A film very often lives and dies with it’s central performance. No matter how good the tone, thematic structure or even the script is, if the actors aren’t up to the task then the film suffers in the long-run. Luckily, the vast scope of acting talent is wider than it’s ever been. We are no longer in a time where performances are judged only on their chameleonic ability but on their ability to slip effortlessly into the film they are performing in. While the Hollywood heavyweights are still performing strong, we’ve seen smaller films emerge in the absence of the postponed studio films, allowing relatively unknown actors to show the world that they are just as good and talented. It’s a year that’s seen so many incredible performances in a number of important films, so here 10 of the very best.
Sidney Flanigan & Talia Ryder – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old girl from Pennsylvania, founds out she’s pregnant. In order to get the help she needs she heads to New York with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder).
We’re going to bend the rules with our first pick by choosing two performances in one, with the pair carrying the film on their shoulders. Though a deeply affecting and moving story, it would certainly feel more stunted if the two leads weren’t effective in their performances. Including them as one felt important even though each actress is incredible in their individual performances, much of the film’s message is about finding support in your life for the hardest moments. Though Flanigan has the ‘main’ story Ryder needs to be just as effective as Skylar in being there for Autumn, as well as us understanding the struggles she is going through.
It’s less about comparing the two performances individually, but understanding the effectiveness of the pair together and the importance of the story they’re telling. When it comes to looking at their roles though, Flanigan – in a very teenage kind of way – keeps everything bottled up and quiet, trying to deal with the situation alone, and does so with incredible subtlety. Ryder has to deal with the attention of all the men throughout, none with any redeeming qualities, but with the understanding that it will help Autumn to get the abortion she needs. If one of the performances were not as strong as another, the relationship wouldn’t work and much of the film would seem disingenuous – a notion that could stunt a story like this.
Mads Mikkelsen – Another Round
Martin (Mads Mikkelson), along with three of his High School teacher friends, test a theory that keeps a constant level of alcohol in their blood in order to improve productivity.
In comparison to many other films on this list, Another Round has a lot more joy and fun in it’s execution – all whilst still having a profound effect and message to tell. Always a fantastic actor, Mikkelsen is the centrepiece around a great cast, every side character around him feels fleshed out and no one feels forgotten. When talking specifically about his performance though, Mads brings a level of depth and emotion that lesser actors would struggle to achieve. Even within the first half an hour the range he has to succeed in is extraordinary – the level of discontent and weariness is apparent, culminating in a meal with his colleagues and affecting emotional outburst. He’s one of the best cryers working today, and the control he tries to show on his face whilst the tears are flowing will have you choked up.
Though when their experiment is in full flow, his excitement for life comes back. His once uninteresting lessons are now exhilarating and engaging, and his relationship with his wife greatly improves. Of course, this high doesn’t last, but Mads and writer/director Thomas Vinterberg balance this expertly as you might imagine the pair would, handling the delicate moments with ease and navigating the complex narrative and arc Mads must go through without missing a step.
Shaun Parkes – Mangrove
Based on the true story of the Mangrove 9, Steve McQueen’s first instalment in the Small Axe series dramatises the story of the protesters fighting against police brutality during the late 1960’s in Notting Hill.
Our next pick is from the first of the Small Axe series, we included both Mangrove and the latter Lovers Rock in our Top 10 of the Year but the former has the most standout performance in the entire anthology. Though Small Axe focuses on communities, Mangrove spends most of our time with the owner of the Mangrove Restaurant Frank Crichlow and the exhaustive troubles he had trying to keep the peace between his community and the police. Shaun Parkes has to balance his animosity for the Met with politeness to their face, assuming that if he plays by the rules there will be no trouble.
