2021 has been one hell of a year and we’ve already talked about the best and worst films, but sometimes there are specific performances that really just demand to be praised that aren’t necessarily in the best or worst films. Some performances are so good that they demand praise even if the film they’re part of is awful, and some are just pure fun and deserve to be talked about because we should be able to admit to enjoying them. 

Remember, ‘Best’ doesn’t actually mean ‘best’ because it’s a marketing term and this is art and art is subjective. This is just ‘best according to me at the time I type this list’, but that’s not a catchy headline so we work with what we have. Also remember that when I say “best of 2021” I’m specifically talking about films that were released in AUSTRALIA in 2021, which is the only fair way I can do this.

Just like last year, there are 20 entries but I also have a few Honorable mentions that we’ll just rattle off without explanation.

And now, list time

20: Salma Hayek as Sonia Kincaid in Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

20 Best Performance Salma Hayek

Salma Hayek is always a delight to see on screen, she’s an obscenely gifted actress who can run circles around everyone who is blessed to share the screen with her. Sure, her most serious work this year might’ve been in Eternals but no one was having more fun than Salma during Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. She bursts on the screen with the kind of joyous energy that very few could sell and she does it effortlessly. She manages to be the funniest person in a film full of brilliantly funny people and regularly steals the film away from everyone else.

Best Scene: Her introduction to the film, with guns ablaze while dragging Ryan Reynolds behind her.

19: Jack Whitehall as MacGregor Houghton in Jungle Cruise

19 Best Performance Jack Whitehall

Disney have had a recent habit of proclaiming their films have “The first gay character in Disney history” only for it to be something disappointing like Lafou (who never said anything explicit) or that cop in Onward (who only mentions it in passing in such a way that it was easy to change the line when moving to other countries) but Jack Whitehall’s character in Jungle Cruise is a sheer delight. Hilarious, important to the plot and has probably the most touching scene where he talks about his family disowning him. It’s the kind of character that shines in a silly little film like Jungle Cruise and somehow gives it a weight that it wouldn’t have had.

And yes, would’ve been lovely if they’d actually cast a gay actor for the part but hell, I’ll take what I can get when it comes to Disney pulling this bullshit.

Best Scene: The one where he talks about being disowned

18: Sarah Paulson as Diane Sherman in Run

18 Best Performance Sarah Paulson

Letting Sarah Paulson have her crack at basically being Annie Wilkes was a genius idea because this woman knows how to run between loving mother and terrifying kidnapper in a matter of seconds. It’s a shame this film seemed to slip under the radar for so many because Sarah Paulson delivered a performance that is honestly one of the best of her career (which is saying a lot considering the amazing performances Sarah Paulson has pulled out). She’s terrifying one second, sympathetic the next and then the worst monster you’ve ever seen in the moment after that. There is not a single missed step in this performance that really sticks with you for a long time.

Best Scene: Confronting the postman

17: Frank Grillo as Roy Pulver in Boss Level

17 Best Performance Frank Grillo

There are a few performances on this list that earned their spot through pure charm and charisma, and this is the first of them. Frank Grillo has always been good, but this is where he became one of my favourite actors working today. He carries this film from start to finish, effortlessly selling the high drama and comedy that the film dances between. He can do it all, make you laugh, cry, cringe and cheer like there’s no tomorrow. It’s the kind of performance that should make Grillo into the world’s biggest action star, I would watch an entire franchise of this man drinking, quipping and punching people because of what he does in this film

Best Scene: Waking up for another day of carnage.

16: Emma Thompson as The Baroness in Cruella

16 Best Performance Emma Thompson

In a film where Emma Stone was playing the titular Cruella, it turned out to be Emma Thompson who delivered the deliriously fun scenery chewing villain performance that we clearly needed. You have never seen anyone revel in being evil quite as much as Emma Thompson does, she’s enjoying every single second of her villainy and every time she’s on screen you just wait patiently to see what vile barb she’s going to throw out next. She knows just how far to take this performance and how to make it work wonderfully. One of the best villains of the year, hands down.

