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The Best Performances of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

Our team of writers saw around a hundred movies this year, featuring dozens of performances we loved. What’s so wonderful about these particular acting turns is the breadth of style contained within this feature. A festival like Sundance offers an opportunity to see familiar faces reaching a new level as performers alongside brand new names that we think you’re going to remember. This is in no means comprehensive, just a collection of some our faves from Park City this year:

Christopher Abbott in “Possessor”

Christopher Abbott had two fantastic performances this Sundance. While one came in Lawrence Michael Levine’s “Black Bear,” his best arrived in Brandon Cronenberg’s horror flick “Possessor.” In it, he plays Colin, a market research worker whose body and brain is taken over by Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) to carry out an assassination. Abbott spends the first two acts walking through the film’s events as a zombie. A glazed-over expression and dead eyes adorn his visage until the final act, when his emotions and body become unhinged. His work is a transformation, his every minute filled with existential thought in both forms: fear and anger. (RD)

The Arias Brothers in “Blast Beat”

Esteban Arango’s feature debut “Blast Beat” owes much of its success to its stars, the dynamic team of real-life brothers Mateo and Moises Arias. Their performance embodies a tortured sense of youthful angst, loneliness, anger and displacement. Forced to move to the U.S. from Colombia, Carly (Mateo Arias) and Mateo (Moises Arias) find themselves at odds in their new situation. While Carly envisions a great future for himself in the States, his brother wants nothing more than to go back home to his friends. Their anger only adds fuel to the fire burning up their tenuous relationship, and there’s almost no boundary the two won’t push against each other to get back at one another. (MC)

Marquesh Babers in “Summertime

In a movie full of stunning solos and free rhyme soliloquies, Marquesh Babers’ mic drop is one to behold. At first, her quiet character seems destined to remain in the shadows of other charismatic characters. But after consoling one girl struggling with feelings for her ex, Babers’ on-screen alter ego emerges from the flock of 20-some-odd spoken word poets to give an old flame a piece of her mind. With her newfound friends behind her, she confronts the young man who mocked her, who made her believe she wasn’t worthy of love or life with a show-stopping emotional monologue. In this bittersweet lyrical love letter to the City of Angels, Babers delivers the words many of us have only dreamed of lobbing back at toxic past loves or tormentors and emerges the champion. (MC)

Radha Blank in "The 40-Year-Old Version"

“The 40-Year-Old Version” earned Radha Blank the festival's award for Best Directing, but it can’t be overstated how much the directing of herself is an integral part of that achievement. Numerous people take on writing, acting, and starring in a movie and it becomes lopsided—Blank keeps all of her roles balanced and directs herself to numerous jokes that pop, and emotional moments that are entirely of her story’s intricate storyline. Blank has a certain lack of self-seriousness on camera that translates to huge laughs, like when she raps to her friend Archie about white guys with big butts—an early moment that paves the way for more time where Blank's great sense of humor takes center stage. For how clearly thought-out her story is, it’s Blank's performance that makes it all seem like a natural extension of her exciting abilities as a triple-threat entertainer. (NA)

Carrie Coon in “The Nest”

The incredible star of stage and TV gets her best film role to date in Sean Durkin’s long-awaited follow-up to “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and she devours this complex, daring role. As is so often the case, Coon’s work here can be contrasted against what could have been. The role of the American woman dragged to England mostly to satisfy her husband’s vanity could have been played as a wallflower smothered by masculine greed, but Coon finds the simmering anger underneath this complex woman. She refuses to be a trophy wife to a man who’s never won anything, punching back in ways that bring him back to earth. It’s a stunning, nuanced performance from one of our best actors. (BT)

Colman Domingo in “Zola”

Often Colman Domingo has been relegated to character actor. But in Janicza Bravo’s “Zola,” he takes top billing. Here, he plays a violent fly-off-the-handle pimp who acts as the closest thing to the film’s villain. Domingo’s performance relies on code-switching: moving from his authentic smokey suave voice to a high-pitch enraged Jamaican accent. The two extremes could easily turn cartoonish in another actor’s hands, but with Domingo it’s persuasive yet threatening, hilarious yet menacing. To these ends, he furthers the film’s drama and fills out every scene, even as the narrative unravels. (RD)       

Winston Duke in “Nine Days”

With every performance: M’Baku in “Black Panther” and Gabe Wilson in “Us,” Winston Duke has displayed greater and greater range. However, his work as Will in “Nine Days” marks the beginning of a dramatic force. The dichotomy between Duke’s 6’ 5” frame and Will’s clerical circle-rimmed glasses and suspenders, both belies and exemplifies the internal battle within his character. Rage and regret simmers beneath Duke’s often quiet and clinical delivery. And in his final cathartic scene, which involves him reciting Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, Duke flashes every emotion under the spectrum with earnest ease. (RD)   

Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

In Eliza Hittman’s quietly devastating “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Sidney Flanigan plays the film’s lead teenaged character, Autumn, as she faces the impossible task of getting an abortion far from her home in rural Pennsylvania. Flanigan’s performance is flawless. Much of the movie is spent in closeup of her face, watching her as her character receives the devastating news, concentrates on what she needs to do to get help and tries to hide the pain she’s in from almost everyone around her. She’s so painfully restrained, that when the tears finally flow, it feels necessary. There’s a clear picture of heartbreak on her face, but no one else can see it like Hittman’s camera can. It’s the stoic look of a young person forced to grow up quickly. (MC)

