Best of 2021: Top 10 Movie Characters

What a line-up of scene-stealers we had at the movies (or, you know, in our homes) in 2021. That probably has a fair amount to do with all the delayed 2020 flicks that crashed on top of this year’s cinematic plans, but you analyse the hand you’re dealt, as it were. This is yet another year without any protagonists on the list, but that’s just the way it shakes out more often than not. The human focus of a film’s story doesn’t tend to capture my attention quite like the good old extended cameo or enjoyably hammy villainous performance – or indeed both at once.

This list is rarely the place to find in-depth plot spoilers, but it’s still worth being careful if you consider yourself behind on major blockbusters this year.

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VR BEST OF 2021 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is beyond unlikely. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

Spoilers may follow.

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10. Luisa – Encanto

Encanto is packed with super-powered characters that get very quick introductions (this is a Lin-Manuel Miranda work, after all, so the words-per-minute can get a real workout) and then have to fight for character arcs while staying under a Disney animated movie runtime. So it makes sense that the character with the most physically apparent power – and the solo song with the most words in it – would present the best opportunity to kick off the movie’s themes of familial expectation. But my word, do her voice actress Jessica Darrow and the entire animation team run with that opportunity. Luisa is consistently entertaining to watch and “Surface Pressure” is a throwback to the golden age of chaotic Disney visual storytelling within a musical number.

9. Cipher – F9: The Fast Saga

That’s right: the main villain from the eighth Fast & Furious movie appears in the ninth one trapped in a giant glass case for most of the runtime, wearing a bowl cut, and is still more memorable than John Cena’s primary antagonist in this one. That might be because Charlize Theron is allowed to have a lot more fun than Cena – whose comedic timing in at least two other 2021 movies proves how wasted he is playing the stoic, burdened younger brother of Dominic Toretto – but also because she commits to looking and sounding even more cartoonishly evil than she did in F8. The degree of ham in her performance is a perfect fit for this franchise, so it’s a shame she won’t be coming back for any more movies.

8. Massimo Marcovaldo – Luca

Pixar’s delightfully wholesome Luca has quite a few candidates for this list. In fact I was initially going to have the hilarious Uncle Ugo as an honorable mention – before I remembered which moments made me tear up in the finale of the movie. Man of few words Massimo Marcovaldo joins the ranks of How To Train Your Dragon’s Hiccup as an animated amputee with a fantastic visual design, and his imposing figure assists the story’s moral that past reputation does not necessarily equate to present reality. Massimo is often scary, frequently funny, and ultimately provides the punch at the heart of that patented Pixar moment you know is coming.

7. Count Pierre d’Alençon – The Last Duel

A blonde Ben Affleck already drew plenty of laughs when the first, otherwise dead-serious trailer for Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel hit screens earlier in the year; but it turns out the ridiculous styling wasn’t an accident: Affleck’s Count Pierre is the closest this movie comes to a comic relief character. He’s also the closest it comes to a single human villain – which gives him points in both the columns that usually get characters onto this list. The Count is a despicable product of his time and status, and Affleck sells the debaucherous pragmatism at the core of his being with a warped magnetism. He’s really only in the film for Act 2, but his presence is key to fully unlocking the delusions of Act 1 and the injustice of Act 3.

6. Lady Jessica – Dune

As a complete newcomer to the Dune story who adores Rebecca Ferguson’s work (you don’t mess with Ilsa Faust), I was not prepared for Denis Villenueve’s take on Lady Jessica at all. It’s hard to make sweeping calls about her when I still won’t know where her story is going for a while (assuming I don’t cave and fall down the Dune rabbit hole before the sequel is out), but the richness and mystery of the lore forming the background to her character play out with tangible gravitas onscreen thanks to a balanced, powerful Ferguson performance. There are a ton of reasons why I’m locked in to see that sequel, and she is most certainly up there with the strongest of them.

