I didn’t see every movie this year but I saw several and there’s are the 25 (technically 33) performances I’ve seen in 2021. Please let me know what your favorites were in the comments.
1. Penelope Cruz in Parallel Mothers
Far and away the most emotionally moving and technically perfect performance I’ve seen all year is Penelope Cruz playing a regular-ass lady in Pedro Almodovar‘s new ode to motherhood, Parallel Mothers. After an unexpected pregnancy from a one-night stand, Cruz‘s Janis decides to have her baby well into her late 40s while a teenage girl, Ana (Milena Smit) impregnated by tragic circumstances decides to have hers. A bond is formed between them and they enter a series of connected narrative twists and turns that push them both to their limits. No one can deny that Cruz gives her best performances in Almodovar movies, and this might be her best yet. Words fail me to describe it, it simply moved me the most out of any acting I’ve seen all year.
24 Runner Ups (in Alphabetical Order)
Nicolas Cage in Pig
The infamously over-the-top Nicolas Cage manages to channel some of that Leaving Las Vegas energy for Pig, a remarkable return to understated form for the actor. He plays Robin Feld, a shell of a former man and former Michelin star chef, who has all but given up on life following the death of his wife. It’s his best performance in almost thirty years, maybe even his best.
Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye
The single best performance of Chastain‘s career and quite possibly the most underrated and hardly talked about performance of the year. That’s mostly because The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Michael Showalter‘s good but not great and sporadically funny dramedy about Tammy Faye Baker, came out so early and landed with such meh reactions. This shouldn’t take away from how dialed-in and constantly surprising Chastain is though. It’s a Theron–Wuornos-level transformation.
Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter
It would not be a surprise if Colman won her second Oscar in four years for her quietly powerful portrait of a self-described “unnatural mother”, wildly unhappy about her life and choices. The movie itself is good but pretty sloggy at points leaving Colman to do the heaviest lifting out of everybody. She wasn’t just having a moment with The Favourite four years ago, she’s transitioned into one of the most uniquely gifted and interesting to watch actresses of our generation.
Bradley Cooper for Licorice Pizza
With only seven minutes of screentime, Bradley Cooper barrel rolls into the final third of Licorice Pizza like a tornado that terrorizes townfolks with deep belly laughs. He plays a legendary piece-of-shit hairdresser turned movie producer named Jon Peters, known mostly for having Shampoo based off of him and dating Barbara Streisand, and you might never look at a peanut butter sandwich the same way again.
Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog
‘Understated’ and ‘subtle’ are words you’re going to be reading a lot over the course of this article because I have no other way to describe what the most impressive acting is. The most impressive acting forgoes loud, forceful monologues for little glances or facial gestures. It’s simply harder to do as an actor and runs the risk of being too little to convey anything. Benedict Cumberbatch is downright haunting as an ultra-macho, closeted, self-hating buckaroo in Jane Campion‘s The Power of the Dog dramatic (very much a) Western about sexual and emotional repression. This is partly because he’s giving such a direct performance in the most indirect and deceitful little movie of the year.
Colman Domingo for Zola
One of my favorite actors working today, the wildly versatile Colman Domingo gives us a hilarious/terrifying/insane performance as X, Riley Keough‘s roommate/pimp in the polarizing comedy, Zola. Based on a Twitter feud between two strippers about a road trip gone awry, Janicza Bravo‘s Zola dances to beat of its own drum but the one undeniable element of the movie is the four great performances in the center of it. Domingo is only the second-best, though.
Kirsten Dunst for The Power of the Dog
Kirsten Dunst has never been better than in The Power of the Dog. If Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Phil is haunting, she’s haunted – utterly consumed with grief over the mistreatment and emotional abuse from her co-star. The Power of the Dog, while brilliant and one of the best films of the year is a cold, cynical work and Dunst serves as the closest thing to a beating heart the movie has. She completely disappears into this role.
Mike Faist for West Side Story
Hands down, the best performance of Spielberg‘s good but flawed West Side Story remake was stage actor/dancer Mike Faist as Jets leader, Riff. Originally written as a fairly two-dimensional, straightforward character, Spielberg infuses him with a backstory of domestic abuse and self-hatred that does a better job communicating the underlying themes of West Side Story better than any other character. This is accomplished in no small part due to Faist‘s magnetic charisma and understated acting. Understated, using that word again.
