Skip To Content

    Here Are 57 Oscar-Worthy Film Performances From 2021 You Should Watch

    If Ruth Negga doesn't win an Oscar for Passing, so help me!

    We hope you love the shows and movies we recommend! Just so you know, BuzzFeed may collect a share of revenue or other compensation from the links on this page. Oh, and FYI: Platform, prices, and other availability details are accurate as of time of posting.

    2021 is over! And that means it's time to look back on the best movies of the year (of which there were plenty).

    ABC / Via giphy.com

    So am I, Trevor, so am I. 

    And so to celebrate, I put together a list of the best performances from 2021.

    ABC / Via giphy.com

    Sandra is appropriately excited for this. 

    I've watched a LOT of movies, so the 57 individuals represented here actually had some stiff competition.

    ABC / Via giphy.com

    You can't poo poo it Frances. It's a BIG DEAL. 

    But before we start, here are a few ground rules.

    ABC / Via giphy.com

    Sorry Olivia, but I've got to do it. 

    1. Only films that qualify for the 2022 Oscars will be selected. Because of COVID, the Oscars changed their rules last year, so films from January and February of 2022 are ineligible. This list is just for films released from March 1–December 31 of 2021 (thus, no Judas and the Black Messiah).

    2. This isn't a ranking. The actors are listed in alphabetical order. 

    3. I split up lead acting performances from supporting acting performances.

    4. This is only for films. TV performances don't count. 

    5. This is all based on my opinion, not critical success, box office numbers, or awards received (although I may factor those things in).

    So, let's get started!

    ABC / Via giphy.com

    Thanks for the support, Spike. It means a lot!

    Best Lead Performances of 2021:

    1. Alana Haim – Alana Kane (Licorice Pizza)

    Alana Haim drives a car with Cooper Hoffman sitting beside her
    Melinda Sue Gordon/MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Let us begin with Miss Alana Haim of the illustrious musical group Haim (here's a musical gift for your ears if you aren't familiar). After starring in a series of music videos shot by legendary director Paul Thomas Anderson, the youngest Haim sister arrived on the big screen in a big way, playing the wayward 1970s Angelino who becomes entangled in a friendship/romance/work partnership with a high schooler. Alana's too-cool-for-school energy masking a fragile desire for meaning is masterfully done and proves the girl is a natural. Stay tuned for a Lady Gaga/Cher/Barbra Streisand musician-to-movie star transformation. 

    Buy tickets. 

    2. Andrew Garfield – Jonathan Larson (Tick, Tick... Boom!)

    Andrew Garfield talks on the phone in a diner
    Macall Polay/Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Casting a non-singer in a musical role just because they're famous is often a recipe for disaster. *cough* Russel Crowe *cough* Pierce Brosnan *cough* Alec Baldwin. So training the former Spider-Man to play the lead in a Jonathan Larson musical directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda seemed like a tall order. But not only can Garfield sing, but he's also got the acting pedigree to stitch the songs together. Picking up nominations at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards, he seems destined for his second Oscar nomination. Here's him singing another song, just because this soundtrack is so damn catchy. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    3. Anthony Ramos – Usnavi (In the Heights)

    Anthony Ramos stands on a podium singing
    Macall Polay/Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

    Another top-notch performance from the LMMCU (Lin-Manuel Miranda Cinematic Universe) this year is from the former Hamilton star who snagged the lead role originated on Broadway by Miranda himself. As a bodega owner in Washington Heights struggling against gentrification and looking for love, Ramos proves he can sing, act, and dance with the best of them. In the film's first sequence alone, he chews his way through Miranda's lyrics and eats up the choreography. And while the film struggled at the box office and has seemingly fallen out of the awards conversation, Ramos still managed to snag the movie's sole Golden Globes nomination. Personally, I would have swapped all of West Side Story's noms for In the Heights, but I digress. 

    Watch it on HBO Max

    4. Clifton Collins Jr. – Jackson Silva (Jockey)

    Clifton Collins Jr. looks at his reflection in a mirror
    Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy Everett Collection

    You may not know the name Clifton Collins Jr., but you definitely recognize him. The character actor has snatched up performances in seemingly every film and television show made during his three-decade-long career. Traffic. Star Trek. Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood. Westworld. He's the definition of "oh yeah, that guy," and he was in four films in 2021 alone. Finally, the bit-role actor is playing a meaty lead role worthy of his talent, and he's savoring every second. As an aging jockey facing the end of this career, Collins has a whole film to flex his muscles (and those quads especially are strong given all that time squatting on a horse). 

    Buy tickets. 

    5. Dan Stevens – Tom (I'm Your Man )

    Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens lay in field together
    Bleecker Street Media/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Would you sleep with a robot version of Dan Stevens? Because that is the central question in this German film on the Academy's Best International Feature shortlist. The Downton Abbey star gives a mesmerizing performance as a robot designed to be the perfect companion for the film's protagonist, Alma (Maren Eggert). Playing a character that is clearly not a human but still manages to be human enough for Maren (and the audience) to fall in love with him is a tall order, but Stevens does it with his placid smile and speedy math calculations. Also, bonus points for delivering the entire performance in German (not his first language). 

