Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño in Ya No Estoy Aquí

Writer/director Fernando Frias’ affecting character drama Ya No Estoy Aquí toggles back and forth between two timelines, jumping from the gritty outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico to the even grittier streets of New York City. In both places, the noise, music and chaos threaten to overwhelm, but Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño’s performance in the leading role grounds the film in his watchful and coiled intensity. As Ulises, the leader of a small gang of youths devoted to the music and dancing of Cumbia, he’s charismatic and confident. When he’s on his home turf, with his friends thumping buckets and scratching spiral notebooks to approximate the almost tribal rhythms, his dancing is hypnotic. He crouches and spins, spreading his arms like an eagle’s wings. Later, alone in New York, the pain of his isolation is readable on his face. With his baggy clothes and eccentric hair style—part cockatoo and part skinhead—he’s visibly of a different tribe than anyone else around.

Garcia Treviño’s line delivery, in mumbled vernacular Spanish, further separates him from the other immigrants he encounters, who all seem to see him as an outsider among outsiders. The tension in his performance resides in the tamped-down passion that shines through when the timeline shuffles and we glimpse him in the throes of the dance that defines his identify. It’s an understated but affecting performance which, against the backdrop of the violence and callousness of crime and authority in both countries, elevates a glimmer of hope in the brilliance of individuals. – A.C. Koch

Willem Dafoe in Tommaso

Family is always a point of tension in Abel Ferrara’s films, which tend to depict domestic bonds as strained to the point of snapping. The focus is a bit gentler in Tommaso, in which Willem Dafoe portrays a late-in-life father doing his best to take care of his toddler daughter, but there’s still a latent hint of menace in the air. This stems partially from the very nature of siring a child in your mid-sixties, an act that assures you’ll likely be dead before they reach adulthood. Yet Ferrara and Dafoe wisely exploit this implicit stress as merely a jumping-off point for a deeper investigation into guilt as a defining principle, the driving emotional impulse in another boundary-pushing invocation of gutter Catholicism.

Dafoe pulsates with barely obscured emotion as the title character, a man doing his best to keep the worst of his personality under wraps, shielding his daughter from his status as a fuck-up, even as he continues to make one mistake after another. The performance captures these contradictions perfectly, the tortured reality of being a philandering hound who’s also deeply wounded by his much-younger wife’s own infidelities, and who devotedly pursues religious practice and artistic fulfillment despite his own irredeemable flaws. Hating and loving himself in equal proportion, Dafoe’s Doubting Thomas of a protagonist makes for a masterful portrait of a person shaped by guilt who continues to compulsively create circumstances where that guilt can wash over and transform him, like a stone caught in a stream. In the end the film veers off into outright fantasy, in a chilling vision of violence that gestures toward the actor’s turn as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, while also rendering self-destruction and sacrifice down to their dullest quotidian forms. – Jesse Cataldo

Aubrey Plaza in Happiest Season

Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are headed to Harper’s family home in Happiest Season, co-writer/director Clea DuVall’s precisely funny, surprisingly warm Christmas comedy. Abby, an orphan who has known no other family for quite some time, plans to propose to her girlfriend of two years, but there is one catch: Harper has not come out to her conservative parents (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen) or artistically minded sister (co-screenwriter Mary Holland, a hoot) just yet. This is the setup for one of the best and brightest films of the year, yet in the backdrop, an equally affecting storyline is playing out—that of Riley, Harper’s first girlfriend and a source of crucial emotional truth for Abby.

Aubrey Plaza’s performance as Riley could have been an easy one for any actress who had the mindset to stay in the background, where—it should be noted—Riley firmly is. This is Abby and Harper’s story, after all, in which the truth must come out eventually. The key scene of the film, in which that Pandora’s box is opened for Harper’s parents, contains a transcendent moment for Riley: the realization that, if Harper has not even come out to her parents, that means they never knew her own connection to their daughter so long ago. Through simple, expressive stoicism, Plaza beautifully communicates the harsh truth of what is revealed here: that of another person having her world shattered. One can imagine that Abby and Harper never see Riley again after the events of the movie, and Plaza gives perhaps the best supporting performance of 2020. – Joel Copling

