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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

25 Favourite Film Performances by a Male Actor in 2020

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

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 male 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...

Gary Oldman (Mank)

Gary Oldman is a performer who has earned the highest levels of respect within the medium, so it’s only fitting that someone of his caliber takes on the role of the scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz; the man behind the script for one of the most revolutionary works in cinema, Citizen Kane. Mank never quite got the respect and adoration from his co-writer in Orson Welles, and he certainly didn’t get it again after the script made the rounds in Hollywood, drawing on real-life friends and acquaintances that never painted them in the best regards. Oldman brings a level of respect and character to a real-life figure that deserved the same of his colleagues post-Kane. Under David Fincher’s obsessively meticulous eye, Oldman is able to flourish in the world with which Fincher and his team have so lovingly crafted.

Jesse Plemons (i’m thinking of ending things)

Jesse Plemons has always been a highly capable actor who unfairly gets left out of the conversation of some of the most watchable actors working right now; able to adapt to specific tonal shifts with comfortable ease. i’m thinking of ending things, Kaufman’s latest head-scratcher goes through a multitude of tonal changes that are equally funny, jarring, frightening and genuinely touching. Plemons plays Jake, who is bringing his new girlfriend Lucy (Jessie Buckley) home to meet his parents (Toni Collette & David Thewlis). The film shifts focus of who the main character between Plemons and Buckley, and in this exercise, we see the incredibly flexible acting chops of both actors. Plemons begins to take the driver’s wheel from Buckley halfway through, steering the narrative towards a conclusion that demands a second viewing. Heartfelt and ultimately heartbreaking, Plemons keeps the Kaufman misery train going in wonderful fashion.

Rob Morgan (Bull)

Annie Silverstein’s Bull is one of 2020’s hidden gems. A moving drama that follows a rebellious, directionless teen named Kris (Amber Havard) and her blossoming friendship with her seemingly closed-off and unforgiving neighbour Abe (Rob Morgan), an aging bullfighter past his best with chronic joint and back pains hampering his happiness and desire to power on. Kris’ apathetic bouts of rebellion create a rift between them initially, but it also unlocks a keen interest in Abe’s career, eventually drawing the two of them closer together. Rob Morgan’s strong chemistry with Amber Havard allows for both actors to shine in a way that refuses to steal the spotlight from each other. Raw yet completely refined, Bull puts Rob Morgan’s prowess in full view.

Andy Samberg (Palm Springs)

SNL alumni often have a bit of a tightrope to balance on when they eventually do leave and attempt to make it in the entertainment world as something more than just a funny guy/gal in a bunch of funny skits. Samberg is one of those popular SNL cast members who have gone from strength to strength as a reliable funny man, with his success continuing to grow with Lonely Island and the critically acclaimed and adored Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But with Palm Springs, it feels like a new type of chapter to Samberg’s career. An outrageously funny and touching Groundhog Day-type film that has him shining as an actor who can not only make you laugh but really make you care as well. Stuck in a Groundhog Day-type loop with Christin Milioti’s Sarah, Samberg shares an infectious chemistry with her that is ridiculously fun. Not only is Samberg at his best with his trademark comedic timing and style, but he also brings a touching level of clarity to his performance that helps Palm Springs stay fresh and engaging, saving it from becoming a bland Groundhog Day rip-off.

Mads Mikkelsen (Another Round)

Often playing really bad dudes in the US, and then playing seemingly normal middle-class guys in Denmark, Mads Mikkelsen’s chameleon-like ability to switch from the regular every man to villainous at the drop of a hat makes him one of the most skillful and diverse actors on the planet. Another Round has him reuniting with Thomas Vinterberg (8 years since the masterful The Hunt), giving us one of the very best works of his career to date. Another Round sees Mikkelsen playing school teacher Martin who, along with three of his other workplace friends, start drinking on a daily basis to see how it affects their work and home lives. Mikkelsen shows his versatility as an actor, giving us a subtle and sensitive interpretation of a character whose new lease on life is on the verge of being thrown away.