Sir Anthony Hopkins in “The Father”

Didn’t you think we had seen everything that Anthony Hopkins could do? It’s no offense at all to a living legend to say that it felt like his range was already well-displayed up on the screen. What’s so remarkable about his work in Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play is how much it feels like we’re seeing another side of this Oscar winner. He’s more vulnerable than ever, willing to breakdown emotionally in ways that feel genuine and never manipulative. It adds to the weight of a story of a proud man succumbing to dementia to consider all of the roles we’ve seen Hopkins play before—all of those proud, stoic men brought down by the weakness of the human condition. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be in the conversation when awards season rolls around again later this year. (BT)

Meek Mill in "Charm City Kings"

Even though it's his second film role ever, Meek Mill has the screen presence of a seasoned titan in Angel Manuel Soto's coming-of-age drama, "Charm City Kings." All of that power is bottled in the restrained physicality of his character Blax, who works on dirt bikes and rides in Baltimore’s dirt bike scene, trying to move past previous actions that sent him to prison. But when he meets Jahi Di’Allo Winston’s Mouse, Mill speaks softly, sparingly, and urgently about the values that he wants a young man like Mouse to take away. Mill always holds a lot of tension in his body language, especially as Mouse starts to rebel against Blax's hard-worn advice. He dispenses Blax’s feelings with precise acts like a thousand-mile stare, as followed by a small drop of the chin, that reveals wisdom beyond his years. (NA)

Elisabeth Moss in “Shirley”

If her work in “Us,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Her Smell” (among many others) hasn’t somehow persuaded you that no one can conjure up a wicked witch more convincingly than Elisabeth Moss, there is perhaps no hope for you. Or maybe you just need to set your sights on Josephine Decker’s upcoming “Shirley.” Here, Moss plays a somewhat fictionalized version of the venerable and controversial horror writer Shirley Jackson, as the author builds a camaraderie with a house guest (Odessa Young) that teeters on sexual attraction and romantic love. As Jackson in a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” setting that feels like an Albee homage, Moss is devilishly seductive, downright intimidating and disarmingly vulnerable as a genius feeling her way through the cracks of dream and reality. Thanks to Moss’ signature fiendishness, you will never see mushrooms or swings the same way again. (TL)

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in "Farewell Amor"

Ekwa Msangi’s “Farewell Amor” is a movie of quiet turbulence. A family has been reunited after 17 years, and yet the occasion is more of a shock to wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). At the center is Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine’s father and husband Walter, who is trying to glue his family back together, while also facing his own indiscretions before his wife moved in. And though the movie focuses on each of their lives, it practically takes after the calm presence of Mwine, who faces these new changes with a certain ease that gives the story a nearly hypnotic rhythm. Everything will be alright in the end, Mwine’s confident and whispery voice seems to indicate. And then when Walter dances at a restaurant, during a dinner date with Jah, it’s a spirited step toward joy. (NA)

Aubrey Plaza in “Black Bear”

It’s always kind of special when a performer is willing and fearless enough to deconstruct their own image and even their personal life. Aubrey Plaza does a bit of both here as a writer caught in a crazy love triangle that then collapses to reveal that this is a very unpredictable filmmaking exercise. She’s clearly something of a stand-in for writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s wife Sophia Takal (also an actress/writer) but Plaza goes a step further, sketching a character who puts up walls with cynicism and sarcasm like so many Plaza characters have before—and then she tears them down. It’s her most vulnerable, stunning work to date. (BT)

Gina Rodriguez in “Kajillionaire”

When you first meet Gina Rodriguez’ Melanie in “Kajillionaire,” Miranda July’s idiosyncratic and sneakily heartrending tale of a Los Angeles family of petty grifters, she is something of an outsider; a bubbly personality in decidedly flamboyant clothes you’re willing to write off as one of the clan’s future victims. But little do you know then that she is about to rise above them all, and even steal the film from the smalltime thieves that target her. As the emotional (and literal) rescuer of Evan Rachel Wood’s much abused Old Dolio, Rodriguez oozes warmth, humor, practical smarts and sensuality, leading the way to a generous finale that feels both like a gift and an urgent lesson in kissing. Rodriguez knows all along that her Melanie is a beautiful soul, strong and angelic in a world surrounded by ugliness. By the end of “Kajillionaire,” she makes you swear by her, too. (TL)

Steven Yeun in “Minari”

Confession: I am still not over Steven Yeun’s unnerving, “American Psycho”-esque performance in “Burning” which, in a just world, should have swept all of that year’s acting awards. For like-minded fans, it will be immensely rewarding to see Yeun back in the narrative film world with a lead role, dropping that poker-faced chill of “Burning” for something deep, nuanced and complex in its emotional shades. In Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” Yeun plays an ‘80s Korean father, moving his family to a farm in Arkansas with the hopes of claiming his own small corner of the American dream. As Jacob, he is both a vision of optimism and pride, as well as a reflection of suppressed masculine vulnerability—layers of character traits Yeun expressively balances with precision, to cumulatively heartbreaking effect. (TL)

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