The Best Film Performances of 2021

Ensemble in a Musical or Comedy
The French Dispatch
Unlike some great ensembles who feel like real families or friends, what’s great about The French Dispatch is how terrific each performance is despite limited interaction and screen time. Some actors feel like they only had a day or two on set, yet they still created vibrant characters whose skills, motivations and flaws are apparent from the start.

Actor in a Musical or Comedy
Simon Rex, Red Rocket
Mikey Saber is one of the most abhorrent characters to grace the screen in 2021. Yet his endless charisma and perseverance make him impossible to resist. Most of the people Mikey interacts with know he’ll take advantage until he has no more use for them, yet they can’t help themselves. And the ones who don’t pay dearly for their naivety. But there’s something so compelling about Rex’s performance that makes you root for him all the same. It’s something he shares with the Safdie Brothers’ protagonists (and previous winners of this award) in Good Time and Uncut Gems.

Actress in a Musical or Comedy
Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Chastain gives biopics a good name again in this gently satirical look at the Bakkers’ evangelical empire. What makes the performance stand out among so many others is not the vocal affectations or having to spend hours in the makeup chair each day. No, it’s because she creates a real flawed but loving person. You can feel how wounded she is when the little misogynistic phrases – which I heard all the time growing up in the evangelical church – get lobbed her way.

Supporting Actor in a Musical or Comedy
Mike Faist, West Side Story
Like many actors in Steven Spielberg’s marvelous adaptation of West Side Story, I had never seen Faist before and was blown away. As Riff, he’s all brash impulse with little regard for others. But he’s so powerful, enticing his brothers in the Jets to defeat the Sharks in the turf war. He’s wrong, he’s racist, he’s raging. But he’s so convincing, you can see why Tony has such a hard time leaving him and the gang behind. The moment that sealed it for me: When Riff throws on his tough guy act to buy a gun illegally, then seconds later plays with the deadly weapon like a toy. A masterful moment of writing, directing, editing and performance.

Supporting Actress in a Musical or Comedy
Olga Merediz, In the Heights
Even though West Side Story blew all other musicals out of the water, it’s easy to forget just what a delight In the Heights was. Merediz, who originated the role of Abuela on Broadway, brought just as much life to this version. Her performance of “Paciencia y Fe” is a true show-stopper, one of the scenes of the year. Her warmth has such an impact when she’s onscreen and her legacy is felt whenever she’s not.

Ensemble in a Drama
The clearest example yet that the Oscars need a Best Acting Ensemble category. Nominating any single person from this quartet – which could happen for Ann Dowd or Jason Isaacs – feels cruel. Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney are just as good and essential to the story. As the parents of a school shooter and one of his victims, they create a raw emotional journey, making Mass one of the most urgent and moving films of the year.

Actor in a Drama
Nicolas Cage, Pig
It’s true that Cage has made some dreadful movies in the last decade. But unlike Bruce Willis, who seems to make exclusively Redbox fodder, Cage has also turned in some of his best performances in the same timeframe. Pig might be his best ever. When his beloved truffle hunter is kidnapped (or pignapped, as it were), his journey back to his old life in Portland, Oregon, is harsh. But because Cage underplays perfectly, the resolution is absolutely devastating.

Actress in a Drama
Agathe Rousselle, Titane
It’s very likely the Oscars won’t nominate a single foreign-language performance in the Best Actress category. That’s a real shame since you could easily make a whole lineup of ladies who don’t speak English in their films. While I loved Virginie Efira in Benedetta and Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers, I have to give this award to Rousselle. There’s not a moment when Alexia isn’t performing. Dancing at an auto show for sleazy men to ogle her, hiding her homicidal tendencies in public, or pretending to be a man returning home years after his abduction, there’s a constant fear of being exposed. About the only time she’s real and vulnerable is when she’s having sex with a car (yes, really) or experiencing the painful aftermath.

Supporting Actor in a Drama
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
It feels like a lifetime ago, but Judas and the Black Messiah came out in 2021! Included for last year’s Oscars due to some wonky eligibility rules, no one really saw it until February, when it played Sundance and then hit HBO Max (and a few open theaters). While the film doesn’t entirely work on the whole, Kaluuya is absolutely electrifying as Fred Hampton. As a tremendous orator, Kaluuya gets plenty of opportunities to make the big speeches. But it’s the little moments, showing how truly committed he is to his cause, that make this performance essential.

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Jodie Comer, The Last Duel
Comer truly plays a supporting role, as the men who try to own her dominate the story. But she takes over in the final act, delivering the truth of what she’s endured, risking her life and her husband’s reputation (which he values more than her). The movie doesn’t exactly end on a triumphant note, but by staying sincere in a movie that occasionally plays a little ridiculous, she owns the film despite limited screen time.

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