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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

25 Favourite Film Performances by a Female Actor in 2020

Despite a pandemic shaking 2020's film schedule up, we still received loads of amazing performances from amazing films. These are my 25 favourite performances by a female actor over the past year. Some of these debuted in 2019, but only made their wider debuts through theatrical and streaming rollouts in 2020. Either way, this list was incredibly hard to compile, chopping down a massive shortlist to the eventual top 25. These are the ones I just enjoyed the most, resonating with me at the highest level. In no particular order, here we go...

Roxanne Scrimshaw (Lynne + Lucy)

Fyzal Boulifa’s excellent feature debut Lynne + Lucy is a tragic unravelling of a childhood friendship. At the center of it all, is non-professional newcomer Roxanne Scrimshaw. Having never acted prior to Lynne + Lucy, Scrimshaw delivers a performance that is assured in its sense of honesty and maturity. Non-actors as a lead can be a massive risk, but thankfully due to strong direction and even stronger chemistry with her co-star Nichola Burley, she is allowed to flourish and bring it all into focus. If this is Scrimshaw’s once-off, it’s one hell of a first and last performance.

Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version)

Radha Blank produces, writes, directs and stars in this semi-autobiographical story of her experiences struggling as a playwright in New York. Despite having worked in writer’s rooms for Empire and Spike Lee’s series She’s Gotta Have It, this is her major breakthrough. Her performance is just as impressive as her other credits, giving us a turn that doesn’t shy away from poking fun at her misfortunes as well as injecting a burst of hope not only for her, but for the rest of us struggling to achieve our creative dreams. It’s never too late, and Radha Blank is proof of that.

Andrea Riseborough (Possessor)

Brandon Cronenberg’s (son of David Cronenberg) debut is a wildly original and inventive tech thriller posing as a body horror. Riseborough plays an assassin who, with the use of technology, lets her possess targets, carrying out high-level assassinations. Riseborough’s ability to be both vulnerable and extremely dangerous all at once, allows for Cronenberg’s film to flow in the right direction, creating a completely unpredictable and unforgettable experience. It’s a powerhouse performance that showcases the sheer versatility of Riseborough and it is beyond me how she is still so massively underrated.

Jasmine Batchelor (The Surrogate)

One of the hidden gems of 2020, Jasmine Batchelor plays a woman who becomes a surrogate mother for her gay friends. However, tests come back positive for down-syndrome, forcing her character to come to terms with what she feels she needs to do versus what everyone else feels she should do. Batchelor is charming, sincere and absolutely ferocious as a woman trying to make the best choice for not only herself, but the baby growing inside her. The Surrogate’s script is exceptional, but it’s Batchelor’s astute performance that amplifies the film’s vital points.

Morfydd Clark (Saint Maud)

Rose Glass’ terrifying meditation on guilt and faith is elevated to nerve shredding heights with Morfydd Clark as Maud, a reclusive nurse who sees it as her divine mission to save her new patient’s soul from damnation. Clark’s character alone has an overwhelming sense of dread following her everywhere she goes, deteriorating under a co-dependent relationship with her overwhelming guilt and unhealthy relationship to her faith and God. Clark creates an unsettling marriage of these two, constantly battling with each other, pushing her closer to madness that is both glorious and horrifying.

Frances McDormand (Nomadland)

The announcement of a new Chloé Zhao film with Frances McDormand as the lead was an exciting one. The two seemed to be a match made in heaven and surprise, surprise, it is. Zhao’s poetic love for rural America is accentuated with McDormand’s authenticity, working together in getting to know these real people within fictional scenarios. She gives a performance that is observant, truthful and highly spiritual not only just for us as the audience, but for her as a performer. Nomadland is further proof that McDormand is one of the most consistent and masterful actors of her generation.

Jessie Buckley (i'm thinking of ending things)

Jessie Buckley showcases why she is one of the most talented and interesting actors right now with the latest Charlie Kaufman mind bender. The labyrinth-like structure of the narrative rubs off on the characters, contributing to their quirks, thoughts and eventual arcs. Buckley’s character of Lucy in particular is the center of this complex think piece. Kaufman’s left of center approach to everything requires the same from his performers, and due to Lucy being the most prominent role in the film, Buckley manages to play the juggling act that is required to keep her character normal, mysterious, weird and jarring all at once. It’s an outstanding performance that gets better with each viewing, and the more you begin to understand i’m thinking of ending things, the more impressive Buckley becomes as Lucy.

Mariana Di Girolamo (Ema)

Pablo Larraín's latest has been weirdly overlooked but is still him at the top of his game, managing to pull sensational performances from his leads; with Di Girolamo as Ema keeping this trend going. She plays a dancer who is in the process of an ugly breakup with her husband choreographer, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), after they have to give up their recently adopted son. Di Girolamo eases into the calculated chaos Ema begins to orchestrate beneath the surface, a woman who refuses to fall in line and accept the nature of her circumstance. She is an alluring, fascinating anti-heroine who is played with the utmost attention to what makes her tick as well as what makes her fall apart.

Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)

Vanessa Kirby pulls out all the stops in the emotionally draining Pieces of a Woman, playing Martha, a woman struggling to recover emotionally from a tragic home birth. Kirby wowed the jury and audiences when it premiered at Venice, earning her the best actress award. It’s easy to see why, with a performance transcending the film to another level entirely. The fluid freedom given to the cast is evident, but Kirby takes full advantage of it - allowing her to explore the grief, anger, sadness and acceptance Martha goes through in order to get to the next chapter of her life story.

Aubrey Plaza (Black Bear)

Aubrey Plaza delivers a show stopping performance in this black comedy that plays with your perceptions and expectations of what is taking place in front of you. It’s a perfect exercise for her as a performer and a personality as she is always being associated with a specific style: sarcastic and apathetic. It works for her and she does it well, but you’d be a fool to take her at face value in Black Bear as she completely shatters your expectations of what she is capable of. She plays a filmmaker who is staying with hosts at a house in the countryside, hoping she can come up with ideas for her next film. Her presence creates conflict and tension with the host couple though, providing possible gold for her next project. Multi-layered, intense and bold. Plaza’s ability as an actor with serious skill and range should not be overlooked again.

Viktoria Miroshnichenko (Beanpole)

Beanpole takes place the first autumn after WWII’s conclusion. The inhabitants of Leningrad are trying to rebuild their lives, fighting against diseases, the cold and starvation. Viktoria Miroshnichenko plays Iya (Beanpole is her nickname), a nurse who suffers from post-concussion syndrome, which causes her to freeze involuntarily. After her best friend Masha’s (Vasilisa Perelygina) young son dies under her care, she has to re-evaluate and adapt to Masha’s return from the front. Iya’s resilience is admirable, but seems unaware of it, seemingly haunted by the trauma that the war and other horrors appear to have inflicted on her. It’s almost as if she represents the soul of the city, just doing what it can to survive, but forever traumatized from it. Stunning in every sense of the word, Miroshnichenko’s debut performance is flawless in both execution and intent.

Tessa Thompson (Sylvie’s Love)

Sylvie’s Love is another Prime Original that seems to have slipped under everyone’s radar. It’s a love story set in the early 60s between Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and Robert (Nnambi Asomugha), a summer romance blooms into something bigger years later. Sylvie’s Love is a gorgeous looking gem that feels like a film of its era, from the filming techniques to the structure of the narrative to the sound - all there to achieve the authentic feel of the era. But what really makes this film feel like its period, is Tessa Thompson’s infectious performance as Sylvie; stealing the show every time she appears on screen. Everything about her performance is steeped in its time, from her blocking, delivery and even her vocal register making it feel like a trip back to the golden age of Hollywood. It never ever feels like it would backfire and come off as dated. Instead, it feels like we are uncovering a long lost great performance from a star of yesteryear.

Mary Twala (This Isn’t a Burial, It’s a Resurrection)

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s latest film follows a grieving mother’s fight to protect her village from destruction is a powerful testament to Mary Twala’s talent - a brave piece that pushes her vulnerability as an artist and performer at the twilight years of her life. She creates a poetic and myth-like character that thrives with ease in Mosese’s fable of a woman refusing to roll over to the powers that be. A swan song worthy of an artist of Mary Twala’s caliber.

Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always)

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) finds herself with an unintended pregnancy. Lacking the compassion and support from her local health care workers in her home town, she goes on a journey to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) where they hope to receive the help and understanding support they lacked in their own town. Flanigan displays a raw sense of truthfulness in a world unwilling to allow women their own choices in the matter. The camera rarely breaks away from her, never losing sight of the questions and decisions constantly plaguing her in her journey. A tragic, poignant turn from a star in the making.

Amanda Seyfried (Mank)

David Fincher’s love letter to Citizen Kane scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz has been divisive among critics and viewers alike, but one area it seems to be in agreement is on the performances found within - particularly that of Amanda Seyfried’s interpretation of real-life actress Marion Davies. She evokes the same level of charm, intelligence and wit the actress was associated with. Seyfried has always been a talented actor, but is rarely given the roles and chances she has clearly deserved. Thankfully with the most recent outputs of First Reformed and now Mank, we get to see her effortless power to adapt accordingly. Here’s hoping her form continues and we get to see her deserved rise to the top continue.

Molly Windsor (Make Up)

One of the most unique queer coming-of-age stories I have seen in a while, puts Molly Windsor at the center of Make Up. She plays Ruth, a young woman arriving at a holiday resort to live and work with her boyfriend who is employed there. She becomes fixated on her suspicions that he may be cheating on her, eventually sending her down a journey of self-discovery she never expected. Make Up is unconventional in its approach to the standard coming-of-age LGBTQ drama, turning it into a psychological thriller that Windsor commits fully to. Her instinctual approach commands every scene, helping Make Up become a truly unique film within its respective subgenres.

