2020 has been a weird, messy year, there’s no denying that. And in many ways, it’s not something we want to relive. But on the other hand, pop culture has changed so much, and in such crazy ways, that it is almost necessary to reflect on the best of the best; on what worked, and what didn’t. And so, while things are certainly going to look different with this year’s Best of 2020 listicles, I believe it’s time we kick things off officially, with the 2020 Entertainers of the Year.
That’s right, it’s time to break down the ten performers who stood out at the top of their craft this year, in as many ways as possible. And after listing those ten, I’ll be naming the official Entertainer of the Year! But before we get into that, we have to talk about some honorable mentions – the folks who had great years (or tried to have, before their films and shows got pushed) that kept us entertained during quarantine. And for whatever strange reason, the 2020 list is as eclectic as you would probably guess. There were actresses who broke out in several great performances, like Ariana DeBose (Hamilton and The Prom), Rachel McAdams (Eurovision, the film and soundtrack), Rashida Jones (Parks and Rec, On the Rocks), Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis (Happiest Season, The Turning, Charlie’s Angels reruns).
Then there’s the comedians who made us laugh, and occasionally cry. Folks like Chris Rock (Fargo, SNL), Jim Carrey (Sonic, SNL) Andy Samberg (Palm Springs, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Never Have I Ever), Tina Fey (Soul, 30 Rock reunion, Kimmy Schmidt), Adam Sandler (Indie Spirit Award for Uncut Gems, Hubie Halloween), and especially Maya Rudolph (Big Mouth, The Good Place, Hubie Halloween, and an Emmy for her incredible turn as Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris on SNL). A handful of ‘90s actors made exciting comebacks, like Will Smith (Bad Boys For Life, Fresh Prince reunion) and Ben Affleck (The Way Back, next year’s Deep Water), while ‘80s actors like Bill Murray, Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, and Frances McDormand all experienced great resurgences (and in Hanks’ case, sojourned us through the pandemic). And who can forget Steve McQueen making not one, but five feature length films, released on “TV” for our thought and entertainment?
And then there are the breakthrough performers – those who used social media during the pandemic to bring us joy in the darkness, and were rewarded for it with breakthrough roles. I’m talking the magnificent duo of Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott, the duo behind Comedy Central’s Ayo and Rachel Are Single whose Twitter profiles made their big screen debuts (Ayo took over for Jenny Slate as Missy on Big Mouth, while Rachel wowed us with Shiva Baby), or Dylan Gelula whose podcast and Twitter profile were almost as funny as her turn in Sh*thouse, or Josie Totah, the trans former child star who managed to create terrifically funny characters on Saved By The Bell and Big Mouth. Hell, I even considered giving nods to Tiger King, Dancing with the Stars, and a future courtroom near you star Carol Baskins, as well as author Henry James whose Turn of the Screw was adapted twice this year, with The Turning and Haunting of Bly Manor. But with all those great performances receiving the announcements they deserve, it’s time to dive right into the Entertainers of the Year! Actually, before we do that, one quick announcement…
Special Mention: Taylor Swift – It feels wrong to include Taylor for a second year in a row. After all, her 2019 seems far bigger, thanks to Lover and Cats and her general domination of conversation last year. But it’s hard to think of this list without her. After all, she released an acclaimed documentary to start the year, had the song become the official theme of a successful Presidential campaign, dropped a top-secret album that changed everything she’d been doing musically for the past ten years of her career, and then dropped a second top-secret album that did it again. That’s a helluva impressive accomplishment in such a short period of time. So I’m giving her a “Special Mention,” acknowledging the year without letting her have a monopoly on my “Entertainer of the Year” lists.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Few actors burst onto the scene in 2020 quite like Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. While his incredible run technically began at the end of 2019 with Watchmen, his breakthrough really didn’t begin until the indie film All Day and a Night last March. From there, his year grew and grew to new heights. His work on Watchmen won him an Emmy last September, where he delivered one of the best speeches of the night. His horror film, Candyman, dropped one of the year’s best trailers and then proceeded to build anticipation online as its release date continued to get pushed (it’s currently slated for 2021). And just as all these boons came to a head, Abdul-Mateen II broke out with the Netflix hit The Trial of the Chicago 7, where his supporting role as Bobby Seale stole the show and sparked Oscar buzz. It is currently unclear if he will receive that nomination – the field is a bloodbath this year. But one thing’s for sure: Abdul-Mateen II was one of the most talked-about stars in 2020, and one of the Entertainers of the Year.
