“Wednesday” Listicle: The Entertainer Of The Year, 2021

2021 may not have been the dystopic future that 2020 was for so many, but it certainly was no less taxing. I mean, look what happened less than ten days after the year’s start. Whether you like it or not, entertainers still play a vital role in our society, keeping us laughing and singing and collectively happy even as the world burns around us – much like the band playing on as the Titanic sinks. And after the bummer of a year 2020 turned out to be, it seems that 2021 was a cornucopia of performers giving it their all to lift spirits, bring us together, and try to make the world a better place. So with this year’s 2021 Entertainers of the Year, I felt that ten was too limiting a number. So prepare to behold the fifteen Entertainers of 2021, plus a special award for the Entertainer of the Year. Who will join the ranks of Adam Driver, Jordan Peele, and TikTok?

Before we get to that, of course, we have to talk about the Honorable Mentions. These are the artists whose work kept us entertained and made a big splash, and yet lacked the complete cultural dominance of some of their counterparts. In terms of acting, that means performers like Bradley Cooper for Nightmare Alley and Licorice Pizza, or Angelina Jolie in blockbusters Those Who Wish Me Dead and Eternals, or Stephanie Beatriz for Encanto, In The Heights, and Brooklyn Nine Nine’s last season, or Matt Damon in Stillwater and The Last Duel. Steven Yeun made a splash at the Oscars this spring before popping up in Oscar contender The Humans and the revival of Tuca and Bertie (on which he is so good). John Cena seemed like he was everywhere, thanks to Fast 9 and The Suicide Squad. And Jared Leto somehow seemed less obnoxious, despite reprising his hated role as The Joker in Zack Snyder’s Justice League and as an over-the-top Italian in House of Gucci. And then there are the Oscar contenders, like Andrew Garfield (The Eyes of Tammy Faye and tick, tick…boom!), Jesse Plemons (for his mature work in The Power of the Dog and his silly work in Jungle Cruise), and Simon Rex (enjoying a comeback in Red Rocket).

Musically, it was difficult to not pick Taylor Swift once again, thanks to the dramatic re-release of her greatest albums – as well as the masterpiece that is the ten-minute “All Too Well.” Kacey Musgraves released both an album and a companion film, placing her firmly in the public lexicon. And who can forget Jon Batiste, Stephen Colbert’s bandleader who won an Oscar for his work on Soul and is now the most nominated composer at this year’s Grammys for his album We Are? Beyond musicians, audiences looked to comedy to keep them entertained, which gave us a wide field of contenders, including film, stand-up, and brief television star Rachel Sennott, dominating Saturday Night Live performers Chloe Fineman and Cecily Strong (who also had a successful TV show in Schmigadoon), and Emmy darling and Ted Lasso creator Jason Sudeikis.

I also came close to choosing Inside creator Bo Burnham, who had a big moment last June as his special took over the world, as well as the comedy troupe Please Don’t Destroy, whose videos took off during the pandemic, earned them a job writing for SNL, and now consistently earn the biggest laughs of the show. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention athletes like Tom Brady and LeBron James, who had big moments on the field/court and off, thanks to a series of commercials, an unexpected Super Bowl win, and Space Jam: A New Legacy. But these are simply hors d’oeuvres for the main course of performers. So, without further ado, let’s dive into our 2021 Entertainers of the Year!

Ben Affleck

Man, what a year Ben Affleck has had. The man began the year as a meme, a shorthand for looking sad and making bad career decisions. And look at him now! Zack Snyder’s Justice League (somewhat) redeemed his legacy as the Caped Crusader, and brought him back into the fold for the upcoming Flash movie. In The Last Duel, Affleck recaptured a long-lost glory, having the most fun he’s ever had as a carnal, amoral royal who snarls obscenities and flirts and f*cks his way through a castle of servants. It might be his best role in twenty years – and he’s still not done. Later this month, The Tender Bar is debuting on Amazon, featuring what many critics have called Affleck’s best performance, as a funny father-figure to a young boy who teaches him life lessons from behind the bar he runs. Affleck’s performance has put him in the Oscar hunt, and based on the strength of his year and the weakness of the field…he just might get it. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he managed to win back The One That Got Away, Jennifer Lopez. It is hard to deny the swoon-worthy romance involved in the reuniting of Bennifer – it made us feel like anything was possible in 2021. Ben Affleck spent 2021 doing the impossible – making us root for Ben Affleck again. And for that reason, he is one of 2021’s greatest entertainers.

