We’re obliged to open any 2020 retrospective with the acknowledgment that this was a monumentally awful year. And it was. But there were a bunch of talented performers and creators who managed to make it slightly less awful with their awards-caliber performances, game-changing creations, and, in one case, by contributing to the cure of the very thing that caused this awful year. (Did we mention how awful this year has been?). These are the people who gave us reason to cheer, scream, and smile – under our masks – in 2020.
Between Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s no questioning Elisabeth Moss’ prestige TV prowess. And although she’s worked in indie films for years, her TV work has always overshadowed her big-screen career — despite starring in dozens of movies since childhood, including 12 Certified Fresh films in just the past decade alone. But in 2020, a year when the film industry has been crippled by a pandemic, she managed to break out in two roles — the Shirley Jackson biopic Shirley, which won a Special Jury Award at Sundance for director Josephine Decker and was released on VOD in June, and the Leigh Wannell horror remake The Invisible Man, which, even in a stunted theatrical run (it came out February 28, just before most theaters shut down worldwide), grossed $134 million worldwide on a super-small budget and earned raves for Moss’s performance. A third, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, has been delayed until 2021. Between that, the delayed fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Taika Waititi’s soccer comedy Next Goal Wins (which could potentially hit screens next year as well), it appears the end of Moss’ reign is nowhere in sight.
(Photo by © Netflix)
In terms of criminally overlooked performances over time, Delroy Lindo is the king. Despite starring in Spike Lee classics like Malcolm X, Crooklyn, and Clockers, plus a slew of box office and critical hits including The Cider House Rules and Gone in 60 Seconds — all while maintaining a healthy theater career — Lindo has been recognized by just two national awards bodies: the NAACP Image Awards and the Satellite Awards. It appears that will change thanks to his breakout performance in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which has already earned him Hollywood Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle awards for Best Actor and is one of the most talked-about contenders in the Oscar conversation. Critical consensus is that his performance as a vet who returns to Vietnam with his buddies is his career best, which is saying a lot. And that’s not even taking into account his stellar run on The Good Fight, the CBS All Access Good Wife spin-off that has emerged as one of the sharpest political satires on television. Up next: Netflix drama The Harder They Fall with fellow 2020 breakout and Da 5 Bloods star Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield, and Regina King.
(Photo by Eddy Chen/HBO)
The transition from Disney star to adult actor doesn’t come easy for everyone, but as soon as Zendaya landed the role of MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming it was clear the onetime K.C. Undercover star was destined for grown-up stardom. The one-two punch of Homecoming and The Greatest Showman put her on Hollywood’s radar, but it was the 2019 release of parental nightmare/visually stunning experiment in televisual format Euphoria — and her subsequent Emmy win, which came this year — that brought home just how talented she is. Ever the overachiever, while the rest of us were deciding which pair of sweatpants we’d wear, she shot an entire film in six days in June — the romance Malcolm & Marie with John David Washington, one of the first pandemic-produced films that will be released February 5 on Netflix following a bidding war. With a new season of Euphoria on the way, some just-released and critically acclaimed Euphoria specials, a little film you might’ve heard of called Dune, and another Spider-Man sequel, Zendaya is poised to cement her household name in the year to come.
With expressive, piercing brown eyes like that, it’s no wonder that Anya Taylor-Joy’s first major roles were as haunted teenagers in horror films like The Witch and Split. But in 2020, Taylor-Joy proved her versatility — while still mesmerizing audiences — as a 1960s chess prodigy in the Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit (the streamer’s most popular scripted limited series ever), as Jane Austen heroine in Emma., and as an angsty Russian teen superhero in the much-delayed X-Men film The New Mutants (who, yeah, was kinda haunted by her past). Up next: Edgar Wright horror film Last Night in Soho, The Northman with Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgard, Willem Dafoe, and Ethan Hawke, and the Mad Max: Fury Road prequel, in which she’ll play a young Furiosa.
