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My Top 5 Favorite Performances of 2019

In a great year for cinema, these performances stood out for their compelling characterizations and top shelf acting.

By Anthony NastiPublished 4 years ago 7 min read
Top Row (left to right): Ana De Armas in "Knives Out," Joe Pesci in "The Irishman." Bottom Row (left to right): Eddie Murphy in "Dolemite is My Name," Brad Pitt in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker."

5. Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / The Joker, Joker

There's no possible way I could exclude this from the list; in many ways, this is the most important performance of them all.

You can't talk about any aspect of Joker without addressing the controversy surrounding it; before it was even released, it was accused of catering to the violent ideology of the alt-right and potentially inspiring copycat crimes by less stable viewers, and many took umbrage that Phoenix's performance would somehow humanize and even justify the violent actions of the character's notoriously sadistic acts of mayhem and murder by portraying him as a victim of society's lack of empathy and acceptance towards mental illness.

Phoenix had to walk a tightrope; if he portrayed the character as either too human or too monstrous, it would've been a failure. But Phoenix is no stranger to these type of challenging performances, nailing the dynamics needed to portray Arthur's gradual transition from well meaning loner to the Clown Prince of Crime perfectly.

Early on, you do sympathize with Fleck, because he's someone who's always had the odds stacked against him, no matter what he does to try and cope with the hand he's dealt. Even when he begins to exhibit signs of his inevitable descent, you can't help but be just as if not more disgusted by the circumstances that led him to his actions as the actions themselves.

While I 'enjoyed' certain performances more (hence why it's ranked fifth), Phoenix's is easily the most compelling in terms of being a true character study requiring insane devotion to craft. For years to come, people are going to be talking about this performance.

4. Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite is My Name"

Everyone loves a good comeback story, and Eddie Murphy illustrates a beautiful one with his turn as legendary stand-up comedian Rudy Ray Moore, who shot to fame with his surprise hit movie, Dolemite.

As the subversive and raunchy Moore, Murphy returns to his comedic roots with a performance that is both a glowing tribute to Moore's impact and indomitable spirit, as well as a significant reminder of why, despite all his poor career choices and other criticisms that have dogged his career since the mid-1990s', Murphy himself remains an influential and irreplaceable figure in the comedy world. The Eddie Murphy on display is the bold, fearless and immeasurably talented rebel who owned Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s', who commanded the stage in Delirious, who dazzled with his firecracker performances in Trading Places and Coming to America. Most importantly, the performance provokes confidence that Murphy is finally ready to recommit himself to what he does best, and that's a motherfucker of a good thing.

3. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Tarantino's latest his all of his usual late era hallmarks (aside from, refreshingly, the 'n' word): characters to witty, too cool and too conflicted to exist, bloodshed, a plot that mixes fiction and fact to a comically liberal theory, slick dialogue, and truly stellar acting.

While co-leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Margo Robbie hold their own, it's Brad Pitt's aging stuntman Cliff Booth that owns the screen. This is ironic because Cliff himself doesn't own much of anything; as the longtime friend, stuntman and driver for DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, an actor with a career in crisis and a drinking problem, Pitt plays Booth with the same carefree spirit of his early career performances, while not losing the depth of presence or maturity he's harnessed over the years. Little troubles Cliff, he's perfectly content being Dalton's literal and figurative fall guy; onset and off, Cliff goes above and beyond in his devotion to Rick.

So little troubles him that when he is finally thoroughly spooked by a trip the mountains that ends with a near death experience at the hands of Manson family associates, the fear he feels is almost too palpable: a man who defies death every day for a living suddenly finds himself without a safety net for the first time.

This is Pitt at both his most confident and most vulnerable, and ensures that unlike his character, Pitt won't be taking a back seat to anyone any time soon.

2. Joe Pesci as Russel Buffalino, The Irishman

Even having been away from the screen for nine years prior to the release of The Irishman, the public still has a pretty set perception of what to expect from a Joe Pesci performance: lots of screaming, cursing, shooting, stabbing, beatings and general bloodshed, embodied by the actor's short stature and shrill shouting. While it is easy to dismiss Pesci's legendary performances in films such as Goodfellas and Casino as exploitative of this style of acting, the temperament mirrors that of the real life counterparts he was portraying in these films.

Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas and Nicky Santoro from Casino were brash, angry upstarts who always had something to prove; they never get the opportunity to rise beyond the ranks of a glorified muscleman to mafia higher-ups, and that frustration continually eats away at them, causing them to become appropriately more volatile and unhinged as time goes on.

In The Irishman, Pesci plays noted Pennsylvania crime boss Russel Buffalino. That Pesci is now playing a boss instead of a foot soldier informs his performance, because Buffalino has nothing to prove. He doesn't get blood on his hands because he can have others do it for him, he doesn't need to be constantly watching his back because he's watching over everyone else's. His loyalty is never in question because your loyalty to him determines your survival. He doesn't need to shout and scream to get his point across, because his mere presence and status is far more intimidating.

As Buffalino, Pesci's voice never rises above a whisper. He is cold and rational, almost never cracking a smile or letting out a laugh. There are scenes where he says nothing at all, letting his eyes and facial expression do the talking as he methodically plots out his next move. He's far more frightening than the standard Pesci hothead because you don't know what's coming next to him, whereas you can easily surmise whenever Tommy or Nicky wanted to clobber in someone's skull with a bat or put a bullet in waiter's foot. As his relationship with Al Pacino's obnoxious and recalcitrant Jimmy Hoffa grows increasingly more frayed, you still don't quite know if he wants to really whack Hoffa or use a more subdued method to cripple his power. Even when he's not onscreen, Pesci's shadow haunts everyone and everything onscreen. He is the puppet master behind the curtain, and what powerful strings he pulls. It's unlike any performance Pesci has ever done, and he absolutely nails it.

1. Ana De Armas as Marta Cabrera, Knives Out

Almost every character in Rian John's excellent 'whodunit' is an objectively terrible human being, reeking with elitist smugness, self-righteous pomposity, and a sociopathic detachment from reality (among other characteristics). Even its hero, Daniel Craig's southern fried private eye Benoit Blanc, often comes off as condescending and even somewhat bumbling despite being an overall decent person and detective. On paper, this not all too uncommon from many of the classic Christie and Chandler mysteries of the early 20th century, where every character including the hero either has something to hide or is simply in possession of at least one insufferable personality trait.

Perhaps Knives Out's most significant deviation from the norm of the genre is that the film has a pure soul at its center, a character you can root for without any reservations or qualms about their motivations; furthermore it's a character that spits in the face of both the established tropes of the genre itself as well as the archetypes represented by the other characters.

Marta Cabrera, a registered nurse who serves as a caretaker for ill fated matriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a hard working daughter of Latinx immigrants, thorough and caring in her job performance, and completely devoid of any sort of malice or selfish intentions; in fact, the mere idea of lying is physically repulsive to her (see the movie to get more insight on that statement).

While Marta is well written, a flat or outright terrible performance would've rendered the revolutionary aspects of her character superflous; thankfully the role was put into the capable hands of Ana De Armas, who nails Marta's kindness, vulnerability, and uneasiness with a situation she is increasingly pushed to the forefront of. Even as the onus of culpability for Harlan's murder seems to point to her, the audience never loses its sympathy for Marta, hoping that her plot resolves with her winning the day. Pitted against heavy hitting performances from Craig, Plummer, the aforementioned Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and several others, De Armas outshines all of them with her graceful yet quietly intimidating screen presence and precise characterization.

The role is not only a big win for De Armas, but for the future of Latinx representation in cinemas. For too long, Latina actresses have been saddled with either generic housekeeper roles or sexually vivacious but emotionally vacuous femme fetale roles often to contrast the snow white blonde heroine. With Marta, De Armas kicks down the door for a whole new era in which these talents can take roles like this where race is either totally irrelevant to their character, while also emphasizing the innumerable strengths and positive contributions of their culture.

Without question, the year's most important original character.


About the Creator

Anthony Nasti

Aspiring music journalist, occasional dreamer. Searching for the secret looking for the sound.

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