My Favorite Female 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.

Today are the female lead performances. And as tends to be the case a lot of other years… this one was a bad year. Women in general don’t get good roles for themselves, not nearly on the level as men do, so you’re typically stuck picking through the same crop of about 25 performances, and then because I watch so much, maybe I’ve got a handful more I can pick from. But this year in particular, it was a struggle. I really only had about ten I felt really confident about, and everyone else was a compromise of, “I guess…” and, “Sure, let’s throw them on.” This is also the one where I will most wildly differ with the majority of the other ‘lists’ that are out there. Because I most distinctly did not care for a lot of the stuff that most other people have considered ‘the best’ from this year when it came to female leads.

So here are my favorite female lead performances of 2019:

1. Aisling Franciosi, The Nightingale

I was stunned by this performance and, like most years, we have a favorite performance that I can’t understand why it didn’t get more notice and nominated for every award. She’s so good here. She has to convey so much with her face in this movie, and you really feel for her almost immediately, and then the big — event — happens in the first act and propels the rest of the narrative, and she just continues to build on all of it throughout the rest of the film. It’s a really intense performance. I loved every moment of it and there was no one I’d have considered for this first spot over her. And, if you wanna know just how good she is in this movie? Her next role is in a miniseries version of Black Narcissus, and she’s gonna be Sister Ruth. Not just anyone can play that part.

2. Cate Blanchett, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Another performance I saw and went, “Why is no one talking about this?” We all know Cate Blanchett is good in everything, so that part’s not surprising. But this entire movie flew totally under the radar. The Globes nominated her for this, but you get the feeling it’s because of who she is more than anything. But seriously, this is one of the best performances I saw this year. It’s the perfect portrait (comic, admittedly, but there’s no reason a comic performance should be rated every bit as highly as a dramatic one, if it’s as good) of someone grappling with severe creative block, whose life feels like it’s stuck, so they’ve settled themselves into focusing on the minutiae rather than figuring out what the larger problem is. There’s something so wonderful about how she plays this, and it was really the second time watching it that I really found it impressive. I’d have put her in my top five before it, but after the second time, she was easily top two. This is one of the most unheralded performances of the year and it’s crazy because normally everyone’s on board with feting Cate Blanchett.

3. Awkwafina, The Farewell

This performance really impressed me. It was hard to take her seriously at first because her stage name is based on a pun. But not in the Rip Torn way where that’s just his nickname, but rather an ironic sort of pun that feels hipster-ish. And in all the other stuff I’ve seen her in, mostly she just felt like she was playing herself. This is the first time you felt like she was really acting. She’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do here, and she does it wonderfully, and when she finally breaks down in the movie, you’re just heartbroken. It’s a beautiful performance that I would be very happy to see get nominated when all is said and done.

4. Florence Pugh, Midsommar

She was also really good in Fighting with My Family this year, but it’s the Midsommar performance that really stands out. It’s like the Toni Collette performance in Hereditary… it’s intense. Though unlike that one, she’s not as wildly over the top most of the time and not doing broad comedy. The movie is move overtly funny than Hereditary is (even though Hereditary is a funnier movie, by and large), but Florence has a lot of serious work all throughout it, and is generally either grieving, dazed, drugged or manic most of the time, and she handles the whole thing quite well. I’m not gonna say this is my favorite performance on the list, just because I do think for a lot of it she is just kind of sitting there, looking at stuff, while the film goes off on other tangents. But in a year as weak as this, I’m very fine with calling her one of my five top performances. Her work alone before they go on the trip is really strong.

5. Saoirse Ronan, Little Women

I love Saoirse. That’s really the long and short of why she’s here. This is a movie star performance. It’s not particularly more nuanced than Lady Bird or Brooklyn, but it’s just a straight movie star performance. And if it was good enough for Christian Bale to make my top five, it’s good enough for Saoirse Ronan. Besides, it’s the performances I liked best. I’m not trying to figure out an objective ‘best’ list. I’m picking my favorites. And she was one of my favorites. I loved how she played Jo and I loved how much emotion she put into the performance. You really felt every action she made within the film. It felt like a real character and not ‘Jo March’, if that makes sense. I looked for someone who had more of a performance that made me go ‘oh wow’, but there really wasn’t anyone this year, so I’m left with me loving her and the performance for putting her here.