(Photo by Lacey Terrell / © Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Anyone who saw Ingrid Goes West or FX superhero mindf–k Legion knows that Plaza’s skills go way beyond sarcastic sitcom sidekick (no disrespect to Parks and Recreation). In 2020, Plaza earned raves in two Certified Fresh films. First for her performance in meta-drama Black Bear, a trippy rumination on filmmaking and art, and second, for quietly stealing gay holiday rom-com Happiest Season. As an understanding and compassionate ex who befriends her high school sweetheart’s new girlfriend, Plaza’s chemistry with Kristen Stewart inspired many viewers to posit that — spoiler alert! — they should’ve ended up together in the end instead.
(Photo by CHRISTOS KALOHORIDIS/NETFLIX © 2020)
From his Oscar-nominated role as a pregnant teen in Juno to a critically acclaimed turn in Netflix superhero series The Umbrella Academy, Elliot Page has always had star power. Page’s performance in particular was singled out in reviews praising the second season of Umbrella Academy, which was one of Netflix’s biggest shows of the summer. But after revealing his transgender identity via a heartfelt social media post in late 2020 — “I can’t begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self,” he wrote — it’s clear the best is yet to come now that he’s publicly living his true identity. “I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more I dream, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive,” he wrote. Netflix updated the actor’s credits within hours of his announcement, and also sent a message of support (and confirmation that he’ll be back for Umbrella Academy Season 3) via its official Twitter account.
(Photo by © Amazon)
Sacha Baron Cohen has never stopped skewering celebrity culture, hypocritical politicians, and hate, even after the public at large became hip to what he was doing as characters Ali G, Borat, and Bruno. He spent a few years proving his acting chops were legit (notably in 2012’s Les Misérables and 2019 limited Netflix series The Spy) before returning to the undercover satire world with the series Who Is America?, and in 2020 he had the best of both worlds: his long-gestating Aaron Sorkin political drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 finally hit screens (albeit small ones, as the Paramount film sold to Netflix during the pandemic), and he debuted the headline-grabbing sequel Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, which exposed more of the ugliest sides of American life.
(Photo by Steve Wilkie/PopTV)
In a year full of terrible things, it felt extra euphoric to watch the cast of Schitt’s Creek — a sitcom about good people trying to do their very best and be kind to each other — sweep all of the major categories at the Emmys. The series grew exponentially via word of mouth (and Netflix), resulting in a 100% Certified Fresh final season, record-breaking Emmy wins for each of the series’ leads (co-creator father/son team Eugene Levy and Dan Levy, plus their TV family Catherine O’Hara and Annie Murphy), and presumably a wide open checkbook for whatever the cast wants to do next. Murphy’s set to star in the buzzy AMC dark comedy Kevin Can F*** Himself, skewering the typical subservient sitcom wife role; Dan Levy has a deal with ABC Studios to develop new shows, starred alongside Bette Midler, Sarah Paulson, Issa Rae, and Kaitlyn Dever in the HBO special Coastal Elites, and also stole scenes in Hulu holiday rom-com Happiest Season; and Eugene Levy and O’Hara are Canadian treasures who could do no wrong before, but are essentially Canadian royalty at this point.
(Photo by James Minchin/Amazon Prime Video)
Amazon’s irreverent superhero series The Boys debuted to positive reviews in 2019 — the first season was Certified Fresh, after all — but the meta action comedy made an even bigger splash when it debuted amid a worldwide pandemic in 2020. Season 2 of the series is Certified Fresh at 97%, though you might not know it from the reviews on its own platform. It turns out that fans were so vocal about wanting new episodes ASAP that they sank the series’ rating because they were unhappy with the new weekly rollout plan (even though it also came with a dedicated weekly aftershow hosted by Aisha Tyler). Still, with a sharp take on toxic masculinity, jingoism, and flagrant abuse of power, a third season set to begin filming in early 2021, and a spin-off in development, it’s clear the large ensemble cast (including Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Antony Starr, Erin Moriarty, Dominique McElligott, Jessie Usher, Laz Alonso, Chace Crawford, Karen Fukuhara, Tomer Capon, and more) is poised for even more super moves in the future.
