The best performances of 2020
Netflix

The best performances of 2020

As the long-term scope of the coronavirus pandemic became clear last spring, many of the year's major awards hopefuls, worried that there might not be an Academy Awards ceremony for a while, vacated 2020 to keep their options open. While this year's awards eligible films might be of a more indie bent, the actors and actresses that should be in competition this year are far from minor. There were dozens of transcendent performances in 2020 from some of our biggest names. Here are the turns we'll cherish long after this pandemic is over.

 
1 of 25

Haley Bennett - "Swallow"

Haley Bennett - "Swallow"
IFC Films

The title of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s could be read as a reference to the caged-bird life of meek homemaker, Hunter, but it’s first and foremost about her inexplicable desire to swallow random household items. It feels at first like a small rebellion from a young woman whose role in life is to bear children for her wealthy husband but quickly turns into a gnarly compulsion (called “pica”). It’s a hard movie to take, but Haley Bennett’s mesmerizingly understated performance demands your attention. Hunter may look like an empty vessel to those around her, but Bennett somehow manages to convince us there’s a storm brewing beneath that perfectly made-up façade. It’s one of the year’s very best performances.

 
2 of 25

Hugh Jackman - "Bad Education"

Hugh Jackman - "Bad Education"
HBO

The pandemic deprived (for now, at least) Broadway theatergoers of Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of “Professor” Henry Hill in “The Music Man”, but the high-wattage charm that inspires River City denizens to finance a town marching band is on blinding display in Cory Finley’s drama about school superintendent/embezzler Frank Tassone. The role plays to Jackman’s charming strengths but also turns that innate gift against him. He’s never been better.

 
3 of 25

Elisabeth Moss - "Shirley"

Elisabeth Moss - "Shirley"
Hulu

Elisabeth Moss veers madly from bedridden depressive to boozy imp as legendary author Shirley Jackson in Josephine Decker’s fascinating biopic. It’s a devilish performance that’s prodded along by Michael Stuhlbarg’s manipulative portrayal of Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman; it’s a deliciously poisonous co-dependent relationship that wreaks havoc on anyone unfortunate enough to stray into its orbit (namely their young houseguests, played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman). But all eyes are on Moss, who treats her fellow humans as playthings while she stumbles through the writing of her masterpiece, “The Haunting of Hill House”.

 
4 of 25

Chadwick Boseman - "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Chadwick Boseman - "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Netflix

Chadwick Boseman’s blistering performance as troubled session trumpeter Levee in George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” should’ve kicked off the next exciting phase of this gifted young actor’s career. Instead, it is his last gift to audiences who flocked to see him play icons both real (Jackie Robinson and James Brown) and superhuman (T’Challa). Boseman sinks so deep into the groove of the material that you never think of it as a valedictory. Even if he knew this might be it, he was too generous a performer to claim the spotlight a second longer than the role demanded.

 
5 of 25

Sidney Flanigan - Never Rarely Sometimes Always"

Sidney Flanigan - Never Rarely Sometimes Always"
Focus Features

Not since Katie Jarvis exploded onto the scene via Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” have we seen a big-screen debut as startlingly assured as Sidney Flanigan’s portrayal of a pregnant teenager in Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”. Flanigan’s performance is particularly impressive given its lack of histrionics; this young woman is forced to absorb multiple indignities in order to exercise her constitutional right to an abortion. The pain and rage she can’t unleash, you feel on her behalf.

 
6 of 25

Ben Affleck - "The Way Back"

Ben Affleck - "The Way Back"
Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck’s well-publicized struggles with alcoholism clearly inform his portrayal of a hard-drinking construction worker who’s given the opportunity to coach his old high school, basketball team. Affleck’s character is a lonely drunk, and we eventually learn there’s a tragic reason for his disappearance into a bottle. Gavin O’Connor’s drama makes clever use of the underdog sports formula to address the reality of the character’s functional alcoholism. He gets away with it for a while, but there’s always a reckoning. It’s a sad, lived-in performance. The best of Affleck’s career. And hopefully, a sign that he’s found his way back.

