With the summer of 2019 coming to a close and the almighty awards season looming on the horizon, we’ve already seen a lot of incredible stuff on television and in cinemas this year. And, as is frequently the case, you can trace some of those amazing TV moments and unforgettable movie scenes to the very same people, whether they’re actors, writers, directors, producers, or some uncanny hybrid who excels at wearing multiple hats. From breakout features by exciting filmmakers and multiple star-making performances from up-and-coming actors to résumé-expanding projects from established industry vets, 2019 has served as an impressive showcase for some of Hollywood’s biggest and newest talent, but a handful of noteworthy stars stand out from the pack. With that in mind, we decided to pull together a list of the 21 people absolutely ruling the year so far, earning massive critical acclaim, huge fan followings, and buckets of box office cash. Read on for the full list!
Madden’s memorable (and heartbreaking) turn as Game of Thrones’ original curly-haired dreamboat King in the North put him on the pop culture radar, but despite turns as a Disney prince (2015’s Cinderella) and a rom-com love interest (2018’s Netflix film Ibiza), his breakthrough moment didn’t come until recently. The Scottish actor’s performance in Certified Fresh Netflix hit Bodyguard as a PTSD-afflicted war veteran-turned-secret service guard for a British politician helped him kick off 2019 with a Golden Globe win. Months later, the Elton John musical biopic Rocketman, in which Madden plays the singer’s manager/lover John Reid, debuted to a four-minute standing ovation at Cannes and went on to earn nearly $188 million worldwide. (Madden’s performance was roundly lauded, as was his chemistry with co-star Taron Egerton.) Finally, in July, Madden joined Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek at San Diego Comic-Con to officially announce their next project: the stars of Marvel’s newest superhero team-up, The Eternals. We learned at D23 that he will be joined in the film by that other one-time King in the North, Kit Harington.
"If the film does nothing else but inspires everyone who sees it to call whoever that loved one is that they haven't talked to, then that is a success."
— Rotten Tomatoes (@RottenTomatoes) August 1, 2019
This year’s Sundance Film Festival will likely be most remembered for writer-director Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical The Farewell, which stars Awkwafina as a Chinese-born New Yorker who travels back east to visit her dying grandmother. The twist: The family has concocted an elaborate lie to get the everyone together without having to tell grandma she’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The movie – which was based on a This American Life episode in which Wang’s true-life tale was told – was picked up by A24 in Utah, and by the time of its release in July, it was among the best reviewed movies of the year. It also announced Wang, with only her second feature, as a major talent to watch. Expect a major studio (hello, Marvel) to scoop her up for her next project.
Once a Twilight cultural punching bag, in a role he talked about with apprehension to full-blown derision in interviews while filming, Pattinson has spent his post-Edward Cullen career building a reel of left-turn roles and bold performances without an air of grandstanding. Not all of them worked, but no one seemed to mind, Pattinson especially. But work with the likes of David Cronenberg, the Safdie Brothers, and James Gray enough and something’s gotta give. In 2019, America saw the release of Certified Fresh High Life, a vast and morose story of a father living alone with his daughter in deep space. (Imagine audiences walking in expecting a sci-fi epic and getting a Claire Denis movie instead!) Later in the year, Pattinson teams up with Willem Dafoe for The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ hotly anticipated follow-up to The Witch that delivered black-and-white and mad-all-over chills to audiences when it premiered in Cannes; the Oscar buzz has already started for Pattinson.
Oh, yeah, also he’s going to be the next Batman – but did we mention he was in a Claire Denis movie?
Few people saw Russian Doll coming. The Netflix show had pedigree – Natasha Lyonne in the lead, Amy Poehler as one of its co-creators – but hadn’t the Groundhog Day thing been done? Not like this, it turns out. The show put a dark, comic, and ingenious spin on the same-day-on-a-loop format as it dove deep into existential questions and also just made us laugh really, really hard. At its center was Lyonne as Nadia, the smart-talking, chain-smoking New Yorker trying to make sense of a strange – and often painful – new repeat reality. In addition to Russian Doll – up for Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a comedy at the Emmys – Lyonne was a part of Orange Is the New Black’s final season, the best reviewed of the series at a Certified Fresh 97%.