    Rent it on Prime Video

    6. Rachel Sennott – Danielle (Shiva Baby)

    Rachel Sennott chugs a glass of wine
    Utopia/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Mazel to attending a shiva with your ex-girlfriend, your parents, your sugar daddy, and his wife. You don't need to die to reach that level of hell (and, it turns out, death might be better). Sennott stars as the unlucky bisexual woman trapped in that scenario in the year's little indie that could. Based on a college short film, the low-budget feature sees Sennott reprising her role of bagel eating, wine-spilling, funeral sexter Danielle. We feel EVERY SINGLE awkward second of this film as Sennott spirals through the claustrophobic Jewish afternoon. She's snatched several breakthrough star awards already, and there is certainly a bright future for her if she can just get out of this shiva already. 

    Watch it on HBO Max

    7. Denzel Washington – Lord Macbeth (The Tragedy of Macbeth)

    A closeup of Denzel Washington
    A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Back in 2018, I had the great fortune of seeing Denzel Washington perform in The Iceman Cometh on Broadway — 3.5 hours into the 4-hour play, at a point where I should have been itching for the curtain call or dozing off, Washington pulled a chair to center stage and delivered a 15-minute monologue. It was the most captivating piece of acting I've ever witnessed. I was therefore thrilled to see him take on more meaty soliloquies as the ambitious Scotsman in Joel Coen's Shakespeare adaptation. Washington does not disappoint. He makes the Elizabethan language seem modern, and he makes you feel for him even as he murders men, women, and children. By the pricking of my thumbs, some awards this way comes. 

    Buy Tickets. 

    8. Dev Patel – Sir Gawain (The Green Knight)

    Dev Patel bows before the king
    Eric Zachanowich/A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Dev may have already received a...ummm...shall we say "wet" green girdle for his troubles, but I'd like to see him go home with a few statuettes as well. The David Lowry retelling of the ancient Arthurian legend saw Patel front and center as an eager young knight sent on a harrowing death mission after challenging a giant tree man to a duel. In addition to looking sexy as hell and showing off his whole ass, Patel proves his pedigree as an Oscar nominee by channeling both a youthful determination and dour fatalism into the lonely Gawain. He also does a remarkable job of chatting up a CGI fox

    Rent it on Prime Video

    9. Filippo Scotti – Fabietto Schisa (The Hand of God)

    Filippo Scotti stands by the water
    Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Another fresh face of 2021 cinema is the young Italian lead in the Oscar shortlisted Paolo Sorrentino drama. Scotti plays Fabietto, an aimless teen with little on his mind except for his hot aunt Patrizia (not to be confused with another Patrizia to show up five spots down) and his local soccer team. As tragic family events begin to shake him from his blissful ignorance, however, Fabietto begins to search for direction amid confusion, humor, and grief in a series of vignettes. Scotti proves himself as he wanders from scene to scene digesting the events of his life while searching for meaning. You will also never look at a hairbrush the same way after this one. You've been warned. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    10. Hidetoshi Nishijima – Yusuke Kafuku (Drive My Car)

    Hidetoshi Nishijima studies at a desk
    Janus Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Joining The Hand of God on the International Oscar shortlist is the Japanese entry from Ryusuke Hamaguchi based on a Haruki Murakami short story. Nishijima takes center stage in nearly every second of the three-hour-long film in a tour de force performance as a grief-ridden actor/director. Watching the man charge forward with a new play staging while cracking and buckling under emotional pressure holds your attention for the entire 179 minutes. I will say you might want to brush up on your Uncle Vanya before watching, since much of the plot revolves around the Chekhov play I knew NOTHING about, but even going in blind, you'll appreciate the masterwork here (and perhaps express order some Murakami novels to your apartment, like me). 

    Buy tickets. 

    11. Jennifer Hudson – Aretha Franklin (Respect)

    Jennifer Hudson belts into a microphone
    Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

    J Hud is back in the "spotlight." After her last movie-musical performance ended so disastrously we shan't speak its name aloud, the Oscar-winning belter is back playing the queen of soul. With the approval to use Aretha Franklin's entire CATalog and Hudson hand-selected by the musical legend herself, the meaty role is every singing actor's dream. Not only does Hudson get to croon her way through the famed discography, but she's also pawed — nope, handed — plenty of scenes that won't leave your MEMORY anytime soon. The whole thing is really the cat's meow.  

    Rent it on Prime Video

    12. Jessica Chastain – Tammy Faye Bakker (The Eyes of Tammy Faye)

    Jessica Chastain sings in a sparkly outfit
    Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Well, oh me oh my, if it isn't Jessica Chastain playing Tammy Faye Bakker, and you know what? I think that's just super! The two-time Oscar nominee is back in the hunt this year for a spot-on, full-body transformation into the Midwestern Evangelical televangelist. In her turn as the blissfully naive, makeup-loving, Diet Coke guzzling Christian singer and talk show host, Chastain disappears into the role completely, embodying Bakker so thoroughly that the similarities between the real and the fictional are uncanny. Her performance hits an especially high note during an emotional real-life interview between Bakker and an AIDS patient that serves as a pivotal break in the film between Bakker's kindhearted faith and the dogmatic, homophobic conservatism of Jerry Falwell. The perfect Oscar clip? I'd say oh yeah. 

