The Best Performances of 2020, from Riz Ahmed in ‘Sound of Metal’ to the ‘PEN15’ Ladies and Beyond

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in PEN15

It’s a tall order to play 13-year-olds when you’re in your thirties and not make it seem like one big, hilarious, and—let’s be honest—exhausting sketch-comedy joke. But Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are so believable and authentic playing middle-school versions of themselves that within seconds you forget that they are not actually pubescent tweens navigating the most awkward years of their lives. Season two of PEN15 allowed the pair, who co-created and also write for the series, to delve even deeper into the high-stakes trauma and, in hindsight, hilarity of life at a time when emotions are grander than your heart can take. They perform physical miracles, contorting their bodies to perfectly embody the awkward gawkiness of growing pains. But it’s how they make everything feel so real—and exactly how you remember it—that is truly remarkable. —Kevin Fallon

Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal

In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays an addict named Ruben who manages his sobriety by traveling the country in a van refabbed into a sleep-in tour bus with his longtime girlfriend, who sings while he plays drums in their nightly act. Their intimacy and the music is what keeps them both from careening, a plan that goes haywire when he quickly starts to become deaf. He is abruptly left with no other option but to move into a live-in sober house for the deaf community. We watch Ruben struggle with his new non-hearing community and learning how to communicate, but we also watch a person who is swiftly cut-off from the two things he’s built his entire life around—how to handle his addict personality without that shelter. It’s a transfixing performance that resists showboating or indulging in hysterics. Few performances from this year have stuck with me so viscerally. —Kevin Fallon

Maria Bakalova in ‘Borat 2’

It began with some odd studio shenanigans, as Maria Bakalova, a little-known Bulgarian actress with just a few years of screen acting experience, was initially billed as “Irina Nowak” in early promotional materials for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the shot-in-secret sequel to 2006’s Borat. Little did anyone know that Bakalova’s turn as Kazakh “journalist” Borat Sagdiyev’s daughter would become the crown jewel of the film, as she proved not only the equal to Sacha Baron Cohen’s madcap stooge but in many cases stole the show with her feral—and fearless—performance. Who can forget her bloody sabotage of a creepy Southern-virgin dance, or the greatest comedy stunt of the year: exposing Trump henchman Rudy Giuliani as the lecherous, cousin-marrying creep that he is. —Marlow Stern

Robert Pattinson, in general

In mid-May, as stay-at-home fatigue had started to really settle in, GQ and writer Zach Baron dropped a delightfully batshit-insane cover story interview with the actor Robert Pattinson, of Tenet and The Batman fame. In addition to the accompanying isolation-selfie photos, all hilariously styled and staged by Pattinson himself, he treated us to some Marx Brothers-level comedy with the introduction of his pasta dish, Piccolini Cuscino. Somehow consisting of pasta, cornflakes, presliced cheese, and “sauce,” Pattinson proceeds to attempt to whip up the guaranteed abomination, and nearly burns down his kitchen in the process. It was a lovely bit of trolling from a guy with a long, storied history of it, and at least momentarily lifted people’s spirits. —Marlow Stern

Carey Mulligan in ‘Promising Young Woman’

If there is one film performance I can’t stop thinking about as 2020 finally draws to a close, it’s Carey Mulligan as the righteously furious Cassie in Emerald Fennell’s stunning debut Promising Young Woman. Best known for playing relatively staid ingenues in period pieces like Pride & Prejudice and An Education, Mulligan is an absolute revelation in this darkly comic #MeToo revenge fantasy that is still inexplicably unavailable to stream in the U.S. after premiering at Sundance almost a year ago. Don’t count her out of a relatively soft Best Actress field at the Oscars, which so far has two previous winners leading the way in Frances McDormand (Nomadland) and Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). —Matt Wilstein

Nick Offerman on Devs’

“I would have played any goddamn part in that show,” Nick Offerman told me earlier this year on The Last Laugh podcast when I asked him how he ended up portraying the evil tech giant at the center of Alex Garland’s remarkable miniseries Devs. The man behind Ron Swanson may not have been the obvious choice to embody the megalomaniacal power center of Silicon Valley, but Offerman brought everything he had to the role, even garnering some unlikely sympathy along the way. He gets extra points for leading the tearful rendition of “5000 Candles in the Wind” (AKA “Bye, Bye Lil’ Sebastian”) that closed out the delightful Parks and Rec quarantine special. —Matt Wilstein

Margot Robbie, ‘Birds of Prey: Harley Quinn’

Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn in the fantabulously fun Birds of Prey isn’t Oscars bait—but it is among the most wildly colorful of this otherwise grim year. Robbie reinvents her DC Comics character (newly emancipated from her toxic lover, the Joker) into a human disco ball of slapstick, moxie, menace, and an inspirationally pure passion for glitter and breakfast sandwiches. There is a thrilling, bone-crunching physicality to her action scenes; Robbie takes on several stunts herself, in a genre known for copping out with weightless CGI fights. And rather than dwell on the abuse Harley suffered at her ex-lover’s hands, Robbie (thanks to screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan’s vision) emphasizes a less well-trod dimension of her character’s tragedy.

