This article contains several cameo spoilers for 2021 films.
Last week, Ana de Armas’ unexpected inclusion on the BAFTA longlist for Best Supporting Actress (for No Time to Die) and Bradley Cooper’s surprise SAG nomination for Best Supporting Actor (for Licorice Pizza) prompted calls for cameo recognition during awards season, where it’s so easy to get caught up in the conversation surrounding leading and supporting actors and actresses that standouts in significantly smaller roles (and sometimes, those who feature in simply a single scene, as is the case for de Armas) often don’t receive the acknowledgement they deserve, despite even occasionally stealing the entire show. Sure, the classification of de Armas and Cooper’s roles as “cameos” has been somewhat controversial (“small supporting roles” is perhaps a better descriptor, and one that also fits Spider-Man: No Way Home’s Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, for example), but the chatter their awards campaigns sparked still led many to look back at the true-blue best cameos of the year.
Cameos are nothing new in cinema (after all, where would the superhero genre be without them?) but since there isn’t already a space to provide them with the proper praise and plaudits, the responsibility falls on us to assure that these performances are remembered amidst all the chaos of every year’s awards ceremonies. As such, without further ado, here’s a collection of the cameos or single-scene-stealers that stood out most to us in film in 2021, from those featured in idiosyncratic indies to bombastic blockbusters and everything in between, arranged alphabetically.
Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Bill Murray, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver – Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Those who followed the production of Ghostbusters: Afterlife closely shouldn’t have been too surprised to see the original cast pop up in the film’s finale (especially if they’d seen the final trailer, in which a tag towards the end features an offscreen Aykroyd answering a call for action), but that didn’t make the climactic reunion any less resonant – especially as the trio of Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Bill Murray were joined by a digital recreation of the late Harold Ramis as Egon Spengler. The decision to digitally “resurrect” Ramis didn’t come without controversy (though Jason Reitman did receive the permission of the Ramis family to do so), but for longtime fans, it was the kind of euphoric experience only cinema can offer. Afterlife earns bonus points for not leaving the ladies out as well, with an amusing aside from Annie Potts early on and a playful post-credits stinger between Sigourney Weaver and Murray.
Chuck Cooper, André De Shields, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Joel Grey, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Beth Malone, Howard McGillin, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth, Adam Pascal, Bernadette Peters, Phylicia Rashad, Chita Rivera, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Phillipa Soo – tick, tick… BOOM!
There are no shortage of standout musical sequences in the terrific tick, tick… BOOM!, but the “Sunday” scene might just take the cake, which reimagines the Act 1 closer of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George as if it were taking place in the fantastical psyche of Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson, as he neglects his work during the Sunday brunch rush at the Moondance Diner. In his head, he’s joined by a number of Broadway legends, including Cabaret’s Joel Grey, Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry of Hamilton fame, and Sunday’s own Bernadette Peters. It’s a musical moment that brings the house down (and if you were at that electric AFI premiere, you know exactly what we mean), and this collection of cameos is undeniably one of the most memorable moments in cinema in 2021.
Chris Evans – Free Guy/Don’t Look Up
Chris Evans has such an established star persona at this point after having played the morally upright Captain America in seven films over the past decade that there’s naturally an inherent interest in audiences to see him “break bad” and shed that sincerity every once in a while. Knives Out offered Evans that opportunity with a fully fledged supporting role, but he’s been flexing his coarseness in cameos as of late as well. His brilliant bit in this year’s Free Guy comes after Ryan Reynolds’ titular Guy utilizes Captain America’s shield in a scuffle, prompting the “real life” Evans to utter, “What the shit?!,” while his short scene in Don’t Look Up is even more entertaining, parodying Evans’ politics as he plays a pretentious actor who attempts to appeal to both warring coalitions in the country who adopt different approaches to addressing (or not addressing) the oncoming comet. Evans’ delivery is simply a smarmy delicacy, and it’s one of the funniest gags in a film full of them.
Harriet Sansom Harris – Licorice Pizza
Licorice Pizza features a number of comical cameos – from the hilarious Haim family to the chaotic Bradley Cooper and his over-the-top tantrums as prolific film producer Jon Peters – but it’s the side-splitting Harriet Sansom Harris who might stand out most of all. The SAG-nominate Cooper gets two (and a half) scenes to advertise his aberrant antics, while Harris merely gets one moment to leave a lasting impression, which proves to be no tall task for the Tony-award winning thespian, who leaves audiences in stitches as a fast-talking talent agent that can’t stop asking intrusive questions and going on about Alana’s “very Jewish nose” (which “is becoming very fashionable!”). Though the film ultimately belongs to show-stopping breakout stars Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, Harris represent the “pros” pretty well, and her single scene is a high point for the whole film.
