My Favorite Male Lead Performances of 2020
I should stress that these are going to be slightly odd lists because this year, the Oscar season is split between two years. Typically a fair portion of what makes these lists are the late-year ‘awards’ type movies. But since we still have January and February for those to come out… I’m working with what I have. That being the 2020 calendar year. Which, as we all know, was a strange one. So while this list is normally my prep for what would be my own personal Oscar choices… it can’t be that this year. Which might be a blessing in disguise.
I’m just gonna shout out the stuff from this year that I liked. Not even gonna rank anything. I felt like trying to do things by my normal standards was keeping some stuff off the list, since I kept looking for things that weren’t there. This way, I’m just telling you what I liked. We’re not trying to say one is better than the other and this way I’m just telling you, “Hey I thought this was good.” It’s probably better. And honestly, it’s actually getting me, in some cases, to put more than the usual 15 that I try to get to for each category.
This list in particular has 20 performances. I probably could have pared five of them off, but I figured, why bother? The point is to talk about stuff I liked, not do some weird gatekeeping. Honestly, this might be the trend going forward.
But anyway, here are my favorite male lead performances of 2020:
Just so we’re clear, this is alphabetical order and not ranked. I haven’t even begun to think about ranking or any of that stuff. Figuring out rankings is so far down my list of priorities at this point. Let’s just be glad I even got to making this list.
- Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets his first Oscar nomination off this performance. It’s an incredible piece of work. He’s had one hell of a couple of years, starting with Nightcrawler and then The Night Of (which I admittedly never saw, but heard he was great in). This is his first real lead performance, and he’s terrific in it. The way the film is structured, it all rests on his shoulders. He has to convey so much, especially with so little dialogue, since for about, I don’t know, 30-40 minutes of the film, he can’t hear anything anyone is saying and can barely communicate. And then you get the way he layers the character’s past history of drug abuse and anger. It’s a really great performance and one of the best you’ll see this year.
- Paul Bettany, Uncle Frank
Another actor getting what feels like his first lead role (though he has had a few here and there). The movie is told from the perspective of Sophia Lillis’ character, but it’s all about Bettany, as it’s his journey that carries the emotional journey of the story (even if, again, Lillis is there for all of it). Bettany’s always been one of those really reliable actors who you started to take for granted after a while. And here he shows you just what he’s capable of when given the full amount of material. It’s quite wonderful work, and I feel it’s going to get overlooked, just like almost everything else he does.
- Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
There’s been a lot of praise for this performance. And a lot of that is because he died this year and people are gonna naturally do that. It just is. I know that’s a cynical way to look at it — but that’s what happens. It happens more than people want to admit, and it’s a disgusting part of film publicity (even if it is, to an extent, effective). Most of the times I feel like awards pushes just because people have died is a bit gross and usually the performance doesn’t actually live up to the hype. But in this case? Kinda does. Boseman is the de facto lead of the film, even if it’s Viola Davis’ character in the title and (I’m assuming) her name first in the credits. But he’s the one that gets all the screen time. And it’s his character that gets to pop off the screen with his exuberance and energy. It’s really one hell of a performance that, sadly, may have been the best of Boseman’s career. It’s a damn shame we won’t get to see more like this. But just know — when people talk about this over the next couple of months… it’s not for show. It’s a legitimately great piece of work.
- Kevin Costner, Let Him Go
I feel like Kevin Costner is one of those actors who we love watching (he’s got countless incredible movies on his resume), who’s usually in something good (if not great) and is someone we can rely on, even though he’s rarely gotten kudos for his actual acting. It’s that leading man syndrome. We see him as a star and as himself and not necessarily for the work that’s being put in. But here, he does something that I’m sure he’s been building to that I haven’t been paying attention to, but here it jumped off the screen at me. Which is — he just lets his star power do the work for him. It’s not like how Brad Pitt has started doing the stillness thing. It’s not that at all. It’s more — he knows you know him and you know his face. And sometimes just having his face be there says all the words that need to be said a lot of the time. You know who I noticed was doing that a lot lately? Schwarzenegger. He’s had a couple of dramas (like Maggie and Aftermath) where you just felt his gravitas (that’s come from age and us knowing him so well over the past couple of decades) add to the scene without him having to speak words. And that’s how Costner handles this movie. I could swear that I don’t think he spoke more than 50 words of dialogue in this movie. I know that’s not remotely true, but that’s how it feels. Because it’s just him being ‘that guy’, and in a movie like this, which is essentially a western, that’s what you need. That’s the true western hero. It’s a great piece of work that I’m sure few will properly appreciate.
