Movie MVPs of 2019: Florence Pugh and Adam Driver (Plus Keanu!)
Posted on December 31, 2019 at 8:00 am
Every year one thing I especially look forward to are the surprises — the actors we have not heard of as the year begins but who will dazzle us with acting skill and cinematic charisma, and to those we think we know but discover all over again as they show us range and ability we had not recognized. This year my acting MVPs are one in each category.
The one who was all but unknown last year but gave us three performances that could not have been more different and each was fully committed, thoughtful, and utterly compelling.
First, she played real-life wrestler Saraya Knight in “Fighting With My Family,” written and directed by Stephen Merchant.
Then, she was Dani in “Midsommer,” one of the year’s most disturbing horror films. She plays a perhaps-demanding but overall normal young women struggling with a devastating loss who joins her sometimes-distant boyfriend (Jack Raynor) at a once-every-90-years summer festival that gets, well, out of hand.
She plays Amy in Greta Gerwig’s gorgeous “Little Women,” giving more depth and heart to the character than in any previous portrayal, including Alcott’s.
All of this makes me very excited about her next film, “Black Widow,” where she plays the sister of Scarlett Johansson’s Avenger.
While we wait, take a look at her earlier performances as Lady Macbeth (not the Shakespeare one, though equally murderous).
And she played Cordelia opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins in “King Lear” (available on Amazon Prime):]
We already knew Adam Driver, of course, from his breakthrough on Lena Dunham’s “Girls” to his appearances as Kylo Ren in two Star Wars movies. But 2019 was another breakthrough for him as he appeared in very different roles in three films.
He was back as Kylo Ren, of course, in “The Rise of Skywalker.”
He played real-life Congressional staffer Daniel Jones, who would not let the record of American abuse of detainees in “The Report” (on Amazon Prime).
And he played a character based on writer-director Noah Baumbach in “Marriage Story” (available on Netflix). The vulnerability he shows in this film is breathtaking. He even sings Sondheim, and it is very moving. His co-star, Scarlett Johansson, has also had a remarkable year with a beautiful performance in this film and what I think is her career best so far in “Jojo Rabbit.”
I was also lucky enough to see him on Broadway in his Tony-nominated performance in “Burn This.” Coming up for him is “The Last Duel,” written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who also co-star, along with “Killing Eve’s” Jodie Comer.
I have to mention Keanu Reeves, as well, who should get some sort of good sport award for playing a gif-worthy heightened version of himself in “Always Be My Maybe,” a different version of himself in “Between Two Firms,” Duke Caboom, an Evel Kenievel-like daredevil doll in “Toy Story 4,” and an unstoppable assassin in “John Wick 3.”
I look forward to more from all of these performers (more Bill and Ted!) but most of all I look forward to the actors we don’t know at all this year but by next December 31 we won’t break able to imagine the movies without them.
Any good actor can play characters who have great speeches and witty dialogue, who express extreme and expressive emotions like passion, fury, shock, and who determine the direction of the storyline. But Jonathan Majors had to find a way to play Mont, a character who is quiet, gentle, and observant, literally along for the ride—he and his best friend Jimmie Fails ride one skateboard, holding on to each other. Majors showed us who Mont was with the subtlest expressions and gestures, all within the context of the film’s delicate, poetic lyricism.
Co-writer/director Joe Talbot told me that Majors improvised one of the movie’s most striking scenes, when Mont approaches a group of men standing on a sidewalk taunting those who walk by. They are a sharp contrast to Jimmie and Mont, who may not be realistic in their plans but who are always focused and active. Their constant commentary also functions like a Greek chorus. In the initial script, Mont was supposed to distract the group with a magic trick. But Majors suggested that Mont surprise the group by critiquing them as though they were in an advanced acting seminar with a shared vocabulary of dramaturgy. This reveals a lot about what Mont has been thinking and the way he sees the world. And it beautifully sets up a climactic moment near the end of the film. Mont finally speaks up, fittingly, first through a play and then directly, with a message he knew would be devastating for Jimmie. Majors shows us that Mont knows he risks ending the most important relationship he had, but knows it is essential for Jimmie’s well-being. Majors made Mont more than a sidekick, a fully-realized character of his own, ultimately someone we care about and root for—and perhaps wish we could be lucky enough to have as a friend ourselves.
And the movies I really suffered through in 2019, including (inevitably) some that turned up on some top ten lists from other critics this year but really did not work for me:
Lucy in the Sky
Playing With Fire