Following her massively successful 2016 Netflix comedy special, Baby Cobra, it was inevitable that comedian, writer, and actress Ali Wong was going to blow up: It turns out 2019 was the year for the big explosion. On the heels of a second kick-ass Netflix comedy special, 2018’s Hard Knock Wife, Wong charmed us hard in May with the hilarious Certified Fresh Netflix rom-com, Always Be My Maybe, which she co-wrote with co-star and longtime friend Randall Park; that same month, her acclaimed animated series Tuca & Bertie launched on the streaming platform. The series, from Bojack Horseman producer and production designer Lisa Hanawalt, stars Wong as an anxious songbird named Bertie, who, by the first season’s end, has undergone one of the most heartbreaking and complex character arcs we’d see on screen this year – and one that gave Wong a chance to show some emotional range. (Tuca & Bertie was among the most acclaimed new series of the year and Netflix faced a massive backlash when they inexplicably canceled it in July.)
The Kingsman star showed he had more than just (a lot of) Eggsy swagger when he wowed audiences and critics with his portrayal of Elton John in the musical biopic, Rocketman. The world got its first look at the performance – in which Egerton does all of his own singing – when the movie premiered at Cannes in May. The film and Egerton were given a huge standing ovation, which was enough to bring the actor to tears (luckily he had John nearby for a big consoling hug). The movie made almost $100 million at the domestic box office and Egerton could be up for a number of awards come the fall. But before then, we will see yet another side of Egerton: he’s voicing Rian in Netflix’s splashy Dark Crystal sequel series Age of Resistance, available August 30.
Initially known for his stoner brand of comedy, Seth Rogen has worked hard to expand his resume both in front of and behind the camera, and 2019 has served as a prime showcase for his talents. In May, Rogen starred in Long Shot, a surprisingly effective, heartfelt romantic comedy that found him matching wits and holding his own alongside Oscar-winner Charlize Theron; the chemistry between the two was electric, and critics took notice to the tune of a Certified Fresh 81% on the Tomatometer. Then, of course, Rogen lent his voice to the beloved role of Pumbaa in Disney’s remake of The Lion King, and while the film wasn’t a critical darling, nearly everyone agreed that Rogen and co-star Billy Eichner stole the show. On top of all that, Rogen also served as creator and executive producer on the Amazon superhero satire The Boys, which premiered in July, was Certified Fresh at 83%, and became a huge fan-favorite hit. Throw in the Certified Fresh comedy Good Boys, which was also produced by Rogen and opened in August in the number 1 spot at the box office, and it seems like he can do no wrong in 2019.
The English actress, a perennial Next Big Thing, has appeared in a number of films and TV projects since her ferocious breakout performance in Lady Macbeth, but few of them have earned her anything close to the high acclaim that was heaped upon her for that 2017 film. Then came 2019, which began for Pugh in February with a surprise winner in Stephen Merchant’s based-on-true-events comedy Fighting with My Family. The wrestling flick had a modest box office take, but it scored a Certified Fresh 92% on the Tomatometer, and it cemented Pugh’s status as a rising star. Again. Just a few months later, she owned the screen with a haunting performance at the center of Ari Aster’s sun-drenched nightmare, Midsommar; even the critics who didn’t like the movie had to admit she was electrifying in the role. And before the year is over, we’ll see her appear alongside Oscar darlings Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, and Meryl Streep in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Something tells us she’ll be up there giving acceptance speeches herself before long. And next year? Well, Pugh stars alongside Scarlett Johansson in a small flick about a Russian spy…
It’s a very good time to be Bill Hader (though isn’t it always?). His HBO series Barry – the show about the hitman trying to go straight via amateur acting lessons (!), which Hader created, writes, and stars in – has enjoyed two Certified Fresh seasons and is up for a stack of Emmys next month. Plus, those who have seen the upcoming IT: Chapter Two have cited Hader as the standout among a cast that includes heavy hitters like Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. His year only looks to get better, with the release of Noelle as part of the launch of streaming service Disney+; Hader plays a young, skinny, and overwhelmed Santa in the holiday comedy alongside Anna Kendrick.
Octavia Spencer got her first solo starring role this year with Ma, the psycho-horror flick about a middle-aged woman who becomes creepily obsessed with a group of teens after she helps them get booze from the local liquor shop. And while the film wasn’t exactly splattered with critical acclaim, reviews sang Spencer’s praises as the super-scary “Ma” – comparisons were made to Bette Davis’s Baby Jane – and the movie made decent money at the box office, earning $60 million worldwide off a budget of just $5 million. Spencer proved she could draw crowds. The actor’s other big 2019 release, indie drama Luce, did hit with critics: the film about a controversial school paper that leads a teacher to question the nature of an all-star student is Certified Fresh at 93%. Spencer, who plays the movie’s meddling/concerned schoolteacher, gives what many are calling a career-best performance that may put her among the Best Supporting Actress nominees come Oscar night next February.