- Tom Hanks, News of the World
So I feel like this list is becoming the ‘people we never fully appreciate’ list. Which I’m fine with. I’ve been saying it for at least half this decade that we never fully appreciate the brilliance of Hanks’ actual acting work because we’re just taking for granted that it’s Tom Hanks. He’s just such a steady presence that you never realize, “Oh, wait, he was really good in that.” I did it for a while. And then around Bridge of Spies is when I started to realize it. When you watch his movies again specifically for his performance, you realize just how good he is even if it doesn’t necessarily register the first time. This performance is more of the same. Admittedly I only saw it the one time, but it definitely struck me as I was watching it that he was doing stuff that I wasn’t fully catching as I watched it, because I was so excited that it was a western and I was watching what Helena Zengel was doing opposite him and stuff like that. But I do think we tend to overlook the work that he puts in and should appreciate the consistent greatness he gives us more.
- Tom Hardy, Capone
What I like about Tom Hardy as an actor is how he likes taking big swings. And he’s been doing these weird, yet weirdly brilliant performances for the past couple of years. Legend, The Revenant, even Venom. This is another one of those. Josh Trank, I think, deliberately wanted to make a weird movie, similar to Hardy’s Bronson (which it could never have achieved, but I think part of him wanted it to be like that. At least, that’s how it felt while watching), where you’re just watching this caged animal do this brilliant performance. Because of the difference in characters, it was never gonna be that performance. But you get shades of that. He put Hardy in this place as this guy and just let him go. People are always gonna have issue with this movie because of its general oddness, and the fact that, as a Capone biopic, you don’t get any of the crime stuff and instead have him dying of syphilis and slowly losing his mind from dementia on this palatial Florida estate. So a lot of the scenes are him in the makeup, smoking giant cigars, grumbling and mumbling his way through scenes. And it’s just really great to watch, even if you’re not sure you actually liked the movie all that much. But the beauty of Hardy is — it doesn’t matter. You can just watch him. It’s rare for him to give a performance that isn’t more interesting than most of the others that came out that year.
- Chris Hemsworth, Extraction
I felt I needed to include this because we take really good action hero performances for granted. And Hemsworth has been a solid and entertaining actor in action movies for a while, and most of the time it’s more of a fun, Thor-type thing. But here, he’s deadly serious. You know, that guy who can handle his shit, but also is like, “I’m just waiting for my bullet, and I’m fine with that.” And the movie’s got all these great actions scenes and everything, but in order to go along with that and fully appreciate it, you have to buy the guy at the center, and that’s Hemsworth. And there aren’t really that many action heroes you fully buy. So I thought it was worth putting him on here to appreciate that.
- Jake Horowitz, The Vast of Night
This is one of those performances — the only way I can properly describe it is — this is the kind of performance that will get him cast in a Steven Spielberg movie. Does that make sense? Spielberg has always thrived on those people who do good indie work that no one sees, and then he loads his cast with these people either just as or just before they break. But I digress. Horowitz is tremendous in this movie, and really just owns the entire first section of this movie, with his complete ownership of that character and that situation (and the dialogue!). Few people can pull off dialogue (or even try to) the way he does in the first ten minutes of this movie. It’s a brilliant piece of work that I can almost guarantee will have you leaning into the film. In a year like this, it’s hard to imagine people saw whatever number of performances they saw and (if it included this one) did not remember this one above most of the rest.