Dolly Parton’s history of philanthropy is established and relatively well-known: she started a childhood literacy program that sends books to kids every year through age 5, she created a fund to help families devastated by Tennessee wildfires, and she funds multiple scholarships. But in 2020, in addition to playing a guardian angel in an original movie musical she wrote for Netflix, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, she was also kind of a literal angel in that she donated $1 million toward Covid-19 research at Vanderbilt University that helped fund the development of the groundbreaking Moderna vaccine, which was approved for emergency use by the FDA in late 2020. Jolene better watch her back, because who knows what good Dolly will bring to the world in 2021.
The Emmys may have snubbed him – nope, all these months later, we still aren’t over it – but we’re giving the man behind Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill his due as one of the class of stars who absolutely owned this year. If it wasn’t enough that he delivered his richest work yet in Better Call Saul, or that the show has evolved to a point where some say it is matching – or even surpassing – the series from which it was spun off, but he also managed to appear in Little Women (OK, technically 2019, but many people discovered it this year), and break the Internet with the trailer for Nobody, the good-suburban-dad-turns-John Wick action extravaganza that Odenkirk developed himself after reflecting on his experiences with break-ins at his home.
(Photo by David Lee/NETFLIX)
Few things hit entertainment fans quite so hard as the death of Chadwick Boseman in August 2020. With lauded performances as some of the most significant Black figures in American history under his belt – Thurgood Marshall (Marshall), Jackie Robinson (42), James Brown (Get On Up) – and a career-defining role as T’Challa, the Black Panther, in the MCU, Boseman had established himself as one of the most important and versatile actors of his generation. And 2020 kicked off with more evidence of his extraordinary talent, with Boseman stealing scenes in his small-ish role as an American soldier in Vietnam in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. But even his previous work hadn’t prepared us for the powerful turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Netflix’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play in which Boseman stars as an ambitious young horn player alongside Viola Davis. The movie released on the streamer months after Boseman’s death, and many say it might win him a well-deserved posthumous Oscar.
(Photo by © HBO)
Anyone who saw 2019’s excellent The Last Black Man In San Francisco instantly would have recognized Jonathan Majors – who plays a quirky, deeply thoughtful playwright in the film – as a definitive “next big thing.” A year later, well, he’s made good on that thinking. Majors kicked off 2020 with a star turn in Spike Lee’s Vietnam War flick, Da 5 Bloods, and followed that with the lead role in HBO’s Certified Fresh sci-fi horror series Lovecraft Country. (The role earned him both critical acclaim and a devoted Internet fanbase dedicated to the way his arms fill out a period tee.) Mid-year, rumors emerged that Majors was in talks to play Kang the Conquerer in the third Ant-Man film, titled Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania; the casting was confirmed by Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige in December.
(Photo by Patti Perret/Amazon Studios)
Is there a recent year where Regina King would not belong on this list? Still, 2020 was a standout – even by King’s standards. The Oscar-winning actress nabbed her fourth Emmy for her work as Angela Abar/Sister Night in HBO’s critically acclaimed Watchmen, and the win came just weeks after her first feature film as director, One Night In Miami, premiered at the Venice Film Festival. King, who has extensive directing experience on TV series like Shameless and Insecure, made one of the most auspicious directing debuts of recent memory with the film, an adaptation of a play about a fictionalized meeting between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. King earned raves for her work breathing cinematic life into what could have felt stage-bound, and for her guidance of the ensemble cast; she is expected to be a major contender for Best Director when the Oscars eventually roll around.
(Photo by Joshua Richards, 20th Century Studios)
It’s been a big few years for director Chloé Zhao, who caught industry attention with her debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, in 2015, before directing one of the most impressive and moving Westerns of the decade with The Rider. The success of that film, about a young cowboy who must reassess his life when an accident ends his riding career, led to a gig in the MCU – a rite of passage for breakout indie stars, it seems – with Zhao tapped to direct Eternals, an ambitious space saga starring Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiana, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, and Kit Harington. Somehow, in the middle of it all, Zhao managed to find time and creative energy to also make Nomadland, a drama about a woman living in her van, traveling from job to job to survive in post-Recession America, with Frances McDormand in the lead. Many are calling the Certified Fresh film Zhao’s best work to date; expect to see the movies, its star, and Zhao a lot this awards season.