Best Scene: The Baroness’ first look at the new designs 

15: Tom Holland as Cherry in Cherry

15 Best Performance Tom Holland

This year really has been the year of Tom Holland. He currently has the biggest box office film, he’s going to be Fred Astaire in a biopic, he’s impossible to hate… and his best performance this year was in the film most people didn’t like. Cherry might be a bad film, but Holland delivers a performance that proves what an incredible talent he is. It’s dark, powerful, completely engaging from start to finish and deserves to be in a much better film. Could I have put his work as Spider-Man here as well? Sure, he’s generally just been delivering top notch performances for a while now and anyone who has seen Spider-Man: No Way Home knows that it’s basically designed to show off his range, but Cherry is proof of the dramatic weight that he has had in him this entire time and I really hope we see more of it… and cos I’m trying to stick to one performance per film and I have another Spider-Man performance later on in the list

Best Scene: The first robbery

14: Angelina Jolie as Thena in Eternals

14 Best Performance Angelina Jolie

Here’s a shocker, Angelina Jolie is effortlessly good at something that requires her to be mysterious as hell. To stand out in an ensemble cast as big as the one in Eternals is something special but Angelina does it, providing an emotional depth to this film that just shines every time she’s on screen. I genuinely hope the Eternals make a return to the MCU almost entirely because I want to see more of Angelina Jolie being one of the most fascinating superpowered characters in that entire franchise.

Best Scene: The first time we see the effects of the Mahd Wy’Ry

13: Tig Notaro as Marianne Peters in Army Of The Dead

13 Best Performance Tig Notaro

Tig Notaro was not the original person cast in this role in Army Of The Dead, indeed she was never meant to be in the film at all, but they put her in to replace another actor who had multiple sexual assault allegations against him (because that’s a thing we can do now, there is no excuse anymore). She shot this role in 14 days on a green screen during the pandemic without ever meeting any of her co-stars… and she steals the entire damn film in the few scenes she has. As the no-nonsense pilot with a cigar hanging out of her mouth at almost all times, you instantly fall in love with this character and want to see her make it out alive. She’d be on this list no matter what, but pulling off this fun captivating performance in 2 weeks with no one else around to bounce off of? Yeah, that’s just incredible.

Best Scene: Marianne’s Introduction

12: Rory Culkin as The Intruder in The Last Thing Mary Saw

The only festival film on the list (which is why there’s no picture, cos no stills of his scenes are available… yet), Rory Culkin barges into this film and creates one of the most vile characters you’ve ever seen. He repulses you from the moment he walks on screen, but it’s impossible to look away from this creature who turns up and is the first moment of pure horror in this film. Honestly, it’s the kind of performance that should put Rory’s name on the top of every villain list for a long time to come.

This movie actually has a Shudder release on Jan 20th of this year so it’ll be easy for everyone else to see so you can agree with me how good this is.

Best Scene: The intruder breaks in for the first time

11: Bob Odenkirk as Hutch Mansell in Nobody

11 Best Performance Bob Odenkirk

Bob Odenkirk has always been a great actor but he was never one of those actors I expected to play a badass leading action man. He’s a great comic, can do drama like no one’s business, I just never pictured him leading a big action film… well, Bob shut me up didn’t he? This is basically Bob Odenkirk’s take on a John Wick-esque character (literally using the same writer from the John Wick movies) and it’s brilliant from start to finish. Bob runs between everyman and absolute badass with ease and he sells everything. I don’t know if he’ll want to do more of these, but he’s more than proven he can and I would love to see more of it

Best Scene: The bus fight

10: Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn AKA Green Goblin in Spider-Man: No Way Home

10 Best Performance Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin has always been one of the best Superhero movie villains, it was iconic since day one and very little has matched it since. This year, Willem came back to the role and somehow topped himself with a glorious performance that made the character more vulnerable AND more villainous at the same time. In a film full of performances that were top of their game, Dafoe was on his own level miles ahead of anyone else. He runs away with the film and refuses to give it back and thank god he did.

Best Scene: The final confrontation

9: Diane Wiest as Jennifer Peterson in I Care A Lot

9 Best Performance Diane Wiest

Everyone always thinks of Diane Wiest as this sweet, lovely mother figure, that’s certainly the image I have in my head every time that name comes up (admittedly largely because of my dozen rewatches of The Birdcage where Diane basically invented the quiet sweet loving mother figure). In I Care A Lot she uses that to her advantage, starting the film as this innocent elderly lamb who wouldn’t hurt a fly… right up until she needs to become the scariest human being you’ve ever met and then she flips a switch that makes the entire audience go “Oh shit, someone just pissed off the wrong person”. Plus, she has the best line of dialogue I heard in 2021, just a hilariously brilliant performance.

Best Scene: Marla confronts Jennifer… AKA the scene where Diane says “You little crock of cunt”

8: Lesley Manville as Blanche Weboy in Let Him Go

8 Best Performance Lesley Manville

Lesley Manville is THE reason to see Let Him Go. It’s a brilliant film, tense and dramatic and filled with incredible performances but more importantly than all that, Lesley just steals the entire damn movie. She barges onto the screen like a typhoon just destroying everything in her path and doesn’t stop until the last frame of the film. She controls everything in the film, she is why it’s so tense, she’s why the ending scene is so gripping and she’s why you might not want to sleep at night after you see this film

Best Scene: Blanche takes over the hotel room

7: Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in In The Heights

7 Best Performance Anthony Ramos

Anyone who saw In The Heights will confirm that it should’ve made Anthony Ramos the biggest star on the planet. Every skill that you could ask for an actor to have is on full display here with more charm and charisma than any normal person has. From the start of the opening number to the final frames of the film, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this performance. It’s a true delight, one of the absolute high points of this year that should’ve been a monster hit.

