Essays · Movies

Performer of the Year (2019): Brad Pitt

This is Brad Pitt’s year, and we’re all just living in it.
Performer Brad Pitt
By  · Published on December 12th, 2019

This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.

This year has given us no shortage of skilled and praiseworthy performances. More actors than could be named here have stood out, but when deciding on a performer of the year, the recipient needs to be a cut above the rest. For this type of recognition, we at FSR look for someone who didn’t just deliver a solid performance (or performances), but someone who really seemed to hold the year in the palm of their hand; someone who, years from now, when reflecting on 2019, will be remembered as this year’s star. There’s only one right answer here: Brad Pitt.

Pitt’s celebrity has never exactly waned; there hasn’t been a year during my life-time where he wasn’t the pinnacle of stardom. But his career has been through a period of transition, one that he has emerged keener than ever to take on new challenges. In 2019, he filled various roles in widely different films and absolutely excelled. He’s spent the last 12 months commanding our attention and demonstrated why he’s — well, why he’s Brad fucking Pitt.

For starters, for over a decade, Pitt has been a notable producer, and through his company, Plan B, and he’s developed a sharp eye for promising films. He’s reaped the rewards of being a part of the teams behind Oscar-winning films, but there’s so much more to Pitt’s producing work than awards glory. He’s devoted a fair part of his career to throwing the weight afforded by his celebrity behind films that would barely show up on the radar otherwise.

Over the years, Pitt has quietly demonstrated the ways in which someone with privilege and a platform can extend their reach to benefit others. By producing films such as 12 Years A Slave, Selma, Moonlight, and If Beale Street Could Talk — all made by black directors, all foregrounding black characters and telling stories that engage with black experiences in America — Pitt has recognized that progress doesn’t come from speaking for someone else, it comes from knowing when to pass the mic.

This brings us to the first of Pitt’s contributions to 2019: producing the Sundance standout The Last Black Man In San Francisco. The film, a collaboration between writer/director Joe Talbot and actor Jimmie Fails, is inspired by Fails’ time growing up and living in the ever-gentrifying Fillmore District in San Francisco. Though Talbot is white, the film has been praised for producing a snapshot of what it means to be black in America by foregrounding Fails’ real experiences. In addition, it’s a beautiful and poetic meditation on the ties that bind people to places and to one another. Among all of the praise that this film is deserving of, there’s also the fact that it exemplifies the good that can come from a producer recognizing the raw talent of two men who have never made a feature film before.

This year, Pitt also produced David Michôd’s The King. While the film had a more middling reception than The Last Black Man In San Francisco, it’s a fact of the industry that you can’t win ’em all, and a producer unwilling to take a loss is one unwilling to take a risk.

Among Pitt’s prior (and risky) producing credits is James Gray’s underrated The Lost City of Z. Though the film barely made back its budget, this didn’t dissuade Pitt from continuing his collaboration with Gray. This year he starred in Gray’s most successful film to date, the haunting space odyssey Ad AstraPitt’s performance is remarkable and exceptional, mastering a delicate balancing act of inner turmoil and outward composure as an astronaut who journeys to the far reaches of our solar system in search of a father once presumed dead.

Pitt is most well known for his leading man roles. He seems to effortlessly transform into characters that catch eyes when they walk into a room; playing men who are charming and powerful appears to come easy to him. But as Pitt has made clear, he doesn’t care much for traditional heroes, a fact that pushed him into producing in the first place. Pitt, playing Roy McBride, is still the lead here — in fact, there are long stretches where he’s not just the main character, he’s the only character. But Roy is racked by anxiety in ways that aren’t often seen in leading men. Gray has had a career-long investment in male characters contending with masculinity and paternal relationships and this is no different. Roy is constantly but quietly distressed by how much of his identity has been formed in response to his absent father.

This highly introspective performance is one of Pitt’s strongest to date, but it’s also a performance that I don’t think could have existed a few years ago. In profiles this year, Pitt has come across as especially thoughtful and has been open in how he’s reflecting on sobriety, family, and his own masculinity. Pitt has played outlaws, idiots, and death personified; he’s obviously an incredibly gifted actor who can deliver stellar performances without necessarily drawing on personal experience. But the way Pitt excels in his portrayal of Roy speaks to an understanding of how his time spent looking inward has prepared him for such an emotionally delicate and contemplative role.

