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The 27 Best Film and TV Performances of 2021

From the dramatic to the comic, these actors broadened the boundaries of what a great performance means on screens big and small.

Best Performances of 2021

“In the Heights,” “The Underground Railroad,” “Annette,” “The White Lotus”

Everett Collection/screenshots

After a year of will-it-ever-end lockdown, 2021 ushered in some small semblance of normality. Movie theaters reopened and, with the advent of vaccines, people were able to go inside feeling a bit safer than in 2020.

But that’s not to say television didn’t continue to keep us happy and engaged, which is why we’re combining our best performances of the year to comprise both mediums. This year also marked some fantastic performances that reminded us of the raw power of acting in general, whether the screen was big or small. We saw legendary actors doing what they always do best — i.e. leveraging their star power to predictably turn in a performance that tops their last one — and under-the-radar character actors breaking through to deliver idiosyncratic and striking work. There were also comic actors making powerfully dramatic turns, and dramatic actors getting the chance to display their untapped flair for comedy. Plus, there were more than a few standout performances in movie musicals, with stage actors bringing exuberance to screen translations of beloved properties.

While all of the films and series listed included a bounty of stellar performances to choose from, we opted to honor only one actor per project (though with one notable exception, a film that runs entirely on its core ensemble working in tandem). And we’d be remiss not to mention the entire ensemble of “Succession” who, even in the show’s still-unspooling and off-the-walls third season, continue to bring added depth to their characters with each new outing. Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Nicholas Braun, Alan Ruck, Matthew Macfayden, J. Smith-Cameron, my god, J. Smith-Cameron. It was simply just too hard to choose one from the pack.

Don’t see one of your faves here? Be sure to look back at IndieWire’s list of the year’s best breakthrough performances.

Jude Dry, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Mark Peikert, and Ben Travers contributed to this article.

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