10. Brian Dennehy – Driveways
Brian Dennehy is an actor who needs no introduction. The Tony award winning actor made a name for himself on the big screen, small screen, and stage. He left an indelible mark on the industry, and his work will be commended for years to come. His untimely passing in April of 2020 rocked the globe, but thankfully, Dennehy left behind one hell of a final performance.
After making its way through the festival circuit, Driveways was eventually released to glowing reviews. A majority of these reviews made a point to highlight Dennehy, who plays the eldery neighbor of a shy young boy named Cody. While Driveways could have easily given us a recycled version of Gran Torino, the cast and crew opt to give viewers a different experience.
Unlike so many films that use a similar trope, Driveways does its best to tell a more hopeful story. Dennehy’s character isn’t defined by the skeletons in his closet. Instead, Dennehy presents us with a gentle character who truly does want to provide friendship to the people around him. While movies like Sling Blade and Gran Torino offered glimmers of hope, Driveways feels far more focused on providing large quantities of hope.
A lot of that hope is genuinely derived from Dennehy. By breaking free of traditional archetypes, we get to see a character that feels positively one-of-a-kind. The soft-spoken and enigmatic mystery-man proves that actions speak louder than words. He also proves that the crotchety old man can have a heart of gold after all.
9. Haley Bennett – Swallow
If you were to make an assumption about Swallow based solely on the marketing behind it, you might assume it’s a gross-out body horror movie about a woman who can’t stop swallowing thumbtacks. To an extent, that’s true. There is a reasonable amount of body horror, and yes, there are a few swallowed thumbtacks, but that little summary grossly oversimplifies things.
More than anything, this is a psychological character study about a woman with a mental illness. That mental illness may tap into people’s greatest fears, but those elements of horror should not outshine the more human story at the center of things. Pica, the unsettling psychological disorder that plagues the protagonist, comes as a result of trauma. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis knows this, and that’s why the main character is handled with care. She’s not a villain; she’s just a woman desperately searching for help.
This leads us to Haley Bennett, the woman in charge of bringing this fictional woman to life. You might know Bennett from her numerous supporting roles, but you’ve never seen her like like. This is a career-defining performance that will be painstakingly difficult to top in the future. Swallow frequently aims to make the viewer uncomfortable. Bennett’s muted performance allows that goal to be achieved.
She also clearly understands the psychological baggage carried by the protagonist. She’s liable to make people uneasy, but she doesn’t want you to hate the main character. By the end of the film, it’s easy to sympathize with this nearly broken woman. This wouldn’t have been possible without a worthy lead performance.
8. Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom does not hide the fact that it’s an ensemble movie featuring two supremely talented individuals. The supporting cast is noteworthy as is, but when you throw in Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, you get something that’s far more special than you might initially believe. Even though hype was through the roof prior to release, this was never a guaranteed success. Fortunately, everything clicks and the final result is superb.
Everything wouldn’t have clicked quite as well without Viola Davis. Her take on Ma Rainey is aggressive, overzealous, and positively electric. Playing the title character couldn’t have been easy, but Davis brings so much talent to the table. The Oscar-winning actress disappears into the role so well that it’s often hard to believe this is a person playing a character. She brings unrelenting energy to her performance, and she does so while gripping the audience with unshakable intensity.
Three Oscar nominations clearly wasn’t enough. Expect Davis to put up a fierce fight throughout this awards season. Regardless of the tough competition, one thing is clear: Davis deserves to be part of the conversation. You are liable to hear a lot of well-deserved hype in the coming months.
7. Delroy Lindo – Da 5 Bloods
Frequent Spike Lee collaborator Delroy Lindo has never really gotten the attention he deserves. Performances in Malcolm X and Get Shorty received plenty of praise, but it always feels like Lindo’s presence in any feature deserves more excitement. Perhaps this has to do with his status as a frequent supporting actor. Viewers rarely get enough time to see him strut his stuff, even if presence is usually more than welcome.
