Here we are again, way later than usual—a look back at my favorite performances of 2020. Of course, 2020 didn’t lack for challenges, even when simply looking at the cinematic landscape, but thankfully neither the actors nor their craft were dimmed as a result. You know you’ve got your work cut out for you when your five honorable mentions could easily slot in for a top five any other year!
One quick note—in keeping with my tradition, I’ve broken down these categories to match the Oscars. That said, I’m seriously considering going gender-neutral in the future, recognizing that by my current metric, I may stand to omit non-binary actors, which is not my intention. I aim to be as inclusive as I can (even in my tiny corner of the Internet).
As per usual, these are preferential as opposed to “best” performances. However, unlike in previous years, I’m eschewing my traditional ranked list for a list of four “nominees” and one “winner” representing my favorite. Each category will still have five honorable mentions appearing in alphabetical order. We start with…
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Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Richard Jenkins as Robert Dyne, Kajillionaire
Udo Kier as Michael, Bacurau
Orion Lee as King-Lu, First Cow
Matthew Macfadyen as Wilcock, The Assistant
Stephen McHattie as Gordon, Come to Daddy
Brian Dennehy as Del
A beautiful swan song for the venerable character actor, Dennehy’s tender performance seems built upon tiny profundities. He evolves Del from a reserved, wary man to a gentle sage, and his friendship with a young boy shows how much both parties are in need of connection. Dennehy always seems patient, never overcrowding his scene partners and maintaining an earnest respect for each one, no matter their age. We get the sense of Del as a man who has had his share of joy and sorrow, of humble victories and deep regrets. Dennehy’s delivery of a monologue about re-living his life (not to correct anything, but only to appreciate it even more) is awe-inspiring in its simple grace.
Eamon Farren as Alex
As a recovering addict in Isabel Sandoval’s beguiling drama, Farren gives us a man who undermines the trust not only of his fictional counterparts, but of the viewer as well. He makes you root for his assured recovery…right before spiraling back into old habits. But Alex never seems feckless or beyond hope; in fact, he appears quite capable. Farren makes believable Alex’s renewed hope in his future, as well as his reckoning with old prejudices. We see each of these moments as discoveries on Farren’s face—even if it’s unclear exactly what’s going to stick. While Alex’s story may not necessarily be one of ultimate redemption, he instead comes across as an ever-evolving human being, complete with all the hopes and relapses that entails.
Paul Raci as Joe
Sound of Metal
Playing an addiction counselor, Raci never insists upon us, never turns a delicate moment into Oscar fodder. He is calm and comfortable, a person so matter of fact in his methods that it almost seems as if director Darius Marder had stumbled upon the character in real life and simply asked if he could film. Still, this is far from a stoic man, and Raci proves Joe is uncannily capable of reading his patients without turning him into a savant. His conversations with Riz Ahmed’s Ruben reveal a tenderness and investment in his patients that goes beyond just a job to do. It was uncharacteristically thoughtful of the Academy to honor the work of this largely unknown character actor, and testament to how undeniable his performance.
Glynn Turman as Toledo
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
It would be so easy for Toledo to simply fade into the background. Seemingly idle and oblivious, he becomes easy comedic fodder for his fellow bandmates. But in Turman’s hands, Toledo proves that he’s far more than just a passive victim of life’s scourges. He embodies hard-won wisdom, built upon adaptability, and speaks to the pains felt by nearly every character of color in the film. It’s clear in a piano-driven monologue, which Turman makes a tribute to survival. Director George C. Wolfe focuses on Turman’s expressive eyes, as he seems to look backwards and forwards through time, acknowledging the past and divining the future. Toledo may be Ma Rainey’s piano man, but as an actor, Turman is closer to conductor.
Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Edgar Hyman
I’ve extolled Stuhlbarg’s virtues before in my annual favorite performances, but seldom for portraying such a sinister character. Playing husband to Elisabeth Moss’s Shirley Jackson, Stuhlbarg’s Stanley has a light-footedness and undeniable charm that hides his manipulative streak. Stuhlbarg proves especially adept at tapping into Josephine Decker’s performance art-style filmmaking, where characters blur the line between play-acting and sincerity. Whether lobbing Parthian shots at his wife or slyly seducing a new houseguest, Stanley always keeps you guessing—you never know when it’s all in fun and when he’s deathly serious. Stuhlbarg blurs the line so well, we might start to wonder if there’s truly any difference.
My Favorite Supporting Actresses
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Marsha Stephanie Blake as Teri, I’m Your Woman
Adèle Haenel as Denise, Deerskin (Le daim)
Margo Martindale as Enid Nora Devlin, Blow the Man Down
Gayle Rankin as Alexis / Marissa, Blow the Man Down / The Climb
Dianne Wiest as Susan, Let Them All Talk
Gemma Chan as Karen
Let Them All Talk
There’s truly no bad performance in Steven Soderbergh’s suitably talky drama, but something about Chan’s elegant work as a literary agent sticks with me. Her character is high-powered and ambitious even to the point of deception, yet Chan plays her with an unassuming friendliness. But it’s Karen’s more vulnerable moments, and the way Chan patiently builds to those moments, that really impress. We see the fragments of her loneliness, of secrets long held and cultivated, slowly spill to the surface (and when they do, it’s the faucet that won’t turn off). She’s caught somewhere between lonely soul and shady operator, and Chan’s performance captures all the shading in between.
Kim Sae-byeok as Young-ji
House of Hummingbird (Beolsae)
Kim may play a version of the “supportive teacher” stock character we see in so many coming-of-age films, but she imbues Young-ji with a sense of rebelliousness along with the compassion and support we may expect. In this way, we don’t see Young-ji as a prop for the narrative, but rather a full person with her own life of aspirations and shunted-aside dreams. Her genuine affection for our young heroine Eun-hee develops unsentimentally, not given to grand gestures but rather gentle encouragement. As played by Kim, Young-ji’s often placid expression belies a love that never fully reveals itself but nonetheless feels ever-present. It’s the kind of love and support we can only wish all children will be fortunate enough to receive.
Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos
Owing to the conceit of Brandon Cronenberg’s body-swapping thriller, we don’t actually see a ton of Riseborough as Vos (it’s mostly Christopher Abbott). But rest assured, her screen time represents the most primal part of her character, and she’s not holding back. This is an unconventional character study, failing to offer the catharsis of leaving an assassin’s life behind, but embracing that life for all its destructive liberation. And while it may take us a while to track where the film is going, Riseborough’s countenance shows a kind of fatalistic surrender. Often bathed in menacing red light, she almost appears to drink it in. It’s the perfect face for this anti-redemption story.
Gina Rodriguez as Melanie Whitacre
As Melanie, Rodriguez enters Miranda July’s experimental drama at exactly the right moment—just when the quirky antics of its protagonists seem poised to subsume the film. Full of life and seemingly unable to stay on any one subject, she’s a breath of fresh air that doesn’t totally upend the film in the process. More than that, Rodriguez manages to show the combination of empathy, patience, and understanding that exists in Melanie’s being, the exact things that draw our heroine “Old Dolio” toward her. But even as she proves a natural emotional bedrock, we sense her life would go on even without Old Dolio (although that final scene, in which they share a passionate kiss, seems to indicate it will be very much “with”).
