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The 10 Most Criminally Invaluable Performances of 2021

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By now the critics have spoken, and we already know what’s best. Numerous publications, including this one, have deemed The White Lotus, Hacks, Succession and Hacks the best TV shows. We all know that The Power of the Dog and Licorice Pizza are good. What about everything else?

What do we do about the other movies and shows that were made this year? These were projects that were inspiring enough to bring us joy, but had enough problems to be excluded from the best-of list. What do you do with the shining stars who hid in so-so films? These were the heart-breaking scenes which made us reconsider entire series. This list, it’s for them.

Today we are taking a moment to recognize the outstanding actresses and actors who wowed us. These performers gave their best, whether it was because of their comedy chops or their vulnerability. They made 2021 even brighter by doing so.

Chiara Aurelia in ‘Cruel Summer’

Photo by Freeform

Cruel Summer was one of the best Freeform thriller mysteries after Pretty Little Liars. Chiara Aurelia, or three completely different Jeanette Turns, deserves much more praise for her role in Cruel Summer as the dork who became a criminalized loner and prom queen.

It was Aurelia’s performance that carried the suspense, the plot twists, and ultimately was the reason I am itching for the second season. She’s able to make us feel simultaneously creeped out and sympathetic. The shocking scene that ended the show’s last episode was made possible by her convincing role as the victim. We can’t wait to see where Aurelia takes Jeanette in season two. — Sam Nungesser

Freeform: Watch Cruel Summer

Lauren Ambrose in ‘Servant’

Photo: Apple TV+

Lauren Ambrose doesn’t feel like a force on Servant. She is a freaking sledgehammer. With only the flex of her eyebrows and a well-placed tonal change, Ambrose can alter the entire world of M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller. Is this a black comedy? Is this a terrifying horror story? Is it a sad reflection on grief? Is Dorothy someone we’re supposed to feel for? Is she our unredeemable enemy? Is she insane? Is she the most sane character on the show? In Ambrose’s hands, all of these questions and a dozen more feel valid yet infuriatingly unanswerable. — Kayla Cobb

Apple TV+: Servant Watch

Patti Harrison in “I Think That You Should Leave”

Photo by Netflix

Nic Cage, it’s time to move on! There’s a new national treasure in town and her name is Patti Harrison! Although Harrison is portrayed in the second episode on I Think You Should Be Leave as a Charlie Brown balloon-fearing, wine-loving entrepreneur, my favorite Harrison performance is, Say it with Me, TABLES.

The final episode of the second season includes one of the funniest, strangest sketches of 2021 as Tim Robinson portrays a Driver’s Ed instructor who shows his class a series of bizarre instructional videos. Harrison plays the star of the videos, a woman obsessed with her table. The peculiar story of the tables, Harrison’s over-the-top performance and pitch-perfect delivery (“These tables are how I buy my house!”), and Robinson’s combustible frustration combine to make I Think You Should Leave’s tables sketch an instant classic. — Josh Sorokach

Netflix: What I Think You Should Do

Callum Scott Howells in It’s a Sin!

Photo by Max

Callum Scott Howells had a perfectly endearing breakthrough performance in British limited series It’s a Sin, which released earlier this year on HBO Max. But that warmth and kindness became Colin’s downfall in the series. The series’ middle episode was a twister when Colin contracted AIDS. It was a tragic turn for the happy-golucky kid looking to make it big on the London business scene. Although he may have made the world cry, I’ll forgive Howells — his performance is cheery, whip-smart, and wonderfully breathtaking. — Fletcher Peters

You can watch It’s A Sin on HBO Max

Ashley Romans in “Y: The Last Man”

Photo by FX

I will end 2021 chanting the same refrain: “Y:The Last Man deserved another season.” If you need proof about why I’m right, look no further than Ashley Romans’ absolutely breathtaking portrayal of Agent 355. Romans’ second appearance on screen was as brutal and cutthroat in her portrayal of Agent 355. Her fight scenes feel effortless and natural to her, seriously. But it wasn’t her high kicks or swift punches that stole my heart. Her dry wit, and her quietly devastating vulnerability, were what won my heart. Romans took a character we’ve seen a million times — a hardened fighter — and gave her an internal life that was as rich and delicate as her external life was mysterious.

