Critics' Conversation: The Great Film Performances of 2020

Critics’ Conversation Great Performances of 2020
Courtesy Photos

From left: Sidney Flanigan in 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always'; Orion Lee in 'First Cow'; Delroy Lindo in 'Da 5 Bloods'; Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'; Carey Mulligan in 'Promising Young Woman'; Nicole Beharie in 'Miss Juneteenth'; Jasmine Batchelor in 'The Surrogate.'

The Hollywood Reporter's movie reviewers discuss screen vets showing new shades of their talent, celebrate remarkable work from women and newbies, and rejoice in the actors who offered moments of mirth (thank you, Radha Blank) in a year of sadness and sameness.

JON FROSCH: Isn't it weird to think that last time we did this was just a few months before the pandemic hit, scrambling our lives and the art and industry we cover? Much has changed about our job — including the way we experience actors and acting. Taking in a performance on a laptop or TV, no matter how big, just isn’t the same; there’s something to be said for getting lost in a face as it literally looms large before you on a movie screen — and for feeling the power and pleasure of great acting collectively, with fellow moviegoers gasping, giggling, sniffling or craning their necks alongside you.

In a way, though, acting and actors have become even more meaningful since coronavirus struck — a source of comfort, catharsis and excitement at a time of, at best, anesthetizing sameness and, at worst, crushing sadness. Acting is also a craft that’s less adversely affected by the decisive shift toward home viewing; I’ve found that many of the performances I loved most in 2020 shine right through the sometimes shoddy visual quality of streaming and screeners.

SHERI LINDEN: I too miss the enveloping darkness of the theater, and the chance to get lost in that dream world of the big screen. But as you say, Jon, there’s a particular comfort in connecting with performances now, across the short distance between us and a laptop or TV. Even within the physical limitations of our pandemic viewing, a riveting performance is a riveting performance.

FROSCH: The range of terrific acting this year is striking — from the volcanic (Delroy Lindo’s tortured, MAGA-loving Vietnam vet in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, perhaps the greatest turn yet from a reliably riveting performer) to the self-effacingly quiet (Tallie Medel as the long-suffering but steel-spined childhood BFF of a troubled 20-something, played by the equally superb Norma Kuhling, in Dan Sallitt’s stealth stunner Fourteen).

Lindo is one of several screen heavyweights who showed us new shades of their talent. Another is Frances McDormand. I was starting to suspect that we were finally reaching the limits of her already formidable craft — that she was, in the magnificent Olive Kitteridge and her Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, settling into an ornery, eccentric screen persona that seemed an extension of her notoriously no-nonsense real-life personality. Could a McDormand performance still surprise us?

I wasn’t sure based on the early scenes of Chloé Zhao’s soulful epic of American restlessness and resilience, Nomadland, in which the actress plays an economically strapped widow who moves into her van and hits the road. There was the flinty, folksy Fran we know, with her close-cropped hair and creased face, the mischievous glint in her eye and clipped Midwestern cadences.

But the performance deepens — almost imperceptibly at first, then astonishingly — into a moving portrait of a woman who doesn’t cling to her independence so much as she nurtures and protects it. Fern has been brutally uprooted, and damned if she’s going to let it happen again. At the same time, as played by McDormand, she’s sustained by her zest and curiosity, her ability to remain alive to the world around her — from the splendor of the Western landscapes she travels through to the fried chicken she bites into for one of many solo dinners in her van. It’s McDormand’s purest work yet — and, in its groundedness, a perfect contrapuntal complement to the movie’s lyricism.

DAVID ROONEY: Yes — I admired how she and Zhao resist letting Fern be defined by her economic difficulties. We’ve seen plenty of indie dramas about the American underclass and the casualties of industrial death. But this fine-grained portrait of a woman who takes each hardship in stride and carves out a new chapter for herself with uncomplaining fortitude, finding a romantic kinship with Old West drifters and itinerant laborers, is poetic and strangely uplifting — without ever glossing over the bleak reality.

