My Favorite Performances of 2021!

It’s that time again—naming my favorite performances of 2021. Some may be widely regarded; others may be relatively unknown. Regardless, all of them moved me in some way, and I hope I can provide some insight into why these portrayals made me grateful for modern movies. It’s so easy to name our favorite actors; it’s another thing (and often a challenge) to articulate why.

I mentioned this last year, but I’ve made the decision to keep my current list consistent with categories that match the Oscars. This is not an attempt to avoid talking about actors who do not identify as male or female (I consider all performances in a given year) but rather to match my own version of the awards with current award shows. I also want to ensure some level of equal representation in my list. That said, I’m still keeping the door open for a gender-neutral list of performances in the future.

As per usual, these are preferential as opposed to “best” performances. For the second year in a row, I’m eschewing a ranked list for five nominees with one “winner” representing my favorite. Each category will still have five honorable mentions appearing in alphabetical order. We start with…

My Favorite Supporting Actresses

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, Being the Ricardos

Gaby Hoffman as Viv, C’mon C’mon

Valerie Mahaffey as Madame Reynard, French Exit

Vinette Robinson as Carly, Boiling Point

Youn Yuh-jung as Soonja, Minari


Jessie Buckley as Leda Caruso

The Lost Daughter

Buckley may not seem like the obvious choice to play a younger version of Olivia Colman. Decidedly, she makes no effort to imitate Colman, but that hardly matters. What does matter is the consistent emotional through-line between two actresses playing the same person at different stages of her life. With palpable frustration and fierce intelligence, Buckley refuses to play younger Leda as hero or villain, aiming for a messier portrait that constantly tests our allegiance. She makes Leda seem incredulous at her own lack of fulfillment; surely she ought to feel differently? She’s perched right on the edge of liberation or despair, and we begin to question: could both be possible for her?


Jennifer Ehle as Amanda Köhl

Saint Maud

As a cancer-stricken former dancer, Ehle threads a needle between gently teasing and brutally patronizing of her caregiver Maud’s faith, especially of a god who would allow suffering. It makes the dynamic between the two women kinetic, even volatile depending on their moods. But director Rose Glass charges Ehle with even more as Maud’s viewpoint becomes distorted in the midst of a spiritual crisis. Amanda’s verbal jabs seem too sharp, the pointed stares border on surreal. And in the ferocious final confrontation, Ehle unleashes a demonic fury to rival The Exorcist’s Regan MacNeil. Even without the supernatural enhancements, Ehle’s patient escalation of tension astounds.


Kathryn Hunter as The Witches

The Tragedy of Macbeth

It’s often said that the Bard’s works allow for infinite interpretations of the same character(s), and Hunter proves the adage once more. A Shakespeare veteran, Hunter’s physical approach to the three characters (sometimes switching between them, sometimes appearing in multiple figures on-screen) is an act of contortionism matched by a crisp, raspy tone that makes every word echo with baleful import. Her knowing grin makes her appearances that much eerier, like some demented puppet master who has suddenly loosed the strings to see how the marionette dances on its own. Savoring the language and wearing the witches’ supernatural prowess in her bones, Hunter would make even the Bard’s hair stand on end.


Tôko Miura as Misaki Watari

Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ)

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s intimate epic does so much with faces. In Miura’s face we get a sense of Misaki’s complicated past (to say the least) but also her determined implacability. The sense of duty and remove we glean from her initial appearance reveals shading within the stoicism. Her deliberate body language (note her confidence as she holds a cigarette out her car’s sunroof) and quiet attention to others show a much more extroverted presence. It all comes to a head in a stirring monologue about a trauma from her past. We’re rewarded with a statement of defiance in face of trials undergone and unforgivable sins committed—a beautiful cap to a perfectly modulated performance.


Ruth Negga as Clare Bellew


From the grounded reality of Mildred Loving in Loving to the effervescent enigma that is Clare in Rebecca Hall’s subtle drama, Negga’s range knows no bounds. Playing a black woman posing as a white woman in 1920s New York City, Negga approaches Clare with a heightened buoyancy that seems impervious to being found out. She indulges in devil-may-care behaviors that test the limits of her secret as she walks precariously between black and white spheres. But Negga finds depth and vulnerability in Clare’s supposedly free spirit, uncovering faint chinks in her armor. And while she turns into a more abstract presence as the film goes on, she doesn’t lose her complexity—Negga begins to haunt even the frames she doesn’t appear in.

My Favorite Supporting Actors

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel, The Worst Person in the World (Verdens verste menneske)

Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Rodrigo Santoro as Luca, 7 Prisoners (7 Prisioneiros)

Kiyohiko Shibukawa as Segawa, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Gûzen to sôzô)

Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen / Tomas, Dune / Hope (Håp)


Colman Domingo as Abegunde “X” Olawale


I keep trying to put my finger on what makes Domingo’s turn as a “procurer” in Janicza Bravo’s romp-turned-horror film so sinister, and I think it may be his level of comfort. X seems as adept at orchestrating plots in the background as bringing the hammer down when he needs to. He even seems at ease when the practiced accent slips and he unleashes a barrage of profanity-laden invective. But it’s when he begins to lay on the charm that the real terror begins, when the Faustian bargain unwittingly struck by our title heroine hits home. Domingo makes X’s ludicrously violent ploys feel like part of his everyday routine, another hustle without thought or conscience.


Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton

Judas and the Black Messiah

As the pivotal Black Panther leader, Kaluuya exudes an easy swagger in his skillful oratory. We sense a man who has worked hard to deliver his message in a down-to-earth way, remaining on the same level as his audience while introducing them to lofty ideas. It’s easy to see why members of Hampton’s party, new African American converts, and other marginalized communities rally around him. But Kaluuya also has charming romantic chemistry with Dominique Fishback’s Deborah Johnson and a sense of shyness that will be relatable to anyone who feels in control in one area of their life and adrift in another. With these humanizing touches, Kaluuya makes the loss of Hampton even larger than what he represented.


Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon

The Power of the Dog

Smit-McPhee’s Peter undergoes quite the remarkable arc in Jane Campion’s psychological Western, transforming from meek wallflower to lethal maestro—or does he? Smit-McPhee’s masterful turn is about gradually adjusting our perception of who Peter has always been, hiding in plain sight. Nothing escapes his sight or his notebook, tucked away for future use. With his wide eyes and wiry frame, Smit-McPhee cuts an unassuming figure until those very qualities amplify his menace, exposing the scheming avenger he’s always been. Few actors can make the casual smoking of a cigarette feel like a gut punch, a harbinger of doom for the wicked and cruel, discovered far too late.


Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright

The French Dispatch

Wright’s homage to James Baldwin is spot-on and yet so much more. He’s the perfect guide to the most whimsical section of Wes Anderson’s love letter to France and foreign press correspondents. The journalist seems to stand apart from his surroundings with his crystal-clear diction and suave civility. But the strength of Jeffrey Wright’s work is in his ability to turn this farcical kidnapping and chase plot into an illustration of the writer’s own interests and struggles. It’s in the earnest way he listens to the various characters that populate the tale, conveyed in Wright’s sensitive bearing. He’s pitched somewhere between earnest storyteller and eulogizer of deferred dreams, hinting of capacities within humanity that are not, but should, be.


Vincent Lindon as Vincent


A hulking, imposing presence in Julia Ducournau’s surprisingly fun technological/biological thriller, Lindon’s Vincent easily persuades as a leader of men. But he also convinces us of Vincent’s power for nurturing, forgiveness, and vulnerability, qualities his character seems to keep at bay with steroid injections and troubling visions. He turns hardness into softness, staring impassively but attentively in front of the visage of his supposedly long-lost son. Look at his joyous dancing, which he embraces like a counteraction of the tremendous losses he’s endured. Lindon has a knack for knowing when to repress Vincent’s emotions and when to unfurl them, revealing a broken man with so much left to give.

My Favorite Leading Actresses

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Andrea Bræin Hovig as Anja, Hope (Håp)

Alana Haim as Alana Kane, Licorice Pizza

Mary Twala as Mantoa, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

Fusako Urabe as Moka Natsuko, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Gûzen to sôzô)

Rachel Zegler as Maria, West Side Story


Morfydd Clark as Maud

Saint Maud

One of my complaints about modern faith-based films is their failure to reckon with fear and doubt. Watching Clark as the eponymous, self-appointed martyr, I have to believe she heard me. Her performance is a study in resiliency; to reclaim spiritual identity, she plunges into the depths of agony and ecstasy. There’s conviction in both modes, as if Maud gains strength from the former to experience the latter. Her Maud is in relentless conflict, at war with her own desires and perceptions. Notice how she portrays Maud as timidly reticent among her peers and fearlessly, scarily committed to her faith in private. She’s a great tribute to the saints of the past—and how thin the line is between heavenly ascension and earthbound perdition.


Jasna Djuricic as Aida Selmanagić

Quo Vadis, Aida?

To watch Djuricic in Jasmila Žbanić’s harrowing tragedy is to see compartmentalization at its most fragile. As a Bosnian interpreter for the UN during the Bosnian Civil War, Djuricic’s Aida attempts to save her community while forced to deliver reassurances she knows are lies. Djuricic plays Aida’s knowledge with a balance of outward calm and inner franticness, desperately seeking the loophole that will prevent the inevitable massacre ahead. It’s a tightrope she must walk to illustrate the absurdity and futility of her position. And when reality can no longer be fended off, Djuricic unleashes those pent-up emotions in a tempest of devastation. You feel its impact even in the epilogue, where acceptance of her loss has yet to dull its pain.


Ann Dowd as Linda


Playing the mother of a mass shooter, Dowd demonstrates an extraordinary range in a role more than worthy of the veteran character actress. Her body language suggests someone right on the verge of breaking, but her shows of compassion and commitment to stripping away false narratives about her family prove there’s far more complexity here. Dowd ensures Linda’s message comes across clearly, in revelations we believe the character has made a conscious effort to get just right. She displays an amazing tension in her performance, full of intentionality and the unpredictable emotions guiding them. Through it all, we never doubt Linda’s abiding love for her son, a fact that both strengthens and haunts her.