His relationships with his patrons and family are tested because – no matter how hard they try – they are always mistreated by those supposed to protect them. McQueen uses his signature long takes to amply much of the emotion, and Parkes keeps up effortlessly. Two sequences are most demanding however, when he’s held in contempt and his emotional outburst finally comes, as well as when the verdict is given at the trial. Though the film around him is superb, Parkes brings enough to Crichlow to stand above the stellar performances of his supporting cast.
Kelly O’Sullivan – Saint Frances
Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan), a 34 year old server, gets a job as a nanny to a sweet young girl named Frances (Ramona Edith Williams). Over the summer Bridget must deal with her own personal life while becoming closer to Frances and her family.
The next performance on our list is the only one that features the actor as a writer as well – Kelly O’Sullivan as Bridget. As you’d expect, the role is perfectly suited. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role, and considering how much of the runtime we spend with Bridget it wouldn’t succeed as well as it does without her. She’s in her mid 30’s unsure what to do with her life, her mother is pushing for a grandchild but Bridget doesn’t want one, the pressures of her family and friends successes against her lack of that – it’s very down-to-earth and relatable for many people, played by O’Sullivan with such ease and charm that it’s hard not to like her.
It isn’t just the fun loving and easy going performance that makes it to this list though, when the film turns to more drama and emotion she flows alongside without missing a step – there’s a scene towards the end in particular in which a few emotions between the family she is nannying for and Bridget boil over. Fantastically played by everyone involved – and also an important message as well – but really showing the range and calibre of performer O’Sullivan really is.
Christopher Abbott – Possessor
An Assassin Agency takes care of it’s targets by taking over people’s bodies in order to complete their kills. Their top agent Vos (Andrea Risenborough) begins to struggle with her own mind when she’s assigned to kill a rich business man (Sean Bean) by occupying his future Son-in-law, Colin (Christopher Abbott).
As with many other films on this list, there’s a crossover of best performances and best films of the year (the latter of which you can read here), Possessor being no exception to this. Brandon Cronenberg has carved an interesting early career, a very visceral and cerebral two features already. In this pick Christopher Abbott plays Colin Tate who loses control to Vos, but it is so much more than just imitation, balancing the lack of mental stability Vos actually has as well as Colin having some form of input as well – almost having to play two characters at the same time, but with immense subtly and skill.
Though Risenborough is superb also, and does require some part of that complexity, Abbott has a bit more to bring to the table, and both work fantastically together despite almost never sharing the screen. Even though both have a difficult job to portray the inner crisis and struggle, there’s more opportunity for Abbott to show his physical acting as many of his scenes have little dialogue from him.
Amanda Seyfried – Mank
During Hollywood in the 1930’s, alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) gets cooped up in a cabin racing to finish a screenplay for Orson Welles. As he writes, he reflects on the people that act as inspiration for his latest project.
David Fincher, using a screenplay written by his late Father, interjects so much charm and quick wit into every character. With Gary Oldman on top of his game and the direction and Screenplay harmonising so well, Mank does exactly what it sets out too. Capturing the zippy charm and quick-wit of a Golden-Age Hollywood while emphasising the problems with the people in it and the era it’s portraying. But, while Gary Oldman is great, it’s Amanda Seyfried’s turn as Marlon Davies that very often dazzles the screen and steals the show.
It may not occur to you at first however, because what Seyfried is doing is far more subtle than you’d expect. At first she’s all face and charisma as she matches blows with the heavy-hitters of the industry, but as conflicts arise we realise that she really is the heart and soul of the films emotional conflict. It’s here where balance is key, and Seyfried’s ability to match the tone of the film, while also adding humility to it’s story, is the reason it’s on our list.
Kate Winslet – Ammonite
Real-life fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) lives a silent life on the coast of England, with her Mother (Gemma Jones), finding stones and doing her research. When a young fossil-enthusiast takes an interest in her work, Mary ends up forming a relationship with his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan).
