Every once in awhile, an actor gives a performance so striking that you know it will become part of their legacy. Think Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, or Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. So, which actresses had a similar moment this year? We rounded up the 12 career-defining film and TV roles for women in 2019, and we think you’ll agree with these picks.
Before we dive in, we want to be clear on how we’re defining this category. There were plenty of noteworthy performances this year, like Margot Robbie in Bombshell or Renée Zellweger in Judy, that we’re not mentioning — not because they weren’t exceptional, but because they won’t quite define how we think of that actress for years to come. (Margot Robbie is defined by I, Tonya and Renée Zellweger is defined by Bridget Jones — I don’t make the rules!)
The roles we picked are either characters that put these actresses on the map in a big way — like Beanie Feldstein in Booksmart or Zendaya in Euphoria — or those that challenged established actresses in new ways, like Charlize Theron in Bombshell or Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story.
We’re calling it now: For years to come, these roles will be burned into our memory and linked to the actress’ name. (“Who’s Beanie Feldstein?” “The girl from Booksmart!” etc.) Read on for the 12 most career-defining roles we saw this year.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s irreverent Fleabag may have originated in 2018, but viewers will all agree that the show — and Waller-Bridge herself — will go down in history for what it became in 2019’s Season 2.
Waller-Bridge plays a cynical Londoner who loves sex and hates confronting her emotions. She’s mourning the loss of her best friend, and in Season 2, falls in love with a hot priest (Andrew Scott), who turns her whole approach to life on its head.
Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
Yes, that’s right. Despite her long, long career before this point, we’re holding firm: Hustlers has put Jennifer Lopez on the map in a way no other film has to this point.
From the moment Lopez appeared on screen as Ramona Vega, the ringleader in a group of strippers who drugged men and took their money in the early 2010s, she conveyed a power we’ve never seen before — and the movie wouldn’t have been the same without it. Her epic striptease to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” was just the icing on the cake.
Awkwafina, The Farewell
Awkwafina has exploded onto the scene with roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, but The Farewell showed us a new side to the 31-year-old actress. Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese-American writer with a close bond to her Nai Nai (grandmother). When Nai Nai is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, her family decides not to tell her, and only Billi seems truly conflicted.
On a long family visit, we see Billi struggle with clashing cultural ideas of grief, life, and death. It’s an earnest story of a young woman trying to figure out how to do right by those who she loves best, and grappling with the reality that there is no right answer.
We have a feeling more than one member of Euphoria‘s cast will come to consider their performance here a breakout role — but no one more than Zendaya, whose performance sets the tone for this exploration of teen life.
Zendaya plays Rue, a high school student whose recent OD and trip to rehab have traumatized her family. Struggling to stay on top of her mental health, Zendays gives a haunting, exhausting portrayal of what it’s like to live with addiction and depression while trying to maintain a normal life.
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Anyone who’s ever read or seen Little Women (and/or seen Ronan in other films) will instantly understand she was born to play this role — but seeing it in action was even more thrilling than expected. Ronan plays Jo March, the second-oldest of the March sisters and the biggest tomboy, who writes plays and dreams of becoming a professional writer. Foiled by Florence Pugh’s Amy and Emma Watson’s Meg, Ronan is the perfect fiery leader of their group — and the perfect counterpart to Timothée Chalamet’s dreamy, head-over-heels Laurie.
Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart
Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart stole our hearts this summer and highlighted the talents of two burgeoning A-listers: Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever. Feldstein plays Molly, a high school senior who’s devoted her life to overachieving and setting her life on the right track. Her world is shattered when she realizes how much of the high school experience she’s given up, and she sets out to correct all that with one final, crazy, high school night — which she chases with just as much determination and commitment as all her other goals.
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Charlize Theron plays former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in Bombshell — or rather, she is Megyn Kelly. Bombshell shows the days at Fox after Gretchen Carlson revealed that Roger Ailes had harassed her, and the investigation that followed to uncover more incidents of harassment and assault. Theron’s portrayal of Kelly in those crucial days eerily mimics the anchor’s mannerisms and gives a new understanding of how those at Fox were affected as the news of their company’s culture came out.
Florence Pugh, Midsommar
Florence Pugh stunned in Little Women as well, but there’s no denying that her role in Midsommar will be what made her. Pugh plays Dani, a student whose sister has just committed suicide and killed their parents with her. Still shaky and numb, Dani follows her less-than-committed boyfriend to Sweden to observe a midsummer celebration — and ends up seeing much more than she bargained for.
Far from the average horror movie heroine, Dani is the emotional heart of this movie.
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Lupita Nyong’o shook us to our core in Jordan Peele’s Us — twice. Nyong’o plays both Adelaide Wilson, a wife and mother trying to take a vacation with her kids and her tether, Red, who’s been trapped underground her entire life and is willing to do anything for her chance to live in the real world.
Nyong’o’s carefully crafted voice, physicality, and affect allowed her to realistically play the inverse of herself, and helped layer our understanding of the character. We knew Nyong’o had talent — this role shows off her precision and range.
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Everybody is buzzing about Netflix’s Marriage Story, and Scarlett Johansson has been the first to say this role pushed her like others never have. Johansson plays Nicole, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of Adam Driver’s Charlie Barber, and the mother to their son Henry. An actress who sidelined her movie career to support her husband in New York, Johansson plays a woman who’s slowly waking up to what she really wants from life, and learning how to put her needs first for the first time in a long time.
Johansson emotes real confusion, grief, and love — and delivers some of the most elaborate monologues of her career.
Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll
Orange Is The New Black star Natasha Lyonne was made for this role — and it helps that she didn’t just star in this time-warping series, but helped create it. Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, an engineer caught in a loop of reliving her 36th birthday. Nadia tells it like it is (often to her detriment), and her confidence is only matched by her apathy.
Lyonne’s unapologetic Nadia was a truly unique female character — one that’s rarely allowed to command the lead, anyway. Lyonne (along with Waller-Bridge and others on this list) is doing the Lord’s work of proving that women, like men, don’t have to be likable to be eminently watchable.
Jodie Comer, Killing Eve
In Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s other smash-hit show, Killing Eve, Jodie Comer’s Villanelle is a sociopathic assassin with just the tiniest bit of a crush on Sandra Oh’s Eve. (You haven’t watched yet? It’s all streaming right here on Hulu.)
Comer is an absolute revelation as Villanelle, bursting into infectious (and sometimes terrifying) spurts of glee and rage. She’s glamorous, petty, and vain — and bloodthirsty, vengeful, and lethal too. It’s a genuinely electric performance, and we doubt we’ll ever get tired of seeing it.