Sacha Baron Cohen
It would be impossible to make this list without Sacha Baron Cohen, who gave us one of the year’s most entertaining performances as well as one of the year’s most important performances. Obviously there’s his impeccable work in The Trial of the Chicago 7, where he portrays anarchist leader Abbie Hoffman with sheer brilliance and charming chaos. But it was his work related to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm that cemented a spot on this list. Cohen quite literally put his life on the line, traveling around the country during a pandemic and outing racists and conspiracy theorists into showing their true colors. Sometimes he found a common humanity – while undercover with two QAnon theorists for a full week, he discovered a love for their fellow man that had been corrupted by Facebook and social media – but mostly, he convinced major political figures to try to bed alleged fifteen-year-old girls. In particular, his work disrupting the anti-mask March For Our Rights with an eight-minute song climaxing in convincing the supposed-”good Americans” to sieg heil and call for the deaths of their enemies was a Twitter phenomenon and significant act of journalism. And let’s not forget the discovery and propping up of the unknown Mara Bakalova, who has received nothing but support since being hand-picked for the film. Whether Cohen receives his first acting Oscar this year, or he chooses to put all his efforts behind earning Bakalova a nomination of her own, one thing’s for certain: he is one of the Entertainers of the Year.
John Krasinski managed to take a very bad event and turn it into something Good. While he was supposed to dominate the early months of 2020 with the sequel to his massive hit A Quiet Place (titled A Quiet Place: Part II), the pandemic resulted in the film changing dates frequently, eventually pushing it into 2021, and leaving Krasinski with nothing to do for a year. Whereas most of us curled into a depressive ball, or took up baking, Krasinski managed to pivot towards a creative outlet designed to keep us all sane. The result was Some Good News, a faux news show made on a shoestring budget (literally – Krasinski’s kids made the title cards on construction paper) and comprising of real-life stories of positivity and hope, a series of interviews and sketches with friends and co-stars like The Rock and Emma Stone, and “güten pranks” on random average joes, including reunions of the casts of Hamilton and The Office to celebrate superfans and newlyweds. Is it kind of disappointing that the free Internet smash of the year got sold out to NBC to eventually get bastardized like Carpool Karaoke? Perhaps. But we don’t have to watch. Some Good News was never about being an entertaining show. It was about John Krasinski throwing together a fun project to not only better his own mental health, but better ours as well. I think that’s enough to warrant a mention as Entertainer of the Year.
When was the last time a director made not just one, but two of the best films of the year? Especially at the age of 63? 2020 may have been the pinnacle of Spike Lee’s career, and I don’t think there are any signs of slowing down. Lee started the year off with his long-promised Da 5 Bloods, a war epic that served as his tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, yet with a Black twist. Lee wove a tapestry of American histories and shortcomings, serving as a mea culpa and attempt at healing, that stands tall with some of the best direction, filmmaking, and acting that he’s accomplished in his career. It’s a major Oscar contender, and Lee himself is poised for his second Oscar nomination. This alone was enough to put him in contention for this list, but then Lee shocked us again. Apparently, Lee secretly teamed up with the great David Byrne for a filmed version of Byrne’s Broadway show American Utopia. The two artists’ styles are nothing alike, and on paper, the combo makes no damn sense. But in execution, Lee’s kinetic filmmaking pairs perfectly with Byrne’s sporadic mannerisms, and Lee uses his cinematic know-how to bring Byrne’s political messages to life in heartbreaking, intellectual detail. Lee has made two near-masterpieces in one year, one by complete surprise, and he is easily one of the most important Entertainer of 2020.
While several people found success in the hellscape that was 2020, I’m not sure any found it with as much shock and happiness as Dan Levy. The son of comedy legend Eugene easily could have rested on the laurels of creating one of the most beloved cult hits of all time in Schitt’s Creek, but not only did Levy decide to push himself one step further, but a series of events no one could have foreseen put his face on every magazine for several months straight. You see, in April, Creek brought its six-season run to an end, delivering some of the best episodes yet. Levy was behind each of them, writing, directing, and starring in several. Then, when the pandemic hit, those first five seasons ended up becoming a massive Netflix hit, dominating their rankings for months thanks to the silly, simplistic joy of Levy’s writing and acting. The show – and Levy – became a surefire Emmys contender. But not only did the show win the Emmy for Best Comedy – it swept the Comedy categories, setting a new record by winning 7/7 awards. Levy himself won four – acting, writing, directing, and producing. Shortly after the historic, memorable sweep, Coastal Elites, a 2020-themed satire about politics and Covid, aired on HBO, to mixed reviews. However, while the film didn’t quite land, one aspect received raving reviews, and received millions of views online: Levy’s sarcastic, yet moving segment as a gay actor describing his journey. And if all that wasn’t enough, Levy became the star of the Christmas season in the romantic comedy Happiest Season, stealing the film as the sarcastic gay friend, and delivering an impeccable monologue in the final act. From TV to film to awards shows, Levy dominated the year, and was easily one of the biggest Entertainers of all of 2020.