Harley is a woman unused to female camaraderie, suddenly surrounded by four reluctant allies. Watching her experience something close to friendship for the first time—sometimes with enthusiasm, sometimes with a prickly independence masking vulnerability—is what gives this manic actioner a beating heart. Robbie dazzles through it all with a face as astonishingly flexible as the cartoon from which Harley Quinn originated. —Melissa Leon

Jurnee Smollett, ‘Lovecraft Country’

The only actress to have smashed up the screen with a baseball bat not once, but twice this year—in Birds of Prey and then again in HBO’s Lovecraft Country—Jurnee Smollett shone fiercely bright this year. In the Misha Green-helmed HBO adaptation, Smollett plays Leticia “Leti” Lewis, a warrior in pincurls defiantly staking a claim for herself in Jim Crow-era America. Leti is as glamorous as she is steely and stubborn, and her chemistry with Jonathan Majors’ character Tic is a phenomenon of its own. But at the end of a summer of real-life revolts against racial injustice, it was a sequence in the Leti-focused episode three, “Holy Ghost,” that hit a strikingly resonant chord.

Smollett grounds us in smoldering fury and terror as one horror after another befalls Leti for daring to live while Black—for owning a home, for visiting a diner, for being out on the road after dark. The look in her eyes while biting her tongue could bore a hole through a diamond. Yet with every new injustice, Smollett finds space to bury more heartbreak and eventually hardens something within Leti into a reckless resolve. Finally, Leti hits a breaking point far beyond what any person should bear—and Smollett unleashes a dazzling spectacle of catharsis, smashing her tormentors’ car windows in one of the most fitting (and memorable) images to grace TV in 2020. —Melissa Leon

Sophia Loren, ‘The Life Ahead’

Sophia Loren could make Oscars history with her performance in The Life Ahead—and if she manages to snag a gold statuette, it will be well deserved. The film, directed by Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti, is the third screen adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel The Life Before Us. Loren plays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor and retired sex worker who looks after the children of other sex workers, and who reluctantly winds up taking in another child, Momo, soon after he’s robbed her. She develops a deep bond with Momo, whose regard for her slowly evolves from disdain, to grudging respect, to adoration. In Loren’s hands, Madame Rosa appears hardened but always empathetic—compassionate but never indulgent.

Ponti and fellow screenwriter Ugo Chiti offer a vague sketch of Madame Rosa’ personal history, but largely allow the character’s rough past to seep through Loren’s performance—the dissociative spells, the weariness. In these moments, Loren offers only outward glimpses of a much more profound pain that one can, nonetheless, still feel festering beneath the surface. Loren, a fixture of Golden Age Hollywood, won her first Oscar in 1962 for Two Women. Should she receive a nomination in 2021, 56 years later, she’ll best Henry Fonda’s 41-year record for longest gap between acting nods. It would be well deserved. —Laura Bradley

Chadwick Boseman, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

The Black Panther actor’s final performance has already earned an avalanche of well-deserved praise, but it bears repeating: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now the actor’s final film performance after his tragic death from colon cancer earlier this year, is as astounding as it is gut-wrenching. In the August Wilson adaptation, Boseman plays the aptly named trumpet player Levee—whose bombastic nature, we soon learn, masks a profound and furious pain. The upstart musician spars with his older bandmates and even Ma Rainey herself, played by the formidable Viola Davis, all the while proving himself as transfixing as he is complex.

If one of Boseman’s goals as an actor was to make work that, as his co-star Colman Domingo recently put it to The Daily Beast, “captures Black people in all their complexity,” Ma Rainey is, indeed, a triumphant, if tragically premature final note in his career. As my colleague Kevin Fallon put it in a recent review of Boseman’s performance, “Levee’s story is a tragic one because it’s about an artist who wasn’t given the chance to live up to his potential. Boseman’s is tragic because he did.” —Laura Bradley