Best-movie and best-performance lists are hard to make, because it’s nearly impossible to narrow your emotional responses down to an inventory of choices, and harder still to rank them. But if drawing up a top 10 movies list was difficult in 2021, making a similar list of performances was truly daunting. In their vitality and variety, the movie performances of 2021 were formidable. Every time I thought I’d winnowed my list of favorites down to a solid 10, I’d be hit by the memory of another face.
This year I, like many others, began stepping cautiously back into the world, including the world of movies. Faces, especially seen big, took on new importance. In returning to the movies, has anyone else felt as if they’d gone off on a long, solitary journey, and finally returned home? The faces, the gestures, of these performers—a solid list of 10, followed by an admittedly sprawling number of honorable mentions—moved and thrilled me in 2021. But most of all, they welcomed me back to life.
Oscar Isaac, The Card Counter
As a poker whiz with one of the finest, silliest pseudonyms ever conceived, William Tell, Oscar Isaac is the visible soul of Paul Schrader’s searching drama about guilt and redemption. William is haunted by anguish over his past: a former soldier, he inflicted torture at Abu Ghraib. Now he’s adrift, and the desolate ocean in his eyes tells us how lost he really is. Isaac is the matinee idol we barely deserve in our short-attention-span world, an era when we rarely give ourselves time to read a face. In The Card Counter, he makes having a conscience sexy.
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard
Behind every great king there’s an even greater queen. As Oracene “Brandy” Williams, mother of Venus and Serena, Aunjanue Ellis gives a performance that’s like a killer surprise backhand. If her husband’s tactics for turning his daughters into champions are sometimes overbearing, Brandy’s are tempered by empathetic diplomacy, though she’s no less dedicated. Ellis has been giving terrific performances for decades now, both in dramas (like Ray) and in comedies (like Undercover Brother). She shines once again here, worthy of any crown.
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Anders Danielsen Lie, The Worst Person in the World
As comic-book artist Aksel in Joaquim Trier’s bittersweet romantic comedy, Anders Danielsen Lie has one of the most piercing monologues heard in any recent film—resonant especially for those who hold books and other physical media dear to their hearts. Lie turns this moment into a piercing meditation on what art means to us, in the middle of our lives or at the end. If a performance can be both shattering and exquisitely gentle, this one is.
Kathryn Hunter, The Tragedy of Macbeth
When is just one witch better than three? When they’re all played by the same actress. Born in New York but raised in England, Kathryn Hunter—a RADA-trained actor and a member of the experimental theatre troupe Complicité—may not be a performer whose name you know. But Hunter’s turn playing all three witches in Joel Coen’s shivery The Tragedy of Macbeth is a marvel of physicality, so gorgeous and spooky and visceral it will haunt your dreams.
Will Smith, King Richard
Will Smith has often been terrific even in mediocre movies, but in King Richard—as Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams—he steps up to a level of complexity and subtlety he’s never reached before. As a parent who wants the best for his girls but who may also, sometimes, be guilty of driving them harder than he should—even as he pushes against the institutional racism of the super-white tennis world—Smith captures a staggering range of emotions. We feel every moment of his embarrassment and despair, balanced against his braggadocio and stubbornness. A portrait of an imperfect father who raised great daughters—and kicked a few doors open in the process.
Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
In this adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel, Olivia Colman plays a woman who’s traveling solo through middle age, an academic who has treated herself to a working holiday in Greece—she’s the kind of figure you assume to be childless and free. As it turns out, she’s the mother of two daughters, and the secrets she carries force us to reckon with distinctions between selfhood and selfishness, especially in the context of motherhood. Colman’s performance, prickly and intimate, is haunting.
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Benedict Cumberbatch’s surly rancher Phil Burbank is a character who sticks with you. His eyes hold you hostage with their appraising squint; his intelligence cuts like a scythe. Don’t get too close: this is a guy who can castrate a bull with a flick of the wrist. He’s an enigma as vast and changeable and cruel as the open sky, yet even he is capable of succumbing to enchantment, and Cumberbatch pulls off every azure-to-thundercloud shift with dazzling ease.
Daniel Craig, No Time to Die
Who would have thought that the scrappiest James Bond of all—the stocky, scowling one who gets beaten up and actually shows that it hurts, the one who nurses romantic wounds like a grudge—would also be the best? Daniel Craig’s farewell to the franchise is a work of ornery grace, and a reminder that nothing lasts forever. We didn’t know how good we had it.
Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
A Madrid professional photographer in her late thirties becomes pregnant as the result of an affair with a married man. Even as she embarks on the adventure of motherhood, she’s hoping to heal some wounds of the past, by opening a mass grave where her great-grandfather and others were buried after being murdered in the Spanish Civil War. Penelope Cruz is one of Spanish maestro Pedro Almodóvar’s signature actresses, and her performance here is a slow-burning marvel, shifting from fragility to fortitude in the merest breath. Always a terrific actress, Cruz has never been better than she is here.
Ruth Negga, Passing
In Rebecca Hall’s gorgeous and perceptive adaptation of Nella Larsen’s classic novel, Negga plays Clare, a Black woman passing for white in 1920s New York. With her blond bob and wide-awake eyes, Clare has the winsomeness of a jazz-age cutie. But the burden she carries deep in heart—her weighty longing for a reality that isn’t fully in her grasp, balanced by grief for all she has given up—informs even the delicate, birdlike grace of her movements. This is the most soulful, searing performance of 2021.
More from TIME
Tessa Thompson in Passing, Jeffrey Wright in The French Dispatch and No Time to Die, Renata Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World, Clifton Collins Jr. in Jockey, Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza, Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos, Ariana DeBose in West Side Story, Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog, Mike Faist in West Side Story, Rebecca Hall in The Night House.
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