The Halfway Report Card – the best actor performances of 2020 so far

The Halfway Report Card – the best actor performances of 2020 so far

The following is a handful of stand-out performances from the first half of the past year. They are a mix of lead, supporting, and cameo performances in mainstream, independent, foreign, streaming, or theatrical film releases. Hopefully, with a little luck, they will be remembered when the awards season (whenever that may be) run comes around (next Spring?).

Here are ten performances, in alphabetical order, that had stuck with me from the 100 or so films I have watched so far this year:

Ben Affleck, The Way Back

Ben Affleck has had a well-documented substance abuse problem of his own and gives a career performance in The Way Back. There wasn’t a moment I didn’t buy him as a bloated, puffy drunk, who is in a constant self-destructive mode and ready to hit rock bottom at any moment. Even his take on a tough-as-nails basketball coach is gripping and has such a sharp bark that it would make Bobby Knight take a step back. However, by the end of the film, you watch Affleck, in a scene of great tenderness, tell someone the source of his constant inner torture. The visual is a moving one, redeeming his character, and unlike anything he has ever done.

Mamoudou Athie, Uncorked

Mamoudou Athie plays a young man in Uncorked, who would rather become a sommelier than taking over the family business — an established barbeque restaurant. Whether you are like me and know how to pair what beer with smoked sausage (IPL) or my special smoked Cuban pork shoulder (Guinness) than with what wine, Athie brings a quiet dignity and intelligence to the role and insight into a world that is made relatable to a mainstream audience. I look forward to the day Athie is given more opportunities to play more lead roles.

Pierfrancesco Favino, The Traitor

The imposing Pierfrancesco Favino fills the camera’s every frame with a star presence that few can match. Favino, who was so good in one of my favorite films of the decade, Suburra, brings to life a real anti-hero that doesn’t have the last name Soprano, Mackey, or White. It’s a three-dimensional performance, likable one minute, sad the next, but you never forget he isn’t quite the man who found the error of his ways. He, after all, has been convicted of drug charges and admitted carrying out murders, decided the mafia changed the rules, and lost its way by killing members of their own working family. His performance in The Traitor takes the stand that the man who found a moral compass has its price.

Michael Huisman, The Other Lamb

Huisman, the Shepherd in The Other Lamb, leads dozens of women and tends to his flock in the sadistic belief that these women are put on earth to tend to his own needs, instead of theirs. It’s a patient, deliberately paced film that slowly has the Shepherd start to unravel, as events unfold, as he can’t control the outside world, so he does it through his flock. It starts as a magnetic turn, then he gently slips into a man full of rage that is spiraling out of control. There hasn’t been a better turn of a sadistic cult leader on film since John Hawkes Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Hugh Jackman, Bad Education

While I reserve Prisoners as his finest performance, many are touting this Hugh Jackman role in Bad Education as the best of his career. If this is not Hugh Jackman’s career-best turn, it’s certainly his most nuanced. He plays a man who started to teach English when he was younger and ended up as someone who controls the purse strings who will do anything to keep his status, job, and school district at the top by any means necessary. The shades of virtue and idealism are often different shades of grey that can easily slip into cognitive dissonance, and that’s exactly what Jackman accomplishes here.

Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods

There are three performances here that I hope will be remembered later this year from Da 5 Bloods, but one I am sure will not be forgotten. Delroy Lindo has been one of the most underappreciated actors of his generation. He was ignored by his own studio for a Cider House Rules, by the Emmys for his role in The Good Fight, and his performance in Lee’s Clockers is now legendary. He carries the film with a burning intensity and ferocious anger that demands to be heard.

Tzi Ma, Tigertail

Tzi Ma’s role in Tigertail is a sorrowful East Asian one– deeply felt, that breaks you down, allowing you to appreciate what you have and long for what you don’t. His turn isn’t flashy, but thoughtful, and you may have to look closely and there is a great deal running under the surface that goes on to the naked eye. That doesn’t make its impact less meaningful and reminded me of ’90s arthouse independent cinema that’s upfront and honest that is highlighted by its visceral, moody score. Ma brings Grover’s tale to life that is no different from thousands, which is far too often forgotten. It’s an East Asian story that’s as American as apple pie.

Ben Mendelsohn, Babyteeth

Mendelsohn is so many things in Babyteeth funny, moving, ever so touching as a father struggling with his daughter’s demise (so much so, as you’ll notice, he sweetly tries to capture almost every moment of her with countless pictures from his camera that he always keeps handy). His role, like the film, can seem a bit oddball at first — but that would be a mistake, and if you watch it again, you’ll find some of the offbeat humor, and actions aren’t really what they appear to be at all. It has to do more with dialogue being wrapped with textured visuals and emotional reactions that are sincere. It’s the unfiltered honesty of a group of people not knowing when their time is up because there just isn’t any time for bullshit at the moment.

Denis O’Hare, Swallow

Veteran character actor Denis O’Hare’s has only a small role here, but it’s extraordinarily effective in Swallow’s final act. His character is responsible for Haley Bennett’s, not closure, but the healing process and while listening, his measured responses manage somehow to be insightful, while still being contemptible. It is an award-worthy turn by one of the great veteran character actors that leaves the viewer satisfied with their own closure, which is remarkable.

Vince Vaughn, Arkansas

Capture

Sure, Arkansas has its flaws, but it’s a southern crime saga that practically drips with intrigue, style, and contains a Vince Vaughn performance that very well might be his best since brooding ’90s film Return to Paradise. The main reason to see this film is how Vaughn’s character gets a wider look, and you completely forget it’s the man you’ve loved in Wedding Crashers, Old School, and Dodgeball. As the film flashes back to his days as a pawnshop owner who takes it upon himself to become the mysterious Frog, the tall, gangly comedic actor is almost gone, and the brooding actor morphs in the smart, ruthless Dixie’s drug kingpin. It’s a story I wish the film centered around, using Vaughn’s character throughout the film, folding in the flashbacks, with the newcomers more as supporting players.


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M.N. Miller

M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.

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