My Favorite Female Supporting 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. (Slightly tough here, but I got to 15.)

Here are my favorite female supporting performances of 2020:

  • Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Everyone’s talking about her and her performance. So I’ll just echo what’s been said already — she’s great. It’s a really terrific performance for a lot of reasons. And she does largely manage to overcome a lot of the silliness of the situations she was put in and somehow crafted a well-rounded performance and character around all that. It’s probably the best debut we had all year.

  • Olivia Cooke, Sound of Metal

She’s incredible here. I wish she had more screen time because there is so much untapped or unspoken stuff with this character that we never see yet you feel just from how Cooke plays the part. I imagine this will favor heavily into awards stuff (at least I hope it does), because it’s one of the more affecting supporting performances I saw this year and really my only gripe is, as I said — I wish there were more of her character in the film.

  • Essie Davis, Babyteeth

Our third performance from this movie. Davis is fantastic as Scanlen’s mother in this, as she gets a real nice character shift from the beginning of the film to the end of the film. Both parents do. Here, at the beginning she’s on too many meds and is just not doing a very good job at being a mother and handling her daughter’s condition. And slowly she starts to clear up and come back to being a mother. And it’s a nice little arc that she gets. Most movies wouldn’t give that to her in any meaningful way. It’s a strong performance.

  • Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

She’s the credited lead of the film, but all I could think as I watched it was, “She’s barely on the screen.” She’s not even in the first half of the movie, and then she has her little chunk and that’s it. I know she’ll never be considered lead by anyone other than me, but I feel like just because her character’s name is in the title does not automatically make her the lead of the story. To me, the story is about the band, most specifically Chadwick Boseman’s character. Either way — she’s real good in limited screen time as she is in anything. It’s Viola Davis. You know she’s gonna deliver the goods every time.

  • Zoe Kazan, The Kindness of Strangers

It feels like every year or two Zoe Kazan gives a performance that makes one of these lists and yet still isn’t considered one of the best actors we have working nowadays. The movie itself — take it or leave it. It’s one of those ensemble dramas where we bounce around to a couple of differet stories that interact in different ways. But as I watched the film, all I thought was, “Damn, she’s likable, and her story is the only one I give a shit about.” And maybe it’s that I saw the performance pre-lockdown and remembered it before the haze of everything set in, or maybe it’s just that Zoe Kazan is great in everything she does. The answer is probably both, but this was a performance I quite liked.

  • Liana Liberato, To the Stars

I talked about Kara Hayward the other day. Liberato has the showier of the two roles. She gets to be the city girl in the small town, the one who is bold and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and others, yet is secretly hiding a lot of stuff from the town, all of which comes out over the course of the film (and is kinda tragic). It’s a strong performance that sadly won’t ever get seen by the mainstream.

  • Brigette Lundy-Paine & Samara Weaving, Bill & Ted Face the Music

I couldn’t separate the two. They’re “Little Bill” and “Little Ted.” And they both absolutely nail the presence and demeanor of Keanu and Alex. They just feel totally right for these roles and fit into the universe like a glove. Fantastic work.

  • Lesley Manville, Let Him Go

I wouldn’t have expected Manville to be the one who got this particular part and maybe that’s why the whole thing stood out to me. It wasn’t too long ago she was in Phantom Thread and now here she is as this brash southern matriarch who is just nuts. It’s a real scene-stealer of a role and she plays it with such gusto. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner play very muted and subdued characters, which allows Manville to just go to the walls with hers. And the juxtaposition works perfectly. This is definitely one of the most memorable parts I saw all year.

  • Kathryn Newton, Freaky

She’s so good in this. Because during the last 2/3 of the film, she’s playing a serial killer inside her own body. So she’s not really speaking for much of it. So she communicates everything through her eyes, which — the way she gets that look down is fucking terrifying in the right way. She really uses the physicality to her advantage and communicates so much wordlessly. Plus she uses the first act to help set up what Vince Vaughn is gonna do as her later on in the film. It’s really great work.

  • Imogen Poots, Castle in the Ground

Poots is another actress who is usually pretty great and who I’m always shouting out here in some way, shape or form. I love watching her in stuff and here, she gives a really great part in a movie no one will see. Granted, it’s a movie about opioid addiction and it’s slow and way overdramatic. But her performance is quite strong. The film is about a young guy whose mother is slowly dying of an illness. And Poots plays the neighbor in the apartment across the hall from him. At first, the two have limited encounters, and it’s clear that she’s an addict. Then after his mother dies, he slowly starts taking the pills she has left over and becomes addicted himself. But Poots — I’ve seen a lot of people play addicts and there’s something about the way she plays one that really struck me. (Also, shout out to her in Vivarium, another underrated movie and performance from this year.)

  • Saoirse Ronan, Ammonite

It’s Saoirse Ronan. She’s the best actress of her generation and is perennially on these lists. She’s playing second fiddle to Kate Winslet in this movie, but for the time she’s on screen, the result is very, very strong. But again — we’ve come to expect this greatness out of her, so there’s not really much I need to add to let you know that she gave one of the best performances of the year. Mostly just confirming what we could have guessed.

  • Amanda Seyfried, Mank

Seyfried is an interesting actor. She’s been around a while, which makes her feel like an old veteran of movies even though she’s still quite young. And most of the time she’s in these disposable comedies or movies that don’t really require her to put forth much of an effort to seem okay. She’s good at a certain level, but I can’t really lay claim to ever seeing her do capital-a ‘Acting’. Not that I think she couldn’t, I just never saw her in that kind of material before. Or if it was, it was always bad versions of that material, where you could never properly gauge her because she didn’t have anything good to work with. But wily David Fincher uses that to his advantage in casting her as Marion Davies, who was always underestimated as an actress because she had a certain persona about her. And I have to say — this is by far the best work of Seyfried’s career. She uses the Brooklyn accent perfectly, never overdoing it and making it feel like a crutch, and she really captures what I’d imagine Davies was like — smarter than you gave her credit for, but not as deep as maybe you’d think that well could go, but also just generally a good person who took a lot of the criticism in stride (if she heard it at all). There’s a perfect lack of self-awareness in some areas while complete self-awareness in others, both operating at the same time. I really liked what she did here and for the first time was genuinely impressed by her work.

  • Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

It tickles me to no end that the foul-mouthed grandmother everyone was talking about this year with Glenn Close’s Hillbilly Elegy character did not make this list and instead the foul-mouthed grandmother character who did make this list was this one. Minari in every way is the film that Hillbilly Elegy wanted to be and it’s both so appropriate and so hilarious to me that the ‘outsider’ perspective of America is as, if not more American than the quote-unquote ‘American’ one in Hillbilly Elegy. But, speaking to the performance itself, Youn is just wildly entertaining here. How could she not be? The role was written to be exactly that. It’s hard not to enjoy everything she does with it, watching professional wrestling and beating her grandkids at cards and calling them motherfuckers. It’s amazing.

  • Helena Zengel, News of the World

SLIGHTLY cheating here, since she’s kind of a co-lead, but there are times when she’s not on screen and feels like she’s supporting Hanks, so I put her here. The point is: the performance she gives is really good. Especially since she’s a German actress who spends the entire film speaking in Kiowa. She accomplishes a lot with mere presence and facial expressions and gives one of the more underrated great performances of the year.

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