My Favorite Female 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 has 25 entries on it! Which I’m thrilled about. I feel like most years there aren’t enough female lead performances to go around, so this year I get to go extra hard and talk about all the great ones. This is the list I’m most excited about of all of them.
Here are my favorite female lead performances of 2020:
- Kiera Allen, Run
First off, great for a movie that features a disabled lead casting an actual disabled actor. But that’s completely unrelated to why this performance is great. Allen really manages to get the viewer on her side and really manages to give a charming and believable (because it’s a movie you’ve seen before. So in a sense you have to have her ‘sell’ this version of it to make you go along with it rather than just go ‘I know exactly what’s gonna happen’) performance that hopefully gets her a lot more work in the future, because it’s a really strong performance for someone in their first film.
- Haley Bennett, Swallow
Haley Bennett is a perennially underrated actress. I almost put her on the Supporting list this year for Hillbilly Elegy because, while Amy Adams and Glenn Close got all the attention for their ‘look at me, give me awards’ performances, she was there (with sadly too little screen time) adding actual authenticity and humanity with her performance. And she does that a lot, never getting any sort of credit for it. Plus, you forget… she’s been around way longer than you realize. Her first movie was Music and Lyrics with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. She plays the pop star Grant is writing for. Yeah, that’s her. She was 19 in that movie. She never really started coming on until the latter half of this decade. 2016, she had Hardcore Henry, The Magnificent Seven and The Girl on the Train. She still hasn’t fully broken out yet, but hopefully it’ll happen soon. This film is her first actual lead performance she’s gotten. Usually she has thankless supporting parts in male-dominated movies. But this — this is something else. It’s a beautifully filmed movie and a nice little parable of female body autonomy on top of that. The entire film rests on her performance. And she makes it incredibly nuanced. That first act is sort of like when you see A Woman Under the Influence for the first time. Those first twenty minutes. Where you’re not actually sure what the deal is with this person, but it’s fascinating to watch. That’s what this movie is with her. It’s a beautiful piece of work that I hope people have paid attention to, because it shows she deserves to be one of the biggest stars we have.
- Rachel Brosnahan, I’m Your Woman
Having not seen Mrs. Maisel, I didn’t really know all that much about her acting chops outside of House of Cards. This is really the first film role I actively recall her from. And the movie was a huge surprise to me to begin with. It’s incredible and has already been on a few of my featured lists thus far. Of course, the movie doesn’t work without her performance anchoring it, and she’s quite good here. It’s a solid star turn and she does a fantastic job with the role. I’m excited to see her do more dramatic stuff going forward.
- Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Buckley’s been coming on for a few years as a force to be reckoned with. It started with Wild Rose and now is expanding to things like Fargo (she had the best character on the most recent season), Chernobyl (which I haven’t seen, but knowing her, she’s great in it) and movies like Judy and Misbehaviour. This is her biggest role yet in terms of people getting to see her talent, and I have to imagine most people, upon seeing the film, came away impressed by her. It’s hard not to be. She commands the screen and is one of those actors who always seems to make interesting choices. Here’s hoping this run continues, because I can’t wait to see what happens when she starts to get that consistent top tier of material to work from.
- Auli’i Cravalho, All Together Now
I imagine most people at this point (though with more performances like this, that’s sure to change) know Auli’i Cravalho as the voice of Moana. And aside from one season of a TV show and that live Little Mermaid thing, this is her first live action performance. And I have to say… I was actively impressed by both her and the movie. She’s got an inherently likable personality and you want to root for her. And she’s got a natural star presence about her. Plus, the film isn’t just your usual ‘coming of age high school’ movie. There’s stuff in there that requires actual acting. Her and her mother are homeless and sleeping in a school bus at night. She’s got actual material to work with. Which is why I was impressed with her and the movie. There’s depth there and I found myself constantly going, “Oh, this is quite good,” in a situation when I wasn’t actually expecting all that much. I think she’s got a real future in front of the camera and hopefully people will keep giving her good parts.