 
7 of 25

Julia Garner - "The Assistant"

Julia Garner - "The Assistant"
Bleecker Street

In a year of impressively understated performances, you can’t do better than “Ozark” star Julia Garner’s portrayal of an executive assistant forced into a crisis of conscience due to her boss’ sexually improper behavior. In a culture where it’s hazardous to stick out for any reason other than head-down productivity, Garner makes you feel the inner turmoil of a young woman who risks everything to meekly do the right thing. Contrast this with her work on “Ozark”, and it’s only a matter of time before Garner has an Oscar to go with her Emmy.

 
8 of 25

Delroy Lindo - "Da 5 Bloods"

Delroy Lindo - "Da 5 Bloods"
Netflix

There’s not a damn thing understated about Delroy Lindo’s turn as a Vietnam veteran turned Trump-supporting, do-me treasure hunter in Spike Lee’s masterful “Da 5 Bloods”. His character doesn’t want to hear any of it; he just wants to get his gold and live out the rest of his life in the luxury he believes he’s more than earned. If this sounds like Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, well, that’s exactly the delirious direction in which Lindo takes this bitter old man. If this doesn’t get Lindo his long-deserved first Academy Award nomination, they might as well cancel the Oscars.

 
9 of 25

Robyn Nevin - "Relic"

Robyn Nevin - "Relic"
IFC

One of the most celebrated actors of the Australian theater, Robyn Nevin finally gets a film role worthy of her considerable talent as an Alzheimer’s-stricken matriarch whose daughter and granddaughter are forced to care for her in the family’s spooky old house in the woods. Nevin’s Edna is not your typical dementia patient; there’s something dark and disturbing lurking within this woman and the home in which she lives. Nevin relishes in this elderly enigma, repeatedly knocking us off balance as we try to make sense of Natalie Erika James’s slow-burn tale of horror.

 
10 of 25

Bill Burr - "The King of Staten Island"

Bill Burr - "The King of Staten Island"
Amazon

The stand-up comic gives a breakthrough performance as a surly fireman with a big heart in this Judd Apatow’s comedy about a young screw-up (Pete Davidson) whose friends and family have run out of patience with his antics. Burr’s gruff, everyman persona is perfect for the role of a divorced dad who’s found a woman (the great Marisa Tomei) willing to live with the danger and uncertainty of his job. You expect a man of his physical stature and no-nonsense demeanor to coldcock Davidson’s self-absorbed brat, but Burr’s energy is strangely anti-violent. No one’s worth the trouble of a knuckle sandwich. We’ve seen this character before, but we’ve never seen it played like this.

 
11 of 25

Viola Davis - "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Viola Davis - "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Netflix

Viola Davis as blues legend Ma Rainey: if you were expecting anything less than fireworks, then you’ve never seen this woman let loose in an August Wilson play before. Davis effortlessly delivers the diva goods, but it’s the character’s pragmatism that sticks; she was put on this planet to do this very thing, and, as a black woman, when she loses so much as a quarter-step, it’s over for her. But make no mistake, this is a star turn for a one-of-a-kind performer, and she smashes the high notes.

 
12 of 25

Riz Ahmed - "Sound of Metal"

Riz Ahmed - "Sound of Metal"
Amazon Studios

We’ve seen hundreds of films about musicians burning out on the road, but no movie has tackled the all-too-common issue of hearing loss to this exacting degree. Riz Ahmed brilliantly approximates the shock and slow-dawning horror of a talented young man rapidly going deaf. Darius Marder’s film drills into an even deeper subculture by focusing on hearing-impaired recovering addicts, and Ahmed doesn’t miss a beat. It’s a bravura performance that opens viewers up to a world they’ve probably never considered.

 
13 of 25

Sônia Braga - "Bacurau"

Sônia Braga - "Bacurau"
Globo Filmes

The glamorous leading lady disappears into the role of a small-town physician in Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ genre mélange. If you ever wanted to Braga lure Udo Kier into a poisoned feast via the strains of Spandau Ballet, this is the film for you. This could’ve been a stunt performance, but Braga commits to the role; she comes on like a villain, but we soon realize she’s this village’s best hope against an evil several steps beyond the corrupt government they’ve grown used to.

