The 21 Best Performances of 2021

Sure, everyone looks to the Academy Awards for the ultimate achievement in acting honors, but the in-crowd knows that FilmJabber tells it how it is. I normally publish this list right around New Years, but as the pandemic goes on, what is time anyway?

Here are the 21 best performances of 2021, gender and size of role be damned. What do you agree with? Hate? Tell me @FilmJabber.

21. Jared Leto, House of Gucci

I heard about Leto’s performance before I saw it, and when I saw it, it took me more than a couple takes for me to go, “Is that Jared Leto?” The divisive actor’s portrayal of a buffoonish cousin injects more energy into the Ridley Scott drama than the rest of the cast combined, and that’s not a slant against the rest of the cast.

20. Taylour Paige, Zola

In the frenetic Zola, Taylour Paige’s character is just along for the ride, bouncing from one weird scenario to the next. But that doesn’t mean Paige the actress doesn’t know exactly what’s going on. She delivers a terrific “straight man” performance, portraying increased bafflement as the weird, allegedly true life circumstances threaten to consume her.

19. Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World

Robert Patrick in “Peacemaker” may be, truly, the worst person in the world, but Renate Reinsve’s portrayal of an indecisive and perhaps selfish young woman navigating her career and relationships may be a close second. That’s not entirely true, but Reinsve is impressive in that she is able to live up to her film’s title while remaining immensely likable and relatable.

18. Rebecca Furgeson, Dune

Dune has a great cast, but Rebecca Furgeson stands apart in a way that only Rebecca Furgeson is wont to do. At once playing a frightened mother, a confident witch, and a chilling, otherworldly force, the actress somehow wraps these oft-conflicting roles into something transcendent.

17. Will Smith, King Richard

I nearly overlooked Will Smith for his portrayal of the intense father of Venus and Serena Williams, if only for the fact that the film itself is a perfectly fine biopic. But Smith once again gives it his all, making “King Richard” a mesmerizing screen presence. The movie itself is just OK.

16. Olivia Coleman, The Lost Daughter

Coleman’s protagonist in The Lost Daughter is not a likable one, and in its translation from book to film it appears some of the critical nuance that would help explain why she is the way she is has been lost, doing her no favors. But Coleman is once again a head-turning presence here, giving audiences one of the most complex and emotion-churning portrayals of the year.

15. Riz Ahmed, Mogul Mowgli

The only reason Ahmed isn’t higher on this list is that he essentially made the exact same movie, with the same plot and character arc, a year earlier in The Sound of Metal. That doesn’t mean he isn’t fantastic here.

14. Agatha Rousselle, Titane

In Titane, it’s impossible to separate Agatha Rousselle from the character she plays, and the character she plays goes to some dark, dark places, including having violent sex with and ultimately being impregnated by an automobile. Rousselle goes all in to the degree that if you told me she was actually bleeding car oil I’d believe you.

13. Catriona Balfe, Belfast

Belfast boasts a lot of great performances (which makes its inability to full click into gear all the more baffling), but Catriona Balfe, playing the strained not-quite-single mother of an impressionable young boy, is the emotional core of the film. 

12. Riley Keough, Zola

If Taylour Paige represents the audience in Zola, reacting to what occurs with a loud “WTF,” Riley Keough literally plays the WTF. Chomping and chewing scenery with reckless abandon, Keough goes all out and the movie benefits greatly from it.

11. Emilia Jones, Coda

Jones, winner of Seattle’s Best Youth Performance 2021, gives a memorable turn as the daughter of two deaf parents (and sister to a deaf brother). CODA isn’t her first performance, but her emotionally powerful turn here feels like the beginning of a long and illustrious career.

10. Anthony Ramos, In the Heights

The second-best musical of the year (behind Encanto, another Lin-Manuel Miranda-driven piece) is full of energy, charisma, and good-looking people, and at its core is Anthony Ramos, who bursts with charm and passion. Would he have gotten more award attention had In the Heights been released in December?

9. Dev Patel, The Green Knight

The Green Knight is one of the best movies of 2021, and while much of the credit goes to the absolutely stunning and gorgeous presentation by director David Lowery, Dev Patel delivers a subtly powerful performance as a cowardly man on a quest to find himself.

8. Bradley Cooper, Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley was decent, but Bradley Cooper sinks his teeth into every line of dialogue thrown his way–and at an unnecessary two-hour and 20-minute runtime, he is given plenty to gnaw on. This may be Cooper’s best performance to date.

7. Troy Kotsur, Coda

The first deaf actor nominated for an Academy Award, Kotsur is completely deserving of every accolade thrown his way. Blisteringly funny and ridiculously expressive, Kotsur is fantastic.

6. Brenda Deiss, Red Rocket

Sean Baker’s Red Rocket is jam-packed full of wildly great performances, but Brenda Weiss, who plays Mikey’s weathered mother-in-law Lil, looks and feels like the real deal. Did Baker’s location crew just really like her house and she just came with it? Who knows, but Deiss is perfectly cast and makes the most of her relatively small role.  

5. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog

Is he a villain, or just a fucking asshole? It doesn’t matter much, because in the end Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of the most ruthless performances of the year. His portrayal of Phil is brutal, calculating, and destructive. Could I give higher praise?

4. Morfyyd Clark, Saint Maud

Very few people actually saw Saint Maud, but those who did know that Mortfyyd Clark gives an excruciatingly good performance as a young woman so consumed by her faith that God begins to speak directly to her. Then again, she may be having a psychotic break and slowly descending into madness. Either way, Clark is sensational.

3. The Cast of Mass

I hate giving ties or what not, but I’m the author so who cares. I could have put Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, or Reed Birney on this list individually, but as terrific as each of them are, they are much more powerful as an ensemble. Mass presents a masterclass in acting, and deserves to be seen.

2. Cooper Hoffman, Licorice Pizza

I feel stupid admitting this, but I didn’t realize Cooper Hoffman was Philip Seymor Hoffman’s son until writing my review of Licorice Pizza. Never mind that he looks like his late father, acts like him, and has similar talent. Hoffman, who plays extremely confident teenager Gary in his big screen debut, oozes with charisma and commands every scene he’s in. 

1. Simon Rex, Red Rocket

Speaking of charisma, Simon Rex gives the best performance of 2021. Funny, smart, stupid, likable, and despicable all at the same time, Rex takes on one of the most complicated, challenging, and contradictory roles written quite some time–and he does it in stride. This is also my not-so-subtle reminder to watch Red Rocket already.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Top 10 Movie Lists