Awards season has finally arrived, albeit a little later than usual. Thanks to a worldwide pandemic unrivaled by anything in modern history, cinema had to take a bit of a break while the world slowly restored itself. Although the world isn’t exactly functioning like it used to, we are slowly making our way to normalcy, and the show has to go on somehow.
After reading the title of this article, you probably concluded that this list doesn’t have anything to do with awards, and you’re right. However, it’s not unreasonable to bring up the big awards in a list of 2020’s best performances. After the Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTAs have crowned their winners, people tend to move onto the next year. After we learn about the Best Picture winner, 2020 will fade into the rearview mirror and cinephiles around the globe will chase down the big releases of 2021 instead. This mentality obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, but it’s hardly uncommon.
The timing of this list is no accident. The goal here is to coincide with the Oscar hype in order to draw attention to the best that 2020 had to offer. Not every performance on this list will be a big awards season contender, but they all deserve that coveted end-of-the-year recognition. The goal here is to celebrate the best of the best, if only because that brings us one step closer to leaving a disastrous year behind.
20. Elisabeth Moss – Shirley
Following a knockout performance in The Invisible Man couldn’t have been easy. The Universal Pictures production exceeded even the loftiest expectations, but it wasn’t Elisabeth Moss’s only 2020 success story. Alongside the biggest horror flick of last year you’ll find another Moss vehicle. Though smaller in scale, the pseudo-biopic Shirley still manages to captivate in all the right ways.
Shirley is a largely fictionalized account of a small blip in Shirley Jackson’s life. Though the overarching story is mostly made-up, the characterization of the influential author appears to be grounded in reality. Jackson was well-known for her eccentricities, and Moss keeps that in mind throughout the duration of the movie.
Jackson is portrayed as an obsessive workaholic with very little knowledge of social conventions. In spite of her seemingly small stature, she still manages to come across as cold and intimidating. This kind of awkward demeanor fits the actress like a glove. It looms heavily from one scene to the next, and this results in a viewing-experience that’s appropriately uncomfortable.
Nobody would define Shirley as a horror film, but Moss’s gripping performance brings about a feeling of uneasiness that will feel familiar to fans of A24’s horror outings. This kind of emotional reaction might elicit groans, but that just shows the amount of talent in front of the camera. Elisabeth Moss wants to make you cringe, and she succeeds.
19. Mark Rylance – The Trial of the Chicago 7
The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s latest dialogue-heavy drama, has a cast that’s hard to beat. Beyond the subject of our list, you’ll find Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. It’s hardly surprising to see the film pick up a SAG nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
In terms of award hype, Cohen has been the shining star. The English actor has picked up Best Supporting Actor nominations from the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. While he’s hardly a frontrunner in the category, it’s hard to brush off the amount of hype surrounding his performance. Even though this hype is mostly warranted, there is another cast member who seemingly fell under the radar as a result of fierce competition between the talented ensemble: Mark Rylance.
The Oscar-winning actor plays real-life civil-rights activist William Kunstler. Kunstler, who was also known for defending the Chicago 7, is widely regarded as one of the best-known American lawyers. His controversial opinions on social justice related topics made him a memorable figure that continues to intrigue people to this day
Rylance portrays him as a passionate intellectual with a fiery attitude. Considering the amount of talent onscreen, it could have been difficult to stand out, especially considering the intrigue surrounding the seven defendants. Luckily, Rylance’s take on Kunstler doesn’t come across as any less invigorating. Rather than being overshadowed by other cast members, Rylance plays nice and builds off of the available chemistry.
18. Leslie Odom Jr – One Night in Miami
It seems borderline unfair to highlight only one performance in a film like One Night in Miami. Excuse the tired metaphor, but every major cast member is a puzzle piece. When the four main characters are together, everything just feels right.
While it would be easy to just give each cast member their own spot on this list, it would be more realistic to settle for one performer. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s electric portrayal of Malcolm X deserves a shout-out, but at the end of the day, we have to give the spot to Leslie Odom Jr., who did an outstanding job of bringing Sam Cooke to life.
The character comes across as a mild-mannered realist who wears his heart on his sleeve. Odom Jr. carefully mimics both the voice and mannerisms of the legendary musician, and he appears to do so without breaking a swear. Recreating the life of an influential person can be difficult, but the Hamilton actor does so with ease.
17. Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Nobody doubted Sascha Baron Cohen’s ability to put on an exaggerated accent and piss off the entire world, but who could have predicted that the fictional Kazakh journalist would get a sidekick capable of keeping up with his antics? Prior to the release of this surprisingly successful sequel, Maria Bakalova was an unknown Bulgarian actress. She starred in a few international films, but generally speaking, she was a giant question mark.
Given the nature of Borat and its sequel, this kind of anonymity helped her far more than it hurt her. While Cohen was getting pestered by fans of the original Borat, Bakalova was able to take full advantage of the hidden camera shenanigans. This allowed her to pull off pranks that the lead actor couldn’t.
The hidden camera stuff is hysterical, but that’s not what makes Bakalova stand out. Tutar Sagdiyev is definitely a funny character, but she is also a character with a lot of depth. She’s a young woman in need of a father figure, and even though that’s often played for laughs, it also has a tendency to feel heartfelt.
This one-two punch ultimately gives us something that’s truly multifaceted. Bakalova is consistently funny. At the same time, she resists being a one-trick pony because she really can tug at your heartstrings. It’s all a bit ridiculous and over-the-top, but it’s also weirdly sentimental.
16. Mads Mikkelsen – Another Round
Mads Mikkelsen is easily the most well-established Danish actor internationally. Blockbusters like Doctor Strange and Rogue One have propelled him to near-A-list status, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon when it comes to big-budget productions. This doesn’t mean that he has forgotten his roots. In fact, Mikkelsen frequently pops up in smaller Danish dramas.
Mikkelsen does a great job regardless of the role he’s playing, but he often appears most comfortable in scaled-back international features. This has been made perfectly clear following the release of Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, Another Round.
Another Round drastically deviates from the previous Vinterberg-Mikkelsen collaboration. While The Hunt is a melancholic tragedy with a borderline oppressive tone, Another Round makes light of the underlying tragedy at the center of things.
The film revolves around a group of unhappy teachers who decide to conduct a social experiment in order to liven up their dull lives. They hypothesize that maintaining a blood alcohol level of 0.05 can add a bit of pizazz to their daily routine, so they come up with a plan that involves drinking “acceptable” amounts of alcohol during work hours. The major characters all get some sort of spotlight, but Mikkelsen is clearly the protagonist.
If you want to see a highly-regarded actor pretend to be drunk for two hours, this is a good place to start. At the same time, he does more than just stumble around and slur his words. Mikkelsen adds a lot to an already airtight script. It’s not like his character is one-dimensional. By the time the credits roll, it’s easy to see that he’s a pretty complicated person. The fact that he drunkenly rambles throughout the movie is just a bonus.
15. Nicole Beharie – Miss Juneteenth
Miss Juneteenth tells the story of a former beauty queen and single mother trying to convince her daughter to participate in the titular “Miss Juneteenth” pageant. As expected, the daughter doesn’t want to relive her mom’s life. She’s her own person with her own interests. She wants to be a dancer and a regular teenager, but mom insists on pushing her teenage daughter forward. This leads to constant mother-daughter tension that brews throughout the relatively brief runtime.
The mother’s name is Turquoise Jones, and she’s played by Sleepy Hollow star Nichole Beharie. Beharie approaches the character with a subtle elegance that seems rare in an era filled with explosive go-for-broke performances.There’s clearly passion in her eyes, but it’s more understated than some of the bolder entries on this list. It might not immediately hit you like other performances, but it lingers just as long.
While Beharie might not be a household name, she has always been a talented actress. Even so, this is clearly her best work to date. Director and screenwriter Channing Godfrey Peoples gives her a lot to work with, but she’s the glue that holds everything together. Her commitment to the performance makes Miss Juneteenth a must-watch.
14. Eliza Scanlen – Babyteeth
Coming-of-age stories come around so frequently that it’s hard to keep up with all of them. There’s something positively fascinating about watching characters slowly transition into adulthood. This storytelling framework might be as old as cinema itself, but every now and then, a movie comes out that completely reinvigorates this well. Babyteeth is a perfect example.
In Babyteeth, we’re introduced to Milla Finlay, a precocious teenager who recently got diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Though this diagnosis tests the family’s ability to cope with unexpected circumstances, it doesn’t stop Milla from trying to be a regular teenager. Like every teenager, the young protagonist is prone to making questionable choices. This comes to a head when she meets Moses, a 23-year old drug addict.
As the film progresses, we get to watch Milla struggle with her identity while also struggling with a terminal illness. She wants to make her own mistakes. She wants to live the life of an adolescent. Unfortunately, there are so many things standing in her way.
