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The 10 best film performances of 2021

2021 has enjoyed an eclectic mix of films, with low-budget dramas and documentaries taking much of the limelight due to the production restrictions of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Though blockbusters also made a return in the form of Denis Villeneuve’s epic Dune, as well as Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Matrix Resurrections coming at Christmas, did make a return, they have made only a tentative splash in their impact on the cinematic landscape. 

Instead, it is the likes of Nomadland, The Power of the Dog and Titane that have kept people talking well into the festive period, with female filmmakers enjoying a particularly strong year in the industry. As Titane director, the Palme d’Or-winning Julia Ducournau told The Guardian, “Women kicked serious ass this year,” before adding that her own Cannes win “was incredibly powerful to me. It took 28 years [since Campion’s win] and I believe it’s not going to take 28 years again”.

As we look back and celebrate an extraordinary year of cinema, we’ve rounded up our top ten performances of 2021, including movies from every corner of the world, including France, Japan, Bosnia, America and more. From the big-budget crowd-pleasers to the modest independent awards-contenders, let’s take a look back at the ten greatest film performances of 2021. 

The 10 best film performances of 2021:

10. Rebecca Ferguson – Dune (Denis Villeneuve)

Though many will turn to the performance of Timothée Chalamet in Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction epic, Dune, as being the best of a glittering bunch, it is really Rebecca Ferguson who allows the film to flourish into life. 

Playing the mother to Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, Ferguson’s Lady Jessica is a cool, calm and enigmatic lead character who is far more interesting than the young Atreides still finding his feet in a brand new world. With the awesome power of ‘The Voice’, Ferguson dominates many of her scenes and acts as a powerful beacon that well represents the Atreides family and the compelling nature of Frank Herbert’s original novel. 

9. Simon Rex – Red Rocket (Sean Baker)

From the director of Tangerine and The Florida Project, Sean Baker, Red Rocket is yet another deserving contemporary classic to add to Baker’s glittering filmography, starring the rejuvenated acting talent of Simon Rex. 

Recognised for a range of low budget films as well as the Scary Movie spoofs of the early noughties, Baker plucked Simon Rex from modern obscurity only for him to deliver one of the best performances of the year as the forgotten porn star, Mikey. Illustrating a side to the sex industry that is rarely explored in modern society, Baker’s film allows Rex to flourish as an eccentric, charming man who has fallen on hard times. His performance is a genuine joy to behold. 

8. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)

In one of Netflix’s most original and captivating original films to date, The Power of the Dog, we follow brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) as they go about the daily upkeep of their ranch.

A slow, emotional and methodical film from director Jane Campion, Benedict Cumberbatch proves to be the perfect vehicle to carry the film’s sombre mood as he commands the screen and every character in it. As his relationship with his brother and step-nephew, Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are allowed to flourish, Cumberbatch becomes the key to unlocking Campion’s surprisingly complex film. 

7. Joanna Scanlan – After Love (Aleem Khan)

A heartbreaking and intimate journey of lost love and heartbreak in the wake of tragedy, Aleem Khan’s powerful film is led by a staggering performance by Joanna Scanlan as a widow searching for answers after the passing of her husband. 

Having starred in various television series over the past decade or so, including in the likes of Getting On and The Thick of It, Scanlan excels in Aleem Khan’s film, crafting a character so delicate and tangible that her emotions emanate from the screen. A shell of her former self, Scanlan’s character, Mary, attempts to rediscover herself in a brand new context of identity in this captivating performance.

6. Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King)

Recognised for his rousing performance as Fred Hampton at the Academy Awards last year, Daniel Kaluuya picked up a Best Supporting Oscar in a film where he unusually played the lead role.

Despite the strange decision from the Academy, Kaluuya’s performance remains utterly groundbreaking, bringing the tragically short life of Fred Hampton to the attention of many viewers who had never previously heard his name. Delivering a genuinely rousing call for action Daniel Kaluuya’s passionate performance helps to contextualise the film within a wider continued social effort for civil rights. 

5. Frances McDormand – Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

Rightfully honoured at the 2021 Academy Awards, Nomadland is one of the finest films of contemporary cinema thanks to Chloé Zhao’s remarkable, tender vision and Frances McDormand’s extraordinarily absorbing lead performance. 

Awarded with the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar, McDormand was deserved of her crown, single-handedly leading the subtle beauty of Zhao’s modern masterpiece. Starring as Fern, a ponderous, philosophical figure wandering the American plains, McDormand flourishes, with often only the wilderness to act as her supporting cast members. Nomadland merely demonstrates just why McDormand is considered one of the greatest working actors today. 

4. Agathe Rousselle – Titane (Julia Ducournau)

Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning Titane is a tough, provocative watch that holds little back in terms of violence and graphic sex. Whilst the film can often lose its way, the lead actor, Agathe Rousselle, is always on hand for course correction. 

The film sees Agathe Rousselle star as Alexia, a young adult who went through a tragic accident as a child that has led her to receive metal implants in her head. The incident leads the young woman on a road of murderous carnage and sexual exploits, with Agathe Rousselle’s sheer dedication to her challenging character remaining the most impressive thing about the film itself. 

3. Hidetoshi Nishijima – Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

In our pick for the best film of 2021, Drive My Car, Ryusuke Hamaguchi plays an actor and director who, after the death of his unfaithful wife, seeks to reconnect himself with an old lover and find joy in the methodical driving of his car. 

Delivering a truly engrossing performance in a complicated role that sees him portray an actor and director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi commands the film’s direction alongside his equally impressive co-star, Tôko Miura. A desperately lonely individual who analyses such isolation on a day to day basis, Hidetoshi Nishijima effortlessly elicits sympathy in a complex role and an extraordinary film. 

2. Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

Known as one of the most culturally pertinent actors working in contemporary cinema, the Oscar-winning Olivia Colman has made a name for herself with such films as The Favourite from Yorgos Lanthimos, Hot Fuzz from director Edgar Wright and the dark drama, Tyrannosaur. 

Her latest role in The Lost Daughter from Maggie Gyllenhaal is surely one of her finest to date, starring as Leda, a woman whose beach vacation turns turbulent as she tries to address the troubles of her past. Leading an impressive cast that includes Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson and Peter Sarsgaard, Colman leads the line as a compelling, enigmatic character who is increasingly intriguing to deconstruct as the film goes on. 

1. Jasna Đuričić – Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanić)

Jasna Đuričić gives this year’s greatest performance in our second favourite film of 2021, playing Aida Selmanagic in Jasmila Žbanić’s extraordinarily haunting examination into the Srebrenica massacre. 

A truly harrowing true horror story, the film details the lead-up to the massacre that took place in July 1995, where Jasna Đuričić plays a UN translator trying to shelter thousands of citizens in a safe camp. Wishing hundreds of families as well as her own to safety, Đuričić’s character is quickly snowed under by the weight of such a task, with her performance in the role screaming for sympathy amid a cloud of turmoil.