 
14 of 25

Frances McDormand - "Nomadland"

Frances McDormand - "Nomadland"
Searchlight Pictures

Chloé Zhao’s reach far exceeds her grasp in “Nomadland”, but she at least found the right actor to literally/figuratively lug around the burden of a financial collapse that, ten years on, the U.S. has yet to confront (as a second, much worse collapse looms). McDormand seems like a co-collaborator; the film is so dialed into her wavelength that Zhao’s voice (such as it is this early in her career) feels muted, almost in awe of her star. You can’t blame her. McDormand has never seemed more herself on screen, and she’s a constant, occasionally surly delight. Her third Best Actress trophy could very well be in the offing.

 
15 of 25

Sacha Baron Cohen - "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"

Sacha Baron Cohen - "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"
Amazon Studios

Great comedy performances rarely get year-end awards love, which is why Sacha Baron Cohen is receiving more awards talk for his very good performance in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” instead of his triumphant return as the number one journalist in Kazakhstan. Given that Borat is now too famous to infiltrate most (but, amazingly, not all) societal events, Cohen often has the character go undercover in his own, uniquely inept manner. He even adds a heartwarming layer of parental affection for his teenage daughter. Cohen will one day win an Oscar for a more conventional performance (a la Peter Sellers in “Being There”), but what he’s done over two movies with Borat is nothing short of brilliant.

 
16 of 25

Maria Bakalova - "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"

Maria Bakalova - "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"
Amazon Studios

The discovery of the year – literally, as Bakalova was initially credited under a pseudonym in the film’s marketing materials! It takes a keen comedic talent to keep up with Sacha Baron Cohen’s deep-in-character antics, and Bakalova proves every bit his equal. Whether she’s scandalizing a debutante ball by lifting up her skirt or seducing the former mayor of New York City into an extraordinarily compromising situation, Bakalova powers ahead with the fearlessness of a born prankster. Here’s hoping filmmakers can generate projects and roles worthy of her talent.

 
17 of 25

Leslie Odom, Jr. - "One Night in Miami"

Leslie Odom, Jr. - "One Night in Miami"
Amazon Studios

Get ready, moviegoers. One of American theaters' most explosive talents is finally ready for big-screen stardom. We got two transcendent Odom performances this year, the first coming in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film of his sensational musical, “Hamilton”. But many of us already knew what Odom could masterfully do as Aaron Burr. His take on R&B legend Sam Cooke in Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” allows him to show off his blazing charisma, but his portrayal truly shines in his blistering banter with Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X. Cooke was a tremendously complex man, and this is the first dramatic work to give audiences a taste of the storm that roiled beneath the surface of this one-of-a-kind artist.

 
18 of 25

Amanda Seyfried - "Mank"

Amanda Seyfried - "Mank"
Netflix

This is the role Amanda Seyfried has been waiting for since she captured our hearts as the lovably spacey Karen in “Mean Girls”. The Brooklyn born-and-bred Marion Davies would’ve been very easy to caricature, but Seyfried reaches past the put-on daffiness to reveal a tough, kind-hearted starlet who’s wistfully accepted her place in the showbiz circus. Her walk-and-talks with Gary Oldman are the heart of an otherwise chilly movie; how could anyone not be smitten with this self-possessed dame? The best is yet to come from Seyfried.

 
19 of 25

Kate Winslet - "Ammonite"

Kate Winslet - "Ammonite"
Lionsgate

Kate Winslet is great in everything, but the material has rarely matched her skill over the last decade. So it’s a joy to see her excel as paleontologist Mary Anning in this first-rate romantic drama from writer-director Francis Lee. Winslet paints an exacting portrait of a woman overcome with attraction to the wife (Saoirse Ronan) of a brash tourist (James McArdle). Lee’s film is so dourly subdued that the smallest tic of pleasure registers as a gusher of emotion. Winslet understands this. She draws us so deeply into Anning’s world that we hang on the merest flinch or glance. The list of actors who can transfix us on a micro level like this is very short.

