As we’ve done every December, we asked the writers of RogerEbert.com to pick a performance they particularly loved from the just-passed year of film. The submissions ranged from the performers who are picking up awards buzz to a group of actors and actresses who may not be getting as much as attention as they deserve. The requirement here was just to pick one performance to write about and we limited the entire piece to one performance per film, so the feature below is in no way comprehensive. But what you’ll find are nearly two dozen performances that represent the range of acting styles on display in films from 2020. There are legends like Candice Bergen and Brian Dennehy next to rising talents like Kingsley Ben-Adir and Nicole Beharie. Actors who did the best work of their career share space with the final performance of someone we lost this year. It’s a feature we love here not only because of how much it shows the range of cinema but the taste of our talented contributors who write about it. Enjoy.
The sprawling drama “Da 5 Bloods” is one of Spike Lee‘s most ambitious films—a Vietnam reckoning folded inside of a treasure hunt story, with a group of former infantry soldiers returning to the scene of a comrade’s death to “reparate” millions in gold bars; part history lesson about the role of Black people in the creation and maintenance of America, despite their repeated betrayals by the establishment; and part meditation on race, bloodlines, parents, and children. Delroy Lindo’s Paul is the glowering anchor that holds Lee’s rhetorical contraption together, creating an emotionally shattered, volatile, menacing, pitiable, but recognizably human antihero, with a tragic dimension that keeps the viewer’s empathy even at his most monstrous.
On top of all that, the character is the most sympathetically rendered portrait of a Trump supporter yet seen onscreen—and the thorniest, given Trump’s long record of racist behavior and statements, and the implication that a Black American who would wear a MAGA hat has internalized self-loathing. Lindo never condescends to the character. He insists on his innate humanity and need to reclaim dignity even when the character is whipsawing between tenderness towards his old war buddies and his twenty-something son David (Jonathan Majors), a Morehouse college graduate whose ability to thrive within a white-dominated country makes Paul’s decades of personal failures sting more sharply.
In an interview with The New York Times, the actor said he asked Lee to make the character “archconservative” without specifying his Trump support, then had to figure out a way to inhabit the character when Lee told him they were sticking to the script (co-written by Lee with regular collaborator Kevin Willmott). Lindo connected the character’s politics to Paul’s generalized (and also racialized) feelings of abandonment after three tours of duty during the Vietnam war, a traumatic experience defined by the death of one of his dearest friends, “Stormin'” Norman (the late Chadwick Boseman), a brilliant and politically radicalized Black soldier. Paul feels personally responsible for Norman’s demise, and it’s been torturing him for decades. Add all that on top of Paul’s acceptance of the American “up by my own bootstraps” ethos—which rejects discrimination as a factor in success, compounding Paul’s feelings of worthlessness, and driving him to near-rage whenever anyone in Saigon tries to panhandle money or sell him goods—and you have a nuclear cocktail of issues that is certain to detonate at some point, like the unexploded mines left behind by American and Vietcong soldiers.
Lindo decided to treat Paul as “…a larger-than-life Shakespearean and Wilsonian tragic character…every bit on par with Hamlet, Othello, many of the characters in August Wilson’s plays,” and the results speak for themselves. This is a performance equal to the best of Marlon Brando at his peak, circa 1954-1973, when he often played characters who were skeptical of, or alienated from, notions of patriotism, loyalty, bourgeois morality, and capitalist success that so many other American screen characters of that time period took for granted. And, like a great Brando character, you constantly sense that Paul’s complex and contradictory interior life is flashing before his eyes, jabbing its way into his conscious mind even when he’s trying to stay focused on the matter at hand, whether it’s an argument with his friends over strategy, a negotiation over how to translate the gold into cash without arousing the law’s attention, or a desperate attempt to save David’s life when he’s stuck with one foot on an as-yet-unexploded land mine.
Emotionally and philosophically, this character is huge, a titan of feeling: masochistic and cruel, smart and dumb, self-serving and genuinely heroic, often in the span of a few screen minutes. The peak of the performance is Paul’s single-take, direct address monologue late in the film, an implosion of greed, resentment, and outer-directed self loathing that treats the camera like a mirror; it’s one of the greatest fourth-wall-breaking moments in Spike Lee history, which is impressive in itself, but what makes it so powerful is the sense that Paul’s tendency to self-dramatize is the only defense he has against his own self-destructive impulses, and now that he can’t inflict his own suffering on other people, his end is nearer than he thinks.
