We Ranked All 20 Oscar-Nominated Acting Performances

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Justin Kirkland
·9 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

For anyone who is a regular watcher of the Academy Awards, you know that there are four main performing Oscars—Best Actor and Actress, along with Best Supporting Actor and Actress. That obviously allows for more awards and more recognition, but what if they were all together? A real battle royale of acting performances. A) That would probably change a lot about who is nominated because there's always one category where the acting nominees just don't stack up to the rest. B) Even if you kept the four categories, a holistic ranking could make room for, say, a Super Oscar: one where the statuette is platinum or comes with a year's worth of personal pan pizza. Something nice, you know?

We decided, to hell with the rules, we'll make our own super Oscar. So the editors at Esquire took this year's 20 acting nominees and ranked them from worst to best, arguing along the way why we think they deserve that Super Trophy that doesn't quite exist. And while this year's winner will not be receiving a trophy (or the pizzas associated with said trophy), it has allowed us to assess which of these stunning performances could stand the test of time as a truly masterful work of art.

20. Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy

Close has been a perennial favorite to win an Oscar, yet hasn’t quite managed to nab the trophy. In the abysmal outing that was Ron Howard’sHillbilly Elegy, Close is the most digestible thing about it, and yet, that still leaves a lot to be desired. The kitschy makeup and wardrobe pull away from an above average performance. If Close wins the trophy for supporting actress, it’s because she wore them down with a strong body of work. —Justin Kirkland

19. Gary Oldman, Mank

Oldman’s performance as Herman J. Mankiewicz, a man who at the time was about half the age that Oldman is now, is a peculiar one. Yes, in some ways, it has Oscar written all over it (Hollywood loves Hollywood). But ultimately, in the crop of this year’s nominees, the early fawning over David Fincher’s Mank is largely moot. Oldman did a plenty fine job in the role, but there’s simply no comparing his performance to some of the other men nominated. —JK

18. Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Stanfield gives his everything to the meaty part of William O’Neal, an FBI informant who partnered with the government to murder Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Increasingly conflicted about his treachery as he grows ever more deeply embedded with the Panthers, Stanfield’s O’Neal is a live nerve, caught between morality and self-interest. —Adrienne Westenfeld

17. Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal

Capturing the journey of a musician quickly losing his hearing is a difficult task, but Riz Ahmed rises to the occasion, in a role that helps shed light on the deaf community. Sound of Metal is about the grief, struggle, acceptance, and reclamation a drummer must go through when the sense of sound is no longer available to him. Vulnerable as they come, Ahmed’s only fault is that he’s nominated alongside a group of powerhouse actors. —JK

16. Steven Yeun, Minari

Steven Yeun brings a vulnerable grit to his performance as the patriarch in Minari. Fighting to provide food and shelter for his family throughout the film, Yeun’s Jacob struggles—in his relationships, with his crops, and with nature itself—but the depth he brings to the role allows for tenderness to coexist with all the pain. Yeun delivers a performance that conveys, all at once, the wonder, devastation, and elusiveness of the American Dream—and that’s no small feat. —Lauren Kranc

15. Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman

The opening 30 minutes of Pieces of a Woman are enough to nominate Kirby for every award imaginable. Playing a woman who loses her child minutes after birth, Kirby is the incredible player in an otherwise unpalatable film. That makes the performance a bit harder to judge, but Kirby’s exquisite distance and pain shines through the rest of the film’s issues, making her performance an undeniable success. —JK

14. Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami

Listen: Every few years, someone wins an Oscar almost solely because of one grand, shining musical number. Please, for the love of all things Regina King, let it be Leslie Odom Jr.—as the legendary musician Sam Cooke—for his stomping rendition of “Chain Gang.” Or “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Don’t make me choose. —Brady Langmann

13. Paul Raci, The Sound of Metal

Paul Raci’s performance as Joe, a deafened alcohol and addiction counselor in Sound of Metal, is sublime. This is the biggest role in Raci’s 40-year career, and it’s one that—as the hearing child of deaf parents who grew up as their “conduit to the hearing world”—felt autobiographical and genuine for him. Joe becomes the emotional heart of the film, all because of Raci’s incredible performance. —Anna Grace Lee

12. Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday

There’s a necessary talent required to (accurately) portray someone from history. The look, the essence, and the voice are all necessary. It’s a whole other beast to do so via song. (None of this is accounting for the fact that this is only Day’s third movie and her first leading role.) Day’s ability to channel the spirit of Billie Holiday and bring her journey with drug use (and the feds) to life is one of the year’s most hauntingly beautiful portrayals. —JK

