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.
Best Supporting Actor
5. Yahya Abdul-Mateen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Your mileage may vary on many of the performances in Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7; personally I loved Eddie Redmayne and was very turned off by Sacha Baron Cohen. But I would understand if you felt the opposite and have even seen people who do. I don’t think there’s any argument to be made that Yahya-Abdul Mateen as Bobby Seale is anything but great. Sorkin’s script isn’t as interested in Seale, the eighth defendant in the trial, but Mateen does enough with it that it feels like a capper to a great few years (Watchmen, Us, The Get Down) to prove that he can be great no matter the role and no matter the project.
4. Michael Martin, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets
The feux-documentary Bloody Nose Empty Pockets was mostly baffling to me. It’s presented as a documentation of the final night of a Las Vegas dive before it closes down for good, following the bartenders and barflies through rambling conversations and an increasing drunkenness. Only the bar is in New Orleans and the subjects are all acting, or at least pretending. It’s an experiment, but I don’t really know what the hypothesis of that experiment was. Many of the interactions feel hollow, especially with the knowledge of the fictitiousness of the film; except for Michael Martin, playing a lovable former-actor with a deep sadness. There is no main character, but Martin feels ever-present throughout and truly shines when he is at the center of a scene or sequence of scenes.
3. Toby Wallace, Babyteeth
I love a good scummy performance, especially when it has as much heart as Toby Wallace’s performance as Moses in the Australian film, Babyteeth. Moses is a 23-year-old, quasi-homeless drug addict who endears himself to a terminally ill 16-year-old. Somehow, Moses’ genuine nature shines through an entire layer of tattoos and grime and streetrat exhaustion. Wallace is able to walk the wires between menacing and lovable and desperate and loving without it ever feeling jarring or out of place.
2. Chadwick Boseman, Da 5 Bloods
Would it be totally fine for major awards ceremonies to hand Chadwick Boseman a posthumous award for either Da 5 Bloods or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom this year? And would it also be totally fine for me to give him a fake award even if his performance wasn’t my absolute A-number-1 of the year? Yes, and yes, but I’m going to stick to my guns anyway. So, here at #2 for Best Supporting Actor is Boseman’s performance as Stormin’ Norman Earl Holloway in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a long-dead Vietnam infantry squad leader who is only revealed in a series of flashbacks. The vitality that Boseman injects into the film feels essential to its success and, in turn, Da 5 Bloods feels essential to his now-complete filmography.
1. Brian Dennehy, Driveways
Just totally wrecked me. A gentle performance at the heart of a gentle, quietly devastating film. Dennehy, who has since passed, plays the neighbor to Hong Chau and Lucas Jaye’s main characters, staying at Chau’s deceased sister’s house while they clean it out and decide what to do next. Dennehy’s Del is compassionate and understated in a way that is surprising for this character type and yet completely believable.
Best Supporting Actress
5. Mary Holland, Happiest Season
I thought Happiest Season was a very cute and potentially rewatchable holiday film with plenty of flaws; Mary Holland’s role as oft-forgotten middle sister Jane was not one of them. It’s not often that the supporting roles in a light Christmas comedy feel like well-rounded, fleshed-out characters, but Holland — who has carved out a career up to this point with fantastic recurring and guest roles on every great sitcom currently airing — and the script do great work in doing so for Jane.
4. Rachel McAdams, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Maybe I’m just totally in the pocket for Rachel McAdams, but it’s a travesty that she’s done what she’s done in Mean Girls, Morning Glory, About Time, A Most Wanted Man, Spotlight, and Game Night and she’s got just one single Oscar nomination to her name thus far. Granted, most of those roles are not the type the Academy rewards anymore, but I can just imagine Rachel McAdams thriving in old Hollywood in all the comedic leading lady roles that brought stardom and acclaim to actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and Barbara Stanwyck. Eurovision is a goofy movie that reaches for and almost hits the Will Ferrell upper echelon of wacky character-in-very specific niche world, but doing what Rachel McAdams does both dramatically and comedically here is very difficult and gains my utmost respect. In fact, in some aspects its right there with Christina Applegate in Anchorman as the best female role in any of those movies, and in some other respects it surpasses her.
3. Marsha Stephania Blake, I’m Your Woman
Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman moves swiftly up until the appearance of Marsha Stephania Blake’s Teri, and then it just takes off. When she’s on screen, it almost feels like it’s suddenly a different movie and she’s the main character. That’s not to say she doesn’t know how to share the screen; in fact, her presence makes everyone around her better, too.
2. Bel Powley, The King of Staten Island
Sometimes it feels impossible to extricate an actor from a character; not in a Rowan Atkinson is Mr. Bean kind of way, but in a way that makes me question whether it’s the writing or the performance. It’s possible I’m swayed by the writing in my affection for Bel Powley’s Kelsey in King of Staten Island, but based on comparing her screen time to Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, and Bill Burr, I suspect the character’s strengths are significantly deepened by an excellent performance by Powley, as well.
1. Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Honestly, I had Bakalova down as my Best Actress winner until I started researching where she was going to be eligible (supporting for the BAFTAs and every major critic’s organizations, plus slotted in as supporting in most major media outlet’s Oscar predictions). There’s really no way to accurately describe the work that Maria Bakalova is doing in the Borat sequel; it’s not exactly acting and it’s not exactly improv, but it’s just a whole separate level, taking the type of comedic real-world acting that we typically see from Daily Show correspondents and prank callers (and, of course, Sasha Baron Cohen himself) to a feature film level. It’s almost not even fair to compare this to someone reading a script and giving a performance; she has to be spry and intelligent and scathing all while staying in character in the real world without getting second chances. It’s my clear cut favorite film performance of 2020.