Pitt’s performance in Ad Astra is enough to make 2019 a banner year for him as an actor, but, miraculously, it’s not even his best performance. That honor belongs to his turn as stuntman extraordinaire Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Pitt’s performance as Cliff is magnificent and perfectly in tune with a surprisingly low-key Tarantino film. The majority of the film has a rather meditative pace, a rarity from arguably the most high-key of directors. Some of the best scenes are the most laid back ones, times when Tarantino is content to let us follow along as Cliff drives home, or when he allows us to take in the camaraderie between Cliff and Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio). We watch as they watch TV. It’s as plain as can be and stunning in its simplicity.

Rick is technically the lead, and DiCaprio’s skill at playing men torn up inside is on full display as the anxious actor combating his own industry. But on the other side of the duo, Cliff, the cool-as-cucumber man in the background, is the one who carries the load of the film’s nostalgic, wistful tone.

The film opens with a focus on Rick, explaining the strife he is experiencing in adapting to the changes present in Hollywood. After Cliff drops a fretful Rick at home, the film pivots and momentarily hands the narrative keys off to Cliff. It tracks him driving home, weaving through the streets of LA, until he arrives at his trailer, greets his dog, and cooks dinner. These are small moments, ones that in another film could have been inconsequential and left on the cutting room floor. But Pitt possesses an ease that is enrapturing. It would feel like a crime to remove even a shot from these moments. He has an effortless warmth that is inviting, as if we’re all settling in with an old friend, and these are details to be treasured.

Although Pitt is predominantly recognized as a dramatic actor throughout his career — something that doesn’t stop me from telling anyone who will listen that his work in Burn After Reading is one of the finest performances of the century — in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, so much of the humor comes from him. The acid-tripping silliness and incredulously heightened violence make for some laugh-out-loud moments that are memorable highlights of cinema in 2019. But the film’s true genius is in how it is impeccably detailed while feeling effortless and this applies to Pitt’s best comedic moments.

I look to the moment immediately following an extended flashback sequence, in which Cliff succinctly brushes off the memory with a simple gesture and a humorous “fair enough.” It’s absolutely perfect; concise, playful, and with a tone that ensures we understand just how little anything flusters Cliff. These two words might somehow be the line reading of the year. This should be unlikely, but Pitt is nothing if not capable of surprising us.

It’s lovely to see Pitt in a comedy, and it’s all the better that it’s a comedy where his humor is laid back and it’s clear he’s having fun and is in sync with the movie’s relaxed rhythms. It’s also unbelievably refreshing to see that he looks his age. Make no mistake, this is not anything close to a criticism of the 55-year-old actor. He looks absolutely fantastic, so much so that when he took off his shirt, a packed theater full of people collectively gasped. But he’s also wrinkled, and weathered, and, in keeping with the character, brutally scarred up. He looks amazing for his age but he also looks his age. There are no post-production smoothing effects happening here, a welcome change from the ways that so many films will tinker with the fine lines on the faces of their stars.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood isn’t only one of the best films of the year, it’s also a remarkable showcase of a side of Pitt we rarely get to see on screen, and it’s proof that the actor shows no signs of slowing down. He’s emerged as a front-runner for the Oscar, and while I’m happy to lead the campaign on his behalf, I can only imagine the potential win isn’t something Pitt is too concerned about. He’s been one of the most famous men in the world for over two decades and yet seems totally unfazed by celebrity and is instead perfectly content to find real significance wherever he can.

Pitt didn’t become the performer of the year just by delivering the impressive performances we’ve grown to expect. He commanded attention in 2019 by building on years’ worth of commitment and devotion to improving every film he puts his name on. This year, he’s continued to build on his resume as a producer and showed us that he’s willing to take risks on films that many others would pass on. He’s also delivered two of the best performances of his career and is in serious contention for what would be his first acting Oscar. But beyond awards glory, these performances demonstrate Pitt’s maturity and introspection, an indication that this outstanding year could be the start of a new phase of his career, one that I welcome with open arms.

No other actor has impacted the year in film the way Brad Pitt has. He makes it all look effortless, but the truth of his success falls more in line with Cliff’s final remarks: “I try.”

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.