by Adam Riske and Patrick Bromley
Adam: I’ll start by saying (as I do every year) that I’m not including performances here from movies that will be on my top 10 list. I’ll save those for a later discussion so I can have the opportunity to highlight my favorite performances of 2020 from movies I liked and, in some cases, didn’t like. My first pick is Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Margot Robbie is sensational in the titular role and so is Ewan McGregor as the main villain (he’s invaluable in popcorn movies), but the surprise of the film for me was just how funny Mary Elizabeth Winstead was as the awkward assassin dubbed “The Huntress.” I’m not used to seeing her play comedy and it was exciting to see a new dimension to an already solid actor. She finds just the right askew angle to the performance where she elevates lines that aren’t necessarily funny into something hilarious by her inflection, attitude and behavior. She often steals the scenes she’s in, which isn’t easy in a movie like Birds of Prey where Robbie is such a force of nature.
Patrick: This is a great call, and a great way to kick off this column. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is such a sneaky scene stealer in BoP, especially in those scenes where she’s practicing her superhero name in the mirror or finally accepting compliments from the other Birds. I’ve watched the movie twice and both times I’m more than ready for a sequel by the time it ends, mostly because I’m excited to see that cast and their chemistry together again. MEW is the secret weapon.
Adam: Vince Vaughn is a great choice. I agree with you that Freaky is elevated by Vaughn’s performance. He’s become an interesting actor again in recent years after a period in the 2000s where Hollywood sanded off his edges to turn him into an overgrown frat bro.
My next pick is a pair of performances from a movie that's in my top 10 and that’s Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci in Sound of Metal. I found the movie itself to be really involving (it felt like The Wrestler in its stripped-down, thorny tone) and that’s predominantly because of the acting. Riz Ahmed is always good, but this was the first time I’ve seen him both as a lead who carries a movie, and someone not defined by his ticks and eccentricities like in Nightcrawler or Rogue One. In Sound of Metal, he’s believable as the drummer of a metal band which is impressive since he’s not the first person I’d think of when casting this type of part. I read he learned how to play drums and ASL for the role and the work shows. Paul Raci comes into the movie later and steals every scene he’s in. He has a Robert Forster or Mark Rylance vibe to him. It feels like he’s this guy (the actor knows ASL, being the son of parents who are deaf, so he’s acting from experience). Whenever these two actors are on screen together in Sound of Metal, their scenes are among the best I’ve seen all year.
Patrick: It’s really good. I loved, loved, loved, Paul Raci in the movie (Riz Ahmed is very good, too, but that’s always the case). He has such a quietness to him and he’s so sweet but he’s not a pushover. The scene where he has to tell Riz Ahmed “no” just destroys me. Those are great picks.
My next pick is Mary Holland in Happiest Season. Going into the movie, she was the actor with whom I was the least familiar because the cast is so packed with stars, but she stole the whole thing. It helps that she wrote the screenplay, so she cleverly gave herself all the funniest lines. Her character is probably the most broadly drawn in a movie otherwise populated by real people, but Holland stays just this side of being a cartoon as the daughter so pantingly desperate to please everyone, most of all her parents. Her reaction to the chaos that ensues in the last act is arguably the most human moment in the whole movie and really brings the whole character into focus. The performance made me want to check out more of Mary Holland’s work.Black Bear). She can be funny without even trying, so to see her as this capital woman projecting grace and gravitas in Happiest Season was awesome. She’s like the person at work where you look forward to them being on a conference call so you can just take in how fly they are.
Patrick: Aubrey Plaza is so good in Happiest Season that everyone watching it -- including me -- was rewriting the ending we knew was coming to get her and Kristen Stewart together. That’s how good their chemistry was. I’m so glad she’s getting roles beyond the eye-rolling sarcasm thing she did so well early on. She’s turning out to be such an interesting actor.
My next pick is as predictable as lasagna and stupidly on brand, and that’s Nicolas Cage in Jiu Jitsu. The movie is goofy and dumb in a fun way, never more so than when Cage is on screen. He’s clearly enjoying himself, and even though he only gets a handful of scenes, he brings such a weird, silly energy with him during all of his limited screen time. I have to believe that him making and modeling a paper hat was not in the script at all and was a total Cage addition.
