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The Best Performances of 2021

From dramatic turns in cinema to sharp-witted television humor—plus a few unorthodox picks in between—these were the year’s best entertainers

Harrison Freeman

In a year of marginally pared-down restrictions, even while the specter of the pandemic was ever-present, entertainment played out with a degree of experimentation. Movie theaters gradually reopened, cautiously welcoming back crowds for a communal viewing experience. Television crews resumed production, but not before making a little extra room for quarantine-inspired inventiveness. We continued to indulge in video games, Instagram Live, anything to keep us distracted from the lingering uncertainty. This list of best performances reflects that diversity of choice. Whether you ventured out in 2021, kept at home, or toyed with a balance of both, these are the people who thrilled us, in one way or another, on the screen.

Kathryn Hahn as Agatha Harkness in WandaVision

First of all, after the long, strange 2021 we’ve had, it’s difficult to remember that WandaVision premiered less than 12 months ago. Secondly, it may seem redundant to heap more praise on Hahn after all the accolades that came her way, including an Emmy nomination, a Billboard hit song, a Grammy nomination, and her own spinoff show. But it’s impossible to overstate just how impactful her campy and deliciously wicked turn as nosy neighbor Agnes and powerful witch Agatha was on Marvel’s first Disney+ show. Hahn delivered a flexible and nuanced comedy performance that expanded and contracted to meet whichever decade of sitcom she happened to be embodying in any given episode. Harnessing years of goodwill as a character actress and leading lady of more off-kilter projects, Hahn stepped into the full limelight and became 2021’s most unlikely Marvel star. —Joanna Robinson

Chase Dillon as Homer on The Underground Railroad

Where the boy Homer exists as an enigma in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, in Barry Jenkins’s Amazon adaptation he appears as a kind of calamity. A formerly enslaved child turned pseudo-apprentice and son to a fugitive hunter, Homer—brought stunningly to life by the 12-year-old actor Chase Dillon—cares almost religiously for the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton).

Dillon embodies the child with both faithful confidence and terrifying denialism. He is in thrall, not only to Ridgeway, but the very cause of bondage itself. Homer is always watching, always on the lookout. He recites his teacher’s lessons in moments of solitude. In one shot, toward the end of the series, we see the pupil clenching chains around his own ankles, just before going to sleep. According to Ridgeway, the boy would lie awake all night without them.

What Dillon manages to pull off, and what makes the performance so incomparably haunting, is that Homer is both a child soldier—a kid on the receiving end of a system designed to break and consume him—and also a feeling personified. The revelation in this case is that, given the circumstances, Homer is really just one of many. —Lex Pryor

Renée Elise Goldsberry as Wickie Roy in Girls5Eva

If you fought in the Ted Lasso Wars this year—if you find the Schitt’s Creek raft of feel-good TV comedies deficient in actual, y’know, jokes—then say hello to Renée Elise Goldsberry’s giant, fancy, see-through piano, Ghislaine. “Isn’t Ghislaine gorgeous?” she purrs, nursing a cup of coffee. “I named her 20 years ago. It was a pretty name then and a pretty name now. I’m not changing it.” Then she takes another sip of coffee. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

After Hamilton, Goldsberry didn’t exactly need another breakout role, but she dominates Meredith Scardino’s Girls5Eva, the acidly zany Peacock comedy—named after a minor ’90s girl group stumbling toward a big comeback—that offers a barrage of vicious capital-J Jokes you know and love from, say, 30 Rock. (Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are coproducers.) Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, and Paula Pell all have their moments, but it’s their bandmate Goldsberry, as the self-proclaimed “Fierce One,” Wickie, who resonates, whether she’s drinking water from her Victoria’s Secret Water Bra in the airport security line or judging a third-rate American Idol clone (“I just pray Gal Gadot never sees what you did to her song ‘Imagine’”) or shouting “CEASE AND DESIST, BITCH” whilst starring in The Maskical, the musical. She is unforgettable, she is unbound, she is funny in the classic, eternal sense. Believe it. —Rob Harvilla

