The 20 Best Movie Performances of 2021

2022 is finally beginning to feel like a new year, and as such, it’s only appropriate to honor the films of yesteryear so that we can move onto something fresh. With the Oscar nominations out and the retrospective articles winding down, it’s time for a series of last hurrahs to celebrate the end of last year. As always, Taste of Cinema will be discussing the greatest performances of the previous year.

In spite of the lingering pandemic, last year brought the goods when it came to cinematic accomplishments. Jane Campion crept out of the shadows to direct a masterpiece, Maggie Gyllenhaal showed us what she can do as a director, and Pablo Larraín directed another bizarre biopic. With these directorial achievements came a number of outstanding performances.

That’s why we need a list like this. We practically need to celebrate the stars who made the pandemic a little more bearable. Whether it’s Denzel Washington’s haunting portrayal of Macbeth or Lady Gaga’s gloriously campy take on Patrizia Reggiani, there was plenty of entertainment to enjoy.

With that in mind, it’s important to realize just how much entertainment there was. Frankly, this list couldn’t begin to cover every notable performance. If your favorite didn’t make it, there’s a chance it barely missed the cut. At the end of the day, the competition was fierce; but the choices had to be finalized somehow.


20. Caitriona Balfe – Belfast

Keneth Branagh’s foray into more personal territory garnered critical acclaim upon its release. With Belfast, the successful director decided to step aside from literary adaptations in favor of something that focused on his upbringing. This change in scenery resulted in something that stood out in spite of some familiar ingredients.

While the personable storytelling does a lot of the heavy lifting, Belfast also benefits from a terrific ensemble. The recent SAG award nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture is well-deserved. Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, and Jude Hill all find ways to carry their respective scenes, but Caitriona Balfe stands out in particular.

Belfast benefits from its grounded approach to the subject matter, and Caitríona Balfe seems to get that. Balfe gives us a level-headed, naturalistic performance as the protagonist’s mother. Given the gravity of the events happening on screen, she could have easily overacted, but her more neutral approach helps the film stay tonally consistent.

Obviously, Belfast isn’t solely dependent on one performance. That being said, Balfe once again proves that she is always a welcome ingredient. She consistently elevates the material thanks to her careful attention to detail, and that ultimately earns her a spot on this list.


19. Ruth Negga – Passing

Passing was poised to be an awards season juggernaut shortly before its release. The subject matter was resonant, the cast was exceptional, and the source material was well-regarded. On top of that, it earned rave responses when it debuted at Sundance. Then the awards started coming and Passing mostly fell under-the-radar. People liked it, sure, but it had trouble competing with the feel-good movies like King Richard and CODA.

In spite of its inability to pick up a slew of major nominations, it does have one trick up its sleeve – Ruth Negga. It has been over a year since Passing screened at Sundance, but Negga continues to earn praise, and for good reason.

For the uninitiated, Passing revolves around two light-skinned black women living in Harlem back in the 1920s. Irene, played by Tessa Thompson, lives an ordinary life with her husband and kids. The same can’t be said about Clare Bellew, Ruth Negga’s character. Bellew passes as a white woman, and this allows her to live a life of luxury with her wealthy white husband. When the two characters run into each other for the first time in ages, they decide to form an unconventional friendship.

Tessa Thompson’s take on the more mild-mannered Irene should be recognized, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t hit as hard as Negga’s performance. To be fair, Negga has better material to work with considering the complexity of her character, but that shouldn’t discredit her achievements.

Negga gives a nuanced performance that adds additional layers to an already multifaceted character. The audience can easily make inferences about the ins and outs of Bellew’s character thanks to a picture-perfect casting decision. She makes an effort to show rather than tell, and it helps the movie stand out.


18. Andrew Garfield – tick, tick… Boom!

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut could have gone in so many directions. His decision to tackle a Jonathan Larson musical was fascinating, especially since this particular musical isn’t exactly conventional in its storytelling methods. Its status as an awards season contender didn’t become clear until it made its way to Netflix in November. tick, tick… Boom! turned out to be a crowd pleasing success with a wide array of impressive qualities.

