Looking past the usual suspects to find the this year's less-celebrated acting MVPs.

Oscar oddsmakers are already off to the races for the 2022 ceremony, and there's not much doubt who the early favorites are (a lot of them made our best-of too).

But that leaves off too many great performances that aren't on every last list, and might have otherwise been missed this year. So we're taking this space to celebrate (in no particular order) some of the standouts that may fly under the Academy's radar — be they backwoods chefs or Shakespearean witches, robots or gangsters, strippers, aristocrats, and savers of souls.

Best Film Performances of 2021
Credit: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios; Bleecker St (2); Jessica Forde/20th Century Studios; Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros.; Anna Kooris/A24
Ben Affleck Movies
Credit: Jessica Forde/20th Century Studios

Ben Affleck, The Last Duel

In a year full of stellar turns — Benedict Cumberbatch, please report to the podium — some are bound to fall through the cracks. Like Affleck in Duel; his take on a libertine count was marred by poor box office and unfortunate boy-band hair, but for a supposedly lightweight role, he's a low-key revelation: funny, layered, and surprisingly soulful.

Together Together

Patti Harrison, Together Together

Guy meets girl, guy hires girl to become his baby-mama surrogate: so far, so modern rom-com. But as the twentysomething barista who agrees to be Ed Helms' womb for hire, Patti Harrison (Shrill, Search Party) finds the finer shades of a fiercely guarded character who would sooner offer up her uterus than her heart. 

Credit: A24

Riley Keogh and Taylour Paige, Zola

Sometimes it seems like casts don't even do chemistry reads anymore. But there's a whole periodic table sizzling between Keough and Paige as strippers whose initial spark of friendship in a diner leads them down a Florida road-trip rabbit hole so depraved it makes Fear and Loathing feel like Pixar.

Credit: David Reamer/Neon

Nicolas Cage, Pig

It's easy to forget that Cage, whose IMDb page has tilted more toward quantity than quality in the last decade or two, is capable of small, wonderful surprises like Pig, in which he plays an exiled Oregon chef forced to join the world again when his beloved truffle pig is stolen by poachers. Chops? He's still got 'em.

Credit: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

The great Rita Moreno most likely will (and should) earn outsize attention for her return to the film that won her an Oscar nearly 60 years ago. But Broadway veteran DeBose (Schmigadoon!) takes the role Moreno built the imprint for and makes it her own — an Anita so tough and tender and beautifully layered, you almost forget about those two crazy kids at the center of the story.

The Green Knight
Credit: Eric Zachanowich / A24 Films

Dev Patel, The Green Knight

Patel is both the hero and the antihero of David Lowery's dreamy, disorienting medieval fantasy, a callow young aristocrat forced to prove his mettle in a film whose unabashed artiness might have felt hollow without the anchoring presence of an actor as grounded and gorgeously empathetic as the 31-year-old Brit.

I'm Your Man
Credit: Bleecker Street

Dan Stevens, I'm Your Man

As a dapper AI cyborg custom-built to romance a reluctant Berlin academic (Maren Eggert), the onetime Downton Abbey star displayed an unexpected fluency in German — and a flair for turning a (literally) robotic role into something charming, disarming, and gratifyingly human.

The Tragedy of Macbeth
Credit: Apple TV+

Kathryn Hunter, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Which witch? She's the whole coven in Joel Cohen's starry, stylized black-and-white Macbeth: a 64-year-old British theater vet not shy to be stealing thunder from the likes of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand with an otherworldly performance whose wicked impact lingers long after its few eerie minutes are up.

Nine Days
Credit: Michael Coles/Sony Pictures Classics

Winston Duke, Nine Days

It's a shame that Edson Oda's surreal Sundance breakout got lost in the pandemic shuffle — particularly the Us star's beautifully understated performance as a sweater-vested gatekeeper of souls whose final scene in the cracked salt flats of Utah is a song-of-myself triumph.

Many Saints of Newark
Credit: Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros.

Alessandro Nivola, The Many Saints of Newark

For Sopranos fans, creator David Chase's return to the bada-bing well after nearly 15 years was a little bit like methadone: not the same rush as the original, but still a pretty good fix. As Tony's cherished Uncle Dickie, Nivola taps a deeper vein than mere moral murkiness; an uneasy mobster with cracks in his soul.

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's January issue, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring Oscars analysis, exclusive interviews, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's movies and performances.

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