Even moments that might feel like throwaways in the hands of lesser actors define whole scenes here. When you watch the movie again, notice the early bit where Paul gets agitated during an early conversation between himself, his platoon mates, and David at the prospect of the younger man joining the mission. He accidentally drops a piece of mango from the small plate he’s holding, then says to David, “Look what you made me do.” Still holding the plate, along with a fork and folded napkin, he jabs the whole bundle at David—a gesture that could seem comical if not for the palpable resentment radiating from Paul—and says, “You ain’t been nothing but an anchor around my neck since the day you was born.” At the end of the scene, he hands the mess to Otis, stabbing the fork at the empty plate, then (seemingly) realizing that there’s nothing to stab it into and letting it drop before exiting the frame, muttering, “God damn it.” Was this entire series of actions in the screenplay? Was it something that Lindo and Lee and the other actors worked out in rehearsal? Or did Lindo drop the piece of mango and come up with the rest of the spot?
It’s all so seamlessly executed that, barring a detailed explication by somebody who was there, we’d never know. There’s a word to describe Lindo’s acting in this film: sprezzatura. It means “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” Invisible mastery. The best kind. (Matt Zoller Seitz)
Candice Bergen as Roberta in “Let Them All Talk”
In an interview with The Daily Beast’s Nick Schager, “Let Them All Talk” director Steven Soderbergh estimates that 70% of the dialogue in his generous new comedy is improvised. Soderbergh essentially let his cast members, led by Meryl Streep, “speak for their characters” since he gave them three bullet point prompts per scene to accompany screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg’s 50-page script. In this way, Soderbergh let supporting cast members like Gemma Chan, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Dianne Wiest determine certain key dynamics and ideas about their characters, all of whom are essentially waiting for Streep’s Alice, a reclusive author, to decide what’s going to happen next during a days-long trans-Atlantic cruise, since she’s the ship’s guest of honor.
Soderbergh also points to what makes Candice Bergen’s supporting role, as Roberta, Alice’s estranged college friend, so commanding: “there’s a quality to the way people listen when they don’t know what’s coming that’s very compelling.”
You often have to lean in whenever Bergen’s on-screen in “Let Them All Talk.” She makes pregnant pauses seem especially volatile, like they could end at any moment, or keep going until she’s ready to finish. You can also tell that Bergen, as Roberta, is struggling to control her emotions, partly because she’s navigating an unfamiliar situation—Alice is often busy writing, leaving Roberta and fellow college buddy Susan (Wiest) to talk among themselves—but also because she’s wrestling with a decades-old grudge: Alice cannibalized elements of Roberta’s life for one of her novels, and now Roberta blames Alice for the end of her marriage.
Bergen’s performance stands out in a few climactic scenes—you’ll know them when you see them—but only because she’s already developed her character so much that you’re always watching her without ever knowing what she’ll do next. (Simon Abrams)
Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami”
Playing famous or notable people from history long ago became the path to winning awards. From Judy Garland to Winston Churchill to Freddie Mercury, stepping into the shoes of someone publicly known often leads to accolades. In a sense, it’s about associated goodwill. We love Freddie and Judy already, and so it’s like being able to spend time with our favorites again. And yet there are also notable traps in taking on a public figure. Accusations of cheap impersonation or historical inaccuracy sometimes feel inevitable. Personally, I’m always more impressed when someone can create a completely original character than those who let history do half the work for them.
However, every once in a long while a performances comes along that doesn’t just offer an impersonation but a full-bodied representation. All four of the performers in Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” do more than just impersonate the larger-than-life figures they’re playing, but it’s Kingsley Ben-Adir who impresses the most, in large part by having such a steep hill to climb. We have all heard Malcolm X speak. Most of us have already seen a landmark performance by one of America’s greatest actors in Spike Lee’s film, which should have won Denzel Washington an Oscar. And yet Ben-Adir instantly feels singular. He’s not doing Denzel. He’s not doing an impersonation at all. He’s digging deeper to find the man under the image of one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. So many biopic performers play the icon, but Ben-Adir plays the human being. That’s the key.
It’s a rich, nuanced performance, and one of those turns that instantly announces the performer as a major new player in the acting world. In that sense, Regina King’s work here ties the past to the future. These four men may be playing important figures from long ago, but King simultaneously makes the case that the actors who portray them could be essential to the future of filmmaking. (Brian Tallerico)
The effectiveness of Sean Durkin’s “The Nest” lies in its command of tone. The drama about a family—Allison (Carrie Coon), Rory (Jude Law) and their children—who transplant from 1980s New York to Thatcherite England could have been a melodrama, thriller, or coming-of-age story with few, if any, changes to the script. Instead, Durkin makes it a slow-burn horror film, with all of the dread, but none of the violence. The terror here is entirely emotional.