- Zoey Deutch, Buffaloed
This one’s been bubbling for a few years now. For the last half of this decade, I saw her bouncing around from thing to thing, in sort of that ‘up-and-comer waiting to break out’ spot. And sometimes you’re not sure if that means in that empty kind of way where they’re featured in stuff but don’t actually do anything interesting or if it meant anything real. But, I’ve seen over the past couple of years that she’s taken a lot riskier material than other people. I mean… Flower is not an easy movie. She plays a woman who gives blowjobs to people in her town and then blackmails them and then has this weird, pseudo-incestuous relationship with her stepbrother. Most actors her age aren’t doing stuff like that. Then there was Set It Up, where she was great and charming and everything she has to offer as a star in one place. Plus she was great in a small part in Zombieland 2. But this movie is the one where you really see her. It’s like Flower on steroids. Her character is big. It’s so big that, if it were not handled properly by both the actor and the director, it could have been too big. But she finds a way to ground her by making her human, even in the most ridiculous situations. This is a performance that made me go, “Oh yeah, she’s a star.” Whether anyone else takes notice of that and starts putting her in more cool shit, I don’t know. But I do know that I won’t have to wonder anymore about whether she’s got the chops or is just another person out there just being in stuff.
- Clare Dunne, Herself
Sometimes the movies and performances you like best are the ones you had absolutely no preconceptions or expectations for. This movie — I had tracked it, I had known it was coming out… I had zero inclination at all that it was gonna be something that made a dent for me and would be something I’d even like. I figured, “Okay, I’ll see it, I’m sure it’ll be fine and I’ll move on.” Because sometimes you can tell when something sounds up your alley and when something seems like, “I know what that is. I’ve seen that before.” And this movie looked like one of those. I think because all I knew about it was the ‘abused wife getting away’ angle and not the rest of it. And it being British, I remember at least one or two of those movies from recent years (one for sure with Gemma Arterton). And I thought, “I’m sure that’ll be perfectly fine.” But instead, I’m watching this movie and, every couple of minutes, I’m leaning more and more into it. And that has everything to do with Clare Dunne. She conceived the story based on real events that happened to a friend of hers and co-wrote the script on top of starring in the film. And I think it’s that personal nature that really shone through in the entirety of the film. But on top of that, it’s just a performance that is utterly grounded in likability. You’re rooting for her immediately, and you just continue to root for her as things progress. And that’s not just writing. That’s performance. And Dunne is really, really wonderful in this, and it’s one of the best performances I saw this year, all around.
- Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
A lot of the film rests entirely on Flanigan’s shoulders. Since Eliza Hittman takes a very vérité approach and lets us follow Flanigan’s character as she goes through all this. So Flanigan has to remain compelling for an audience while also showing us her character’s journey throughout the course of the film. And it’s very great in those opening scenes. She conveys so much through looks and glances as well as actions, never verbalizing unless absolutely necessary. And then there’s the moment near the end that gives the movie its title, which I believe to be the best acted scene of the entire year. That scene just absolutely blew me away and destroyed me emotionally. The things that Flanigan conveys in the scene without ever saying a word are just stunning. This is one of the most affecting performances I saw this year.
- Julia Garner, The Assistant
This was one of the early performances people got to see before the pandemic (though I think the word of mouth actually did also help throughout the rest of the year). So I think the near-universal praise for Garner is something that people are aware of and this is one of those performances that feels like, “Well yeah.” Because she’s great. The entire movie is told from her perspective, so it’s just her. She’s gotta carry everything, especially when they’re not coming out and spelling out the ‘Weinstein’ of it all. And she does a tremendous job with it. I’m not gonna be telling you anything that you probably haven’t seen on other lists, so I’ll just leave it at: yes, this is one of the best performances of the year.
- Betty Gilpin, The Hunt
So the movie is a thematic mess and there’s a lot to talk about in terms of just that. But the one takeaway anyone who sees this movie seems to come away with is that Betty Gilpin is really good in it. It’s a real action hero performance. Her character is of few words and instead communicates with her face and body language, which helps since a lot of people are trying to kill her the whole time. Part of me wishes the movie weren’t so crazy with what it was trying to accomplish, because then more people would’ve been talking about this performance.