Jorge Garcia (Nobody Knows I’m Here)

Mostly known for playing Hurley in the mega-hit series Lost, Jorge Garcia comes out of the blue to star in the first Chilean Netflix Original film. Garcia plays a reclusive former child star singer secretly hiding with a family member in the countryside. Hidden from the world, a woman passing through hears him sing, turning his world upside down. Nobody Knows I’m Here is an interesting character study on the perils of child stardom and how it leaves some behind. Garcia embodies this perfectly, as it seems the world outside of Lost has moved on from him, not giving him a moment to shine again. Thankfully, he is given his moment to shine, developing a character steeped in regret and sadness, pushing the film to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion that gives people a different kind of performance they are used to seeing from Garcia. He challenged himself with this role, and thankfully, it paid off - reminding people why he should be considered so much more than just Hurley from Lost.

Christopher Abbott (Possessor)

Christopher Abbot had two notably intense and absorbing performances over the last year. One was Black Bear opposite a searing Aubrey Plaza, and this, Possessor, a tech thriller that boasted a towering performance from Andrea Riseborough. Riseborough plays an assassin that, through the use of technology, allows her to possess targets, making them go through with high-level assassinations, making Abbot’s character of Colin being her latest assignment. In a film that requires both actors to mimic and subtly learn each other’s mannerisms for the purpose of the concept, requires an observational skill that is hard to get right. Both manage to do so, with Abbot displaying an intense side to his repertoire that is thrilling to the very last frame.

Brian Dennehy (Driveways)

One of the final films Brian Dennehy shot before his sad passing in 2020 is also one of the actor’s finest. Dennehy plays Korean war vet Del, who befriends temporary new neighbour Cody (Lucas Jaye), who is accompanied by his mom Kathy (Hong Chau) as they begin the process of clearing out his recently deceased aunt’s home before selling it. In a film about new friendships and possible new beginnings, an organic friendship brews between Dennehy and his scene partner in Lucas Jaye that feels entirely genuine; with Dennehy’s experienced hand providing weight and sensitivity to each scene, bringing out the best in his fellow cast. The new chapter in Cody’s life versus the inevitable end of Del’s, creates an interesting dynamic that is both wholesome and bittersweet for the veteran actor’s distinguished career.

Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami)

It is always going to be a mammoth task to play civil rights activist Malcolm X. Especially when you are always going to be compared to Denzel Washington’s turn in Spike Lee’s epic Malcolm X. Regina King’s feature directorial debut is a fictional retelling of a night that really happened. Four key iconic black figures in Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cook and Jim Brown spend the night in a motel in Miami, celebrating Cassius Clay’s new title of boxing World Champion. Over the course of the night, each of them come to terms with their role in the Civil Rights Movement and their legacy as a whole going forward. Ben-Adir brings a level of intimacy and humanity to such a strong and myth-like figure that we don’t often see, showing an empathetic, fragile, anxious and human side to him that is not often seen regarding the icon.

Pekka Strang (Dogs Don’t Wear Pants)

Pekka Strang’s character of Juha is a grieving widower having to take care of his teenage daughter years after the unexpected death of his wife. But upon accidentally crossing paths with dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen), Juha finds an obsessive new meaning to his life that is both pleasurable and painful. A film that is pitch black in its black comedy stylings, Strang allows for the stylistic tropes of the genre to shape his character’s tragic grieving process he hasn’t quite managed to pull himself out from. Expertly crafted in both heartbreaking and hilarious fashion, Juha’s eventual release from grief and accepting his new revolution of self-discovery is satisfying and surprisingly sweet.

Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)

The sad and unexpected passing of Chadwick Boseman is felt even more with his final role as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Boseman plays a session musician for the Queen of Blues’ Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Determined to free himself from the creative restrictions bringing him down from within, Levee finds himself at odds with the system as a black man trying to not only make it in the industry but survive as well. Boseman is electrifying as a character who is filled with rage, sadness, charm and a depressing false sense of hope; representing the constant struggles and expectations that come with an artist of colour. Boseman’s talent is on full display here, reminding the world of just how good he was, why he was so widely respected by his peers, and sadly, how we will never get to see him expand and grow into an even finer actor than what he already was.

Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)

Riz Ahmed has rarely put a foot wrong so far in his ever-growing and increasingly impressive film and TV credits. The odd miscasting thrown his away has put minor pauses on his continuous rise to being among the most highly regarded actors working today. But when you have a year as he did in 2020, Riz Ahmed’s value is going to increase tenfold. Two fantastic lead performances and a new critically acclaimed album under his name, 2020 all but belongs to Riz Ahmed; with Sound of Metal being his greatest achievement to date. Sound of Metal’s premise is simple: A metal drummer suddenly begins to lose his hearing, beginning a painful but necessary need to adapt. Ahmed’s instinctive ability to translate the anxieties and desperation found within Ruben, who grows increasingly mournful of his lost life, is as intensely raw and emotional as any performance you will see for quite some time. It’s an astonishing performance that is at its most earnest when forced to come to terms with Ruben’s new life going forward.

Luca Marinelli (Martin Eden)

Martin Eden follows the exploits of the titular character played by Luca Marinelli, who after meeting Elena, attempts to climb up the social and literary ranks through self-education. Wildly original and extremely bold, Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of the Jack London novel is cinema at its inventive best. Luca Marinelli’s wonderfully dynamic portrayal of Martin Eden is a scorching revelation, interpreting the personal and physical evolution of Martin Eden with a distinctive guttural harshness that seems only Marinelli could achieve. It’s a thrilling centerpiece to a film that pushes the boundaries for what a film adaptation can be and the importance of an equally creative and ballsy voice in its lead. Winner of the best actor award at Venice in 2019 (beating Phoenix’s Joker), Marinelli as Martin Eden is a force of nature, refusing to go easy on you.

Levan Gelbakhani (And Then We Danced)

First-time actor Levan Gelbakhani is Merab, a devoted dancer who has been training for years in hopes of cracking a spot in the National Georgian Ensemble. But when a new dancer arrives, jealousy and desire begin to brew from within him. Gelbakhani’s dancing experience sets an authentic tone for Merab, but it’s his highly assured and precise choices as a performer that turns Gelbakhani from just a dancer into an electrifying actor. Battling with his burgeoning sexuality, Merab struggles to adhere to the toxic masculinity that shapes the traditions and ideals that Georgian Dance supposedly represents. This shows through Gelbakhani’s performance, providing a very real mission of wanting, no, needing to break down the barriers that are so restrictive to artists in this world. His frustrations, heartbreak, anger, desire, and finally, acceptance come to a rousing finale that is among the most memorable of the past year.

Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods)

Spike Lee favourite Delroy Lindo delivers one of the finest roles of his career following a group of war veterans returning to Vietnam to uncover gold they buried with the help of their fallen squad leader. Lindo is riveting as Paul, an angry MAGA supporting old man who is still reeling from the death of their squad leader, Stormin (Chadwick Boseman), all these years later - a man who taught them so much about thinking freely, being proud of their roots and taking control of their destiny. With him gone, Paul has been directionless over the years, stirring in resentment and anger ever since. Lindo captures the deep anger he wears on his sleeve, as well as the sadness that eats away at him inside; making us sympathetic to a man who just needed that guiding wisdom to help him get over the line. This tour-de-force is the big highlight (along with a magnetic Boseman) in a film that has some issues, making it a must-see purely for the scene-stealing majesty of Lindo alone.

Hugh Jackman (Bad Education)

Based on the true story of a massive embezzlement scandal at Roslyn High in 2004 Hugh Jackman plays superintendent Frank Tassone who frantically tries to cover up the whole mess. Jackman is one of the most bankable and likable stars working today. His nice-guy persona translates wonderfully to the character of Frank, a man so desperate to put Roslyn High among the very best schools in the country at whatever the cost. This mixture of desperation and putting on a brave face for the private investors, students, and parents taps into his naturally charismatic presence. Jackman oozes with charm, hiding a secret that pulls at the seams of his image of integrity and prestige. A witty and thoroughly entertaining turn from Jackman at the top of his game.

