Best of 2020: Top 10 Movie Characters

2020 was not a great year for movies, or indeed movie-watching. As we’ve already covered this week, several studios spent the year buffing up 2021’s release slate instead. But as long as there are new films trickling out, there will be characters from those films that stick in the memories of those who watch them on a screen. If anything, lower-quality and/or lower-budget movies are more likely to have characters that stand out from their surroundings, so this list wasn’t as difficult to put together as I thought it might be.

A quick note: Here in Australia we get Soul and Wonder Woman 1984 today and tomorrow respectively, so they sadly won’t be able to count for this list if they are hiding a cool character or two.

Also there will be some unavoidable but minor plot spoilers in this one.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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10. Black Canary – Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t the ensemble movie that it could have been, which I say is to its detriment – but then again I’m not the world’s biggest Harley Quinn fan. The movie barely manages to tell two coherent DC stories in parallel, but the fact that it does get there is hugely down to the enthusiasm of its cast. On the non-Quinn side of the narrative is the Renee Montoya sick-of-this-shit police tale, which contrasts perfectly with the hilariously awkward wannabe-baddass Huntress (who almost made this list). But if not for the committed performance of Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Black Canary, it’d all fall apart. With a compelling set-up, a handful of cool action beats and one of the most novel approaches to a superhero arc I’ve seen in a film, it’s a shame she doesn’t get more of the spotlight throughout.

9. Roy – Palm Springs

I had absolutely no idea J.K. Simmons was in holiday-themed time loop caper Palm Springs before I caught it’s late digital release down here in Australia. So I was absolutely thrilled when he popped up in what I thought was a cameo, resplendent in full military camouflage paint. Then the movie reveals more of its central premise, and it turns out the versatile star has a whole lot more to do in his role as the gruff, vengeful Roy. A cameo this sure ain’t, as Roy needs to simultaneously sell a laundry list of outlandish visual jokes and one of the finale’s key theme-capping monologues.

8. Illyana/Magik – The New Mutants

Anya Taylor-Joy’s star has just risen and risen in the three years since she filmed The New Mutants, and in a post-Queen’s Gambit world it’s hard to see her playing a role as obviously YA-adjacent as Illyana Rasputina. The classic high school bully head bobs are here in full force, but Taylor-Joy is game enough for all of it so it just escapes being cheesy. Illyana commands every claustrophobic room she’s in – albeit among a cast of introverted trauma victims – until the machinations behind all the razor-sharp teen edge are revealed and she quite literally flies above everyone else.

7. Fletcher – The Gentlemen

There’s no way I couldn’t have Hugh Grant’s most against-type role in a very long time (maybe ever?) on the list this year. The middle-aged British proto-Michael-Cera sheds the posh affects for which he is so famous and goes as sleazy as possible for the role of Fletcher, the sneaky slimeball with a mousy voice, an elaborate money-making scheme, and vast – but finite – reserves of patience. Grant has rarely played virtuous characters in his career, but he has a talent for making them likeable anyway; there is absolutely nothing likeable about Fletcher and therein lies the strength of the guy’s performance.

6. Xianniang – Mulan

I wasn’t joking about characters standing out from mediocre surroundings. The criminally underused – and still often misused – witch from the live-action Mulan remake is one of the few new elements introduced into the classic that shines under the avalanche-like weight of shoehorned throwbacks. In an alternate cut of the movie that actually committed to a fresh take on the Chinese legend, Xianniang’s scorned dark mirror of our protagonist may have stolen the movie. As it stands, she has only the best action shots of the whole prodcution, a kickass costume and a simmering disdain that pierces through the hazy CG filters lining every shot.