That this experiment works as well as it does is due in large part to Coon’s performance as Allison. Law, as the charming, studied liar excels at selling himself, but Coon’s work as the person who deals directly with the fallout of his lying is a masterclass in subtlety. “The Nest”‘s biggest character details come across in action rather than dialogue, and Coon communicates a lifetime of experience often without saying a word.
The way Allison seeks a hiding place to save her cash, and her weary questioning of Rory’s spending habits tell us how much she trusts her husband. The way that weariness morphs into fed-up contempt is cathartic, but never over-the-top. Her growing fear and frustration rivals Toni Collette’s emotional breakdown in “Hereditary,” without the need for inherited trauma or demonic possession.
In her performance, Coon gives us range and lived-in interiority without ever making a show of what she’s doing. What’s more, she and Durkin are on exactly the same page about how this story should feel, and what her role is in making that atmosphere work. “The Nest” functions like great architecture, with Durkin as the architect and Coon as the keystone that holds the whole enterprise together. (Abby Olcese)
Brian Dennehy as Del in “Driveways”
When Brian Dennehy passed, it was in the middle of a period of gentle decline. He took valedictory roles in movies that once more cast him as ornery sheriffs with secrets, old men overseeing large families, looking back on their pasts and their old mistakes and wondering how they got here, but perhaps more to the point, if they deserved to be here. I gave up hope that Dennehy would have a role up to his enormous talent one last time before he passed (an excellent role in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” was too small for my taste). And then Andrew Ahn made “Driveways.”
“Driveways” is a marvel of lived-in performances, from Hong Chau’s protective mother with her well practiced speeches to perceived threats to her kid to Jerry Adler’s dismantled veteran, slowly losing his sense of himself. In the middle of this, like a pillar keeping a circus tent in the air, is Dennehy, long ago abandoned by his family, quickly realizing he’s lived long enough to see his friends die first. The movie provides him with one beautiful note after another, whether it’s trying to prove to Chau he isn’t a threat to her boy without wanting to concede that he’s not the formidable man he once was, or trying his best to let his friend keep his dignity as dementia sets in. It’s one heart-breaking moment after another but Dennehy, student of Chekhov and O’Neill, never lets his exasperation or his encroaching melancholy rise to his eyes. We feel it all broiling in his heart behind that stout chest that once preceded the muscular performer when he walked into rooms.
“Driveways” is a beautiful little movie, but it’ll always stand tall for gifting Dennehy with the kind of quietly stoic man he grew to American myth embodying. It was nice to be able to say goodbye to a man who so steadfastly kept American movies good and decent and interesting for so long. (Scout Tafoya)
“Don’t let the bastards get you down.” It’s a defiant message in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” that emboldens Offred, the character played by Elisabeth Moss in Hulu’s adaptation of the novel, but it sort of applies to Moss’s entire filmography, too. Since her role as the simultaneously ambitious and unsettled Peggy Olson on “Mad Men,” Moss has gravitated toward unruly women, characters whose simmering resentments (quite often, and rightfully, toward the patriarchy) eventually explode outward. Moss is at her best when she’s walking the line between tightly controlled and dazzlingly unraveled (“Her Smell,” “The Kitchen,” “Shirley”), and she reaches a new level of balance in “The Invisible Man.”
From Leigh Whannell’s thrillingly tense opening escape scene, Moss sets about transforming her Cecilia Kass from a woman made small by the abuse of her powerful, wealthy ex-boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) to someone intent on reclaiming her identity, proclaiming her truth, and wreaking revenge on her oppressor. Moss first makes real Cecilia’s fear in scenes that lean into our collective anxiety over enemies we cannot see, and her mixture of fragility and certainty secures our sympathy. Someone is stalking her, someone is watching her sleep, someone is sabotaging her relationship with her sister—but what is Cecilia going to do about it?
Moss’ switch to determined vigilante, consumed with an obsessive desire to capture Adrian and prove that he faked his own death to further torment her, brings to mind her oppositional work in “Us.” Her caution is replaced with calculation, her anxiousness with seething anger, and “The Invisible Man” moves steadily toward a conclusion that works almost exclusively because of Moss’ ability to shape-shift between myriad contrasting emotions at the same time. As a parable about the devastating impact of domestic abuse, “The Invisible Man” is harrowingly effective, and much of that power is given by Moss’ alternately anguished and enraged performance. (Roxana Hadadi)
Chadwick Boseman as Levee in “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom”
It’s almost impossible to watch Chadwick Boseman’s final performance in this film without the lingering shadow of his unexpected death. As Levee, the ambitious trumpet player in the eponymous singer’s band, Boseman radiates smooth charm, dancing in his new, yellow leather shoes and flirting with the one woman he shouldn’t—for the sake of his job—be wooing. During a key monologue, relating a childhood trauma and a promise that he’s capable of getting payback if he believes he’s owed it, we better understand Levee and his outward arrogance, thinking himself better than the quartet’s long-timers in talent, wisdom, and promise.