Want an impossible task? Try being the standout in a cast that includes Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, and James Earl Jones. Comedian-turned-actor Billy Eichner managed just that this year, stealing the whole damn show – with an assist from Seth Rogen – as Timon the meerkat in Disney’s live-action-OK-fine-it’s-really-just-animation version of The Lion King. Eichner’s ad-libbed hilarity and unique spin on the character had even those who weren’t too hot on the movie singing his praises (and his version of “Hakuna Matata”). It was a good start to the year for Eichner, too: In February, it was announced he will star in and co-write a Judd Apatow-produced rom-com, in which he will play a gay romantic lead.
There were very few things people unanimously agreed upon about Quentin Tarantino’s nostalgic, laconic, violent love letter to 1969 Los Angeles, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; portrayals of Sharon Tate, Bruce Lee, and, well, women in general, left a lot of audiences split. One thing everyone seems to agree on, though, is that Leo has lost absolutely none of his ability to light up our screens – even after four years away from them. His portrayal of fading TV star Rick Dalton is a hot Oscar favorite already, with folks particularly falling for his tender scene with young Julia Butters’ Trudi.
Hail our new scream queen! Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, until 2019 best known for 12 Years A Slave, Queen of Katwe, and Black Panther, reached official horror icon status this year with two swift moves. First, she impressed genre fans at the Sundance Film Festival as a ukulele-strumming schoolteacher in Little Monsters, the Aussie zombie flick in which she gets drenched with blood and sings a soothing rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”; the movie should hit theaters later this year. Then Nyong’o put herself in the Oscar conversation with the dual roles of Adelaide and her murderous doppelgänger “Red” in Jordan Peele’s terrifying and critically acclaimed Us. The movie would make a ton of money when it opened in March and leave half the country doing their best croaky “once…upon…a…time…” Nyong’o impressions.
“Don’t let your dreams be dreams! Just do it!” Whoever said those words, Shia LaBeouf certainly has taken them to heart, making 2019 the year of a critical darling comeback. Once a bag-on-head puzzle – known for public drunken meltdowns and bizarre social experiments – LaBeouf has found the jelly jam to life: A little Peanut Butter and a lot of Honey to turn his prospects around. The Peanut Butter Falcon, an emphatic and rousing Mark Twain-style adventure, is Certified Fresh at 95% and has a huge Audience Score of 98%. Meanwhile, Honey Boy, based on his deeply vulnerable autobiographical screenplay, has maintained its perfect 100% score since its Sundance debut, and is due for release this November.
If 2018 was the year the world got to know Awkwafina, 2019 has been the year it learned it was not going to forget her anytime soon. It started in January when The Farewell debuted at Sundance to rave reviews, with critics praising the actor’s first lead – and mostly serious – role; the movie would open with the best per-theater-average box office weekend of the year in July, and is slowly becoming the surprise indie hit of 2019. (It’s also 99% Certified Fresh. Not bad!) Her golden run, which includes last year’s Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, shows no signs of slowing down: already this year we’ve seen casting announcements for her upcoming roles in Jumanji 2: Welcome to the Jungle, the live-action Little Mermaid remake, Disney’s new animated film Raya and the Last Dragon, and for Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Yep, the “My Vag” rapper is heading to the MCU.
Let’s be honest: every year since she broke through big with 2014’s Selma could be called Ava DuVernay’s year. Since releasing that Oscar-nominated film, she has become the first black woman director to helm a movie that earned over $100 million (A Wrinkle In Time), made the game-changing and acclaimed Netflix documentary 13th, signed up to direct DC’s New Gods, produced acclaimed TV series like Queen Sugar, and, through her production company Array, championed dozens of new voices and filmmakers. And yet 2019 might be her biggest year yet, thanks to When They See Us, her four-part dramatization of the case of the so-called “Central Park Five.” DuVernay’s acclaimed miniseries follows the arrest, trial, imprisonment, and eventual exoneration of the five young New Yorkers falsely accused of a vicious rape in Central Park, and it has been earning high-praise since landing on Netflix in May; the series is Certified Fresh at 96% and is up for 16 Emmy nominations.