Benedict Cumberbatch

I swear that I’m not just putting Benedict Cumberbatch on the list because of my massive man crush on him. I’m not. I’m doing so because throughout the year, Cumberbatch appeared in four critically acclaimed films and one popular TV show. I mean, he hasn’t had a year this good since he was on Sherlock the same year he got nominated for an Oscar. To kick off 2021, Cumberbatch appeared in his old Sundance hit The Courier, earning rave reviews as a businessman forced into the world of espionage during the Cold War. Later, he appeared as acclaimed painter Louis Wain in the well-received The Electric Life of Louis Wain. To close out the year, he received many awards and notices for his work in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, one of his best performances to date and a stunning work of psychological acting. And that’s not to mention his more crowd-pleasing work, like his upcoming role in Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Marvel television series What If…?, which includes some stellar voice acting in its own right. No matter how you slice it, Cumberbatch was everywhere this year, giving it his all. And we are all the better for it.

Jamie Dornan

I certainly did not expect to have the Fifty Shades of Grey actor on my list at the beginning of 2021. Nor did I expect a surge in readership thanks to some devout Dornan stans on the Internet (hi, everyone!). And yet, here we are. Dornan has not only rebranded his career, he’s revitalized it, thanks to two Internet-conquering performances that could not be more different. After starting the year in the much-maligned Wild Mountain Thyme (for which he received the film’s only praise), Dornan appeared in the zany comedy Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar. And, well…he stole the film. Apparently he’s been an adept comedic actor all this time, forced into a series of rough dramas. His musical number, “Edgar’s Prayer,” is arguably the best movie scene from the last year. And still, not satisfied to simply prove himself as a comedic actor, Dornan appeared in the Oscar frontrunner Belfast, for which he has earned his first Golden Globe nomination, his first Critics Choice nomination, and will likely earn his first SAG and Oscar nominations in the coming weeks. Dornan has dominated both comedy and drama, and has used his 2021 to utterly disprove any doubts surrounding his career as he enters 2022 an Entertainer of the Year. 

Idris Elba

You know, I almost selected Idris Elba for the top slot. It came down to the last minute. Elba was perhaps the only true movie star of 2021, as he commanded both of his films – minor box office hits, which in 2021 is the equivalent of a major box office hit – to critical and commercial success. Up first, he served as the main character and commander of the titular Suicide Squad, demonstrating a sense of comedic timing we really haven’t seen from the actor before. Later, he brought all his charisma and menace to The Harder They Fall as the infamous Rufus Buck, an outlaw looking for revenge whilst attempting to reclaim and revitalize his town. It’s a stunning performance in a stunning film, and while his awards campaign has failed to materialize, he’s no less in the race than anyone else on this list. And let’s not forget the shock and humor of Elba – a big, gruff movie star of dramas and action films – being cast as Knuckles in Sonic The Hedgehog 2. His debut in the trailer is far and away the high point. Look, no matter how you slice it, Elba had a massive 2021, and deserves acclaim for working hard to be an Entertainer of the Year.

Lady Gaga

Is it any surprise that Lady Gaga is on this list? I mean, let’s walk through her 2021, shall we? She started the year singing at the Inauguration, giving a stellar performance under less-than-ideal circumstances (it is shocking to realize that it’s only been one year since the assault on the Capitol and the tension and security surrounding the aftermath). Four months later, she made a surprise – and much acclaimed – appearance in the Friends Reunion, dressed as Phoebe Buffay and performing “Smelly Cat” with Lisa Kudrow herself. Four months after that, she released an album of Cole Porter covers with her good friend Tony Bennett, titled “Love For Sale.” The album was a massive success, and is currently up for Album of the Year at the Grammys. And then, not satisfied to conquer music and television, she starred in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, a massive box office hit thanks to her gonzo performance as the Italian bride of the heir to the Gucci fortune, eventually driven to murder out of jealousy and power. It’s a performance she will likely be nominated for in the coming weeks, awards wise. From cinema to music to television, Lady Gaga has been a staple of the entertainment industry this year, and she deserves all the acclaim coming to her.