5. Wenwu – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Well over a decade into this Marvel Cinematic Universe thing, the percentage of movies containing a villain who isn’t widely regarded as underwhelming is still alarmingly small. But that percentage just may have risen slightly thanks to Xu Wenwu, who represents the MCU’s second attempt to tackle classic Iron Man villain The Mandarin on the big screen. This franchise is ridiculously good at retcons (or more accurately, leaving the door open for them by only loosely committing to certain fan nods), but even by MCU standards the explanation for the previous Iron Man 3 take is elegantly done. But then there’s the delicate duality of Tony Leung’s performance, which is quite comfortably the best in the whole of Shang-Chi.

4. The Baroness – Cruella

Emma Thompson as a posh villain. What more do you need from me?

3. Yelena – Black Widow

2021 provided a completely unprecedented situation for this annual list: A brand-new movie character that appeared in more than one piece of media within the same year. Even before her extended guest spot across the second half of the Hawkeye TV show – during which she gets just about as much screen time as in the Black Widow movie – Florence Pugh stole scene after scene with her instantly charismatic turn as Natasha Romanov’s foster sister Yelena Bolova. Regularly funny and believably conflicted, she’s arguably the best part of the movie.

An awful lot happens to her in Hawkeye though – she dominates a one-on-one dialogue sequence and literally gets to finish her secondary character arc – so I’m honestly at a bit of a loss as to whether it should or shouldn’t count towards her placing here. But the bottom line is Yelena is great to watch and hopefully she has a big future in the MCU.

2. Kano – Mortal Kombat

A good mate of mine described Josh Lawson’s performance as Kano in 2021’s uneven Mortal Kombat reboot with the following simple sentence: “He was obviously just told to be as Aussie as possible and it works.” Bloody oath it does. As a fan of some of Lawson’s comedic work from a decade and a half ago, it’s surreal to see him doing this schtick and getting away with it, acting like a regular patron at the local pub complete with authentically colourful language. The fact that everyone around him is acting so serious despite a plot that’s nonsensical on more than one level – and his placement opposite another Aussie actor pretending to be American – honestly saves the movie. Kano is absolutely the second-best reason to see this movie, right after all the Scorpion vs Sub-Zero fights.

1. Paloma – No Time to Die

Number 1 with a bullet moments after she first appears onscreen a third of the way through No Time to Die, Ana de Armas’ brief scene-long cameo in Cuba positively steals the whole show. Picking up where she left off at the end of Knives Out in terms of friendship-goals chemistry with Daniel Craig (he apparently recommended her for the role before they shot the scene last), de Armas continues to showcase her movie star credentials in a whirlwind of manic wide-eyed energy, superb action chops and a spin-off-baiting level of charisma. Her appearance ends with a cheeky line referencing the crying shame that she isn’t in the movie at all afterwards, but then again maybe Paloma is only such a stand-out because she’s around for a few minutes tops. Regardless, she’s the clear winner for me this year.

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Honorable Mentions

–Shriek – Venom: Let There Be Carnage

It’s a testament to Naomi Harris that she gets almost nothing to do in this year’s brisk no-second-act Venom sequel, and yet still makes a scenery-chewing impression.

–Maurillio – Vacation Friends

This guy appears in one single scene within a completely overlooked movie, but Carlos Santos’ performance as a besieged check-in attendant desperately trying to backpedal as things keep going wrong is one of the funniest I’ve seen from a relatively unknown actor in my life.

–Ratcatcher II – The Suicide Squad

You know its a James Gunn movie when one of the least interesting characters on paper ends up resonating the most; Daniela Melchior’s surprisingly tender portrayal of rat whisperer Cleo Cazo a.k.a “Ratcatcher II” gives The Suicide Squad – movie and eponymous group of villains alike – its emotional core. I daresay she helped the pet rat industry a fair amount, too.

–Makkari – Eternals

Though she’s one of a few titular Eternals to disappear from the movie for an extended amount of time to allow the more plot-relevant players to take centre stage, Makkari is also perhaps the only one to escape the script’s penchant for highlighting flaws in the superhuman immortal beings. Infectiously optimistic with creatively-realised speed powers, she sticks out in the memory among a sea of solidly fleshed-out character dynamics.

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