It has been a hell of a year and a hell of a year for film. The second year of the ongoing worldwide pandemic has been a bit of a roller coaster, with wave after wave of COVID once changing the film landscape. Theatres re-opened, but people have only really gone back for the biggest blockbuster titles, and even then, the numbers are a bit soft.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been many a literal ton of films this year, though. I set a new personal record, having seen nearly 180 films released in 2021, and let me tell you that most of them are good!
To break down my favourites a little more this year, I’ll be dividing things up into three lists, one for my favourite performers, one for my favourite films, and one for the best of the rest. There are navigation links at the bottom of each page to the others.
Without any further ado, let’s get started with my favourite performers of the year!
There’s never enough room on any list to highlight everyone, so here are a few other great performances to check out.
- Daniel Craig (No Time To Die): An excellent outing as Bond, and an excellent and fitting end to this iteration of Bond. What makes it work are the emotional stakes, and Craig pulls this off brilliantly (which is how this movie survives having such a weak villain).
- Penelope Cruz (Official Competition): A brutal and brilliant send up of the artiste, and Cruz is all in with her performance.
- Henry Czerny (The Righteous): One of Canada’s national treasures, Czerny leads this black and white character piece that could just as easily have been a play. Lot sof dialogue and lots of emotion and Czerny’s sensitive, subtle, nuance performance is what makes it all work.
- Winston Duke (9 Days): His charisma was already clear from Black Panther, and his chops established in Us, but his performance here in the lead of 9 Days is pitch perfect for the role and I loved every second of it.
- Udo Kier (Swan Song): Udo Kier is an actor that I generally associate with more malevolent characters, so seeing him sashay across the screen for 90 minutes whilst confronting his past and wearing a chandelier on his head was something else. It’s a sweet, committed performance and I really hope this movie doesn’t get lost behind the other one with the smme name this year.
- Sylvie Mix (Poser, Double Walker): Certainly one of the more interesting performers I encountered this year, Sylvie Mix appeared in two indie dramas as characters with ambiguous intentions and nailed each one. Keep an eye out for her, she’s going places.
- Donnie Yen (Raging Fire): Raging Fire might be the most 90s action movie released this year, but Donnie Yen really brings the goods as the morally upright-to-a-fault police detective confronting the consequences of his choices. And then he’s also the greatest martial artist alive, so this movie whips some butt too.
And now, on to the main list. Please note that this list is not ranked because I loved each performance for different, unique reasons. As such, this list is alphabetical.
Zazie Beetz (Nine Days, The Harder They Fall)
Beetz gave two superb performances this year, but the one that landed her on this list is Emma in Nine Days. The role requires a childlike innocence and curiosity, which, when played in contrast to Winston Duke’s more guarded performance, really works wonders. She is the character that will eventually break him out of his shell, and when she finally does, their last scene together is perfect, and she barely speaks in it.
Nicholas Cage (Pig, Prisoners of the Ghostland)
Nicolas Cage seemingly never turns down a role but also gives 100% to every role he takes. That’s never more apparent than when he takes a role like that of Rob in Pig. A sort of anti-John Wick, Rob lives in isolation not because he’s closed off but because he is entirely open. His performance is subtle and affecting, and one of my favourites not only this year but that he has ever given. It is raw, honest, and heartwrenching.
Then, in Prisoners of the Ghostlandalso gives one of his most unhinged. Quite the year for ol’ Nic.
Jodie Comer (Free Guy, The Last Duel)
She is adorable and charming in Free guy, but The Last Duel has her re-enacting the same story told from three points of view, and while it would be easy to give thee big performances here, Comer’s smaller and more nuanced choices are what landed her on this list. If you want to see what I mean, go back and re-watch the three times she is asked to kiss Adam Driver and note her body language and facial expression, in which she conveys the tone of that section of the film in a single glance each time. Excellent performance in an underrated film.
