The 13 Best Film Performances by Actors in 2020
For anyone bemoaning the lack of new movies in 2020, please look no further than the fourteen that follow, all of them topped off by some of the best acting of this very strange year indeed. From seasoned masters like Anthony Hopkins and Delroy Lindo deepening their legacies to rising stars like Riz Ahmed and Steven Yeun continuing to carve out their own paths, this year was very rich indeed when it came on on-screen work worth celebrating.
Tucked inside these stories of triumph, there is also heartbreak, as no list of 2020’s best performances would be considered close to complete without reflecting back on the late Chadwick Boseman’s final on-screen performance, already an iconic last hurrah.
As always, there were also plenty of exciting breakthrough performances this year, as we’ve already documented in a stacked list of rising stars of screens both large and small. And these best-of-the-bunch highlights of the year strike a similar balance: the best leading men onscreen this year either pushed their familiar talents in fresh directions, or took the glimmer of talent visible from previous work and transformed it into a higher plane of creative expression. Ahead, the 13 best performances by actors in 2020.
Anne Thompson, David Ehrlich, Zack Sharf, Ryan Lattanzio, Tambay Obenson, Bill Desowitz, and Chris Lindahl contributed to this article.
Ben Affleck, “The Way Back”
How easy it is to forget that Ben Affleck — most recently known for his starring role in cigarette-smoking memes and quarantine paparazzi shots — is a bonafide artist. Sure, “Gigli” is legendarily terrible and “Armageddon” is the epitome of Michael Bay big-budget cheese. But that Ben Affleck bears little resemblance to the Ben Affleck in “The Way Back,” in which the actor delivers a performance truly deserving of his legacy as a two-time Oscar winner.
Marital problems. Family trauma. Crippling alcoholism. They’re all things Affleck himself has faced and ones his character, former high school basketball star Jack Cunningham, battles in “The Way Back.” As a great artist would, Affleck channeled his own pain here; he told the New York Times the role was “therapeutic.” While often predictable, “The Way Back” is nuanced in its compassionate treatment of those battling addiction, thanks in large part to Affleck’s commitment to a character who can lovingly read his nephew a bedtime story only to wake up the next morning to chase his shower beer with a travel-mug bourbon. —CL
“Sound of Metal”
Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”
One of the most powerful acting moments of the year takes place during the final minute of Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal.” Riz Ahmed’s Ruben, overwhelmed by the amount of noise being processed by his hearing aids, removes them and finds comfort in a moment of stillness. The camera holds tight on Ahmed’s face, beneath the surface of which the viewer can feel Ruben’s long-simmering pain finally finding a degree of peace and acceptance.
It’s a moment where Ahmed’s performance, and the film along with it, reaches a level of empathy so universal it’s near transcendent. Every acting choice Ahmed makes throughout “Sound of Metal” builds to this final emotional breakthrough, and boy, does the film put him through an emotional ringer on the way there. Playing a drummer and recovering addict going deaf, Ahmed viscerally creates a portrait of a man being stripped of the one passion keeping his life on an manageable axis. Devastating and beautiful, Ahmed’s performance is a towering achievement. —ZS
Sacha Baron Cohen, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Is there anyone more committed to the bit than Sacha Baron Cohen? The British actor, comedian, and satirical genius has always thrown himself face-first into his work, slipping into silly skins (Ali G, Borat, a fictional North African dictator, you name it) and so forcefully blurring the line between “fake” and “real” that it simply no longer exists. For his triumphant return to the world of the iconic, dim-witted, endlessly quotable Kazakhstani journalist Borat, Baron Cohen so perfectly zipped himself back inside a demented persona that even when he was obviously doing a gag during shooting, no one was quite sure which gag was really being unfurled. Dedication? You name another actor willing to throw himself into the scrum of the MAGA elite and only kinda, sorta, maybe hoping they won’t literally eat him alive. And he’s funny? That’s just unfair to other actors.
His turn in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” would have been enough to recommend the witty, wacky maestro to this list, but he also turned in yet another, wholly committed, totally different performance this same calendar year. Who would have possibly thought that an iconoclast like Baron Cohen could so easily inhabit the, let’s just call it rigid, world of Aaron Sorkin (wordy, verbose, snappy, and that’s just the opening credits)? As the similarly distinctive rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman, Baron Cohen brings his own flair to a role that, like even his best comedic stylings, only slightly hides a deep well of drama and emotion. It’s a two-fer for the ages. —KE
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
In a world consumed by celebrity culture and stardom, Chadwick Boseman was a selective and consummate method actor. He was a performer obsessively dedicated to the details of his craft, and it shows in what ended up being his final film role, in George C. Wolfe’s incredible adaptation of the August Wilson play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” as fiery trombonist Levee Green.