All of that charm and all of that swagger are simply hiding the truth, and in his delivery of that potent piece of August Wilson’s writing, Boseman leaves the character bare—all of his grief, rage, and satisfaction with the idea of getting sweet, well-deserved revenge. The scene re-aligns our understanding of both the character and what the actor is doing with this performance. There’s the external bluster and charisma, and there’s the internal pain and doubt and uncertainty, which Boseman taps into with such honesty that we’re once again reminded of what he must have going through while filming this during his health struggles.
His performance, a high point in a tragically short career that gave us some great ones and a cultural icon, is driven by wounded, angry, and naïvely optimistic energy. How Boseman pulled it off, while enduring what he did, is a testament to his dedication to the craft and the promise we lost. (Mark Dujsik)
Nicole Beharie as Turquoise Jones in “Miss Juneteenth”
You could watch Nicole Beharie’s performance as Turquoise Jones in “Miss Juneteenth” with the sound off and still know exactly who her character is. As she enters the hall where the other former winners and contestants of the Miss Juneteenth tiara are assembled, her shoulders get just a bit straighter and her walk just a little prouder, as though she is still gliding gracefully across the stage before the judges.
It is clear that the beauty queen Turquoise once was lives on inside her, even when she’s scrubbing toilets. We see her poise in the way she moves and sits and lifts her chin, but we also see her determination and unquenchable confidence. The complicated feelings Turquoise has about her mother are clear in the way Beharie stands back a little when they talk. In her face we see all we need to know about how fiercely she loves her daughter Kai, and how much she hopes the 15-year-old will be her second chance at the pageant and the scholarship money Turquoise was not able to use.
But do turn the sound on; you want to hear Beharie toss off a deliciously dismissive “I beat her,” about a one-time competitor who dares to try to make her feel inferior. Beharie’s performance is delicate, exquisitely precise, and layered, every bit the Phenomenal Woman, the Maya Angelou poem Turquoise recited in her pageant days. Phenomenal is a perfect description of Beharie as well. (Nell Minow)
Ever since he drew my attention with his comic performance in the British satire “Four Lions,” Riz Ahmed has demonstrated more of his considerable talent in a number of different works, ranging from “Nightcrawler” to the HBO miniseries “The Night Of.” In Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal,” he plays a heavy metal rock drummer who must deal with not only his sudden loss of hearing but also consequent big changes in his life; Ahmed’s unadorned but undeniably powerful work in this exceptional film is a key factor in generating our empathy and understanding on his troubled hero’s inner struggles.
Instead of merely externalizing his character’s unstable and vulnerable state of mind, Ahmed wisely internalizes that in his low-key acting full of small details and nuances to be observed. Once the precise and effective sound design of the movie establishes the specific soundscape surrounding his character, his acting deftly carries the rest during most of the film, and we come to emphasize more with his character even when we hear normal sounds from the soundtrack. Around the end of the movie, the camera just focuses on his face for a while, but that is all we need for discerning what his character eventually comes to learn from his difficult emotional journey. Nothing is certain at all for his character even at that point, but Ahmed’s seemingly calm but expressive face speaks volumes, while also tentatively suggesting a glimmer of hope at the end of the road.
By the way, a South Korean critic once said that Elizabeth Moss’ performance in “The Invisible Man” is the best visual effect in the film. If so, I will counter by saying that Ahmed’s performance in “Sound of Metal” is the best sound effect in the film. (Seongyong Cho)
Vasilia Perelygina as Masha in “Beanpole”
So many of the best performances in 2020 were delivered by people who had never acted before on camera, and Vasilisa Perelygina’s astonishing debut in Russian director Kantemir Balagov’s masterwork, “Beanpole,” is no exception. She plays Masha, a sterile war veteran who blackmails her comrade, Iya (equally impressive newcomer Viktoria Miroshnichenko), in a last-ditch effort to obtain happiness. Set in Leningrad, a city freshly ravaged by the siege of World War II, the film was inspired by oral histories of female soldiers grappling with PTSD, and though Masha’s actions are often quite cruel, they are never less than understandable in their wounded humanity. There’s an unforgettable scene where she spins around and around until she suddenly finds that she cannot stop. The carefree giggles that had rippled from her lips, harkening back to the innocence of her childhood, are replaced with labored breathing, as her frolicking movement gradually proves to be a desperate compulsion. As long as she can keep the surrounding world out of focus, she will be able to sustain the denial that keeps her hope alive.
Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s use of long takes frequently allows Perelygina and Miroshnichenko to engage in a subtly choreographed dance that tells us more about their relationship than words ever could. In a mesmerizing five-minute shot, the friends speak to each other chiefly with their eyes. Without Iya having to utter a line, the truth she’s been suppressing gradually becomes clear, prompting Masha to get up off the floor. Overcome with grief, Iya falls upon her friend’s shoulder, a tender move that inspires the pair to waltz back onto the ground, before Masha finally says aloud what they had been afraid to articulate. It’s crucial not to cut between these emotional beats, since it is in those lingering pauses and unspoken shifts where the greatness of Perelygina’s work lies. (Matt Fagerholm)
“On the Rocks” marks the third time that Bill Murray has worked with Sofia Coppola—following his Oscar-nominated turn in “Lost in Translation” and the delightful holiday special “A Very Murray Christmas”—and it is impossible to imagine another actor who more perfectly exemplifies the film’s delicate blend of farce and melancholy. As Felix, the charmingly wayward and insanely rich father who encourages his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones) to investigate her suspicions that her husband (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair, Murray comes across like a rogue beyond compare with his combination of slick charm, his self-reflexive tendency to benignly flirt with every female who crosses his eyeline, and his ability to suck the oxygen out of any room that he enters.
The results are often very funny but at the same time—and without insisting upon it—we also get a sense of the quiet sadness behind the patter. Deep down, he knows that he comes across like a relic from another era and that while his glibness is more than enough to get complete strangers to like him, if only for a few minutes, it has the paradoxical effect of pushing those close to him like Laura away. As Felix and Laura venture out into the night in pursuit of her husband, they find themselves opening up to each other in ways that they presumably haven’t before. For all of his talk about proving Laura’s vague suspicions, you slowly realize the true reason he is determined that they pursue it is so that he can finally spend some long-overdue quality time with his daughter.
Murray never hits a false note in “On the Rocks,” and he moves between the comedic bits and the more reflective moments with such effortlessness and agility that it may take additional viewing to realize just how good and deep his work is here. Murray has long slipped beyond his status as a mere comedic icon to become one of the most fascinating American actors working today and “On the Rocks” contains some of the very best work of his career. (Peter Sobczynski)
Yuh-Jung Youn as Soonja in “Minari”
On the surface the grandmother who veteran Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn plays in director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” defies conventions attributed to motherly figures. She is not baking cookies or being overly saccharine, but instead drinking Mountain Dew and watching wrestling. Youn portrays such a cavalier attitude, born out of endured pain throughout her life, with wide-eyed glee.
Her grandson David (an adorable Alex S. Kim) makes his disappointment with her behavior clear. Yet, she fulfills her granny duties in the ways that matter most: being a loving accomplice to her grandchildren’s mischief. The rest she doesn’t take too seriously.
Likely a new name for most viewers stateside, Youn has an extensive career in her homeland, including multiple collaborations with acclaimed auteur Hong Sang-soo. Through her playful dynamic with Kim and the story’s turns into misfortune, the seasoned performer makes her first appearance in an American film a lesson in sharply turned range and mostly non-verbal expressiveness. What starts as an endearing performance for some delightful laughs morphs into one of wounding impotence, sadness, and guilt.
Arriving as the film’s central family struggles to acclimate to the heartland, Youn’s character lends the home a binding force. She’s crossed the globe to be with them. As she teaches little David how easy it is to grow minari, an herb traditionally used in Korean cooking, what she is actually planting is the notion that it’s not where they are or what they do that matters but the gift of being together. In Youn’s sincere, and sometimes devilish smile, and later her mournful eyes, the language of heartfelt care for others comes across unencumbered. (Carlos Aguilar)
Cooper Raiff’s performance in “Shithouse” isn’t necessarily from a fully realized actor, or person. In many scenes, he’s out-acted by his co-lead, Dylan Gelula, an actor with quite a few more credits to her name. But instead of being a dramatic showcase, “Shithouse” opts to be a display of empathy, humanity, and growth, with those qualities resting on Raiff.
Taking on writing, directing, and lead acting responsibilities, Raiff, in his early 20s, crafts a movie that’s uniquely his own, drawing from personal experience, giving a level of honesty missing from most films. Playing a version of himself in Alex, an aimless 19-year-old struggling in his first year of college who’s thousands of miles away from home, Raiff offers a tender look at the pangs of maturation, of needed development, and of young love. Following Alex’s night as he goes to one of his first college parties and connects with his RA, Maggie (Gelula), the film allows Raiff to present himself bare to the viewer, a portrait of a lost, nervous kid searching for some semblance of glue to hold him and his life together.