Adam: I’m all for predictable and on brand, especially in this case, because Nicolas Cage was on my list as well. Every time he appears in Jiu Jitsu it elevates the movie into fun pop art. I respect Cage so much for being in the spirit of these VOD movies which 75% of the A-list stars of yesteryear wouldn’t have done.
Patrick: For my money, Delroy Lindo gave the performance of the year. He’s always great, but this was some next-level shit even for him. In a different 2020, I think he would be a lock for awards, but that’s probably not going to happen this year. That’s ok. It’s still the crowning achievement of an incredible career.
My next pick comes from a movie I wasn’t totally crazy about, and that’s Betty Gilpin in The Hunt. The movie is very obvious in its satire and pretty repetitive in its (albeit spectacular) violence, but Betty Gilpin really shines as the Final Girl, combining movie star charisma with a real physicality that makes me wish she could get her own action movie. It would have been easy for her to play down to the material, turning her war vet character into the most noble hero amidst of sea of collateral riff raff, but Gilpin doesn’t do that. She neither dumbs the role down nor tries to infuse it any kind of moral superiority, instead keeping her head down and finding the humanity in the role. She’s full of surprises, too, which is probably the best thing I can say about the performance, because the movie isn’t.
Adam: I sort of intentionally missed The Hunt despite having ample opportunity to see it. Glad to hear that Betty Gilpin is great in the movie. I liked her on what I saw of the Netflix series GLOW.
My fun picks are a pair of performances (I’m not even sure one of them can be classified as a performance) that both unexpectedly touched a place in my heart. The first is Vanessa Hudgens in The Princess Switch: Switched Again, which is a better movie than the first and features Hudgens in 3 (!) roles this time around. I get a weird enjoyment that PS2 is her Dr. Strangelove and how she’s become the custodian for this franchise. Are any of the performances she gives at Boseman or Lindo level? No. But I appreciate her commitment to the bit. The other pick is Kevin Smith in The Last Blockbuster. This is sort of a Lifetime Achievement award since he appears in what feels like every pop culture documentary I watch, ranging from topics such as video stores, rep theatres, Star Wars, conventions, comic books, etc. Kevin Smith is always there to provide his two cents and patented self-deprecation/endorsement. He doesn’t always say much of note (in The Last Blockbuster he’s like “If a bunch of cats in Oregon are scratching it out with Be Kind, Rewind, that’s beautiful”) but when he pops up in one of these (he’s credited as ‘Self” on IMDB in 285 projects), I feel like it legitimizes whatever low-stakes doc I’m watching. If I see Kevin Smith is in the trailer for a pop doc, I’ll watch it. It’s chicken soup.
Patrick: I love those picks, and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing about Chadwick Boseman’s performances throughout the coming awards season. He deserves it. RIP.
Adam: I had her on my list too! I love all her weird logic about the elves and she’s also really good at selling the ‘Big Song’ moment at the end of the film. It’s a great performance. Rachel McAdams is the best.
I’ll close out with a few honorable mentions: Cristin Milioti in Palm Springs, Marina Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Tessa Thompson in Sylvie’s Love, Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Kiera Allen in Run, Anya Taylor-Joy in The New Mutants, Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys for Life, Charlie Hunnam in The Gentlemen, Harrison Ford in The Call of the Wild, Ben Affleck in The Way Back, and Bill Burr in The King of Staten Island.
Patrick: Good choices, and several that were on my list too. I’d add Sidney Flanagan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man, Bill Murray in On the Rocks, Lauren Lapkus in The Wrong Missy, Jane Adams in She Dies Tomorrow, Anthony Carrigan in Bill & Ted Face the Music, Carrie Coon in The Nest, Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman, and Diane Lane in Let Him Go. So many good performances!
Adam: Very true. Now it’s our readers turn! Leave a comment below with who you thought gave great performances this year.