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.

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.

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?

Follow our complete year-end coverage.

No more articles