Andrew Garfield

Man, how fun was Andrew Garfield in 2021? Sure, his first big release, Mainstream, landed with a bit of a thud. But even the negative reviews called it his most fun performance to date. And he only went up from there. In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Garfield took on the role of Jim Bakker, a controversial televangelist, and filled him with a life and a pathos the real man perhaps doesn’t deserve. It was a role that Garfield probably wasn’t right for, and yet he made it his own on the strength of his performance. And then, there was his magnum opus: Tick, Tick…Boom!, the role he’ll likely receive an Oscar nomination for in a few months. Garfield sings, acts, and dances his heart out, and his best work to date is arguably responsible for the film’s critical and commercial success. Oh, and while this is unconfirmed as of the day I wrote this blurb (intentionally so, as to avoid true spoilers)…come on. He’s in Spider-Man again, right? We all know this? His lying about it has been so bad I almost want to take him off the list for becoming a bad actor. But nonetheless, even if he isn’t in the film (he is, come on), that doesn’t take away from three other fantastic performances, each deserving of the Entertainer of the Year slot in their own right.

Patti Harrison

I’ve been trying to branch out to include more comedians on this list, outside of just picking John Mulaney a bunch. And while I was tempted to give the slot to Bo Burnham, few entertainers were as powerful in 2021 than Patti Harrison. Harrison’s stand-up has been gaining followers for years, thanks to her innate ability to deliver a joke and commit to a bit. In fact, one of her first major moments in 2021 came when she got banned from Twitter over a bit where she satirized political corporate accounts, in which she pretended to be the Nilla Wafers Twitter page and began harassing people online. She capitalized on the attention with a starring role in the buddy comedy Together Together, which quickly became one of the most acclaimed indie films of the year. She also had a voice role in the Disney film Raya and the Last Dragon. But never one to settle, the bulk of Harrison’s domination came in the form of television. This obviously includes her starring role on the show Shrill. But it also extends to her massive work as a voice actor and comedian, including (deep breath) Yearly Departed, History of Swear Words, Made For Love, The Great North, Ziwe, Q-Force, Adventure Time: Distant Lands, Ziwe, and Tuca and Bertie. And that’s not to mention her crowning achievement: I Think You Should Leave, where she had two of the most talked about segments: a Shark Tank host who got sewn into the Charlie Brown float at a parade and has PTSD, and a woman in a Driver’s Ed video obsessed with her filthy tables. We didn’t deserve Patti Harrison in 2021, but we’re all the better for it.

Oscar Isaac

Oscar Isaac is another name I came close to choosing in the top slot, just based on his presence in, well, almost everything. You want to talk movies? He dominated all three levels of cinema. In terms of giant blockbuster, he played an integral role in the smash hit Dune, where he gave one of the film’s best performances. In terms of indies, he was easily the best part of Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, as an enigmatic gambler with a dark past. And in terms of animation, he once again played Gomez Addams in The Addams Family – and while the animation fails to do him justice, he is still undeniably perfect for the role. But it wasn’t just cinema that the Internet’s boyfriend dominated (yes, I know what I did there). He also has been raking in the awards for Scenes From a Marriage, which almost everyone agreed he was the best part of (he outshined the show’s mixed reviews). And speaking of Marriage, let’s not forget that three-day period back in September when the Internet obsessed over the sultry image of Isaac and Chastain on the red carpet. That’s a form of entertainment in and of itself. No matter the medium, Isaac was a key part of 2021, and he deserves the title of one of the year’s best entertainers.