    Rent it on Prime Video

    13. Jude Hill – Buddy (Belfast)

    Jude Hill waves a sword and shield in the air
    Rob Youngston/Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

    While plenty of attention has been given to his Oscar-buzzy castmembers Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds, and Judi Dench (all of whom are snatching up nominations in the supporting categories), the lead performance from Belfast's11-year-old newcomer Jude Hill has faded to the background. The heart and soul of Kenneth Branagh's semi-autobiographical Oscar frontrunner, though, is the boy at its center. As the Troubles swirl around Belfast, we see Buddy's world begin to implode through his eyes. He keeps up with his adult costars, charms with his toothy grin, and delivers a performance worthy of more than just "Best Young Performer" awards, even though he's certain to end the season with a shelf full. Hearing Hill say "Catholic" in an Irish accent a dozen times is easily worth the price of admission. 

    Rent it on Prime Video

    14. Kristen Stewart – Princess Diana (Spencer)

    Kristen Stewart stands by a field with a scarecrow in it
    Neon/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Poo poo K Stew's performance as Bella Swan in the Twilight films all you'd like, but the woman took her massive payday and has been spending the last decade circling the indie film world, quietly amassing a bank of stellar performances. Now she's the Oscar frontrunner in Best Actress for what I believe to be the best performance of the year. Somehow, Stewart manages to combine her own ticks and expressions with those of the British royal, serving up a haunting portrayal of Diana that is lively, tragic, and mesmerizing. Watching her fret in immaculate Jacqueline Durran costumes and sprint across open fields is a treat. And of course she reminds us that gorgeous gorgeous girls do in fact eat soup

    Rent it on Prime Video

    15. Lady Gaga – Patrizia Reggiani (House of Gucci)

    Lady Gaga smokes a cigarette and talks with her hands
    MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

    She may not consider herself a particularly ethical person, but she is fair. And Lady Gaga is also looking to nab her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing Patrizia Reggiani in this campy fashion caper. The multi-Grammy winner/Oscar winner for Best Song is two-for-two in hitting her major film roles out of the park after an illustrious, buzzy, and very Italian musical career. She's on her way to an EGOT for sure, and I am praying to father, son, and House of Gucci that she arrives on the big screen again soon. 

    Buy tickets. 

    16. Lea Seydoux – France de Meurs (France)

    Lea Seydoux stands with a microphone
    Kino Lorber/Courtesy Everett Collection

    You may have missed the memo, but 2021 is the year or Lea Seydoux. She began by starring in four (yes, FOUR) separate films premiering at Cannes this year, including Wes Anderon's The French Dispatch, where she played a prison guard caught up in a cellblock romance. She then went on to be THE Bond girl of an unprecedented second consecutive James Bond film. Her best work of the year, however, is in this French dramedy about an unscrupulous high-profile news reporter who falls in and out of ruin as her career teeters on the brink of destruction. She puts her beauty, charm, and acting chops all to good use, and the finished product is something I'd tune in to watch at 6:30 every evening. 

    Buy tickets. 

    17. Leonardo DiCapro – Dr. Randall Mindy (Don't Look Up)

    Leonardo DiCaprio stands next to a white board with a laptop
    Niko Tavernise/Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    The newest addition to Leo's filmography (which I ranked in full)  is Adam McKay's end-of-the-world comedy/political satire. In it, Leo plays a Michigan State professor who discovers a planet-destroying meteor headed straight for Earth but seems incapable of convincing anyone to take the threat seriously. As a Michigander from Lansing (and I instantly clocked that not a single scene was shot there on location), I can vouch for Leo's Michigan accent. What's so remarkable about this performance, though, is the breadth of emotions he gets to play with, beginning as a shy academic and boiling to a Howard Beale-esque rant on a news program. And if you haven't treated yourself to the Ariana Grande song from the film's soundtrack, merry Christmas. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    18. Olivia Colman – Leda Caruso (The Lost Daughter)

    Olivia Colman clutches a doll
    Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    No one in Hollywood is firing on all cylinders the way Colman is. After a long career of solid performances, she burst into A-list stardom with her Oscar-winning performance in The Favourite, and she hasn't slowed down. Fleabag, The Crown, The Father, and now this terrifying performance in Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut adapted from an Elena Ferrante novel. Colman plays an unravelling professor on holiday alone whose fraught relationship with her own daughters starts to manifest itself with her fellow vacationers. This will likely be Colman's third Oscar nomination in four years, cementing herself as a modern legend. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    19. Patti Harrison – Anna (Together Together)

    Patti Harrison sits at a lunch table
    Bleecker Street Media/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Patti Harrison is one of our funniest working comedians. Anyone who has watched her deadpan delivery on late night shows or stand-up routines can attest. But the Shrill actor finally stepped into the limelight this year as the lead in this comedy about a woman who agrees to be the surrogate for a single middle-aged man. Harrison's snark shines, but she also nails the film's quieter melancholy moments just as well. The role in and of itself was also groundbreaking, as she became one of the first transgender actors to play a cisgender lead role in a major film. No one but Harrison could call her unborn child "Lamp" for the entirety of a film and make it funny and heartwarming every single time. 

    Watch it on Hulu

    20. Peter Dinklage – Cyrano de Bergerac (Cyrano)

    Peter Dinklage stands on a walkway with a letter
    Peter Mountain/MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Outside of his delightful performance in the underrated I Care a Lot last year, the Dink has been fairly quiet since he was last seen rebuilding Westeros's small council. Perhaps that is because he and his wife, Erica Schmidt, were hard at work adapting a stage musical of Cyrano de Bergerac and then adapting that into this film. Dinklage's new spin on the timeless romance is beautifully rendered, and the Emmy winner is given plenty of space to shine. He also gets to serenade us, and I must say Peter Dinklage has a nice voice! Why wasn't Tyrion Lannister singing more? 