Every look and emotion sprayed across Raiff’s face, which he rarely hides, is authentic, seemingly the best word to describe “Shithouse.” He doesn’t need to be the best actor in Hollywood, or even in his film, for the performance to matter and to resonate. Instead, he provides wit and heartbreak, laughter and loss, and the ability to send nine messages on Instagram without looking creepy. Raiff almost makes you miss having your heart broken. He’s the only actor for the role, and with him soaking up the screen, fittingly next to Gelula, the film doesn’t need to be fully realized to be important. “Shithouse” and Raiff are intertwined, and that connection leads to one of the year’s most honest performances. (Michael Frank)
Perhaps it’s inevitable she’d end up on a critics list like this: at one point in Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Jessie Buckley literally recites a Pauline Kael essay. She plays the ultimate imaginary friend, mutating into Lucy, Louisa, Lucia, or Ames, going from physicist to poet to cinema student at the drop of a hat. Try to keep up—this actress never breaks a sweat. All on-screen characters walk the line between idea and person, but Buckley’s name-changing heroine makes this tension literal.
Buckley’s work means we’re never able to leave “The Young Woman” in either category. Her endearing curiosity is a constant. She’s really the only light on a dark, snowy road. Even as her character questions everything around her, the actress projects a confidence that cannot be confined. In a sense, the film’s broadest point can be traced back to her performance: we cannot contain our ideas, or lock our fantasies away in boxes. When the time comes, they’ll just walk away.
Buckley doesn’t neglect the details either. Try to forget the way she feeds Jake (Jesse Plemons) cake after dinner. Hang on her every word as she recounts the start of their relationship. Feel the anxiety bubble beneath her polite surface. Kaufman regularly asks a lot of his actors—Buckley must be both unattainable and ordinary. Wait, who cares what she “must” be? In the hands of Jessie Buckley, The Young Woman is. (Jonah Koslofsky)
Not all heroes wear capes. Not all leaders find a microphone. Shaun Parkes plays such a man, Frank Crichlow, in the courtroom procedural “Mangrove”—the first episode of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series. Frank isn’t your prototypical standard bearer of a revolution. He loves gambling, white women, and spicy curry dishes made for a particular palette. He opened the Mangrove restaurant, not as a center for political action, but a warm retreat for good times.
In the opening to “Mangrove,” Frank is the center of a Notting Hill universe that’s under duress from the police. Parkes fashions an impeccable West Indian accent, and imbues Frank with the energy of a man who’s just plain fed up with the harassment. See, the racist police force, through frequent raids, have been targeting his restaurant because it’s a safe haven for West Indian culture. Frank takes it upon himself to protect his employees, often intervening in extralegal police harassment. Parkes shepherds McQueen’s deliberate story to the inevitable clash between protestors and police. “Mangrove” tells the entire life story of a beleaguered man, a man all-too familiar with police abuse, just by way of his impenetrable eyes.
Parkes, however, has his best moments when the axis of the film tilts away from him. When the story shifts from the cozy restaurant to the imposing courtroom, where he and the eight other defendants in the Mangrove Ninetrial, defend their right to protest. In these scenes, Parkes becomes the icy moon that orbits Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby’s molten defense. Frank is at times a shouty role, one where fury froths at the top, yet fear settles at the bottom. Though Wright and Kirby are given the most heroic speeches, when the time arrives for a verdict to conclude the arduous trial, McQueen’s lens fixes itself on Parkes. A steady zoom, which captures the words “innocent,” sees a lifetime of anguish, rage, and hurt dissolve Parkes’ solid exterior until his visage is overcome with the quaking of catharsis. It’s a completely lived-in performance from Parkes. A psychology bought that’s as fulfilling as the Mangrove’s mutton curry. (Robert Daniels)
It’s unclear how many roles Aubrey Plaza is playing in Lawrence Michael Levine’s “Black Bear,” but floating on the surface of its churning waters is this lone certainty: It’s more than one. She’s the filmmaker descending on an isolated, luxurious cabin in the woods, there to attempt to jump-start a project, or perhaps her own life; the filmmaker is playing a role, too, and the script she’s working from puts those around her on the back foot. Then the film bends. She’s a woman in a red bathing suit, and it’s as if, gazing at her own reflection in the water’s surface, she plunges into its depths and finds a sort of mirror world, all her vulnerabilities and cruelties turned inside out. Then she turns herself inside out, too.