Zhao has drawn impeccable performances from nonprofessional actors in her earlier movies. So working with a two-time Oscar-winning star might have risked rupturing the delicate alchemy of her films. But McDormand’s immersion in the role is so rigorously unmannered she’s indistinguishable from the real-life nomads that are her frequent scene partners. It’s a magnificent performance without an ounce of vanity.

LINDEN: Although the mix of professional actors and real-life nomads wasn’t seamless for me, McDormand is never less than compelling. It’s exciting to still be surprised and moved by actors we’ve been watching for years. Another example is Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It’s a thrilling performance, the kind that pulls you in from the get-go because you’ve never seen anything quite like it. Unapologetically un-lovely, Ma Rainey, in this adaptation of August Wilson’s play, is an extraordinary role for a woman. Davis has never been hampered by vanity, as past scenes of snot-dripping emotion attest. Here there are no sorrowful meltdowns, only explosive anger and unwavering demands as Ma, with her stomping stride and gold-capped teeth, throws her weight around, prompting grown men to scurry. She’s vibrantly alive, and there’s power in her every no: She’s a Black woman who knows her talent and her worth in 1927 America.

FROSCH: Other well-known actresses who did work that felt creatively revitalizing included Marisa Tomei, luminous and as funny as she’s been in ages as a woman caught between her screw-up son (Pete Davidson) and a new beau (Bill Burr) in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island; Diane Lane, conveying a toughness steeped in sorrow as a frontier woman on a mission to rescue her grandson from a clan of crazies in Let Him Go; and, best of all, Kate Winslet as the proud, fiercely private paleontologist in Ammonite, drawn out of her carapace by an unhappy society wife played by Saoirse Ronan — though her true love may, in fact, remain her work.

Whereas last year we all agreed it was the men who dazzled — Driver, Banderas, Pitt, Chalamet and more — this year was clearly much richer for women.

ROONEY: Agreed. The grace with which Lane’s character carries both her sorrows and her fears in Let Him Go — her selfless heroism — made me miss the days when studio films about heartland women whose quiet tenacity represents the backbone of their families provided meaty roles for actresses like Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange and Sally Field.

No piece of acting in 2020 cut deeper for me, however, than Winslet’s career-best work in Ammonite, Francis Lee’s elemental love story about Mary Anning, the working-class 19th century paleontologist whose heart, as depicted here, is as forbidding as the West Dorset coastline she combs for rare fossils. The softening of her face from resentment and self-denial to transporting release as she falls for the fragile young scientist’s wife (played by Ronan with a flickering curiosity) was the most moving transformation I experienced in a performance this year.

LINDEN: It’s a magnificently gruff performance, invigorated by the anger that results when the culture around you fails to recognize you on your own terms. Though her accomplished but unsung character lives in relative obscurity in 19th century England, she has a lot in common with Davis’ blues-belting Ma Rainey: She doesn’t give a damn what people think of her, and she too moves through space with a purposeful tromp that becomes its own form of grace, rooting her to the earth and her life’s work.

FROSCH: Speaking of career bests, what about Carey Mulligan in Emerald Fenell’s delicious and devastating black comedy/revenge thriller Promising Young Woman? I’ve never been the biggest Mulligan fan, always finding her performances a bit studied and distancing. But here she’s cast against type as a contemporary femme fatale with a naughty purr, a luxuriant head of bleach-blond hair (think Britney circa 2000) and a doozy of a vendetta. And it’s precisely Mulligan’s natural guardedness that makes her so captivating in the part; her character, Cassie, is full of secrets, and the actress laces every line with a mesmerizing mix of sardonicism and sincerity that keeps you guessing.

Like McDormand, Davis and Winslet, Mulligan never softens the woman she’s playing for the sake of palatability. Even when the film floats the notion that Cassie’s ice-cold fury may be melted by the love of a nice guy (Bo Burnham) — their sweet grooving to Paris Hilton’s "Stars Are Blind" in a pharmacy aisle is one of the year’s most deceptively romantic movie moments — Mulligan exudes wariness. She never lets us fully believe that this twisted heroine could be so easily "reformed." She also forces us to realize that we wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, want her to be.

