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The Best Breakthrough Performances of 2016

Written by on December 22, 2016 


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 Hollywood offerings to minuscule independent dramas, check out our rundown.

Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz (Little Men)


Taking the concept of “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and conveying it through the economic realities of gentrification, Ira SachsLittle Men is an affecting look at what happens when a friendship can fracture due to external pressures. Playing the two friends at the center, Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz honestly communicate the experience of an innocent relationship as they both explore what they want out of their teenage life. Barbieri, in particular, delivers one of the year’s best scenes of acting — while acting.  – Jordan R.

Tom Bennett (Love & Friendship)

Love and Friendship

As the credits rolled on Love & Friendship at its Sundance premiere, Tom Bennett’s name got by far the most enthusiastic response from the audience. In a story stuffed with ever-so-cunning women and rather witless men, his Sir James Martin goes beyond witlessness into breathtaking negative intelligence. He is a dumbass for the ages, and highly endearing all the way. Bennett’s pitch-perfect, Ralph-Wiggum-like earnestness provides a doofy counterbalance to the prim sniping slung about all around him. – Dan S.

Markees Christmas (Morris From America)

Morris From America 1

Technically speaking, Chad Hartigan‘s funny, kind Morris From America represents a break-out in a certain way for Craig Robinson, but considering his status in Hollywood, we’ll focus on the title character, played by Markees Christmas in his first role. Cast thanks to a few YouTube videos the director saw, Christmas is in nearly every scene of Morris and he carries it all with a genuine sense of loneliness and as a kid simply trying to find his way in a strange land. There’s no doubt he’s experiencing the latter in real-life, thanks to this break-out, and we imagine he’ll handle it as gracefully as he does with his performance here. – Jordan R.

Mackenzie Davis (Always Shine)


There’s no doubt most people were formally introduced to Mackenzie Davis — who previously appeared in Breathe In, What If, The Martian, and Halt and Catch Fire — with the finest episode of Netflix’s new season of Black Mirror, “San Junipero,” but the actress also delivered one of the best performances of the year on the indie screen. Sophia Takal‘s psychological drama Always Shine, which captures a fractured relationship, hinges on Davis’ controlled, fierce performance as an actress whose career is on the rise while her friend’s is flailing. Before she no doubt reaches an even wider audience with Blade Runner 2049 next year, be sure to catch up on this thriller. – Jordan R.

Cole Doman (Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party)


Breakthrough performances can often be a supporting player taking the spotlight from a film’s leads, but they are usually even more impressive if they come in the form of the title character. Such is the case with Cole Doman in Stephen Cone‘s latest feature, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, which depicts said event as our lead contends with his religious background and sexuality. Doman’s performance relies on the unsaid — glances and gestures to attractions, and diverting attention from the elder figures suppressing him — and it’s a feat of understated brilliance. – Jordan R.

Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!)

Hail Caesar

Swell breakthrough performances such as Alden Ehrenreich’s in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! are rare. While Ehrenreich’s hilarious turn as singing-cowboy actor Hobie Doyle was undoubtedly the role that led to his casting as young Han Solo in another forthcoming Star Wars, he’s been familiar to cinephiles for years. Initially discovered by Francis Ford Coppola for Tetro, Ehrenreich went on to appear in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, and even landed the lead in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, shot prior to Hail, Caesar! Only the Coen brothers could, or would even care to, wring such innate likability from a dopey B-western star, whose filmography includes the surely critically acclaimed Lazy Ol’ Moon. We can all quote Ehrenreich’s already classic scene by memory — “Would that it were so simple” — a masterfully delivered piece of silly vaudevillian comedy. However, the arranged date with actress Carlotta Valdez (playfully named just for the Hitchcockian hell of it) reveals a true leading-man versatility in Ehrenreich — a trait that unfortunately escapes poor Hobie. – Tony H.

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