Michael B. Jordan – Space Jam: A New Legacy
As a film, Space Jam: A New Legacy may have left a lot to be desired (and that’s being generous), but if its detractors ever laughed once, it was likely during Sylvester the Cat’s gut-busting bait-and-switch, in which he tells his team he found “Michael Jordan” to help them win their basketball game, only for it to be revealed that he was actually referring to Michael B. Jordan, the actor. Jordan’s puzzled reaction makes the mix-up all the more amusing, and in a movie packed with meta jokes, this is undoubtedly one of the least eye-rolling (and perhaps the only one to land, period). It speaks to Jordan’s natural charm and charisma too that he’s able to immediately enliven the otherwise languid affair in mere moments simply due to his presence alone – and that’s star power.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Black Widow
Though Black Widow was supposed to be JLD’s MCU debut, that surprise got spoiled when COVID-related shifts in the release schedule pushed the picture’s premiere to months after The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wrapped. Still, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ performance in the film’s post-credits stinger – in which her Valentina Allegra de Fontaine sinisterly recruits Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova to slay Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, under the false pretense that he’s the one who murdered her sister, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff – is a pure devilish delight, as the caustic comedienne relishes the chance to deliver some diabolical dialogue and do some spiteful scheming. It remains to be seen what the future holds for “Val” in the MCU, but given the rapturous fan reception to her appearances in both these projects thus far, it’d be a mistake not to put her front-and-center going forward.
Reba McEntire – Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Early on in Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, the titular duo tell a story about a hypothetical woman named Trish, who has all the qualities they find ideal in an individual (athletic, natural, and loves the holidays – “Trish? At Christmas? Forget it!”), and she comes to represent the “perfect person.” In the end, such a woman actually exists, in the form of a “fun loving water spirit,” played by Reba McEntire, who saves the two when it looks like all hope is lost as they fight the sly Sharon Fisherman. It’s a wonderful “WTF?” moment in a movie that anchors itself in absurdity, and the scene offers up one of the largest laughs of all, with McEntire brilliantly committing to the bit and doing so with a big, gleeful grin.
M. Night Shyamalan – Old
It’s not uncommon for a director to cameo in their films – Hitchcock was famous for popping up in 40 of his 54 features and even Lin-Manuel Miranda can be spotted in a scene or two of the aforementioned tick, tick… BOOM! – but M. Night Shyamalan’s cameo in this year’s Old takes on a whole new meta meaning that these amusing little “hidden” appearances so rarely do. As the resort employee who drives his cast to the “beach that makes you old” and subsequently monitors them as the troupe descends into delirium, it’s almost as if the line between his act as a seemingly superfluous character and his role as director begin to blur, and one particular shot of his eccentric employee perched behind a camera seems to suggest as much. There’s not much more to his arc beyond this clever comparison, but it’s one that sticks with crowds long after the credits roll, adding a layer of metafiction to the film.
Harry Styles – Eternals
Though Harry Styles’ MCU debut was spoiled weeks before Chloé Zhao’s Eternals was actually available for mainstream audiences to watch by Variety journalists, his introduction was no less iconic when we did finally get our chance to experience it for ourselves. From the moment, Styles’ sexy Starfox saunters onscreen, viewers are immediately smitten with the singer-turned-movie star (as if they weren’t already?), and even if you were left underwhelmed by the uneven film that preceded this post-credits scene, Styles’ star power pulls you back in to the epic story of the Eternals and their endless conflict with the Celestials, because, well, who wouldn’t want to follow this handsome space man into war? Here’s hoping Marvel has big plans in mind for one of their most impressive “gets” ever.
Channing Tatum – Free Guy
Chris Evans isn’t the only Free Guy cameo worthy of inclusion on this list. Absent from mainstream live-action entertainment since 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Channing Tatum (ahead of a promising 2022) returned in a major way in Free Guy, serving as one of its most side-splitting surprises when it’s revealed that he’s playing the in-game avatar “Revenjamin Buttons,” a minor antagonist that Ryan Reynolds’ Guy has to fight early on in the film to prove himself to Jodie Comer’s “Molotov Girl.” Tatum does gonzo, go-for-broke work in the role, perfectly parodying a very specific kind of aggressive gamer and illustrating that he hasn’t lost an ounce of his comedic prowess in the years in which he’s been away from the cinema. What a role, and what a raucous way to reassert himself as a ferociously funny force ahead of March’s The Lost City.
Photos: Macall Polay/Netflix; 20th Century Studios; Netflix; Marvel Studios