Thomasin McKenzie

Honestly, did any actress have as good a 2021 as the 21-year-old Thomasin McKenzie? I’m not sure there was anyone else even in the competition. You name the type of film, and the young startlet from Leave No Trace and Jojo Rabbitlikely had a hand in it. Looking for a certifiable box office hit? Look no further than Old, M. Night Shyamalan’s meme-worthy horror film about a beach that turns people old. McKenzie plays the lead role, an 11-year-old suddenly transformed into an 18-year-old, and her performance helps center the silliness of the plot. Want an indie darling that made a ton of money at the specialty box office? There’s Last Night In Soho, where McKenzie again plays the lead, this time a college student who forms a toxic relationship with the past. The film works because of her charisma and talent, and she holds her own against the formidable forces of Anya Taylor-Joy and the late Diana Rigg. And lest you think the young New Zealander doesn’t have an Oscar contender in the ring, she has a small but memorable role in The Power of the Dog as a maid who becomes friends with a young outcast. Whether she’s taking on prestige drama or campy horror, McKenzie brings her all whenever she’s onscreen, and that was certainly the case in 2021.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Sigh. I’m getting tired of talking about this guy. Can we just give him the Oscar for Encanto just to get him that EGOT? I kid, I kid…kind of. But it seems inevitable that if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s going to be in the cultural conversation, he’s going to dominate it. He had two animated films in Disney’s Encanto (his music is easily the best part) and Netflix’s Vivo, where he plays a singing monkey. He produced the Rita Moreno documentary Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, and made an appearance in Questlove’s acclaimed documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised). He watched as his musical In The Heights was translated into a major Hollywood blockbuster, and even directed his first movie in Tick, Tick…Boom! – already an Oscar contender; he also made cameos in both films. OH, and did I mention that in between all of these accomplishments and projects, he popped up at the Emmys to accept another award for Hamilton? That’s right, we’re still giving him awards for that thing (understandably so, but even still). This has been a terrific year for Lin, and whether we’re excited to see what he does next or exhausted from his cultural dominance, he is undeniably one of the year’s most talked-about entertainers.

Olivia Rodrigo

Rodrigo is yet another entertainer who came a hair shy of being named Entertainer of the Year. Going into 2021, not many knew her name – she was merely another Disney teenybopper in a sea of Disney teenyboppers. And then…”Driver’s License.” I’m not sure the last time a song of pure teen angst captured the world to this degree. Hell, for a time, it felt like the first ubiquitous song in decades. And how could it not? It was musically catchy, lyrically honest and open, and perfectly sung. If her year had ended with “Driver’s License,” she might still have made the list. But it just kept going. Each single she released – “Déjà Vu,” “Good 4 U,” etc. – was equally impressive, and inspired just as much acclaim as “Driver’s License.” And then Sour came out as a whole, and suddenly, she was unstoppable. It’s arguably the year’s best album, the best example of teen angst since Avril, and remains a conversation piece everywhere. And then she still returned to steal High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, alongside the boy who broke her heart and inspired that album. This has been Olivia’s year, and few musicians came close to capturing her genius or talent in all of 2021.

Will Smith

In hindsight, perhaps we had too much of Will Smith in 2021. After all he bared his soul so many times in interviews that by November, he was talking about how he had so much sex the thought of lovemaking made him violently ill. But before we reached that point, Smith was spending his 2021 reminding us all why we’d fallen in love with him in the first place. Most of his interviews were funny and incisive, like his explanation of why he turned down The Matrix all those years ago. These stories all served as a prelude to his memoir Will, released in November in bookstores nationwide. And then there’s King Richard, Smith’s passion project about the father of Venus and Serena Williams. The film has been a critical darling at festivals and in Hollywood all through the fall, and though it struggled at the box office (it had a same-day HBO Max debut), it was still a major talking point and hit amongst viewers, and will likely garner Smith his first Oscar later this spring. Oh, and did I mention he’s producing the dramatic remake of his classic show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? He’s got a sense of humor about himself, that’s for sure. And it’s that sense of humor and unstoppable charm that made him one of 2021’s greatest entertainers.

Zack Snyder

Let it never be said I’m not a fair and impartial judge. I did not enjoy a single Zack Snyder project this year. Yet it cannot be denied that the ever-earnest creator dominated the creative space. After all, if my 60-year-old father who never goes online is asking me “What’s this ‘Snyder Cut’ I keep hearing about?” last March, I think it’s safe to say he made an impact on pop culture. Yes, last March, Zack Snyder’s Justice League premiered on HBO Max, to mostly good reviews. And while it was a bit of a streaming disappointment in hindsight, the amount of conversation and impact it had amongst those that watched was unstoppable. But Snyder didn’t stop there. Later that month, he dropped a highly acclaimed trailer for his surprise movie Army of the Dead, a spiritual sequel to his breakout hit Dawn of the Dead. And while Army was critically panned, it was not only a huge hit for Netflix – one could argue it was the most complete and entertaining Snyder film in a long time. He even produced a prequel to drop last October. And as an extra cherry on top Snyder’s all-around weird 2021, he happened to be Twitter’s hero for a day when he commissioned a painting of Batman and Catwoman to counteract a…certain WB policy. I’m not posting a link to that picture here, you can Google it if you want. Safe Search Off, cowards. Look, I’m not convinced of Snyder’s talents by any means, nor am I a convert to his gonzo filmmaking. But in the spirit of fairness, it is impossible to deny that the director had a remarkable 2021, and no matter what, kept us entertained along the way.

