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  • Jonny Diaz

2021 in Review: Who Had the Best Year?

Looking back at the year in film, there are always a few performers, filmmakers, and artisans who rise above the rest by pulling double (or triple, or quadruple, or...) duty on multiple films in the same year. So who were the hardest working folks at the movies this year? We've put together a list of a few of our favorites for you right here.

There might not be a harder-working actor in Hollywood than Jon Bernthal, who appeared in an astounding five films released in 2021—Those Who Wish Me Dead, King Richard, The Many Saints of Newark, Small Engine Repair, and The Unforgivable—a phenomenon that we refer to around these parts as "Chastaining" (more on her later).

Timothée Chalamet graduated from arthouse sensation to blockbuster stardom as the brooding Paul Atreides in Denis Villeneuve's long-awaited adaptation of Dune. And on top of that, he proved his comedy bona fides in The French Dispatch and Don't Look Up. Is there anything he can't do?

Former Juilliard classmates and longtime friends Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac have been all over our movie screens this year, starring in films like The Card Counter, Dune, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. But their greatest accomplishment of the year is undoubtedly their red carpet appearance at Venice premiere of Scenes from a Marriage:

I am sweating just looking at this.

Olivia Colman's post-Oscar streak has been nothing but hits, and in 2021 she hit the stratosphere. She started off the year by earning a second Oscar nomination for her incredible work in The Father, and followed that up with a well-deserved Emmy Award for her final season of The Crown. Not one to rest on her laurels, she delivered two more excellent performances in The Mitchells vs the Machines and The Lost Daughter. Long live the Queen.

Benedict Cumberbatch hit the movie star trifecta this year: a major role in the latest box office smash installment of the MCU (Spider-Man: No Way Home) an off-kilter biopic about an underappreciated genius (The Electrical Life of Louis Wain), and career-best reviews in an Oscar frontrunner (The Power of the Dog). Not bad for a year's work!

It takes a special kind of skill to craft three uniquely menacing characters in films as wide-ranging as The Card Counter, Nightmare Alley, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. But only Willem Dafoe could do that and make his customary comedic cameo in Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch in the same year.

Some actors, like Colman Domingo, light the screen so brightly in just a few scenes that you can imagine an entire life for their characters extending far beyond the frame. As the best part of this year's disappointing Candyman sequel and a sinister and unpredictable presence in Zola, Domingo remains one of our most essential character actors. Plus, he wears the hell out of a suit.

I mean, just look at this man. © A24

Adam Driver delivered three vastly different performances this year as a in Annette, House of Gucci, and The Last Duel, reinforcing his standing as cinema's most interesting leading man. He sings! He stabs! He wears oversized glasses and has sex with Lady Gaga in a trailer! He really does have the range.

Jamie Dornan shed the reputational anchor of the Fifty Shades series with his performance as Kenneth Branagh's uncommonly handsome father in Belfast, but he won our hearts with his song-and-dance moves in Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar.

Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons starred together in Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, one of the year's most acclaimed films. But it was a good year beyond that for one of the screen's most interesting pairs: Plemons also had major supporting parts in Judas and the Black Messiah and The Jungle Cruise, and if there's any justice in the world, Dunst will be the beneficiary of some of the resurgence of goodwill for the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films in the wake of No Way Home.

Just a regular Tuesday at the Dunst-Plemons household, drinking tea by the mountains. © Netflix

Between his compelling work as Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, his web-slinging redemption arc in Spider-Man: No Way Home, and his newly-unveiled musical gifts in tick, tick . . . Boom!, Andrew Garfield might have had the best year of any actor on this list.

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood was ubiquitous at the arthouse this year, composing challenging and complex scores for the likes of Pablo Larraín (Spencer), Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), and Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog). Not a bad list of collaborators for one of cinema's most eclectic composers.

Their parents must be proud—Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal had a banner year. The siblings proved themselves essential to Netflix's growing film stable, with Jake starring in the streamer's remake of The Guilty and Maggie making her feature directorial debut with The Lost Daughter. But neither of those cinematic achievements compare to their central roles in one of the year's biggest blockbusters: Taylor Swift's re-release of Red (real ones know).

The faces of two siblings who definitely know where that scarf is.

Most filmmakers would count themselves lucky to release one critically acclaimed film in a year, but that clearly wasn't enough for Ryusuke Hamaguchi. The one-two punch of Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is almost unbelievable, and hopefully heralds a wider breakthrough for the Japanese auteur among global audiences.

Corey Hawkins has seemed destined for superstardom for some time now, and in 2021, he added two sterling points in support of that thesis: Shakespearean gravitas and song-and-dance magic in The Tragedy of Macbeth and In the Heights, respectively. Whatever comes next, it's bound to be big.

After winning a third Best Actress Oscar and becoming the first person to win Oscars for producing and acting in the same film, Frances McDormand could have made this list for Nomadland alone. But instead of resting on those laurels, she followed that up with a spotlight role in the ensemble of The French Dispatch before reteaming with husband Joel Coen and a bright young newcomer named Denzel Washington to bring some attention to a little known playwright in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Lin-Manuel Miranda did it all this year: pulling double duty as songwriter and voice actor in Vivo, writing some of his best songs yet for Encanto, making a well-received directorial debut with tick, tick . . . Boom!, and producing the film adaptation of his breakthrough stage success In the Heights (in which he had a small role). The man is non-stop.

And he somehow also has time to make piraguas. Amazing! © Warner Bros.

The legend Rita Moreno returned to the big screen in a remake of West Side Story, the film that made her an icon sixty years ago—but this time in a new role. The six decades in between were the subject of Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It, a documentary that reminded us just how she became so legendary in the first place.

Ridley Scott is showing no signs of slowing down. Most filmmakers would be lucky to make a single movie as good as The Last Duel or House of Gucci in any year, but for Ridley, it's just another day at the office. Making them both back-to-back at 84 years old proves that he's still at the top of his game.

Production designer Adam Stockhausen had an incredible year. Not many designers could create the meticulously art-directed world of Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch or recreate the San Juan Hill of decades past for Steven Spielberg's West Side Story—and Stockhausen did both, creating frames that any viewer would love to dive into.

It's hard to imagine two locales more different than the Tampa strip club scene and a 1925 Montana ranch, but cinematographer Ari Wegner brought vision and purpose to both settings with her dazzling photography in Zola and The Power of the Dog.

The perennially underrated Jeffrey Wright had multiple chances to shine this year, beginning with a moving farewell to his CIA agent Felix Leiter in No Time To Die. But carrying the final act of The French Dispatch was the real showcase for his talent this year, marrying Wes Anderson's stylized dialogue with his own inimitable delivery.

And finally, between Spider-Man: No Way Home and Dune (or at least, its marketing campaign), Zendaya was the undisputed queen of the 2021 blockbuster. It's definitely not easy to steal the spotlight from both Timothée Chalamet and Tom Holland, but Zendaya makes it look like a breeze.

Don't cry because it's over, smile because you know you'll have more screentime in the sequel. © Warner Bros.

So who do you think had the best 2021 in film? Sound off in the comments.


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