- Hugh Jackman, Bad Education
Jackman is always great and I always find myself having to shout louder about his performances because either people aren’t fully appreciating the work (Prisoners) he’s doing or aren’t seeing the films (Front Runner, anyone?). Logan I think we all agree on, but those other ones… anyway, this movie is great and I think the pandemic allowed more people to see this when it premiered on HBO than might have normally, and I think it’s generally considered one of the better if not best movies of the year. And that includes Jackman’s performance, which is (as per usual) stunning. The way he starts this guy as the pinnacle of professionalism and then slowly peels back the layers, one secret at a time, as everything he’s built starts to crumble. He’s so good, and in a year like this, this might be one of the five best performances of the year. Haven’t remotely started considering that yet, but this is one of those ones I have earmarked because I did like it at that level.
- Richard Jenkins, The Last Shift
Jenkins is great in everything, and at this point, people expect him to be good no matter what genre he’s in. He moves from drama to comedy seamlessly, and we can always count on him to bring the goods. So it’s really no surprise to see him on a list of best performances. But this film in particular is one that I’m pretty sure most people don’t know about. And it’s the kind of movie that, with a different actor, would’ve been completely forgettable. But here, Jenkins is so good that he takes a largely uneven film and elevates it. It’s about a guy who never graduated high school who’s worked in the same fast food restaurant for the past 40-50 years and is now about to leave to go ‘retire’ down to Florida to take care of his elderly mother. And so the film is him preparing for this sudden change in his life (and it’s not anything extraordinary, but you do see the kinds of routine people get themselves into, even at a job most people might scoff at) while also training the guy set to take his job. He’s really great here. You can see how he subtly layers the years of this guy’s personality into this performance. You know everything you need to know about this guy from how Jenkins plays him, and this is one of the best and most underrated performances of the year.
- Bill Nighy, Sometimes Always Never
Bill Nighy is one of the most underrated dramatic actors we have, because people only really ever seem to remember the comedic stuff he does. And he’s great at it, and I totally get it. But he’s also quite terrific when he’s serious. This role in particular is perhaps the most complex role I’ve seen him have in quite a while. He plays a guy who is a bit socially awkward and who is also really into Scrabble. He’s also grieving. One of his sons disappeared some years earlier and he’s been in search of him ever since. And after meeting a Scrabble player online who plays just like his missing son, he becomes convinced that the player is the son he’s been looking for ever since. It’s a really good performance and a really charming little movie that I’m sure almost no one either knows about or bothered to see. Nighy gives what might be the best dramatic performance of his career. It’s really terrific.
- Gary Oldman, Mank
Oldman is one of my favorite actors and it’s always great to see him sink his teeth into a proper part (and not those for-hire jobs he likes to take in between the real jobs). This one just gives him loads to work with, from being a raging alcoholic and compulsive gambler to doing it in a (sort of) 40s style where it’s longer takes and faster-paced dialogue. Plus I love Oldman’s decision to just do a Lionel Barrymore voice with it. It’s somehow perfect and even though you’re aware of what he’s doing, it doesn’t really matter (kind of like Daniel Day-Lewis doing that John Huston voice in There Will Be Blood). But yeah, there was almost no way this performance wasn’t gonna make my list. Oldman in a David Fincher movie? Something would have had to go way wrong for it not to have been here.
- Shaun Parkes, Small Axe: Mangrove
So I’ll admit, within the first ten minutes of Mangrove, I kept going, “Where do I know this guy from?” And then when I pinned him as Izzy, the dirigible pilot in The Mummy Returns, I was able to focus on the incredible work Parkes was doing in this movie. The film is loaded with McQueen’s visuals, social commentary and trial narrative (which will always make a movie more interesting, no matter what level of interesting it starts at). But it’s Parkes performance at the center that makes it work. He is the heart of the film and the focal point of everything. Because it’s his restaurant and, in a way, his responsibility to the community and his life that’s at stake (even though there are eight other lives at stake directly and countless others at stake indirectly in some way). And you feel every bit of that in his performance. I love what he does here and if there was any justice, all the guilds and precursors and such will start putting him on their lists of best performances of 2020.
