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The Best Breakthrough Performances of 2015

Written by on December 21, 2015 

Star Wars The Force Awakens Ridley

After discussing the year’s breakthrough directors, it’s time to traverse to the other side of the camera. Whether it’s their very first performances or a talent who’s been seen in a variety of features yet, for whatever reason, hadn’t been allowed to command the screen, this year’s breakthrough actors are an eclectic group. Ranging from some of the highest-grossing features of the year to minuscule independent dramas, check out our rundown of a dozen breakthrough actors that left the biggest impression on us in 2015.

Christopher Abbott (James White)

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In the five months found within James White, our title character is at the most difficult chapter of his life thus far. Grieving the loss of his father and attempting to assist his ailing mother, the drama authentically depicts the brutality of the process. Commanding every scene of the film — and in most sequences, nearly all of the frame in extreme close-up — is Christopher Abbott. Although he’s worked with director Josh Mond since Marthy Marcy May Marlene, and taken part in major projects like Girls and A Most Violent Year, James White ushers in his leading man breakthrough performance. Abbott shows formidable range in not only the darkness, but giving us some spare humor as he clearly envisions himself being in a better state than he’s actually in. As an audience, we can see the outcome a mile away, but one can’t help but root for White, a notable accomplishment considering the dark edges surrounding the character. – Jordan R.

Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation)

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There is something innately disturbing about seeing a child used as a tool of war, especially in our sheltered world. This basic disparity could be rested on to provide much of the impact and context for a film like Beasts of No Nation without relying on actually finding a capable actor to sell the transformation. In Abraham Attah, though, Cary Fukunaga found the perfect performer to inhabit the character of Agu. Beginning with a winning, sweet personality, Attah invests Agu’s transformation with shades of everything from fear to exhilaration. He explores the full gamut of emotion that Agu experiences, creating a vivid, living portrait of a child turned into a cog in a great civil war. The performance is disturbingly convincing, making some of the more intense scenes deeply uncomfortable, but the total effect is so rattling and moving that one cannot deny the power and importance of the performance and the film as a whole. Attah had to carry this whole movie on his small shoulders, and he does it so well that it becomes a little scary, in all the best ways. – Brian R.

Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)

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If, like me, you were unfamiliar with the Starz series The White Queen before seeing Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, your first thought while watching co-star Rebecca Ferguson run away with the film was likely on par with “Who is that?!” A star in the making, it turns out. As undercover MI6 agent Ilsa Faust, Ferguson was both fierce and fiercely intelligent, a fresh character who injected life into the fifth Ethan Hunt installment. While she may be most remembered for the film’s wildly entertaining snipers-at-the-opera sequence, Ferguson most impresses during the film’s later, more dramatically complex scenes of this Christopher McQuarrie-directed smash. Happily, her success in Rogue Nation has led to a role in the much-buzzed Girl on the Train adaptation and possibly Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. Perhaps most exciting of all is the news that Ferguson will be back alongside Ethan Hunt and co. in Mission: Impossible 6, due in 2017. Clearly, McQuarrie and Cruise know a good thing when they see one. – Chris S.

Arielle Holmes (Heaven Knows What)

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Arielle Holmes’ performance as Harley, the addict vagabond, lures viewers further into Heaven Knows What’s harrowing world. Although she’s surrounded by heroin addicts, squalor, and violence, we sense that her environment isn’t the source of her addiction. Instead, Holmes taps into Harley’s steadfast romanticism and naïveté in a complicated performance. In one of the film’s most compelling sequences, Harley challenges her dealer to front two days worth of drugs immediately so she can achieve something of a super-high. It’s a devastating but seductive moment. Further complicating our reading of her work, Holmes’ acting is informed by her real life outside the film. Her recollections of addiction and time on the streets formed a book which then became the foundation for the Safdie’s kinetic and potent film. The result provided an opportunity for Holmes to channel her natural talents, her mystery, and her life’s experiences. We hope that acting and filmmaking will remain a positive outlet for this young, tortured talent, so it’s good news that she can next be seen in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. – Zade C.

Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq)

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From the outset, Chi-Raq is focused on Teyonah Parris’ Lysistrata, whose namesake comes from Aristophanes’ classic character that loosely translates to army disbander. In the play, Lysistrata uses sexual repression as a means to corral the men and end war. But director Spike Lee’s version takes a twist by turning her into the beautiful girlfriend of the leader of a gang that has left her streets bloody over the years. It’s here that Parris not only has to be both sexual force in all of the ways you might expect, and she adequately fills that role, but she also has to stand toe-to-toe with the various women and men that try to stop her. She is unwavering but also earnest and open. Smart but never demeaning. She manages this through words but also something as simple as her body language and look. Her plan is cocky and becomes a comedy that spirals, but throughout it all you can’t wait for Parris to be back on screen. Even when she delivers her lyrical and florid lines of rhyme, she gives them character and charm you simply can’t find every day. Parris has served her time in small roles, and the future is bright for her. – Bill G.

Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl)

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One of the most accurate, honest and vibrant coming-of-age portraits in some years, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is all told through our lead’s perspective. With the use of some beautiful hand-drawn animation, an enlightening and funny narration, and Bel Powley‘s versatile performance, this is about as intimate as a subjective picture gets. We experience the world as this young girl does. What’s exciting for Minnie feels truly exciting, and the same goes for any moments of pain and confusion she experiences. One doesn’t need to be a female or have had intercourse with their mother’s boyfriend to connect with The Diary of a Teenage Girl. This seemingly wild story, including drugs and plenty of sex before the age of 18, is actually fairly universal. Seeing the world through Minnie’s eyes holds one’s attention from beginning to end, but once one exits the theater, it’s impossible not to reflect on the decisions we’ve all made as a teenager — namely the mistakes. – Jack G.

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