Stephen Graham for Boiling Point
Philip Barantini‘s single-take wonder about an Award-winning chef (the enormously talented Stephen Graham) having an absolute mental breakdown is one of the most intense movie-watching experiences of the year. A big reason for this is the wonderful and nerve-wracking performance by Graham who proves himself to be one of the most versatile actors working in the industry today.
Alana Haim for Licorice Pizza
Far and away the most impressive debut performance of the year, in a year filled to the brim with impressive debut performances – Rachel Zegler in West Side Story, Emilia Jones in Coda, and even her own co-star, Cooper Hoffman. But what sets Alana Haim apart from them is how lived-in and natural her performance is, you don’t see any of that raw, unrefined energy the other debuts brought to the table. You’d think she was an old pro, even her comedic timing is perfect.
Harriet Sansom Harris for Licorice Pizza
Speaking of old pros, character actress Harriet Sansom Harris is definitely one of the best we have. Best known for playing Kelsey Grammer‘s rapacious and fiendishly creative agent on Frasier, Harris channels some of that shark energy to play Cooper Hoffman‘s over-zealous and possibly insane agent in Licorice Pizza. Shot mostly in an extreme close-up, it’s alternately hilarious and unsettling, and Harris nails every peak and valley giving us a window into a character that could have their own movie centered around them. It’s the best performance in the film.
Jayne Houdyshell for The Humans
Sorry for arriving late to the party, but I never saw Jayne Houdyshell‘s Tony-Award winning turn in the stage production from which The Humans is based, so her performance in the movie is brand-spanking new to me. She’s hilarious and thrillingly authentic as the overbearing, pain-in-the-ass, and almost pitiful mom, Deirdre. Houdyhsell infuses so much empathy into this part that you somehow end up seeing things from her perspective and before you know it, she’s your favorite character.
Kathryn Hunter for The Tragedy of Macbeth
The most physical and bizarre performance on this list is like something you’d see in the best avant-garde basement production you’ve ever been to. Kathryn Hunter uses seemingly every fiber of her being to bring us her and Joel Coen‘s interpretation of the infamous Witches from Macbeth. She plays all three as if all are trapped inside a single body, fighting for domain control. It’s quite the sight to behold and it’s the most memorable thing about The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Richard Jenkins for The Humans
Just as good as his counterpart and spouse, Houdyshell‘s Deirdre, Jenkins’ Erik is a low-key controlling, selfish asshole but again, we are forced to see things from his perspective and we understand him better. But we don’t forgive him. It’s one of Jenkins very best screen performances and it’s the perfect combination of meticulous actor and layered material. He soars.
Riley Keough for Zola
The best and most uproariously funny and bananas performance of Zola comes from Elvis Presley’s granddaughter herself, Riley Keough. Although she delivers in whatever she’s in, her turn as the compulsive liar and total psycho Stefani in Zola is probably her best work and the most fun to watch. She manages to make a cartoon person empathetic and painfully real which is the secret sauce of the movie.
Vincent Lindon for Titane
Titane is an absolutely bonkers movie but the thing that grounds it and makes it really work is Vincent Lindon‘s performance as a firefighter dad in mourning. He’s sympathetic and compassionate one second, and super threatening the next. Writer/Director Julia Ducornau wisely never tells us exactly what he is or what he did because that adds to the riveting unpredictability of the character. We have no idea what he’s going to do next.
Toko Miura for Drive My Car
Performances this internalized are extremely difficult for any actor to pull off, but Japanese actress/singer Toko Miura makes it look easy. As Misaki, the shy and taciturn working-class driver of Drive My Car’s protagonist, Yusuke, Miura creates a character that is intensely guarded but incredibly relatable, maybe my favorite movie character of 2021. Miura manages to communicate her struggle so well with the slightest of gestures that by the time we actually find out what her story is, it really isn’t much of a surprise. That’s some damn good fucking acting, let me tell you.
Hidetoshi Nishijima for Drive My Car
Drive My Car is one of the most subtle and effective meditations on grief ever put to film and it simply would not work without a performance that matches its quiet intensity, note for note. Veteran Japanese film actor, Hidetoshi Nishijima, is able to explore Yusuke’s grief in a way that tells us everything without ever having the character really reveal what’s going on in his mind. It’s a perfect match for Toko Miura‘s equally cryptic Masaki, with whom he shares his best scenes.
Ruth Negga for Passing
Ruth Negga is the only remarkable thing about Rebecca Hall‘s good but not great or particularly memorable debut film. She’s plays Clare Bellew, a light-skinned black woman passing for white and even fooling her insanely racist husband. She does this not only with her skin but with her intellect and ability to read people. This is the only truly complex character of the film and Negga finds so many little levels within this character.