ROONEY: I loved Mulligan’s breakthrough in An Education, yet found her choices after that less interesting. But this movie really rips up the template of her screen persona and builds something entirely new from scratch. The hurt and rage at war with one another, the dangerous sense of purpose as she systematically pursues her revenge plan, the flickers of doubt as she recalibrates when an encounter takes an unexpected turn — so many layers in that characterization. Dark, devastating stuff, but also bristling with a savage sense of humor.

LINDEN: It feels to me as if the experiences and emotions that have fueled the #MeToo movement have made their way to the screen, finding full-blooded expression in many of the year’s most memorable performances. That’s the case in Promising Young Woman, and also in Kitty Green’s The Assistant, movies that deal directly — but through rich, exciting artistry — with misogyny and sexual abuse.

I, too, was on the fence about Mulligan, and to say her latest performance turned me into a believer would be putting it mildly. She delivers a breathtaking high-wire act as an avenging angel, one who hatches schemes of jaw-dropping complexity and at the same time, to quote Joe Jackson, dresses "in pink and blue just like a child." Her character’s judging gazes and gum-chewing silences are the stuff of pure, nail-biting suspense.

A different kind of suspense infuses Julia Garner’s exquisitely contained performance as the title character in The Assistant. Working in the office of a Weinstein-esque producer, her Jane is a newbie to the world of cutthroat Hollywood dealmaking, but she’s already learned, it seems, to barely breathe. Garner’s slender, pale physicality serves the role perfectly — as an adjunct to a powerful man, Jane isn’t permitted to take up space — but even as the character holds her breath and her tongue, the actress taps into a profound, life-shaping tension in her every gesture and glance.

Late in the film, there’s a long take of her through a window, an image that pulses with a wintry chill and an Edward Hopper sense of loneliness in the big city. What makes the moment devastating is the way Garner has summoned such depths of quick-witted intelligence, clear-eyed resentment, exhaustion and courage, and brought them, masterfully, just beneath the surface.

ROONEY: It’s an extraordinary performance, one that got under my skin by the subtlest of means. Whether she’s mutely absorbing the tirade of abuse spewed down the phone by that unseen monster boss, or slowly waking up to the absurd naivete of thinking Matthew Macfadyen’s slimy HR director would ever be an ally in their spine-chilling single scene together, Garner pushes Jane to near breaking point but always stops just short of letting her shatter. Her phone conversations with her parents — where she glosses over the quotidian horror of her workdays by saying only how "busy" she’s been — are gut-wrenching.

LINDEN: Delivering equally indelible, soul-shaking impressions were two pairings of feature first-timers: Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina in the harrowing yet ravishing Beanpole, and Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. The first, a drama from Kantemir Balagov, is set in a war-ravaged 1945 Leningrad where two friends are driven beyond mere survival to life-and-death extremes; in the second, Eliza Hittman’s contemporary story follows teenage cousins on a mission to secure a legal abortion. Both pairs are seeking safety, meaning and self-determination, and the actors inhabit these portraits of female friendship in ways that feel miraculous.

ROONEY: Considering the stakes of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, what’s most remarkable about the lead performances is their emotional minimalism. The courage, fears and resilience of these two young women, who travel from Pennsylvania to New York City to terminate an unplanned pregnancy, are beautifully rendered in dialogue that skirts their feelings, letting the actors’ faces do the work. Restraint is such a defining note of this haunting drama that the moment when director Hittman locks in on the eyes of Flanigan’s Autumn as she answers the questions of an abortion clinic counselor, her shame, regret and humiliation tear your heart out.

FROSCH: I love that Flanigan never plays Autumn as wise or sensitive beyond her years; she’s an average teen, complete with eye rolls, mood swings and "whatevers," caught up in a supremely stressful situation. For most of the film, she’s mainly tired and hungry.