Although there’s plenty to talk about, the most impressive quality is the leading man. Andrew Garfield once again proves that his acting chops are among the best in the industry. Whether he’s swinging webs or belting showtunes, Garfield finds a way to hold viewers captive. His charisma allows him to draw viewers in like a magnet regardless of the role he’s given.

With tick, tick…Boom! he was given the daunting task of playing acclaimed composer Jonathan Larson. One might consider this a challenge, but Garfield captures Larson’s manic energy by recreating everything from mannerisms to speech patterns. Not only does he effortlessly embody the musical icon; he also finds a way to keep you smiling until the credits roll.


17. Rachel Zegler – West Side Story

Last year, Steven Spielberg definitively proved that no genre can hold him back. Most people suspected that he could make magic out of anything, but West Side Story really sealed the deal. After years of experimenting with so many different styles, Spielberg finally gave fans an audacious musical that actively attempted to reinvigorate a timeless story.

West Side Story’s accomplishments can’t be overstated. That being said, this is a list about individual performances rather than large-scale achievements. As such, it’s only fair to highlight just one of the many things that elevate the film. In this case, we’ll be talking about Rachel Zegler.

Given the storied history of West Side Story, one might assume Zegler faced an uphill battle. After all, Natalie Wood’s performance remains iconic. Luckily, Zegler takes a different approach. She doesn’t try to replicate Wood; she takes the core of Maria’s character and expands upon it in unexpected ways.

This seems to be the overall goal of the movie; it wants to coexist with the 1961 adaptation rather than replace it. Spielberg took the source material and adapted it for 21st century audiences. Likewise, Zegler successfully shakes up the previously established formula.


16. Clayne Crawford – The Killing of Two Lovers

On May 14, 2021, The Killing of Two Lovers was quietly released on VOD platforms. Despite earning rave reviews, it mostly came and went. To be fair, this low-budget indie flick is almost completely devoid of mainstream appeal. It’s a melancholic domestic drama with snail-like pacing and naturalistic dialogue. There are no dramatic character changes or feel-good moments; this movie is gritty and uncompromising.

It’s also an emotionally resonant portrait of a broken family. For those willing to stomach the downcast mood, The Killing of Two Lovers is stellar. Although it’s a tough movie to sit through, there’s an undeniable attention to detail that helps the film eschew any potential clichés.

None of this would work without a solid performance from the family patriarch, and thankfully, Clayne Crawford delivers the best performance of his career. By giving the leading character a stoic edge, viewers are able to see the more subtle intricacies of inner turmoil.

The Killing of Two Lovers is an uncomfortably downcast movie, but it’s also a powerful one. Because of Crawford’s commitment to the role, we get to see the various layers of a seemingly simple character. It can be hard to sit through, but it’s rewarding for fans of intricate character studies.


15. Hidetoshi Nishijima – Drive My Car

Drive My Car is such a nuanced analysis of loss that it practically required a perfect leading man. Good enough wouldn’t be good enough; Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s magnum opus needed an outright star, and it got one.

Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Yūsuke Kafuku, a soft-spoken theater actor who loses his wife to a brain hemorrhage. Although their relationship was rocky, this turns out to be his breaking point. Kafuku’s life begins to unravel until he finds something to motivate him; shortly after the loss of his wife, he is given the opportunity to direct an ambitious version of Uncle Vanya.

Drive My Car avoids spelling anything out for the audience. It is a dense, slow-moving character study that hones in on the leisurely mental recovery of its protagonist. Every individual element is more muted than viewers have come to expect from Hollywood melodramas, but that doesn’t make the film any less rewarding.

This mental recovery is spellbinding. Nishijima understands the intricacies of the subject matter. This leads to a performance that does exactly what it needs to without being too in-your-face. A small amount of patience might help, but if you can commit to the runtime, you’ll find something special.


14. Rachel Sennott – Shiva Baby

By now, you’ve probably heard something about Shiva Baby. It’s not quite as recognizable as the more high-profile comedies of the year, but its status as a critical darling is hard to ignore. Generally speaking, critics have highlighted the unnerving tone and quirky sense of humor, but Rachel Sennott’s performance shouldn’t be forgotten.

Shiva Baby has a large ensemble cast, and Sennott has chemistry with just about everyone. She plays off of the characters in unexpected ways, resulting in a performance that switches between hilarious and ominous at a moments notice. Put simply, she delivers one of the greatest breakthrough performances of 2021.


13. Denzel Washington – The Tragedy of Macbeth

Shakespeare is the most adapted author in history, and it’s not even close. We have seen countless variations of his stories throughout the years. Baz Luhrmann isn’t the only person to get his hands on Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, Kenneth Branagh directed Hamlet shortly after Franco Zeffirelli gave us his version. It’s an endless cycle.

As such, it’s easy to be pessimistic about another Macbeth adaptation, especially since the last one came out only six years prior. Luckily, Joel Coen understands what makes a good adaptation. His version of Macbeth is slick, violent, and consistently engrossing. It doesn’t shake up the story, but it’s thrilling to watch nevertheless.

The titular Scottish lord is played by Denzel Washington, who once again delivers the goods. The part has been played by so many different people, but Washington brings something new to the table. He truly shows the intricacies of the character. Macbeth is a deeply flawed person, but he’s also a confident person. Washington gives a performance with enough gravitas to make that evident.


12. Lady Gaga – House of Gucci

House of Gucci was not the prestige biographical drama that people expected. Instead, it was a gleefully campy mishmash of conflicting ideas featuring a cast of performers who did everything in their power to carry the entire movie. Ridley Scott’s latest absolutely deserves to be criticized for its weak script, uneven tone, and wonky pacing. However, there’s no denying the fact that every single cast member gave it their all.

In spite of some questionable accents, House of Gucci features an ensemble of talented performers hamming it up for over two hours. “Hammy” might have a negative connotation, but in this case, it’s exactly what viewers need.

At the center, you’ll find Lady Gaga. After having shown off her acting skills with A Star Is Born, she once again proves that she’s a valuable asset. Like the rest of the cast, Gaga takes the outlandish material and rolls with it. She gives a big, boisterous performance that constantly grabs viewers by the collar. It might not be as emotionally impactful as other entries on the list, but it’s unbelievably entertaining.


11. Troy Kotsur – CODA

Representation continues to be an important part of the film industry, and this is largely due to the fact that we still don’t have enough of it. This is exactly why Music, Sia’s misguided attempt at a disability drama, flopped so hard. People want to see authenticity; they want to see a variety of voices.

That’s part of the reason why CODA is such a hit. Even a year after its debut at Sundance, CODA continues to resonate with viewers. While it follows the coming-of-age formula pretty closely, it stands out by telling a story about people who remain underrepresented in cinema, the deaf community.

The film focuses on a teenage girl who is a child of deaf adults. In other words, she is the only hearing member of her family. She tries to figure out her life after high school, but it becomes increasingly difficult as the family struggles to let her go. Pessimistic viewers might call it a little sappy, and maybe they’re right, but it’s also well-written and well-acted.

If it hasn’t been made clear, CODA features several hearing impaired cast members. All of them do an outstanding job, but Troy Kotsur has received the most attention. Kotsur has deservedly received countless award nominations for his portrayal of the protagonist’s father. He finds a way to elicit belly laughs within the opening minutes, and when things get serious, he switches gears naturally.

Basically, there’s a careful balance between humor and pathos, and Kotsur knows exactly how to move from one moment to the next. He keeps the flow of the narrative moving, but he also adds oodles of charm to the mix. Expect him to put up a fight during the Oscar race.