The 20 Best Movie Performances of 2021

10.  Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Power of the Dog

Peter Gordon is the awkward, effeminate son of the local innkeeper in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. The film, which takes place in a small rural town during the 1920s, consists of a large cast of traditionally masculine male characters. Peter is considered an “other,” and thus, he sticks out compared to the conventionally manly men who litter the screen. His status as the odd one out is particularly noteworthy because of his relationship with Phil Burbank, the nasty psychological tormenter.

The dynamic between the two characters needs to be talked about. Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch appear to be an unusual pairing at first glance, but the two actors play off of one another in interesting ways. Cumberbatch plays the aggressor while Smit-McPhee plays the more timid victim. This back-and-forth helps illustrate the unusual power dynamic that causes so much conflict.

Even without Cumberbatch, Smit-McPhee does a stupendous job. His frail, often uncomfortable demeanor makes for an anxiety-inducing cinematic experience. His actions directly affect the mood of the audience. Because of him, The Power of the Dog easily earns its label as a psychological western.


9. Renate Reinsve – The Worst Person in the World

It’s almost unfair to call The Worst Person in the World a romantic comedy. That genre has so much baggage that comes with it, so naturally people might be cautious about diving into it. Director Joachim Trier doesn’t make conventional films though, and The Worst Person in the World makes that absolutely evident.

The Worst Person in the World pushes past genre conventions to deliver something wholly unique. Every individual element comes together in such an impressive manner, and while all of those things deserve to be lauded, this is a list about performances. Renate Reisnve, the film’s lead, is simply magical.

Reinsve lands a spot on this list almost exclusively because of her charm. The Norwegian actress constantly finds a way to make viewers smile. Even though the subject matter isn’t always uplifting, Reinsve makes a positive impression. If she doesn’t win you over, nothing will.


8. Simon Rex – Red Rocket

Mikey Davies, the protagonist of Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, is a scumbag. He’s a narcissistic man-child who manipulates his friends and family so that he can succeed. In theory, he’s not the type of character people would want to spend two hours with, but in practice, he’s hypnotic. That’s all thanks to Simon Rex.

Rex probably isn’t the first person that comes to mind when you think of an Oscar-caliber performer. Before Red Rocket, he was probably best known for his work in the Scary Movie franchise. Most of his noteworthy acting performances have been over-the-top caricatures, and although he has proven to be funny, he’s never been the go-to guy for nuanced roles. With Red Rocket, he’s still able to show off his comedic skills, but he also has the opportunity to explore previously uncharted territory.

Basically, he uses his charisma to his advantage. On the surface, Mikey isn’t an unlikable character. Like most narcissists, he’s actually fairly charming. However, under that charm you’ll find something sinister. Rex understands this; he knows that it’s best to sprinkle in the character’s more insufferable qualities throughout the runtime.

In general, he seems to have a firm grasp on how he wants to portray the character. The quality of his performance is no coincidence. He gives us a seemingly charming character who slowly reveals the darkest parts of his personality. This slow revelation results in a movie that’s hard to look away from in spite of the protagonist’s obvious issues.


7. Agathe Rousselle – Titane

Titane presents viewers with a seemingly unlikable protagonist. Alexia is a sociopathic serial killer with a laundry list of detestable qualities. Throughout the opening half-hour, her actions are frequently destructive, but she seems to show no remorse. Then the conflict deepens and the layers start to peel back. When this happens, we get to see an actress in her element.

Although this is Agathe Rousselle first role in a feature length film, she absolutely devours the scenery. She makes the audience care about a murderer with mechanophilia. Again, the opening doesn’t paint a pretty picture of this character, but it’s so hard to dislike Alexia if only because Rousselle is so powerful in the role.

Her performance makes it easy to embrace Titane’s weirdness. This is by no means an approachable movie, but the acting and writing are just too damn good. In other words, there’s a diamond beneath the serial killer themed dust; people just need to appreciate it.


6. Penelope Cruz – Parallel Mothers

Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar have consistently proven to be a match made in heaven. From her small part in Live Flesh to her Oscar winning performance in Volver, Cruz has always found a way to improve upon Almodovar’s already magnificent work. With Parallel Mothers, the dynamic duo continues to excel.

Parallel Mothers revolves around two women who form a connection after giving birth the same day. This initial connection eventually turns into something far more complex, resulting in a series of increasingly melodramatic events. It’s a messy, overly theatrical movie, but it’s also a mesmerizing look at shattered nuclear families bolstered by an exemplary lead performance.

Cruz puts her entire soul into the performance. Janis, the main character, is thrown head-first into disarray. As time passes, the stakes get higher and the drama intensifies. Cruz carefully transforms as the story moves from one point to the next. We see her character gain confidence and independence through Cruz’s first-class acting.

Is this her best performance to date? That’s up for debate. At the very least, this is Cruz’s greatest achievement in over a decade. She exudes a tremendous amount of confidence, and this goes a long way. Future Almodovar collaborations are practically an inevitability, and we should be grateful for that.


5. Will Smith – King Richard

For the past decade or so, Will Smith has made several earnest attempts to captivate audiences in dramatic roles. There was one issue; the movies weren’t particularly good. Smith obviously wanted to win over critics, but given the quality of movies like Collateral Beauty and (to a lesser extent) Concussion, that wasn’t happening.