This may sound like a lot of twisty nonsense, an attempt to capture a visceral, disorienting experience in prose. But that’s the kind of reaction “Black Bear” intends, and Plaza’s performance makes that experience all the more unsettling. It’s a towering effort, one of the most fascinating instances of an actor interrogating her own public persona in years, and a searing demonstration of all that Plaza can do. Yes, she’s got a world-class deadpan and a hell of a withering gaze, but the ways in which she can create and destroy are apparently infinite. After all, beneath that watery reflection is another, and another, each refracting and transforming as Plaza cranks up, or extinguishes, the light. (Allison Shoemaker)
In this sprawling coming-of-age Baltimore drama from director Angel Manuel Soto, Mill plays a Mr. Miyagi-type father figure, so much that someone even calls his character that in the movie. His “student” is young Mouse (Jahi D’Allo Winston), a kid at a crossroads between running with a dirt bike gang called the Midnight Clique, or choosing his passion for taking care of animals. Mill’s Blax, who has former ties to the group but now runs a bike shop, gives Mouse the chance to have his own dirt bike, but only provides him the old parts. In the first of Blax’s “Karate Kid”-like lessons, Mouse has to show that he has the determination and focus to build the bike. He is trying to teach him dedication, loyalty; Blax knows the story that can happen to kids like Mouse, and it’s his attempt to prevent a tragic ending.
This is a performance of pure gravitas, with restrained body language and a nearly monotone presence. It is austere to a risky degree, and could have been too inert for a fast-paced movie with zippy dirt bike chases. But it becomes the magnetic expression of a complex character who has chosen a slower, more peaceful life. Blax lumbers around his shop like a man who holds 100 years of wisdom in a 33-year-old’s body, until the events in “Charm City Kings” force Blax to take action, to discipline in his own, non-Miyagi words; Blax speaks with a pained immediacy when trying to get through to Mouse about the second chances that are not afforded to young Black men like him. Like Mouse, you can’t look away from Blax.
Mill comes into the movie with a mega-star presence, as one of the biggest rappers currently in the business. But one does not need to know that kind of background to appreciate his on-screen confidence (his second film role ever), and the rich character that Mill creates with a careful tone of voice, or an unbroken gaze. It is an incredible display of power, fortified without aggression. (Nick Allen)
What does complicity look and sound like in a contemporary context? A lot like Julia Garner’s performance in “The Assistant” as Jane, the titular aide to an unnamed predatory producer in the mold of Harvey Weinstein. Her boss’ behavior casts a chill over the workplace, and Garner makes clear in every minuscule movement that Jane has internalized the toxicity in her bones. Jane’s cautiously shifting gaze seems to at once seek a helping hand and paranoiacally check for surveillance. In a film that eschews flashiness, it’s entirely on Garner to convey her character’s conflict through a pronounced hesitation, a dejected glance, or a rote motion.
In its emphasis on process, “The Assistant” brings to light the cruel irony of Jane’s position. She’s the crucial cog ensuring the machine stays oiled while simultaneously being ground down by a steady accumulation of indignant or indifferent treatment. Jane’s never-ending stream of mundane tasks paradoxically represents both a weight around her neck and her only lifeline in shark-infested waters. She’s a testament to the dispiriting reality that the process for inuring someone to abuse resembles numbing people to the thanklessness of entry-level corporate drudgery.
The day depicted in “The Assistant” is one like any other. But from Jane’s perspective, this might be the day she can summon the courage to do the right thing. Through gestures so subtle they could fade into the hum of the office’s fluorescent lights, Garner quietly grapples with the tensions brewing inside a character who desires life-altering change yet also fights to suppress the expression of that urge by sticking to her anesthetizing routine. Garner’s performance achieves a rare feat where micro-level performance choices reflect back on the macro-level themes of a film without reducing the character to nothing more than an abstraction in the process. (Marshall Shaffer)
In “Mank,” Amanda Seyfried lights up a colorless film as Hollywood starlet Marion Davies. She captures all the familiar traits of a Golden Age, Brooklyn-born actress—the accent, the vocal cadence—but it’s her expressive manner of communication that boosts each of her six scenes, all of which predominately feature cold and powerful men. Director David Fincher works from an archetype by having Marion hold a cigarette or alcoholic drink in nearly every scene, with the implication being that she’s a Tinseltown party girl who conveniently latched on to William Randolph Hearst—the thematic inspiration for Charles Foster Wallace in “Citizen Kane.” However, in Seyfried’s shared scenes with Gary Oldman’s Herman Mankiewicz, she reveals that Marion is much more than an opportunistic good time gal.
