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Chadwick Boseman blows his horn in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

There’s not that many A-list stars in 2020’s list of the best leading actors. Some of you might see that as a negative, but I’m all about great performances no matter who they come from. The fact that most of the big blockbusters got pushed into 2021 means that some lesser-known names got a chance to shine. This straitened year of cinema coined some new stars, and may they make our movies better when we emerge from this plague.

Riz Ahmed

A British actor of Arab descent isn’t the most obvious choice to play an American heavy metal drummer. In Sound of Metal, you never doubt for a second that he’s Ruben Stone, the recovering drug addict who grapples with anger and despair as he tries to adjust to deafness as a permanent condition. What good is a musician who loses his hearing? This one finds peace amid the quiet and the rhythms he can still tap out, and it’s inspiring like few other things.

Haley Bennett

I liked Swallow quite a bit better than Chase Whale did when he reviewed the film for Fort Worth Weekly. Nevertheless, he also was beguiled by her medicated turn as a pregnant housewife who copes with her boredom and emotional neglect by swallowing inedible objects. Then she casually tells her therapist, “So you probably want to hear about that rape thing.” She finally breaks out of her haze and confronts the rapist who is her biological father, and it is terrific stuff from this underappreciated actress.

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Chadwick Boseman

He’d be on this list even if he hadn’t died. His performance as the trumpeter Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the stuff of classic tragedy: a man with great talents that go unappreciated because of his race, and whose temper causes him to destroy himself rather than realize the grand ambitions that he could have fulfilled. The speech midway through when Levee describes how his father dealt with the white man’s injustice shows you what an electrifying actor we lost.

Morfydd Clark

Rose Glass wrote the title character of Saint Maud as an unusually tall and odd-looking woman. Clark is 5’3” and pretty, but her audition blew away her competition. This horror film does not work without her glassy-eyed performance as a nurse who responds to trauma by becoming a scary, violent Christian fanatic. Her first name is pronounced MAR-fith. Learn it, because we’ll hear more from her.

Adarsh Gourav

This year was full of movies about small-timers realizing how crooked the capitalist system is and gaming it for all their worth. Buffaloed and I Care a Lot may have been better films than White Tiger, but the Indian film boasts the most impressive lead performance. A singer trained in the Indian classical style, Gourav is never less than magnetic as the servant who absorbs kickings from his masters and uses deception and chicanery to become the owner of Bangalore’s biggest taxi service. Too seldom do Indian movies engage in moral ambiguity. This actor looks comfortable there.

Luca Marinelli

He made a good impression as the immortal gay mercenary in The Old Guard, but Martin Eden affords this Italian actor a better and more extensive showcase as a working-class Neapolitan writer who goes from fiery youthful promise to decadent premature old age. The movie has problems adapting Jack London’s novel, but Marinelli’s performance fills in the gaps as a man who pushes his country’s society forward and then watches it pass him by.

Mads Mikkelsen

This Danish actor spent 10 years as a professional dancer, and he puts that expertise to glorious use in the climax of Another Round, a comedy about schoolteachers who see how drunk they can get while teaching class. As another class of high-school students graduates into a hallowed Danish tradition of binge drinking, the teacher executes pirouettes, jetés, and barrel turns, helpless in the grip of alcohol and loving every second of it.

Elisabeth Moss

It’s a hard business picking between her starring roles in The Invisible Man and Shirley. If I’m forced to, I’m picking the former. Bringing shadings and colors to a character who is terrified almost all of the time is difficult enough to do. Moss not only does it, she and the film she’s in manage to do it so that it brings home the horrors of domestic abuse in a new way. In January 2020, I would have thought that task was just about impossible. As this movie showed, it wasn’t completely so.

Carey Mulligan

I would say that her badassery in Promising Young Woman is an inspiration to us all, but we all know that there are sexual predators out there who are cowering in fear at the idea of her Cassie Thomas coming after them. Let ’em cower! The rest of us can savor her performance as an avenger who spits in the face of rape culture (as well as in the coffee of the guy she’s dating) and is willing to pay a steep price to bring bad men to justice.

Aubrey Plaza

Audiences came away from Happiest Season wishing that her character had ended up with Kristen Stewart, but they largely missed her real star turn in Black Bear as a mentally unstable actress who’s transitioning to directing films because the roles are drying up. I always knew she had dramatic chops, but I was still like “Aw, damn” during her breakdown in front of the cameras. You can’t tell how much of that scene is her character giving a performance and how much is her working out her offscreen trauma. You didn’t know she could be so raw and overwhelming.

Tahar Rahim

You stand out when you’re a less-famous actor who out-acts your Oscar-nominated co-stars. The Mauritanian is packed with A-listers, yet it’s this Arab-French actor who comes off like the star presence portraying real-life businessman and American torture victim Mohamedou Salahi as a man who holds onto his Muslim faith in a situation where he has every reason to lose it, and does it with a wry smile.

Tessa Thompson

Sylvie’s Love is a retro exercise, a film made to feel in every way like a movie that was made in the 1950s. The great majority of the movie’s satiny texture comes from Thompson’s performance as a Black woman in the early 1960s carving out her own career as a TV producer while trying to find the right man. The next time somebody says movie stars aren’t glamorous like they used to be, point to Thompson’s finesse and grace here.

Evan Rachel Wood

Just like Thompson’s performance determined the feel of Sylvie’s Love, so too does Wood’s herky-jerky turn in Kajillionaire dictate the feel of Miranda July’s film, as this con artist saddled with the name of Old Dolio by her parents comes to realize just how much their upbringing has taken away from her. The film ends with her finding love and a way toward an adulthood with all the advantages of a less abnormal life, and her acting helped make this the romantic film of the year.

Honorable mention: Alison Brie, Horse Girl; Pierfrancesco Favino, The Traitor; Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Lei Jiayin, A Writer’s Odyssey; Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods; Anthony Mackie, Synchronic; Rachel McAdams, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; Frances McDormand, Nomadland; Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Beanpole; Sarah Paulson, Run; Issa Rae, The Photograph; Margot Robbie, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn); Eliza Scanlen, Babyteeth; LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah; Steven Yeun, Minari.

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