Bo Burnham as Himself in Inside

Even before his quarantine opus, Bo Burnham was already a multihyphenate. For Inside, the comedian/composer/musician just added a few extra titles, from director to editor to prop stylist. At the heart of his latest special, though, is Burnham’s core skill set: performance, slowly building the character of “Bo Burnham” through a mix of songs, quasi-stand-up, and semi-scripted interludes. Most early-pandemic efforts wore their scrappiness on their sleeves, embracing an ad-hoc attempt to capture a moment. Inside has the best of both worlds. It’s as raw and unusual as anything shot on Zoom in March 2020, but with the added polish of craft, storytelling, and a thin veneer of fiction.

The Bo Burnham of Inside—unraveling, unshaven, trapped—is not a literal representation of Bo Burnham the person, who presumably left the room every so often to grab some takeout or have a socially distanced hang. But the character often feels like a kind of pandemic-era id, giving voice to our darkest thoughts (“All Eyes on Me”) and everyday anxieties (“Shit”). Demonstrations of range are scattered throughout, from a turn as a nihilist sock puppet to a sketch where Burnham casts himself as a consultant for faux-woke corporations. But for the most part, Burnham turns himself into a simplified avatar of our confusion and angst, even as he’s clearly working through anxieties specific to both him as an entertainer and his generation of internet-addled millennials. The concept of Inside pegs it to a specific time and place, but it’s Burnham’s oscillating emotions that make it an enduring artifact. Alison Herman

Cooper Hoffman (Gary in Licorice Pizza) and Michael Gandolfini (Tony Soprano in The Many Saints of Newark) as Sons Following After Famous Dads

It took nearly all of Licorice Pizza for me to fully process that I had just spent two hours with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son. Late in the third act, Cooper Hoffman’s Gary Valentine is being fitted for the Brother Love–like suit he adorns for the film’s closing moments. The camera pulls in close on his face as Gary’s tailor makes his final alterations. He smiles, and there’s an unmistakable resemblance between Cooper and his father—he looks not unlike Philip in another Paul Thomas Anderson classic, albeit with a few more pimples and an uncontainable childlike exuberance.

Working with the director who gave his dad some of Philip’s most beloved roles, Cooper took on an unenviable task in his onscreen debut: playing a part bound to evoke comparisons between himself and his late, world-historically gifted actor parent. He wasn’t the only one who worked within the shade of his famous father’s shadow in 2021: In October, Michael Gandolfini stepped into his father James’s most iconic role in The Many Saints of Newark, the Sopranos sequel that centered partly on the education of a young Tony. Michael’s job may have been even more difficult than Cooper’s—not only did viewers spend 86 episodes with James as Tony, but Michael’s facial features, expressions, and tics all bear a more-than-passing resemblance to dad.

The casting decisions could’ve reeked of nepotism or, worse, come across as crass moves designed to tug at moviegoers’ hearts and wallets. But it’s a testament to both young actors that they didn’t. Michael Gandolfini fully taps into a side of Tony that his father showed glimpses of: the playful, innocent kid who dreamed of a life bigger than boosted DVD players and tacky McMansion luxuries. He shines throughout Many Saints, but particularly when appearing opposite Vera Farmiga’s Livia, who vacillates between wounded matriarch and monster while also leaving Michael enough space to unlock a new dimension of the Tony character. The scene where Tony and Livia discuss therapy over a lunch that will go uneaten is one of the best in any film this year, no matter what one thinks of the rest of the movie.