Last year, Lindo was finally the headliner. To make things more interesting, he was the top-billed cast member of one of 2020’s best films. Da 5 Bloods is another critical success in Spike Lee’s storied career. After BlacKkKlansman came out and knocked everyone’s socks off, Lee managed to double-down on what he does best. It’s a war drama film that flips the script and offers something unique.
We need to remember that this list is primarily focused on performances. Yes, it’s easy to babble on about excellent direction and cinematography, but Da 5 Bloods would be nothing without Delroy Lindo. Lindo seems to know the script front-and-back. Moreso, he knows exactly how to deliver his lines.
He bounces between comedic delivery and dramatic delivery with ease. His facial expressions perfectly match the words coming out of his mouth. Everything you expect from a top notch performance is here, and it happens to be in an excellent overall package as well.
6. Sidney Flanigan – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
When Never Rarely Sometimes Always came out at the beginning of 2020, critics hailed it as a masterpiece. The story of a teenage girl who crosses state lines in order to terminate an unwanted pregnancy offers a devastating look into the life of an average American girl faced with a crisis that’s far more common than most people realize. How is a young woman supposed to deal with a situation like this when she doesn’t even have a high school diploma?
Director and screenwriter Eliza Hittman does everything she possibly can to approach this taboo subject matter with wit and grace. The final product is a shockingly unique feature that dishes out content in a way that feels foreign to so many filmmakers. It’s a leisurely paced analysis of one of the most hot button issues in the world.
It’s also an astounding showcase of newcomer Sidney Flanigan’s acting chops. The fresh-faced star makes a big screen debut that’s nearly impossible to ignore. Never Rarely Sometimes understandably wants to tell a more restrained story, and Flanigan follows through by exuding incomparable naturalism. Rather than giving us a blatant caricature, we get a character who seems as though she has arrived from the real world. That’s hard to find lately.
5. Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman
At the 82nd Academy Awards, British actress Carey Mulligan earned a much-deserved nomination for Best Actress because of her work in An Education. At that point, Mulligan was pretty new to the scene, so most viewers had a hard time predicting what the future would hold. Since then, she has gone on to appear in critical darling after critical darling. Drive, Shame, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mudbound, and Wildlife are just a few examples of the quality of cinema associated with her.
That information is important to comprehend when you consider the following: Mulligan has given us her best performance to date with Promising Young Woman, and it ain’t even close. A lot of that could be due to the fact that the film feels so different from the prestige dramas that preceded it, but that kind of statement undermines the praise that she has so rightfully earned.
Yes, it’s unusual (and refreshing) to see Mulligan take on a more comedic role, but that’s hardly the only reason everything works. After all, it’s not like she appeared in The Hangover. Promising Young Woman may have comedic leanings, but it’s still a pitch black examination of sexual assault and abuse of power. It just happens to have a protagonist who’s bursting with personality.
The whole “bursting with personality” thing isn’t coincidental. Mulligan wants viewers to recognize the fact that Cassandra Thomas is a feisty spitfire with a knack for getting herself in trouble. Emerald Fennell’s screenplay doesn’t exactly hide that, but it’s crystal clear that the film features a lead actress who’s willing to go the extra mile in order to bring such an elaborate character to life.
4. Anthony Hopkins – The Father
Florian Zeller’s directorial debut is one of the best first features in recent memory. It’s a tragic, gut-wrenching story that aims to realistically portray dementia. This sense of realism is heightened by a better-than-ever Anthony Hopkins, who gives a performance that will likely live with him for ages.
A quick plot synopsis of The Father might make it seem a little too familiar. It tackles a topic that has been covered repeatedly. Still Alice, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, and Away from Her all did a terrific job of helping viewers understand the effects of dementia. Though The Father doesn’t stray terribly far from that formula, it still does enough to separate itself from the pack.