Jeon Do-yeon in Beasts Clawing at Straws

Noir and the femme fatale are forever bound, the pop-culture archetype molded by Double Indemnity’s Barbara Stanwyck, Detour’s Ann Savage and others. But among the modern thriller, the femme fatale seems less present despite stellar representation in films such as The Last Seduction, Basic Instinct and Gone Girl. From that genre space emerges Jeon Do-yeon with a delightfully devilish performance in Beasts Clawing at Straws. Do-yeon is most known for her dramatic lead performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, so her role in this South Korean neo-noir might be the definition of playing against type. Beasts Clawing at Straws is a bag-of-money story connecting the lives of eight people throughout the industrial port city of Pyeongtaek. Each desperate for that cash, an increasingly selfish lot, and none more so than Jeon Do-yeon’s conniving Yeon-hee. In a chameleonic display of devious wile, she weaves through Beasts’ chapters and its characters’ lives, shifting her personality to manipulate all parties and ruthlessly severing ties with those parties when their usefulness has expired. In this black crime-comedy of grisly errors, trusting—or betraying—Jeon Do-yeon’s femme fatale may be the deadliest mistake of all. – Christian Valentin

Vasilisa Perelygina in Beanpole

You couldn‘t be blamed for thinking that director Kantemir Balagov simply put his cast through more than two hours of emotional torture in the World War II drama Beanpole. But the warm skin tones and vivid photography make it hard to look away from two of the strongest performances of the year. Viktoria Miroshnichenko plays the lanky title figure Iya, who’s returned from the front lines to Leningrad after a concussion left her prone to catatonic fugues. But the even more challenging role belongs to Vasilisa Perelygina, remarkably in her first screen role, as Iya’s friend Masha, another soldier who has come home to face an unspeakable tragedy. In one devastating scene after another, frequently with Miroshnichenko as a haunted foil, Perelygina quietly seethes with repressed trauma and pain. Balagov, who was still in his twenties when he made this mature work, directs his young charges in scenes of such smoldering intensity that one expects the performers to explode in a rage that’s all the more powerful for the fact that it never quite comes to the surface. That restraint is much of what makes Beanpole so powerful: Its performers’ pent-up emotions emerge through carefully articulated gestures that play like a funereal ballet. – Pat Padua

Benedicta Sánchez in Fire Will Come

True to the blessed connotations of her first name, Benedicta Sánchez gives a performance in Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come that’s something of a miracle. The 84-year-old, first-time actress seems so at ease in her role as a farmworking mother of a convicted arsonist that viewers might think she’s one of the film’s documentary aspects, a tiny woman who’s truly lived eons of isolation and sorrow among rainy Galician hills. As we watch her wait out a rainstorm in the hollow of some ancient tree, we imagine—from the way her head hangs in pensive avoidance of the raindrop splatter on her glasses—Sánchez has, like her character, spent every day of her life laboring on this land, aware of each of its danger zones and places of refuge. But (plot twist!) she’s actually a globetrotting alpinist who worked as a photographer in Brazil before moving back to Galicia many years later.

Sánchez’s performance, which won her a Goya Award for Best New Actress, is at the heart of the movie’s compassionate uncertainty. Her character may not fully understand the reasons behind her son’s actions, but this doesn’t prevent her from wanting to share a place of warmth with him. She invites us into the film’s quiet through simple gestures of existence: holding her hand tenderly and insistently upon the arm of a grieving friend, implying dissatisfaction through politeness from beneath a black umbrella, swatting mindlessly at flies with the tip of a cheese knife. In these simple actions resides both the film’s most ambitious expression of humanity and an unassuming blueprint for devotedly maintaining, instead of stoking or smothering, life’s flame. – Jeff Heinzl

Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods

The repeated intrusions of Spike Lee’s thoughts on Trump are the weakest parts of Da 5 Bloods’ otherwise exceptional mixture of Fulleresque direct social commentary and Godardian free association. That makes it all the more surprising that Delroy Lindo’s portrayal of the psychologically scarred veteran Paul should be the most empathetic depiction of a Trump supporter to date. Paul absolutely wears a MAGA hat to annoy others, but Lindo subtly makes clear that his “support” is little more than an act of protest against larger, ineffable forces that have shaped his life and sent it down such harrowing paths. Compared to the easygoing rapport that the rest of the main characters share with each other, Paul is a bundle of nerves and unresolved trauma, which he voices with anger as it is the only way he knows how to express himself. The result is, improbably, one of the year’s most moving performances, a maximalist depiction of a man who has been so thoroughly alienated that even his attempts to reconcile with friends and family are laced with suspicion and instinctual self-preservation. It’s one of the best depictions of rage in years precisely because it is rooted so wisely in anguish. – Jake Cole

Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal

Until this year, Riz Ahmed has always delivered sterling supporting work overshadowed by his more outsized co-stars. In Nightcrawler, his harried freelancer gets overlooked by the totality of Jake Gyllenhaal’s hollowed-out sociopathy. His sharp Elon Musk send-up in Venom can’t overcome Tom Hardy’s cartoonish two-man show as the film’s dueling leads. But Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal gives Ahmed room to truly prove his chops, carrying an entire film on his back with relative ease.

