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The 20 Best Film Performances of 2020

Great acting is so abundant every year that it runs the risk of being taken for granted.

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The 20 Best Film Performances of 2020
Photo: IFC Films

One of the reliable pleasures of cinema is great acting, which is so abundant every year that it runs the risk of being taken for granted. This year’s performances fell into several traditional patterns. There were bold breakout ones that marked either the introduction or the redefinition of talent as well as sterling work by professionals so precise and venerable that they suggest the acting equivalent of veteran watchmakers. This group of performances is also governed by another set of poles: Many of them are intensely, daringly insular, while others find actors seemingly flaying themselves in front of the camera, pushing to the outer boundaries of emotional extremis. Mads Mikkelsen, one of the most original and unique actors in contemporary movies, somehow operates on both poles simultaneously, while Elisabeth Moss hit cunning, despairingly operatic notes in not one but two films this year. John Boyega’s visceral, simmering, tightly constrained acting was no less remarkable, and his performance in Red, White and Blue reflected the teeth-gritting rage and anxiety many of us felt over the course of this unusual year. Chuck Bowen



Riz Ahmed

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal

In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a musician in recovery who’s waylaid by a sudden and drastic loss of hearing. Director Darius Marder finds plenty of ways to render this ailment tangible to the film’s audience, but Ahmed makes the scope of Ruben’s frustration consistently visceral. Ruben is dangerously reluctant to live in the moment, always on the hunt for an exit even as he begins to embrace his therapy. Looking to a future where he may hear again, he doesn’t quite seem to realize he’s merely trying to recreate his past. Though Ruben refuses to live in the now, Ahmed gives him an incredibly active presence, all pleading eyes and subtly shifty gestures, demonstrating a mischief born out of desperation. It’s a tremendously demonstrative performance that’s urgent without ever feeling showy. Christopher Gray



Haley Bennet

Haley Bennet, Swallow

Throughout Swallow, writer-dirctor Carlo Mirabella-Davis is willing to take his main character, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. Bowen



Radha Blank

Radha Blank, The 40-Year-Old Version

In The 40-Year-Old Version, Radha Mitchell exudes a confident eccentricity that serves to revitalize the rom-com as well as the woke-era political parable. As a thinly veiled version of herself, a once-promising playwright named Radha, Mitchell doesn’t lean into the whiny clichés we associate with struggling writers on film, foregrounding instead the character’s ferocious personality, which is understood to be the platform of an artist who hasn’t quite found her art. Yet Mitchell still allows us to still see the insecurity in the halting gestures and fleeting glances that punctuate her character’s superbly timed punchlines. We are seeing—subtly, sensually—an artist’s war with herself, and Mitchell’s specificity and lack of sentimentality render Radha’s rediscovery of rap an authentically cleansing act—an act of rapture. Bowen



Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Chadwick Boseman’s Levee has visions of forming his own band, of getting his original songs recorded, of winning over Ma Rainey’s (Viola Davis) beloved chorus-girl lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). The rogue trumpeter’s jaded bandmates have seen it all by now, though, and they know Levee’s cocksure dreams will backfire. What they cannot anticipate are the frightening ways in which Levee’s grief has already hardened into powder kegs. If Ma finds small, sustaining triumph in refusal, Levee leans heavily on the blinding comforts of denial, and Boseman offers a deliriously frantic performance of contradictory extremes that eclipses the rest of the film when he’s at his most urgent and sweltering. Dan Rubins



John Boyega

John Boyega, Red, White and Blue

Bearing witness to a character suffering a series of indignities can be an exhausting and, in the wrong hands, tedious experience. As Red, White and Blue’s Leroy Logan, a research scientist who leaves his profession to pursue a job with the London police and correct its racist practices from the inside out, it’s captivating to watch John Boyega, tightly coiled in his posture and temperament, stay in tune with his character’s anger as his colleagues attempt to belittle and diminish his position. As tensions snowball, you see and feel Leroy’s struggle and eventual failure to limit his fury to specific outrages and humiliations. Boyega gives exquisite expression to how Leroy’s modulates his rage before its unleashed upon the individual bad apples in ways that make unassailably clear that the whole bunch is rotten. Gray



Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons

Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman’s gorgeous whatsit I’m Thinking of Ending Things offers one of the most intriguing contrasts in acting styles in quite some time. In the long car rides that bookend the film, both Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley bear the full weight of their claustrophobic surroundings. You sense that one wrong turn of phrase could suck the last bit of oxygen out of that automobile. Nonetheless, agonizing, digressive conversations ensue, and Buckley’s quicksilver changes in temperament mystify just as they dazzle in their technique, full of slight but striking changes in cadence and accent. Plemons, meanwhile, is a human embodiment of inertia, at once a cliché of literate bro-dom and a man evidently, hilariously, and tragically sick of himself. Soft-spoken to the point of near-inaudibility, Plemons almost knowingly seems to personify the fall of man. Gray



Ellen Burstyn

Ellen Burstyn, Pieces of a Woman

For much of its running time, Pieces of a Woman is much too easily understood, as in its frequent cutaways to the slowly evolving Boston bridge project that serves as a symbolic temperature read of the main character’s trauma following the loss of her newborn. Which is why the scene in which Ellen Burstyn’s Elizabeth invokes her painful childhood, in order to convince her daughter to go to court, is so profoundly disarming. If Elizabeth’s domineering ways felt so cookie-cutter up to this point, it’s only because we realize, as Burstyn reaches into the well of Elizabeth’s own trauma, not knowing what she will pull out but clearly hoping that it will point her daughter toward transcendence, that this is the only part of her that she’s ever chosen to show the world. Burstyn miraculously makes us understand self-preservation as an act of heroism. Ed Gonzalez



Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins, The Father

Florian Zeller exhibits a sublime confidence in his actors during The Father’s early, initially familiar moments that’s well rewarded. Olivia Colman’s performance is centered on a thinly held restraint, as Anne is desperate to be calm and reassuring even as her panic over what to do with her father is boiling up inside. Even though the title role is the sort of thing that Anthony Hopkins could breeze through without exerting much effort, he delivers a wonderfully subtle, well-calibrated, and occasionally surprisingly emotive performance. As Anthony’s mental misfires shunt him from one mood to the next with little warning, Hopkins deftly toggles between multiple overlapping moods and threads these states together with a keen vulnerability that ratchets up dramatically once Zeller starts throwing curveballs at Anthony and the viewer. Chris Barsanti

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