The 25 Best Breakthrough Performances Of 2013

One of the great pleasures of being a movie fan is the discovery of new performers. Faces that, months earlier, you’d have passed by in the street, suddenly gifted the role of a lifetime, and whose lives will never be the same again. It feels to us that 2013 was an especially strong year for new faces: festivals like Sundance, SXSW and Cannes, not to mention films that went straight to wide release, unleashed a veritable hurricane of talent that we’ll be seeing for years to come.

Having kicked off our year-end coverage with the breakout directors of the year last week, we continue today by rounding up our 25 favorite performances by new faces—or performers that we knew, but really got to shine for the first time—from the last twelve months or so. Take a look at them below, in order from 25 to 1, and you can quibble about the ranking, and suggest your own favorite breakout stars of the year in the comments section. And here’s to a whole new batch of talent in 2014.

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25. Sharni Vinson – “You’re Next”
As hugely entertaining and mostly well-made as it is (it was one of the better horror movies of the year), “You’re Next” is hardly something to go to if you’re looking for top-quality acting. Amy Seimetz shines briefly and Joe Swanberg acquits himself nicely, but otherwise the supporting cast are pretty ropey, in true low-budget horror movie fashion. But perhaps it was almost a deliberate move, because it makes the film’s lead Sharni Vinson shine all the more. The Australian actress (who gets to use her native accent here, in a way that cunningly feeds into her backstory), previously best known as the lead of “Step Up 3D,” is immediately iconic as Erin, the girlfriend of A.J. Bowen‘s Crispian, whose family are targeted by mysterious masked invaders. Most of them are like lambs to the slaughter, but Erin, initially so sweet and endearing, is a secret badass, having grown up on a survivalist compound. Vinson takes to the action like a combination of Ripley and Laurie Strode, but while it’s enormously convincing as a physical turn (if Hollywood is looking for their next badass female lead, they need to look no further), she’s not some killing machine: there’s a very real person dodging the axes and setting the traps. The long-delayed film was disappointingly underseen on release but Erin is a character who’ll be inspiring horror fans for generations to come.

24. Joanna Vanderham and Onata Aprile – “What Maisie Knew”
The cast of Scott McGehee & David Siegel‘s very solid “What Maisie Knew” are themselves very solid across the board, even if they’re playing mostly loathsome people, as Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore do. But the ones that really turned our heads were the two least-well known performers in the main cast, in the shape of Onata Aprile and Joanna Vanderham. We’ll have more to say about Aprile’s performance in the title role down the line, but in brief: she’s heartbreakingly good as the innocent used as a pawn in her parents’ divorce battle, never even coming close to the precociousness of most child performers. Just as impressive, though less immediately attention-grabbing is young Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham, best known for BBC TV show “The Paradise,” and who plays Margo, Maisie’s nanny-turned-stepmother. Vanderham sells that Margo is young and naive enough to end up in a relationship with, and even marrying, Coogan’s character, but also wise enough to realize that she’s quickly made a mistake. She and Aprile have natural chemistry together, something so crucial to making the film’s ending work, but she resists making the character into a saint at the same time. If more casting directors wise up, there’s a massive movie star in the making here.

23. Tavi Gevinson – “Enough Said”
Casting a 17-year-old feminist style blog prodigy in her first major acting role is the kind of thing that, in the hands of anyone but Nicole Holofcener, would smack of attention-seeking stunt-casting. But Tavi Gevinson‘s performance in “Enough Said” more than justifies her unusual route to the screen. Chicago native Gevinson made her name as the 12-year-old writer of fashion blog Style Rookie, and at 15, founded the impressive Rookie Magazine, but makes her feature debut in Holofcener’s latest, as Chloe, the friend of Tess (Eve Hewson), the daughter of Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘ Eva. It’s not a huge role, but Gevinson makes a real impression with what she has. Chloe’s not an unhappy kid, though she is a little neglected by her own parents, finding a surrogate parent in Eva that puts her relationship with Tess, and Eva’s with Tess, in trouble. But she doesn’t need soapy storylines or histrionic moments: there’s a deeply authentic awkwardness to Gevinson’s performance that makes it one of the more memorable teen performances of recent times. Expect Lena Dunham-style all-media dominance within the next few years.

