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The Best Breakthrough Performances of 2016

Written by on December 22, 2016 

Sasha Lane (American Honey)

American Honey

A genuine breakthrough role, American Honey marks the debut performance from Sasha Lane, discovered by director Andrea Arnold on a beach while on spring break, and the film wouldn’t work nearly as well without her. Embodying a no-doubt genuine curiosity and care-free sense of adventure, one simply can’t take their eyes off Lane’s Star — and it’s clear cinematographer Robbie Ryan doesn’t want to either, often having her fill the 1.37:1 frame. Whether it is her many dance sequences or as she gets caught up in danger of this midwestern odyssey, Lane is never short of mesmerizing.  – Jordan R.

Ruth Negga (Loving)


In the stand-out ensemble of Jeff Nichols Loving, Ruth Negga — who has been seen on screen for over a decade — is perhaps most impressive as Mildred, Richard’s mixed-race wife. Born to Irish and Ethiopian parents, the actress plays it just as soft-spoken as her co-star, but with even more nuance, annunciating the vowels of the Virginia lilt (that’s veery geenerous) with clarity, moving with a gait appropriate to the period, and laying waste to most scenery with little more than a disarming smile. – Rory O.

Issei Ogata, Yôsuke Kubozuka, and Shinya Tsukamoto (Silence)


Their names are not at the top of the poster or in much of any marketing, but Silence lives and dies by its Japanese cast. The standout is veteran performer Issey Ogata as Inoue Masashige, so very ominously nicknamed “The Inquisitor,” a real-life figure whose participation in Japan’s Christian persecution, itself this film’s center, makes for a perfect showcase. Ogata’s performance excels largely because it’s far more difficult to parse than the character it represents — alternately comic (a major part of his acting background) and menacing, often condescending, yet perhaps, for all he represents and supports, strangely sympathetic towards the Christians’ devotion. Less complex a character and no less worthwhile a presence is Yôsuke Kubozuka as the guide Kichijiro. Also comic (maybe the weirdest thing about Silence: it’s very funny) and opaque, the character, in his particular struggles, is among the most thematically significant despite lacking a major role in the actual narrative — a testament to Kubozuka, as well as Scorsese and Jay Cocks‘ adaptation of Shūsaku Endō‘s novel. Scorsese’s cinephilia also extends to his inclusion of Shinya Tsukamoto, director of cult hits such as Tetsuo, in the part of Mokichi.  – Nick N.

Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch)

The Witch

Delivering a truly natural and haunting performance in a horror movie is a feat of herculean might. Doing so when you’re being made to speak in a dialect that hasn’t been heard in perhaps 300 years is even more impressive. And when it’s your first leading role? Let me tap into my New York background to say “forget about it.” Anya Taylor-Joy, though, took each of these hurdles in stride and delivered what might be the best breakthrough performance of the year as Thomasin, the eldest daughter of a family besieged by a witch, in The Witch. Her arc is harrowing, and her sincerity and careful emotional modulation is key to selling the story. All the same, I would be remiss if I didn’t also spare an accolade for Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays her brother, Caleb, and who delivers his own showstopping emotional set piece with aplomb. – Brian R.

Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys)


Precocious children in movies are, by and large, insufferable. This is the fallout of writing that sounds unnatural being delivered by actors who generally cannot navigate the dialogue. It takes a strong writer and an even stronger actor to be able to make what is supposed to be a charmingly too-mature child into more than just a theoretical construct. Luckily, ace scribe Shane Black had Angourie Rice to deliver his crackerjack dialogue in The Nice Guys. With the proper mix of bravado, naïveté, and moxie, Rice lends the character of Holly March, the daughter of Ryan Gosling‘s alcoholic PI, a level of humanity that sells her as a welcome addition to the team of Gosling and Russell Crowe. That’s something even the best actors of today couldn’t sell in their younger years. – Brian R.

Ben Schnetzer (Goat)


He was seen in the bigger features Warcraft and Snowden this year, but Ben Schnetzer‘s most impressive role can be found in this David Gordon Green-scripted, Andrew Neel-directed frat life drama. While the plot and direction can feel one-note and relatively narrow-minded, Schnetzer is the stand-out, giving a pathos and sensitivity to his situation — particularly how it relates to his past assault and current relationship with his brother. – Jordan R.

What was your breakthrough performance this year?

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