Kai Luke Brummer (Moffie)

There has been a recent flurry of queer South African dramas. Die Stropers (The Harvesters) and Inxeba (The Wound) hit international festivals and were met with major acclaim for their universally relatable themes within uniquely South African settings. Moffie takes its seat firmly besides those great South African films as being one of the most intriguing queer films of the past few years. Kai Luke Brummer delivers as Nicholas, a young man drafted into the military to go fight on the border in the 1980s. Nicholas’ secret sexual identity arrives at a crossroad when another recruit begins to show an awareness of who he really is. Brummer’s approach to the character of Nicholas is aware of the personal revolution Nicholas needs to go through, but can’t. The homophobia exhibited within the very fabric of not only the military, but Apartheid forces Nicholas to hide in plain sight. Brummer’s approach and understanding of Nicholas’ dilemma results in a quietly devastating performance worthy of the praise it has garnered.

Shaun Parkes (Small Axe: Mangrove)

Small Axe is a film series from Steve McQueen follows multiple stories centered around the experiences of black people from the 1960s to the 1980s in the UK. Mangrove is about the police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant in the early 70s as well as the trial of the Mangrove 9. Shaun Parkes plays the Mangrove’s owner, Frank Crichlow, someone who just wants to inject a sense of pride and togetherness within his community; a place for people to come and enjoy authentic West Indian food. Shaun Parkes is truly breathless as Crichlow, a man whose dignity and pride gets taken away from him over and over again, resulting in a man teeming with all the rage and fury representative of West Indians constantly harassed, marginalized and hated at the time. It feels personal to Parkes, resulting in moments of raw emotional power that only personal experience can materialize. One of the greatest moments of the film has a furious and dejected Parkes pacing and storming around a cell, damning the wicked men who won’t let him live his life. A showcase that's powerful, courageous and entirely necessary.

Paul Raci (Sound of Metal)

The praise has been heaped on Riz Ahmed for Sound of Metal, and rightfully so. But the one performance that appears to be gaining more and more appreciation from critics and audiences alike is the stirring role of Joe played by Paul Raci; a counselor at a shelter for deaf recovering addicts. A hearing son of deaf parents, Raci’s fluency in American Sign Language and the very real ability to relate to this world guide the film to soaring heights, providing an assured and genuinely moving scene partner to Riz Ahmed’s Ruben. Joe’s hopeful positivity in getting a recently deaf Ruben to stick around and learn to live all over again, feels like a genuine plea from Raci to those experiencing the same fears of starting all over again when life deals you a challenging new hand. A veteran of the stage and screen, his heartfelt and poignant performance gives the film a much needed sense of hope and guidance only Paul Raci’s talent could provide.

Craig Fairbass (Muscle)

Best known for a major role in Eastenders as well as playing a sadistic bad guy in Cliffhanger, Craig Fairbass blows all expectations out of the water with his turn as Terry, the antagonist in Gerard Johnson’s psychological thriller Muscle. Terry is a personal trainer with a very hands-on approach. When protagonist Simon (Cavan Clerkin) decides to get back into bodybuilding in hopes of reinvigorating his sense of joy and purpose in life, Terry offers him a chance to reach even greater heights. Muscle is a film that was almost great, but the final 10 minutes had Muscle struggling to stick the landing and failing to find a way to write itself out of a corner. Craig Fairbass, however, is a powerhouse; giving a performance so unfairly unexpected of him much in the same way Mickey Rourke wowed and surprised audiences with The Wrestler. The unpredictability of casting him in a role that is both challenging and highly subjective in its approach is complemented with the very unpredictable nature that Terry seems to thrive on. Fairbass relishes this opportunity to confound and blindside the audience, pushing new levels of unsettling possessiveness to disturbing and eerie new heights.