22. Lance LeGault – “Prince Avalanche”
David Gordon Green’s sublime and hilarious “Waiting For Godot”-esque two-hander is pretty much all Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd, the duo playing two distinctly different men coming to terms with each other and themselves as road crew workers spending a summer fixing highways next to a landscape ravaged by wildfire. But the arrestingly funny, spit-take, laugh out loud comic relief from their bickering comes in the form of Lance LeGault, an unnamed shit-kicking Truck Driver, who occasionally stops by for chit-chat and to share the wealth of his moonshine. LeGault, a then 76-year-old man and former character actor was rediscovered on the set of commercials by Green who loved his stories and wild, off-the-cuff, “I’m old so I don’t give a shit anymore” nature. And while the specifics of Green’s direction is unknown, it appears that the scene-stealing LeGault (one of 2013’s biggest scene stealers bar none), was just turned loose and let buckwild in front of the camera. He’s utterly hilarious in the movie and his sassy joie de vivre is infectious in this odd little joy of a movie. LeGault unfortunately died only a few months after shooting, so he didn’t have time to get on any comeback trail (and you best bet that would have happened had he lived), but “Prince Avalanche” is a terrific film to go out on—a snapshot of an electric and dynamic comedic energy that we sadly were only able to catch a tiny glimpse of.  

21. Emory Cohen – “The Place Beyond The Pines”
We won’t hide it: Emory Cohen‘s turn in Derek Cianfrance‘s “The Place Beyond The Pines” is one of the more divisive of the year. Some loved it, some absolutely hated it, and the arguments in Playlist HQ over his place on this list caused enough anger and resentment that it’ll likely spark off at least one multi-generational blood-feud. Those of us on pro side of the equation would maintain that it was one of the more striking turns by a young actor this year. Cohen only turns up in the final third of the crime epic, as AJ, the douchey, doughy apple-fell-far-from-the-tree offspring of Bradley Cooper‘s upright but compromised copper, who finds himself the target of the revenge schemes of Dane DeHaan‘s Jason. He is, at first, almost unbearably unlikable, Cohen doing almost too good a job at showing what an entitled little dick little AJ’s turned out to be, but he’s still a kid too, and the young actor shows real vulnerability once he realizes who Jason really is. Dane DeHaan, with whom Cohen shares much of his screen time, has already established himself as one of the best actors of his generation, but that Cohen was able to even stand out alongside him is certainly a testament to the potential he holds.

20. June Squibb and Will Forte – “Nebraska”
Comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” actor Will Forte and character actress June Squibb are not new actors on the scene. They’ve both been around for several years (the latter made her onscreen debut in Woody Allen’s 1990 film “Alice”). But it’s unquestionable that 2013 and their performances in Alexander Payne’s deadpan and nuanced comedy “Nebraska” are both the breakthrough performances of their careers thus far. Previously, Forte made his name as a goofy comedian, best known for the ridiculously asinine (but also hysterical) “MacGruber” sketch character and film. But his gentle, unassuming turn as David, the sympathetic, understanding youngest son in the Grant family, willing to bend for the demented dreams of his aging father (a terrific and soon-to-be Oscar nominated Bruce Dern), is authentic, free of pretense and demurely naturalistic. Squibb’s supporting roles (“Far from Heaven,” “About Schmidt,” “The Perfect Family,” “The Big Year”) haven’t been all that much to write home about but the character of a lifetime comes along in “Nebraska” with the indignant, put-open, foul-mouthed mother Kate who’s not afraid to tell her sons she’s had it with their aged father or tell TMI stories about her sex life. Audacious, loud and brassy, Kate has no filter and had you never seen Squibb before, you might believe it if someone told you Alexander Payne plucked her off the streets of Nowheresville, Nebraska. She’s just that genuine and real as she curses up a storm.

