Best of 2019 – Lead Actor


Over the last few days I’ve been reflecting on the best acting performances of 2019. It’s day four and it’s time to look at the final category. We wrap things up by looking at Lead Actor. This group may not be as ripe with stellar performances as the past couple of years but it was still tough to narrow it down to only five performances. Here are my picks for the best the year had to offer.

#5 – Mads Mikkelsen (“Arctic”)


It’s sad but I don’t know of anyone who is talking about “Arctic” or more specifically Mads Mikkelsen’s rugged, stoic performance. Mikkelsen is sublime, able to carry the weight of the film on his shoulders through both his intense physical commitment and deep emotional resonance. “Arctic” is a survival film in the fullest sense and Mikkelsen sells every moment with a steely yet measured realism. Simply put, he’s great.

#4 – August Diehl (“A Hidden Life”)


Not just any performer can do well in a Terrence Malick movie. It takes a special talent to move with the filmmaker’s unique visual and storytelling rhythms. This is especially true for “A Hidden Life” and August Diehl is the perfect fit. Quiet, expressive, and deftly in sync with Malick’s meditative beats, Diehl’s ability to visualize inner turmoil, heartfelt conviction, and loving concern is astonishing. It’s one of the best performances of the year that too few people have seen.

#3 – Brad Pitt (“Ad Astra”)


A key part of Brad Pitt’s fabulous 2019 was “Ad Astra”, a quiet and contemplative slice of science-fiction. His portrayal of a highly decorated yet tortured astronaut is some of the best work of his career. It’s a subdued and understated performance, internalized yet so effective that nearly every feeling can be understood through his pained eyes. Pitt is a proven big Hollywood star who probably has a ton of projects to choose from. I love seeing him make choices like this.

#2 – Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”)


I don’t know if any actor has watched his star skyrocket quite like Adam Driver. In Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” he is in top form playing one-half of a New York City couple navigating the bruising, messy travails of divorce. Driver has done a little bit of everything throughout his career and he brings all of it to this role: tenderness, humor, naïveté, sorrow, pain, fury. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, he’s also a really good singer!

#1 – Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)


No performance in 2019 mesmerized me and got under my skin quite like Joaquin Phoenix did in “Joker”. Phoenix is no stranger to losing himself in a role both physically and emotionally, but his transformation into the deeply disturbed and frighteningly sinister Arthur Fleck is unlike anything he has done before. Taking on such a well known character is a challenge, but Phoenix digs into it and makes it his own. It’s easily my favorite performance of 2019.

And that wraps up my look back at the 2019 movie year. What do you think of my choices for Lead Actor? Let me know in the comments section below.

30 thoughts on “Best of 2019 – Lead Actor

  1. I haven’t seen Arctic or A Hidden Life yet. I know my husband watched the former and really liked it. I’m glad to see some love for Brad Pitt in Ad Astra. Adam Driver had my favorite lead performance of the year.

    • One of my biggest frustrations is how few there are who have had the opportunity to watch A Hidden Life (my favorite film of 2019). and I’m really surprised that Pitt is getting no award season love for Ad Astra. I thought he was phenomenal.

  2. I agree in regards of Joaquin. My other favorites of the year were Roy Chiu (DEAR EX), Leonardo DiCaprio (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD), Antonio Banders (PAIN AND GLORY) and Zachary Levi (SHAZAM!). I liked Adam and Brad’s work, but not quite best-of-the-year for me. I haven’t seen ARCTIC nor A HIDDEN LIFE. The latter is scheduled to be released here on April, but the former doesn’t even have a distributor.

  3. Back in the day I never would have expected Joaquin Phoenix to have ascended, both in acting ability and in Academy esteem, but he has gotten there with passion and integrity. Starting with The Master and rising through Her, You Were Never Really Here, The Sisters Brothers, and now Joker, Phoenix truly is a star shining with glory. He’s earned that Oscar. I saw Mads and Brad but not the others’ performances. Mads could win for physicality if nothing else, Brad for the screenplay and some damfine acting. Brad needed a best actor nomination for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I don’t care how much DiCaprio “transformed” in it.

    • Glad to hear from someone else who saw Arctic. And you’re right about Phoenix. One good performance after another. And he doesn’t do anything bland or unoriginal. He really challenges himself which I appreciate.

  4. p.s. I just finished watching, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and don’t think it was nominated for anything. What are your thoughts on it? I thought there was some excellent acting going on in that movie!

    • I really like the performances and generally like the movie. But it’s one that I’ve always said I wanted to rewatch before even reviewing. I haven’t gotten around to doing that yet. I have a screener for it so I have no excuse.

  5. I saw ‘Arctic’ and liked it. Mads did a very good job–but, I wouldn’t say deserves a Best Actor nod. I thought George MacKay did just as good a job. I know how much it’s eating you that Hidden Life was snubbed. I haven’t seen it yet and will take your word for it that August Diehl’s subtle performance was outstanding. 😉

  6. A Hidden Life was just taken out of my nearest art-house theater today as I’m now going to have to wait for it on Netflix or DVD. At least Parasite is now back at my local multiplex though I don’t know for how long as I’m now stuck at home because of my bronchitis.

    For me so far…

    1. Adam Driver-Marriage Story
    2. Leonardo diCaprio-Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
    3. Ronan Griffin Davis-Jojo Rabbit
    4. Brad Pitt-Ad Astra
    5. Willem Dafoe/Robert Pattinson-The Lighthouse

    Honorable mentions: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Evans-Avengers: Endgame, Joaquin Phoenix-Joker, and Tom Holland-Spider-Man: Far from Home.

  7. Brad Pitt was fine in it, of course—even good. But I’m one of the few (from how it seems online) or one of the many (amongst my friends) who thought that Ad Astra was a complete mess of a film. The love that movie gets is mystifying to me.

    • I can understand that. It’s definitely not a movie for everyone. It goes at its own pace and it certainly doesn’t follow any specific genre norms. For instance my wife didn’t care for it at all.

  8. great post Keith! I too think JP is the top actor this season. AD is a close second.. Haven’t seen AHL yet but look forward to falling asleep while watching it just to see this performance. Not a fan of Arctic, found it much too slow and boring.

    As for BP in AA, I had very high expectations for the film and was a bit disappointed with how it was presented. Hope I’ll like it more on a rewatch even though I agree that he is amazing here. Thankfully, he;’ll probably still get an acting Oscar this year for his superb performance in OUATIH, especially given the fact that he will be up against 4 previous Oscar winners.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks man. I know a lot of people who didn’t go for Ad Astra. I’m a huge fan (I’ve seen it three times). It just really resonated with me on several levels. My wife on the other hand, she didn’t care for it. So you’re definitely not alone.

  9. Great picks. I want all of them to win, especially Adam Driver for Marriage Story. He’s genuinely one of the best actors (and singers!) out there. I haven’t seen Arctic, but Mads Mikkelsen should get an award for his entire career anyway. 😉

    • What a year for Driver. He has turned into one of the best we have today. And he’s such a quality guy. You can’t help but root for people like him.

  10. ADAM!

    Terrence Malick – I will never like him… after Tree of Life, I think I’ve been avoiding him and I’m okay with it.

    I know Joker is a controversial movie this year but I liked Pheonix’s performance. I prefer Adam though.. in terms of emotionally wracking me, Adam Driver did it better.

    • Malick is definitely not for everyone. I loved Tree of Life but I think this is a better film.

      As for Phoenix and Driver, both are just superb. It’s hard to compare because they give such different performances in such different roles. But both are phenomenal. Give them both Oscars!!!!

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