Kevin Janssens (Patrick)

A truly odd and darkly comical experience, Patrick places us in the tight-knit community of a nudist colony, where we follow camp handyman Patrick (Kevin Janssens) and his mission to recover his favourite hammer which has gone missing. Patrick is a quiet loner who never quite appears to fully embrace the nudist lifestyle. Although 90% naked the entire film, he always wears an unbuttoned shirt and seems to keep himself away from the high expectations set by his father and other camp members. The existential themes found beneath the surface of dark comedies (grief and despair in Patrick’s case), are accentuated by Janssens obvious ability to play on said themes through his character’s expressionless bursts of impulse and resentment. It’s a tragically funny performance in a film that relishes on its disorienting approach to delving beneath the surface to confront the deeper themes found within.

Paul Bettany (Uncle Frank)

Currently knocking it out of the park as Vision in Disney+’s wonderfully weird and inventive Wandavision, Pal Bettany is reminding people again of his reliability and strength as a top actor; with one such example of this is last year’s Uncle Frank directed by Alan Ball. Bettany is Uncle Frank to Beth (Sophia Lillis), a young woman who is inspired by Frank’s individuality in her pursuit in discovering her own sense of identity; following him to New York to study where he happens to lecture. When her grandfather, Frank’s dad, passes away, they are forced to return to the South to attend the funeral. Bettany refuses to ham it up on the stereotypical quirks of a gay character, instead opting for a character that is understated and still struggling to be his true self around his family he has yet to come out to. Living a life of true freedom in New York, his return forces him to confront the hurtful upbringing he endured through his father’s bigotry and ignorance. Bettany is both heartbreaking and empowering as a man so desperate to reconnect with his family, fearing the worst reaction for when they inevitably find out. It’s a sensitive, considerate and multi-layered performance that carries the film from becoming a drab hallmark special to an experience that is rewarding in its ability to lift one’s faith in the world.

Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7)

As the title clearly suggests, the film is based on the Trial of the Chicago 7, which happened following the consequences of protests turned violent at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman, one of the seven who were being charged with conspiracy to incite the violent riots. Cohen is perfectly equipped to play Hoffman, an individual who was highly irreverent and incredibly funny with his interactions in the trial, with Cohen’s range as an actor in both comedy and drama making easy work of Sorkin’s witty, sharp and musical-like dialogue. In danger of stealing every scene he is in, Cohen manages his moments well, allowing for the content of the real-life story as well as the experienced and talented cast to carry it to the finale that is a crowd-pleaser of note.

Henry Golding (Monsoon)

Kit (Henry Golding) returns to Vietnam for the first time since he was 6 after his parents fled following the Vietnam War. An introspective and understated performance from Henry Golding has Kit confronting the emigrant experience after suddenly being displaced as a young boy, struggling to find a place to truly call and identify as home. Harrington is poignant in his approach to Kit, trying to find meaning in what Vietnam’s new identity is, a country constantly changing while many of its people are still fixated on the past; with Kit being one of these individuals. Golding shows off as an actor with a firm grasp on subtlety and the quietness it can bring to understanding a character. Actors who are normally associated with less introspective works tend to be over eager in showing what they can do, with obnoxious roles that are very obviously impressive, but with nothing else really going on beneath it. Golding subverts that very notion of having to do that to showcase his highly capable talent, giving us a character of meaningful depth that requires a high level of restrain found in the most talented of actors.

Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño (I’m No Longer Here)

Non-professional actor Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño is the driving force behind I’m No Longer Here, a film which follows his character of Ulises, a young resident of Monterey. Ulises hangs out with his friends who live by the counter-culture lifestyle of Kolombia, helping them avoid crime and drugs in their neighborhoods; but one day after being mistaken for working with a local cartel at war with a rival gang, he is forced to leave his family behind and stay in New York. A heartbreaking journey of cultural and social displacement, Treviño somehow handles it with a quiet sense of ease, creating a hard to read and hard to break exterior just protecting itself from a world so readily unwilling to accept him socially and culturally. A highly assured level of authenticity from Treviño’s creates a role that is captivating till the last breath.

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