Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences begin casting ballots for Oscar nominations Thursday. Balloting closes next Tuesday. Voting is done electronically, hence the narrow window.
That makes this a good time to look back at one reviewer’s favorite performances of 2021 — but with a twist. Forget categories: “actor,” “actress,” “leading,” “supporting.” A great performance is a great performance. Also, the Academy limits the total number of acting nominations to 20, five in each of the four categories. Forget about that, too. In honor of 2021, let’s go with a Top 21 instead of a Top 20.
They are, in alphabetical order:
Ben Affleck, The Tender Bar Playing the hero’s barkeep uncle, Affleck saunters away with the movie. The performance feels so lived in it must have been as enjoyable for Affleck the performer as it is for viewers watching. Available on Amazon Prime.
Stephanie Beatriz, Encanto True, only Beatriz’s vocal talents get used. But her character, Mirabel Madrigal, is so important to “Encanto,” and even with just using her voice Beatriz gives such a whirlwind performance, she belongs on this list. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Disney+, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.
Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter Olivia Colman is the star. But it’s Buckley, playing Colman’s character as a younger woman, who’s indelible. It shouldn’t need demonstrating that no one should have to choose between work and family. Buckley shows why. Available on Netflix.
Bradley Cooper, Licorice Pizza He’s on screen for only about seven minutes. But those seven minutes are sensational right down to the white jumpsuit he wears. In theaters.
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story Anita is the showiest part in a musical full of them. Whether singing, dancing, or simply standing around, DeBose makes Anita’s showiness a lot more than just show. In theaters.
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard OK, sure, Will Smith, as the title character, dominates the proceedings. But it’s Ellis, as Richard Williams’s wife, Oracene, the mother of Venus and Serena Williams, who’s the glue that holds together not just the Williamses but this movie about them. Available on HBO Max.
Mike Faist, West Side Story The second showiest part is Riff. (Imagine the child he and Anita could have. Whoa!) Faist brings a snarly, coiled intensity to the role that kicks the musical into a higher gear whenever he’s onscreen.
Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza You’re a 25-year-old woman in a dead-end job, still living at home. Also, a 15-year-old guy is obsessed with you. Try to make something memorable out of a role like that. Well, in her feature-film debut, Haim does. Vulnerable and formidable is a very hard mix to pull off. Haim makes it seem as natural as pizza without licorice.
Ciarán Hinds, Belfast Crusty yet wise and lovable grandfather: What could be more rotely audience pleasing? Yet Hinds gives that character, Pop, a warmth and solidity that anchors Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical family drama, cutting its sentimentality with a welcome dose of tang and gusto. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Cooper Hoffman, Licorice Pizza Hoffman, also making his feature-film debut, is that obsessed 15-year-old, Gary. It’s a tricky role. The line between enthusiastic romantic and early-onset creep is dangerously narrow. Hoffman, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, makes negotiating it seem easy.
Gaby Hoffmann, C’mon C’mon Even with two other superlative performances going on around her (see below), Hoffmann more than holds her own. Her character, Viv, is a single mother. Hoffmann doesn’t just let us see but also feel how Viv can be at once overwhelmed and stalwart. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.
Emilia Jones, CODA Playing the teenage hearing daughter of deaf parents, Jones is a marvel: variously sweet, tart, self-sacrificing, headstrong, indomitable, beleaguered, and that’s just for starters. Oh, and she can sing. Available on Apple TV+.
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos Kidman wouldn’t have been the first actress to come to mind when casting someone to play Lucille Ball. She sure is now. Her rasp is even better than Lucy’s was. Available on Amazon Prime.
Woody Norman/Joaquin Phoenix, C’mon C’mon A package deal. In a year with several outstanding performances from child actors (Jude Hill, “Belfast”; Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry, “Spencer”; Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, “King Richard,” the list goes on), Norman’s was a cut above. As his uncle (the sister of Gaby Hoffmann’s Viv), Phoenix is right up there, too, in the adult division.
Simon Rex, Red Rocket Mikey Saber, a very down-on-his-luck porn star, may have been the year’s most outlandish protagonist (you can’t quite call him a hero). Rex gives a performance that’s every bit as outlandish — which is to say, just right. Available on Amazon Prime, Vudu.
Will Smith, King Richard Is Smith’s Richard Williams likable? Yes. Is he dislikable? That, too. More important, and far harder to manage, he’s always watchable. Smith takes a very complicated character and gives a performance that seems close to effortless. Available on HBO Max.
Kristen Stewart, Spencer For more than 15 years, Princess Diana was the most famous woman in the world. Imagine making a performance of her convincing, let alone illuminating. Stewart did — and does.
Denzel Washington/Frances McDormand, The Tragedy of Macbeth A different kind of package deal. Each gives a magnificent performance — stark, riveting, authoritative — he as the title character, she as his wife. Shakespeare on screen can be a dicey proposition. Not with these two in charge. Available on Apple TV+.
Jeffrey Wright, The French Dispatch The price paid for the snow-globe wonder that is a Wes Anderson movie is lack of human emotion. Given the seemingly impossible task of playing a writer who’s three parts James Baldwin to two parts A.J. Liebling, Wright turns lack into abundance. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu.
(With apologies to Timothée Chalamet, “Don’t Look Up”; Penélope Cruz, “Parallel Mothers”; Judi Dench, “Belfast”; Lady Gaga, “House of Gucci”; Andrew Garfield, “tick, tick . . . BOOM!”; Sally Hawkins, “Spencer”; Kathryn Hunter, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”; Ben Kingsley, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”; Tôko Miura, “Drive My Car”; Millicent Simmonds, “A Quiet Place Part II”; Suzanna Son, “Red Rocket”; Emma Stone, “Cruella”; Natalia Traven, “Cry Macho”; and Rachel Weisz, “Black Widow.”)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.