Cooper, meanwhile, puts on one of the most engaging performances of 2021. Playing against another first-time feature-film actor, musician turned actor Alana Haim, Cooper is tender, brash, and whimsical—at one moment too smart for his own good, the next dumb in a way only a teenage boy can be. It’s in those latter moments that I first fully processed something else: Cooper was only 17 when ​​Licorice Pizza was shot. In that light, his talents feel preternatural—perhaps partly passed down from his father, but still rich enough to stand on their own. It’s the work of a possible star in the making not only stepping out of Dad’s shadow, but beginning to cast one of his own. —Justin Sayles

Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in Dune

Jason Momoa has graced our screens for years with memorable performances as Khal Drogo, Aquaman, Baba Voss, and even Ronon Dex (shout-out to my Stargate Atlantis heads out there). But Momoa’s turn as Duncan Idaho in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was a role he was born to play. He captures the intensity, bravado, and charisma of the character in a limited but pivotal role. Idaho steals every scene he’s in, from mocking Timothée Chalamet’s character’s lack of muscle to his epic action scenes fighting the Sardaukar.

Duncan’s character finally allowed Momoa to showcase his full range as a performer. While other roles have leaned into his physical prowess, few have allowed him to demonstrate the charming presence seen during his interviews and press junkets. Duncan Idaho demanded charisma from Momoa, granting him a perfect role in one of 2021’s most memorable movies. —Arjuna Ramgopal

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez as Bennifer in True Love

One performance, albeit involving two people, has managed to both distract and captivate our imaginations as we entered yet another year of quarantine. The reunion of the early-aughts super-couple 17 years after the end of their engagement has the typical elements we root for: lost love returned, glamorous stars, and a redemption narrative. And much like many award-winning performances, Bennifer has entertained, inspired, and even provoked a deeper dialogue within society at large. It’s the reboot we didn’t see coming but have gladly accepted, and thankfully, the stars of the show are acing their roles. From the direct callbacks to their previous time together to their insistence on playing coy, Bennifer has played right into what the public wants without overexposing themselves. Call it what you will, but I call it a master class. —Amelia Wedemeyer

Matthew Macfadyen as Tom Wambsgans on Succession

In “Lion in the Meadow,” the fourth episode of Succession’s third season, Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom Wambsgans tells his wife, Shiv Roy, what happiness and stability look like to him. “You know when we get home before dinner,” Tom says, “and we have the very first glass of cold white wine? On an empty stomach? You know that very cold glass of wine? I fucking love that, I just love that.” It is, in some respects, a whispered embodiment of Succession’s secret sauce, our hapless moguls’ yearning entwined with their indulgence. It’s also exactly how I feel about Macfadyen’s performance, the crisp, vibrant burst that completes every episode.

Whether he’s walking Shiv through the art of burping toilet booze, or flipping Greg’s desk in short-lived and ferocious glee, or asking Logan—“Papa?”—if he needs Tom to hold the scepter, Macfadyen imbues Terminal Tom with a magnetic mix of pathos and hilarity. Most people watching Succession don’t know what it’s like to dine on ortolan, or board a yacht barefoot to preserve the teak, or critique their own biodynamic vintage. But we know true luxury, because we get to hear Macfadyen tell Kendall, “I don’t mean to be insulting,” and see his face crumple as Shiv’s dirty talk hits, and feel the urgency with which he asks, after reading the prison blogs, “How late can I read? When is lights out?” It’s as pure of a privilege as Tom’s favorite sip. —Mallory Rubin

Robin de Jesús as Michael in Tick, Tick … Boom!

There are two pleasant surprises waiting in this filmed and expanded version of Jonathan Larson’s rock monologue. First of all, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a talented director. Secondly, who knew Andrew Garfield could sing? (Not even Andrew Garfield, it seems.) But it’s one thing to see already famous artists add another feather to their caps, and another thing entirely to see someone break through like the three-time Tony nominee Robin de Jesús does with his powerhouse vocals, effortless charm, and emotional devastation as Jonathan’s best friend, Michael. Without de Jesús’s powerful, painful wail on “Real Life,” Garfield’s emotionally cathartic rendition of “Why” in a rainy Central Park would feel way over the top. But thanks to de Jesús, audiences can feel exactly just how special the person Jon’s afraid of losing really is. —Robinson

Samantha Sloyan as Bev Keane in Midnight Mass

Like any good project from horror auteur Mike Flanagan, there’s a supernatural element to Midnight Mass that slowly reveals itself over the course of the series. But even when Midnight Mass incorporates—major spoiler alert—actual vampires into the plot, there’s nobody more monstrous than the show’s resident zealot. As played by Samantha Sloyan, Bev Keane has a hold over the deeply religious community on Crockett Island, which has fallen on hard economic times and turns to faith to give them hope. Bev, in turn, uses the community’s desperation to serve her own interests, whether it’s convincing cash-strapped locals to donate to the church—a move that only lines her pockets—or ostracizing the island’s sheriff for the crime of being Muslim.