If we don’t get more of Y: The Last Man, it’s going to be sad. But if we don’t get more of Ashley Romans? That’s criminal. — Kayla Cobb

Watch Y: Hulu’s Last Man

Sara Bareilles in “Girls5eva”

Photo: Peacock

We all know that Renee Elise Goldsberry devoured every bit of scenery in Peacock’s Girls5Eva. We recognize that Paula Pell is a ferocious force for all things funny, and we’ve honored Busy Phillip’s hilarious take on daffy ‘90s pop stars. However, the one Girls5Eva star whose comic chops seem to be grossly underrated? Sara Bareilles. As the “straight” player in the group, Bareilles has to juggle anchoring the emotional drama of each scene along with delivering ziplock tight punchlines. She does so like a pro. Which all the more impressive considering she’The star with the most comedy training and action experience. All the praises for Girls5Eva go to Sara Bareilles — Meghan O’Keefe

Girls5eva on Peacock:

Annaleigh Ashford, ‘Impeachment American Crime Story’

FX

When your co-stars are Sarah Paulson, Beanie Feldstein, and Edie Falco, it’s hard to stand out. Yet that’s exactly what Annaleigh Ashford did time and time again. Ashford’s vulnerable take on Paula Jones consistently grounded this often confusing story, adding a much-needed dose of pathos to the Clinton impeachment scandal. Jones’ big eyes and quietly accented words showed how a woman who just wanted to help her governor was dragged into one of the biggest moral trials of our nation’s history. The motivations and ethics of Impeachment.‘s version of Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp can be think pieced to death. Yet only Ashford’This fragile portrayal demonstrates how we, the U.S. Government and the American public, abuse these women beyond their alleged sins. — Kayla Cobb

Where to stream Impeachment – American Crime Story

Simon Helberg in ‘Annette’

Photo: Kris Dewitte / © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

I was very prepared to hate Annette, the bizarre rock opera from filmmaker Leos Carax featuring the world’s creepiest puppet. Simon Helberg appeared on the screen. Yes, the guy from The Big Bang Theory, a show I’ve never watched but may now start, for Helberg alone. In Annette, Helberg plays a piano accompanist who is secretly pining for Marion Cotillard’s character, and, in the film’s best scene, he recites an impassioned monologue to the camera while conducting a symphony. The timing is impeccable, the camera work is awe-inspiring, and Helberg’s delivery is heart-wrenching. It’s emotional and natural, and yet impossibly precise; timed perfectly to fit the rhythm of the song he’s conducting. It’s a jaw-dropping showcase of talent, and, in that moment, I loved Annette with my whole heart. — Anna Menta

Prime Video Annette

Michael Dornan in “For All Mankind”

Photo: Apple TV+

I will never cease raving from the rooftops about how wonderful the Apple TV+ drama For All Mankind 2021 was and how well Michael Dornan was in it. For All Mankind Season 2 was a miraculous upgrade on the show’s solid first season, in huge part thanks to Dornan’s arc. His Gordo Stevens began the season as a drunk and still recovering from the mental trauma of a secret moonwalk. By the season’s end, he had not only used love as a motivator to kill his demons, but to literally save the world. Dornan made us feel every Gordo’s journey in a visceral, human way. — Meghan O’Keefe

Apple TV+ – Watch For All Mankind

Rob McElhenney, “Mythic Quest”

Photo by Apple TV+

“Mac from Always Sunny will make me cry” wasn’t on my 2021 Bingo card. But it happened anyway. Through Always Sunny and Mythic Quest, McElhenney has proven that he’s an incredible comedic actor as well as an insightful creator. But it wasn’t until “Juice Box”McElhenney showed how acutely McElhenney understands the human condition.

In Season 2’s penultimate episode, Ian is resigned to a hospital bed. He’s lonely, scared, and for one of the first times in his life truly vulnerable. Yet at his lowest, he doesn’t reach out to any of his yes men. He reaches out to Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), the friend who’s unafraid to call the expansion that literally sent him to the ER “shit.” As he’s crying, he wants to be with the one person who has always seen right through him, the one who’s so in tune with his creative side she feels carved from the same mind. There’s a quiet beauty to Ian’s need to be seen rather than coddled. In his quest to portray that, McElhenney captures the lonely pain we’ve all felt during this pandemic. — Kayla Cobb

Mythic Quest available on Apple TV+

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