Today I’m wrapping up my look back at the best performances of 2021. All that will be left is my Top 10 Films (look for that next week). We finish with the Lead Actor category, one that is brimming with Oscar-worthy leading work. Several big names as well as a few unexpected ones made this a really hard group to narrow down. But such are the silly rules. So here we go, starting with a few honorable mentions.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Oscar Isaac (“The Card Counter”), Eric Bana (“The Dry”), Tim Blake Nelson (“Old Henry”), Bradley Cooper (“Nightmare Alley”), Joaquin Phoenix (“C’mon C’mon”), Luke Kirby (“No Man of God”), Ciarán Hinds (“The Man in the Hat”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”), Denzel Washington (“The Little Things”), Jude Hill (“Belfast”), Adam Driver (“House of Gucci”), Don Cheadle (“No Sudden Move”), Tom Hanks (Finch), Harvey Keitel (“Lanksy”)
#5 – Will Smith (“King Richard”)
I’ve always found Will Smith performances to be pretty hit-or-miss. But his portrayal of Richard Williams in “King Richard” tosses aside any hesitation I may have had. Williams was a complicated man and Smith transforms to shed light on the determined father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. I wasn’t particularly excited for “King Richard” but it really surprised me. Smith was a big reason why.
#4 – Andrew Garfield (“Tick…Tick…Boom!”)
While the script and direction for “Tick…Tick…Boom!” was a little shaky, there was nothing lacking in Andrew Garfield’s lights-out performance. Both when acting and singing, the magnetic Garfield infuses the film with an infectious energy. He quite literally carries the movie on his shoulders and it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the enthusiasm and the emotion he brings.
#3 – Nicolas Cage (“Pig”)
While these days he’s probably known more for the unbridled nuttiness he brings to so many of his roles, sometimes we forget that Nicolas Cage is actually an immensely talented actor. Look no further than “Pig” for proof. He turned a lot of heads with his restrained and affecting portrayal of an off-the-grid hermit who sets out to find his stolen truffle pig. It may sound silly, but it’s hard not to moved by his performance.
#2 – Peter Dinklage (“Cyrano”)
One of the great surprises of the 2021 movie year was Peter Dinklage in the brilliant musical “Cyrano”. Anyone who follows Dinklage knows he’s a terrific actor. But here, not only does he get to showcase his acting chops with a meaty dramatic leading role, but he also gets to sing too. And it does it extremely well. Mix the two talents together and you have one of the best performances of the year.
#1 – Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of MacBeth”)
I learned a long time ago that in the world of acting there’s nothing Denzel Washington can’t do. And through the years he continues to prove that to be true. His latest film “The Tragedy of MacBeth” is even further evidence. Washington’s take on Shakespeare’s classic character is utterly captivating and he offers a perspective that honors the Bard’s vision yet still feels strikingly fresh. This is Denzel at the top of his game. Then again, when is he not?
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