If I Picked the 2021 Oscars: Best Actor and Actress

Both because of an unprecedented amount of free time and the closure of movie theaters sending more titles to streaming, I was able to watch way more new movies in 2020 than I ever have before. Usually when Oscar time comes around I’ve probably seen between 60% and 70% of the major players. But I’ve seen over 100 movies that came out in 2020, and with a lot of preliminary Oscar pre-cursors and some buzz, I think I’m up over 90% this year. So I wanted to actually make my Oscar picks — not who I think will win but who would definitely win if I was the only person voting. My screenplay picks are here and my supporting actor and actress picks are here.

Best Actor

5. Ben Affleck, The Way Back

This one goes towards casting as much as it does Affleck’s performance. The Way Back is a solid, workmanlike high school sports drama starring Affleck as an alcoholic former basketball star who is called upon to coach his former high school team. It’s a role that Affleck was born to play: a chasm of sadness, a propensity towards anger and masculine facade, and just a little touch of heart. 

4. Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Both Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are excellent as the co-leads of Judas and the Black Messiah, but for some reason, it was Stanfield’s performance that I connected more with. Kaluuya plays Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton: he is fiery and powerful, thundering away during speeches and indignant moments of anger and whispering beauties during moments of solemnity. Stanfield, meanwhile, plays Bill O’Neal, an FBI informant infiltrating Hampton’s organization. It’s the dual nature of Stanfield’s performance that struck me; O’Neal is in way over his head, one of the bad guys who doesn’t always fully realize how much of a bad guy he really is, put in that position by the truly insidious. He’s caught between worlds, and never plays the obvious, weaselly cards that we are used to seeing in a role like this. Both performances were great, but I preferred Stanfield’s. 

3. Cooper Raiff, Shithouse

It’s the crying scenes for me. Allowing yourself to fully cry — not just movie-cry but actually, truly break into tears the way you would naturally — seems like both the most difficult thing to do in a performance and the most vulnerable you can allow yourself to be. In Shithouse, Cooper Raiff plays a homesick college freshman. The movie itself is sort of proof that your first-world problem movie can still tap into genuine emotion as long as it fully understands its position of privilege, allowing Raiff to run the gamut from awkward to apprehensive to deeply depressed. 

2. Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods

Sometimes a really great villain performance can make an entire movie; it’s even better when it’s a less straight-forward binary Disney-style good-and-evil kind of movie and the villain is as much a real person as Delroy Lindo’s Paul in Da 5 Bloods. Paul is an angry, aging Vietnam veteran, a Trump-supporting black man, and contentious father. It’s a huge bowl of traits thrown into a single person that is played with such an authenticity by Lindo that it never feels caricature-ish or calculated. 

1. Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed has long been one of those guys who’s one of the best things about whatever he’s in (Four Lions, Rogue One, Nightcrawler, Venom etc.). And now it seems like he’ll finally get his due with a powerful performance in a movie whose premise seems so obvious it’s a true surprise it doesn’t already exist. Despite this, Sound of Metal doesn’t feel like Oscar bait or even calculated in any other way. It’s not the textbook movie that you’d expect to come out if you sent someone off to make a movie about someone losing their hearing. Ahmed plays Ruben, a drummer in a hard rock band who begins going deaf and has to figure out how to deal with it, with all the emotion, rage, and authenticity that this character demands and then some. It’s probably either my favorite or tied for my favorite acting performance of the entire year, any category. 

Best Actress

5. Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs

Cristin Milioti’s inherent charm is such that when everyone was worried that eight years of Ted Mosby hyping up how great his wife (How I Met Your Mother’s titular mother) was would lead to disappointment when we finally met her, Milioti somehow pulled it off. Having then followed her to the underseen, cancelled-too-soon sitcom A-to-Z, I was concerned she might fall through the cracks, but a recurring role on Fargo and a strong, leading role in a great Black Mirror episode helped it feel like she was still around, and now, with any justice, Palm Springs should vault her into the lead roles she deserves, whether it’s film or television, comedy or drama. Palm Springs is an Andy Samberg comedy, but with a tone that is much more grounded than most Lonely Island productions, and a big part of that is Milioti’s performance as Sarah, the maid of honor trapped inside a time loop repeating her sister’s wedding day over and over again. She’s hilarious without ever feeling like a wacky sketch character and brings genuine pathos to the entire affair.

4. Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things

It takes a full-on operatic ballet performance for the parts of I’m Thinking of Ending Things that don’t feature Jessie Buckley to remain as compelling as the parts that do. Even when you can’t fully parse what’s happening in this dense Charlie Kaufman movie, Buckley is somehow reaching out her hand to try and drag you along. And then later, when you are more clued into the movie and its wavelength? Her character and performance remain the most compelling aspect, only deepened by certain realizations. 

3. Frances McDormand, Nomadland

Going into Nomadland, I could only wonder if McDormand was too big a star and persona that I would be able to accept her as a van-dwelling modern-day American nomad. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience, but it fully worked for me. It helps that said persona is pretty hard-nosed and independent; almost like if she wasn’t a famous actress she just might be travelling the country, moving from job to job, and making friends along the way — and that there’s still a chance she might even after becoming a famous actress. 

2. Sidney Flanigan*, Never Rarely Sometimes Always

I know that much older performers play teenagers all the time, but I was truly surprised when I learned that Sidney Flanagan, who plays the 17-year-old Autumn in Eliza Hittman’s understated drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, was, in fact, 22. It’s not just the look — she so thoroughly inhabits the character and all of her colliding maturities and immaturities that it hadn’t even occurred to me that she was that far removed from her character, even if it only is 5 years. 

*Flanigan uses the pronouns she/they, so while we can dream of a day when acting performances and awards are defined less by the gender identity of the performer than by the quality, for now I’ve slotted Flanigan in as a lead actress, as have most major critics association awards.

1. Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Everything about Cassie, the main character of Promising Young Woman played by Carey Mulligan, screams unlikable on its face: she’s bitter and angry and difficult to have a conversation with. She oozes contempt in every interaction that she has in her day-to-day life. But there’s something there that keeps her from being a miserable watching experience, and it’s not just the sympathy points that she gets when we learn of the depth of her trauma and the reasons behind her actions. It’s something that comes from Mulligan herself. This is a character at the center of a revenge fantasy wrapped around a rom-com who behaves in monstrous ways when looked at through the lens of the latter. None of these tone swings and acidity and fantastical-but-somehow-grounded plot would work without Mulligan’s alternately charming and terrifying performance at the center of it.

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