King Richard mostly breaks the curse. Honestly, it still fails to compete with the best releases of 2021, but it’s a well-made biopic that’s easy to sit through. Much of the success comes as a result of a terrific lead performance from Will Smith. It’s easy to criticize the formulaic script and lengthy runtime, but Smith is at the top of his game.

Due to Smith’s star power, it has always been hard to separate the actor from the fictional character he’s playing. Luckily, that’s not the case this time around. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching Will Smith playing a role; it really feels like Richard Williams has been brought to life just for this film.

Lead performances in biopics have always been inconsistent. Certain actors feel like the makeup does all it needs to do, but not this time. Smith picks up on every miniscule characteristic, and as such, he gives a performance that will be remembered for a long time.


4. Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter

You would think that after masterful performances in The Crown, The Favourite, and The Father Olivia Colman would take a much needed break. After all, being one of the most talented actresses in the world has to be exhausting. Alas, Colman only doubled down in 2021. She popped up in animated movies, prestige miniseries, and travel documentaries; in other words, she was inescapable, and that’s okay.

It’s hard to get tired of Olivia Colman because, again, she is a brilliant performer. While the aforementioned appearances deserve a shout-out, they’re nothing compared to Colman’s performance in The Lost Daughter.

Olivia Colman plays an emotionally scarred college professor who begins to obsess over a young woman and her daughter. This obsession leads to uncomfortable encounters and plenty of reminiscing about the past. Colman is an expert at playing emotionally vulnerable characters, and that remains true with this role. You can see her trauma with every slight change of expression. It’s simultaneously stunning and brutal.


3. Kristen Stewart – Spencer

As a collective society, can we finally stop pretending that Kristen Stewart is a bad actress? Her association with Twilight has made her an easy target for over a decade, but anyone who has kept up with her career will know that Twilight is just a small section of a much bigger picture. Stewart has been impressing critics for years with works like Personal Shopper, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Still Alice. With the release of Spencer, it looks like the general public is finally starting to catch on.

Stewart’s road to an Oscar nomination was bumpy. After earning plenty of awards from smaller organizations, she failed to pick up steam from the SAG awards and the BAFTAs. The omissions were widely noted, but that doesn’t mean they were widely accepted. People were furious all the way up until the stars aligned; Stewart thankfully picked up an Academy Award nomination.

It’s surprising to see the Academy embrace such an unusual film, but considering how powerful Stewart is in the role, it’s hardly incorrect. Like most of Larrain’s films, Spencer is polarizing. It’s a biopic that doesn’t function like a biopic. Rather than focusing on the events in a particular person’s life, Larrain focuses on the character’s inner turmoil. Princess Dianna was an emotionally shattered woman, and Stewart does everything she possibly can to make that clear.

The end result is magnificent. Larrain’s unique direction is always appreciated, but Stewart makes Spencer something special. Her work is unparalleled even if it comes off as atypical next to more mainstream portrayals of the character. We can only pray that Stewart continues to dominate.


2. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog

Phil Burbank might be the most unlikable character of 2021, and that’s saying something. Michael Meyers, Lyutsifer Safin, and Green Goblin obviously aren’t characters that you root for, but they aren’t as outwardly despicable as Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in The Power of the Dog. He’s manipulative, self-absorbed, and destructive. He’s also bewitching.

Although he has a tendency to play likable characters, Cumberbatch has played villains before. Khan and Smaug aren’t exactly the good guys, for example. These antagonistic roles certainly have merit, but they lack something compared to this role. Cumberbatch gets into the character’s head. He does more than simply read the lines, and that’s why he’s so magnetic.

Burbank is the polar opposite of a one-note character. He has more layers than most villains in recent memory. Campion’s script makes that clear, but Cumberbatch goes the extra mile with his performance. By paying close attention to his mannerisms and voice inflections, he adds on additional layers.

The Power of the Dog is indisputably one of the greatest movies of the past few years, and although it would be unfair to pin it all on one actor, we still need to give Cumberbatch the credit he deserves. His character is relentless, and although he can be hard to root for, he’s nevertheless absorbing.


1. Nicolas Cage – Pig

You read that right. Nicolas Cage, star of Ghost Rider, Pay the Ghost, and Jiu Jitsu landed the number one spot on this list. Throughout the 2010s, Cage was one of cinema’s biggest punching bags, but that hadn’t always been the case. Cage may have developed the inability to turn down roles, but he’s still an Oscar winning actor who has proven himself numerous times. It’s just easy to forget when you see the cover for Running with the Devil on your favorite streaming service.

Recent releases like Mandy and Color Out of Space showed that Cage hadn’t lost his sparkle; it was just hiding. This leads us to Pig, an absolutely essential drama featuring Cage’s greatest performance to date.

Cage plays Rob Field, a former chef who decides to live off the grid with his prized foraging pig. This pig is the one thing keeping his character sane, so when the pig disappears, things get ugly. A brief summary of Pig paints it as a John Wick clone, but there’s far more to it than that.

Pig is a movie about loss and grief. It’s a movie about holding yourself together when there’s nothing worth living for. It is completely different from the brain-dead action movies that Cage has signed on for in recent years. This time around, you’ll find an understated, slow-paced drama that digs its way into your brain.

This means that Cage dials it back. He delivers a subdued performance that feels so different from what we’ve seen before. He presents viewers with a character who is filled to the brim with depth. He has the power to make you tear up, but he also has the power to make you think.