The 10 Breakout Performances of 2020

Movies Lists Best of the Year
The 10 Breakout Performances of 2020

Let’s not even try to work out which performances of the year were the “best” right now. With the sheer amount of great movies hitting screens in 2020, there was at least an equal number of stellar acting jobs that helped make those movies more than words and pictures. There were obvious stars of the year—like Anya Taylor-Joy, who dominated the big screen in Emma. and the small screen in The Queen’s Gambit—and the awards perennials that either won’t go away or keep turning in performances that prove their staying power. But a few performers either blindsided us with a new facet of themselves or caught us totally off-guard with massive career-topping cannonballs. These breakout performances stood out not only from their movies, but from their careers in general and from this year at large. They were emotional centers of silly movies, expert turns that came when phoning it in was expected—they were the people you couldn’t stop talking about once the credits started rolling. They might not be the biggest or loudest performances of the year (though, one or two might be in consideration for the title), but these actors deserve some additional love for their work in 2020. And yes, we cheat a little here.

Here are the 10 breakout performances of 2020:

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Maria Bakalova


Since Borat Subsequent Moviefilm dropped on Amazon Prime, Rudy Giuliani has unsurprisingly remained the movie’s most noteworthy conversational export. News headlines about Giuliani and his most unusual way of removing a mic were the topic of the day at whatever the pandemic-era equivalent of the watercooler is. But it’s to the credit of the mockumentary’s other buzzed-about element and secret weapon, Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, that its shocking climax is as effective as it is in targeting Donald Trump’s private attorney.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm may have broken Bakalova into the mainstream with her multidimensional portrayal of the oddball Tutar. Borat mines satire from the extremes of Tutar as the titular weirdo’s caged, haggard and unibrowed daughter before she sheds baggy clothes for the camera-ready makeup and blonde hair of a Tomi Lahren lookalike. And if you thought Tutar’s exaggerated high shrill was Bakalova’s natural voice, her performance in Transgression (her first lead role) puts into sharp relief how much it’s a part of the Borat act. The gung-ho hilarity and up-for-anything attitude Bakalova brings to the Borat sequel makes for the closest thing to a can’t-miss-it performance that 2020 has provided. It’s one thing that Bakalova holds her own against Sacha Baron Cohen and his seasoned on-camera bravura. It’s another thing altogether to supplant him as the breakout of the sequel, shepherding the soul of a movie—that nobody expected to be as perversely touching as it is—while keeping in hilarious lockstep with the scuzzy legacy that the Borat name implies. —David Lynch

Freaky: Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton


There are body-swap performances and there are performances that make you forget the bodies were swapped in the first place. Freaky‘s central silly premise is that it’s Freaky Friday AND Friday the 13th, right? Cool, fun—a good gag based on a clever title pairing. But what if big burly serial killer Vince Vaughn and ditzy dork Kathryn Newton somehow pull off some of the year’s best performances (of course, they must be inseparable for the premise to work—each is doing both characters, after all) with hardly an actorly affectation between them?

Vaughn, who is on a run of interesting performances, really leaps out here: He’s a teen girl without feeling like a caricature or an easy laugh machine. His physicality shifts, his cadence gets a lilt but not an insulting SNL-style accent. His walk and run both alter in different, yet utterly transformative ways. On the other side, Newton channels her inner dead-eyed slasher with a grounded twist. She’s not quippy nor force of nature-esque, but an outsider weirdo that has enough (evil) humanity to manipulate, react and perform. That she struts her stuff as a serial killer pretending to be a high schooler—that said serial killer just gave a cherry bomb makeover—is so layered that it’s hard to write about. That she pulls it off so well that the writing doesn’t need to expressly say anything is almost as impressive as the serial killer’s makeup skills. The best showcase of these swapped portrayals comes during Freaky’s most intimate scene, in which Vaughn (playing the teen girl) is in the back seat of a car with her crush. The touching, downright romantic scene between Vaughn and the young guy is startlingly well-done simply because, on its face, its premise seems like bait for a cheap laugh. But, like the rest of Freaky, it’s far more than meets the eye thanks to its leads.