    Buy tickets. 

    21. Rebecca Hall – Beth (The Night House)

    Rebecca Hall looking afraid
    Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Forever the unsung hero of the acting world are those in horror films. They're tasked with doing so much, and yet their accolades are few and far between. This year's entry to the Scream Queen Award Snub pantheon (Toni Collette, Florence Pugh, and Jamie Lee Curtis are here to welcome you) is Hall, who plays a grieving widow left alone in a haunted (?) house after her husband dies by suicide. Not only is the film one of the year's best, but Hall is rapturous in it, moving through the many shades of grief, anger, terror, and depression with ease. The ending is brutally good as well, but I must say this is just another reason never to buy a secluded lake house. 

    Rent it on Prime Video

    22. Renate Reinsve – Julie (The Worst Person in the World)

    Renate Reinsve stands crying
    Neon/Courtesy Everett Collection

    In yet another of this year's international breakout roles, we have the Norwegian actor playing the titular worst person in the world. (Although, is she the worst person in this cinematic world? Perhaps not. But I digress.) Reinsve, who won the acting prize at Cannes, delivers an infuriating performance that will make you love and hate this "everywoman" at the same time. She's a slow-motion train wreck that has you oscillating between cheering her destruction and mourning her losses as each consecutive train jumps the track. 

    Watch it in theaters starting Feb. 4. 

    23. Simon Rex – Mikey Saber (Red Rocket)

    Simon Rex rides a bike
    A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

    If you were predicting the Oscar race a year ago, you probably weren't expecting porn star-turned-MTV DJ-turned-B-list actor-turned bizarro rapper Simon Rex to factor into the competition. But Red Rocket director Sean Baker has a masterful way of taking the people hovering on society's edges and turning them into film stars (watch Tangerine and The Florida Project for evidence). In Baker's latest film, Rex plays washed up porn actor Mikey Saber as he returns to Texas to live with his ex-wife until he can regroup. Rex embodies Saber's charismatic, hustling optimism in a way that is as infectious as it is disastrous. You can't help but root for him to succeed, even as every single one of his actions seems destined for failure. A masterful comeback performance that will hopefully yield more juicy roles to come. 

    Buy tickets. 

    24. Tessa Thompson – Reenie Redfield (Passing)

    A close up of Tess Thompson's face
    Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collecton

    While much of the attention on Passing has been directed toward the showier supporting performance by Ruth Negga (more on her later) and first-time director Rebecca Hall, the film would be nothing without the quiet performance at its center from Tessa Thompson. Playing Reenie, a light-skinned Black woman living in Harlem during the '20s, Tessa delivers a grounded, delicate performance. Reenie's stable life is thrown off kilter by the return of Negga's Clare, a Black woman who is passing as white but increasingly drawn to her roots. The pair volley perfectly in their scenes, and each would falter without the other. While it seems likely Thompson will be snubbed for awards yet again (she's too good at mastering unassuming roles), neither woman would be as strong without the other. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    25. Will Smith – Richard Williams (King Richard)

    Will Smith watches his daughters play tennis
    Chiabella James/Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

    And rounding out our list of best lead performances, we have the current Best Actor frontrunner, Mr. Willard Carroll Smith Jr. After nearly grabbing statues for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith is back in the hunt for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the father of tennis prodigies Venus and Serena Williams. Watching any interview of Richard will quickly show you how eccentric the man was, and that allows Smith plenty of room to create a larger-than-life persona (that DOES match his real-life counterpart). Despite a series of interview faux pas so disastrous a petition has been started asking for Will Smith to stop doing press, his performance is magnetic and should continue to pick up steam as the awards pile up.

    Buy tickets. 

    Best Supporting Performances of 2021:

    26. Amy Schumer – Aimee Blake (The Humans)

    Amy Schumer leans in a hallway
    Wilson Webb / Showtime Networks/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Up until now, Amy Schumer's career has basically been stand-up sets, comedies, and cheerleading routines. But this year, she tried her hand in a drama, playing the depressed lesbian sister in the play-turned-film that previously won both a Tony and a Pulitzer. The film, set entirely over the course of a couple of hours on Thanksgiving in an empty NYC apartment, is an acting showcase, and Schumer holds her own in a room full of Oscar nominees. She sprinkles dry sarcasm over her character's pain and steals scene after scene as you try to decide whether she's the most mature person in the room or the least. 

    Watch it on Hulu

    27. Ana de Armas – Paloma (No Time to Die)

    Ana de Armas walks with a gun in her hand
    Nicola Dove/MGM/Danjaq/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Sometimes, all you need is one scene, and that's really all the iconic mug holder has in this Bond film. When Bond arrives in Cuba, he's paired with the nervous, somewhat inept Paloma, who is entrancingly charming and it turns out also a kickass fighter. Arguably the best five minutes of the seemingly 17-hour-long film were hers. I enjoyed her more here than I did on her quarantine walks with Ben Affleck (and that is high praise). 

    Rent it on Prime Video

    28. Ann Dowd – Linda (Mass)

    Ann Dowd sits at a table listening
    Bleecker Street Media/Courtesy Everett Collection

    In true character actor fashion, Ann Dowd has been in absolutely everything over  the last 30 years but only since she started "blessed be the fruit"ing as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid's Tale has she been getting the notice she deserves. In this four-hander about two sets of parents discussing a school shooting six years after the fact, Dowd plays the mother of the perpetrator. She's already picking up nominations from critics groups for Best Supporting Actor, and she could land her first long overdue Oscar nomination if Paimon has anything to say about it. 