The set-up ultimately allows relative newcomer Eliza Scanlen to dazzle viewers. Her performance is imbued with raw authenticity that feels uncommon in the average coming-of-age story. It’s so easy to go overboard in a performance like this, but Scanlen clearly put a lot of thought into her delivery. This leads to a performance that lends itself to the more subdued nature of the script.
As a whole, Babyteeth is one of the best releases from last year. Everything works together so effortlessly, but in the end, Scanlen is the stand-out. She brings the right amount of emotion to a role that could have easily been too abrasive or too soft-spoken. That’s why this is so impressive.
13. Stanley Tucci – Supernova
Supernova is a quietly moving British drama about a couple who has to face the uphill battle that is early onset dementia. In an effort to make the best of a bad situation, the two go on a road trip in order to connect with friends and family before the disease ultimately takes hold and renders the character unable to function without support.
The two leads are Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, a pair of award winning actors who consistently live up to any and all expectations. Following the release of this movie, that remains unchanged. As always, the two do everything they can to enrich the material they are given. Supernova is a slow-burn, even for a drama such as this, but that doesn’t mean the average viewer will drift off into a lull. The cast won’t let you.
Specifically, Tucci won’t let you. Firth obviously deserves acknowledgement, but Tucci’s portrayal of the dementia-stricken lover is seriously captivating. He provides the right amount of tender emotion needed to make a story like this feel real. It’s so easy to step into overly sentimental territories, but Tucci skillfully avoids falling for the typical traps. This allows him to lift the film up beyond expectations.
12. Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
On August 28th of last year, Chadwick Boseman unexpectedly died as a result of colon cancer. The young actor left behind a legacy that will live on for a near-infinite number of years. While he will most likely be remembered for his game-changing work in the MCU, Boseman also had plenty of dramatic roles under his belt. From Get on Up to Marshall, it’s safe to say that he was more than just a Marvel superhero. He had a colossal screen presence that truly shined, and this was made absolutely clear in 2020.
Boseman is the only actor to ever receive four SAG film nominations in one year. His critically acclaimed work in both Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom allowed him to make history, and frankly, those nominations are well deserved. However, in an effort to keep this list somewhat streamlined, we’ve decided to limit Boseman to one spot on the list, but please don’t underestimate his work in the latest Spike Lee joint. While it doesn’t break into the top 20, it still deserves a shout-out.
His portrayal of the cocky trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom ultimately edges out his more understated work in Da 5 Bloods. Boseman has played a wide array of characters, but in general, he generally gravitated towards more stoic and mellow roles. Levee Green, his character in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, feels like a complete 180 compared to somebody like Jackie Robinson or T’Challa.
Green is brash, overconfident, and a little bit insufferable. Boseman knows that, and he relishes in every moment. We are not supposed to like everything this character does, so Boseman takes every opportunity to remind you that this dude is a little too into himself. It’s an absolute joy to watch, and it pairs wonderfully with Viola Davis’s equally impressive work in the film.
11. Magdalena Koleśnik – Sweat
Sweat, the Polish-Swedish drama from director Magnus von Horn, was a victim of unfortunate circumstances. The film was supposed to have its big debut at Cannes, but after the festival’s unfortunate cancellation, Sweat was relegated to smaller scale film festivals.
While critical reception has been extraordinarily favorable, it has also been somewhat muted. Word-of-mouth has been close to nonexistent, and the inevitable digital release isn’t likely to leave a lasting impression. This means that publications have mostly forgotten about this riveting gem.
Luckily, this isn’t a popularity contest. Magdalena Koleśnik’s work in this film isn’t going to light the world on fire like almost every other entry on this list, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. Koleśnik’s haunting portrayal of a social media starlet adds so much to a movie that’s already filled to the brim with quality. Von Horn’s thrilling screenplay obviously deserves recognition, but this story still needed a leading lady who could bring the countless thought-provoking themes to life.
Koleśnik gives her viewers a genuine look at the rollercoaster ride that is the protagonist’s life. The goal here is to humanize the social media celebrities that we often scrutinize. Koleśnik gives us far more than a dose of realism. She strives for authenticity, and she delivers. You’ll no doubt feel for this character in spite of the negative reputation surrounding social media influencers, but that’s the whole point.
Koleśnik might be new to the scene, but that doesn’t mean she’s clueless. On the contrary, she clearly knows what type of performance she needs to give in order to get an emotional response from the audience. This kind of raw skill doesn’t come around often, so cherish it.