As someone who isn’t afraid to twist any Bible verse to support her bigoted worldview, Bev is all the more frightening because of how familiar her particular brand of self-righteousness feels. (I shudder to think what Bev thinks about vaccine mandates.) There hasn’t been a television character this loathsome since Joffrey Baratheon, which is a testament to Sloyan’s quietly insidious performance—one where every disingenuous smile or recitation of Scripture cuts like a dagger. By the time the community transforms into vampires and slaughters one another in Midnight Mass’s bloody finale, Crockett Island effectively becomes hell on earth. It’s only fitting that Bev Keane seems right at home amid the chaos. —Miles Surrey

Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun in Squid Game

The mix of mania, desperation, recklessness, compassion, terror, self-hatred, and decency that Lee Jung-jae conjured in his performance as Seong Gi-hun in Squid Game was the subtlest part of a wildly unsubtle show; it gave depth to a series that could easily have been a two-dimensional parable. As Gi-hun, Lee had to serve both as the audience’s surrogate within the twisted world of the game and as the stick by which we measured the twistedness of the world outside. He had to be trustworthy enough for us to be guided by his reactions and invested in his moral dilemmas, but he also had to be untrustworthy enough for us to see what capitalism had done to a decent man. Watching Lee pull off the dizzy balancing act between these two contradictory imperatives—be reliable, but also undependable; be good, but also bad—was one of the most thrilling experiences available on TV in 2021. His Gi-hun was a triumph of giddy self-delusion and baffled wisdom—a man striving to escape the best parts of himself, because in this world, living with them hurt too much. —Brian Phillips

Paul McCartney as Himself in The Beatles: Get Back

Tag yourself in The Beatles: Get Back: I’m the Apple scruff in Part 2 who says, “It’s just Paul I come for, so … as long as I can see him, it’s all right.” I’m a McCartney man, too, and Get Back reminded me why. Clearly the beard was working for him—no wonder Lennon sobbed at the sight of Paul singing when he watched Let It Be—but I’m talking less about his thick, thirst-trap hair and more about his blend of brilliant musicianship, genius songwriting, and unrepentant pestering. “I’m scared of being the boss,” he says in Part 1, but someone had to be the responsible (and OK, kind of overbearing) Beatle. Paul’s Type A performance should make him a hero to anyone who ever tried to get a group project done. No one wants to be the square who’s stressing about deadlines and lamenting the lack of a schedule, but you’ve gotta give it up for the guy who badgered the less follically blessed Beatles into showing up for work instead of farting around. “If it hadn’t been for him,” Ringo Starr said this year, “we’d probably have made three albums, because we all got involved in substance abuse, and we wanted to relax.” Good thing Paul didn’t (and, at 79, still doesn’t). Another good thing: that the cameras were rolling the time Paul picked up his bass, remarked “Lennon’s late again,” and pulled “Get Back” out of his ass on the spot. —Ben Lindbergh

Jean Smart As Helen Fahey in Mare of Easttown and Deborah Vance in Hacks

While banana bread may have carried us all in 2020, it was beloved actress Jean Smart who got us through 2021. Whether she was playing the hilarious Helen Fahey in Mare of Easttown or legendary stand-up comedian Deborah Vance in Hacks, Smart made an HBO Max subscription 100 percent worthwhile. With an illustrious career and a penchant for stealing any scene she’s featured in, it came as no surprise that she received a standing ovation after securing the 2021 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Smart made history with that win, tying the one and only Betty White as the only actor to receive Emmys in all three comedy categories, lead, supporting, and guest star. And while we wait for the second season of Hacks to drop, we at least have her Instagram account and her previous work in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey to tide us over. —Bridget Geerlings

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson, Vi, and Kate Bishop in Dickinson, Arcane, and Hawkeye

You can count the number of people who had a better year than Hailee Steinfeld on one hand. Don’t believe me? Let me break it down.