    Rent it on Prime Video

    29. Ariana DeBose – Anita (West Side Story)

    Ariana DeBose surrounded by a group of dancers
    Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection

    I would argue that West Side Story is an inherently flawed story that is incapable of being saved or tweaked for the modern era. It's racially problematic. The finger-snapping tone doesn't match up with the incredibly dark messages at its core. We're expected to believe Maria would sleep with the man who murdered her brother the same evening of his death after meeting him once. But all that pushed aside, the single bright, shining gem at the center of this film (like the original) is Anita. Not only is DeBose given the meatiest role with the most range, but she gets the best song, the best dance number, and all the funny quips in the film's first half. Whatever your thoughts on the musical itself, her performances is infectious and undeniable. 

    Buy tickets. 

    30. Aunjanue Ellis – Oracene "Brandy" Price (King Richard)

    Aunjanue Ellis talks to Will Smith
    Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

    While Will Smith's performance certainly has more screen time, it's that of his onscreen wife that steals the film out from under him. Ellis has been in the business for over three decades but has only recently started gathering mainstream success with roles in If Beale Street Could Talk, When They See Us, and Lovecraft Country. Now she's playing Venus and Serena's empowering but exasperated mother, exhausted by her husband's antics but sticking around for her daughters' success. And if you are looking for the year's best Oscar clip scene, then Ellis has it. Her reaming out Smith in their kitchen is the stuff of Academy Award legends. 

    Buy tickets. 

    31. Awkwafina – Katy (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings)

    Awkwafina and Simu Liu stand outside in valet outfits
    Jasin Boland/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Marvel Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Unlike DC, which has turned more regularly to dark, brooding versions of their superheroes, Marvel has consistently steered into a lighter, more humorous direction. Casting the comedian as Shang-Chi's slacker best friend turned sidekick was a stroke of genius. Awkwafina's deadpan delivery and nervous anxiety are put to good use here as she brightens every second she's on screen and takes would could have been a plodding flashback-laden drama and makes it fun. As we've seen time and time again, Awkafina DOES NOT MISS. Somebody give her a Marvel spinoff all her own. 

    Watch it on Disney+

    32. Bradley Cooper – Jon Peters (Licorice Pizza)

    Bradley Cooper squats between two cars with flares in his hands
    MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Every year, there are a handful of performances that prove you don't need a lot of screen time to leave a lasting impression. Bradley Cooper doesn't appear in Paul Thomas Anderson's '70s Hollywood ramble until late in the film, but boy does he steal a scene. He plays hairdresser/film producer/Barbra Streisand's husband Jon Peters, an almost mythical figure of cinematic lore. He's ordering a water bed. He's trying to pick up women. He's getting drunk off his ass. And if you're wondering how Cooper knew to play Peters so well, just take a look at the credits for A Star Is Born, on which Peters is a producer. 

    Buy tickets. 

    33. Catherine Cohen – Jessie (Dating & New York)

    Catherine Cohen and Francesca Reale stand on a boat looking out at New York Harbor
    IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collecton

    Never heard of this rom-com? Makes sense, given its extremely limited release (it only made $21k in theaters). But the New York-centered film is a quick little delight focusing on an on-again/off-again couple in the big city. The real star of the film, however, is comedian, podcast host, and cabaret singer Catherine Cohen, who plays the classic best friend/voice-of-reason role. Every time she's on screen, there's an added electricity, and when the plot shifts elsewhere, you're begging that she return.

    Rent it on Prime Video

    34. Ciaran Hinds – Pop (Belfast)

    Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Ciaran Hinds laugh on a couch
    Rob Youngston/Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

    I could easily write a whole post just on the fantastic supporting performances in Belfast, but this article is too long already, so I'm unfortunately only choosing to single out Hinds here. Despite having delivered consistently great film performances for over four decades (and stage performances for even longer), the Irish actor has yet to earn an Oscar nomination. Now, as the kindly grandfather, he has several meaty scenes across from Judi Dench and Jamie Dornan to propel him toward awards. He's already got the Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations locked up. It's time to see Mance Rayder/Aberforth Dumbledore take home a win.

    Rent it on Prime Video

    35. Colman Domingo – Abegunde "X" Olawale (Zola)

    Coman Domingo sits texting on his phone
    A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Y'all wanna hear a story about why me and this b-tch here fell out?! It's kinda long but full of suspense. Well, turns out the story was so captivating, it became a viral Twitter thread, and then a viral Rolling Stone article, and then an A24 film. And while the story about a woman being conned into a Florida stripper trip-gone-bad is full of great performances (and "suspense"), the scene stealer is Domingo's pimp. The Tony-winning actor lays low at the film's beginning only to erupt midway through and take a chokehold on the action. The volatile, erratic performance seems to make Domingo giddy, and he drives the suspense in the film's second half with his air of menace and chaos. 

    Watch it on Hulu

    36. Jayne Houdyshell – Deirdre Blake (The Humans)

    Jayne Houdyshell sits at a table alone
    Showtime Networks/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Of the original Broadway cast, only Houdyshell was brought along for the filmed version of the play. Perhaps because the four-time Tony nominee won Best Featured Actress (and her victory clip is a time capsule with references to Hilary Clinton winning the election and Scott Rudin's evil grin in the audience). And watching her play the sweet but overbearing matriarch of the Blake family, it's easy to see why she won. After four years in the role, she has tapped every ounce of humanity available to her and creates a character that feels like she wandered in from some Midwestern potluck fully formed.