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)
Cumberbatch is an interesting performer whom I am hot and cold on, but he’s never been better than in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Cast brilliantly against type as the hyper-masculine and angry cowboy Phil Burbank. His performance as a man who is seething with rage and uncomfortable in his skin but presents as confident and uncaring will undoubtedly net him nominations from every other significant awards body this year.
Ariana DeBoise (West Side Story, Schmigadoon)
Much like Rita Moreno did in the 1961 version of West Side Story, Ariana DeBoice steals every scene she appears in as Anita. Her charisma is infectious, and her performance in the movie’s latter half is electric and heartbreaking. Plus, her rendition of America is one of the best things in the film.
Jamie Dornan (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Belfast)
Jamie Dornan made his name as the smouldering Paul Spector in The Fall and the handsome man Christian Grey in the 50 Shades series of films. While his turn in this year’s Belfast will likely cement him as a proper leading man, his appearance in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar cements him into this list. Both self-aware and self-deprecating, it’s rare that you see a performer taking apart his image so expertly and so successfully, and it’s a delight to watch.
Isabelle Fuhrman (The Novice)
Intensity, thy name is Isabelle. The Novice is the best sports movie of the year and a searing portrait of obsession, and Fuhrman’s performance in the lead role is the key to all of that. As Alex, she paints a portrait of a young woman compelled to be the best at everything she does, no matter the cost, and is utterly compelling from the first frame to the last.
Andrew Garfield (Tick Tick… Boom!)
Everyone is super excited to see Andrew Garfield put on the spider-suit again (note: I haven’t seen Spider-Man: No Way Home yet, but this is the worst kept secret in the world), but for the life of me, I don’t know why people aren’t more excited by his performance in Tick Tick… Boom! His turn as Jonathan Larson is a joy to watch, even when he is self-destructive. The film itself is a testament to the artistic and creative process, and it turns out he can sing and dance, too. I have been listening to 30/90 and Boho Days basically on a loop for weeks now.
Jonathan Majors (Marvel’s Loki, The Harder They Fall)
Jonathan Majors has already been a talent to watch, but his appearance this year as one of the most significant and enigmatic antagonists in the Marvel Universe and one of the most charismatic cowboys put to screen in the last decade should firmly plan him in the minds of moviegoers everywhere. He takes big, risky chances when appropriate and can hold his own with the best of them. Majors will be a big star someday –his ongoing role as the next big bad in the Marvel Universe guarantees that– but I am most looking forward to the projects he chooses in between those.
Dev Patel (The Green Knight)
Another actor that should already be on your radar, Dev Patel, gives one of his best performances to date this year. So much of The Green Knight is told without dialogue –most significantly the last 20 minutes of the film– and yet in all that time, you will never doubt exactly how Gawain is feeling or what he’s thinking. It’s a masterful performance, and one that I hope doesn’t go unnoticed come awards season.
Agathe Rouselle (Titane)
Given the depth and commitment of her performance, you might be stunned to find out that it is Agathe Rouselle’s debut feature film performance. It’s a role that asks anything and everything of its star, and she delivers in spades whether she’s making love to a car or endearing herself to a grief-stricken father. It’s an unforgettable performance in one of the most unforgettable films of the year.
Dan Stevens (I’m Your Man)
Dan Stevens is an actor that I already like, but it turns out that he’s also fluent in German and just as good an actor when he speaks it. In I’m Your Man he plays an android designed to become the perfect partner to a woman named Alma, and it’s fascinating watching him bring that to life. All the overt inhuman characteristics of a robot combined with all the subtleties of a new being learning and growing in the world make this a compelling performance.
Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
In what is sure to be one of the most nominated performances of the year, Kristen Stewart entirely disappears into the role of Princess Diana. Set over Christmas, and at the height of the royal family’s disdain for her, Stewart dives in headfirst to a character that only desperately wants to be loved for who she is rather than who she is expected to be, and it’s both heartbreaking and affirming.
So those are my favourite performers of the year. What do you think, do you agree? Did I miss someone?
This is part one of my 2021 year in review; see below for my favourite films and more!
Like this? Please consider supporting us via Patreon or Ko-Fi!