Minari: Yuh-Jung Youn


Minari works because of Yuh-Jung Youn. You know that performance that Hillbilly Elegy thought Glenn Close was going to have? Yuh-Jung Youn does that about ten-fold, owning the film with an effort that’s actually Oscar-worthy and not Oscar-baiting. The South Korean veteran’s sharp yet caring grandmother, who moves into her daughter’s Arkansas home alongside her family, is every bit as deep and detailed as the overall life that Minari paints. Her jabbing dialogue and whipcrack punchlines sting, but in that backhandedly loving way that only relatives and dear friends can get away with. That’s because her wide-ranging performance is part slapstick, part symbol, and part plot point—all of which are handled with elegance and engaging energy. Few actors could chug piss (it was a prank, ok?), then convincingly turn it into an endearing lesson between grandmother and grandson. Rapport with her castmates, particularly that grandson (Alan S. Kim), makes the hefty emotional beats stick—but more importantly it allows the nuances filling out the character’s corners to feel real. She loves watching wrestling, but hates to see them risk injury. Yuh-Jung Youn’s playful eyes and poised movements in these moments create a character far better than her foul-mouthed card playing…though her winning performance makes us feel lucky we get both.

*The ordering of Yuh-Jung Youn’s name has been changed at the request of A24 and her representatives.

Yes, God, Yes: Natalia Dyer


Natalia Dyer’s spirited work gives Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes a plucky heart. Maybe she can’t affect actual change at her ultra-Catholic Kairos retreat, but she can, at least, do right by herself. Dyer’s star has risen in the last half decade or so (we get it, Stranger Things) and Yes, God, Yes further validates her gifts as an actress. Maine lets the camera linger on Dyer’s face when she’s confronted with obscenity, and Dyer lets her eyes and mouth and cheeks perform hilarious, expressive gymnastics. At the same time, she conveys fear—the fear of realizing that the adults of Alice’s life are all bullshit artists, the fear of having no one to confide in about her natural curiosities and urges—with wounded brilliance. She’s the perfect actress to realize Maine’s deft critique of religious sexual duplicity.—Andy Crump


I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons


To quote our review of Charlie Kaufman’s Netflix mind-bender, “Jessie and Jesse are great. Their performances and their characters are hard to describe.” Yeah, seriously. Having the two leads of this dreamscape share a first name in real life is self-reference upon self-reference…which would be perfect enough for Kaufman WITHOUT them being fantastic in the film. A large portion of the movie is a two-hander between Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons (their two nebulous characters being in a relationship) driving around in the dark and snow. Gags like being able to hear the other’s inner monologue are played to perfection, with mystery, tension and laughs doled out with little more than insinuation and timing. Then there are the monologues, with one listening and the other just going on and on. Somehow, still compelling. The script is notably sharp, but Buckley and Plemons are putting it through its paces—it’s like watching the New York Philharmonic do The Rite of Spring. The brilliant pair split off for some highlights of their own, but when they’re together in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the leads create some truly engrossing harmonies.

Run: Kiera Allen


Kiera Allen, star of Aneesh Chaganty’s Run, is a revelation. She’s an immensely talented actress: Down to earth and relaxed, but vital and possessed of honest-to-goodness grit. She also uses a wheelchair, which isn’t remarkable in and of itself—she’s 1 of about 2.7 million Americans who do—save that Hollywood loves casting non-disabled actors as characters with disabilities, and Allen’s work here supposes that, in fact, Hollywood shouldn’t do that. She probably won’t revolutionize the way the industry considers casting actors with disabilities all on her own, but boy, her lived-in experience and compelling performance as Chloe throws dunderheaded studio ableism into sharp relief.

Watching Allen operate under the joint mental and physical strains of her character’s predicament is an embarrassment of tense delights. The film doesn’t sugarcoat the disadvantages her disability puts her at, but also demonstrates that a disability isn’t an impediment for a clever mind and a lifetime of experience. The maneuvering and guile she uses to evade her mother, Diane (Sarah Paulson), the resourcefulness she musters to break down Diane’s lies, the convincing resilience she has doing all of this while under the influence of Diane’s “medicine”—Chloe’s a badass and so is Allen.—Andy Crump


The Vast of Night: Sierra McCormick


Sierra McCormick does some work in The Vast of Night that’s competitive with the best acting of the year. Her overall performance is wonderful, yes—finding sweetness and curiosity and wonder and spunk beneath the big frames of her character’s glasses—but one incredible feat mid-movie seals the performance as a star-maker. It’s a ten-minute scene, done in a single take, involving McCormick operating a switchboard trying to find out what has gone wrong in the sci-fi film’s desert town. She answers, she calls. She plugs in and pulls out wires with each interaction, marrying satisfying physical motions to the switches in conversation. Each phone call is entirely one-sided. It’s just McCormick out there, exposed, carrying the film for an unbroken ten minutes. It’s Olympic-level acting and she nails it, finding the exact tempo with which to pace her escalating concern. Something is wrong, but we only find that out thanks to real-time detective work that we only ever hear snippets of. That it makes total sense and is a gripping watch is completely attributable to McCormick’s skill and execution.

