2021 waves goodbye forever in a few days!! My end-of-year celebration continues with the best and worst performances of 2021. Great performances can make your movie. An actor's job is to convince you that their character is real and isn't just a person pretending to be a character. If you want to find out the fifteen that did feel like they were pretending, click here to see the fifteen worst performances of 2021. But these are the best. These are the ones that convinced me their character was real the most. These are my fifteen favorite performances of 2021.
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SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE FOLLOWING FILMS
In the Heights
West Side Story
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Don't Look Up
Emma Thompson as Baroness von Hellman (Cruella): Thompson chews up the scenery with her gleefully evil performance.
Frank Grillo as Roy Pulver (Boss Level): Charm and charisma at its finest.
Meryl Streep as Janie Orlean (Don't Look Up): Streep + Trump parody = perfection.
Rita Moreno as Valentina (West Side Story): A fabulous little addition to an already great cast.
Ariana DeBose as Anita (West Side Story): A great, different spin on Anita that worked just as well.
Timothée Chalamet as Yule (Don't Look Up): Chalamet proves how funny he can be.
Emily Rudd as Cindy Berman (Fear Street): A great, nervous performance that elevates this film.
Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela (In the Heights): An off-the-wall energy makes Rubin-Vega great.
Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario (In the Heights): A powerful and sad display of Smits' talent.
Annabelle Wallis as Maddie Mitchell (Malignant): The craziest performance in a horror movie this year.
Without further ado, here are my favorite performances of 2021.
15. Ansel Elgort as Tony (West Side Story)
One of the key things that Spielberg’s West Side Story did right was the performances and chemistry between our Tony and Maria. Ansel Elgort, I thought, had the perfect amount of charm, innocence, and menace for this role. Tony is a very complicated character that has multiple layers to him: he’s a romantic but can also be a commanding leader. He can be charming but can also be violent and cruel when he wants to be. Elgort hit all the right notes for all of those dimensions. When he’s around Maria, he’s a completely different person than when he’s around Riff and Bernardo. His reaction when he thinks that Maria is dead is so good and so devastating. That’s really what pushes him up here. I think Tony is one of the hardest roles to play, and Elgort nailed it. I wouldn’t complain if he got an Oscar nod.
14. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy(Candyman)
Candyman was a little bit of a mess, but one thing that was consistent was the acting. Leading that charge was Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the lead character of Anthony McCoy. He starts off as an adventurous artist that is clearly interested in the legend of Candyman. But Abdul-Mateen II was so good at spiraling down this rabbit hole of craziness. His character becomes Candyman by the end of the movie, and he makes you believe every step towards that transformation. The realization of the horror that he is experiencing is one of the most powerful scenes in a movie this year. Yahya is a very good actor. I think he’s a little underrated, and I love that he’s getting more roles such as Black Manta in Aquaman and Morpheus in The Matrix Resurrections.
13. Leonardo DiCaprio as Randall Mindy (Don't Look Up)
Don't Look Up was a different type of movie, and this was a different type of performance from DiCaprio. From Inception to Titanic to The Departed, DiCaprio is usually a cooler, more charming, and more likable lead. In Don't Look Up, he's kind of a loser. But he proves time and time again that he is just a masterful actor. He has this very meek personality throughout the movie, but when he needs to turn on his powerful, commanding side, he can do it. He flexes all of his acting chops here, and it just shows how amazing of a performer he is.
12. Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne (The Courier)
The Courier is a forgettable movie, but Cumberbatch’s naïve performance as this businessman-turned-spy is great. It feels real, which is good, because this movie is a true story. He has all the excitement that comes with learning you are going to be a spy, and then he turns on the nervous and emotional side in the second half as he realizes how hard of a job this is. This is another performance that I could easily see being talked about when awards season comes around. His performance is definitely worth watching The Courier for.
11. David Harbour as Red Guardian (Black Widow)
David Harbour is another very underrated actor that is on the rise. In Black Widow, he plays a fat, washed-up superhero/spy that worked under Dreykov. He is hysterical in this role. Red Guardian is just a complete idiot, and Harbour is so good as an idiot. He says all the wrong things at all the wrong times, but clearly is trying to re-connect with both Natasha and Yelena. Along with Florence Pugh, it’s one of the funniest performances of the year.
10. Tom Holland as Spider-Man (Spider-Man: No Way Home)
No Way Home was everything I wanted. And it was the best performance we’ve seen from Tom Holland. Yes, he’s great in Infinity War, and his death scene in that movie is hard to watch, but he’s just something else in No Way Home. He does get emotional moments, but he also actually starts to feel like Peter Parker. In Homecoming and Far From Home, he felt like a high school superhero. But in No Way Home, he feels like a real, adult superhero. Holland plays a much more mature Spider-Man in this movie. And you can tell that his acting talent has greatly improved since he was introduced in Civil War. He has all the charm and quips and likability that Andrew Garfield had with Tobey Maguire’s more mature, more serious type-character. That’s a great balance, and that is what makes him the best Spider-Man.