In the clinic scene, when Autumn’s façade quietly crumbles, Flanigan’s face reflects "shame, regret and humiliation," as David puts it — but also, perhaps, relief at this counselor’s compassion, the offering of a space to disclose her trauma without any pressure to elaborate on it. Hittman never fleshes out the backstory behind the past abuse Autumn alludes to — as if to say that it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Flanigan embodies the devastation of that ordinariness with stunning authenticity and nuance.

Ryder, with her big dewdrop eyes, looks more like a typical movie star. But she’s an equally unfussy, un-self-conscious performer, registering Skylar’s (relative) maturity and loving protectiveness through concerned glances and gently supportive smiles. These are gorgeously in-sync performances — a hushed duet that reaches a climax in a breathtaking shot of the two young women’s pinkies interlocked at an unexpected moment.

LINDEN: Like Hittman’s film, Balagov’s poses urgent questions about women’s bodies and destinies, but the friendship it depicts is complicated by deprivation and extreme trauma. In a city whose people no less than its infrastructure have been hollowed out by war, Viktoria Miroshnichenko’s Iya, a hospital nurse and former soldier, is among the most haunted. With her reedy, towering height, white-blond pallor, and the fugues of paralysis that grip her, she seems like a hovering ghost. But though Iya’s connection to the living can feel tentative, in Miroshnichenko’s remarkably unforced portrayal, an elemental joy and longing burst through the stillness.

There’s an eloquent ferocity to her vulnerability, one that’s matched by Perelygina’s turn as the sturdier Masha, who served with Iya at the front and bears her own, less obvious wounds. They’re very different characters, and their need for each other shifts in ways that the actors navigate with aching, at times astounding, intensity. Iya’s response to calamitous events is silent withdrawal; Masha responds by pushing back into life with a desperate zeal. As their characters climb through the shards of hope and ruin, these screen newcomers forge an unforgettable bond out of shouted pleas, negotiated arrangements and unspeakable sorrow.

ROONEY: Another of 2020’s great screen newcomers was Jasmine Batchelor in Jeremy Hersh’s The Surrogate. She gives a performance of breathtaking range as Jess, a young Black woman who agrees to be a surrogate and egg donor for her white, gay best friend and his husband. When prenatal testing reveals complications, Jess is thrown into a turmoil of intense psychological introspection and raw feeling. She’s maddeningly saintly and judgmental at times, level-headed at others, tough and intractable, but ultimately alone in shouldering the weight of a momentous decision.

FROSCH: Anyone who’s ever eavesdropped on a conversation in a Brooklyn (or Los Feliz) coffee shop — oh, those were the days — will recognize hyper-articulate, liberal-arts-educated, cheerfully “woke” Jess. But Batchelor peels back the layers to reveal a young woman struggling with her own inner conflicts of identity, belonging and privilege, as well as what it means to be a good, progressive person today. Though Jess is unimpeachably compassionate, there’s a naïve, overcompensating quality to that compassion, a narcissism and neediness that have a distorting effect on all her good intentions. Yet while I was frequently frustrated with Jess, there was never a moment I didn’t feel deeply for her.

Sheri, you mentioned suspense as key to Mulligan’s and Garner’s turns; I found that in Batchelor’s as well. Jess is a living, breathing work in progress, and the actress makes you feel urgently invested — nervous, but finally hopeful — in how she’ll turn out.

ROONEY: It’s interesting that so many of the performances we responded to are from actors — women in particular — etching characters with ineffable delicacy in films that might have struggled to be noticed in a normal year of bigger releases. If any good can come out of the dispiriting grind of 2020, maybe it’s a heightened appreciation for intimate, understated work that stirs our addled brains and ailing hearts without the need for showboating arias.

I’m thinking of minor-key turns like Nicole Beharie’s as a single mother and former pageant winner in small-town Texas in Miss Juneteenth. The way her naturally luminous qualities play in counterpoint to the backstory of disappointment is just lovely, all of it channeled into her vicarious hopes for her rebellious teenage daughter. Yeri Han’s stoical wife, increasingly at odds with her husband, played with piercing sensitivity by Steven Yeun, in the exquisitely tender Minari had a similar effect on me.

