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2020 IN FILM: Best Actress in a Leading Role

Updated: Jun 19

Best performance by an actress in a leading role

Vasilisa Perelygina

Viktoria Miroshnichenko

These two actresses gave the performances of the year in Russian director Kantemir Balagov's second feature "Beanpole". Set in Leningrad just after the conclusion of the Second World War, when the horrors of the siege are being replaced by the more mundane horrors of post-war austerity and the realities of life under Stalin (a seminal scene involves an adorable little boy who, when asked to bark like a dog, looks around with a quizzical expression - he has never seen or heard a dog, all were eaten during the first few weeks of the siege). Miroshnichenko plays Iya who, because of her tall blond stature, is nicknamed "Beanpole", a nurse who was sent back from the battlefront because of a head injury and PTSD (she suffers from seizures). Perelygina plays Masha, her best friend who stayed at the front and had to prostitute herself to survive. The little boy is Masha's, but since she has not yet returned, Iya pretends that the little boy is her son. After a heartbreaking accident (very tough to watch) and Masha return, Balagov traces the relationship between these complex and deeply wounded souls with dignity and grace, meanwhile getting astonishing performances from his two remarkable leading ladies, both making their film debuts.

Best performance by an actress in a leading role
Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sidney Flanigan

Director/writer Eliza Hittman's third film "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" is a beautifully realized piece of filmmaking and major step forward from her previous movie, the flawed but interesting "Beach Rats". Set over a three day period, it follows 17-year-old Autumn Callahan (Flanigan) who, having confirmed that she is pregnant, journeys from her home in rural Pennsylvania, with her cousin (Talia Ryder), to New York to have an abortion (she is unable to get an abortion in her native state without parental consent). The film's matter-of fact realism jives perfectly with Flanigan's supremely self-composed performance. When, while answering a questionnaire (the questionnaire that gives the movie it's title) with her adviser at the abortion clinic in NY, she finally shows the emotional fissures that we sense she has been keeping in check since the opening scene, it's like a seismic jolt. There is also a beautiful rapport between Flanigan and Ryder. With small gestures and eye contact they convey the bond of cousins who have witnessed and experienced the same ups and downs of familial life, in a small town, for many, many years.

Best performance by an actress in a leading role.
The Nest

Carrie Coon

Carrie Coon gives a supremely confident and, hopefully, star-making performance in Sean Durkin's superb second feature "The Nest" (following "Martha Marcy May Marlene") as the American wife of an expat British entrepreneur (a superb Jude Law) who moves his family from New York to London, with less than stellar results, in the 1980s of Reagan and Thatcher. Having become accustomed to the finer things in life during their time together, she now senses, for the first time, that her marriage is failing. Coon commands every scene she's in, reaching a crescendo of great acting at a party, where, she realizes that her husband has lied to her.

Best performance by an actress in a leading role

Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand's face stays with you for a long, long time after you've seen Chloe Zhao's haunting "Nomadland". This is, of course, the way it should be since McDormand's character, a woman who has lost her husband, her home, her job and even her town and is now a "nomad" living in her car, is a woman of few words who prefers to let others do the talking. The vast majority of her shots are reaction shots. No matter. With minimal dialogue this great actress can convey her thoughts and emotions with her eyes alone. Based on a non-fiction book and, like the director's previous offering "The Rider", "Nomadland' has a strong documentary feel. With the exception of a very fine David Strathairn as a fellow "nomad", the rest of the cast are non-professional and they have the majority of the dialogue. But it's McDormand's movie. There is one amazing tracking shot where she seems to looks us straight in the eye (see image above) and "say" "I got this one! "

Best performance by an actress in a leading role
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Viola Davis

Ma Rainey w