From comedy to drama and everything in between.
It stands to reason that a year full of stellar movies and TV would also have some phenomenal performances, and no shortage of actors we believe deserve recognition. Across every genre and every medium, 2019 was jam packed with some of the very best of the best.
We’ve rounded up 13 different roles to give special accolades to as we wind down our end of the year coverage, from comedic brilliance like Bill Hader in the title role of HBO’s Barry to the gritty, sea-shanty singing psychological drama of Willem Dafoe and Robrt Pattinson in The Lighthouse–and everything in between.
Let us know who and what your favorite performances of the year were in the comments below, and don’t forget to check out the rest of our 2019 year end round ups, like the year’s best comics, best anime, and best pro wrestlers.
1. Anthony Carrigan, Barry
Barry has an outstanding ensemble cast and isn’t exactly short on good performances. But while they all do great work in Season 2, it’s Anthony Carrigan who steals the show. His portrayal of Chechen gangster Noho Hank was played mostly (and brilliantly) for laughs in Season 1, but the second season allowed the actor to give the character a darker, more dramatic edge. Hank’s desperation to be liked and his bumbling approach to the criminal life makes it easy to forget that he’s still a ruthless killer, but there are moments in Season 2 where we are truly reminded of this, most notably the scene in Episode 2 when he turns on Barry–up to that point his hitman idol. It takes real skill to make us laugh so much while retaining a menacing edge, and Carrigan proves himself an absolute master of both. – Dan Auty
2. Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
We wouldn’t normally pick two performances from the same movie, but it’s hard to separate these two. Robert Eggers’ wonderfully weird psychological horror The Lighthouse features Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in almost every scene, and the brilliance of each performance is entirely reliant on its interplay with the other. Dafoe has the louder, more verbose role, as the experienced older Thomas, who has spent decades manning a lighthouse, while Pattinson’s mysterious Ephraim is more guarded and reserved. But the relish with which both actors deliver Eggers’ archaic but often filthy and hilarious dialogue is a joy to witness. – Dan Auty
3. William Zabka, Cobra Kai (Season 2)
Honestly, William Zabka isn’t a name anyone could have possibly have expected on a best performances list two years ago. The one-time Karate Kid star didn’t have any high-profile roles after the 1980s. That is, at least, until Cobra Kai came around, allowing the actor to revisit the Johnny Lawrence role he made famous. While Zakba shined in Season 1 as he brought Johnny back to life and dropping him into a modern setting, the latest season let the actor dig even deeper into the role, allowing for a nuanced performance that explored a man coming to terms with his past and trying to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. Cobra Kai–and Zabka’s performance in it–shouldn’t be this good. Revisiting a movie like Karate Kid over three decades later should not work so well. But it does and we’re thankful for it. – Chris E. Hayner
4. Brian Cox, Succession
Succession focuses on one of the most powerful fictional families in the world, the Roys, owners of the media conglomerate Waystar Royco. At the head of this empire is the patriarch, Logan Roy, one of the most menacing and power-hungry characters on television. It takes a truly talented actor to bring Logan to life, and Brian Cox is more than up for the challenge. In Succession’s second season, Cox terrified us (“Boar on the floor”, anyone?), made us despise him with his greed and despicable treatment of his family, and at times made us laugh as Logan. But despite his raucous outbursts and power grabs, we also saw through to Logan’s vulnerable side as someone who was afraid to lose control and who deep down, loves his family in his own narcissistic way. Cox continues to shine as the truly foreboding Logan, and we can’t wait to see how he handles season 2’s cliffhanger ending. –Chastity Vicencio
5. Bill Hader, Barry
Bill Hader’s had a pretty killer year, performance-wise, but Barry absolutely takes the cake. The former SNL superstar has pushed himself further into the heartbreaking, anxiety-inducing character of a hitman trying desperately to break good as an actor across both seasons of the HBO show, but Season 2 elevated him even further. Barry is brutal to watch because no matter how desperately you want him to win, the constant reminder of his darkness–the same darkness that drives him to literally murder people–is always looming just over his shoulder. — Meg Downey
6. Zendaya, Euphoria
