Continuing my look at the best movies of 2021, here are my picks for the best performances in 2021. Every year this is the toughest list to make and every year I feel bad about leaving some performances off. Like previous years, I have broken the performances down by category, much like the Oscars, with Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. For each category, I will list the “nominees” and then pick a winner and go further in-depth as to why that actor gave the best performance in their category. All of the performances that I nominated are great and with how many good performances were given this year, each category could easily have ten performances. Here are my picks for the best performances of 2021.
BEST ENSEMBLE: THE HARDER THEY FALL
I’ve never done this before, but I wanted to give special recognition here. Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall is a stylish, energetic western and one of my favorite movies of the year. Along with Samuel’s kinetic direction, much of the movie’s success comes from its incredible ensemble. The cast is loaded: Jonathon Majors, Lakeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, Idris Elba, RJ Cyler, Zazie Beetz, Edi Gathegi, Danielle Deadwyler, Damon Wayans Jr., and Regina King. This is a who’s-who of great actors, from up-and-comers to veterans and they all give pitch-perfect performances. The ensemble of The Harder They Fall brings equal amounts of gravitas and swagger to the film, perfectly vibing with Samuel’s energy.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett, Nightmare Alley
Ana de Armas, No Time to Die
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Tiffany Haddish, Bad Trip
Olga Merediz, In the Heights
ARIANA DEBOSE, WEST SIDE STORY
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story was as impressive of a feat as there was in 2021. Remaking a cinematic classic is one thing, but making it as good as Spielberg did was even more impressive. One of the most impressive aspects was the performances in the film. From newcomer to Rachel Zegler as Maria to Mike Faist as Riff, the entire ensemble is impeccable. But the standout of the film is Ariana DeBose as Anita. Much like Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1961 film, DeBose is a lightning rod of energy and life. She lights up the screen whenever she’s on it and brings tons of dramatic weight and charisma to the performance. Her dancing and singing are flawless, with her really popping in “America” and “A Boy Like That”.
But what makes this performance so great is how DeBose made it her own. Moreno’s performance is iconic and one of the greatest ever in a movie musical. These were huge shoes to fill, but DeBose doesn’t fill them but wears a completely different, though equally impressive, pair of shoes entirely.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Ben Affleck, The Last Duel
Bradley Cooper, Licorice Pizza
Colman Domingo, Zola
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
COLMAN DOMINGO, ZOLA
I first saw Zola at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the final film festival before the pandemic hit, and the cinematic world changed forever. It has now been nearly two years since that world premiere screening and I have yet to stop thinking about Colman Domingo’s performance. He plays X, the mysterious roommate of Stefani, a stripper who dupes another stripper, the titular Zola, to join them on a wild trip to Florida. Domingo is a dominating presence throughout the whole movie and a complete enigma. You never know exactly what his deal is or what his motives are, but you cannot take your eyes off of him whenever on screen. There is a moment with X that completely twists who we thought he was and only makes his character more interesting and confusing. It’s a dark, funny, impressive, insane performance and the best of Domingo’s career so far.
Jodie Comer, The Last Duel
Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Isabelle Fuhrman, The Novice
Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza
Taylour Paige, Zola
Isabelle Fuhrman, The Novice
Best Actress has become my toughest acting category year after year and this year is no different. There were so many great lead actress performances, I could have named ten or fifteen nominees and on any given day, any of these nominees could be the winner. But I am picking Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance in Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice. Fuhrman plays Alex, a college freshman who joins her college rowing team and quickly becomes obsessed with becoming the best and will do anything to be at the top. This is a physically impressive performance by Fuhrman, who gained ten pounds of muscle to get in rowing shape and it really shows and helps make the rowing scenes feel more authentic.
What Fuhrman does best is make us feel empathy for Alex. We never once question her determination or think that she is crazy or mentally unstable for doing what she is doing. We want Alex to be the best and we want her to get to the top and are always rooting for her. But we also see Alex trying to function in society, which is where see the real toll of all of this take place.
This is a performance that is right in my wheelhouse. I love performances about people who are obsessed with greatness and how it affects their lives and this is one of the best portrayals of that. It is an emotionally and physically brutal performance and one that should make Fuhrman one to watch in the future.
Nicolas Cage, Pig
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Jim Cummings, The Beta Test
Hidetoshi Nishijima, Drive My Car
Simon Rex, Red Rocket
NICOLAS CAGE, PIG
If I told you there was a Nicolas Cage movie where he plays a man who lives in the woods goes on a journey to find his truffle-hunting pig who has been stolen from him, a snicker or wry smile might arise on your face. A John Wick-like plot featuring Cage hunting for a pig sounds like a film that would have a Cage at his absolute most chaotic.
Well, think again. In Michael Sarnoski’s beautiful drama Pig, Cage gives the best performance by any actor in 2021 and arguably the best of his illustrious career. As Rob, a former chef who fled the big city to the reclusive woods following the death of his wife, Cage plays a broken man who has found love in his pig and wants nothing more than to find it and bring it home. Cage never goes off the rails and never loses his cool. He is quiet and contemplative and wears the determination, anger, and sadness of Rob masterfully. He commands the screen shows why he was at one time one of the biggest movie stars in the world. It’s a legendary performance from a legendary actor in one of the best movies of the year.
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