In a lot of ways, Hopkins helps the film excel. He’s not the only positive attribute, but his presence does make a major difference. The Oscar-winning actor puts everything into his performance, and the final result is as stunning as it is emotionally compelling. The Father isn’t going to brighten a bad day, but it will leave a mark on you.
3. Steven Yeun – Minari
Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical drama about a family of South Korean immigrants adjusting to rural American life ranks among the best movies of the year. Like a lot of entries on this list, it’s not exactly filled with explosions and fireworks, but it’s gripping in its own way. It’s a softer, more restrained approach to something that could have easily hit you over the head repeatedly with a cliché message about the American dream. This stylistic approach makes Minari a must-watch, but there are numerous other tricks up its sleeve.
The talented cast is among its greatest features. It recently picked up an SAG nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, and it’s easy to see why. The cast is filled with so many talented individuals, but the most commendable performance comes from Steven Yeun.
Yeun has been on the rise since his breakthrough in The Walking Dead, but you might not be aware of it if you’re a more casual movie watcher. Burning, Okja, and Mayhem all showed audiences what Yeun was capable of, but none of them could have prepared us for this.
His work in Minari is on a whole new level. Burning was a career high, no doubt about it, but Yeun has completely outdone himself this time around. Again, there’s a lot of subtlety to be found in this low-key movie, but the young actor still commands the screen. His lines are read with purpose, and his delivery is consistently entrancing. Calling it a powerhouse performance might not be appropriate due to the nature of the film, but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of a place on this list. Yeun is a force to be reckoned with.
2. Frances McDormand – Nomadland
If you take a quick peek at Chloe Zhao’s filmography, you’ll realize that she rarely works with seasoned actors. Zhao’s unique approach to filmmaking often requires performers who are more than just a little close to the subject matter. This mostly remains unchanged in her latest release. Nomadland consists almost entirely of people playing themselves. There are, however, exceptions. This time around, the leading role was given to a two-time Oscar winner.
Fans of Zhao’s previous films might find this to be an unnecessary shake-up. Why should the director cast a veteran actress when there are so many people who have a deeper understanding of the material? Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to that question. There is some good news though: McDormand seems right at home.
Admittedly, it does initially feel a bit odd to watch the star of Fargo and North Country act her heart out alongside real nomads, but after that shock to the system, she seamlessly blends in. A bit of digging will explain why this endeavor came so naturally to her.
McDormand did extensive research in order to nail her performance. She travelled around the United States performing real temp jobs and interacting with people who were well-versed in the nomadic lifestyle. She was determined to tell a story that had never really been told. Countless factors, including McDormand’s talent, have come together to make this a reality.
1. Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal
According to the World Health Organization, over 5% of the world’s population has some form of disabling hearing loss. This generally applies to older people, but it obviously isn’t exclusive to them. One in twenty people are faced with a form of hearing loss that makes it hard to complete everyday tasks. Hollywood is striving to increase representation and bring visibility to a unique set of voices, and even though they still have some work to do, they’re making progress.
Sound of Metal tells the story of a metal musician who loses his hearing. Like several entries on this list, we are given a Hollywood actor who is thrown into a mostly fictional story involving people who are intimately familiar with the material. In other words, Sound of Metal includes a cast of people who truly understand the effects of hearing loss. The decision to give the lead role to a Hollywood actor could have been problematic had it not been for the amount of care taken by Riz Ahmed.
Ahmed had a daunting task to perform; he needed to honor deaf culture without silencing deaf voices. This appeared to be a tricky tightrope walk that could have landed him in hot water, but his screen presence ultimately helps rather than hurts. Ultimately, he is playing a character who has to quickly learn new things and change his life with the help of people who have faced these issues for years. When you look behind the scenes, this isn’t far from reality.
Like his character, Ahmed had to learn to adjust to a community that was foreign to him. He needed to portray a character that was very likely outside of his comfort zone. He had massive obstacles to overcome, but these obstacles allowed him to portray a character with a necessary amount of sensitivity and skill. In the end, that’s what really matters.