19. Danai Gurira “Mother Of George”
While Andrew Dosunmu’s excellent sophomore feature didn’t land on our Breakout Directors of 2013 list (which might have been an oversight though he is mentioned), it is a striking film worth watching (and the cinematography by Bradford Young is breathtaking). But pretty pictures a good movie does not just make, and so Dosunmu’s picture is anchored by two great lead performances. One is Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankolé, who is notable for all his great Jim Jarmusch performances, and the other is relative newcomer Danai Gurira. Yes, you may already know her from her regular role on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but her quiet, prideful performance in “Mother Of George” is something else. One thing’s for sure: you probably haven’t seen this story before. The movie centers on a Nigerian couple (De Bankolé/Gurira) living in Brooklyn and having trouble conceiving a child. Cultural expectations are high and at the behest of his domineering mother, Gurira’s character has to make a shocking decision to “save” her family, which only threatens to harm or destroy it. A complex tale of love, duty and the pressure of cultural demands, “Mother Of George” is a moving and poetic piece of work, in large part due to the illuminating and internalized Gurira, who transforms from hopeful bride to a woman almost shamed beyond reproach for having to carry the burdens of her culture.

18. Nick Robinson and Moises Arias – “Kings Of Summer”
In “The Kings of Summer,” Nick Robinson has the difficult task of balancing the wild and joyful freedom that he and his friends achieve with their isolated summer “home” in the woods, and the darkness and anxiety that his character Joe, struggles with. As his first starring film role (he’s also been recurring on the series “Melissa and Joey” and appeared on “Boardwalk Empire”) Robinson certainly made the most of it and truly broke out, snagging a part in the forthcoming blockbuster “Jurassic World,” to be directed by Colin Trevorrow. His nuanced portrayal of Joe is the axis on which the often funny and fantastical ‘Kings’ spins, and he does a fine job of showing Joe’s transition from heckled kid to darker, mature teen, sporting a ridiculous mustache no less. It’s clear he’s got talent beyond his years and there’s no doubt we’ll see much more of him, beyond the world of the Jurassic. All the kids in the film alongside Robinson are great too, but a special mention to force-of-nature Moises Arias: the “Hannah Montana” star came up with one of the most memorable comic creations of the year in the non-sequitur spouting weirdo Biaggio (he also stood out as the intense Bonzo in “Ender’s Game”).

17. Miles Teller – “The Spectacular Now”
To be honest, Teller would normally be higher on this list if it weren’t for the fact he should have been on our Breakthrough list of 2010 (an oversight on our part). Teller made a small, but memorable splash that year in John Cameron Mitchell‘s underseen and underappreciated drama “Rabbit Hole” (which earned Nicole Kidman her fourth Best Actress nomination despite a lack of genuine buzz or box office; the movie sadly tanked). Those in the know are already aware that Teller shines in the movie, matching Kidman note for note, and while the performance opened several doors, including the one for “The Spectacular Now,” it’s very possible you hadn’t heard of Teller three years ago. He’s been buzzed about since then, but didn’t get the chance to prove himself in teen fare like “Project X” and the “Footloose” remake. But you can consider the hype justified after his performance in “The Spectacular Now.” Teller does, admittedly, have a gift of a role in James Ponsoldt‘s sweet, sincere teen romance. He plays Sutter, the heavy-drinking life-of-the-party who forms an attachment to shrinking-violet classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley, who broke out a couple of years back with “The Descendants,” and is just as good here). Teller’s easy charisma exactly captures this kind of guy—the one everyone likes, but few really love—never letting the below-the-surface sadness slip far from view even when he’s at his most charming. He’s like a self-medicating Ferris Bueller played by early John Cusack, and for a teen movie like this, we can’t really think of a higher compliment.