Essie Davis as Anna Finlay / Ellen Kelly
Babyteeth / True History of the Kelly Gang
Davis played two matriarchs in 2020, both sharing an unconditional love for their children but branching out in totally different directions, personality-wise. As Anna in Babyteeth, she plays a mother slowly self-destructing in the face of her daughter’s terminal illness, embracing the chaos of her life even as it comes crashing down around her. Her journey to eventual acceptance of such a shocking loss feels utterly believable even as it’s totally devastating. And as the rock-solid support structure behind infamous outlaw Ned Kelly, she casts a Lady Macbeth-esque shadow, as firm in her love for her son as she is vengeful against the forces that beset them both. These are ferocious parts, and Davis etches them in pain and blood. They constantly skirt the line between chaos and control, completely lived-in and utterly unpredictable. At this point, the only thing predictable about Davis’s work is the consistent quality.
My Favorite Leading Actors
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, Sound of Metal
Bartosz Bielenia as Daniel, Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało)
John Boyega as Leroy Logan, Small Axe: Red, White and Blue
Levan Gelbakhiani as Merab, And Then We Danced (Da chven vitsek’vet)
John Magaro as Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, First Cow
Delroy Lindo as Paul
Da 5 Bloods
I’ve complained more than once about the Academy’s neglect of great performances, but this one seems especially egregious. Lindo plays a Vietnam veteran hurting from years of post-war PTSD (and more specifically, his own guilt) and the climax sees him raging and thundering to the camera as he spirals into delirium. It’s positively Shakespearean—the kind of role Oscar voters usually eat up. But perhaps it was too much for those voters; Spike Lee frames Lindo so that he delivers those monologues in extreme close-up, speaking at times to himself but more evidently at us. That kind of confrontation may have been too much for some, especially as it illuminates our country’s failure at working with black veterans—but we can’t deny its truth.
Mads Mikkelsen as Martin
Another Round (Druk)
Can the man who played a Bond villain and Hannibal Lecter really convince as a depressed shlub? Emphatically, yes. For once, Mikkelsen’s almost otherworldly quality—those piercing eyes, the craggy face—is subsumed by the man Mikkelsen plays. His Martin is a downtrodden sod, not so much beaten down by middle-age as much as resigned to it, even as he nurses hidden fires. The banal fashion in which he takes in every daily routine makes the eventual explosions of passion so much more cathartic: the sudden burst of rage at his wife’s infidelity, or the swooning, meme-worthy dance where his joy simply cannot be contained. To see him here, Mikkelsen may as well be a promising newcomer instead of the veteran he is.
Rob Morgan as Abe
Few performers do haunted eyes as well as Morgan, and they are on glorious display in Annie Silverstein’s coming-of-age drama. Playing a would-be guide to a troubled youth, Morgan’s Abe is haunted by a reality that can never be. Rather than the wizened old mentor who haunts the neighborhood, Abe lives in a prison of quiet self-pity, offering only occasional bits of advice as a matter of course than as a noble gesture. Morgan sustains that tension so beautifully in his performance—there’s never a moment where his guard comes down completely, the way we’ve seen in too many films about unlikely friendships. Morgan’s portrayal may not verge into sentimentality, but it teems with palpable emotion.
Ingvar Sigurðsson as Ingimundur
A White, White Day (Hvítur, hvítur dagur)
Hlynur Pálmason’s gloomy, quasi-revenge thriller needs a capable lead for its numerous tonal shifts, and Sigurðsson proves more than up to the task. As Ingimundur learns of his late wife’s supposed affair, he sees a new opportunity—all hard-set eyes and flaring nostrils as he careens down the warpath. But Sigurðsson also sells the transition between vengeance and unresolved issues with his wife, the ones that nag and bite and never cease. The devastating dream sequence at the end of the film sees Ingimundur not only defeated in his aims, but also keenly aware of his own futility. His rage reveals itself for the deep sadness it is, etched indelibly in Sigurðsson’s slack-jawed, trembling face.