- Mckenna Grace, Troop Zero
So at the beginning of every year (particularly lately), I tell myself, “I should just write down all the performances I like after I see them, so I don’t have to struggle with remembering at the end of the year.” And then invariably around March or April I totally forget and nothing gets updated and I have to try to remember. But, in those first few months, there were some things I had written down. And this was the first performance I put on my list (because it was the first film I saw that had a performance I thought could qualify for this list, not for any other reason). I am very much inclined toward precocious child roles, and anyone who’s seen me put a list together knows that. I gravitate toward those characters and that’s just who I am. Grace has been around for a bit as an actor. Her first big movie was in Gifted with Chris Evans, as his incredibly smart daughter. You could see there that she had an innate spark and an intelligence to her performances and wasn’t just another ‘child actor’. Then she played young Tonya Harding in I Tonya, was on that Hill House show, played young Sabrina on that show, played young Captain Marvel in that movie. so you’ve seen her. Oh, and apparently she was in that Annabelle movie too. You’ve seen her in things before (and are gonna see her in Ghostbusters this year to boot). This is a lead role for her, and she knocks it out of the park. Because she’s doing a Georgia accent for one, but also — even though Viola Davis and Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan get the high profile credits, it’s her movie. And she has to carry it. And she does. She makes this girl so damned likable and makes you want to root for her in the worst way. Most people have low bars for ‘child’ performances. But sometimes you can see one that’s actually a real performance and not just performative. And that’s what she does here. I really liked what she did with it.
- Kara Hayward, To the Stars
Probably the most unknown of the performances on this list. Hayward you do know, however, from Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Now, she’s graduated to playing teens instead of children (she popped up in Manchester by the Sea as well). This is a movie that took me by surprise and was something I really liked. I’m also predisposed to those ‘ugly duckling becomes a swan/coming of age’ type performances when they’re good (and I don’t mean stuff like, 90s rom coms. I mean like, Sondra Locke in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter from 1968. That’s my basis for that kind of role). That’s pretty much what this is. Hayward is a smart, but shy girl living on a farm in Oklahoma in the 60s. The town is small, the high school is small, and she’s that stereotypical unpopular student who they all make fun of and won’t talk to. Plus, she’s always the person sitting alone and reading a book. And the she meets the new girl, who has a car and is from the city and has all these stories about traveling places that none of these people have ever been (and likely will never be). And so Hayward befriends her and starts to come out of her shell and gain the confidence to just be herself. It’s a really nice performance. Liana Liberato has the more showy performance (and one with more layers, especially when you get to the end of the film), but I found myself more impressed with Hayward’s work, since hers was a more subtle performance that had to work more around the edges and gradually become more emotional. And I just thought it was really well done. I know this won’t be on anyone’s list, but I don’t care. I like what I like, and I thought she was terrific here.
- Sophia Lillis, Uncle Frank
Lillis has really impressed me over the past few years with her work. Starting, of course, with It. But then even seeing her in a Nancy Drew movie that no one saw, that spark she has just leaps off the screen and you can tell she has that intangible that makes all the best stars great. So I’m enjoying seeing her get more meaty material and not just play standard ‘child’ roles. Apparently she’s good in that HBO series that got cancelled, but my only frame of reference for her is the films. And this is perhaps her best screen performance to date. The film is centered around her (even though it’s very much Paul Bettany’s film). The role is a child who grew up in the south but isn’t much like her family. And she’s always gravitated toward her uncle who always felt cool and cultured and smart and understood her. Now, on his recommendation, she’s gone to college in New York, but is still very much a naive southern girl. So she’s dating this boy and doesn’t realize the boy is gay and just using her to get to her uncle. She’s learning that her uncle is gay and has hid it from the family all these years. She’s got that stereotypical ‘getting too drunk for the first time’ scene. It’s very much a coming of age story, but through the lens of a girl in the 70s, which is an interesting time for someone to be learning about the world in that regard. Like I said, the film is very much Bettany’s, but that natural spark of Lillis’ and her innate intelligence as an actress shines through and I found myself very much impressed by her continued development as an actress and can’t wait to see what she does going forward.
- Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night
This whole movie surprised the hell out of me, and at the center of it are the two lead performances. I talked about Jake Horowitz yesterday, and now it’s McCormick’s turn. Horowitz had his own brand of difficult scene to deal with — that long-take, one-shot scene of him doing rapid-fire dialogue through the gymnasium and out into the parking lot. But McCormick has an arguably even more difficult one. She has the scene at the switchboard that’s a single, unbroken, ten-minute take where it’s just her on screen. We get some stuff via audio that she’s listening to, but otherwise it’s just her on screen in front of a board at a desk and it’s one of the most riveting things you’ll see. It’s such a great piece of work. And all her scenes with Horowitz are just fantastic and spot on for the era and type of feeling they’re trying to capture with the story. And they’re just brimming with humanity as well. They feel like real people even though it’s very much written as a stylized kind of story. I credit that to both the actors and the direction.
- Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs
I’m guessing this will be on a lot of lists. Milioti is one of those actors who I’ve been waiting to see break out for a while. She got instant notoriety when she got cast as the titular ‘Mother’ in the final season of How I Met Your Mother. And she also (which some people forget) played Leo’s first wife in Wolf of Wall Street. And since then, you really haven’t seen her other than the second season of Fargo and that one Star Trek episode of Black Mirror. It’s been a lot of stage stuff and random TV for her. But now, after this, everyone’s on board with her. Because she just absolutely owns this movie. You just instantly like her here and are just with her all the way (even as Andy Samberg is meant to be the hero of the film and the focal point). It’s just one of those great star performances where everyone who sees it just gets why it’s great and why she’s great in it. So, there’s really nothing more to add here, since I think most people would put this on a list of best performances of the year. So I’ll just say — please let’s get her in more stuff now, guys.
- Elisabeth Moss, Shirley and The Invisible Man
Figured I’d just throw on both. Not particularly crazy about either performance, but both of them feel like they add up to an honorable mention, especially on a list of 25. I know everyone’s seen and gone ape shit for Invisible Man, so there’s not much I need to say there. She’s good in it. And then Shirley is the one that’s more the ‘performance’ movie. She gets to play an author with mental illness. It’s the type of role most people dream of getting. And again, quite good. That’s pretty much all I got. I wish I could see the things other people see with her work and praise her more highly, but I just thought she was fine.
- Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
The performance of 2020. And it’s not even that this is one of those Daniel Day-Lewis, oh-my-god-what-acting type of performances. I just mean that this is the most representative performance of 2020. Instantly iconic and instantly the performance that feels like it best sums up everything there is to sum up about 2020. It’s just a stunning piece of work from an actor who has consistently been great and is someone who almost always makes these lists for me. Because she’s great. It’s one of the three best performances of the year, and if I’m being honest, probably the one I’d have put at #1 if I were doing the rankings this year. There’s a reason everyone’s talking about this performance — it really is that great.
- Kelly O’Sullivan, Saint Frances
I loved this movie. I love when actors write themselves good parts that fit them and show us what they can do. That’s what O’Sullivan did and this is at least the second one of these on here. The film itself is weird in that — it’s very much a film that feels like you’ve seen it before, and yet somehow it never feels like it falls into any of the traps/cliches you feel in all those other movies. Here’s the premise: O’Sullivan is in her 30s and is just kind of drifting. No real job, no real anything. Her sister has just had a baby and she’s single and having one-night stands. Though during one of her flings, she finds that she’s gotten pregnant and now needs to abort the child. So the film is her going through that (and the aftereffects of that) while also taking a job as a nanny to a little girl, both of which affect her in ways she was not expecting. It’s a really charming film, anchored by O’Sullivan’s performance. She’s definitely an actor I feel who was never gonna get the type of roles she deserved and here she just said, “Fuck it,” and gave it to herself. And that’s just amazing to me. No list of best performances of this year would be complete without this one on it.
- Aubrey Plaza, Black Bear
The indie darling performance of the year. Which I feel has been happening a lot lately with Aubrey Plaza. Everyone knows her from comedy and yet she likes making these weird indies that very few people see with committed performances that skew toward drama but also are darkly funny as well. This one — I don’t even know what to make of this one except to say — she’s committed and it is a good performance, even though I was worried at the time that people would make more of it than was there. But apart from me hating how people react to things, I can’t really shit on the performance itself, because it is quite good. I think, in some ways, the film lets her down by being a bit too complicated, but the performance still holds up as one of the better ones of the year.
- Margot Robbie, Dreamland
I put her on here specifically. One, because this is not a typical type of role for her. And I’ve really appreciated how she’s tried to stretch herself as an actress these past few years. She’s taken high profile stuff, like Tarzan and Once Upon a time in Hollywood, but for every one of those, she’s got stuff like Z for Zachariah and this. Plus, sprinkle in the high profile stuff where she gets to actually show her range like Bombshell and Mary Queen of Scotts and I Tonya… she’s covering all the bases and it’s quite wonderful. This movie is Bonnie and Clyde, but told from a different perspective. Clyde is dead and Bonnie is on the run. And she flees into a family’s barn. And the young guy of the family finds her. And so the movie is him (coming of age sort of deal) helping hide her and feed her, all while slowly getting a crush on her. The role is very much unlike anything else she’s done and I found myself really impressed with not only her desire to choose that kind of role (since she produced the movie and helped get it made) but also to really bring a depth and a humanity with it, all while showing that she can literally ‘play anything’, to use the cliche. It was one of the more impressive performances I saw this year.
