This year was filled with great movies and great actors either flourishing in films matching their abilities or trying their damnedest to bring the picture up to their level. It saw performers reinvent themselves in the public eye, from Nicolas Cage reaffirming his new interest in quietness thanks to Pig to Isabelle Fuhrman and Winston Duke reminding us that they’re stars with their respective turns in The Novice and Nine Days.
Our Andy Crump has already made the case for two grand performances this year, one scene-stealing and one movie-dominating, but this list is more about featuring those actorly feats that make you excited both in the moment and long after the credits roll. You ask yourself “What are they going to do next?” because it feels like these particular performers could do just about anything. Pushing their craft to the limit, sometimes with hints of stardom and sometimes with that underappreciated workhorse ability to support everything around them, these actors were those that made you leap to IMDb. “Who is that?” Well, we’re here to tell you.
Here are the 10 breakout performances of 2021:
Daniel Durant – CODA
While CODA could’ve contributed a few actors to this list (Troy Kotsur and Emilia Jones are also terrific), Daniel Durant’s nuanced turn as a blue-collar fisherman is equal parts frustrated and loving. His expressions enhanced by ASL, Durant’s need to be useful to his family—he and his parents deaf, his sister hearing—collides head-on with complicated feelings towards said sister and the natural inclinations (to fight, to hook-up, to grab a cold one) of a virile young hunk. The character is multifaceted enough to lead a film on his own, but Durant nestles him into the family unit brilliantly. This lets his comic and dramatic timing supplement the arc of Jones’ character while doubling down on laugh lines from his very horny parents. He can be blistering, blustery and sweetly charming. It’s exactly what the film needs, even if he’s so good at it that you might find yourself wishing it was his movie after all.
In Steven Spielberg’s incredible retelling of the Broadway classic, there are plenty of stand-out performances. Rachel Zegler’s bright and starry break as Maria is perfectly calibrated while David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose are both utterly gripping, physical and complex as Bernardo and Anita. But I challenge anyone to watch West Side Story and not be immediately magnetized to Mike Faist’s Riff. The Tony nominee has been in a few movies, but Spielberg knows exactly how to use him. His charisma, his poise, his scrappy enunciation and faces tell us that he’s a Jet—a Jet all the way—and how he got that way without a lick of backstory. His charged performance in the film’s reworked “Cool” makes the most of the choreography while adding a dangerous and quasi-sexual edge to the pistol-chasing stand-off. In short, he’s a scene-stealing star in a role that’s often a favorite but rarely allows such dominance. Here’s what I said about Faist in my West Side Story review: “The way the Broadway vet moves his body is so practiced and skillful that it looks effortless—lazy!—even compared to his gang of sleeveless, coiffed street twunks. His slinky grace leaves ample room to inject charisma into his songs, making him the character everyone’ll be talking about on the way out of the theater.”
Together Together is an amiable, successfully awkward surrogacy dramedy that also has the respectable distinction of being a TERF’s worst nightmare. That’s only one of the tiny aspects of writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s second feature, but the gentle tapestry of intimacy among strangers who, for a short time, desperately need each other certainly benefits from the meta-text of comedian and internet terror Patti Harrison’s multi-layered starring performance. In a turn from her previous absurd, cosmically evil stand-up and television personae, Harrison’s guarded Anna is often thrust into awkward situations not entirely of her own devising. Everyone around her laser focuses on her only insofar as she affects them or their perception of themselves. She jaunts from doctor’s appointment, to unorthodox couple’s therapy, to crib shopping, to baby shower as a particularly observant fly on the wall, and people seem surprised when their automatic judgments of her are met with an inquisitive or mildly hostile response. These confrontations are the nexus of several of the film’s high points: Harrison’s consistently surprising acting choices and Beckwith’s delight in writing the pointed counters one might avoid in polite conversation.—Shayna Maci Warner
As much as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensibility is ever-present throughout In the Heights, it’s a blessing that Anthony Ramos takes over as the lead, using the full breadth of his impressive AAA charm to assure every last unconvinced soul that he is one of our great stars. Singing, rapping, dancing, pining over Vanessa, pining over the Dominican Republic, bumbling, speaking in direct address (always a test of charisma), exuding a casual sexiness—Ramos is the platonic ideal of a romantic leading man and exactly who we need guiding us through the musical’s everyday complexity.
