These actors blew us away this year.

By EW Staff
December 17, 2020 at 08:00 AM EST

There are more than a few Oscar winners on this list, and a few actors likely being introduced to American audiences for the first time, too. There are breakout performances alongside legends reaching new heights; turns that chew the scenery until there's nothing left as well as subtle, naturalistic transformations. In a strange but still exceptional year in film, there were too many great performances to include here. But we picked out 15 of our favorites. And if you're not seeing some obvious choices, make sure to check out our 2020 Entertainers of the Year; you'll very likely find them there. —David Canfield

Credit: Amazon Studios

As a punk-rock drummer deep in denial about his hearing loss until there’s nothing left to do but face it, the Night Of Emmy winner is a quiet revelation, grounding Darius Marder’s raw, delicately wrought drama in a performance as furious and nuanced as anything on screen this year. —Leah Greenblatt

Credit: Amazon Studios

Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova’s breakout turn as Borat’s daughter in Sacha Baron Cohen’s zeitgeisty mockumentary felt like the cinematic catharsis we’ve needed all year: Through lampooning misogyny, exposing — almost literally — conservative demons, and doing it all with a wild grin on her face, Bakalova’s comedic approach perfectly matched the madness of the times. —Joey Nolfi

Credit: Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

It’s an absolutely daunting task to play any of the four legendary men centered in One Night in Miami…, but to step into the shoes of Malcolm X after the theatrical equivalent of a mic drop that was Denzel Washington's depiction of the Civil Rights leader in the epic 1992 biopic from Spike Lee could feel borderline absurd. Newcomer Ben-Adir manages to bring something new to the table, though, by refusing to deify someone many consider a martyr, beautifully showing how he could be anxious, uptight, and for as radical as his politics were, a little bit of a righteous buzzkill. —Marcus Jones

Credit: HBO Max

When your castmates are Meryl Streep and Dianne Wiest, the bar is already impossibly high; somehow, though, Bergen’s spangled, striving Texas bachelorette (she’ll find a solvent man on this ship or die trying) manages to steal nearly every scene she has in Steven Soderbergh’s wry high-seas dramedy. —L.G.

Credit: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX

It takes a special kind of performer to carry a movie like Charlie Kaufman's mind-bending psychological thriller, but Buckley does it with apparent ease. She’s the guiding light and a steady presence through the constantly shape-shifting script, flipping between long stretches of poetry recitation and scientific debate and cultural criticism but somehow always remaining coherent throughout. We'd follow her anywhere. (Well... weather permitting.) —Mary Sollosi

Credit: David Lee/Netflix

When producer Denzel Washington offered the role of Ma Rainey to the Oscar-winning star of his Fences adaptation, Viola Davis’s first thought was to turn it down. “I see myself as a lot of August Wilson characters, but not that one,” Davis told EW. Obviously, Washington was right. In the legendary Blues singer, Davis finally finds space to both clown and kick ass. She plays Ma Rainey like a character who knows her name is in the title, and won’t let you forget it. —M.J.

Credit: Netflix

Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel is a thrilling, high-energy epic full of exhilarating surprises, the greatest of which just might be its leading man. The charming Gourav delivers a star-making performance as Balram, a clever servant in contemporary India who dreams of becoming his own master — but whose wild journey to get there could never be believed in the hands of a lesser actor. —M.S.


In a Spike Lee Joint filled to bursting with Big Issues, ancillary plot lines, and wild scenery, Lindo’s fierce portrayal of a returning Vietnam vet still gripped by PTSD — the betrayals and boobytrapped jungles of 40 years ago are just as real for him as the present, if not more so — holds the quiet center of the film, decades of pain and rage distilled in his unbroken gaze. —L.G.

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

It's hard to picture any actress other than McDormand (who also has a producer credit) in Nomadland. She doesn't just become Fern, she creates her: melding Chloé Zhao's screenplay to her own fierce character in a way that feels almost uncannily real. —L.G.

Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Mads Mikkelsen is best known for playing icy villains in projects like Casino Royale and Hannibal, but in this film from his native Denmark the actor re-teams with writer-director Thomas Vinterberg to wholly embody a sad sack schoolteacher who embarks on an experiment to live life slightly drunk all of the time. The result is a full spectrum performance as Mikkelsen swings from chronic depression to falling-down plastered to dance party bliss in a film that explores whether people can ever truly find a perfect sweet spot in a quest to achieve happiness. —James Hibberd

Credit: Apple TV+

Cheater, charmer, charlatan: As the rakish art-dealer father to a flailing Rashida Jones in Sofia Coppola’s champagne-fizzy New York fantasy, Murray is all those things and more — the kind of freewheeling libertine who thinks nothing of packing a champagne-and-caviar picnic for a stakeout. The movie itself isn’t much more than a wisp, but it’s worth it all just for 96 minutes with the inimitable, unmissable Bill. —L.G.

Credit: Momentum Pictures

Plaza had stretched beyond her deadpan Parks and Rec image before, but it was in Lawrence Michael Levine’s trippy Sundance drama that she showed, more than ever, what she’s capable of. Starring as a young artist who becomes entangled in a destructive love triangle while staying in a remote lake house, the actress’ intensity and sharp wit has never been put to more brilliant use. —M.S.

Credit: Netflix

Amanda Seyfried has been putting in the work for nearly two decades now, from Mean Girls to Mamma Mia!, but Mank finally gives her the platform she deserves in a performance as blindingly brilliant as her platinum blonde wig. There’s nuance and heartbreak here, giving Marion Davies equal parts respect and whimsy. Seyfried perfectly captures the dichotomies of the comedic doyenne who was a party girl and supreme hostess, but also a smart, opinionated dame who confidently negotiated a movie career. Aw, nertz, how does it get any better than this? —Maureen Lee Lenker

Credit: Neon

Paleontologist Mary Anning is Kate Winslet’s quietest performance yet, but it speaks volumes for the Oscar winner. As a reflection of a time when women didn’t have a voice in society, Ammonite is largely void of dialogue for its leads, at least for the first half of the film. Saoirse Ronan’s troubled Charlotte Murchison is sent to learn from Mary, and this atmosphere, bubbling with romantic tensions and feminine gaze, forces a more physically emotive approach from Winslet as Mary navigates forbidden love. She delivers. —Nick Romano

Credit: A24

It’s hard, honestly, to single out just one performance from Lee Isaac Chung’s ’80-set immigrant drama; they’re all that good. But as an outré Korean grandma who refuses to conform to any kind of maternal expectations, the veteran actress is unforgettable in every scene she’s in. —L.G.

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