After three seasons, Dickinson, one of Apple TV+’s flagship shows, came to an end. Steinfeld not only played the titular character, but was an executive producer on the series. She got to say goodbye to a character in an earnest way, and for most, that would be a solid year. Except …

… quite literally the next day after Dickinson’s Season 3 premiere, Arcane dropped on Netflix and took the world by storm. A show based on characters from League of Legends, Arcane quickly became one of the animated television hits of the year. Steinfeld plays Vi, one of the main characters and the fire that gets the show going. For many others, that would be the highlight of their year, but for Hailee, it wasn’t even the best thing she did this year, because …

… SHE GOT TO PLAY FREAKING HAWKEYE FOR THE MCU!

Steinfeld’s take on Kate Bishop in Disney+’s Hawkeye has been a sight to behold. Adapting Kate’s bravado and confidence from the Matt Fraction comics to the screen is no easy feat, but she adds a level of naivety that rounds it out so well. Her chemistry with Jeremy Renner is shaping Hawkeye to be one of the top Marvel releases of the year.

Three shows, three different streaming services. Who’s doing it better than Hailee Steinfeld in 2021? And with next year’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, in which she’ll reprise her role as Gwen Stacy, she might just be getting started. —Jomi Adeniran

Harriet Sansom Harris as Mary Grady in Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza is an episodic odyssey. The only constants throughout are child actor/entrepreneur Gary Valentine and his crush/companion Alana Kane, whose strange journey takes them on a tour of the San Fernando Valley and the show business ephemera that suffuses it. Many of the cameos belong to famous people playing other famous people: Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters; Sean Penn as “Jack” (read: William) Holden; Christine Ebersole as a version of Lucille Ball. But the best, most memorable performance belongs to a lesser-known character actress playing an entirely fictional person, if one who’s a recognizable Hollywood type.

Harriet Sansom Harris, who plays talent agent Mary Grady, is no new discovery; she’s a working actress with a Tony and recognizable roles in Desperate Housewives and Frasier. She’s still a newer addition to the Paul Thomas Anderson expanded universe, arriving with a scene-stealing role in Phantom Thread as drunken heiress Barbara Rose. In Licorice Pizza, she returns as a very different, if equally indelible, kind of woman who frankly informs Alana that her “very Jewish nose” may be a factor in her hypothetical acting career. As Alana, taking Gary’s advice, says yes to every absurd potential qualification, Grady gets flustered, building to a wordless, twitching grin that had my screening in tears. Anderson specializes in odd, unsocialized people who inhabit the edges of America’s most visible city. In just a few minutes, Harris takes her place among their pantheon. —Herman

Ozioma Akagha as Julianna Blake in Deathloop

I’m as tired of the school of Whedonism—hurling a bucket of quips against the fourth wall and seeing what sticks—as anyone else. But I loved the sarcastic one-upmanship between Colt Vahn and his rival Julianna Blake in the timey-wimey PC and PS5 shooter Deathloop, about the amnesiac hero Vahn’s quest to prevent his fellow high-tech hedonists on the uncharted Blackreef Island from re-running the same day forever. He’s chiefly opposed by the chatty assassin Blake, who taunts Cole and gradually jogs his memory. Ozioma Akagha invigorates Deathloop with her energetic performance as Julianna, a sadistic brat who nonetheless browbeats Colt—and the player—into believing he may well be the villain in this relationship. —Justin Charity

Melanie Lynskey as Shauna in Yellowjackets

An alternately shocking and sarcastic knockout of a new series, Yellowjackets tells the story of a mid-’90s high school girls soccer team that struggles to stay alive after a plane crash into a remote wooded area. A quarter-century afterward, the show follows some of the survivors into their extremely damaged adulthoods. Which is how we find Melanie Lynskey as the theoretically low-key homemaker Shauna, stalking rabbits in her garden and skinning them on her kitchen counter when no one is around, using tactics she ostensibly learned during a time in her life she doesn’t wish to talk about.

