Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Great Performances of 2020

 by Adam Riske and Patrick Bromley

Who gave our favorite performances of 2020? Read on to find out!

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.
My first pick is for a performance in a movie we watched just a few nights ago: Vince Vaughn in Freaky. I thought the movie was just ok -- I wanted to love it more than I did -- but Vince Vaughn was the real high point. I know he’s been capable of giving great performances in recent years in stuff like Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete, but it was so good to see him getting back to being funny for the first time in a long time. That’s not to say he hasn’t done comedy in a long time; he has. He just hasn’t been this funny in anything since probably Old School. It would have been so easy for him to overplay the teenage girl thing, but he doesn’t; he just tries to play it as naturally and realistically as possible and lets the comedy come from that. I also love that the script affords him some scenes of real pathos inside the wacky premise (the backseat scene opposite the boy she has a crush on comes to mind). Some really good gore gags aside, Vince Vaughn is the best thing Freaky has going for it.

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.
Adam: That’s a really good choice. I’ll stay with Happiest Season since one of my picks is Aubrey Plaza in Happiest Season. Is there such a thing of someone being too charismatic in a movie? Because when I watched the bar scene between Plaza and Kristen Stewart, I wanted the movie to splinter off from the main plot and stay at the bar for the remaining duration. Aubrey Plaza is so talented and it’s nice to see in recent years her trying out different types of characters, even if I don’t like the movie (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.

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.
My next pick is from another movie I had in my top 10 until just recently and that’s Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods. This is either the best or second-best male performance I saw all year and a total revelation on the part of Delroy Lindo because he’s given so much to work with in the film. His performance as Paul, the Vietnam veteran most afflicted with PTSD of the titular group, is so well observed in its depiction of a man ready to come apart quickly and scarily at a moment’s provocation. I’ve seen Delroy Lindo in dozens of movies over the years playing a wide range of affable to evil characters but there’s always a warmth or lightness to those people that can be turned on if the situation requires it. In Da 5 Bloods, all that spark is gone and replaced with anger, defeat, and weariness. Paul is done living and all that’s left for him is continuing as a reminder of wreckage from long ago.

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 final pick (before naming some honorable mentions) is going to be a total cheat because I’m torn between a tribute and having fun; so, I’ll do both. The other performance I mentioned as rivaling Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods was Chadwick Boseman in both that film and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This was a case of me underestimating how talented Boseman was until after he passed. I always rooted for him of course (he’s my beloved Vontae Mack) but admittedly I viewed him mainly as “the Marvel guy” or “the biopic guy” and his work in Da 5 Bloods and especially Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom showed another gear that I was pretty blown away by. In those two movies he brought so much authority and passion that it makes it all the sadder to know later what hell he was going through behind the scenes. He will be sorely missed and I’m thankful for the work and legacy he did give us.

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.
My final pick is Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest, another Netflix movie (boy they sure dominated the landscape in 2020, huh?) that I wasn’t crazy about but which featured yet another fantastic turn by a truly underrated actor. Dan Stevens was the performance that most people talked about coming out of Eurovision, and I’ll admit he appears to be having a great time in a very showy role. McAdams has it harder, having to ground the absurdity in the human but still match Will Ferrell comedically. She does both, and that’s very, very difficult to do. I’ve contended since around Wedding Crashers that McAdams is an actor who makes even bad material seem good, and Eurovision bears that out. It was nice to see her getting recognized as a comic force a few years back for Game Night; I just wish she was getting the same accolades for her turn in Eurovision Song Contest. It’s one of my favorite performances of the year.

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.


  1. I love all your picks that I've seen, and again I know I need to see Da Five Bloods as soon as possible.

    Here are a few you didn't mention that I loved:

    -Zoey Deutsch in Buffaloed because she sells the hell out of that character, and if Jennifer Lawrence or Margot Robbie were in this role they'd be getting Oscar buzz and she should be too
    -Connie Nielsen in Sea Fever
    -Gina Rodriguez in Kajillionaire
    -Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz in Vast of Night for delivering that rapid-fire, period specific dialogue in a very believable way
    -Johnny Flynn and Mia Goth in Emma
    -Jim Carrey in Sonic because dammit, it was nice to see him back in zany comedy mode and I actually really enjoyed that movie
    -Nicole Beharie in Miss Juneteenth
    -Lovie Simone in Selah and the Spades
    -Jeon Jong-Seo in The Call
    -Natalie Dyer in Yes, God, Yes
    -Arinze Kene in I'm Your Woman
    -Mark Rylance in Trial of the Chicago 7
    -Letitia Wright in Mangrove
    -Hu Ge in Wild Goose Lake

  2. speaking of Mary Elizabeth Winstead doing comedy, i'm assuming you never saw the short lived tv series BrainDead? it was super good and funny, but for some reason people didn't watch it and was done after 13 episodes (and i think the end is a cliffhanger)

    anyway, if you can find it, go for it, i'm sure you won't regret it

    (i don't know how to embed links)

    1. I think it was an Amazon show in the US.

    2. It was CBS show, but it might have dropped on amazon at some point

    3. Speaking of speaking of MEW doing comedy, a movie I just watched (mentioned on a thread already sorry lol) has her playing a stand up comedian ("All About Nina"). The movie itself is more of a dark drama/romance but her doing comedic stuff is there and I'd watch her stand up tbh.

      I second Braindead as being really enjoyable. Thematically it was a tad too "both sides" for me but it was fun as heck and if you want to watch both MEW and Aaron Tveit just existing and being attractive existing while wearing suits and cool jackets check it out. They have good chemistry as well. Pls don't ban me for speaking of tv.

      Can someone tell me if I should watch "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" or (less interesting) "Gemini Man"? Both have MEW, and Vampire hunter looks like it could go either way (fun or awful) so I'd love an opinion before renting.

  3. Evan Rachel Wood and Debra Winger were amazing in Kajillionaire.

    1. Yes! I keep thinking about that scene in the older man's house... you know the one. So good.