Best-movie and best-performance lists are hard to make, because it’s nearly impossible to narrow your emotional responses down to an inventory of choices, and harder still to rank them. However, it wasn’t easy to make a 2021 top 10 list. It was much more difficult to create a comparable list of performers. The 2021 movie performances were impressive in their variety and vitality. Every time I thought I’d winnowed my list of favorites down to a solid 10, I’d be hit by the memory of another face.
Like many other people, I began to step back in the world this year, even the movie world. The importance of faces, particularly those that are big in the world, increased. In returning to the movies, has anyone else felt as if they’d gone off on a long, solitary journey, and finally returned home? The faces, the gestures, of these performers—a solid list of 10, followed by an admittedly sprawling number of honorable mentions—moved and thrilled me in 2021. Most importantly, I was welcomed back to my old life.
Oscar Isaac, The Card Counter
As a poker whiz with one of the finest, silliest pseudonyms ever conceived, William Tell, Oscar Isaac is the visible soul of Paul Schrader’s searching drama about guilt and redemption. William feels haunted and angry about his past. As a former soldier, William inflicted torture on Abu Ghraib. Now he’s adrift, and the desolate ocean in his eyes tells us how lost he really is. Isaac is our matinee idol in this short attention span world. We rarely have the time to look at faces. It is a wonderful book. The Card CounterHis conscientiousness makes him sexy.
Learn more Oscar Isaac Smolders as a Pensive Romantic ThrillerThe card counter
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard
Behind every great king there’s an even greater queen. As Oracene “Brandy” Williams, mother of Venus and Serena, Aunjanue Ellis gives a performance that’s like a killer surprise backhand. If her husband’s tactics for turning his daughters into champions are sometimes overbearing, Brandy’s are tempered by empathetic diplomacy, though she’s no less dedicated. Ellis has given outstanding performances in dramatics for over a decade. RayIn comedies (like The Undercover Brother). This is her shining moment, and she deserves every crown.
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Anders Danielsen Lie The World’s Most Evil Person
As comic-book artist Aksel in Joaquim Trier’s bittersweet romantic comedy, Anders Danielsen Lie has one of the most piercing monologues heard in any recent film—resonant especially for those who hold books and other physical media dear to their hearts. This is Lie’s piercing meditation of what art means to you, at any time in your life or the end. This performance is a perfect example of how a performance can both be shocking and exquisitely delicate.
Learn more about the top entertainment events of the year Music | Songs | Albums | Podcasts | Nonfiction books | Fiction books | YA and children’s books
Kathryn Hunter, Macbeth’s Tragedy
Is there any witch that is better than all three? When they’re all played by the same actress. Born in New York but raised in England, Kathryn Hunter—a RADA-trained actor and a member of the experimental theatre troupe Complicité—may not be a performer whose name you know. But Hunter’s turn playing all three witches in Joel Coen’s shivery Macbeth’s TragedyThis is the ultimate marvel of physicality. It’s so beautiful and hauntingly visceral that it can be dubbed “The Phantom”.
Will Smith King Richard
Will Smith was often a star in even the worst movies. King Richard—as Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams—he steps up to a level of complexity and subtlety he’s never reached before. As a parent who wants the best for his girls but who may also, sometimes, be guilty of driving them harder than he should—even as he pushes against the institutional racism of the super-white tennis world—Smith captures a staggering range of emotions. His shame and despair are balanced by his stubbornness and braggadocio. A portrait of an imperfect father who raised great daughters—and kicked a few doors open in the process.
Continue reading: Will Smith and a dazzling cast tell the story of Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard
Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
In this adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel, Olivia Colman plays a woman who’s traveling solo through middle age, an academic who has treated herself to a working holiday in Greece—she’s the kind of figure you assume to be childless and free. As it turns out, she’s the mother of two daughters, and the secrets she carries force us to reckon with distinctions between SelbsthoodAnd selfishness, Particularly in the context motherhood. Colman’s performance, prickly and intimate, is haunting.
Continue reading: Olivia Colman is Extraordinary The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Bold Directorial Debut
Benedict Cumberbatch, Dog Power
Benedict Cumberbatch’s surly rancher Phil Burbank is a character who sticks with you. He holds you captive with his appraising eyes; his intelligence cuts like an axe. Don’t get too close: this is a guy who can castrate a bull with a flick of the wrist. He’s an enigma as vast and changeable and cruel as the open sky, yet even he is capable of succumbing to enchantment, and Cumberbatch pulls off every azure-to-thundercloud shift with dazzling ease.
Continue reading: Jane Campion’s Gorgeous Western Dog PowerWhat if a sharp study of masculinity goes sour?
Daniel Craig, You have no choice but to live.
Who would have thought that the scrappiest James Bond of all—the stocky, scowling one who gets beaten up and actually shows that it hurts, the one who nurses romantic wounds like a grudge—would also be the best? Daniel Craig’s farewell to the franchise is a work of ornery grace, and a reminder that nothing lasts forever. We didn’t know how good we had it.
Continue reading: You have no choice but to live.This is an imperfect movie. But It’s a Perfect Finale for the Best James Bond Ever
Penelope Cruz Parallel Mothers
In her 30s, a Madrid-based professional photographer becomes pregnant after an affair. Even as she embarks on the adventure of motherhood, she’s hoping to heal some wounds of the past, by opening a mass grave where her great-grandfather and others were buried after being murdered in the Spanish Civil War. Penelope Cruz is one of Spanish maestro Pedro Almodóvar’s signature actresses, and her performance here is a slow-burning marvel, shifting from fragility to fortitude in the merest breath. Cruz, a brilliant actress who has always been at the top of her game, is even more impressive than this.
Continue reading: Rebecca Hall’s PassingThis is a complex, moving story about racial identity
Ruth Negga, Passing
In Rebecca Hall’s gorgeous and perceptive adaptation of Nella Larsen’s classic novel, Negga plays Clare, a Black woman passing for white in 1920s New York. Clare, with her blonde hair and open eyes has all the charm of a Jazz-age beauty. But the burden she carries deep in heart—her weighty longing for a reality that isn’t fully in her grasp, balanced by grief for all she has given up—informs even the delicate, birdlike grace of her movements. This is her most heartfelt, fervent performance in 2021.
Tessa Thompson in Passing,Jeffrey Wright French DispatchAnd You have no choice but to live. Renata Reinsve in The World’s Most Evil PersonClifton Collins Jr. Jockey, Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza, Javier Bardem in The Ricardos Ariana DeBose in West Side Story Kirsten Dunst in Dog Power, Mike Faist in West Side StoryRebecca Hall Night House