In a cast that features a whole soccer team’s worth of great performances, including by ’90s stalwarts Christina Ricci and Juliette Lewis, Lynskey’s role stands out as particularly chilling, in large part due to the dichotomy between Shauna’s chirpy soft normie mama drabness and the obvious edge of darkness that simmers (like so much homemade rabbit chili) beneath it. She has big puppy dog eyes that have clearly seen some shit. The role of Shauna involves coming across as both mundane and murderous, a real kitchen cleaver of a character. And Lynskey knows exactly how to wield it. —Katie Baker

Steve Martin as Charles Haden-Savage in Only Murders in the Building

When an actor posts an Instagram photo displaying their incredible body transformation for a Marvel film, we often wish we could replicate their physical fitness. I felt this specific type of admiration after watching Steve Martin drag his crumpled body across a hallway floor after his character, Charles Haden-Savage, is poisoned in the season finale of Only Murders in the Building. Martin stars alongside his comedy counterpart Martin Short and a surprisingly well-cast Selena Gomez in the Hulu hit about a trio of strangers recording a true crime podcast. What’s spellbinding about Martin’s performance is his absolute commitment to physical comedy at 76 years old. He fumbles, crawls, and allows himself to get repeatedly hit by elevator doors for several entertaining minutes. As someone who injures herself while sleeping, I found myself immediately researching his diet and exercise routine after the episode ended. While his mantle is already filled with an Emmy, a Grammy, and an honorary Academy Award, it strangely feels like Steve Martin hasn’t hit his prime yet. And, after creating, writing, and acting in one of 2021’s best television shows, perhaps he does belong in a Marvel film. I cannot wait to keep watching him create comedy gold and cartwheel into elevators until he is 90 years old. —Geerlings

Mike Faist as Riff in West Side Story

Mike Faist was already a musical theater favorite thanks to his work in Newsies and a Tony-nominated turn in Dear Evan Hansen. But it’s safe to say his performance as West Side Story’s modern-day Mercutio, Riff, will serve as a breakout role for wider audiences. (Just in time for Faist to announce he might want to quit acting!) There’s a lot to admire in Steven Spielberg’s remake, including the fact that many members of the cast are lethal triple threats. But there’s something special about the knife’s edge that Faist’s Riff dances on. Riff always has the unenviable task of kicking off the singing portion of the show and making audiences buy in while warbling beautifully about being a street tough. Armed with Justin Peck’s pugnacious choreography, Faist sells it. A bit more calcified and spikier than Russ Tamblyn’s teddy bear version of the role, Faist’s Riff is the most unstable element in a dangerous brew of white panic, police brutality, gentrification, and Puerto Rican displacement. Working in clever parallel with Ariana DeBose’s knockout take on Anita, Faist’s Riff is constantly fizzing with too much love, too much hate, and too much fear, all of which underlines just how young these players are. —Robinson

Jadakiss as Himself in the Lox vs. Dipset Verzuz Battle

Chaos buzzed all around him, but Jadakiss didn’t move a muscle. He stood silently on the side of the stage as more than a dozen people meandered and talked shit, waiting for the start of the battle. He remained motionless while Dipset associates struggled to set up a beach chair as a prop for Cam’ron and Co., who joked that duffing out Jada, Styles P, and Sheek Louch would be “like a day at the beach.”

But then Cam’ron insisted that the Lox lead off the lyrical contest, arguing that Harlem’s Diplomats were the home team at Madison Square Garden, and the Lox, Yonkers’ finest, were the visitors. That stirred Jadakiss out of what he’d call in several subsequent interviews his “Adderall war mode,” prompting him to stride to the center of the stage, raise that bone-rattling voice to quell the New York crowd, and once again contest an opponent’s claim to the city’s throne: “CAM, YOU LIVE IN MIAMI!” He then told Technician the DJ to drop the needle on “Fuck You,” from 2000’s We Are the Streets. It was a clear and direct tone-setter: Cam, Juelz Santana, and Jim Jones might’ve come to do bits, but D-Block was there to drop bombs.