- Eliza Scanlen, Babyteeth
Scanlen has been coming on strong as someone to pay attention to, from her work in Sharp Objects and Little Women (and even The Devil All the Time, in a small-ish part). This is the one, though. This is the one that’ll show you how ready she is to be a star. The film is an indie punk rock version of Fault in Our Stars. She’s a dying teenager who falls for a 20-something drug dealer and decides, “I’m gonna enjoy the rest of my time.” And of course her parents hate this, but what can they say? Their daughter is dying. Plus, dad’s a psychiatrist who’s drifting and possibly on the verge of an affair and mom is on way too many meds and just kind of in her own universe half the time. It’s definitely not a sanitized movie. And the fact that it’s got all this offbeat shit in it is what gives it so much personality. And Scanlen is just tremendous here. The film does slightly do the thing of having her break the fourth wall, but it does it sparingly and with just the right amount of a wink to make it work. But overall, it’s a very mature performance that is gonna get overlooked (as will the film, which is terrific), but I thought was truly one of the best pieces of work I saw this year.
- Geraldine Viswanathan, The Broken Hearts Gallery
I love a good rom com performance. Especially when it’s someone who deserved a star-making turn. And Viswanathan is definitely one of those people. She started in a couple of dumb comedies (Blockers and The Package) but managed to stand out in both of those. Then she did Hala, which really let me know that she had the goods as an actor. Now, she’s got that TV show with Daniel Radcliffe (that maybe is still on the air) and was in Bad Education this year as well. But this performance is that total package. This is where people should take note of her. The film itself is a really strong and original rom com, and she just lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. She’s so damn likable in this. I hope this gets her more parts going forward (and hopefully not high school parts).
- Kate Winslet, Ammonite
It’s Kate Winslet. We know she’s great and she’s almost always worth a spot on this list whenever she’s got material that isn’t… you know… Divergent. The film you can have issues with, since it is basically a Portrait of a Lady on Fire-adjacent type story. But it’s still anchored by great performances from Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. It’s strong work. We can have the discussion later about whether or not it deserves awards. Now, I think it’s definitely something you can confidently say is among the better performances of the year. It’s Kate Winslet, guys. It’s no surprise that she’s great in something.
- Evan Rachel Wood, Kajillionaire
This may be the character I believed in most on this list. Which is to say — a lot of times you watch something and are acutely aware of the actor playing a part. And even if they’re doing a good job, you think, “Oh, (so and so) is doing a great job here.” But with this character, I actually started to believe in the character. It wasn’t like a Daniel Day-Lewis situation where you forget the actor entirely, but I found myself completely swept away by the work that Wood did here. She made this character a fully-realized person, and I completely understood everything about her. It was a beautiful piece of characterization and might (not that I’ve consider this at all) be my favorite performance on this list. At the very least, it’s the one where I most went, “Oh wow,” because of how deeply she characterized this person and made me feel for her the entire way through the film.
- Letitia Wright, Small Axe: Mangrove
Wright stole Black Panther when she was in it and this is really the first thing she’s done since. And man, is she great. The film is centered around Shaun Parkes’ character, but it’s Wright’s character who comes in and becomes a co-lead of sorts throughout the rest of the film. You could say she’s supporting, but I don’t care. Great is great. And she’s really great here. The beauty is that, while her Black Panther performance was very much about charm and fun, this one’s a very dramatic performance. And one that requires her to do the accent all the way through. Which isn’t really a noteworthy thing (plenty of actors have to do accents all the time), but to me, the mark of a great performance, especially one with an accent, is when someone can maintain that accent in loud, shouty moments. You often see an accent break at those times. But here, she’s got a full on — screaming at the other people in the room they adjourn to as they discuss their options — scene, and that accent doesn’t break. And that’s on top of the great acting in the scene. Wright’s the real deal as an actor, and I’m really excited to see what she does going forward.
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