    Watch it on Hulu

    37. Florence Pugh – Yelena Belova (Black Widow)

    Florence Pugh stands on top of a roof
    Kevin Baker/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Marvel Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Our second Marvel scene stealer of the list would be Miss Florence Pugh who, from WWF wrestling to glower walking to saying "you're being mean," has been on an all hits, no skips rampage of electric performances. In Black Widow, she plays Scarlett Johansson's feisty younger sister, not afraid to dress down the Avenger as any pesky younger sibling would. Pugh (who is back again stealing scenes in Hawkeye) is the comedic relief AND the tear-jerker in the summer blockbuster. Hell, the woman even does great cooking videos. She can't miss. 

    Watch it on Disney+

    38. Gaby Hoffmann – Viv (C'mon C'mon)

    Gaby Hoffmann sits on the floor beside Woody Norman in bed
    Tobin Yelland/A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Hoffmann may not want to do her job that often, but when she does, she does it well. In her first film since 2015, Hoffmann plays the mother of a child who must leave her son behind with his uncle while she spends time with her husband who is mentally ill. While the film dedicates much of its time to the uncle/nephew relationship, Hoffmann pops in and out (often via phone calls) to portray a woman whose love is perhaps spread a bit too thin. Her Viv exudes care and maternal warmth even as she's struggling with her own obstacles. Gaby, we may not see you in theaters for another six years, but let us know when you're back. 

    Rent it on Prime Video

    39. Jamie Dornan – Edgar Paget (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar)

    Jamie Dornan dances on a beach by some jet skis
    Cate Cameron/Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection

    We LOVE to see a serious actor lean into their stereotypes in a comedic role. Call it a Jason Statham in Spy, if you will. In this year's most entertaining, off-the-wall comedy, Jamie Dornan, primarily known as the sexy, brooding Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey, now plays a hot-but-dopey henchman. The himbo is sent to Vista Del Mar by his evil boss under the false pretense that she'll marry him if he completes his mission. The result is Dornan getting up to all manner of dumb-dumb shenanigans, including an extended musical number in honor of his love. In a year where he's likely headed for an Oscar nomination in Belfast, this is the performance I'll remember. 

    Watch it on Hulu

    40. Jennifer Coolidge – Aunt Sandy (Single All the Way)

    Jennifer Coolidge sits on a couch with a glass
    Philippe Bosse/Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    LISTEN! LISTEN! NO ONE IS LISTENING! LISTEN! Aunt Sandy said in this very film that gays are always obsessed with her. She doesn't know why, but she likes it. And as a homosexual, I can vouch for Aunt Sandy and Jennifer Coolidge. I am obsessed with her. Coolidge plays the Christmas pageant–directing aunt in this Netflix gay Christmas comedy, and boy oh boy is she giving it her all. Every single (all the way) second she's on screen is a mesmerizing gift better than gold, frankincense, or myrrh. The woman can do no wrong in my little gay book. Send her on a national tour. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    41. Kathryn Hunter – Witches (The Tragedy of Macbeth)

    Kathryn Hunter stands on a sandy shore in a cloak
    A24/Courtesy Everett Collection

    If you can think of a way to stage the three prophetic witches in Macbeth, it's probably been done. They've been old crones, young maidens, ghosts, hippies, men, women, in outer space, in World War II, in fog, as one person, as three, as a disembodied voice. In Joel Coen's adaptation, legendary British Shakespeare actor and physical shapeshifter Kathryn Hunter takes the trio of roles for herself. Using contortionism, different voices, and a few trained ravens, Hunter embodies the Weird Sisters as one — no, three? — avian wraiths, flying in and out of Macbeth's life to deliver their dire predictions. The actor swooped in to swipe the New York Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actress prize and deserves more trophies for all her double, double toil and trouble. 

    Buy Tickets. 

    42. Kirsten Dunst – Rose Gordon (The Power of the Dog)

    Kirsten Dunst carries a laundry basket
    Kirsty Griffin/Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    All hail queen Kirsten! Ever since she whispered "Peter" and kissed him upside down, I've been a fan. Over the years, people have been woefully slow to come around on Dunst, who has consistently delivered good performances since the age of 12. But oh, how the times have changed! Dunst is finally scooping up nominations left and right for her portrayal of a lovely wife and mother driven to drink by her obnoxious, sexist, homophobic brother-in-law while trapped in the middle of nowhere Montana. It's a performance that capitalizes on her effervescent sweetness but allows her to also use her oft-overlooked gritty strength. Since we couldn't give her an Oscar for "It's just a flying saucer Ed, we gotta go," let's please give her one here. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    43. Kodi Smit-McPhee – Peter Gordon (The Power of the Dog)

    Kodi Smit-McPhee makes something with paper
    Kirsty Griffin/Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Not since Brooks and Meredith Marks has there been such a memorable, low-energy mother-son duo (with a boozy protective mother and artistic bestie son). Trapped under the thumb of Benedict Cumberbatch's Phil, the pair squirm before finally banding together in a stealth attack. Smit-McPhee is breaking out this season as the lynchpin in this Best Picture frontrunner. His performance is not loud, but it is forceful. And while the mother and son, and the actors who play them, may seem like underdogs in many ways, their performances will not be denied. Bronco Henry, his cattle, and a pound of anthrax couldn't keep this Smit-McPhee out of awards conversation this year. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    44. Lil Rel Howery – Buddy (Free Guy)