In Euphoria, Zendaya delivered both a career-defining performance and one of the most vulnerable performances on TV in years. In the HBO drama, Zendaya completely sheds her Disney image as 17-year-old recovering drug addict Rue Bennett, who feels completely empty after a brief stint in rehab and is struggling to stay clean. The show deals with heavy subject matter, exploring a group of high school students’ experiences with drugs, sex, relationships and trauma, and will make you dread the idea of raising a teenager in modern society. Rue serves as both the main character and narrator of the series, and the show would not be as convincing and effective as it is without Zendaya’s exceptional and realistic performance. We suffer with Rue, we root for her, and we feel everything she feels with a heavy heart. — Chastity Vicencio
7. Regina King, Watchmen
HBO’s Watchmen is a stellar achievement in TV, but it wouldn’t have worked half as well without the fantastic performances of the whole cast, anchored with unflinching resolve by Regina King and her character, Angela Abar. Time and time again King brought layers of complexity and emotion to an already massively dense concept and world, making the show’s universe feel at once fantastic and grounded. King sold every second of Angela’s violent inner turmoil, tumultuous past, and vulnerable core. — Meg Downey
8. Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Playing one role in a movie can be trying enough, but Lupita Nyong’o not only delivered a standout performance for the matriarch of the Wilson family, Adelaide, she also terrified audiences with her character’s doppelganger, Red. While Adelaide may be a mother who loves her family and will do anything to protect them, Red is stalking, menacing, and her voice will send shivers down your spine. Individually, both of these characters are worth mentioning for the best performances of the year, and Nyong’o nailed both of them in one movie. — Mat Elfring
9. Ruben Rabasa, I Think You Should Leave
While Tim Robinson’s Netflix series I Think You Should Leave was a standout for 2019, Ruben Rabasa’s portrayal as a guy with terrible ideas in a focus group was the most talked about character from the bizarre sketch series. While he’s only on screen for roughly three minutes of the entire first season, he steals the show. His dedication to this out-of-place madman makes the turn for the sketch–against Paul and his terrible ideas–such a hilarious moment, as we see Rabasa’s character dab and do that bottle flip meme twice. Sure, this character may seem easy to play, but Rabasa delivers a ton of variety to his chaotic character. – Mat Elfring
10. Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as the Clown Prince of Crime joins the growing list of career-defining Joker performances, gleefully matching predecessors like Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, and others in sheer, joyful lunacy. But Phoenix’s Joker brings something that no previous version has had: humanity. Fleck-turned-Joker isn’t simply an insane foil for Batman or a naturalistic force of chaos. He’s a man who was born with the deck stacked against him, nudged and shoved endlessly toward an inevitable explosion of violent self-acceptance. Fleck is absolutely a bad guy, but thanks to Phoenix’s dark, weird, committed performance, you might just find yourself rooting for him regardless. – Mike Rougeau
11. Ana de Armas, Knives Out
The performance that holds all of Knives Out together, through twists and turns, attacks and betrayals, laughs and tears, is Ana de Armas as the murdered family patriarch’s nurse and friend, Marta. Knives Out turns the murder-mystery-mansion genre on its head, but the whole thing would fall apart without de Armas’s incredibly expressive, sympathetic performance at its core. Granted, Daniel Craig’s Kentucky Fried Chicken-flavored detective comes in a close second. – Mike Rougeau
12. George MacKay, 1917
Sam Mendes’s instant World War I classic 1917 comes with a strong gimmick: The whole movie appears to take place in one extremely lengthy single take. The whole thing wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without a strong performance at its core, and the movie’s success arguably rides on actor George MacKay’s shoulders. His Lance Corporal Schofield is initially reluctant to embark on this suicide mission, and MacKay’s vulnerable, relentless performance drives home the movie’s twin themes of heroism and tragedy. – Mike Rougeau
13. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag
The talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge doesn’t just star in Fleabag–she created it, too. The acclaimed comedy is a terrific showcase for everything Waller-Bridge does so well, from huge laughs to real tears as her titular character attempts to navigate life as someone who can only be described as a rather lovable jerk. She’s far from perfect–that’s kind of the point. But Waller-Bridge’s portrayal of her is. – Mike Rougeau