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British director Steve McQueen’s last theatrical release, Widows, was considered a disappointment by some in the industry. Not by the critics, mind: They praised the Viola Davis-led heist flick right to a 91% Certified Fresh score on the Tomatometer. But the movie fizzled at the box office and failed to make a dent in the 2018-19 awards season. In 2020, McQueen came back with his most ambitious and celebrated work to date – and this is a man whose résumé includes Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave. His five-part anthology series (or set of five films), Small Axe, plunged viewers into London’s West Indian community for five distinct stories – some biopics, some based on real events, one an epic celebration of Black joy set at an underground party. Released on BBC in the UK and Amazon Prime Video in the US, Small Axe showed us a filmmaker at the height of his powers, unafraid to take risks and explore the increasingly blurring line between TV, streaming, and cinema.
(Photo by NICK AGRO/AFP via Getty Images)
The maestro behind Disney+’s smash hit The Mandalorian proved he was no one-season wonder when it comes to Star Wars. If anything, the series’ Certified Fresh second season was a richer meal than the first, deepening our connection to Mando and the Child (sorry, Grogu), weaving in new fan-pleasing characters and narratives, and cranking up the action to wild new levels. (It was a genius move to bring in Robert Rodriguez, a perfect pairing with this universe.) In just two seasons of TV, Favreau has done the seemingly impossible, unifying the oft-divided fanbase, and given Disney so much confidence in this new Star Wars direction that they are leaning in heavily with multiple new live-action series in the works, several directly connected to The Mandalorian. And can we talk about that finale?!
(Photo by © Amazon)
British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed delivered two of the year’s most visceral, memorable performances in two films that bear striking narrative similarities. In Mogul Mowgli, which he co-wrote, Ahmed plays a British-Pakistani hip hop artist who is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease on the eve of a European tour and returns to Pakistan to see his family; in Sound of Metal, he plays a heavy metal drummer whose life is turned on its head when he suddenly loses his hearing. Both films are Certified Fresh, and both showcase Ahmed’s abilities as a forceful musician and complex, deeply empathetic actor. In a year where indie films have more of a chance than ever for major awards recognition, Ahmed could find himself in the Best Actor conversation for either role.
(Photo by Columbia Pictures)
Bad Boys For Life Certified Fresh and the biggest film of 2020? Did anyone see this coming? OK, so the box office competition was a little lacking, given that theaters shut down early in the year following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but still, the third Bad Boys film defied industry expectations and showed that stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence remain major draws. And their chemistry was impressive enough for critics to make this the best-reviewed entry in the series. (Bad Boys 4, announced shortly after the success of the 2020 movie, may challenge that accolade when it is eventually released.) The film was the beginning of a very good year for Smith, who reunited with his Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast mates in a reunion special on HBO Max (Fresh at 100%), and with the announcement of Bel-Air, a dramatic one-hour series based on the Fresh Prince concept, which Smith executive produces. NBCU’s streaming service Peacock has given the show a two-season order.
(Photo by Disney+)
Beyoncé’s Black Is King, released on Disney+ in July, proved once again that the music superstar is unrivaled when it comes to shock and awe. The film, a visual accompaniment to her album The Gift, which she curated for the release of 2019’s The Lion King, dazzled viewers and critics alike with its story of a young African prince who works his way through exile back to his throne. Beyoncé wrote, directed, and executive produced the project, which was shot over a year across three continents, and along with being one of the best-reviewed movies of 2020 – Certified Fresh at 95% – it finally gave her the Grammys recognition many feel she’s been unfairly denied throughout her career. Black Is King earned Queen Bey nine nominations for the 2021 Grammy Awards, more than any other artist.
(Photo by Steve Dietl/Netflix)
Her second consecutive Emmy win for her portrayal of foul-mouthed and resourceful Ruth Langmore in Ozark probably would have been enough for us to include Julia Garner on this list. But Garner also blew critics away with her work in The Assistant, in which she plays a fresh-out-of-college assistant to an entertainment mogul who, she slowly realizes, is using his staff to cover up and facilitate his sexual abuse. The incisive, ripped-from-the-headlines #MeToo tale earned Garner the best reviews of her career so far, and could put her in the awards conversation early next year, particularly among critics circles and when the Indy Spirits roll around.
Who won the year for you? Let us know in the comments.