Jonathan Majors has spent the last two years exploding onto the scene. Indie fans may recognize him from his terrific performance in The Last Black Man In San Francisco (for my money he was the best part of that film), but after the one-two punch he pulled in 2020, everyone is going to know his name. Majors had his big break when Spike Lee gave him the lead role opposite four legends in Da 5 Bloods. While the story begins with Delroy Lindo’s Paul trying to make amends for his past, it is his son, played by Majors, who brings things to fruition. Majors manages to balance his two most efficient types of roles in Bloods, transforming from hilariously nebbish nerd into triumphant action hero over the course of the film’s runtime. It is a terrific performance, and easily dominated cinema this past year. But Majors didn’t stop there: he took his nerd-turned-hero shtick to television, hoping to conquer its realm as well. And the result, Lovecraft Country, certainly did the trick. Majors carries the show with badass star power, delivering hilarious bits and stoic toughness with equal aplomb. The image of him hanging out a car window and firing upon pursuing racists is one of the most visually pleasing of the year. Between an all-time great film and an all-time great television show, it is hard to imagine anyone having a better 2020 than Jonathan Majors, who more than earns his spot as an Entertainer of the Year.
Megan Thee Stallion
Several albums and records found themselves delayed in 2020, due to the strain on recording and the lack of potential touring locations during the lockdown. Rising star Megan Thee Stallion went a different direction. She dropped not one, but two albums in 2020, both in serious contention for the best music of the year. The first, Suga, was a collection of hits, including a team up with Beyoncé for the hit dance craze “Savage.” The latter album, Good News, was equally perfect across the board, including the infectiously catchy “Body.” The two albums earned her a performance on Saturday Night Live, where she not only became the year’s best musical guest with performances of “Savage” and “Don’t Stop,” but she proved herself a gifted comedian with appearances in the musical parody “Bottom of Your Face” (which she stole) and as a potential Basketball Girlfriend in the “NBA Bubble Draft” sketch. Oh, and did I mention that she also teamed up with Cardi B to craft the best song of 2020 and the best music video? I’m talking, of course about “WAP,” which took the world by storm, pissed off a certain cultural “commentator” and inspired a second dance craze. It’s just a shame we won’t have a chance to hear the song immediately upon release playing in clubs across America. But nevertheless, no artists managed to match Megan’s triumphant 2020, and she’s easily one of the Entertainers of the Year.
It’s sort of a given that Elisabeth Moss is one of our greatest working actresses, and it’s a bit of a shock that she’s never been given a film role that allows her to showcase the range she found in so many fantastic television shows. Thankfully, 2020 may be the year to change all that. Moss began her year with the box office dominating (and last surefire hit) The Invisible Man. What could have been a stereotypical monster flick was transformed into a critical and commercial smash, thanks to Moss’ rewrites and commanding performance. It’s one of those rare horror movies that has legit buzz surrounding it, as Moss is considered a dark horse for the Best Actress race. And speaking of the Best Actress race, Moss also branched out to indie cinema as well, taking on a twisty, complex role as famous author Shirley Jackson. The role makes for Moss’ second awards-worthy role this year, and allowed her to dominate both Hollywood and the indie Sundance scene. And to top it all off, she made an appearance at the West Wing reunion special on HBO Max, reprising her career-making role as fan-favorite Zoey Bartlett. Had her two Oscar-contending films The French Dispatch and Next Goal Wins come out this year, she may very well have been Entertainer of the Year. Alas, Moss will simply have to wait until next year, when she could appear in at least two of the Best Picture contenders. For now, she will simply receive credit from The Sacred Wall for her incredible contributions in 2020.
