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The 11 best film and TV performances of 2019

Contributed by
Dec 27, 2019

Never get snobby about genre storytelling — in this new era, where extraordinary actors don't hesitate to more fantastical narratives, within the realms of horror, fantasy and sci-fi you'll find some of film and television's most memorable performances.

It was a great year for genre-bending work, on both the big and small screen, and the list below can barely hope to contain them all. It can, however, manage to remember the work of two Oscar winners as well as two multiple-time Oscar nominees.

There are superheroes, of course, but there are also trauma survivors, angels, demons, and ice cream parlor employees. 2019, after all, was a pretty wild year.

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Himesh Patel, Yesterday

As the only person on the planet who seems to remember that the Beatles exist, relative newcomer Himesh Patel didn't just have to perform new covers of every single classic McCartney/Lennon track himself, but sell himself as both con artist and romantic comedy lead.

He makes it work, though, ensuring that Jack stays sympathetic even as his fame grows. Yesterday... could have easily gone cliche... But Himesh was great... in Yesterday.

Robin Stranger Things 3

Maya Hawke, Stranger Things

New characters can sometimes have a hard time making an impact on a pre-established series, but Maya Hawke's sardonic ice cream slinging role as Robin was the dominant scene-stealer of the third season of Stranger Things.

She might not have been the emotional core of the narrative, but Robin's big moments, especially the careful and sweet scene in which she comes out to Steve, made us hope that the fourth season makes her a featured player.

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Rosa Salazar, Undone

While technically Amazon's Undone would be considered an animated series, the fascinating blend of live-action performance and rotoscoping results in a series where star Rosa Salazar is fully present on screen as Alma, a young woman struggling to figure out her place in the world — only to discover that the world as she knows it may be falling apart around her.

Bringing with her a funny, raw and sad energy, Salazar also proved her talents this year with another augmented role, the titular robot girl of Alita: Battle Angel. She might be one of today's most underappreciated talents.

The OA Part 2 Netflix

Brit Marling, The OA

No other actor this year had to share screen time with a giant octopus named Old Night and make it not just real, but haunting and believable. But Brit Marling did that and oh so much more in the second season of the trippy and tragically canceled Netflix series. (Honorable mention to Jason Isaacs as well for his dual role as Hap and, of course, Jason Isaacs.)

Joker Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

However you might feel about Todd Phillips' Scorsese-inspired take on the Batman bad guy, it's impossible to deny the level of commitment Joaquin Phoenix brought to his every moment on screen. From the way in which Arthur Fleck curls in on himself during his moments of grief to the genuine glee he seems to find in finally embracing his inner rage, it's one of the year's most visceral and memorable performances.

Good Omens David Tennant Michael Sheen

David Tennant and Michael Sheen, Good Omens

Recognizing both the angel and the demon at the center of Neil Gaiman's miniseries adaptation might technically be a bit of a cheat. But one of the aspects which made Good Omens so unforgettable as an adaptation was how well the two stars played opposite each other, truly selling the bond birthed from literal centuries of conflict as perhaps one of television's most memorable friendships. Both actors were perfectly cast, but more importantly, they were perfectly cast together.

Carnival Row

David Gyasi, Carnival Row

Amazon's steampunk Victorian fantasy series was headlined by Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, but David Gyasi stole every scene he was in as Agreus, a faun aiming to integrate himself into the upper-class society of the Burgue.

Agreus' Jane Austen-esque romance with the initially snobbish Imogen (Tamzin Merchant) is one of the first season's chief delights, finally answering the question we've all wondered: "What would happen if Mr. Darcy had horns?"

Midsommar

Florence Pugh, Midsommar

One of the year's most engrossing horror films derived most of its power from one of 2019's true breakout stars. Florence Pugh was also brilliant in Fighting With My Family and Little Women, but Ari Aster's Midsommar unleashed Pugh as a grief-stricken young woman who visits an isolated Swedish community with an underlying darkness.

The deeper Dani gets drawn into this world, the weirder things get, and the dizzying madness that ensues never feels unreal, thanks to Pugh's grounded empathy. When she finally smiles... it's a look you'll never forget.

Lupita Nyong'o Us

Lupita Nyong'o, Us

Plenty of actors have taken on double roles for transformative results, but what Nyong'o achieved under Jordan Peele's direction remains one of the year's most haunting performances, both for the extreme physicality she had to bring to both young mother Adelaide and Adelaide's sinister Tethered self. From her first introduction to the film's final twists, you can't take your eyes off the Oscar winner — knowing just what she might be capable of.

Tony Stark Avengers Endgame

Robert Downey Jr., Avengers: Endgame

What makes Downey Jr.'s performance so memorable as Tony Stark, especially in the character's swan song, is how good he is at knowing what moments require full commitment and which ones play best when they're casually tossed away.

It's a nuance of stories rooted in the comic book world that can often get overlooked, given how often the genre can lend itself to melodrama in spandex, and so many of Endgame's most memorable, emotional moments are rooted in Downey Jr.'s commitment not to playing a superhero but to playing a man. He might have a supersuit, but what makes him a legend is the way in which he's more afraid of losing the ones he loves than losing his own life, making the year's biggest movie also one of its most heartfelt.

Regina King Watchmen

Regina King, Watchmen

It's hard to think of an actor this year who was given more to do with one role, and hard to think of an actor who did it so well. As Angela, a wife, mother and Tulsa detective whose secret identity of "the nun with the motherf***ing gun" isn't the only secret she's keeping.

King is funny, sexy, heartbreaking and incredibly badass, as committed to the show's intense action sequences as she is to facing down the worst of humanity. Watchmen was a series packed with oddities (space and otherwise) but as strange as its alternate history might have seemed, it found its human grounding in Angela's journey, her triumphs and tragedies. Regina King was the heartbeat of this show, and Watchmen soared as a result.

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