Sparks

Lots of people entered 2021 with no clue who Sparks was. I was one of them. Despite influencing most bands over the last 40 years, thanks to a blend of boundary-pushing music and comedically sharp lyrics, Ron and Russell Mael have continued to change the game since their debut in the late 1960s. But it wasn’t until their ultra-productive 2021 that this changed, thanks to Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers. A Sundance hit, an indie theater darling, and a small Netflix success, the documentary inspired a whole new generation to find the band and their music – including myself, who listened to so many of their songs ad infinitum this year. But I’m not rewarding Sparks because they had one documentary. No, I’m rewarding them for their Cannes-winning film Annette. A decades long passion project for the brothers, Annette is a fully-fledged opera of massively comic and tragic proportions. It’s weird and loud and disturbing – just like Sparks’ music. And while it hasn’t had the awards impact it deserves, the opening track “So May We Start” could land the duo a trip to the Oscars. Not that they’ll have much time – they’ve already booked a late 2021-early 2022 tour, a tour for which I’ve already booked tickets. Sparks has gone their entire career without the recognition they deserve. I feel the title of one of 2021’s greatest entertainers is, at the very least, long overdue.

Chloé Zhao

It’s hard to think of anyone who’s had as big a breakout in 2021 as Chloé Zhao. Outside of the handful of folks who saw her 2017 film The Rider, not many people were familiar with the indie darling. And then Nomadland swept last year’s critics’ awards. Suddenly, she was the talk of the town entering 2021. In February, her little film about the downtrodden of society received a wide release, a push on Hulu, and an IMAX debut. At the Oscars in April, she was a red-carpet star, winning over audiences with her answers and earning a standing ovation when she won Best Picture and Best Director (one of the youngest ever, the second woman, and the first Asian-American woman to ever win the prize). And if that all wasn’t enough, last November, Zhao released Eternals, a major Marvel movie that remains, to date, the most creator-driven project the studio has ever allowed. The film was a box office hit, although it received mixed reviews, but one thing that was undeniable was scope of what Zhao wanted to accomplish. She wanted to make a true morality tale, filled with Big Ideas and Big Swings, and while not all of them worked, one can’t deny that she made one of the more interesting blockbusters of the last year. Chloé Zhao was undeniably 2021’s breakout, and she had a major impact on the cultural landscape in every way. Which brings us to our final award, the Entertainer of the Year. And the winner is…

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR: Billie Eilish

As I’ve mentioned throughout this piece, I tinkered with a lot of different contenders for the Entertainer of 2021 – Miranda, and Rodrigo, and Elba, just to name a few. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t pick anyone other than Eilish. While it may not feel like she dominated the lexicon the same way she did when “Bad Guy” was the Song of the Year, let’s break down exactly what she did in 2021. She opened the year with a surprise upset at the Grammys for Record of the Year, continuing her domination of the awards body. Her second album, Happier Than Ever, became just as successful as her debut, thanks to a series of clever, strong songs (“Therefore I Am” became a TikTok craze), and is already poised to dominate the Grammys again. In between these releases, she sang the theme of a massively successful James Bond film, seeming ready to win Best Original Song at the Oscars. And did I mention that she released not one, but two critically acclaimed documentaries this year? One explored her relationship with her family and her struggles with fame, while the other was a traditional, expertly staged concert film of the Happier Than Ever album. And I haven’t even mentioned that the 19-year-old also hosted and performed an episode of Saturday Night Live. No one had a 2021 like Billie Eilish, and it is impossible to deprive her of the title of Entertainer of the Year.

That concludes this year’s coverage of Entertainer of the Year! I’ll be back later this week with a continuation of the Sacred Wall’s Best-Of lists. I may also experiment with the order, considering the Academy’s pushed their show into late March. Still, you can expect Trailers and my Most Anticipated of 2022 in the next few days, before we move over to the Best of TV. I will see you all then, and remember: it’s a new year, and a new chance for pop culture to distract us from our living hellscape!

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *