Amanda Seyfried puts on a happy face in "A Mouthful of Air."

Do movie stars exist anymore? I mean the old-fashioned type that can pull an audience to the theater just on marquee value alone. I don’t know, but I found plenty of great lead performances in 2021’s movies, and by and large, they had too few people watching them. Here’s to all of us who still go to the movies to see actors act, or stumble on great performances where we least expect them.

Riz Ahmed

This guy just keeps expanding his range. In Encounter, he portrays a Marine Special Forces soldier who was dishonorably discharged, perhaps because he’s mentally ill or perhaps because the world is actually being invaded by an alien microbial parasite that turns people into zombies. Regardless, he loves his kids as he flees with them into the Nevada desert and disposes of some backwoods gun nuts who want to kill him because he isn’t white.

Jessica Chastain

Too thin and too attractive to portray Tammy Faye Bakker? She proves us wrong in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Not only does she imitate the televangelist’s singing, Midwestern drawl, and overly made-up look, but she creates a character as someone who is shunted off to the side by the powerful men in evangelical Christianity and goes down a drug-filled path to cope. Possibly the movie lets off the historical Bakker too easily, but Chastain’s performance makes the case that she was unfairly maligned.


Benedict Cumberbatch

He was mightily impressive in The Power of the Dog, and he seems to have locked into his character as Doctor Strange, but I’m placing him on this list for The Courier. As an ordinary man caught up in an international spy thriller, he damps down his marvelous qualities and becomes quite moving as he makes a staunch friend out of a Soviet defector and finds reserves of courage while thrown into a gulag.

Adam Driver

It’s not the easiest thing for an actor to portray a standup comic and be under that remorseless spotlight instead of sharing the screen with other people. When Driver goes on stage in Annette, you see why audiences are flocking to him. He’s such a commanding presence, even the way he swings a microphone by its cord into his hand draws a laugh. Leos Carax’s film swings wildly into absurdity, and Driver never loses his bearings as he depicts this entertainer destroying himself.

Andrew Garfield

He’s surrounded by Broadway luminaries in tick, tick… Boom!, and none of them remotely threaten to steal the show from him. Portraying Jonathan Larson as a struggling composer on the Great White Way, Garfield sings with great smoothness and assurance (can you believe it’s his first time singing?) and dominates as a guy who thinks he’s running out of time and then discovers what that really means. Up to this point, I tended to admire his performances more than like them, but this truly shows what he can do.

Oscar Isaac

Seems like we know everything we need to know about his character in The Card Counter when we see him checking into a hotel and immediately wrapping all his room’s furniture in bedsheets. As an ex-soldier who’s living his life exceedingly carefully after public disgrace and a stretch in prison, Isaac projects expertise in the vicissitudes of casino gambling and guilt over his deeds at Abu Ghraib.

Hidetoshi Nishijima

If ever a movie was designed to bare an actor’s shortcomings, it’s Drive My Car. As a theater director mourning for his adulterous wife, Nishijima spends much of this three-hour film in the backseat of a car trying to sort through his feelings while being driven to and from his workplace. The 50-year-old Tokyo native never falters under the camera’s relentless gaze, and his portrayal of Uncle Vanya makes you want to see him play the role in a Chekhov adaptation.

Renate Reinsve

As a woman who hits 30 and has already switched careers from medicine to psychology to photography, this tall actress is all over the screen in The Worst Person in the World. She plays a character named Julie, who goes absolutely wild all through the watering holes of Oslo trying to figure out what to do with her professional and romantic lives, and you cannot shift your attention anywhere else as she bounces from one disaster to another.

Agathe Rousselle

Interesting facts: Before embarking on her acting career, this 33-year-old founded two online cultural publications and a fashion line featuring her own embroidery. Titane was her first role in any feature film, and what a splash she made. As a serial killer who’s part woman and part machine, she gives the role all the primal, unfiltered rage it needs. Maybe this is easier for a first-time actor. It’s a smashing turn regardless.

Amanda Seyfried

What is a list like this without a left-field pick? I was one of the 18 people (give or take) who saw A Mouthful of Air in the theaters, and her performance as a young mother suffering from postpartum depression ranks among her best. Looking unsteady on her legs, Seyfried somehow conveys the tremulous vulnerability of someone who’s crumbling on the inside while seeming fine to her husband and all her friends. She shakes the movie’s entire sanitized façade.

Kristen Stewart

When I heard she was portraying Princess Diana in Spencer, my first thought was, “She isn’t tall enough.” True, but also silly. There are few better actresses to turn the People’s Princess into a walking, talking advertisement for the human need for privacy. I’m not sure whether she’s better in Diana’s unguarded moments with her sons, or in the harrowing scenes where she does violence to herself to cope with her in-laws. At all times, she gives the film a vital focal point.

Mary Twala Mhlongo

The 80-year-old native of Soweto passed away last year, but not before giving a leonine performance in This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection. After losing every member of her family, her character repudiates both the Christian God and the local gods, and in doing so, scares and pisses off her entire village by standing in the way of rural development so her final resting place can be alongside her children and grandchildren. You won’t forget the film’s last shot of her stripping naked and running toward police and self-immolation.

Honorable mention: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Candyman; Niamh Algar, Censor; Mahershala Ali, Swan Song; Nicolas Cage, Pig; Clifton Collins Jr., Jockey; Bradley Cooper, Nightmare Alley; Mariana Di Girolamo, Ema; Jasna Ðuričić, Quo Vadis, Aida?; Lady Gaga, House of Gucci; Thomasin McKenzie, Last Night in Soho; Mads Mikkelsen, Riders of Justice; Dev Patel, The Green Knight; Simon Rex, Red Rocket; Emma Stone, Cruella.