In the hands of a lesser actor, Ruben, the drummer who loses his hearing and must adapt to an entirely new world of communication and coping, would be scenery-chewing catnip, an opportunity for the kind of histrionics that ring false. But Ahmed grounds Ruben so effortlessly, in his physicality, his delivery, the earnest attentiveness he shows his partner. When he abruptly loses the centerpoint of literally all his strengths, the recovering addict is left vulnerable, with Ahmed appearing like a raw nerve given flesh, a coiled weapon of fear and rage trying in vain to game a system that can’t be bent.

Marder’s film is beautiful, but it relies on one-note sound editing gimmicks to place the audience within Ruben’s POV. It’s difficult to imagine these gimmicks working so well without such a powerful, empathetic anchor point. – Dom Griffin

Brian Dennehy in Driveways

In a performance that effortlessly captures the miraculous nature of small gestures and kind acts, the late Brian Dennehy’s work in Andrew Ahn’s Driveways is one of the finest of the year. The story revolves around a mother, Kathy (Hong Chau), and her son, Cody (Lucas Jaye), while Dennehy plays Del, the neighbor of Kathy’s recently deceased sister. Kathy and Cody are temporarily staying in the cluttered home in preparation to clean and sell it, but one of the first problems they run into is that there’s no power. The next day, a series of extension cords lies across their driveway, their beginnings at Del’s house. This act of kindness is done off-screen, but throughout the film we witness exactly why Del would be the type of person to commit it. As his friendship with Cody grows, so does our affection for both characters and their relationship, which brings with it such light and warmth that it’s difficult not to be moved by it. There’s a scene in a veteran home where Cody’s joy is the focus, but keep your eye on Del. He’s just as happy to be making a difference, and in these little moments Dennehy finds a lasting grace that adds monumental gravity to his performance. In a final whopper of a scene, Dennehy lets it all out in one of the year’s best monologues, and it’s a swan song for the record books. – Greg Vellante

Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man

With a less compelling lead, The Invisible Man could’ve easily devolved into exploitation. Instead, as Cecilia, Elisabeth Moss elevates Leigh Whannell’s sci-fi horror film into a highly affecting and profoundly suspenseful exercise on the effects of abuse and trauma, one that generates its devastating tension from an all-too-common occurrence of merciless gaslighting. When Cecilia finally escapes the clutches of her abusive, optics-engineer husband, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), she’s stalked by an unseen presence after her abuser apparently commits suicide and leaves her millions of dollars. As Cecilia soon discovers that Adrian has in fact faked his death in order to cloak himself in a cutting-edge invisibility suit to torment her in unfathomable new ways, her greatest struggle may be getting anyone to believe her.

The film adds a sci-fi bent to a prevalent real-world scenario in which women’s claims of abuse have gone unheeded, their motivations or even mental health questioned instead. But the invisible effects of trauma greatly impact the physical world, and Moss captures the debilitating impacts of this while also embodying a character who will rise up and fight back in satisfying revenge narrative. In this physically demanding role, in which she does battle with a see-through assailant, Moss’ nimble psychological performance is what makes The Invisible Man one of the must-see films of 2020—perhaps the final box office hit before the world began taking on an altogether different invisible enemy. – Josh Goller

Mary Twala in This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

Everyone’s viewing habits changed in 2020 (thanks, Covid!) but, if anything, the dearth of major studio fare hitting screens ought to have diversified the content we’ve consumed. With the box office behemoths out of the way, space was cleared for audiences to seek out films from all kinds of sources. Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is only the third feature-length non-documentary title to emerge from the Southern African nation of Lesotho to date. Not only is it among 2020’s finest new releases, it also boasts one of 2020’s finest performances.

South African Mary Twala was previously best known for small roles in films like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and The Dark Tower but This Is Not a Burial… saw her achieve a deserved level of acclaim that had previously escaped her. As Mantoa, a widowed octogenarian whose only son has just died, Twala blazes with an intensity that seems summoned up from the earth beneath her. Indeed, it should, as Mantoa fights for that earth, her last connection to her lost legacy—her village’s valley is to be turned into a reservoir and she must battle a disaffected community and greedy government not to lose it forever.

Twala builds character through action and dedication to conveying Mantoa’s passion—you never doubt either the character’s capability to fight every step of the way, nor the actor’s capability to communicate that with potent, ferocious power. The film’s fury and Twala’s alike belie a certain mournfulness beneath them and Twala’s own story comes with its own mournfulness. Just months after this film’s premiere and just weeks before her performance Beyoncé’s Black Is King debuted, Mary Twala died, aged 80. This was her first and last leading role. It was also her crowning achievement. – Paddy Mulholland

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