Best Actors, Director, and Villain of 2020

I usually enjoy writing this annual article because it allows me to shine a spotlight on performances while also doing fun things like “best kills” or “A very good year” the latter of which highlights an actor or actress who was great in multiple movies in a single year. But 2020 was so miserable that this year it all feels kind of perfunctory. The performances are still great and deserve attention, but it’s hard to even push for certain actors and actresses when this year’s Oscars will be skewed by allowing in movies that run in the first couple months of 2021.

That leaves this list in an awkward position because films like Nomadland and Minari aren’t due out in theaters until February, but they’ve screened for critics and played at festivals. But I also wouldn’t feel right just sitting on this list until February waiting for Judas and the Black Messiah even though it’s probable that actors from that film could make the list (instead, they’ll be in contention for my 2021 article).

Ultimately, these superlatives are all kind of meaningless, but great work should be acknowledged, and these actors and director deserve recognition. And as for the villain, well I’m salty about this year, so let me have my fun.

Best Actor

Image via Netflix

Chadwick Boseman as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Runners Up:

  • Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone in Sound of Metal
  • Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in The Father
  • Delroy Lindo as Paul in Da 5 Bloods
  • Steven Yeun as Jacob Yi in Minari

What a bittersweet gift of a final performance. While there’s a temptation to say that a performance should be honored for a body of work when an actor dies young, even if Boseman were still alive this would be the best performance of 2020. There’s no need for qualifiers or addendums. His turn as Levee is heartbreaking, electric, and counterbalances perfect with Viola Davis’ Ma Rainey. Boseman was a gifted actor, and he was at the height of his powers with his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It’s heartbreaking we won’t get to see another one from him, but we can treasure this work.

Best Actress

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman
Image via Focus Features

Carey Mulligan as Cassie in Promising Young Woman

Runners Up:

  • Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Sidney Flanigan as Autumn in Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  • Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland
  • Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in The Invisible Man

Carey Mulligan has been knocking it out of the park for years now (too many people slept on Wildlife), and she delivers a performance for the ages with Promising Young Woman. What makes Cassie work as a character aren’t her sharp edges (although Mulligan plays those with aplomb); it’s the gnawing sadness at the core of her character. Cassie is doomed, not because of her mission of revenge, but because there’s no escaping the guilt and rage that has consumed her because the world is so broken. There’s no way to move on because there’s nowhere to move to, and that fatalism permeates Mulligan’s every action.

Best Supporting Actor

Paul Raci as Joe in Sound of Metal
Image via Amazon Studios

Paul Raci as Joe in Sound of Metal

Runners Up:

  • Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X in One Night in Miami…
  • Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe in Small Axe: Mangrove
  • David Strathairn as David in Nomadland
  • Glynn Turman as Toledo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This was a close one, and ask me on another day, and it could easily be Ben-Adir’s thoughtful and unique performance as Malcolm X that manages to step out of the shadows of what Denzel Washington did with the civil rights icon. But I saw Sound of Metal over a year ago, and I can’t shake what Raci did with his performance. He’s the moral backbone of the movie and a voice of reason that never plays as saintly or untouchable. He communicates lived experience, and that authority is essential for the rest of the film to function.

Best Supporting Actress

Maria Bakalova in Borat 2
Image via Amazon Studios

Maria Bakalova as Tutar Sagdiyev in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Runners Up:

  • Olivia Colman as Anne in The Father
  • Talia Ryder as Skyler in Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  • Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-LeCointe in Small Axe: Mangrove
  • Youn Yuh-jung as Soon-ja in Minari

Imagine what it takes to hang with Sacha Baron Cohen in a Borat movie and matching him beat-for-beat. Bakalova gives the breakthrough performance of the year by not only helping to provide the emotional center of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, but also being hilarious as well. A lot of performances are described as “brave”, but there’s real bravery in getting into a room alone with a powerful (albeit buffoonish) individual like Rudy Giuliani and taking it as far as you can because that’s what the movie demands. She’s got an exciting career ahead of her.

Best Director

Nomadland Chloe Zhao Frances McDormand
Photo by Joshua James Richards / 20th Century Studios

Chloe Zhao for Nomadland

Runners Up:

  • Max Barbakow for Palm Springs
  • Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman
  • Darius Marder for Sound of Metal
  • Steve McQueen for Small Axe: Lovers Rock

Chloe Zhao took the beautifully crafted realism that she showed off in The Rider and then somehow elevated her game with Nomadland. In a year where we were all stuck at home in an America that was decaying, she managed to show us the beauty of this country and the people in it. For all of the animosity that our media uses to sow division and create anger for more hate views and hate clicks, Zhao had no problem stepping outside that dynamic to show the beauty of individuals while never romanticizing the societal ills we face. It’s an impossible balancing act, and yet Zhao makes it look effortless. With Nomadland she firmly establishes herself as one of the most exciting directors working today.

Worst Villain

Image via Neon

The Trump Administration in Totally Under Control

Runners Up:

  • The Giant Sea Monster in Underwater
  • Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Adrian Griffin in The Invisible Man
  • Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord in Wonder Woman 1984
  • A System of Silent Enablers in The Assistant

I suppose you could argue that COVID-19 is the year’s biggest villain, but here’s the thing: a virus has no agency. It exists to perpetuate itself and that’s it. It has no motives, cannot be reasoned with, and is basically like a natural disaster. Disasters happen. What matters is how we respond to them, and the relentless negligence, spin, and callousness of the Trump Administration as depicted in Totally Under Control shows that this year didn’t have to be as bad as it was. With even a modicum of leadership, lives could have been saved and suffering avoided, but that didn’t happen. COVID was a flame, but the Trump Administration’s response is what led to the country being on fire.

Be sure to catch up on all of Collider’s Best of 2020 content.

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