For years, women have been pushed into the background—often asked to play second fiddle to their male partners. So when you see an outstanding female that drives a film, both with her emotion and intensity, it’s a performance to take note of. These five women gave us the performances of 2021 to pay attention to. These women stood at the forefront of their films, progressing the narratives through their sheer talents. It’s a tough category, without a doubt, but here are the Little Movie Award nominees and winner for Best Lead Actress.

5. Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter)

Olivia Colman isn’t a stranger when it comes to being honored as a Leading Actress. Her first mention in this category came in 2019 for her role in The Favourite. Colman proceeded to win the coveted golden statue at the Oscars that year—beating out Glenn Close’s “sure thing” win. Since then Colman’s star has only continued to rise, and this year is no different. While The Lost Daughter wasn’t the movie I had hoped it would be, Colman’s performance was a stunner. Colman plays Leda who, while on vacation, reasons with the choices of her past while dealing with an extremely rude family. Leda is a complex woman who’s made up of a series of layers, affected by both the past and present, which causes her to make some questionable decisions while on vacation. At this point, it’s hard to believe that Colman will have any awful performance. She can light up the screen in any movie she’s in.

4. Tessa Thompson (Passing)

Much like her costar, Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson hasn’t seen much traction when it came to nominations this year. We see the story through her character’s eyes. Irene is quiet and keeps to herself. She is a wife of a well to do doctor, and keeps busy with charities and things of that sort. But like her friend Clare, who she reconnects with after years apart, she, at times, passes for a white woman although she is black. There’s not much I can say without giving away the film, but the qualities that lay beneath Irene’s reserved demeanor boils to the surface when her friend Clare begins to interfere with Irene’s life. Thompson’s performance plays right into that sweet spot—you don’t know how to take Irene. There’s almost something darker there, secrets that can’t fully be unearthed. Passing made it into my Top Films of 2021, in part, due to Thompson’s outstanding acting. I can’t shake her performance, and the more I remove myself from it, the more I grow to appreciate it.

3. Renate Reinsve (The Worst Person in the World)

I laugh, because I think how funny it is that an actress is synonymous with the statement “the worst person in the world.” Of course Renate Reinsve is not the worst person in the world. In fact, before Joachim Trier’s, The Worst Person in the World, I had never heard the name Renate Reinsve, as I’m sure many of you can relate. But as another notch in Trier’s Oslo Trilogy, The Worst Person in the World highlights Reinsve’s acting power as she plays Julie, a woman who’s trying to find what she wants out of life. She’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and emotional—a woman simply bursting with talent. Is Reinsve another actress that’s gone under the radar this awards season? Absolutely! While she’s worked with Trier in his past projects, I hope her recognition with The Worst Person in the World brings her more success.

2. Penélope Cruz (Parallel Mothers)

I heard one critic make a comment that Penélope Cruz showed more talent staring at a computer screen than some actresses made in their entire roles this past year. I mean, who could argue with him? Cruz has mostly done her work as of late acting in Spanish speaking films—with the occasional English language. Her constant co-collaborator, and friend, Pedro Almodóvar, once again team up for Parallel Mothers. The story involves two mothers—their paths twisting and turning only to lead back to each other. Cruz always brings out her best when she works with Almodóvar. Her character, Janis, goes through heartbreak on so many different levels, but Cruz pulls it off perfectly. Her portrayals of emotion are in no way overdone or cliché. The audience grieves with Janis. And through Janis, the audience is able to grieve with other characters as well. To be honest, Cruz and our winner could have been flipped. It was a tough decision.

  1. Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye)

As I said in my Eyes of Tammy Faye review, I’ve been a fan of Jessica Chastain since her role in Take Shelter, and the more I continue to watch her onscreen, the more I fall in love with her work. Especially, the process behind her work. Now, I’m not old enough to know much about Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s shady dealings through their Praise the Lord religious organization. After what they did, tricking millions of people into giving them money, I can’t say I would ever find a shred of humanity in Tammy. But in watching Chastain’s performance, she gives us that. She doesn’t paint a one dimensional look at the religious woman. It’s a complicated evaluation, only then, leaving the audience to judge for themselves. But in the end, should we even be the ones judging her? The more I analyze the performance the more I love it! I may not be the one to ask if this is Chastain’s best work, as I believe she has so many fabulous roles in her filmography. However, Chastain’s performance as Tammy Faye is the best of 2021.


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