As a best-selling novelist, the author of Coraline and Stardust has long “ruled,” but 2019 sees Gaiman in the second season of the TV adaptation of American Gods on Starz – and that’s just to start. His collaboration with the late, beloved novelist Terry Prachett, Good Omens, was developed by BBC Studios and Amazon Studios and released this year, starring Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) and David Tennant (Doctor Who). Like American Gods season 1, the limited series is Certified Fresh. Most recently – and to the delight of longtime Gaiman fans – Netflix announced in July that it is developing a show for graphic novel series The Sandman. “We now have the CGI, we now have the technology, and we now have an adult audience, and we have millions upon millions of people who love Sandman and would love to see it,” the author told Rotten Tomatoes in May.
Jordan Peele revealed he was more than just a funny guy when he unleashed 2017’s Get Out on unsuspecting audiences and catapulted straight to the top of everyone’s “Directors to Watch” list. The offbeat social-satire-cum-horror-thriller signaled Peele as a fresh new voice in the genre, and he proved he wasn’t a one-trick pony when his follow-up, this year’s Us, debuted with a monster $71 million opening weekend and a Certified Fresh 93% on the Tomatometer. He wasn’t done there, though. At the end of March, CBS All Access premiered its reboot of seminal sci-fi mystery series The Twilight Zone (Certified Fresh at 74%), with Peele not only hosting the show as a modern-day Rod Serling, but also providing guidance as executive producer. As if all that wasn’t enough, he still had time to remind everyone how hilarious he is by reuniting with his Key & Peele co-star Keegan-Michael Key to steal multiple scenes in Toy Story 4 as Bunny and Ducky.
Avengers: Endgame. Mic drop. What, you wanted more? You mean it’s not enough to juggle dozens of punchy, kicky, laser-blasty superheroes coming from different power sets, perspectives, and dimensions into a cohesive, thrilling whole? To not buckle under the weight of 11 years of growing anticipation, across 21 movies – all Fresh, most Certified, and each a No. 1 box office opener – and not only meet those expectations, but exceed them? And for that to flourish into the highest-grossing movie of all-time? Well, if you needed more, just over a month after Endgame, when the blockbuster buzz was still riding high, Joe and Anthony Russo announced their next project: an animated adaptation of Magic: The Gathering, outing them as the most famous fans of the 26-year-old trading card game. Behind the camera and in career development, the Russos never fail to surprise.
In a year in which 11-time Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her HBO series Veep have returned for awards contention, season 2 of an intimate little streaming comedy, Fleabag, and its creator and star are challenging expectations. The Amazon Prime Video series’ new season sits atop our list of the “Best TV Shows of 2019 (So Far)” with a 100% Certified Fresh Tomatometer score on 78 reviews. Season 1 also has a 100% score, making Fleabag the only series with more than one season and a title-level 100% score backed up by entirely Certified Fresh seasons. Four of Waller-Bridge’s five Emmy nominations are from this year, including for Fleabag, Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the season 2 premiere episode. She is also creator and executive producer of 2019 Outstanding Drama Series contender Killing Eve, which was also nominated last year in the category. On top of her TV accomplishments, Waller-Bridge was tapped to work on the Bond 25 script – now known as No Time To Die – and turned in a scene-stealing voice performance as L3-37 in last year’s Solo: A Star Wars Story. The star is not just ruling 2019, she’s owning it.
Still, if we have to crown one person as the true ruler of 2019 – so far – the title must undisputedly go to Keanu Reeves. Just how good has 2019 been for Keanu? Let us count the ways. He kicked it off with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, which would be the best reviewed of the already acclaimed series and almost double the domestic and international haul of Chapter 2. He followed that with an extended cameo in the Ali Wong-Randall Park rom-com Always Be My Maybe on Netflix, and showed he had zero qualms about making fun of his image as the ideal boyfriend (he also delivered a movie entrance for the ages, and one which launched a thousand memes). Next came scene-stealing voice work as the stunt-performer toy Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4, and the announcement that he is going to star in The Matrix 4 . He’s also been shooting another sequel to Bill and Ted. (He also dazzled attendees of Xbox’s E3 briefing with a surprise appearance that revealed him as the star of 2020 video game title Cyberpunk 2077 — and, yes, he was breathtaking.) Between projects he’s also made headlines for just being a stand-up guy. So yes, it’s been the Year of Keanu (and we will never mention 2018 – era of Replicas and Siberia – ever again).