16. Alice Lowe – “Sightseers”
Even in her native Britain, Alice Lowe had not, before “Sightseers,” been a marquee name. She’d featured, and been hilarious, in things like “The Mighty Boosh,” “Hot Fuzz” and most famously, “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” but retained a sort of chameleonic quality that, without a signature character, meant that she often flew under the radar. But then came Ben Wheatley‘s film, which Lowe co-wrote with cast mate Steve Oram (who’s equally brilliant), and it resulted in not just one of the best comedies of the year, but also one of our very favorite turns of 2013. As Tina, the lonely Black Country woman who leaves her mother for a holiday with new beau Chris (Oram), only to leave a bloody trail in their path as the relationship falls apart, Lowe takes a potentially ridiculous character and makes her very, very human. As increasingly unhinged as Tina becomes (or, arguably, actually was all along), there’s something grounded and recognizable about her, with each choice Lowe makes driven entirely by her rich and fiercely original character. By the time the film reaches its ending (arguably the best conclusion of the year), you’re even strangely rooting for her.

15. Josh Pais – “Touchy Feely”
Josh Pais is one of those guys: the kind of character actor who you might recognize when he pops up (as he has in “Scream 3,” “Phone Booth,” “Adventureland” and many others), but you couldn’t really place. Since he played Raphael in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” he’s rarely had a leading role but Lynn Shelton proved in her undervalued “Touchy Feely” that Pais has a lot more to offer than the guy who steals a scene or two. The actor plays Paul, the uptight, nervy dentist brother of Rosemarie DeWitt‘s Abby, whose struggling dental practice is turned around when he seems to develop, without explanation, some kind of healing touch. When we first meet him, Paul is repressed, closed-off and virtually fades into the background, but suddenly he becomes the center of attention and there’s a lovely ambiguity to the way he deals with it: there’s a real joy in the way that he’s drawn to Allison Janney‘s character, and the way that he finally draws closer to his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), but he’s still someone who doesn’t quite feel comfortable in his own skin. So well does Pais inhabit his funny and touchingly awkward man that there’s almost a kind of relief when the touch fades.

14. Conner Chapman – “The Selfish Giant”
Still not due in the U.S. for a few weeks, “The Selfish Giant,” director Clio Barnard‘s (very) loose social-realism reworking of Oscar Wilde‘s fable has been winning rave reviews since Cannes and no element of the film is more worthy of praise than the lead performance of Conner Chapman. The actor, only 13 when the film was shot, plays Arbor, a young tearaway from a troubled family with rage and attention-deficit issues who, when we meet him, has just been permanently excluded from school. A born wheeler-dealer, he enlists best pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas, just as good as Chapman) to collect scrap-metal with him to sell to dodgy local bigwig Kitten (Sean GIlder). But jealousy and greed eventually lead to tragic consequences. Chapman’s Arbor is a near-feral kid, one who just doesn’t give a fuck about authority, but who does have a fierce loyalty to friends and family, and the young performer, never less than totally convincing, never makes him a dark figure, but instead one full of charm and life. And when the truly devastating conclusion comes, your heart shatters for him.

13. Mickey Sumner & Michael Zegen – “Frances Ha”
Frances Ha” might be an unabashed showcase for co-writer/star Greta Gerwig, but as is standard for Noah Baumbach movies, the entire cast do sterling work in support of the title character, even if most only get brief appearances. We’ve already spoken about Mickey Sumner, who plays Frances’ best friend, in our For Your Consideration piece, but to sum up: her gawky, confident-yet-insecure woman is at the very heart of the film, every bit as fascinating a creation as Frances herself and Sumner should go on to bigger things from here on out. A special moment of recognition also deserves to go to Michael Zegen, a familiar face from “Rescue Me,” “Adventureland” and “Boardwalk Empire.” As Benji, the roommate of Adam Driver‘s Lev, he’s the closest thing the film has to a romantic lead (though Baumbach and Gerwig hold back from being as obvious as to go there), and is a real boon to the film, neurotic and funny and self-deprecating and somehow always an obvious match to our Frances. Though he only pops up a handful of times, it’s a crucial role that Zegen shines in. It’s already lead to more work (he’s joined the cast of “Girls” for Season Three), but we hope someone like Woody Allen’s been paying attention, because Zegen would fit right at home in that world.

