Our favorite performances of 2021

1. Virginie Efira- Benedetta– No actor was more crucial to a movie’s success this year than Virginie Efira’s balancing act in Paul Verhoevan’s incisive tale of religious and carnal passion. Though it features numerous scenes of nuns indulging their (and their director’s) basest sexual fantasies, some involving a Virgin Mary statue carved into a dildo, Benedetta is also a potent interrogation of belief. (Yes, I realize how that last sentence reads.) That belief is shouldered by the others in 17th century Italy as much as the audience. As Benedetta receives (or claims to receive) pronouncements from God that allow her to gradually accumulate more and more power, Efira sells it so well that it’s impossible not to buy in.

2. Adam Driver- Annette– Leo Carax’s musical gives Adam Driver the best outlet for his manic energy since his star-making turn in Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls. His character, an obsessive comedian named Henry McHenry, finds himself woefully unprepared for the tribulations of modern life, namely love, marriage, and fatherhood. Driver tears through the movie with an increasingly frightening and unhinged physicality. Watching him hop around a stage in a green bathrobe or dance on the deck of a boat during a thunderstorm, it’s clear he’s a perfect match for Carax’s wildly unpredictable vision.

3. Hidetoshi Nishijima- Drive My Car– Hidetoshi Nishijima’s face is one of the great cinematic landscapes of the year. The quiet, melancholy center of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s epic, he plays Yusuke, a stage director and actor struggling to stay afloat after the sudden death of a loved one. Much of the movie focuses on him putting on a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya after that death. As he converses and rehearses with the actors as well as his driver, Hamaguchi and Nishijima gradually build one of the most perceptive and affecting portraits of grief I’ve ever seen.

4. Yû Aoi- Wife of a Spy– Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s taut, Hitchcockian thriller is also a perfect showcase for its star. As Satoko, a Japanese actress swept up in her country’s World War II spy games, Yû Aoi is tasked with balancing the character’s intentional ambiguity while adapting to the increasingly bleak and desperate situation. She is essential to giving Kurosawa’s unrelenting genre exercise its staying power.

5. Kirsten Dunst- The Power of the Dog– To watch Kirsten Dunst in Jane Campion’s new frontier thriller is to see a performance that, as Hilton Als put it, “is based in part on everything she knows about performance, which is considerable.” Since her breakout turn at the age of 11 in Interview With the Vampire, Dunst has built an enviable filmography filled with some of the best performances of the last 30 years. As Rose Gordon, a troubled woman tormented by an even more troubled rancher, you can see the sadness and desperation accumulate across her face. A scene where she tries, and fails, to play the piano for a dinner party is among the most devastatingly rendered moments of her career. Considering she gave us Melancholia, that’s saying something.

6. Jeffrey Wright- The French Dispatch– Wes Anderson’s latest film is an embarrassment of cinematic riches in nearly every way, and that includes its enviable slew of memorable performances. The standout is Jeffrey Wright, whose subdued portrait of a food writer takes center stage in the third of the movie’s main segments. As he reflects on an article he wrote about an acclaimed chef who works for a French police department, he winds up looking back suddenly over his entire career. The moment where he spontaneously recalls why he loves writing about food is the single most moving thing I saw all year.

7. Stephanie Hayes- Slow Machine- Slow Machine is the year’s most assured debut feature, a beguiling and frantic tale of performance that is suffused with uneasiness. At the center is Stephanie Hayes, playing an actress (also named Stephanie) who finds herself in a sinister dance of wills with a man claiming to be a policeman. Switching effortlessly between a Swedish accent and a Texas drawl (for a role she’s preparing for), Hayes follows directors Joe Denardo and Paul Felten down a transfixing, unsettling narrative rabbit hole without losing track of her character(s).

8. Sofia Kappel- Pleasure– Ninja Thyberg’s incisive look at the porn industry in L.A. is couched in the subjectivity of 19-year-old Linnéa, who arrives from her small town in Sweden hellbent on being a star. Sofia Kappel’s remarkable performance achieves the difficult task of distinguishing between performative and genuine vulnerability. She navigates a complex world of exploitation with relentless determination, less a fish out of water than one asserting her right to swim where she pleases.

9. Tôko Miura- Drive My Car– Yusuke, the main character of Drive My Car, does not want a driver. He reluctantly agrees because the organization allowing him to put on a play absolutely insists. At first, his resentment over being driven by Misaki (Tôko Miura) makes for awkwardly quiet drives to and from rehearsals. As the movie wears on, the silence largely stays, though the connection between the two characters grows into a shatteringly moving climax. Miura’s performance, quiet yet incredibly captivating, lays the groundwork for this moment remarkably.

10. Benedict Cumberbatch- The Power of the DogDirector Jane Campion says Benedict Cumberbatch is “quite a people pleaser who wants to get everyone on his side.” She told him to shed that impulse completely for his role as Phil Burbank, a sadistic rancher intent on dominating his surroundings and humiliating everyone in his path. Cumberbatch gives haunting depth to the deep repression at the core of his character’s alpha impulses. It’s a career-best performance.

Runner-ups:

Isabelle Fuhrman- The Novice

Masaki Okada- Drive My Car

Woody Norman- C’mon C’mon

Alex Wolff- Old

Ale Ulman- El Planeta

Kodi Smit-McPhee- The Power of the Dog

Mahtab Servati- There Is No Evil

Anna Kobb- We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

Félix Lefebvre- Summer of ’85

Jodie Comer- The Last Duel

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