In an often-terrible world—and especially at the end of an especially challenging year—there’s one blessing we can count on: at least we have actors. For the bulk of 2020, most of us were prevented from seeing movies on the big screen, which meant the work of actors was beamed straight into our homes, places where we sometimes felt as if we were under house arrest. A great performance can serve many purposes: It can help take your mind off your own troubles, or it can provide catharsis for anxieties you can’t even articulate. And sometimes, it’s simply company. In a year like no other in recent history, here are some of the performances that came through larger than life even on the smallest screen.
Also read TIME’s lists of the 10 best fiction books, nonfiction books, YA and children’s books, songs, TV shows, movies, albums and video games of 2020.
Chadwick Boseman, Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
In what was an all-around rough year, we’re at least fortunate to have not just one but two terrific Chadwick Boseman performances, counterweights to the sorrow of losing him. In Spike Lee’s fiery Vietnam-revisited drama Da 5 Bloods, Boseman plays Stormin’ Norman, a squad leader revered by his soldiers. Unlike them, he didn’t survive the war. He appears only in flashback, a righteous apparition with an encyclopedic knowledge of Black history and resistance; in Boseman’s hands, his conviction is radically alive. And in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play, Boseman’s portrayal of Levee, a brilliant, charismatic trumpet player, glistens: Levee’s ideas are too big for the constrained world around him, and though he carries rage and suffering in his heart, he strains to keep those those things from defining him. As Boseman plays him, his contradictions are as knotty as a flexed bicep, and there’s both joy and haunted anger in his eyes. This performance is one sustained, bent note, with so many subtle gradations it registers as a symphony.
Diane Lane, Let Him Go
Let Him Go is the kind of well-made adult-drama thriller you might have seen every few months or so at the multiplex of the 1990s. Today these movies are rarities—a shame, because they’re often good showcases for our best working actors. Diane Lane is one of those, a pleasure to watch whenever she shows up. But she’s quietly off the charts in Let Him Go, playing a Montana mother and grandmother who enlists her husband (Kevin Costner, also terrific) in a desperate effort to save their endangered grandson. Lane is so casually good that it’s impossible to tease out any traces of technique. Her character in Let Him Go could be a composite of adjectives—sturdy, stubborn, unstoppable—but as you watch the performance, all handy descriptors burn away. She’s pure energy, a supreme example of acting that’s invisible, even as it draws you closer to its flame.
Kyle Chandler, The Midnight Sky
George Clooney directs and stars in this movie about a bleak Earth future, playing a scientist trying desperately to reach a group of astronauts who have been off investigating a planet that might sustain human life. One of those explorers is Kyle Chandler’s Mitchell, who loves being in space but loves his family more: we see him eating breakfast with holographic versions of his wife and kids, savoring every minute before he has to get back to his space duties—they’re nothing but ghostly projections, yet just being in their presence means the world to him. Chandler, expressive and offhandedly handsome, is the natural heir to another fine actor, Robert Forster, and he has a great astronaut’s face, with enough forehead creases to remind us that being conscientious all the time takes its toll. But as Mitchell, he’s also the face of homesickness, capturing what it means to live dutifully in the moment even as you’re longing to be somewhere else, thousands of miles away, living the other half of the life you love.
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
David Fincher’s Mank is an entertaining work of old Hollywood folklore, starring Gary Oldman as sozzled scribe Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, But the picture’s most intoxicating presence is Amanda Seyfried as flirty-smart Brooklyn-born actor Marion Davies, the longtime mistress of William Randolph Hearst (by most accounts the model for Charles Foster Kane). In real life Davies was a gifted performer whose career was more hindered than helped by her rich, famous paramour, and Seyfried captures that bittersweet subtext perfectly: there’s always just a hint of sadness behind her resplendent smile, as if she knows exactly what Davies’ life choices cost her. Both saucy and fine-grained, this portrait of Davies brings some necessary warmth to Fincher’s grand vision. It could almost have been a movie unto itself.
John Carroll Lynch, The Trial of the Chicago 7
In Aaron Sorkin’s exhilarating courtroom drama, based on the trial of the activists who disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Lynch plays Dave Dellinger, a citizen protestor who was about as far as you could get from being a hippie: a staid middle-aged dad and Boy Scout troop leader, he was a longtime pacifist and a member of MOBE, the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. He didn’t fit in with radicals like Abbie Hoffman, even if, as a group, they all shared the same goals. Lynch is dazzling in a quiet way, as a man apart, lonely in the specificity of his anti-war convictions—but when Dellinger is pushed to the brink, he learns that he too is capable of violence. At that moment, Lynch’s face is so stricken, so clouded with horror at his own lack of control, that he momentarily upends the movie. This is what a great actor can do: convey the complexity of one principled but frustrated man in a single flashpoint moment.