Masaki Okada for Drive My Car
In the hands of a lesser actor, the character of Koji could have been a total asshole which would have completely ruined the complicated neutrality of Drive My Car, especially in his relationship with the protagonist, Yusuke. The washed-up television star who has sunken so low he has to do theater is slyly and gracefully rendered by real-life Japanese TV and film superstar, Masaki Okada. Theater folks all know this guy, the talented but aloof pretty boy who always follows his “actor” instincts into his co-star’s pants. In the case of Drive My Car, Koji is the young man our protagonist, Yusuke’s, recently deceased wife was having an affair with. Yusuke knows, but Koji doesn’t know Yusuke knows, and when Yusuke casts Koji as the lead in his multilingual stage version of Uncle Vanya, the awkward dance begins.
Simon Rex for Red Rocket
The most go-for-broke, explosive comedic performance of the year came from former porn actor and Scary Movie 3 star Simon Rex for the outrageously funny and outrageously tragic Red Rocket, Sean Baker‘s Gulf Coast riff on Mike Leigh‘s Naked. Rex plays the most wildly self-absorbed and predatorial opportunist scumbag, backed into a financial corner forcing him to move back to his hometown. He’s semi-famous for being in porn but as he tells it he’s basically keeping the industry together by himself. After sweet-talking his ex-porn star wife and her chainsmoking mother-in-law he scores a spot on their couch and begins to extend out to the neighborhood, to work on the next scheme. He ends up meeting a 17-year-old girl at the Donut Hole and attempts to mold her into the next big pornstar so he can use her coattails to catapult himself back into the industry. He’s a real piece of shit but Rex plays him like a guy incapable of seeing himself as the bad guy. You ultimately pity him, you never sympathize with him and you shudder to think of what kind of greater influences mold these types of people.
Vinette Robinson for Boiling Point
Just as riveting as her co-star Graham, Vinette Robinson gives us one of the best at-work meltdown speeches I’ve ever heard and for that, we should all rejoice. Carly is a patient but emotionally fried sous chef who is dealing with both the decline of a boss and a best friend. She gets pissed at the front-of-house manager for overbooking the dining room and ends up taking out all her anger on her in a monologue that ends with her hating herself more than anybody.
Milena Smit for Parallel Mothers
Almost as good as Cruz (but not really) is relative Spanish newcomer, Milena Smit as Cruz’s new friend/traumatized mother, just a Gen Z teen trying to figure this life shit out. She manages to hold her own in every scene opposite Cruz and enrich it in the subtlest ways.
Kodi Smit-McPhee for The Power of the Dog
Kodi Smith-McPhee maybe has the most difficult job to pull off in The Power of the Dog. No spoilers. It’s a performance that’s going to win him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
SPECIAL RECOGNITION: A Duo of Doubles
The performances of the actors in the following two duo entries are so inseparable and reliant on/in tandem with their scene partner, that I decided to present them together. It’s not cause I just wanted to blabber on about more incredible Oscar-snubbed acting performances this year. Definitely not.
Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
The third story in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a romance anthology movie from the writer/director of Drive My Car, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, is the best of the bunch. It follows a chance encounter between two high school sweethearts (Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai) twenty years later. It exists in a world where computer viruses have gotten so bad nobody uses the internet anymore, so that fixes the keep-in-touch-with-old-friends-on-Facebook plothole. What the audience gets is a wonderfully written and acted 30-minute encounter that escalates and twists in ways that manage to both layer the characters and rivet the audience.
Katsuki Mori and Kiyohiko Shibukawa for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
The third story might be the best, but the single best scene of the entire movie comes in the middle of the second story. Nao (Katsuki Mori) is a woman in her thirties going back to college who gets involved with this young fuck boi who manipulates her into honey trapping a tenured and published professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) as revenge for failing him the previous semester. What ensues is this beautifully subtle, erotic, and awkward sexual cat and mouse game between two of the most human characters I’ve seen all year.
SPECIAL RECOGNITION: Ensemble Cast
Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Issacs and Martha Plimpton for Mass
The best ensemble acting I’ve seen all year, these are four performances that function because of each other and feed into each other in ways where it’s sometimes difficult to see where one begins and the other ends. The movie itself is overly long and the bookends between the extended meeting scene don’t need to be there, but this is ultimately a showcase of what amazing and nuanced performers Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Issacs and Martha Plimpton really are.