They didn’t stop, ushering the audience through a two-hour career retrospective showcasing both how strong a résumé they’ve built—from Bad Boy to Ruff Ryders to Roc Nation, from Grammy-winning features to grit-and-grind street singles—and how they’ve honed their craft as compelling individual and collective live performers over the past three decades. Lording over it all was ’Kiss, running up the score with pitch-perfect punch lines (“They made that song before Jimmy—you heard him?—he didn’t even know how to rhyme yet!”) and direct-to-camera meme-making …

… as well as bandana-snatching showmanship, impeccable strategy (holding his verse from Ja Rule’s “New York” until Cam burned “Welcome to New York City”—Chef’s kiss counterpunching) and, of course, furious spitting. Yo, Tech, let’s make something happen:

The ferocity with which Jada breathed new life into an 11-year-old freestyle over a nearly 30-year-old beat put him back on top of the hip-hop world. It had Kanye summoning the Lox down to Atlanta to record a verse for Donda, and prompted critical reappraisals of whether that “Made You Look” boast about being “top five, dead or alive” might be closer to true than false.

I was reading a Draymond Green interview recently, and this line stood out: “If you don’t require people to respond to your greatness, they won’t.” That night back in August demanded we respond to Jada’s, bringing out fresh bouquets of flowers for one of the most consistent and gifted MCs of all time. It also reminded us all beyond a shadow of a doubt that, when it comes to the wordplay, he’s a son of a bitch. —Dan Devine

Sean Harris as King Arthur and Chef Darren in The Green Knight and Spencer

Sean Harris was not a star in 2021, not by a long shot. But he may have served a more noble purpose as The Guy You Cast If You Want to Imbue Your Movie With Profound Sentimentality and Feeling. In David Lowery’s The Green Knight, he played none other than King Arthur—but what Harris brought to the legendary hero was not your traditional sense of chivalric majesty, but rather frailty and humanity. As Dev Patel’s Gawain sets off on (and in a climactic montage, returns home from) a journey to earn his manhood, Harris’s Arthur ushers him forward with quiet care and concern. He is wise and weakened, a permanent beacon of warmth in a movie that can be cold and dark.

Speaking of cold and dark, have you seen Spencer? Pablo Larraín’s Kristen Stewart–starring meditation on Princess Diana is full of ghoulish characters, surreally horrifying sequences, and suffocating situations. But in the basement underneath all of that first-floor melodrama is Harris’s Darren, the head chef at Sandringham and one of Diana’s only true friends in the film. As her resolve is continuously tested, he stands as a shoulder to lean on, as a messenger who assures her she is loved. Harris is once again astoundingly sensitive in the role, communicating affection and care in mostly non-verbal ways.

He wasn’t ever the main character this year, but in both movies he appeared in, Sean Harris was the actor you couldn’t get enough of. —Andrew Gruttadaro

Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci in House of Gucci

I went into House of Gucci expecting Jared Leto, a chronic over-actor buried under 20 pounds of prosthetics, to ham it up a little. Then I saw reviews warning audiences to expect something even more over-the-top than the trailers would indicate. And even with my loins fully girded, I was in no way prepared for what Leto actually put on screen.

Leto was bizarre, provocative, appalling, and yet somehow hypnotic. I couldn’t take my eyes off him; weeks later I still can’t stop thinking about him. And the weirdest thing about it—I think he’s what made the film work? The presence of such a bonkers character got more out of Adam Driver and particularly Al Pacino than would otherwise have been possible, and lent a sense of anticipation and unpredictability to an otherwise staid movie. Gucci needed that dash of absolute chaos to resolve the whole, like a colorful pocket square paired with a conservative, dark jacket. Leto’s was the most memorable and kinetic performance of the year, bar none. —Michael Baumann

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