Our editors pick the ten best performances of Sundance 2021, from Daniel Kaluuya to Martha Plimpton.
At Seventh Row, we pride ourselves on seeking out the best hidden gems that nobody’s talking about to ensure that our readers never miss a great film again.
From stalwart character actors, to recent favourites, to breakout stars who also landed on our Sundance emerging actors list, Sundance 2021 delivered a number of great performances. Before we list our top ten, we wanted to list some honourable mentions: Mia Goth in Mayday, Patti Harrison in Together Together, Udo Kier in The Blazing World, Molly Parker in Jockey, and Niamh Algar in Censor. We also wanted to shout out the luminous Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby in The World to Come, who are only missing from our list because their film wasn’t a Sundance world premiere.
Anna Cobb, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
When I spoke with writer-director Jane Schoenbrun at the start of the festival, they said of lead actress Anna Cobb: “I made an agreement with myself that I wasn’t going to make the movie until I’d found someone who was an astounding discovery.” After an extensive search of teenage performers, Cobb was cast to head up We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and she and Schoenbrun prepared extensively together for the shoot. That prep pays off in spades in the film, which is an odd and creepy horror film that lives and dies by Cobb’s performance, as her character, Casey, is the centre of every single scene.
In a lot of Cobb’s scenes, she’s alone in a room and not talking much, including the gripping eight-minute opening shot. The static camera takes the place of Casey’s desktop computer as she prepares to shoot a YouTube video. The scene is mostly Cobb staring, almost dead-eyed, into her webcam, her voice modulating and expression subtly shifting every time she practices what she’s going to say to her YouTube audience. Her silent reactions to what’s on her computer or phone screens throughout the film are intriguing and hard-to-read, forcing the audience to lean in to work out what Casey is really feeling. Cobb makes her enigma of a character compelling. Orla Smith
Yllka Gashi, Hive
While the multi-award winning Hive is more interested in telling an inspirational true story than it is delving into the psychology of its main character, Fahrije (Yllka Gashi), Gashi does a great job of suggesting what her character (and the film) leave unstated. Fahrije is a quiet but resilient character who does what she wants and doesn’t ask for permission. When conflict arises for Fahrije, Gashi chooses to hold back rather than going big. She shows Fahrije’s anger by quietly seething, her face hardening and body tensing, turning inward rather than exploding. Even when the film itself settles on familiar plot beats, Gashi never reverts to easy emotions. OS
Michael Greyeyes, Wild Indian
Nêhiyaw actor Michael Greyeyes has been working steadily as a character actor for decades, appearing in supporting roles in many high-profile projects, including True Detective, Klondike, Fear the Walking Dead, and The New World. A former professional ballet dancer, and a current drama professor, director, and theatre-runner, the multi-hyphenate talent has only just recently played leading roles under the direction of Indigenous filmmakers. In 2019, he played the police chief in Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, and now, in Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s Wild Indian.
In Wild Indian, he really gets to show his strengths as a virtuoso physical actor. He plays Makwa (now going by Michael), a man who has left the reserve for a white wife and a fancy job in the city, but who harbours a dark past: as a child, he killed a boy, covered it up, and never looked back. When his past comes back to haunt him, Makwa reacts with chilling control and no remorse.
In other hands, he might verge on being a complete psychopath, but Greyeyes plays more shades, showing us a man who doesn’t know how to connect with his family and is troubled by it. He’s not entirely devoid of empathy, so much as he only applies it selectively. Even as the script falters, Greyeyes gives a fascinating and committed performance. His entire body becomes a violent threat in some scenes, and in others, a quivering mess of confusion trying to hang onto control. He finds coherence in an often underbaked film. Alex Heeney
Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur, CODA
CODA was a big crowdpleaser at this year’s Sundance, and its incredible ensemble cast is partly to thank for that. First, there’s newcomer Emilia Jones in the lead, playing aspiring singer Ruby, who is the only hearing person in her family. There are moments in the film that get dangerously close to being outright schmaltzy, but Jones’s grounded and natural performance ensures we buy into every second. I love when actors really show their character thinking; it’s especially important for a film about a young woman exploring and discovering her identity. Jones takes her time in dialogue scenes, often pausing for a beat longer than you might expect so we can really see Ruby processing new information. It’s one of the things that makes Ruby feel like a real, smart person, rather than just an assemblage of cliches.
Alongside her is a strong ensemble of Deaf actors playing her family: Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as her mother, relative newcomer Daniel Durant as her older brother, and character actor Troy Kotsur as her father. It’s hard to pick a standout of the trio, who are all uniformly great, but Kotsur’s warmth and humour got to me the most. His character is the most multi-faceted of Ruby’s family. He’s a loving, hilarious, and sometimes deeply embarrassing dad whose heart breaks at the thought of his daughter flying the nest. He’s also dealing with the changing face of the fishing industry in which he works, and struggling to forge his own path professionally when the hearing world makes little effort to communicate with him. Kotsur expertly brings together rage, frustration, compassion, and love into one performance. His and Jones’s climactic scene together will break your heart. OS
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
It’s amazing to me how much mileage Daniel Kaluuya can get out of a well-placed slouch. In Widows, a slouch and a hard stare made him a terrifying presence. In Judas and the Black Messiah, his casual slump as Chicago Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton, while seated on stage before giving a speech, makes him an utterly compelling, powerful presence. In Get Out, Kaluuya showed us how much he can do with almost no dialogue. In Judas, he shows us what he can do with oration, and his big “I am a revolutionary” speech should make him a shoo-in for Oscar. He completely captures the accent, tone, and rhythms of the man himself, especially for this refrain.