Crucially, Seyfried delivers a loose performance in “Mank.” There’s no stress in her shoulders; she sinks into couches and seemingly floats while walking during conversations. In that sense, the actress establishes her subject as an angelic figure, and fully separates her from the stiff, greedy men of “Mank.” Scene by scene, Jack Fincher’s dialogue allows Seyfried to riff on important real-life character information, such as the fact that Davies loaned money to Hearst when his empire collapsed, and that she was indeed quite business savvy. During a climactic confrontation sequence, the angelic subtext comes into play again as Marion asks Mank not to “kick pops when he’s down” by making fun of Hearst in the “Citizen Kane” script. Dressed in all white, Seyfried at once communicates a sense of forgiveness and compassion, but also the strong and confident nature of her subject. Her large, emotive eye always stand out in each role, but she uses them especially well in “Mank” as an empathy machine. For Netflix streamers who may be unfamiliar with Davies, Seyfried’s performance functions as a gateway to truth. (Quinn Hough)
I didn’t particularly like Esther (Zainab Jah) at first. She struck me as a repressive parent whose conservatism and faith was keeping her (and her daughter) from truly seeing and experiencing life. She closes her family off from harmless material pleasures like dancing and insists on sending the family’s precious savings back to the church. Her husband, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), seems more relatable by far as someone who’s had 17 years to embrace life in America. Yet by the film’s conclusion, it struck me that Esther, not her husband, is the tragic heart of the film. As they slowly peel back her defensive exterior, Jah and writer/director Ekwa Msangi turned me around completely on the character.
The immigration story in “Farewell Amor” is divided roughly into three chronologically overlapping perspectives: father (Walter), daughter (Sylvia), and mother (Esther), each one adding depth and nuance to the other. Through it all, Jah earns the most sympathy. She communicates Esther’s sense of loss through her eyes, subtle moments where she looks away with a sense of almost mourning that convey both internal struggle and profound resilience. Through Esther’s eyes, both literally and metaphorically, we learn her reasons for turning to religion after Walter left for New York. There’s a sense that amid the chaos, she clung to structure, whatever form that took, and encouraged her daughter (Sylvia, played by Jayme Lawson) to do the same. Finding Walter living a distinctly non-traditional life in New York throws her sense of order into a new emotional tailspin.
Yet while she excels at projecting sadness, my favorite scenes from Jah are when she allows Esther some joy. At one point, Esther gets fashion help from her neighbor so she can prepare for a date night with Walter. Watching Esther get ready for a nerve-wracking dinner with her estranged husband gives the inescapable impression that she wants to return to normalcy more than anything. We see Esther take a small step away from modesty to appreciate her own beauty in the mirror. Jah allows a brief smile to escape onto her face, telling the whole story of “Farewell Amor” in one fleeting moment. (Soren Hough)
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in “Birds of Prey”
Margot Robbie knows that “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” is a screwball comedy. The ingredients are there: a woman who’s smarter and stronger than men think becomes a dominant, often destructive force of nature. As narrator and one of the film’s primary sources of mayhem, Robbie flings her snappy dialogue as expertly as she wields Harley’s trademark baseball bat. All the while, she gleefully cribs from the queens of that beloved genre of the ’30s; there’s a spritz of Jean Arthur’s comedic sparkle tossed in with a metric ton of Claudette Colbert’s confidence. Quinn’s expressive, heavily made-up eyes are a shout-out to Jean Harlow’s, especially in moments where Robbie is overcome with gleeful mischief. And she’s as unpredictably terrifying as Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby,” except here, Baby is a hyena to whom Quinn feeds one of the many men who underestimate her.
Villains become heroes when they’re allowed to tell their side of the story. Sympathy for the Devil is required, and Robbie has moments where she allows Quinn’s vulnerability to show. Watch her in the climactic showdown with psychotic face-peeler Ewan McGregor. Throughout the film, she’s been outrunning the shadow of her former paramour, “Mister J,” rebuilding her brand and celebrating her independence. And yet, a split-second of doubt befalls her as McGregor taunts that she’s nothing without a man. One of the great things about this performance is the way Robbie’s face telegraphs the gears spinning in her calculating brain. In this particular moment, Quinn silently breaks herself down, then builds a stronger, unbreakable new version.
Robbie is having a damn good time in this role. The joy is infectious. Unlike the film that introduced her, “Birds of Prey” casts a completely different gaze, one that upsets the men in the film as much as it did the fanboys on the other side of the screen. Here, Harley Quinn’s philosophy is “if I have to be candy for the eyes, I’m gonna be a jawbreaker.” (Odie Henderson)