Much like Beginners is directly inspired by his father’s coming out and 20th Century Women by the experiences of his mother and sister, C’mon C’mon also transposes Mike Mills’ own memories to the screen. This time, the cinematic catalyst was a simple bathtime conversation the director had with his son—a detail faithfully recreated in the film with a delicate and appropriately realistic touch. However, it’s hard to imagine the film’s success without the dynamic chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman, with the two seamlessly playing off one another’s dialogue and an air of childlike spontaneity permeating every interaction. Norman’s performance is a rarity in that it displays obvious talent while preserving a childlike playfulness that never feels over-acted.—Natalia Keogan
The relationship between Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) and fellow nun Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) is one heavily weighed with power, sex and danger from its start. Efira might get the juiciest parts of it—not in a gross way but also not not in a gross way—but Patakia’s yearning, ogling eyes and wandering hands perfectly counterbalance the more reserved and self-important Benedetta. When her impish character takes a turn midway through the film, those eyes become haunted, betrayed and wolfish while never losing their desire. That Patakia is able to sustain and evolve this primal hunger while offering complex theological support in an imperfect relationship involving one very literal God complex reveals her as a great talent.
Alana, Alana, Alana. If we’re going to talk about Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest characters, then let’s just say that Alana can give just about any of them a run for their money. Haim plays Alana with the acute sensitivity and frustration of a young woman caught in the midst of teendom and adulthood. With every withering look, every eye-roll, every clumsy, unselfconscious strut and candid smile, Haim embodies the vibrations of the violent push and pull involved in growing up. The casting of Haim, too, reflects as much care as the casting of Cooper Hoffman: Anderson has been making music videos with Haim’s sister-band for years now, and their mother was his elementary school art teacher—talk about a longing for youth!—Aurora Amidon
Every decade has its prolific child actors. The ones that utterly blow us all away with their emotional capacity and deep relatability, the ones who are too funny for their own good (and funnier than most people older than them), the ones whose tears beget the falling of our own. They’re few and far between—and their rarity makes them all the more special. Once upon a time, there was Jodie Foster. Macaulay Culkin. Anna Paquin became the second-youngest person to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at age 11. In recent years, Jacob Tremblay devastated audiences in Room and Alex R. Hibbert commanded the screen with quiet contemplation and grace in Moonlight. Now, thanks to Shudder’s The Boy Behind the Door, Lonnie Chavis joins those highly regarded ranks. Chavis undoubtedly carries the film. Yes, his character is the one who remains free from complete captivity—though he is far from safe—and thus has the most screen time, but there is absolutely more than just visibility at play. He is incredibly skilled, the choices his character makes are nearly visible on his face as he contemplates making them. The last time I recall such a calculated performance was the lunch scene between Anthony Hopkins and Sidse Babett Knudsen in the first season of Westworld. Audiences expect that level of expertise and dedication to the text from a seasoned vet like Hopkins—but it’s an even more pleasant surprise when a newer performer nails such a nuanced role. The part really puts the actor—who was the age of his character at the time of filming—through the wringer, as Bobby takes it upon himself to do what he can to save his friend (yes, the titular boy behind the door). It reminded me of the great Shelley Duvall in The Shining: A sickening spiral of effort and the immense grief of struggling to process a new, traumatized life permeate both performances. I would even go as far as to say the two films would make for an arresting double feature based on the kindred performances alone.—Lex Briscuso
Taylour Paige – Zola
The shmoney ain’t for nothin’ and these chicks ain’t free, as Zola spirals from a simple strip trip to a messy collision between culture vultures, warring sex traffickers and an ever-increasing desire to get the hell home. It’s all embodied by Taylour Paige, proving herself an all-star, who’s as invested and committed to her tragicomic “How in the hell did I get here?” performance as Riley Keough is to unpacking the ingrained, survival-driven cruelty prickling beneath the appropriation punchline that is Stefani. But she, like the rest of the film’s stylish punchlines (be they bittersweet, over-the-top or just plain nasty) completely lands. The commitment to dignity amidst the madness feels physical. It drips as single tears or a pitifully bleeding head; it flexes through impressive pole dancing inverts. Paige’s anger explodes past tight-lipped contempt while she delivers looks funnier than most movies’ best jokes, and every response carries the undercurrent of a trauma response thanks to her strength of posture and expression.
Since The Suicide Squad actually has life-or-death tension, its performers and humor are allowed to break and exploit it. Margot Robbie and Idris Elba are clearly having a hell of a time, bristling with energy, but Daniela Melchior is the true standout. Sure, David Dastmalchian and Sylvester Stallone nail their punchlines (one’s a depressed Polka-Dot Man and the other’s a big ol’ monosyllabic shark in shorts), but Melchior nails her gags and has to find the emotional center of the film. While this doesn’t always work—partially the fault of Deadshot’s ultimately lame arc, supposed to resonate with hers—Melchior underplays soft and tough and sweet, emotive yet worldly, so well that she could stand out from pretty much any script. James Gunn has an ability to turn a newcomer fifth-stringer into your new favorite character, and with Melchior’s winning turn as Ratcatcher 2 (the “2” is important), it’s hard not to count her at the very top of the superhero breakouts.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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