12. Jack Reynor – “What Richard Did”
We only talked about this performance, in Lenny Abrahamson‘s powerful morality tale “What Richard Did,” last week, as one of the turns we believe deserve awards recognition. But we’re gonna bring it back up again, if only because 99.9% of you didn’t see the film on its very brief U.S. release (or, indeed, its release anywhere). Much of the films power derives from young Irish actor Jack Reynor‘s central performance as a popular student and amateur rugby player who wins over the heart of the girlfriend of a schoolmate, only to end up accidentally killing his rival in a drunken brawl. As you might imagine from someone who’s taking over from Shia LaBoeuf in the “Transformers” franchise, Reynor is perfectly matched to golden boy Richard: a born leader and a good guy. This of course makes his later act all the more shocking and then the ensuing moral dilemma all the more powerful. For one so young (he’s only 21), Reynor grapples with every facet of the complex characters, and sears his agony onto your brain—nearly a year after we saw the film, we still can’t shake this performance.

11. Gaby Hoffmann – “Crystal Fairy”
We’ll admit there, for a moment there, we really didn’t think Gaby Hoffmann’s kind of batshit, go-for-broke performance in Sebastián Silva’s bizarre and oddly funny Chilean travelogue, “Crystal Fairy” was going to get much recognition, let alone awards season love, but Film Independent’s Spirit Awards for 2013 totally took us by surprise (she scored a Best Female Lead nomination alongside Cate Blanchett and Julie Delpy for crying out loud). Silva’s picture centers on a group of Chilean friends, including the American expat Jamie (played by Michael Cera) who go on a quest to extract the fabled mescaline hallucinogen from the San Pedro cactus in the southern part of the country. The drunken, cocaine-fueled jerk that is Jamie randomly invites an eccentric weirdo named Crystal Fairy (Hoffmann) to join them on their voyage and the next day, much to their collective surprise, she shows up ready for their trip. Much of the film’s humor is derived from the fact that the self-absorbed and intolerant Jamie can’t stand the hippie-dippy free-spiritedness of Crystal Fairy and he almost immediately regrets his half-baked decision to invite her. Fairy, all hairy armpits, unabashed nakedness and patchouli-smelling wardrobe, is a nightmare of a companion that you probably wouldn’t want to travel with either, but Hoffmann’s capacity for making you understand, empathize and then ultimately love this endearing wacko freak character is no small feat. Forget the fact that she drops trou often, it’s Crystal Fairy’s vulnerability and ability to see past her companion’s insults that makes Hoffman’s performance truly rounded and brave.

10. Veerle Baetens – “Broken Circle Breakdown”
It’s one thing to ask an actress to play a woman deeply wounded by the death of her child. But it’s quite another to demand that she sing bluegrass songs, possess palpable and immediately magnetic sexual energy and go on a journey from first love to bitter divorce. However Veerle Baetens make it all look so easy with her terrific turn in Belgium’s award winning Oscar entry “Broken Circle Breakdown.” In the span of just under two hours, in a film that fractures its narrative jumping between past, present and future at any given moment, you’re never at a loss for one second as to where we find Baetens at any moment. Playing tattoo artist Elise who falls for a bluegrass lovin’ man, Baetens connects the patchwork of the narrative to construct a beautifully complex, complicated woman, one whose life is filled up by her marriage, child and music and shocking drained of it almost immediately, leaving her desperately clinging for something that gives her meaning to go on. It’s tricky stuff, the kind of material that could easily become showy or mannered, but Baetens’ performance finds deeper, more truthful and even painful depths. Whether it’s saucily spreading across the hood of a pickup truck in a bikini for her man, or stepping on stage in the spotlight to deliver a song in full country regalia (and it should be said, her singing is equally strong as her acting), Beatens indeed goes full circle, in a turn that leaves no doubt she will be one to watch.