Carrie Coon (The Nest)

Fans of The Leftovers understand the outrageous talent Carrie Coon possesses. The Nest has a family moving to a house in the countryside of England, with Coon playing the role as mother of two children and wife to reckless husband and entrepreneur in Jude Law. Jude Law is obviously seen as the more experienced and established of the two, and as good as he is in this, Carrie Coon reigns supreme in a grounded and vulnerable performance that is unequivocally flawless in execution and interpretation. Still a relative newcomer to film audiences, Coon is more than ready and capable of claiming her stake in the film world, with The Nest proving that sentiment clearly.

Evan Rachel Wood (Kajillionaire)

The long-awaited new film from Miranda July took her quirky weirdness to new levels thanks to an equally inventive and left of center performance from Evan Rachel Wood. Seeing Wood outside the confines of Westworld is refreshing, especially when we get to see her playing characters we are just not used to seeing. Old Dolio is her character’s name, a product of twenty-odd years of grooming to be a hustler and swindler from her two-bit con-artist parents. Wood’s unseen talent in physical comedy and cultivated awkwardness brings Old Dolio’s newfound self-discovery and personal revolution to light, proving to be just as beneficial to Evan Rachel Wood as an actor as well.

Vasilisa Perelygina (Beanpole)

The other half to Viktoria Miroshnichenko astonishing performance in Beanpole is just as important, allowing for Miroshnichenko to flourish in the middle of it all. Her character Masha, returns back home from the front, only to discover her son has died. Finding herself alone, with only Iya to comfort her, she begins to forge a new path for her future, pulling Iya along with her to the detriment of their fragile relationship. Perelygina’s understated and tragic awareness for Masha drives the narrative in a way that Iya’s personality can’t. Heartbroken, but still resilient and determined, Perelygina delivers a performance of poise and control found in the greatest of actors.

Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)

Ma Rainey is often referred to as the Mother of the Blues. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, events unfold at a recording studio where tensions with her band, manager and record producer spiral out of control. As far as I am concerned, Viola Davis IS Ma Rainey. Davis continues to blow all competition out of the water with a role that makes you forget it’s her. In the hands of another actor, a role of this caliber could venture towards shallow caricatures that is all walk and no talk. Davis uses her experience to lift the role from being a loud, showoff performance and anchors it, turning it into something entirely her own - fully understanding the figure of Ma Rainey and the profound themes touched on within the play and the film’s adaptation.

Hong Chau (Driveways)

Hong Chau brings her reliable and comforting presence as a mother in the process of cleaning out her late sister’s home with the aid of her 8 year old son. Growing closer, they begin to form new relationships with the neighbours, particularly a Korean War veteran (Brian Dennehy). Chau brings extra charm to an already strong cast, providing a thoughtful, grounded representation of a single mother trying to find a new beginning for her and her son.

Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)

It’s the Carey Mulligan show in Emerald Fennell’s feminist revenge comedy that is the role of her career thus far. A multifaceted performance if there ever was one, Mulligan controls the fury and sadness of her character with expert restraint, never allowing obnoxious performance choices to overtake the essence of what her character is. Much like the film, Mulligan refuses to let the nice guys off the hook, always managing to hide her hand and keep us guessing to the very end. An Oscar upset may be on the cards.

Krista Kosonen (Dogs Don’t Wear Pants)

Playing a dominatrix in the pitch black Finnish comedy, Kosonen brings a compassionate touch to the tough, closed-off Mona. Her job requires her to be cold, steely and firm, adhering to the dominant role her work persona of Mona requires. But when Juha, a grieving widower, develops an unhealthy obsession with her, we begin to peel back the many layers with which Mona is hidden under. Showing us her totally normal day job as a chiropractor creates a striking contrast to what makes this character tick, with Kosonen creating a highly complex and surprisingly tender character that is unforgettable.

Shira Haas (Asia)

Right off the back of her phenomenal lead turn in the mini-series Unorthodox, Shira Haas plays Vika, a teenager suffering with muscular dystrophy finds her health rapidly deteriorating. Haas shows once more that she is an acting force to not be taken lightly. Her range is important here, creating a character so desperate to return back to normalcy, but is completely aware of the impending tragedy on the horizon. It’s a devastating performance that is both physically and emotionally taxing, confirming well and truly that Haas is an acting powerhouse in the making.

Cristin Milioti (Palm Springs)

Cristin Milioti plays Sarah, a woman who gets stuck in a Groundhog Day-type loop with Nyles (Andy Samberg). Starring opposite a top comedic actor may be daunting for traditionally non-comedic performers, but she easily keeps up with his comedic timing, even matching him in most cases. Milioti along with Samberg help Palm Springs from ever being a poor derivative copycat of Groundhog Day. Her likability as a performer is further amplified through her outrageously fun and infectious chemistry with Samberg, making Palm Springs one of the funniest, most wholesome films of 2020.

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