saorsie Ronan’s Jo, Chalament rips through the film with his raw intensity.