Our favorite performances of 2020

1. Delroy Lindo- Da 5 Bloods- Delroy Lindo gives a titanic performance as a PTSD-tormented Vietnam War vet in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. He plays Paul, one of four black servicemembers who reunite in the country decades later to find the remains of their fallen squad leader and a cache of gold they hid during a firefight. Disillusioned by the state of their country and their experiences in the war, they cling to the hope that they can lay at least part of their painful pasts to rest. Paul enters the movie a defiant, MAGA-hat-wearing agitator who baffles and inspires pity from his friends in equal measure. As the movie wears on, though, it becomes clear just how broken he is, and Lindo’s performance bores deep into a man who has been gradually maddened by guilt.

2. Tallie Madel- Fourteen – Dan Sallit’s Fourteen is a profound study of the fraught friendship between two women. Told from the perspective of Tallie Madel’s character Mara, the movie jumps through years of her increasingly tenuous relationship with Jo (Norma Kuhling). As the years go by with a more rapid and blunt frequency, Madel plays the conflicting impulses of her character perfectly and brings the moral dilemma at the heart of the story to life. Mara desperately wants to help her friend, who struggles with mental illness and addiction, while trying to establish boundaries and have a life of her own. It proves to be an impossible situation, and as the years slip by and their connection fades, life relentlessly, and devastatingly, moves on.

3. Ivan Trojan- Charlatan– Perhaps the strangest compliment I can pay an actor is that they make staring at piss one of the more compelling things I saw in a movie this year. Ivan Trojan did just that in Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan, a biopic about Jan Mikol├ísek, a self-proclaimed healer in early 20th century Czechoslovakia. Jan gives blunt, detailed diagnoses and provides treatment based on a quick glance at vials of patients’ urine. Less a story about the effectiveness or validity of this practice, Charlatan is more interested in dwelling on Jan’s many contradictions and tracing them across a tumultuous, constantly shifting political landscape. Trojan’s performance gradually reveals the messiness of the character behind his veneer of calm detachment, showing a man both alive with purpose and deeply emotionally repressed.

4. Elisabeth Moss- Shirley– Over the last few years, Elisabeth Moss has quietly (or maybe not so quietly) emerged as one of the great acting talents of her generation. Sadly, this year’s remake of The Invisible Man didn’t quite know what to do with her; thankfully, Shirley did. As the horror author Shirley Jackson, Moss taps into the character’s agoraphobic-tinged anxiety while also capturing the obsessive, maddening creative spark caused in part by the arrival of a young new couple at her and her husband’s home. Her seemingly effortless conjuring of Jackson’s mania is a perfect match for Josephine Decker’s untethered, heart-racing biopic.

5. Lee Kang-sheng- Days– Tsai Ming-liang’s Days is about two men wandering around their separate, isolated urban lives until they eventually drift into each other. The ecstatic explosion of sexual longing when they meet is followed by perhaps the year’s most moving scene. One of the men, played by Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng, grabs a music box and handing it to the other, staring silently as the tune plays. I thought of Lee’s quiet portrait of unaddressed loneliness long after the movie finished. .

6. Vitalina Varela- Vitalina Varela– The revelatory performance at the center of Pedro Costa’s film is a reality blurring wonder. Vitalina Varela, a nonprofessional actor whose only other credited film appearance is in Costa’s 2006 film Horse Money, stars as herself in a story based on her life. Journeying to Lisbon after the death of her husband, she is greeted by a group of people who tell her to just get back on a plane, that there’s nothing for her there. She silently pushes on, a good summation of much the rest of the movie and yet totally inadequate in describing the haunting, shadow-drenched beauty of it. Vitalina’s face, in particular her wide, wounded eyes, seem to contain oceans of unfathomable feeling.

7. Maria Bakalova- Borat Subsequent Moviefilm– The arrival of a new Borat film at the end of the Trump era could have been either a disaster or a revelation. Could you effectively mock or satirize a reality that has become so ruthlessly absurd? Would Sacha Baron Cohen really be able to trick people as the iconic Kasakh journalist after the massive success of the 2006 original? He ended up pulling it off, thanks in no small part to Maria Bakalova. She gives a hilarious and at times gleefully unhinged performance as Borat’s daughter Tutar. Her jaw-dropping prank interview with Rudy Giuliani rightfully made headlines, but it’s her total commitment in other scenes where things seem dangerously close to turning ugly, like a debutante ball or a QAnon rally, that cements her as one of the year’s great breakouts.

8. Norma Kuhling- Fourteen– Norma Kuhling’s striking performance is an uncompromising portrait of a woman battling the duel demons of mental illness and addiction. Nearly every time her character Jo drifts back into Fourteen it sparks more dread than the time before. She is constantly trying to latch onto stability and finding it just out of reach, so she constantly falls back on her lifelong friend Mara (Tallie Medel). The mounting frustration, disappointment, and resentment that builds between them quietly chips away at their decades-long connection.

9. Gina Rodriguez- Kajillionaire– Miranda July’s new film centers on a family trio of low-stakes con artists. They scrape by on the margins of Los Angeles by stealing mail from PO boxes, trying to claim rewards for lost or stolen things, and entering random sweepstakes. When Gina Rodriguez’s character Melanie encounters them, they’re in the midst of an airplane stolen luggage scam. She quickly becomes wrapped up in their world, her seemingly well-adjusted personality clashing against their warped, ritualistic lives. The sense of genuine fascination Rodriguez brings to the role is contagious. Melanie’s entanglement with the family is sudden and strange, but never rings false thanks to her grounded, poignant performance.

10. Candice Bergen- Let Them All Talk– Steven Soderbergh’s new film features an embarrassment of acting riches, chiefly Meryl Streep, Diane Wiest, and Candice Bergen as a trio of old college friends who reunite for the first time in decades aboard an overseas cruise ship. Bergen is the standout as Roberta, a woman with a gnawing resentment at her author friend (Streep) for using painful pieces of her life in a critically acclaimed novel. With dry wit underscored by genuine hurt, Bergen constantly keeps the movie on the brink of confrontation.

Runner-ups

Sidney Flanigan- Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Frances McDormand- Nomadland

Jane Adams- She Dies Tomorrow

Kim Min-hee- The Woman Who Ran

Julia Garner- The Assistant

Young Yuh-jung- Minari

Sacha Baron Cohen- Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

John Magaro- First Cow

Meryl Streep- Let Them All Talk

Anong Houngheuangsy- Days

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