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The Best Breakthrough Performances of 2016

Written by on December 22, 2016 

The cast of Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some 1

Everybody Wants Some!!‘s crowning achievement: take something very specific and certainly not to everyone’s tastes — early-80s college-baseball culture, and the excessive bro-dom that it entails — and fill it with a cast so likable (even as they’re being less-than-kind) playing characters so particularly drawn (each is sort of unique, but I and many others wouldn’t remember more than a couple of names) that the primary audience response is about what a fun time was had. You might not want to live in their house or party as hard, but the Southeast Texas Cherokees make for fine company. “Here for a good time. Not a long time” indeed. – Nick N.

Krisha Fairchild (Krisha)


Though writer-director-editor Trey Edward Shults hardly turns the dark family drama genre on its head, Krisha compensates with exceptional acting and an infectious atmosphere of dread. If the bare bones of cliché are there simply so that artists can pack on their own meat, then Krisha Fairchild surely makes the most of the provided opportunity. Though I increasingly grow perturbed over “raw” performance in modern film that are maybe / sort of just misery porn, her three-legged-dog embodiment of Krisha’s mounting desperation is undeniably riveting. She attempts to tamp down her neuroses the same way she keeps her medications in a lockbox, but her every attempt to reach out to estranged siblings and in-laws and such is hobbled by the fear (or maybe resigned knowledge) that she will be rebuffed. – Dan S.

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)


Real-life grief manifests itself in many different emotional responses; cinematic grief, by and large, does not. For all the praise its actors have received, Kenneth Lonergan‘s composition of Manchester by the Sea has to it an exquisiteness that might undersell the depth they bring to each character — and among these, the greatest surprise is relative newcomer Lucas Hedges, whose portrayal of the most tumultuous period in a young man’s life need not conflict with the standard business of being a kid in high school when the scene-to-scene temperament is so controlled. – Nick N.

Lily Gladstone (Certain Women)


Rare is the emotional state as consuming and anguishing as unrequited love. Just as uncommon is the performance that identifies its many stages — that initial spark, the hum of their absence, the surge of energy when they’re met again, the need to keep these feelings hidden, and the a;;-consuming isolation that forms when desires go unfulfilled. Lily Gladstone, the breakout star of Kelly Reichardt‘s Certain Women and, really, this year in film, illustrates those steps so effectively because she does so sparingly. (Having Kristen Stewart in one of her best performances as your partner helps matters, needless to say.) Is the fact of an attraction ever stated? It is only glanced at, but done in such a way as to make unmistakable the predicament. Whatever she does next is greatly anticipated, and will have plenty to live up to. – Nick N.

Royalty Hightower (The Fits)

The Fits 3

The Fits explores the troubles of coming-of-age in America through Toni, a young boxer played by newcomer Royalty Hightower — perhaps the most criminally overlooked element of an overlooked film. Distracted from training with her older brother, Toni stumbles into the alluring world of dance before a darker twist spreads through the community. Hightower’s mesmerizing performance carries the entire film, a haunting first-person character study of preteen anxiety, her eyes locked on the camera’s lens in a mysterious stare. As a performer, Hightower lacks the precocious ticks burdening so many polished child actors, beaming with genuine joy as she goofs around in the ring with her brother early on. Dancing offers this indomitable 11-year-old girl, adrift in a world mostly free of adult supervision, unfamiliar new challenges. Her smile quickly fades, replaced by that darkly curious and determined gaze as steadies for an unknowable impact. Anna Rose Holmer’s boldly stylish film demands a strong physical performance to accompany the lead character’s unaffected presence. A precise casting choice, Hightower effortlessly embodies her character, imbuing this tough little girl with a sense of genuine innocence and wonderment with her world. – Tony H.

Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight)


It’s accepted film practice to use different actors to portray characters at different ages. (What else are you going to do? Shoot some scenes with a young actor and then wait a few years to do more with them? Who has the patience for that?) But filmmakers and audiences are often too generous in extending their suspension of disbelief that such different people are meant to be the same figure. Just look at this year’s Lion, in which a marvelous child actor is eventually time-skipped into an average adult performance that doesn’t mesh well with what came before. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film which so completely makes multiple performances feel like a single, continued one the way Moonlight does with the trio who, respectively, play its main character as a child, teen, and adult. Part of this stems from the vagaries of editing and framing — both of which director Barry Jenkins controls with graceful precision. The rest is down to Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, all of whom not only embody Chiron’s aching guardedness, but are also able to demonstrate its heartbreaking progression over time. – Dan S.

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