The decade is young and there’s not a lot to talk about yet, but let’s get this process started anyway. Each year, I’ll add the new winners in this category and update the ranking. So please hang in there while this list builds. If you want more in the meantime, you can always check out the other decades that have been finished.
As usual, I must remind you that whether or not a win was deserved cannot impact its standing in the rank (although I will comment on who I think should have won in each year). These lists are also fluid constructs for me. I reserve the right to revisit the movies and performances that won over time and re-evaluate where they belong in the ranking. The Academy is stuck with winners once they hand out awards but I am free to change my mind.
2. Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)
The biggest potential issue with Daniel Kaluuya winning in this category is that he’s essentially a co-lead. It certainly doesn’t help that Lakeith Stanfield, his costar, was inexplicably nominated in the same category, which seems to imply that Judas and the Black Messiah has no lead performer. With category fraud fairly rampant in Hollywood these days, it’s easy to get angry–especially when the winner in this category last year, Brad Pitt, was also essentially his film’s co-lead. Unlike Pitt, however, I think there’s room to allow Kaluuya into Supporting Actor. Yes, he’s the Black Messiah referenced in the movie’s title, but Stanfield is the Judas and the movie follows his storyline much more closely. So for me, bump Stanfield over to Best Actor (where he still loses) and let Kaluuya stay here.
As for the performance, it’s outstanding. Kaluuya is fiery as Black Panther Fred Hampton, who was killed at age 21 during a raid after being betrayed by an FBI informant within his organization. His passion for his cause is delicately balanced by surprisingly tender scenes with Dominique Fishback as his love interest. I have some quibbles with the structure of the movie but the three central performances (Stanfield, Kaluuya, and Fishback) are outstanding. Most surprising of all for me was the revelation that Kaluuya is extremely British. From seeing his great performances in Get Out, Black Panther, and this, I had absolutely no idea.
Should have won in 2020: You can quibble with Kaluuya’s category if you want, but I’m okay with putting him in Supporting Actor and letting the win stand. His closest competition for me would have been Glynn Turman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
1. Troy Kotsur, CODA (2021)
Kaluuya definitely wins on pyrotechnics, but there’s beautiful emotional and physical shading in Troy Kotsur’s performance that pretty easily pulls ahead for me. Kotsur’s fisherman father is many things: funny, inappropriate, hardworking, weary, and scared about how he will manage to get by in a world of hearing men (in a field where hearing is judged by many to be essential). But the scene where he asks his daughter to sing for him so he can feel the vibration of her voice is, to me, what unassailable clinches this contest.
Should have won in 2021: In a year without Kotsur, Kodi Smit-McPhee would have been a strong contender for The Power of the Dog, and so would the un-nominated Mike Faist from West Side Story. Unluckily for them, they competed against Kotsur, who deserved to win.
Other Rankings for the 2020s