I also adored Carrie Coon in Sean Durkin’s The Nest as a disillusioned wife who might almost be a descendant of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her lacerating glances and tart words in two mirroring restaurant scenes reveal that the foundations of her marriage to Jude Law’s hungry class-climber are in ruins. But it’s the emotional wreckage beneath her bitterness that really stings.

FROSCH: Another bracing spin on the unhappy-suburban-spouse archetype came from someone who, to be honest, had barely been on my radar: Haley Bennett in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ creepy, moving body-horror Swallow. As a housewife suffering from a disorder that compels her to ingest dangerous objects, she delivers the kind of heightened, go-for-broke performance full of “choices” — her breathy, tremulous vocal delivery echoed in my head for days — that could have made it feel like a stunt. But Bennett grounds the character in a poignant loneliness (the way she asks her mother-in-law, just dropping by, to stay for grilled cheese and tomato soup nearly broke me), conjuring a deep, dark inner life beneath the smiley Stepford sheen.

A performance I think I liked a bit more than you two was Vanessa Kirby’s in Kornél Mundruczó’s admittedly uneven Pieces of a Woman, about a couple rocked by the sudden death of their newborn. I was less interested in her bravura breathing and moaning in the harrowing homebirth-gone-wrong sequence, or her teary courtroom speech, and more impressed by what she does in between — how much she withholds. It takes a magnetic performer to make numbness and emotional inertia captivating, but that’s what Kirby accomplishes here, creating a gripping portrait of a woman who responds to a traumatic event by shutting down and shutting off. You search Martha’s face for the usual signs of movie grief, but they’re not there. What you discover instead is a preternatural — if dazed — coolness and poise that become the character’s revolt against not just the tragedy that befell her, but the expectations of what her response should look like. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen bereavement played quite like that; there’s something counterintuitive about the performance that I found fascinating, and haunting.

LINDEN: Pieces of a Woman didn’t, um, hold together for me beyond the home-birth sequence. And as impressive as Kirby is in that tense and traumatic scene, it’s the supporting characters played by Shia LaBeouf (as the father-to-be) and Molly Parker (as the doula) who fascinated me. In their watchful, and increasingly worried, silences, the actors etch portraits that are as specific and lived-in as they are unembellished.

I could go on for pages extolling this year’s supporting actors, but I’ll single out Alison Brie’s phenomenal turn in Promising Young Woman. Of Brie’s two scenes in the movie, the first is a drop-dead knockout. Across a restaurant table, she and Mulligan engage in an enthralling thespian tennis match: You can sense them upping each other’s game, just as their characters — Mulligan’s heat-seeking missile and Brie’s troubling figure from the past — suss each other out. To watch Brie’s carefully put-together Madison turn into prey, sliding from smug to wary to sloppy drunk, is alarming, but in the exaggerated reality of this film, it’s unadulterated exhilaration.

ROONEY: Switching gears to the great male performances of the year: I don’t think there’s been a screen couple that touched me more in recent times than John Magaro’s Cookie and Orion Lee’s King-Lu in First Cow, a quietly ravishing companion piece to an earlier Kelly Reichardt portrait of male friendship in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, Old Joy.

Cookie’s self-effacing humility seems worlds away from the mercurial pragmatism of the more inscrutable King-Lu, and yet from the moment these strangers come together they form the perfect partnership, a tender union of cultural opposites. They not only relieve one another’s solitude but also open a door together to pioneering American enterprise with a scheme that aptly combines opportunity with shady opportunism.

Meanwhile, Kingsley Ben-Adir was a major discovery as the lynchpin of Regina King’s very fine ensemble in One Night in Miami. It’s hard to put a fresh stamp on a figure so indelibly etched in the iconography of the civil rights movement as Malcolm X. But the laser focus, urgency, even the moments of supercilious manipulation this charismatic British actor brings to Malcolm make him a figure of towering complexity that’s all the more tragic because we know the fate that awaits him just a year later.