As bleak as Francis Lee’s period drama is it earns it’s grim cinematography because of the relationship blooming in the middle of it. The romance forming between Saoirse Ronan’s character and Kate Winslet’s is made all the more effective because of the two performances involved. While Saoirse Ronan is wonderful at capturing both fragility and charisma, it’s Kate Winslet’s role that feels more demanding. As a character fighting so many inner desires Winslet’s ability to provide us with context through a single look is second to none.
From beginning to end Winslet subtly allows us to break her tough exterior, she very often shows us this no nonsense facade that feels as sturdy as the rocks she’s excavating but as time goes on we see so much more to the character. She’s anxious, delicate and full of conflicted feelings, and Winslet manages to show us everything without breaking the exterior she has cultivated for herself. It says a lot about an actress when they can tell an entire story using nothing but facial expressions, and Winslet does so with ease – elevating Ammonite in such an important way.
Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
On a hot summers day in 1927 Chicago Illinois, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band begin a recording session. Things get heated when her ambitious trumpet player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), challenges the way in which they play.
The MCU has a mixture of actors, some who have had their careers made by the behemoth franchise and others that are already proven stars. There is an argument that Chadwick Boseman falls into the former category, he’s become so synonymous with T’Challa that we forget just how good he can be outside the walls of Wakanda. In his last performance, before his tragic death in 2020, Boseman came out and proved just how versatile he can be as a passionate back-up musician in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Based on a play, Santiago-Hudson’s adapted screenplay is a talkie affair, one that sees Boseman receiving the majority of it’s explosive moments. He’s able to drift in and out of emotional states when the film demands it, projecting a certain cockiness while never being afraid to charge head first in his characters past demons. A lot of the scenes feel like they have more impact because of the real-world tragedy that has already occurred, but Boseman’s dedication and command is a beautiful example of performance no matter what has happened outside of the films walls. For a film that’s powerfully performed by all, Chadwick Boseman is the pillar keeping the film up.
Julie Garner – The Assistant
Over the course of one working day Jane, a young Assistant to a notorious Film Executive, suffers at the hands of Office abuse. Once she gets the opportunity to speak about the abuse happening in her office, she’s given a difficult choice.
In a similar vein to Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, there’s a tremendous amount of real world weight riding on the shoulders of The Assistant lead, Julie Garner. A film that channels multiple experiences into one character is difficult enough to write, but Garner’s performance is just as important. The day-to-day reality that Garner’s character is enduring demands a naturalistic approach to each scene, but it’s the visual fragility and fear that’s key to unlocking the film’s true intentions.
The film’s gradual build to one excruciating scene only works because of the emotional absorbance Garner is projecting throughout the film. Every remark, backhanded comment and fierce outburst from her boss is held and dissolved by Garner’s character and when she eventually can’t take it anymore, the devastating reality in her HR complaint is performed to perfection. There’s a feeling that a lot of actresses might go for a more showy approach but Garner’s performance has just the understanding the role requires, capturing both subtlety and reality while she lights up the screen all the way to the film’s heartbreaking climax.
Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal
Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer in a Heavy Metal band, must deal with his new life when he loses his hearing. After spending time at a centre for Deaf People, he must decide whether or not to have a surgery in order to get his life back to normal.
This has been quite the year for Riz Ahmed, an actor who’s given us two fantastic performances that not only prove him as a committed leading man but also prove just how integral he can make himself to the role. Mogul Mowgli was a wonderfully fractured performance that incorporated cultural identity into such a personal deterioration of the physical form, but the reason Riz’s Sound of Metal performance makes the list is the actors ability to guide us through the experience of his character.
The instant strip of the characters hearing means that Ahmed has that extra layer of acceptance to provide his character with, something he does with anger and a ferocious intensity. His expression is a constant source of emotional navigation for the film, and while it’s a cliche to say that film lives and dies with it’s central performance, there’s an argument that the cliche holds up with Sound of Metal. Ahmed is on the up and up, and if he’s as perfect as he is in this film, a long an illustrious career lies ahead for him.