Jurnee Smollett has had a career-changing 2020. After establishing herself as a child actor on Full House, Eve’s Bayou, and Friday Night Lights, Smollett found her career at something of a crossroads. After some personal life misfortune pushed her back into her beloved career, Smollett managed to pull off a boon of performances that any actor would be jealous of, and likely will make her an A-lister for the foreseeable future. Smollett started her year off with Birds of Prey, taking on the iconic comic role of Black Canary. Smollett channels classic molls of gangster films of old as the lounge singer-turned crime fighter, and her grounded portrayal balanced the film perfectly opposite the fun camp of Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and whatever comedically horrific material Ewan McGregor came up with. However, Smollett didn’t stop there. She took that grounded, angry energy from Black Canary and channelled it into Lovecraft Country. Her Leti was easily the star of the show, and the imagery of her illuminated by burning crosses as she demolishes racists’ cars with a baseball bat is some of the most exciting imagery of the year. It’s no surprise she won the inaugural Best Actress in a Horror Series prize at last weekend’s Critics Choice Super Awards. And she still found time to appear in Season 2 of The Twilight Zone for good measure. Based on the strength of that comeback, Jurnee Smollett is easily one of the best Entertainers of 2020.
I actually came close to naming Anya Taylor-Joy the Entertainer of the Year. After all, she was in both one of the year’s best films and one of the year’s best television shows. The rising starlet began her year taking on the iconic Jane Austen role in Emma. – a high bar due to past iterations by Gwyneth Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone. But Taylor-Joy was up for the task, and her ability to play funny and snooty at the same time without losing an ounce of likability transformed the film into one of the best Austen adaptations, and one of the best films of the year, period. That alone is an impressive accomplishment, but then came The Queen’s Gambit. As it turns out, if you make a well-crafted show and center it around a performer as charismatic and talented as Taylor-Joy, people will watch it – even if it’s about chess. Somehow, Netflix’s filler miniseries meant to get prestige views and not much else became their most viewed property, thanks primarily to the young actress’ living-on-the-edge performance as a prodigy with a crippling addiction. Had her upcoming lead performance in the highly anticipated Last Night In Soho been released as planned, she would have been unstoppable. Hell, she even emerged from the kinda-terrible Radioactive and The New Mutants mostly unscathed – that’s a f*cking accomplishment. Taylor-Joy is a true master of entertainment, and were it not for the culture impact of my Entertainer of the Year, she would easily be the #1 pick. But instead, I have no choice but to go with…
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR: TikTok
I have no other choice here. I cannot stress this enough: I hate TikTok. I don’t find the videos entertaining, and I think it’s a mediocre art form. But make no mistake: despite my personal opinions of the Chinese app that clearly mimics Vine’s entire M.O., there’s no denying that the app was the Entertainer of 2020. The endless content from around the world gave people something to do when trying to avoid doomscrolling on their phone. The dances encouraged people to find new ways to both distract themselves from the news and keep moving during quarantine. News-based channels both spread awareness of handwashing, health updates, and polling locations for both Covid-related safety protocols and the 2020 election. Bit-time entertainers (including Sarah Cooper, who I don’t find funny but she clearly has an audience) managed to test out material and find fame and work based on their creations.You want to know how powerful TikTok was in 2020? On three separate occasions they were threatened with banishment by the U.S. President for indiscernible reasons, and lasted long enough to ban him from their platform instead. Now that’s an accomplishment. Whether it was appearing in the news, covering the news, creating entertaining videos, or giving a voice to a new generation, TikTok was the Entertainer of the Year, whether I like to admit it or not.
And that concludes this year’s Entertainers of the Year! A quick update going forward on the state of the Sacred Wall’s Best-Of lists. This year, the Academy is expanding awards season into March and April. This means that January and February will include films marked for limited release. So I’m going to be shaking up this year’s lists, in order to reflect that change. While Trailers, Anticipated, and TV will still fall in the late early January season that they normally do, and music will still come in late January/early February, my annual Best Movies of the Year lists will be pushed until the week of February 24th at the earliest. That way, I will have a chance to see late contenders like French Exit and Judas and the Black Messiah. Basically I will use the same judgment that I normally do during the beginning of the year overlap: if it was clearly intended as a “previous year” release, it will go on that list. If it’s an absolute dump, or didn’t intend to have a late December L.A. release, then it goes on the 2021 list. I hope this makes sense to you all. Until then, however, I hope you enjoyed our recap of the few bright spots of 2020, and chin up: it’s a new year!