 
20 of 25

Jessie Buckley - "I'm Thinking of Ending Things"

Jessie Buckley - "I'm Thinking of Ending Things"
Netflix

Jessie Buckley blew our doors off with her portrayal of a Scottish country music singer in Tom Harper’s “Wild Rose”, the memory of which is so indelible you’re often left wondering who the hell this young woman is in Charlie Kaufman’s surreal meet-the-parents tale. Buckley’s self-conscious character keeps most of her astringent thoughts to herself in the early going; on the way home, the acidity begins to leak out, though not always in her own voice (e.g. she begins reciting Pauline Kael’s review of “A Woman Under the Influence”). Kaufman hurls nonstop junk at Buckley, and she slugs every pitch out of the park.

 
21 of 25

Jesse Plemons - "I'm Thinking of Ending Things"

Jesse Plemons - "I'm Thinking of Ending Things"
Netflix

Most of us were introduced to Jesse Plemons via his ingratiating portrayal of Landry Clarke on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights”, which makes his dark detour into misfits who seem to be one missed social cue away from mass murder both confounding and wonderful. He’s a bundle of awkwardness as Jake, a country boy who thinks it’s cool and normal to show his city-raised girlfriend frozen stiff animal carcasses on her first trip to his family’s farm. Moment to moment, we can’t tell if Jake is proud or utterly ashamed of his parents, and Plemons’s impossible-to-read performance is key to the film’s ever-shifting vibe.

 
22 of 25

Candice Bergen - "Let Them All Talk"

Candice Bergen - "Let Them All Talk"
Getty Images

Candice Bergen hasn’t exactly been hiding out over the last decade (she’s made roughly a movie a year since 2014, and, regrettably, reprised her role as newswoman Murphy Brown), but she’s mostly been content to play Candice Bergen. So what a treat it is to see her sharpen her old acerbic reflexes in Steven Soderbergh’s loose-limbed ocean liner comedy. As the best friend of Meryl Streep’s successful author, Bergen prowls the Queen Mary 2 looking to mix it up. She owns every scene with the confidence of a superstar who’s thrilled to have material worthy of her talent again.

 
23 of 25

Anthony Carrigan - "Bill & Ted Face the Music"

Anthony Carrigan - "Bill & Ted Face the Music"
United Artists

“That’s NoHo Hank???” You don’t have to be a regular viewer of Bill Heder’s darkly comedic HBO series “Barry” to be impressed by Anthony Carrigan’s portrayal of a murderous robot with a massive insecurity complex, but it’ll give you a keener sense of this talented actor’s incredible range. He’s essentially this film’s Death (William Sadler); a breakout weirdo performance that you’re buzzing about long after the film is over. Viva Dennis Caleb McCoy.

 
24 of 25

John Boyega - "Red, White and Blue"

John Boyega - "Red, White and Blue"
Amazon Studios

The promise of John Boyega’s star-making turn as Moses in Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block” has been realized at last. As duty-pound police officer Leroy Logan in the third film of Steve McQueen’s anthology “Small Axe”, the charismatic young actor burrows into the conflicted psyche of an idealist who’s smart enough to take on a racist system but is ultimately incapable of changing it.

 
25 of 25

Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn - "Freaky"

Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn - "Freaky"
Universal

The most satisfying body-swap entertainment since “Face/Off”, Christopher Landon’s “Freaky” makes a star out of Kathryn Newton and reinvigorates the career of Vince Vaughn. Newton’s been impressive in supporting roles over the last few years (namely in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Blockers”), but she turns that bubbly blonde persona on its ear once she takes on the personality of Vince Vaughn’s vicious serial killer. Vaughn gets the fun part, and while it’s not terribly difficult to buy him as a teenage girl (the ebullient energy isn’t that far removed from Trent in “Swingers”), he invests the character with an innocent warmth that reminds us why we fell in love with him decades ago.

Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.

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