- Jim Parsons, The Boys in the Band
This one for me is about seeing an actor outside of the usual context from where you know them. I’ve only ever thought of Parsons as a TV actor (not that I’ve really seen that show, but I’ve caught snippets here and there). Maybe I saw him in a movie or two (Hidden Figures or something), but you don’t ever think of him doing drama, even though he has a long history on the stage. I thought he did a really fantastic job with this, and mostly, since I had him as someone I was sort of impressed with this year, and since I was putting the extra spots and I’m not trying to be as rigid as I am most years — he felt like a good add. If only for the people who don’t really associate him with this kind of stuff.
- Jesse Plemons, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
The Charlie Kaufman of it all and the plot and general weirdness of the film tends to overwhelm the performances in this the first time you see it, but the performances have to be great for the film to work the way it does. And that specifically applies to Plemons, who — you side with Jessie Buckley the first time you watch it and she’s the one you notice because you’re aligned with her. But it’s Plemons who’s the one whose performance has to work for the entire piece to work. And it’s a really great bit of subtle acting to somehow get everything across on both a micro and a macro level at the same time. It’s good stuff.
- Bill Pullman, The Coldest Game
I love Bill Pullman and I love the idea of him playing an alcoholic chess champion. This is just a great performance. Maybe it appeals to me more than most, but I just love how he plays it and I love everything he does in this movie. That’s it. Just love it.
- Mark Rylance, The Trial of the Chicago 7
I think people are trying to count this as an ensemble film, but I came out of this feeling as though Rylance was unquestionably the lead here, as the defense attorney tasked with defending the seven titular characters (well… six… and then four, eventually, but you know what I mean). He gets a lot of the screen time as he’s the one talking directly to the judge and dealing with all the insanity that happens. You wanna call them all supporting, be my guest. The point is — Rylance (as always) is wonderful here and comes out of this as the standout performance in a movie of great performances. He’s really good here and I feel like he gets drowned out by the showiness of the Sacha Baron Cohen role and the Aaron Sorkin of it all. But watch this specifically for him: it’s yet another wonderful performance from a guy whose best work has come in the past five years.
- David Thewlis, Guest of Honour
Thewlis is one of those actors who we all recognize from something and all think is great (often specifically from something as well), but we never fully appreciate a performance of his in the moment. And this performance, in a movie I didn’t particularly like and a movie I’m sure so few people actually even bothered to see, stood out to me as one of the more fascinating and layered pieces of work I saw this year. It’s a weird movie — he’s a health inspector who goes to restaurants and checks for unsafe practices, and the film revolves around him, his daughter, and an event that slowly comes to light over the course of the film that’s landed her in prison. I don’t really love the movie, but watching Thewlis in it was so captivating. The way he builds this weird guy into a compulsively watchable figure, and then builds to the climactic moment of him is just sheer brilliance. This is one of the most unheralded and underrated performances of this year.
- Vince Vaughn, Freaky
Vaughn is one of those guys who we all know from comedy and is always sneaky great at drama too. This one allows him to do a bit of both, but really just the comedy. It’s the dramatic base of the performance that allows it to work the way it does (because he has to keep the humanity and not just try to be funny), but the crux of this performance is based on the comedic concept. Which is — he plays a serial killer who switches bodies with a high school girl. And so he spends the movie running around (a high school girl in his body) trying to undo everything. And he’s just amazing. It’s so goddamn funny. I was howling with laughter the way he played scenes (and the way ‘she’ slowly figured out the things she could do with that body that she couldn’t do with hers), especially the moment in the car with the boyfriend. Oh my god. I try not to discriminate between comedy and drama. A good performance is a good performance. And so while this will never get any awards attention, this is one of the more memorable and great performances of this year.
- Steven Yeun, Minari
Not sure there’s much I need to say here. Minari is one of the more critically-acclaimed movies of the year and should factor heavily into awards season (though I won’t fully hold my breath on that one, knowing the Oscars as I do). Yeun is one of those actors who has been coming on strong with great performances lately (Burning, Okja, Sorry to Bother You, even Mayhem, which no one saw), and here he has a performance that almost no one can deny. You’re gonna see it on all the lists for good reason. It’s great. That’s really all there is to it.
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