6. Lupita Nyong’o, Us

It’s a trick performance. Though to explain just how tricky it is would be to spoil a lot about the movie. But even so, she’s playing two characters, and her second character is the only one who actually speaks. And while a lot of the movie is straight thriller, she’s got a lot of emotional beats there and has to carry a lot of character baggage throughout the performances, and that’s really impressive. Most years I’d probably have this 7th or 8th, but she almost makes the top five for me this year just because the year is so weak for performances. Plus, she’s Lupita, and I love her. And that always helps. But the performance is really top notch.

7. Ana de Armas, Knives Out

Love her, loved the performance. It’s the lead of the film, and she has to carry a lot of it. A lot of the tension and thrills in this movie are because you are aligned with her and rooting for her. That doesn’t just happen. That takes performance. And she gives a fantastic one.

8. Felicity Jones, The Aeronauts

It’s a straight ‘action’ type performance, but she has a surprising amount of emotional beats in there as well. The whole bit with her husband. There’s some real dramatic stuff there, though really what I’m impressed by is how much I bought her as a daredevil pilot and then got to see her do all this crazy shit. It’s one thing to watch a character in peril and feel for them because they’re in peril (see: 1917), but it’s another entirely to both feel for them and really feel something. And that’s how I felt watching her. She’s usually great in stuff and she’s particularly great here.

9. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Fast Color

I love her. I think she’s one of the most underrated people working. And I loved her performance here. It’s a straight indie drama where she just happens to have super powers. But the majority of the film isn’t about those powers, it’s about her having been a drug addict and a negligent mother and now coming back to try to make amends with both her own mother and her daughter. It’s a very strong performance in one of the most overlooked films of the year.

10. Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose

It’s a very great role, and I kinda wish she had more to work with. The movie feels like it takes a while to really get going and there were so many juicy opportunities the character could have had but doesn’t. But still, Buckley does a really great job and has seemingly jump-started her career off the back of this one. Apparently she got started on a singing show in the UK and has mostly done TV to this point. But now, she’s been in Judy and is gonna be in Dolittle and the next season of Fargo and is in Charlie Kaufman’s new movie. So clearly I’m not the only one who thought she did a tremendous job in this movie. And she can really sing. Holy crap, does she have pipes. That’s the highlight of the performance.

11. Alison Williams, The Perfection

I loved her in this. Portions of this may be compared to the Get Out performance, mostly because she goes in a couple of different, twisty directions. But I felt like she did a tremendous job with each of the different situations the character had to play, and never quite tipped the hat into any different direction. There’s that section in the middle of the movie where you’re just waiting for that ‘keys’ moment to happen, but with her, you’re never quite sure if it’s coming. It’s very impressive.

12. Samara Weaving, Ready or Not

It’s a genre-type performance, but no one said those were less worthy than others. I became a fan of her after seeing her in three wildly different movies within about the span of a month in 2017 — The Babysitter on Netflix, Mayhem and Three Billboards. And each time, I went, “Who is that? She’s really good.” And then I realized they were all her. And this is her first role on screen since then, and it’s a doozy. If nothing else, she can go to genre conventions forever on just what she’s done already. But it takes a very particular type of performance to nail this one. Because it’s a horror-comedy. So she’s gotta do the ‘scared face’ thing a lot, but she also has to be charming and funny, and have a certain kind of timing to really nail down some of those moments. And she’s really good in this. The writing is good, but you also need a good actor to pull it off, so when the end comes, you’re rooting for her and cheering when she finally comes back and starts taking everyone out. And she’s fantastic in doing so. I think she deserves a ton of credit for what she accomplishes in this movie.

13 & 14. Beanie Feldstein & Kaitlyn Dever, Booksmart

I’m just making it a joint entry for the two of them. Because they were both really charming in the ‘titular role’, as Beanie would put it. I’ve really liked Kaitlyn Dever from seeing her in Short Term 12, and it’s been nice seeing her get in more mainstream things and deliver really solid work throughout. And Beanie felt like she was just waiting for a role like this to break out, so it’s nice to see that. Really what makes this movie work is the chemistry between the two of them and their natural screen presences. You just buy them as characters and as friends, and they both do a really fantastic job in this.

15. Keira Knightley, Official Secrets

For lack of other options (I most certainly was not overly impressed with Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story, Cynthia Erivo in Harriet — as much as I’d like to have been, in her case — and Renée Zellweger in Judy or anyone in Bombshell, though minor shout outs to Tessa Thompson in Little Woods and Geraldine Viswanathan in Hala), Keira made the final spot for me. I think she had a very tricky role in this movie, and she acquitted herself well. I can’t really say much more than I thought it was a very solid performance, but the year is so weak, that’s where we are. Maybe 2020 will be better.

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