9. Kathryn Hahn – “Afternoon Delight”
Chances are pretty good that you haven’t seen Jill Soloway’s “Afternoon Delight,” the award-winning indie that pulled in just a fraction of a million dollars when it snuck into theaters late this Summer—it’s especially unfortunate that the film skipped VOD where it probably would’ve found a decent audience—but it found its fans here at the site and we’ve been championing it ever since Sundance. Our love for the film is due in no small part to the wonderful leading performance of perpetual supporting player, Kathryn Hahn. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen Hahn for a decade now, haunting the edges of your favorite comedies (“Anchorman,” “Step Brothers,” “Wanderlust”) or as a recurring player on shows like “Girls” and “Parks And Recreation,” though your parents probably know her from “Crossing Jordan.” But it wasn’t until “Afternoon Delight” that she finally landed a role that allowed her to showcase her full range, and we realized that Kathryn Hahn is a giant fucking star. As Rachel, a bored Silverlake housewife who decides to spice up her marriage by inviting a stripper to be her nanny, she takes a role that in the hands of a lesser actress may have been insufferable and makes it a star making performance. She’s hilarious, affecting, real and seemingly fearless. (There aren’t too many actresses who would appear as natural wearing only sheer pantyhose and firing imaginary lasers out of her crotch but Hahn doesn’t break a sweat.) For years Hahn has been a little secret shared by the various comedy clans (Adam McKay, Judd Apatow, David Wain) but after this film, it’s hard to imagine her staying their secret for too much longer.

8. Robin Weigert – “Concussion”
Without Robin Weigert at its center, “Concussion” could have been an interesting if minor entry in a subgenre of films about sexual discovery. The drama is capably directed and well-written, but it’s Weigert’s performance that draws the audience deeper into the film. In the film’s early scenes, she’s equally adept at displaying brittle frustration and boredom in her existence as a wife and mother after an accident involving one of her children sends her to the hospital. In our first moments with her, we see her snap at the the kid responsible for her injury, but it’s a testament to the actress that we still like and want to engage with her character, Abby. From there, Abby is eager to explore sexuality beyond her relationship with her wife, and things get interesting as she embarks on a career as an escort. Her love scenes with various clients are sexy, but it’s not due to the skin shown; it’s Weigert’s portioning of equal parts vulnerability and strength that keep her lovers interested and the audience rapt. She feels like you could run into her at the grocery store, but it’s no less believable when she dominates clients. Though her face is familiar to TV and movie audiences (mostly due to her portrayal of Calamity Jane in HBO’s short-lived “Deadwood”), this is her biggest film role to date, and she’s deserving of all the attention—and more—that she’s earning for it.

7. Michael B. Jordan – “Fruitvale Station”
Anyone paying attention the last few years knew that Michael B. Jordan was a movie star in the making. After terrific performances on the small screen in “The Wire,” “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights,” the actor started to turn heads cinematically speaking in 2012 with performances in “Red Tails” and “Chronicle” that, to be frank, risked overshadowing the ostensible leads of the movies. He felt like a movie star in waiting, but Jordan wasn’t waiting, making his own stamp thanks to indie “Fruitvale Station,” which was one of the main talking points of Sundance back in January, and has subsequently launched him to awards buzz and future stardom (“Fantastic Four” and “Rocky” spin-off “Creed” beckon in the new year). Ryan Coogler‘s based-in-fact tale tells the story of Oscar Grant, a troubled, but decent kid gunned down without cause by transport cops in the Bay Area on New Year’s Eve. The film itself has its flaws, but Jordan goes a long way to rectify some of them: he’s magnetic and enormously charismatic, while introducing ambiguities that Coogler seems more reluctant to focus on. If he was better-known before the film arrives, the performance might have gotten even more credit—the deftness with which Jordan builds the character isn’t as obvious if you’re not so familiar with how different it is from his earlier work. But as the supernova beginning to what’s sure to be a stellar career, it’ll only gain in power in retrospect.

6. Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis”
As fans of Oscar Isaac since his breakout role in Ridley Scott‘s otherwise unremarkable “Body of Lies,” we couldn’t have been more delighted to learn a couple of years back that he’d landed the lead in a Coen brothers movie. And we were not disappointed in the least by the results in “Inside Llewyn Davis“—Isaac gives a performance for the ages that, if there’s any goddamn justice in the world, will make him a megastar. Talented but unsuccessful folk singer Llewyn Davis is a singularly Coen-ish creation, a semi-repentant asshole who’s starting to realize that his big break is never coming. Isaac has a natural gift for the brothers’ dialogue, but he’s even better in the silences: no one this year could convey as much with a single reaction shot, whether he’s discovering that Carey Mulligan‘s withering occasional lover is pregnant, or baffled by the backing vocals that Adam Driver lends to “Please Mr. Kennedy.” Isaac was already in demand, but after this, we can only imagine that A-grade filmmakers will be hammering down his door to work with him.

5. Paulina Garcia – “Gloria”
If we’re going to split hairs, then no, “Gloria” isn’t technically a 2013 film by the criteria that we normally judge these things by: Sebastian Lelio‘s film doesn’t hit theaters until next month, missing the 2013 cut-off by barely two weeks. But we’re making an exception: partly because it premiered at Berlin in February 2013, partly because the film’s already been released in much of the world, and mainly because we have no desire to wait another twelve months to talk about a performance of this caliber. The Chilean actress—best known for her theater work back home—plays a fifty-something divorcee, still glamorous, but deeply lonely after her children have left home, who immerses herself in the world of singles dances, and becomes drawn to an older man still tied up in his own family. Like a sort of South American Mike Leigh heroine, Gloria can be maddening in her self-deception and repetition of past mistakes. But you also love her from the first frame to the last (particularly after her glorious late-in-the-game revenge), with Garcia giving a performance of tremendous warmth and vivacity. Quite rightly, she won the Best Actress prize at Berlin in February, and if there was any justice, she’d be nominated alongside Bullock, Streep, Blanchett, et al. at the Oscars. Still, with Chile currently putting out some of the most exciting cinema around, we sincerely hope there’s more to come from Garcia soon.

4. Lupita Nyong’o – “12 Years a Slave”
Turns out that our comments section can occasionally be good for something other than baffling witch-doctor-related spam and various creative ways to tell us to go fuck ourselves: months and months ago, when Steve McQueen‘s “12 Years a Slave” was barely in the can, we were tipped off that one of the standout performances of the film came from someone called Lupita Nyong’o. And they were absolutely right, because now, the Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised actress, cast in the film soon after her graduation from Yale last year, is on her way to an Oscar nomination after a truly extraordinary performance. Nyong’o doesn’t really register in the film until almost halfway through, but once Patsey, the tortured slave so beloved by Michael Fassbender‘s cruel slave master, arrives, she’s not quickly forgotten. Other characters get far more screen time, but every second of Patsey is truly wrenching, from that unforgettable whipping scene to her desperate plea to Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s Solomon for him to kill her, rather than let her live any further in the world she can never escape. It’s a performance of fierce anger and compassion, and if Nyong’o can pull something like this off at her first time at bat, imagine what she can do a decade from now.

3. Barkhad Abdi – “Captain Phillips”
If necessity is the mother of invention then perhaps desperation is the bastard offspring of survival and necessity. In Paul Greengrass’ kinetic snapshot of the pirating of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, Barkhad Abdi plays Muse, a Somali man forced to turn hijacker because of his dire economic circumstances. Starving literally and figuratively, Muse claws his way to the top of his dismal food chain, dispensing one of his rivals to become the pirate leader. However, we get the sense the Somali man isn’t violent by nature, but that his grim situation has transformed him into the zenith of desperation. Naturally, Abdi plays Muse like a wide-eyed starving rat; all raw nerves, skeletal psyche and false sniggering ego. But his puffed up, inflated self-worth, belies what’s underneath: a scared human being forced to suck up what wicked reserves he has inside to pull off this heist and feed himself and his family. What’s more Abdi goes toe to toe with Tom Hanks in what is one of his strongest performances to date. Not bad for a unknown first-time actor who has to somehow inject some sense of humanity into a character who would otherwise be seen as a one-note villain. In over his head, distressed and dangerously despairing, Abdi’s portrait of hopelessness is truly a haunting thing to witness.