Sound of Metal: Paul Raci


Yes, Riz Ahmed does an excellent job as the lead of Sound of Metal and is a core component of why the film about a metalhead drummer losing his hearing is one of 2020’s best. However, Paul Raci’s impeccable supporting performance as Joe, a man running a deaf community of recovering addicts—pinpointed to a pained, compassionate, imperfect place of authority—is the glue holding everything together. Lest things feel preachy or inauthentic, Raci’s tough love and deadpanned delivery (both of ASL and spoken English) ground relationships and setting alike. Joe cares. You can feel it. He’s seen every direction that this story can go. Raci is able to convey that with little other than practical conversation and some silent looks. It’s potent and warm, yet hard—with a baked-in disappointment that still proffers up a candle flicker of optimism at every opportunity. It’s a perfect, textbook example of how to support: Raci doesn’t steal scenes, he just makes them better in every possible way. He allows his scene partners to soar while he anchors us in emotional truth. He glows with a measured brightness to fill out the radiance already emanating from the lead. It’s wildly compelling and a stunning feat of dramatic control.


Martin Eden/The Old Guard: Luca Marinelli


It’s July. You’re scrolling through Netflix for the thousandth time this week, when suddenly you stumble upon Charlize Theron’s new movie, The Old Guard. Bored out of your mind and enticed by the image of Theron wielding a battle axe, you decide to bite, and there he is: Luca Marinelli, in all his beautiful, blue-eyed, Roman-nosed Italian glory. It feels like the world is in slow motion. Time has stilled around you. Was there life before this moment?

Yes, most American audiences were likely introduced to him for the first time this summer with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Netflix action flick The Old Guard, where he played Nicolo di Genova AKA Nicky—a priest-turned-immortal-warrior who’s also the lover of Joe (Marwan Kenzari AKA live-action Aladdin’s hot Jafar), who fought opposite him in the Crusades. Nicky is just one of six leads in the film, but his quiet intensity, wise, seemingly all-knowing demeanor, and yes, his looks, had me instantly curious about who this actor was and why I didn’t know about him until then. Where he played an introverted, ruminative mercenary in The Old Guard, his role couldn’t be more different in Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, an Italian adaption of the Jack London novel of the same name.

Marinelli plays Eden, an illiterate sailor who abandons a life of traveling and brawling to teach himself how to become a writer. The film is an epic, sweeping tale of Martin’s journey from penniless nobody to world-famous author haunted by fame, and Marinelli is at the center of it all. With a mesmerizing physicality that propels the movie forward, he engrosses the viewer in Martin’s inner turmoil. His physical transformation as Martin rises to fame is also incredible—he almost looks like a different person by the time all is said and done. Gone are his bright eyes, youthful glow, and determination to be known, replaced by unkempt hair, waxy pallor, and a deadness behind the eyes that borders on unsettling. With two major films released in the same year, a year where we’ve all been stuck with nothing to do but watch movies, there’s never been a better time to familiarize yourself with Luca Marinelli.—Lauren Coates

His House: Wunmi Mosaku


Few have gone from “Oh, fun, it’s her” status to certifiable scream queen as quickly as Wunmi Mosaku. Leading both Remi Weekes’ allegorical haunted house film His House and Misha Green’s series adaptation of Lovecraft Country, Mosaku was an unstoppable force in all things otherworldly this year. With a killer stare, magnetic screen presence and palpable will, Mosaku digs deep into the underlying emotions of her scenes no matter what kind of ghosts or ghoulies are attempting to draw our attention away from her. There’s a kind of performance that reacts to these paranormal pests and then there’s a kind that internalizes, processes, then lives with them. It’s not that she’s particularly steely or ballsy, but that her embodiment of her characters and their situations is so total that it all feels grounded. It’s scary without being screamy; it’s bold without being brash. Mosaku’s understated confidence in character is a big reason why these pieces of genre entertainment became such hot topics of conversation—without her dramatic guidance, their strangeness might never break into our dimension.

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