LINDEN: The chemistry among the four actors in One Night in Miami affected me in ways I wouldn’t have expected. Beyond body language and vocal timbre, Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr. (as Sam Cooke), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) and Eli Goree (Muhammad Ali) each find the essence of their famous character as they debate matters of political activism and Black identity. The ways they validate and challenge one another build so effortlessly that the final sequence hit me like a sock to the solar plexus — in a good way! — with its simple but profound beauty. That scene belongs to Odom’s Sam Cooke, who earlier in the film is put on the defensive for not being overtly political. He responds confidently, but the actor reveals glimmers of an itch, an awakening, a spark. The film believes that pop culture stars can be heroes, and when Odom opens his mouth to sing one from the heart, I know it to be true.

FROSCH: Ben-Adir and Odom are two of my faves of the year. The flashback to Cooke’s ingeniously improvised, grunting, foot-stomping, audience-rousing a cappella performance of "Chain Gang" — a memory recounted by Malcolm with the all the awestruck admiration underlying his frustration with his friend — gave me goosebumps. Ditto the number Sheri mentions: Cooke/Odom’s searingly inhabited rendition of "A Change Is Gonna Come" over the film’s final frames.

ROONEY: No discussion of the great actors of 2020 would be complete without mentioning the loss of Chadwick Boseman. But what a gift he left us with two such richly distinctive farewell performances. As the deceased spiritual leader of the soul brotherhood in Da 5 Bloods, Boseman appears as a ghost with an exhaustive knowledge of the Black man’s sacrifices for white America, and his indignation burns beyond the grave. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he breathes solemn grandeur into the cocky trumpeter Levee, whose blistering anger is traced back to childhood trauma in a monologue that leaves him, and us, wrung out and enraged. It’s a monumental turn in a grand theatrical tradition, but it’s the wounded humanity beneath the lyrical torrent of words that makes them scald.

FROSCH: Boseman’s passing was a crushing blow in a year all too full of them. And it seems that just when we really needed movies to lift our spirits and make us laugh, there weren’t many around that did so. Still, a few comedic performers in 2020 instantly became people I’d watch in anything: the charismatic and hilarious Radha Blank as a New York playwright turned rapper in her wonderful The Forty-Year-Old Version; Cooper Raiff, turning a heart-on-his-sleeve, homesick college student into a fresh and thoroughly modern male rom-com lead in the unfortunately titled charmer Shithouse; and the guffaw-inducing Maria Bakalova, who upstages Sacha Baron Cohen as the title character’s feral daughter in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Just thinking of those three is a pick-me-up.

ROONEY: Couldn’t agree more about the gloriously funny Blank. Not least because her movie helped fill the depressing void left by the shutdown of New York’s stages since March with some wickedly sharp observations about the excruciating cluelessness of the woke white theaterati. I howled at Blank’s reaction when stage vet Reed Birney’s smarmy producer tells her he’s looking for a book writer for his Harriet Tubman musical. I also winced because there’s definitely a world where that could happen.

And I was in heaven watching Candice Bergen in irresistibly brittle form as the estranged college friend reunited with Meryl Streep’s self-important author and sweating resentment from every pore in Steven Soderbergh’s oddball delight Let Them All Talk.

LINDEN: I was also buoyed by The Forty-Year-Old Version’s ferociously smart Blank, who breathes new life into the double-take and the wry line reading, and delightedly aghast at Bakalova’s gutsy real-world interactions, the subversive heart of the Borat sequel. One of the most deliciously funny performances I saw this year was by Catherine Deneuve in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first non-Japanese-language film, The Truth: The French star’s slyly self-mocking portrayal of a famous actress rides a delirious wave of imperious put-downs and self-involvement.

FROSCH: Ever-regal Deneuve muttering, "I had too much lasagna," still makes me laugh when I think about it. Talk about humanizing a legend! One of the most relatable lines of this very strange year.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.