Oscar watch: What makes a ‘truly astonishing’ performance?

Why We Wrote This

Good acting is a “know it when you see it” proposition for film critic Peter Rainer. Here, ahead of Sunday’s Oscars, he shares performances from 2019 that showcase the art form’s intuitive best. 

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Brad Pitt is nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”

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A question often asked of movie critics is: What do you look for in a performance? What is your criteria for excellence?

Acting – like movie criticism, for that matter – is an art and not a science. I don’t go into a film with a checklist. Acting is, or should be, an intuitive process, and there is nothing more enjoyable than those moments when an actor confounds my expectations and does something truly astonishing. 

The ideal is when actor and role are equally distinguished, and 2019, despite its unevenness, had its fair share of such matchups. Any year featuring tiptop work from the likes of Laura Dern, Antonio Banderas, Saoirse Ronan, Joe Pesci, and Brad Pitt – to name just a few – is OK by me.

Besides those Oscar nominees, other notable performances included Octavia Spencer as a besieged high school history teacher in “Luce,” and Mary Kay Place as a rural Pennsylvania mother who practically martyrs herself in service to others in “Diane.” As Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Tom Hanks turned what might have been a stunt into something soulful. 

These days especially, good acting is often the best reason to go to the movies. 

One thing I’ve learned as a movie critic over the years is that a good actor will get me through a bad film. The movies right now might not be the best but the general level of acting in them is high. It’s been this way for a while. I suspect this is primarily because there are many more good actors than there are good roles for them to play. Lots of silk purses are being spun from a sow’s ear. 

Of course, the ideal is when actor and role are equally distinguished, and 2019, despite its unevenness, had its fair share of such matchups. Any year featuring tip-top work from the likes of Laura Dern, Antonio Banderas, Saoirse Ronan, Joe Pesci, and Brad Pitt – to name just a few of the more high-profile names – is OK by me.

A question often asked of movie critics is: What do you look for in a performance? What is your criteria for excellence?

Acting – like movie criticism, for that matter – is an art and not a science. I don’t go into a film with a checklist: Charisma, check. Looks, check. Believability, check. Acting is, or should be, an intuitive process, and there is nothing more enjoyable than those moments when an actor confounds my expectations and does something truly astonishing.

Overlooked genres

Take, for example, Lupita Nyong’o in “Us.” I was not a big fan of Jordan Peele’s overly ambitious shocker, but Nyongo’s dual role as a tremulous middle-class mom and her depraved double was a tour de force of the best kind. Her two guises showcased an entire range of feeling. It’s the kind of performance often overlooked at the Oscars because it’s the centerpiece of a horror film. Not “artistic” enough. True to form, Nyong’o was not cited by the academy (though she won the New York Film Critics Circle best actress award).  

Another type of performance often slighted by the academy is small-scale, unshowy acting in movies lacking a big commercial push. Such was the case this year with Octavia Spencer, whose supporting work as the besieged high school history teacher in “Luce” was among the most moving and nuanced acting I saw all year.

And then there’s Mary Kay Place, who, despite winning both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics awards for best actress in “Diane,” was shut out of contention at the Oscars. Place’s performance as a rural Pennsylvania mother who practically martyrs herself in service to others was one of the year’s finest. It will be remembered by those who saw it when flashier star turns are long forgotten. 

Another underseen performance that I trust will not be forgotten is Sienna Miller’s work in “American Woman,” a career best, in which she plays a righteous working-class mother who exasperates everyone around her. Miller doesn’t condescend to us by making her character “likable.” The part is thinly written but – such is the mysterious alchemy of acting – she gives it emotional levels it likely lacked on the page. 

Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP
Actors Winston Duke (left) and Lupita Nyong’o (center), and director Jordan Peele, pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film “Us” in London, March 14, 2019.

International choices

I was happy this year to see some marvelous work in films from abroad, especially Asia. As the lovelorn gangster’s moll who seeks retribution in “Ash Is Purest White,” Zhao Tao solidified her position as perhaps China’s finest actress. I’ve rarely seen a performance that melded as skillfully hardheartedness and vulnerability. I appreciated Kang-ho Song as the corrupt patriarch in “Parasite,” a tricky, darkly comic piece of performing that never settled into a single mood.

Sometimes actors go completely against type and expand our notions of what they can accomplish. Throughout his career, Banderas, most notably in the films of Pedro Almodóvar, has specialized in sinuously explosive characters. In Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory,” he plays a haggard, furrowed film director, and the shock is in how resonant his performance is. All of Banderas’ characteristically outward energy is directed inward this time, and it’s more powerful than ever. 

Something similar happens with Pesci as the mob boss in “The Irishman.” Pesci is best remembered as the nattery gangster with the hair-trigger temper in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” This time out, all that volatility has been subsumed. A world-weariness clings to his character. He sets in motion the violence that others carry out.

In that same film, Al Pacino, playing Jimmy Hoffa, is at his expansive best. Pacino’s career has had a fascinating arc: The robust stillnesses of his Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” films has given way over the years to an equally forceful flamboyance. He’s one of the few actors of his generation who still clearly loves to act.

Teamwork, dreamwork

It’s always fun to see terrific ensemble acting, and “Little Women” – featuring Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Eliza Scanlen, and Dern – provides that in surplus. Ronan’s Jo March prompts the question: Is there anything this 25-year-old phenomenon can’t play? Dern’s compassionate matriarch is especially pungent when set beside her spiky divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story.” Equally good, totally different. 

Many other 2019 performances graced the good and not so good films in which they appeared. 

As Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Tom Hanks turned what might have been a stunt into something soulful. Pitt in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” proves yet again that a bona fide movie star can also be a first-rate actor. Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” did a psychological deep-dive that recalled (as it was supposed to) Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.”

There’s much more: Jamie Foxx and Tim Blake Nelson in “Just Mercy,” Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari,” Adam Driver in “Marriage Story,” Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in “The Two Popes.” 

These days especially, good acting is often the best reason to go to the movies.

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