    Ryan Reynolds and Lil Rel Howery walk down the street with coffees
    Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Not enough people are talking about what a PHENOMENAL film Free Guy is. Not only is it hysterical, and clever, and really moving, but it is also the highest grossing film of the year not based on previous IP, breaking into the domestic box office top 10! And while all the film's performances are strong (Joe Keery, Jodie Comer, and Ryan Reynolds, of course), it's resident funny man Lil Rel Howery who gets the most laughs. As the doofy bank security guard in the video game world, he's reliably funny but also surprisingly sweet, and his relationship with Reynolds' Guy is the emotional core of the film. Justice for Rel's short-lived sitcom (I loved you, Loose Boots Monica), and let's hope he's just as funny in Free Guy 2

    Rent it on Prime Video

    45. Marisa Tomei – May Parker (Spider-Man: No Way Home)

    Marisa Tomei holds a letter in her hand
    Sony Pictures Releasing/Marvel Studios

    SPOILER ALERT FOR SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME

    Easily the biggest film of 2021 was the third MCU Spider-Man film, and while Tom Holland, Zendaya, a host of cameos, and a Pixar-level melancholic third act all contributed to its success, a pair of supporting roles really pushed it over the top for me. The first is that of Marisa Tomei's hot Aunt May. The Oscar winner is the talented master of making the most of every little bit of screen time (remember when she showed up in The First Purge and acted in front of a green screen and didn't even bother with a costume change?). She may only have a few scenes in this film, but boy does she make an impact. I've never seen a death scene quite as well executed, and the fact that she delivered perhaps the most overused and corniest piece of film dialogue of this century ("With great power comes great responsibility") in a believable way is icing on the cake. Miss Tomei, I am blowing you a kiss with my little deer lips for this performance. 

    Buy tickets. 

    46. Nina Arianda – Vivian Vance (Being the Ricardos)

    Nina Arianda looks over her shoulder in a chair
    Glen Wilson/Amazon Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection

    As Lucy Ricardo overshadowed Ethel Mertz and Lucille Ball overshadowed Vivian Vance, so Nicole Kidman seems to be overshadowing Nina Arianda (unless, of course, AMC has reached out to Arianda about a glitzy pre-show reel that I'm unaware of). Arianda plays Vance playing Mertz in Aaron Sorkin's new drama about the making of I Love Lucy. Her storyline, an existential crisis about being passed over and not being allowed to be beautiful for her role, is a complicated one that Arianda handles gracefully. She's perfectly Ethel when she needs to be, but she somehow takes that caricature and makes it her own in a very compelling way. 

    Watch it on Prime Video

    47. Olga Merediz – Abuela Claudia (In the Heights)

    Olga Merediz sings in front of a group of dancers
    Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Merediz originated the role of Usnavi's kind-hearted abuela in the Broadway production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical and played the part for the entire three-year run. She received a Tony nomination for her work, so when it came to casting the film version, she became the sole cast member to reprise her role. Her Broadway magic carries over into the film version, especially in her crowning number, "Paciencia y Fe." The New York subway–set scene is easily one of the most inventive, beautifully choreographed musical numbers in movie-musical history, let alone this year. Grab a box of tissues before you click the YouTube link, though. 

    Watch it on HBO Max

    48. Rebecca Ferguson – Lady Jessica (Dune)

    Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, and Timothee Chalamet stand in a line
    Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

    Dune (which I believe should be our Best Picture winner this year) is primarily a feat of cinema rather than acting. The script, directing, sound, costumes, music, and visual effects are breathtaking, while the acting, solid as it is, often takes a back seat. Ferguson's portrayal of a mystical queen and mother forced to take measures into her own hands, however, is strong enough to compete with the cinematic majesty for our attention. Her regal British accent, whispered across the sandy hills of Arrakis, is haunting, and her determination to push through grief is striking. The casting and performance is especially clever, as Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit who controls others with her voice, needs one of particular remarkableness, and Ferguson certainly provides. 

    Rent it on Prime Video

    49. Regina King – Trudy Smith (The Harder They Fall)

    Regina King stands in the dusty main street of a town in the wild west
    David Lee/Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Put Regina King in anything, and I'll love it. Hell, I'd go back and give her an Oscar for Daddy Day Care and Miss Congeniality 2. So it's no surprise that I was glued to the screen during every one of her scenes as the villainous Trudy Smith in Netflix's Black western. After mostly straight dramatic roles in the past few years, it was fun to see her cut her teeth in a flashy action film, where she gets to strut around, spew venom in a thick accent, and shoot people. While the performance may be a longshot for the Oscars, I will take this opportunity to say the song "Guns Go Bang" is on the Oscar shortlist and boy oh boy, is it a bop. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    50. Rhys Ifans – Rasputin (The King's Man)

    Rhys Ifans enters a dance with two women
    20th Century Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection

    I would consider myself a bit of a Rasputin expert, due to extensive research. He was the lover of the Russian queen. He was a cat that really was gone. He was Russia's greatest love machine. It was a shame how he carried on. So I was therefore thrilled to see the holy healer portrayed in the Kingsman prequel with such accuracy. This film was largely meh, but Ifans arrived on set prepared to chew the scenery (and a tart) as savagely as possibly. His few scenes are wildly (and grossly) entertaining. No one has ever dared to make out with Ralph Fiennes' leg so wetly, and that should be commended. And I know that Ifans certainly had a stunt double for his fight scene, but the Russian dance-inspired sword fight set to "Ode to Joy" is one of the best action sequences of the year. We love to see a queer character say "if you're gonna make me fight, I will do it with as much flair as possible." Ra Ra Rasputin and Ra Ra Rhys Ifans. 