9. McKenna Grace as Phoebe Spengler (Ghostbusters: Afterlife)
McKenna Grace is one of the best child actors working right now, and she just keeps that going with her portrayal of Egon’s granddaughter in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Her character is trying to be three things: the descendant of Egon Spengler, an awkward teenager, and the next face of the Ghostbusters. Grace nails all three sides of those. She has the serious nerdiness of Egon while also feeling like the weird kid in school. But she can also be funny and charming in her own way. In a movie with Paul Rudd and Finn Wolfhard, she outshines both of them…by a lot.
8. Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene Price (King Richard)
It’s hard to match Will Smith’s powerhouse performance in King Richard. But, somehow, Aunjanue Ellis did it. As with Smith, she feels like a real mother. The two of them feel like a real married couple. She knows exactly how to bounce off of him, and in doing so, makes his performance better. She nails the sarcasm that a sassy mother would have, but she also nails the worries that a mother would have when Richard is hard on her daughters. It’s a great performance that I hope isn’t overlooked because Will Smith was so good.
7. Corey Hawkins as Benny (In the Heights)
Although Benny isn’t a huge part of In the Heights, I loved Corey Hawkins’ performance. I thought that he and Melissa Barrera were the two best singers in the film. I thought he was incredibly charming and likable. He just had an infectious sense of joy that really resonated with me. He always had a big smile on his face and always seemed like he was up to joke around. I do kind of wish that his role in the film was bigger, but the parts with him in it were still great.
6. Rachel Zegler as Maria (West Side Story)
As I said before, one of the key things that Spielberg’s West Side Story nailed was Tony and Maria. Part of that was the writing, part of that was Ansel Elgort, and the other part was Rachel Zegler. She is just so great. She acts like a teenager would act in this situation. She has the charm and likability that Maria should have while adding a layer of heart that Natalie Wood didn’t have in the original. Her performance in the final scene is just all kinds of heartbreaking. She’s another Oscar hopeful that I think should and will get nominated.
5. Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil (Cruella)
I love Emma Stone, but I wasn’t fully on board with her as Cruella de Vil. It seems weird to have a quiet, charming American actress play a loud, bratty, boasting British villainess. And even after the first trailer, I wasn’t convinced. However, when I saw the movie, she was perfect. She takes the role and very much uses the personality of the character from the original One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but also makes it her own. Her transformation from Estella to Cruella is great. You can see how the Baroness wrongs her. You can see the slow turn to madness that is happening. But all of this hatred and cruelty comes from a place of love, and Stone never loses sight of that. And that’s what makes her performance amazing. She’s also just great at having the Cruella-like personality, with that selfish demeanor and evil cackle.
4. Melissa Barrera as Vanessa (In the Heights)
Another extremely likable character, Vanessa from In the Heights is a hard role to get down. She’s sassy and independent, but also has this character arc wherein she learns to love Washington Heights and Usnavi. And Melissa Barrera gives you all of that. She has the sass. She acts very independent. She can be defensive sometimes. But, as a lot of the actors on this list have done, she gives us layers. When the vulnerable side of Vanessa cracks through, Barrera makes sure that she acts a little bit more vulnerable. Her facial expressions become a bit more worried. Her lines of dialogue aren’t said with as much confidence. That’s really detailed and impeccable acting. She also has an amazing voice. So, yeah. She was pretty good.
3. Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova (Black Widow)
Florence Pugh is one of the breakout stars of the past few years. 2019 was a huge year for her, with Midsommar, Fighting With My Family, and Little Women, and then 2020 shut the movie business down, and 2021 brought her into the MCU. And I think she will be one of the faces of the next phase of the MCU. She is just amazing. Yelena has a very distinct and weird personality. She has a very dry sense of humor. She’s endlessly likable. But she also has a guilt and sadness to her, whether it’s about being abandoned by her parents or sister or being tortured for years in the red room. She outshined Scarlett Johansson in this movie by a lot. And that was very impressive. She was just as good in Hawkeye, and I cannot wait to see more of her.
2. Anthony Ramos as Usnavi de la Vega (In the Heights)
The thing that elevated In the Heights to the next level was Anthony Ramos’ performance. From the contagious charm to the inner demons that Usnavi has, Ramos just gives the audience all of that. He is so likable. Anthony Ramos is just a cool guy, so his likability as Usnavi was never in question. But the optimistic and emotional parts of this performance is what makes it one of the best of the year. In the movie, Usnavi is very hopeful that he can escape Washington Heights, but keeps encountering things that are hindering his dreams. And Ramos gives you that hopeful optimism while sharing the foreground with the sad, emotional side of Usnavi. If he doesn’t get nominated, I’m boycotting the Oscars.
1. Will Smith as Richard Williams (King Richard)
I don’t really like Will Smith that much. I think he’s cheesy in most of his movies. But not King Richard. Not at all. He’s fantastic. He embodies this person so well. From his emotions to his little facial expressions, he just nails everything. I absolutely think he will get nominated for Best Actor. I think he will probably win. Acting isn’t just about delivering the lines right. It’s also about performing with your body. You have to walk the right way. Move your arms the right way. Eat the right way. Swing your tennis racket the right way. Smith does all of that. And that’s what makes his performance the best of the year.