5. Millie – Freaky

If you haven’t seen Freaky, this entry is probably the easiest character to imagine making an impression. Vince Vaughn plays a serial killer, and then he plays the teenage girl with whom he accidentally swaps bodies. There’s a scene where he has to do a cheerleading dance to prove to his friends he is still that girl inside, and he absolutely sells the heck out of it. Ditto for an awkward teen romance sequence and a constant stream of reaction money shots. The almost-2-metre-tall giant nails the scary and the hilarious in equal measure, and yes, you should go watch this movie at your earliest convenience.

4. Marion Davies – Mank

The only character on this list attached to any kind of Oscar buzz (as far as I’ve seen anyway – the Oscars are still happening right?), Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of real-life Citizen Kane reference Marion Davies seems to have more significance than I can appreciate, because I’ve actually never seen Citizen Kane (and you can’t make me… at least not right now). But from her very first warm and boisterous welcome atop a pile of logs twenty minutes into David Fincher’s Mank, it’s clear she is going to be a lot of fun to watch. The woman Seyfried plays supposedly had her reputation destroyed somewhat by Kane, but the Davies of Mank is far from the airhead that movie supposedly made people believe she was. All-up she is barely in the movie, but most of her screentime sees her go toe-to-toe with the loud and egotistical title character. Look out for plenty more ‘serious’ Seyfried roles in the near future.

3. Dr Robotnik – Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic the Hedgehog is not quite the train smash that it easily might have been (especially had it not redesigned its garish CGI main character), but excelling in the realm of videogame movie adaptations is not exactly a prize-worthy achievement, so the fact that Jim Carrey decided to make this his long-awaited, never-guaranteed return to rubber-faced bellowing slapstick allows the performance to stand out even more. There isn’t a single scene Robotnik is in that doesn’t well and truly belong to him, and not just because of the comedy: Carrey even manages to lend a bit of scary competence to the traditionally dogged Sonic supervillain at times. Welcome back, Jim.

2. Raymond – The Gentlemen

Yep, two characters from The Gentlemen – and yep, it did come out this year – look it up. I have seen a fair few Charlie Hunnam roles in my time, and almost all of them feel poorly executed and/or straight-up miscast. One of my biggest reservations when I heard Guy Ritchie was returning to his gangster roots with a stellar cast was Hunnam’s name on the poster – but I was just so happy to be wrong. The no-nonsense straight man Raymond seems to ground the many colourful characters orbiting the convoluted gambit pileup of a plot simply by interacting with them, and Hunnam does an incredible job with the role – but then we get to see what Raymond can do, what he truly knows, and where he’s willing to go – and then Hunnam’s potential is finally matched with a good role.

1. Snowball – The Hunt

The Hunt is a fascinatingly weird movie that swings for the fences on a number of counts and doesn’t really connect on any of them – except for one. I can’t remember a movie in the last several years that turned an unfamiliar actor into a must-watch faster than The Hunt, because Betty Gilpin’s turn as the enigmatic Snowball starts well and only grows more magnetic as the plot sprints forward. What could easily have been a cliched underestimated-action-girl-with-a-gun turns into a unique enigma in Gilpin’s hands: all inconsistent long pauses, forlorn jaw curls and visible gear-turning strategy. You are never quite sure what Snowball will do next, but you somehow know she’ll be several steps ahead of the idiots around her. It’s a performance that almost makes the movie worth watching all on its own. Almost.

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Honorable Mentions

–Felix – On the Rocks

It’s Bill Murray, with a script that lets him free to do Bill Murray things. Of course he’s on here.

–Abbie – Trial of the Chicago 7

It was the year he also brought Borat back, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s standout character was probably the reality-inspired Abbie Hoffman – initially for his ability to bring laughs to an otherwise both dull and tragic setting, but also because he turns that levity to the benefit of the film’s message with real unexpected power.

–The Blissfield Butcher – Freaky

The other half of Freaky‘s central body-swap gimmick is brought chillingly to life by Kathryn Newton, especially in a killer shot that turns the cliched makeover slow-mo on its head. It’s a shame there aren’t a lot of places for her to go with the character afterwards, though.

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