Chadwick Boseman as Levee
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Boseman’s performance as the rambunctious jazz trumpeter manages to be both live-wire in its energy and tight-wire in its balance of tone. The screen can barely contain such unbridled vivacity, and Boseman never threatens to tire. Of course, his motormouth and earnest momentum never dilute the heavier dramatics, with Boseman delivering a powerful monologue about lasting trauma that reframes his quest for success as a quest for vindication. He makes Levee a boastful ne’er-do-well, a scrappy underdog, and ultimately, a darkly tragic figure. It’s a phenomenal capper to an amazing acting career, still vastly underseen and tragically cut short. We truly lost one of the greats in 2020.
My Favorite Leading Actresses
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Lesley Manville as Joan Thompson, Ordinary Love
Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, Promising Young Woman
Andrea Riseborough as Hana, Luxor
Evan Rachel Wood as Old Dolio, Kajillionaire
Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones, Small Axe: Mangrove
Jessie Buckley as Young Woman
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Buckley has a tough task in Charlie Kaufman’s mind-bender of a movie, one that becomes especially impressive when you consider the film’s ultimate “twist,” if one can call it that. She must react to a truly bizarre set of circumstances ranging from an off-kilter boyfriend to an even more off-kilter family, all while not being reduced to a cipher. It’s impressive both in terms of voiceover and onscreen performance, as her character reckons with, pushes against, and pulls away from her sifting thoughts. Her character may function one way in the story, but Buckley elevates her to someone tangible and consistent. (And how about that dead-on Pauline Kael impression for the cherry on top?)
Julia Garner as Jane
Have you ever seen a soul fold in on itself? Seen it cling desperately to what is true and good in this world, then let it go with a sigh? Garner manages to capture that here, often purely in her downcast eyes. Fear and guilt seem to constantly dog Jane, even as her body language betrays nothing. You can see each fateful moral crossroads in her path, and the fateful moment where she does what so many of us do—turn a blind eye to evil. Yet somehow, we never lose sympathy for Jane. Garner makes us understand the vast network of forces assembled against her, designed only to protect itself. We can scrutinize Jane for the ultimate choice she makes, but not first without turning the magnifying glass upon ourselves.
Frances McDormand as Fern
McDormand has played her fair share of prickly characters, and Fern is no exception—defiant to authority figures both actual and abstract. And while the character plays to McDormand’s strengths, McDormand also manages to make the performance work within director Chloe Zhao’s montage-heavy style. Even tiny moments must convey so much meaning, sometimes within the space of a few seconds. Whether it’s dealing with an inconsiderate customer on one of Fern’s many gigs or a saying goodbye to a friend (sensing the gravity of the farewell only as it happens), McDormand communicates it all. For Fern, the freedom of the open road offers both peril and possibility, and McDormand embodies that contradiction perfectly.
Vasilisa Perelygina as Masha
Over the course of Kantemir Balagov’s harrowing account of post-WWII Russia, we gradually learn more about Masha’s traumatic past in a way that keeps recontextualizing her character. That structure allows us to see Masha not as a victim but as a force of nature—indeed, Perelygina plays her as someone determined to live in the here and now. Masha gradually unspools more of her past, but always on her own terms, refusing to let it define her. And yet, Perelygina carefully chooses the moments to let the past resurface, as well as the moments when she wrests control of darker powers. Even as she defies our sympathies, Masha has a consistent through-line, scarred by the war but relentlessly, mercilessly looking forward.
Carrie Coon as Allison O’Hara
Fans of Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers television show will know just how easily Coon commands the screen, and Sean Durkin’s tense family drama gives her every opportunity. Few performances this year feel so realistic without being strictly “natural.” Coon’s withering line readings cut like daggers. Her character’s slow descent into madness has extraordinary balance. She goes right to the edge of breaking down without actually doing so (at least until a fateful, climactic scene of grief). Even as the character discovers her husband’s lies about their finances, Coon doesn’t play Allison as a helpless victim, but rather as someone who understands her own complicity in those lies. Coon gives Allison a real sense of self-accountability, especially resonant in a film with (purposely) so little of it.
And we shall leave it there for now. Next up will be my Top 10 Films of 2020. Stay tuned…