Renate Reinsve as Julie

The Worst Person in the World (Verdens verste menneske)

Reinsve’s Julie is an eternal searcher, seemingly immune to completing…well, just about anything. Reinsve makes Julie alternately infectious and frustrating, a swirl of fickleness and deep investiture in the moment which has its rewards and consequences. We’re sucked into Julie’s worldview, which fully acknowledges the role of flux in our lives. But Reinsve’s technique is also that of a conjurer, as if Julie commands every element around her. When she runs through a tableau of frozen figures in the street to begin a new love affair, it’s as if Julie herself has done it through the sheer power of her ebullient spirit. In Reinsve’s hands, Julie seems both deeply relatable and uncannily aspirational.


Olivia Colman as Leda Caruso

The Lost Daughter

At this point, an excellent performance from Olivia Colman is a given. So what’s left to talk about? How about the way Colman keeps the mystery of her character alive, piquing our interest while never reducing her? Or how a plaintive gaze across a beach reaches into dark desires and down dark corridors of the past? Or how Leda’s interest in a young mother played by Dakota Johnson may in fact be an act of slow-burn sabotage? It would have been easy to make Leda a sympathetic character despite her choices. But Colman aims for something bigger: a sense of ambiguity that’s still incredibly specific.  It doesn’t frustrate but rather provokes, reminding us that the past, and the consequences therein, needle us little by little.

My Favorite Leading Actors

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Clifton Collins Jr. as Jackson Silva, Jockey

Clayne Crawford as David, The Killing of Two Lovers

Stephen Graham as Andy Jones, Boiling Point

Udo Kier as Pat Pitsenbarger, Swan Song

Ehsan Mirhosseini as Heshmat, There Is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad)


Nicolas Cage as Robin “Rob” Feld


I don’t know if Cage “disappears” into the role of a hermetic truffle hunter (he flashes the trademark madness in one memorably funny scene involving a stolen bike), but he does bring a soulfulness that’s been missing from his roles of late. He plays Rob as someone who’s been utterly lost—but not without memory, regret, and something left to provide. It’s there in the scene where he dresses down a restaurateur for selling out, before reminding him of what matters in life. It’s in his strangely moving fetch quest that involves defeating the “final boss” with a meal of sentimental value to said boss. Cage has always had these powers, but they mean so much here for how quiet and considered they’re allowed to be.


Winston Duke as Will

Nine Days

To be honest, I could have picked Duke for his show-stopping recitation of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself alone. His breathless, gregarious delivery celebrates all of life’s pleasures and hardships. It’s a marked contrast from Duke’s more reserved demeanor as a preexistence bureaucrat in charge of selecting souls for earthly incarnation. His Will is seemingly driven by trauma, so tarnished by its effect on himself and others that he seeks to expunge it utterly. The desperation of such an impossible goal reflects in Duke’s bespectacled eyes, as if by squinting at his omniscient monitors he’ll somehow accomplish it. Perhaps that’s why his dynamic rendition of Whitman dazzles—he’s finally embraced all life has to offer, however brief it may be.


Jason Isaacs as Jay Perry


At first, Isaacs’s Jay plays mediator among the four grieving parents in Fran Kranz’s chamber drama. He’s quick to temper his wife’s harsh condemnations and offer understanding when necessary. But Isaacs also deftly withholds and deploys Jay’s omnipresent rage and grief, as displayed in a virtuoso monologue detailing (unbearably so) the circumstances of his son’s final moments. He still has wounds to reckon with, and the words that leave his mouth are revelations even to himself. His face is like a mask, a dam about to burst, but even a pointed smile can enhance the defenses. Isaacs makes those churning feelings tangible in every shot he appears—and roiling offscreen when he isn’t.


Simon Rex as Mikey “Saber” Davies

Red Rocket

Rex plays Mikey as a conniving con man on his last legs, with nary a place to live or hang his head. But I’ll admit it, reader; I was suckered in. Not necessarily that Mikey would mount his self-professed redemption arc and reinvent himself in the process, but that somehow, someway, he would retire his delusions of porn star management, live in the present, and make life better for the people closest to him. That’s a credit to Rex’s charms, sheer tenacity, and complexity of spirit even as Mikey’s monomaniacal schemes fail to dissipate. There’s so much more to this character than his convoluted machinations. Rex makes us see it, even though we know the direction Mikey’s inevitably headed.


Denzel Washington as Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Washington is no stranger to Shakespeare, having starred in numerous stage productions in addition to Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. He makes the role of the Scottish king his own, honoring the Bard’s words while never making the obvious choice. Some actors play the infamous character with too much portent, too much awareness of the madness to come (fans of the TV show Slings and Arrows will know what I mean). But Washington takes the arc of Macbeth as a process of discovery, enjoying this tempting path, measuring each step with knowing calculation. Watch his take on the infamous “dagger” speech, and you can see how Macbeth justifies his actions simply by striding down a hallway. Even a bona fide movie star can stretch himself, solidifying Washington’s place among our best thespians known or obscure.

We will leave it there for now. Next up will by my Top 10 Films of 2021. Stay tuned!