    Buy tickets. 

    51. Richard E. Grant – Loco Chanelle (Everybody's Talking About Jamie)

    Richard E. Grant sings in drag
    Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Not enough people are talking about Jamie or about Grant's performance as drag queen extraordinaire Loco Chanelle. In the film based on the hit West End musical, Grant's character becomes the drag mother and mentor for fledgling queen Jamie. While Grant's rough maternalism is charming throughout the film, his moment comes during the epic mid-show ballad "This Was Me" created specifically for the film version. The song tells his story and the story of many in London of the era who came out only to find their community and lives destroyed by AIDS. It's a beautifully poignant moment that should be more widely recognized. It's one of the best musicals of the year and you don't even know it

    Watch it on Prime Video

    52. Richard Jenkins – Erik Blake (The Humans)

    Richard Jenkins stands in the doorway of an apartment
    Showtime Networks/Courtesy Everett Collection

    The Humans is the only film to land three actors on this list, and it's only by the sheer force of their individual performances that I couldn't decide who to cut and left in the trio. Jenkins plays the family patriarch attempting to stifle his feelings behind small talk and tinkering with broken appliances. Unable to do so, however, Jenkins is handed several meaty scenes in the back half of the film that he puts to good use. For some reason the performances have not gotten much steam so far in the award's season, but a trio of acting noms is more than deserved for the great work here. 

    Watch it on Hulu

    53. Robin de Jesus – Michael (Tick, Tick... Boom!)

    Robin de Jesus, MJ Rodriguez, and Ben Ross stand in a kitchen
    Macall Polay/Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    While Andrew Garfield is rightfully earning plenty of adoration for his work in the buzzy Netflix musical, critics seem to be sleeping on the masterful scene-stealing performance from de Jesus. Playing Jonathan Larson's gay best friend Michael (Matt O'Grady in real life), de Jesus not only gets to showcase his own singing abilities, but also stands as the film's emotional center as the AIDS crisis swirls around him and his friends in New York. De Jesus's masterful performance should come as no surprise to Broadway fans as he's been nominated for three Tonys already. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    54. Ruth Negga – Clare Bellew (Passing)

    Ruth Negga sits at a lunch table
    Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

    And now the other half of the Negga/Thompson duo in Passing. While Thompson's character is demure and collected, Negga's is on a fated journey toward ruin. The flashy, dangerously self-confident Clare is flirting with disaster by reconnecting with her Black roots as her husband is an obvious and extreme racist. And yet Clare is drawn back time and time again like a moth to a flame. Negga (often cast in quieter roles) gets to flex her muscles here and eats up the scenes one by one. She and Thompson may be a team, but Negga is the one catching the football and scoring the points. Her Independent Spirit and Golden Globe nominations certainly say as much. 

    Watch it on Netflix

    55. Teyonah Parris – Bri Cartwright (Candyman)

    Teyonah Parris looks in a mirror
    Parrish Lewis/Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

    2021 was a big year for Parris between her memorable performance Monica Rambeau in Wandavision and her role in the Candyman sequel. Here she plays Bri, the art curator girlfriend of Anthony who CORRECTLY refuses to say "candyman" five times while looking in a mirror. She's giving (not Cher) but one of the best horror performances of the year, as her life of upward trajectory is slowly hook-sliced apart by the ghosts of the past. Watching her slowly unravel alongside Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is what makes the film so gripping and dark at the same time. 

    Rent it on Prime Video

    56. Troy Kotsur – Frank Rossi (CODA)

    Troy Kotsur stands on a fishing boat
    Apple TV+/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Landing a role as a deaf actor is no easy feat, so when Kotsur was cast as the deaf father of a hearing daughter in CODA, he capitalized on the performance. Paired with Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, Kotsur is one half of a dynamic (and very horny) couple who run a fishing boat in Massachusetts. The pair rely heavily on their hearing daughter and struggle to face the obstacles that could arise for them should she leave for college to become a musician. Kotsur, an unknown prior to this year, has a Critics Choice, Golden Globe, and Indie Spirit nomination under his belt and seems well on his way to the Oscars. 

    Watch it on Apple TV+

    57. And Willem Dafoe – Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Spider-Man: No Way Home)

    Green Goblin floats in on his hoverboard
    Sony Pictures Releasing/Marvel Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection

    The second next-level performance from No Way Home is that of should-have-won-an-Oscar-for-The Florida Project actor Willem Dafoe, who reprises his role as the iconic Green Goblin. Dafoe, gifted with an incredibly fascinating face and voice, always seems like the natural fit to play a villain, but his gentle spirit in interviews conveys a different aura entirely. In this role, he's able to do both, playing both the vindictive, merciless Goblin as well as the timid, meek, helpless  Norman Osborn, trapped in the same mind. Dafoe is the perfect villain to incite fear, but also the cornerstone in the plot's "we must save the baddies from themselves" storyline that wouldn't work without him. He's a world class actor proving his worth even if it's in audio-only voiceover while a stunt double flies a green screen hoverboard around. He's just that good.

    Buy tickets.