Julia Garner, The Assistant
In Kitty Green’s quietly harrowing debut feature, Julia Garner plays Jane, a recent college graduate working an entry-level job at a hip film-production outfit, where she’s expected to work long hours and put up with her verbally and emotionally abusive boss. Garner’s performance, a spring wound tight, captures the truth of so many entry-level jobs, particularly for women. You can see by the stern set of Jane’s lips, and by the way, time and again, she just barely represses an eye-roll, that she’s tough enough to handle all of this—and yet she knows she shouldn’t have to. Even the way she grabs a furtive cigarette during a break, holding it between her fingers like a tiny enemy and not a friend, suggests she smokes irregularly and only out of desperation. When you’re young, everyone tells you that you have to work hard to get ahead. But how hard is too hard, and what’s unreasonable? Garner’s performance captures the uncomfortable truth of the answer.
Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has not yet decided if Hamilton, considered more a filmed play than a movie, should be eligible for an Oscar. I am not, thank God, the Academy, and my decree is that Leslie Odom Jr. gives one of the best performances of the year as Aaron Burr, the “damn fool”—in the character’s own words—who shot the show’s eponymous founding father. Odom’s Burr is a tragic figure, a haunted narrator whose competitiveness and rancor destroys not one life but two. Yet Odom shows us the threads of insecurity beneath Burr’s swagger. Even his biggest gestures are intimate in their complexity. And in songs like “Wait for It,” the smoky-rich timbre of his voice speaks of fiery ambition tempered by the essential insecurity of being human.
Nicole Beharie, Miss Juneteenth
In Channing Godfrey People’s debut feature, Nicole Beharie plays Turquoise, a single mother in Fort Worth who has big dreams for her teenage daughter—though her hopes are really a vicarious wish, a desire for her daughter to fulfill the dreams she couldn’t achieve for herself. Beharie—perhaps best known from TV’s Sleepy Hollow and Black Mirror—takes a character you’ve seen many times before, the beleaguered single mom, and renders her in a delicate but glorious palette of dimensions. Even if Turquoise’s life is complicated—she’s lonely, and she can barely pay the bills despite holding down multiple jobs—Beharie makes sure we never lose sight of her light and energy. The performance delves into complicated ideas of parental sacrifice: Turquoise has to define the boundary between all that we want to give to our children and what we need to keep in reserve for ourselves. Beharie doesn’t make any of it look easy. Yet every minute you’re rooting for Turquoise to get it right, whatever right may be.
Pierfrancesco Favino, The Traitor
Marco Bellocchio is one of our greatest living filmmakers, still making vigorous, vital movies at age 81. His latest, The Traitor, is worth seeking out, especially for Pierfrancesco Favino’s bone-rattling lead performance as real-life mobster Tommaso Buscetta, of the Sicilian Mafia, a man whose testimony against his cohorts proved to be key in one of history’s largest anti-Mafia trials. (It also required him to enter the U.S. Witness Protection Program.) Favino plays Buscetta partly as a gruff mystery, a man holding his cards so close that not even he can see what kind of hand he’s holding. And then, slowly, as his repulsion at the violence around him grows, he begins opening out, with the muscularity of a bold flower. Buscetta learns a new code to replace the brutal old one, a transformation Favino plays with a sense of watchful relief. Even under protection, Buscetta must always be wary, yet Favino suggests that redemption has seeped into his very muscles. He’s like a retired boxer who realizes, with a sense of wonder, that he no longer has to take a punch.
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
In George C. Wolfe’s film version of August Wilson’s play, Davis plays the Ma Rainey of the title, an artist who wears the title Mother of the Blues like a sassy celestial crown. Davis’ Rainey is imperious, demanding, beguiling and sensual. She’s also impatient with fools and preemptively furious at anyone who might try to take advantage of her. And so she makes everyone around her wait…and wait…but the anticipation is glorious. As Rainey, Davis plays every note just a hair behind the beat, and you follow willingly—as if, in the wake of her perfumed, rolling spell, there were any way to resist.
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