The setting is a primarily a recording studio in Chicago during the early half of the 20th century, where the blues legend Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis, also turning in a year-best performance) and her band reigned. Boseman delivers a provocative, aggrieved monologue for the ages as Levee, declaring that “God can kiss my ass!” leaving his character’s bandmates stunned. Viewers may be as well. With that kind of intensity, he may have realized that it was his last. —TO
John Boyega, “Red, White and Blue”
The 28-year-old Brit turns in his best performance to date in this installment of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology, as Boyega plays Leroy Logan, the trailblazer who in the 1980s became the first Black British member of London’s Metropolitan Police Force. What’s impressive is how much of an internal life the former “Star Wars” actor gives this real-life historical figure, someone who, as portrayed in the film, faced intense racism within the ranks of the police and alienation from some in his community, including his father, for joining the ranks of “the enemy.”
Logan’s stated purpose was to be the change he wanted to see in the police and reform them from within, but the zeal of his commitment suggests some additional, more mysterious motivations as well. This is a performance that isn’t entirely on the surface and suggests exciting new ways Boyega’s career can continue to grow. —CB
Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño, “I’m No Longer Here”
Fernando Frías de la Parra’s “I’m No Longer Here” offers bursts of kinetic energy in its settings on both sides of the border. In Queens, there’s the bustle of the city, hip-hop dancers on the subway, and impassioned street ministries. In Monterrey, Mexico, there’s the colorful clothing and unusual hairdos of Ulises and his gang and their nonstop blasting of slowed-down cumbia music. Then there’s the riots and murders that force Ulises to flee to a new life in New York.
In a film so beautifully bursting with the sights and sounds of life’s joys and heartbreaks, Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño’s quiet and understated performance as Ulises grounds the film as one about identity, loneliness, and community. While it may be a performance of few words, Garcia Treviño’s impressive dance skills — which he had to learn just for the role — complete this showcase of the depth of his talent. The non-professional’s film debut won him an Ariel for Breakthrough Actor (one of the film’s 10 wins). —CL
Henry Golding, “Monsoon”
Malaysian-born British actor Henry Golding has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the last few years, shedding his roots as a TV host, model, and a onetime hairdresser to become a modern-day matinee idol. Hong Khaou’s “Monsoon” effectively washes away the debonair aura of Golding’s upstart Hollywood stardom as established in splashy films like “Crazy Rich Asians,” where he played the continent-hopping story’s moneyed groom-to-be, and comedies “A Simple Favor” and “Last Christmas” with director Paul Feig.
He’s still a dashing leading man, but now proves himself as able to nimbly shoulder a small-scale indie like “Monsoon,” a wistful travelogue tracing his character’s journey through Vietnam to rediscover his family’s immigrant past. Golding is a swank tower of understatement, conveying confusion and alienation with few words. —RL
Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”
The Welsh Oscar winner (“The Silence of the Lambs”), at age 82, has learned the art of self-deprecation, saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing half the time.” But he does. Ever since playing Sundance and the fall festivals, French playwright Florian Zeller’s stage-to-screen directing debut, adapted by Christopher Hampton, has wowed critics and audiences with a carefully calibrated (and cinematic) exploration of an old man’s disintegrating mind.
Hopkins is a grumpy octogenarian fighting against the dying of the light, driving away a long line of caretakers as he struggles with his frustrated daughter (“The Favourite” Oscar-winner Olivia Colman). To his credit, Hopkins doesn’t get hung up on making things too complicated — he keeps things moving as he intuitively surfs the old geezer’s feelings, from cracking jokes to flailing in frustration, and in so doing, touches us. —AT
Hugh Jackman, “Bad Education”
The incredible magic trick of Cory Finley’s “Bad Education,” a diabolically smart true-life crime drama that stars Hugh Jackman in his best performance since “The Prestige,” is how it manages to balance that asymmetry in the most savage and softhearted of ways, inviting sympathy for the devil even after it convinces you why he should go to hell. In this case, the devil is Jackman’s preening, closeted, and thoroughly knotted take on Dr. Frank Tassone, the superintendent of Long Island’s Roslyn Union Free School District circa — when he engineered the largest public school embezzlement in American history. Jackman plays Tassone as someone who doesn’t have the good sense to realize that he’s the main character of a movie; someone who thinks that he’s always just outside the eye of the storm. That self-misperception gives Jackman the space needed to be life-sized in a way that his “bigger” roles seldom have.