11. Sacha Baron Cohen, Trial of the Chicago 7

Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of The Chicago 7 brings heart and humor into the film just when audiences need it. Even with the somewhat iffy Massachusetts accent, Cohen’s comedic timing kicks in perfectly with every zinger. Plus, in the film’s more tender moments—like when Hoffman tells Tom Hayden he reads everything Hayden writes—Cohen strikes the right note of honesty mixed with humor. —AGL

10. Amanda Seyfried, Mank

We’ve been sleeping on Karen from Mean Girls for far too long. While Mank isn’t the liveliest of all the films in contention this year, Seyfried’s performance makes it pop in a way that is difficult to describe. Shot in black and white, she embodies the true essence of a starlet, capturing the distinct tone and aesthetic of Golden Era Hollywood in a glamorous way that makes us question if Seyfried was simply born in the wrong generation. —JK

9. Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

In 10 years, we might just remember Borat Subsequent Moviefilm as the first time we met Maria Bakalova, who played Borat's lipstick-eating 15-year-old daughter, Tuta. When you watch Bakalova—bug-eyed, choking on a baby figurine, gleefully rushing inside a cage she hopes is as big as Melania’s—you’ll feel like you haven't laughed in months. Seriously, Borat’s daughter (and now, obvious heir apparent) wrapped the absurdity, stupidity, and tragedy of 2020 into one shining, chaotic package. Bakalova’s commitment—no, marriage—to the bit makes for a performance worth the upset win. —BL

8. Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

As “The Mother of the Blues,” the inimitable Viola Davis peels back her character layer by layer. First, she brings to life the volatility of Rainey’s diva persona. Then, she embodies Rainey’s sensuality, throwing her body into Rainey’s rhythmic performances. Finally, she digs deep, illuminating Rainey’s fury at the record industry’s racism, as well as her deep conviction to demand what she deserves, whether it’s a Coca Cola or adequate pay. —AW

7. Olivia Colman, The Father

Caregiving is a heartbreakingly difficult feat, especially when it's for a parent. Colman’s performance of a daughter caring for her ailing father with dementia is so layered and thoughtful that it’s nearly too painful to watch. Somehow capturing shades of frustration, sadness, and feigned hope, Colman further proves that she is a living great. And her chemistry with Hopkins is natural. Most performers would shrink in a film with Hopkins. Colman rises. —JK

6. Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah

As the Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, who was assassinated by the FBI at 21 years old, Kaluuya delivers an electrifying performance, inhabiting the young leader’s political convictions while losing none of his human tenderness. Whether he’s lighting a fire under audiences or making eyes at his fiancee, Kaluuya brings every dimension of Hampton to the screen, memorializing a visionary whose life was cut too short. —AW

5. Anthony Hopkins, The Father

Hopkins soars as an elderly man struggling with dementia—his performance so disorientating and heartbreaking that it makes the viewer question their own perception of reality. Fiercely clever, Hopkins' depiction of Anthony is one that can likely only be watched once because it elicits too much pain to ever be voluntarily watched again. It’s a shame that it comes up in a year when Boseman’s turn in Ma Rainey is simply an undeniable masterpiece. —JK

4. Frances McDormand, Nomadland

Nomadland is a tenderhearted, questioning film about the American experiment, in which the sweeping landscape is as much a character as anyone. As Fern, a widowed retiree living a new life on the open road, McDormand is Nomadland’s anchor. Modest, cheerful, and uncompromising, Fern’s hardships bring Nomadland back down to earth. Only McDormand could turn in a performance whose quiet compassion is so revolutionary. —AW

3. Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari

Youn is a powerhouse this awards season, and for good reason. The seasoned South Korean actress gave a tour de force performance as a steely grandmother who bucks all notions of a matriarch, all while managing to steal the heart of one of the greatest films of the year. It’s a career defining performance in a career of excellent performances. —JK

2. Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The late Chadwick Boseman’s final performance is also, inarguably, his very best. In Netflix’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play, Boseman is Levee, a bright but boisterous young trumpeter whose hubris seals his violent fate. Boseman’s performance captures Levee’s insecurity, bravado, and towering fury, sometimes all in the space of sixty seconds. We may have lost Boseman, but we’ll always have Levee, perhaps the greatest distillation of Boseman’s gifts. —AW

1. Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is a devastating, brilliant, shocking film, and that’s largely in part to Carey Mulligan’s performance in the lead role. Mulligan channels both unfathomable anger and a deep brokenness in her portrayal of Cassie, a woman who leads a double life in order to avenge the sexual assault of her friend. She conveys, with grace and rage, the scars that never truly fade in a way that only few performers could. —LK

You Might Also Like