2. Brie Larson – “Short Term 12”
Brie Larson’s been around a long time (seriously, she was a Disney TV movie and sitcom star in middle school) and she’s built up quite the roster of credits and respect in shows such as Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and in films like  “Greenberg,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and “21 Jump Street.” But 2013 was the year of Brie, with impressive turns as Miles Teller’s ex in the Sundance hit “The Spectacular Now,” and as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sister in his directorial debut (another Sundance hit) “Don Jon.” But it wasn’t until SXSW when Larson got to show off her leading lady chops in that festival’s big winner “Short Term 12.” Often cast in the blonde mean girl roles (see: ‘Spectacular Now,’ ‘Scott Pilgrim’), Larson is decidedly dressed down as Grace, a supervisor at a foster care facility who is dealing with her current life challenges as they collide with the ramifications of her troubled past. It’s a role that demands a lot of Larson, as she has to demonstrate all sides of Grace: her strength as well as her weakness, her deep mourning for herself and others, and her joy in the small victories; her fear and her fearlessness. It’s a deeply physical role that she inhabits fully, whether she’s biking out her anxiety, chasing down a wayward kid, or unleashing her rage on the windshield of a car (in an Oscar-reel worthy moment). In our review from SXSW, we said Larson “manages to convey her character as someone fierce and strong and steely, and also utterly fragile, delicate, scared and broken. It’s an incredible emotional and physical performance.” She’s stunning in this role, proving her might, her vulnerability and just how darn watchable she is. She’s been here all along, but she’s proven she’s got talent to last. The Gotham Awards agreed with us: she scooped up the Best Actress statuette just last night, and has also snagged a nom for Best Actress from the Independent Spirits.

1. Adèle Exarchopoulos – “Blue is the Warmest Color”
Seemingly moments after “Blue is the Warmest Color” won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the discussion turned from the relative merits of the film to just about anything else—the prolonged lesbian sex scenes, the original comic book author’s displeasure with the adaptation, the endless infighting between various members of the creative team. And it’s a shame, too, because lost in that shuffle was the rightful praise of the fearless lead performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos, who was 18 at the time of the film’s production. Exarchopoulos’ performance borders on the miraculous; she’s able to portray a teenager consumed by a fiery love affair with a blue-haired girl (Léa Seydoux, just as electric but more seasoned) and, somehow, an older version of that same girl, one who has loved and lost and matured greatly along the way. Part of that transformation is physical; in earlier parts of the movie she’s less a personality than an engine, eating and fucking and throwing herself around. In the later sequences she’s more measured, nuanced, and exacting, even her posture becomes more rigid (and, whether she actually did or not, she seems to have slimmed down as well). The sex sequences are feats of infinite bravery, as well, but Exarchopoulos is even sexier in one of the movie’s non-sex scenes, where she’s sprawled out, nude, a cigarette dangling precariously from her upturned mouth, her arty lover sketching her nearby. Watching “Blue is the Warmest Color,” we couldn’t help but get that sinking sensation in the pit of our stomach. Exarchopoulos perfectly captures, in a beautifully rendered performance full of wit and grace, the sensation of falling in love with someone and knowing that, no matter how much you try and fight and wish it to be true, that you’ll never, ever, as long as you live get over that person. This year, we felt as though we just couldn’t get over Exarchopoulos’ performance either.

Honorable Mentions: It’s not due for release until 2014, but we were struck by newcomer Mackenzie Davis in Drake Doremus‘ “Breathe In,” expect big things from her down the line. While it was overshadowed somewhat by “This Is The End” and “The World’s End,” apocalyptic indie-comedy “It’s A Disaster” gave David Cross and Julia Stiles their best, wickedly funny comedic roles in years, while giving great showcases to less familiar big-screen faces like Erinn Hayes, Rachel Boston, America Ferrera, Kevin M. Brennan, Blaise Miller and Jeff Grace. And for all the film’s flaws, we were very impressed by newcomer Lydia Wilson in Richard Curtis‘ “About Time.” Anyone else we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments section.

– Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Diana Drumm, Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Cory Everett