Kaluuya has a way with large chunks of text, finding nuance and meaning through changes in pace, volume, and pitch, making you lean in and listen to every word. He’s used that skill before to deliver monologues, and here, it’s especially well-suited to a man whose public charisma and speech-giving inspired a movement. Kaluuya crafts the portrait of a man who knows his words can effect change, even if it means persuading groups that the Black Panthers were formerly at loggerheads with to set aside their differences and collaborate. You don’t want to look away from him, and people couldn’t look away from Fred Hampton — a perfect match of material and performer. AH
Sofia Kappel, Pleasure
In Pleasure, Bella’s (Sofia Kappel) quest to become a porn star means she often doesn’t have a voice. She has to tolerate predatorial men on set, accept condescending objectification, and generally shut up and toe the line. Yet as Bella, Sofia Kappel illuminates the nineteen-year-old woman’s every conflicting thought through her facial expressions and body language, indicating when she wants to speak but doesn’t, when she’s uncomfortable and helpless, or when she crosses over into abusing others. Kappel also traces Bella’s trajectory from fresh blood, often slouched, uncertain, and awkward, to an industry pro who stands up straight, moves purposefully, and is part of a world she’d previously only peeked at from afar. That’s not to say she’s a pushover from the start, because she does self-advocate, but it’s not until she’s been through the ringer that she is able to even start speaking up for herself. And as soon as she has something to lose, we watch Kappel’s many pauses as Bella thinks through how to react to a situation. AH
Daniel Katz, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
Daniel Katz, the brother of director Ana Katz, grounds the often absurd, often sweet The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet with his gentle performance, which was captured over a three-year shoot. Dog is sort of an absurdist comedy, and Katz is the straight man at the centre, playing thirty-something protagonist Sebastian. The film follows Sebastian over about a decade of his life as he forms and breaks various relationships. The first of those relationships is between him and his beloved dog; he loves his dog so much that he quits his job because the dog cries when he’s away from home. Katz plays Sebastian with such endearing sincerity that you’re rooting for him throughout. He also never overplays the film’s comedic moments, delivering straight-faced deadpan even in the silliest of scenarios, which only makes those scenes funnier. OS
Alessandra and Anamari Mesa, Superior
Identical twin actresses Alessandra Mesa and Anamari Mesa are highlights of the U.S. Dramatic Competition title Superior. They play twins who, at various points in the film, have to pretend to be each other. Marian (Alessandra) is the wild one, and Vivian (Anamari) is the settled housewife, and in the film, they play identity-switching games as they try to sort through their own identities. Mesa and Mesa do a great job of subtly modulating their performances to show when and how their characters are ‘acting.’ It made me excited to see what they will do in the future, together or apart. (Alessandra also co-wrote the film, alongside writer-director Erin Vassilopoulos.) OS
Ruth Negga, Passing
It’s with a mix of glamour and vulnerability that Ruth Negga’s Clare immediately draws in both the viewer and Irene (Tessa Thompson) as soon as we meet her in Passing. Negga plays Clare as someone who talks so fast you can’t say no to her, but whose eyes constantly plead with you to love her. The role is a tough one, playing both an ethereal object of desire for Irene and a real woman with pain and insecurities. The film is told largely from Irene’s perspective, but Negga lends real depth to Clare, giving us access to a whole world of feelings, and the sense of backstory that the film never explicitly states. Negga plays Clare as a woman who, mid-speech, will look off and to the side for a moment, sometimes wistfully, sometimes melancholically, sometimes both.
Negga makes us constantly aware of the rickety foundation that Clare, a Black woman passing as a white woman, has built her life on. She’s also completely seductive, not just sensually but altogether deliriously. She’s the life of the party, always good for a laugh, constantly pleasing. It’s also how Negga shows us a woman who never stops performing, whether that’s performing whiteness for her racist, Aryan husband, or the general good cheer that keeps her accepted wherever she goes, preventing anyone from looking too close. Occasionally, Negga shows us Clare dropping that mask, whether it’s in a leisurely conversation with Irene’s maid, or a candid, desperate moment with Irene where she longs for acceptance. It’s a movie-star performance that you can’t look away, but it’s also so full of depth and technical precision that you could dissect it for hours. AH
Martha Plimpton, Mass
Martha Plimpton is one of those faces you recognise and voices you know, even if it’s hard to pinpoint what you’ve seen her in. Such is the fate of the character actor, and such is the joy of a film like Mass, which brings together four character actors (Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Reed Birney) in the kinds of meaty lead roles they’re rarely given on film. Plimpton is the standout in an excellent cast, playing a woman grieving her son who was killed in a school shooting six years earlier. Almost the entire film takes place in one room, as she and her husband (Isaacs) confront the parents of their son’s killer, in a kind of extended, emotionally volatile therapy session.
While her husband stays stubbornly silent, deflects, and then explodes, Plimpton plays her character as an emotionally intelligent woman who is constantly trying to sort through her pain. As Isaacs’s character stumbles clumsily over his words, your eyes are often drawn to Plimpton silently reacting, her candid expression conveying more than Isaacs’s carefully chosen words (he is also excellent, but his character is more guarded and less thoughtful). You can tell she’s prepared extensively for this moment, both in her own head and in therapy, but when the day comes, she’s unprepared for the rawness of her emotions. She starts out composed, but there’s always a tension and tightness in Plimpton’s face; we’re waiting on edge for her to explode. When she does, what she conveys is not bullish rage like Isaacs, but a more complicated push and pull between what she knows is reasonable and what she really feels. OS
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