Best scene: The opening number

6: Yuh-Jung Youn as Soonja in Minari

6 Best Performance Yuh-hung Youn

Yuh-Jung Youn surprised everyone at the Oscars this year when she took home Best Supporting Actress (from personal experience, everyone I saw thought it was either going to Maria Bakalova or Glenn Close), but really she probably shouldn’t have surprised anyone because she was brilliant in this. What starts as the comedic relief of the film turns into the most powerful dramatic performance of the entire piece. In a film full of heartwarming and heartbreaking moments, most of the big ones come from Yuh-Jung Youn as the rambunctious grandmother who has a stroke halfway through the film.

Also I may be putting her here because I can’t stop thinking about how Yuh-Jung took her chance and threw a little shade towards Brad Pitt at the Oscars in a moment that made her one of the most beloved human beings around.

Best Scene: Soonja accidentally burns down the barn

5: John Cena as Peacemaker in The Suicide Squad

5 Best Performance John Cena

If you want someone who will do the stupidest things imaginable with full commitment while looking like the most intimidating physical presence you’ve seen in your life, you call John Cena and no one else. As Peacemaker, John Cena embraces hyper-patriotism with so much charm and effortless comedic timing that it’s no wonder they’re spinning that character off into their own series. It’s a perfect performance, capable of being hilarious when the time comes for it and often being scarier than any monster could hope to be just when you least expect it. Cena was always going to be in a comic book movie, his physical proportions practically demanded it, but thank god they gave him a character like Peacemaker that he can shine in because every second with him is just delightful.

Best scene: The casual murder competition between Peacemaker and Bloodsport

4: Carey Mulligan as Cassandra in Promising Young Woman

4 Best Performance Carey Mulligan

To be blunt about it, this is who should’ve won Best Actress this year. Carey Mulligan was given a performance that could’ve gone so badly, she’s basically Daria – if Daria went on a quest to hunt rapists – and turns that into one of the most compelling complex characters put to screen. She pulls off deadpan sarcasm, charming wit and general badassery without ever looking like she’s trying. She makes everything just feel completely effortless, like she’s done this for decades and we just haven’t noticed yet. It’s truly one of those iconic performances we will be talking about for years to come, undoubtedly.

Best Scene: Cassie watches the video

3: Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect

3 Best Performance Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Hudson was born to play Aretha Franklin, it’s what we’ve been waiting for ever since Jennifer became a public figure. Sure enough, the second she gets the chance to do it, she delivers probably the best performance of her career. From start to finish Jennifer just becomes the queen of soul, displaying every single hardship that defined her life and putting on showstopping numbers that blow the roof off the building. Not many people could pull off something as difficult as “being Aretha Franklin” but Jennifer makes it work. 

Best Scene: Any time Jennifer sings. 

2: Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in tick, tick… Boom!

2 Best Performance Andrew Garfield

Andrew Garfield has always been a good actor, everyone knows he can deliver a great performance and he’s just seemed like the kind of guy who could do any role in a drama or comedy… and then this film comes along and Andrew goes “Oh by the way, I’m also a fantastic singer, did I not mention that?”. This is the performance of the year that was the most shocking because I don’t think anyone expected that vocal performance to come out. It’s a genius musical performance that pulls on heartstrings, makes everyone laugh and has audiences leaning in just to hear every note. There’s not much more to say, this is just an absolutely perfect performance from start to finish.

Best Scene: 30/90 or Therapy

1: Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in The Father

1 Best Performance Anthony Hopkins

The biggest shock of the Awards season this year was when Hopkins won the Best Actor award over Chadwick Boseman’s work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom… but maybe we should’ve known because this was the best thing Anthony Hopkins has ever done. An unforgettable performance of a man battling against dementia told from the perspective of the man who is slowly losing his mind… we live in this character’s head throughout the movie and Anthony makes every second spent there absolutely heartbreaking. Hopkins has always been one of the greatest actors, no one could reasonably dispute that, but this role secures his legend status for all eternity. From start to finish, he will break your heart and you will be glad he did. 

Best scene: “I want my mommy” 

Any great performances you think I missed? You’re probably right, tell me about them so we can all enjoy them together.

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