Twenty Performances, or Precious Metal

In this Oscar year with a calendar that has been understandably scrambled, it’s been especially difficult to undertake my usual process of selecting the twenty performances I would submit to the Academy were I gifted with an Actors Branch nominating ballot. It’s not that I think there’s a lack of worthy thespians. It’s quite the contrary, in fact. The upending of the traditional release model has been devastating to exhibition houses, but it hasn’t stemmed the procession of great cinematic work. I’ll put my top ten list for 2020 up against any other recent year. The quality is comparable, and the same is true of the performances I celebrate here.

Where it’s been strange is adjusting to the idea that the eligibility calendar extends so far past the ringing in of a new year. There’s no way to think of Judas and the Black Messiah as anything other than a 2021, and yet there it is, all over the Academy Award nominations that I can’t help but think of as being for the movie year 2020. Then again, the film that contains my top choices for the categories set aside for male actors officially bowed at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and another of my, and the Academy’s, lead actor contenders is drawn from a film that didn’t get official theatrical release until February 2021 but had its true premiere at Sundance Film Festival more than a year earlier. The lines are drawn somewhat arbitrarily and have been for some time now.

So, following the Academy’s revised dictates, what follows is the way I would fill out a nominating ballot.


1. Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
2. Frances McDormand, Nomadland
3. Rachel Brosnahan, I’m Your Woman
4. Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
5. Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs

I am genuinely excited that we have a year in which the acting categories seem poised to deliver surprises after a long stretch of largely lockstep selections by the precursor award-giving bodies that are then anointed as correct by the Academy. And yet I’m simultaneously dumbfounded that Mulligan hasn’t swept the table with her intricate, ingenious, magnetic performance in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. I think it’s the best performance of the year, regardless of category. McDormand and Davis are fine nominees and would be deserving winners (and I’m confident McDormand would prevail if she hadn’t collected a second acting Oscar for the lousy billboards movie), but I still think the Academy is going to land on Mulligan. That might be wishful thinking, though. I also make space for Rachel Brosnahan, who faded from Oscar chatter far too quickly, and Cristin Milioti, who works cunning magic in Palm Springs.


1. Riz Ahmed, The Sound of Metal
2. Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
3. Anthony Hopkins, The Father
4. Steven Yuen, Minari
5. Kingsley Ben-Adir, One Night in Miami

The Academy is going to make Chadwick Boseman the third posthumous winner of an acting Oscar, and I don’t blame them one bit. The lead actor category is the year’s strongest, by far, which is the only reason I have to say his forceful work is outdone by a few others. Ahmed’s intense, agonizing performance is tops in the category for me, but Delroy Lindo’s bravura work is close enough that it’s shocking to me how thoroughly he was overlooked. I’m glad Hopkins and Yuen are on the Academy’s roll, and I feel for Ben-Adir, who has to do so much in Regina King’s One Night in Miami, and does it all with efficiency and care.


1. Youn Yuh-Jung, Minari
2. Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
3. Talia Ryder, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
4. Sônia Braga, Bacurau
5. Hong Chau, Driveways

Youn might be the year’s most ruthlessly effective scene-stealer, and Bakalova is admirably game for anything while still building a real character. Both are delightful, mildly surprising choices to make the Academy’s cut. Other than them, I diverge from the official nominees with a trio of fine performances from smaller films that never had much of a chance to prevail in running the awards gauntlet. Glenn Close is drastically overdue for a win, of course, but these late-career nominations are coming for such lousy films. I think her futility will continue, and Youn will repeat her SAG win, but this is the category that’s hardest to predict.


1. Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
2. Orion Lee, First Cow
3. Mark Rylance, The Trial of the Chicago 7
4. Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
5. Aldis Hodge, One Night in Miami

In tone and cadence, Raci is the opposite on his costar Ahmed in Sound of Metal. What they have in common is excellence. The only other performance I have in common with the Academy is Kaluuya, who’s the by far the best part of a weak movie. I differ on the supporting standouts among the acting showcases set in Chicago and Miami, and my only hesitation about including Lee in my quintet is that I couldn’t make room for his cohort John Magaro in the more competitive lead category. On Oscar night, Kaluuya likely wins in this category.

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