My Favorite Male Lead Performances of 2019

I’m doing these way early this year, because of the truncated Oscar schedule. A lot of the time the nominations have already happened by the time these lists go out. Usually I’m using them to fill time between nominations and the second half of the Release Calendar, or before it’s time to start category breakdowns. But we’re in a weird year, so here we are. I barely got to watch a lot of the films more than once before these lists go up. But it’s also not like they really matter all that much outside of some more content.

I will specify what I always need to specify — these are my lists. These are the performances that I personally preferred the best. They do not always line up with what the awards groups and the herd believes. They are literally me going through the list of every film I saw this year and jotting down the performances from each film that I thought were noteworthy and then paring the article down to a list of 15 and then creating some sort of ranking of those 15. So any problems — keep ’em to yourself. I’m only here to talk up the things I liked the best, not to create any sort of objective list. So if you’re butt hurt that this doesn’t match up with the slideshows on the other websites, then stick to the slideshows.

We begin with the male lead performances and what is a pretty standard year for those. They’re really the only group that gets an abundance of choices for each year, because unlike the women, Hollywood actually cares about giving them decent material to work with. I didn’t feel a dearth of options in this, though I’ll also say it didn’t feel as though I was leaving people off I would have otherwise chosen. 15 is the proper cut off point. There wasn’t really anyone else I feel like I’d have included. Though shout out to Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell. That’s one of those ‘born to play’ kinda roles. Also Matthew Rhys in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, who had the trickiest role in the film and got none of the credit for it. And minor shout out to Adam Driver in The Report. He’s getting all the notice for the other movie, but I thought he was better in that one.

Anyway, here are my favorite male lead performances of 2019:

1. Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I put a lot of thought into this one, and this is my favorite male lead performance of the year. I had a feeling as I watched it, but I really wanted to sit and think about it and then watch it again. And the more I think about it, the more I love everything Leo did with this role. Of course, it’s Quentin, so a lot of that is on the page already. Quentin always gets some of the best performances of the year out of people. Leo in Django was my favorite supporting performance of 2012. But what I really love about this role in particular are the things he does with the character that aren’t on the page. Sure, he plays the comedy really well, and he handles the inner struggles of the character as the film goes on, the notion that his career as a star is coming to an end. But the part that really made me perk up during the movie was — I noticed during scenes, especially when his character was vulnerable in some way, when presented with the notion of the wig and the new age version of a character or when he can’t get his lines out — he sneaks in a bit of a stutter with the character. Which for sure isn’t something on the page. I haven’t read the script to say for sure, but it feels like something he did with the character to add that extra layer of depth to him. Because you hear that, and it’s very subtle. And it only comes out in those moments… but you immediately think of this guy as a kid who probably had some really horrible stutter that he overcame and went on to this big TV career. And in those moments when he’s not the big, bulletproof star, and his self-confidence starts to wane, that picked-on little kid who can’t talk straight starts to come out. And I absolutely loved that he did that. And then of course, there’s everything else he does with the performance, which is just wonderful. Honestly, had he not already won for The Revenant, this would have been the one for me. This feels like a performance where I’ll keep noticing things I didn’t see before each time I watch it.

2. Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari

This is just a pure movie star performance. And that’s what I love about it. His Dick Cheney last year was the big transformative ‘acting’ role. This one’s just pure movie star. This is Robert Redford or Steve McQueen. There’s a great performance alongside it, but he’s just cool in this movie. You love this guy. He and Damon play off one another so perfectly. And sadly, as great as Damon also is, Bale’s the one that gets all the credit because he’s the one that gets to be in the car and he’s the one that gets to have the temper. But man, he’s so awesome in this. That’s why you can’t properly rate one performance versus another. Because this versus Dick Cheney are two wildly different performances. But they’re both fantastic in their own way. He’s not going through the emotional ringer to get this performance across, but let’s not pretend that Paul Newman was in Butch and Sundance either. Sometimes a good performance can be had by just being a star.

3. Kelvin Harrison Jr., Waves

This performance nearly gutted me. I went into this movie with zero idea of what it was going to be about. If I did see the trailer beforehand, I immediately forgot it. So I started watching this movie with zero idea of what I was in for. And pretty soon Harrison takes over as the lead for the first real chunk of the film. And it’s just riveting. This kid is just so interesting to see on screen. And you really see all the different aspects of this kid’s life and really go with him on the journey that his character goes on throughout the film. I’m hesitant to get into it in specific, just because it’s one of those things that’s better to just experience as the film takes you through it, but man, he leaves a hell of an impression, and I can’t believe this film hasn’t gotten more notice in any way, at the very least for the powerhouse performances that are in it.

4. Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn

Everyone’s gonna dismiss this one because of the tics and Tourette’s of it all. And that’s fine. Go ahead and dismiss it. But think about this — aside from the fact that Norton is also directing the movie and is in basically every scene, he has to give a performance that stays true to the character and also doesn’t go overboard on the character’s affliction so as to be annoying and take you out of the movie. It’s a very fine line to cross. And I get it. Some people aren’t gonna love it and some people aren’t gonna be as impressed with this performance as I am, but man… for him to maintain all of that throughout a movie and somehow have it not only become something we just accept rather than actively pay attention to, but also have it be something that modulates throughout the film, to the point where we notice when it starts to go away for a bit and when it comes back stronger, based on what’s happening to him… that’s impressive to me. So sure, go for the other flashy performance with all the tics. I’ll stick with this one. I was really impressed by this one.

5. Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

It’s an impressive performance. It is. There’s not really all that much else to say, because people have gone out of their way to praise this and say just about anything I could think of to add here. I do think he overdoes it a bit, and I’m not rushing to proclaim this the greatest performance ever given in the history of cinema. Joaquin has at least three better ones this decade, in my mind. But, considering that this is a comic book movie, and he took this character and found a way to make him feel grounded… if a bit… stretched, it was impressive. He turned the Joker into a human-type character (as much as the film would allow him to). So I will give him credit where credit is due. Do I think he’s gonna deserve that Oscar that it somehow seems like he’s on pace for? Probably not for this. But it is what it is. If that’s what they wanna do, that’s what they wanna do. But I do think it’s fair to call it one of the best five male lead performances of the year. So I am totally fine with having him nominated and saying he should be. Everything past that becomes Oscar talk. Performance-wise, he’s great as he always is.

6. Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit

I’m always impressed when children have to carry movies on their own. Especially in this case, where it’s his first film. Granted, he has a lot of help — a great script, great actors around him, and a director that clearly works really well with kids. But still, the fact that he is your main character and you really feel for him along the way, I’m all for it. I know some people have issues with praising child performances, and they don’t treat them as seriously as you would an adult performance, but for me, I’m all about which performances affected me the most as well as ones where I could see the great work being done. All that being said, I really loved watching Davis anchor this movie and really felt for him along the way. It’s really hard to pull off that shot that happens about 2/3 through this movie (you know which one I’m talking about). You really have to be aligned with a kid and feel for his character to feel the heartbreak in that moment. And it’s a testament to Davis’ performance that the moment lands as well as it does.

7. Brad Pitt, Ad Astra

Pitt’s been delivering great performances… well, his entire career… but these types of great performances for over a decade now (and he’s got another great one this year, to boot). It started with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — he started acting more slowly, using stillness and silence, and using his eyes more and saying more while doing less. You see him expand on this in later performances. Moneyball is a masterpiece of that type of acting. And this feels like the pinnacle of it, because he’s in a slow, meditative space movie, and he’s behind a helmet for a good chunk of it. And all the acting he does is with his eyes, and with these tiny expressions. Plus he gets the bonus of having a character who, at the beginning of the film, stays totally cool and collected during even the most intense of moments, and we watch him slowly start to come apart over the course of the film. And Pitt handles it masterfully. The scene where he delivers the transmissions to his father, and those moments where he starts to realize what’s really going on… it’s some of the best work he’s ever done.

8. Robert De Niro, The Irishman

It’s a tough performance to gauge because of the de-aging. And not because his face is masked by this younger self. The technology is advanced enough to be able to catch all the expressions on one’s face and put all that in there. My problem with it is — we’re watching this guy over like 50 years… and I honestly don’t know what age he’s supposed to be for the majority of the movie. Because I know what Robert De Niro’s face looks like over all the different decades. I don’t know what this de-aged face is supposed to be. Apparently he’s like 30/35 at the beginning of the movie? Had no idea. Plus, certain scenes, the age starts to show. There’s that scene where he beats the shit out of the guy in the grocery store, and it looks like an old guy beating someone up. There’s no 30-year old in the world who hits like that. So that, to me, took a bit out of the performance. However, on the other hand, it is Robert De Niro and he is largely anchoring a three-and-a-half hour movie. And that is impressive. Because he’s narrating and he’s the focal point of most of the scenes. So I am very impressed by the performance. That said, I’m not sure I can call it one of my absolute favorites just because I’m not sure if I was witnessing an amazing performance or I loved it because I’m watching Robert De Niro in a movie I like talk and do stuff for three-and-a-half hours. Maybe over time I’ll figure that out. For now, eighth feels about right.