This is the most human performance the actor has ever given, wrapped in translucent vanity and cut with finely sliced layers of doubt and denial. Whether locked in an oppressive close-up or trying to wrestle back control of Frank’s domain, Jackman always threads the needle between shock and showmanship. Through him, Frank seems both innocent and guilty at all times, and the actions he’s able to justify (good optics sometimes require bad choices!) steer him right into his blind spots. Early in the film, Frank tells a struggling lower schooler that he was also bad at math, and now look at him: He’s the guy who designs the math curriculum. The tragic thing about Frank — and the most brilliant thing about Jackman’s performance — is that he honestly doesn’t understand why that might not add up. —DE
Delroy Lindo, “Da 5 Bloods”
Delroy Lindo’s intense performance in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” is near-mythic in its decoding of the Black experience in America, specifically in war films. The gravity of Lindo’s acting has long been felt in roles, working with Lee multiple times, from “Malcolm X” to “Crooklyn” to “Clockers.” But for the 68-year-old veteran actor of film, stage, and television, his role in “Da 5 Bloods” is probably his most talked-about, and highest-profile performance to date, and one that just might land him his very first (well-deserved) Academy Award nomination.
Lindo’s portrayal of the post-traumatic stress disordered Paul is one of his fullest showcases. It’s clear he did his homework, channeling the agony of Black American soldiers into a significant, larger-than-life character. —TO
Mads Mikkelsen, “Another Round”
Mads Mikkelsen has broken out of Danish arthouse cinema to become as close to an American household name as a Scandinavian actor gets could be thanks to “Hannibal,” “Casino Royale,” and “Doctor Strange.” He’s a reliably imperious villain, leery-eyed and handsome from one angle, and downright evil from another. But in Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round,” Mikkelsen re-teams with the fellow Dane who helped him achieve his best performance ever in 2012’s “The Hunt.”
In “Another Round,” Mikkelsen plays a school teacher looking at life from the outside in, estranged from his family and particularly his cooled wife who’s basically a stranger. He’s in an almost soporific trance until he and his equally adrift colleagues embark on an experiment to stay just so slightly drunk during waking and working hours. As the stakes are raised, and Mikkelsen’s character goes on a kind of “carpe diem” tour but without any sentimentality, “Another Round” emerges as one of his one of his warmest films, and a reminder that beneath all his broodiness, Mikkelsen is actually one of our most joyous living actors. —RL
Gary Oldman, “Mank”
Gary Oldman, who’s always excelled at playing delicious subversives, was an inspired choice as Herman Mankiewicz in “Mank.” The acerbic, self-destructive screenwriter, who loathed Hollywood yet found sweet redemption and revenge with “Citizen Kane,” is a kindred spirit with Oldman’s Oscar-winning Winston Churchill (“Darkest Hour”) and punk rocker Sid Vicious (“Sid and Nancy”). But it’s Mank’s exceptional wit and brutal honesty that make him more than just an insufferable drunk. He’s the perpetual muckraker. And director David Fincher helped the actor find the right balance between subversion and sensitivity.
Thus, Oldman displays quite an emotional range, whether it’s poking fun at the hypocrisy of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), playing court jester to Machiavellian publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) — the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane — or bonding with Hearst’s quirky, alcoholic mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Yet it’s during the present-day narrative of 1940, when Mank struggles to churn out his first draft of “Kane” while confined to a secluded room in Victorville, and recovering from a broken leg and crushed spirit, that we witness him and his most vulnerable and likable. —BD
Steven Yeun, “Minari”
Told with the rugged tenderness of a Flannery O’Connor novel but aptly named for a resilient Korean herb that can grow wherever it’s planted, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical, late ‘70s-set “Minari” is a raw and vividly remembered story of two simultaneous assimilations; it’s the story of a family assimilating into a country, but also the story of a man assimilating into his family. As clenched and corporeal here as he was loose and elusive in “Burning,” Yeun plays that man — Korean immigrant, husband, and determined father of two Jacob Yi — as a dad with an unyielding sense of destiny.
Spellbinding from the moment he moves his family into an Arkansas mobile home so unstable that a tornado could pick it up and fling it across the country, Yeun become a bonafide leading man before our eyes as he asserts his pride, rebuffs Americanization, and wrestles with finding his own identity while doing what’s best for his family (two goals that sometimes feel mutually exclusive). It’s a nuanced, hypnotic, and ultimately heartbreaking performance that’s made all the more powerful because Jacob’s love, like a resilient weed, always finds its way into the sunlight. —DE
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