9. Mark Ruffalo, Dark Waters

I’d say this is the most underrated performance on this list. First off, anyone in a legal drama playing the lawyer (especially when there’s no big showy trial at the end of it for them) is never really gonna get the proper credit they deserve. This isn’t The Verdict. When the case does go to trial, Ruffalo isn’t even the lawyer in the case. So automatically he’s gonna get no credit for this. But it’s a very strong performance. Ruffalo’s one of those actors who makes everything look effortless, which also doesn’t help him to get on these lists. But when you watch the film, he’s doing some really great work. It’s more than just saying the lines. He’s putting a real undercurrent of a character in there, all while doing all the stuff he needs to do to get the film’s point across. He’s definitely not gonna be on most people’s lists, but he really should be.

10. Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse

He’s committed. That much anyone can say. I like this transformation of Robert Pattinson from ‘dead kid in Harry Potter’ to ‘sparkling vampire we all make fun of’ to ‘guy trying to become a real actor’ to ‘real actor we all respect the hell out of’. Good for him. Not everyone can do it. Because in the early half of this decade, he was clearly trying not to be the Twilight guy, but the material never quite caught up with him. You’d see glimpses of it in stuff like The Rover, but it never quite materialized. And then Lost City of Z and Good Time happened, and you went, “Oh, he really can act.” And then Damsel. And he strung a bunch of these together in a row. And now this (and The King). At this point Twilight is an afterthought when we think about him. And seriously, good for him. This performance, meanwhile, is just… it’s commitment. That’s the only way to describe it. He is all in on the weirdness of this movie and really gives it his all. It’s a very impressive piece of work. Especially since Willem Dafoe gets the flashier of the two parts. But it’s Pattinson who has to carry the movie, and he does a fantastic job with it.

11. Matthew McConaughey, The Beach Bum

Speaking of committed performances. This one is… less strenuous than Pattinson’s in The Lighthouse, but no less entertaining. McConaughey basically got to be drunk and high all the time and do whatever he wanted. I mean, sure, a lot of the film was clearly scripted and they got to edit down all the improvisation and unplanned stuff, but he still got to perform the scenes however he wanted, and it shows. It’s definitely one of the most consistent characters of the year, and he’s just a joy to watch. I feel like any list of the best male performances of the year has to at least mention this one.

12. Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

Doesn’t it say something that whenever Adam Sandler actually tries real acting he always ends up on people’s ‘best performances’ lists? This is another one of those performances that’s hard to leave off your list of best performances. I’m not overly crazy about that accent he put on, but you know what? He sticks with it. It never slips. Mostly what I’m impressed by is his ability to help maintain the level of tension throughout the film but also never allow it to seep into his character a lot of the time. His character always feels like he’s in control, even if he’s not. He always thinks he’s got another way out or around whatever’s just happened. It’s a very impressive piece of work no matter how you slice it.

13. Matt Damon, Ford v Ferrari

Damon has the trickier role in the film to Bale. Bale gets to be cool and drive the car and say what he feels. Damon’s gotta be the political one. So most of the time he’s figuring out what to say to get what he wants without pissing anyone off. It’s an admirable performance, and one not lost on me. Though admittedly, everyone does love the wild card more. And I won’t lie about that part either. Damon does have some really fantastic moments in the film, though. The final scene, of course, is one of them. But also he has a lot of quiet moments where he’s trying to figure out what his next move is, and a lot of that might get lost between all the flashy car stuff and great editing. Still, this is a terrific performance that the film needs to work as well as it does.

14. Daniel Craig, Knives Out

How entertaining is he in this movie? It feels like every time he does a film in between these Bond movies, he’s always great in it and I’m always mentioning him on these lists. This one, though… the character is there for him. The detective always gets the great monologues, and he knocks them out of the park. That southern accent is just perfect for the character, too. The film isn’t particularly built for ‘showy’ performances, but everyone in it is solid. And Craig particularly does a great job of receding into the background when he needs to and taking center stage when the moment calls for it. It’s sadly not a performance I can put at the top of this list, but it does belong on this list.

15. Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name

I mean, it’s basically Eddie Murphy. But also, it’s awesome. He’s very funny in this. It’s nice to see him giving a performance again in a real movie. Not that he ever really sold out, but he just ended up doing kids movies for a while because he had kids and was happy raising them. Which is fine. But this shows how great and electric he can be on screen when he’s in something with a pulse. It’s nice to have him back.

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