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20 Best Breakthrough Performances Of 2015

20 Best Breakthrough Performances Of 2015

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again, but one of the best things about looking back over a year just gone at the movies is thinking of all the names who, just twelve months ago, we were faintly aware of at best, and who now have burgeoning careers, awards buzz, lead roles in indie films and/or blockbuster gigs on the way. Watching the constant refreshing of on-screen talent is a hugely exciting part of this job, and as ever, 2015 has delivered a ton of fresh new faces.

We’re underway on our coverage of the best of 2015, having already looked at the best posters and best trailers of the past year, and now it’s time to move away from marketing and start to examine the movies themselves — in this case, the breakthrough performances. Our 20 picks range from likely awards nominees to freshly minted A-listers, non-professionals to pre-teens, all united by having knocked our proverbial socks off with a turn somewhere between January and now.

You can take a look at our picks (limited, as will be the case in all our year-end features, to movies that opened in the U.S. in 2015) below, and let us know who you’re tipping for success in the comments.

A quick note about our year-end coverage: We, like you and everyone else, haven’t seen “Star Wars” yet. J.J. Abrams’ Mystery Box remains firmly closed until the week of release (whereas other movies opening before and after, like “Joy,” “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight,” have already been seen by at least one staffer, and will be featuring on some of these lists). As such, like the National Board of Review or the New York Film Critics Circle or any number of voting groups that are forced to make their decisions without seeing it, ‘The Force Awakens’ won’t be appearing on the bulk of these lists for now. Once it’s been reviewed, we’ll be discussing in full, and letting you know where it would have featured on these best-of lists retroactively.

Click here for our complete Best Of 2015 coverage

Christopher Abbott — “James White”

There’s probably a world in which Christopher Abbott followed a sort of Joseph Gordon-Levitt career path — he’s a good looking dude with a ton of indie cred thanks to appearances in movies like “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and could have hit crossover heartthrob status thanks to playing Charlie on “Girls.” But instead of courting blockbusters, he walked away from the show and stuck to the indie world, perhaps in search of a role providing as astonishing a showcase as Josh Mond’s “James White.” As the titular self-destructive twentysomething trying to cope with his mother’s terminally illness, he’s utterly astonishing, an exposed raw nerve with a vitality and energy that can’t be contained, an asshole using grief to excuse his behavior, yet capable of enormous tenderness. He’s a frustrating character to watch, in part because he’s so recognizable, the man whose troubles are the fault of everyone except himself, and is constantly running away from pretty much everything. It’s a performance that marks Abbott’s shift from a clear one-to-watch to one of the most exciting young actors of his generation.

Abraham Attah — “Beasts of No Nation”

To play a child soldier in a film designed to be emblematic of the experiences of child soldiers everywhere is a heavy responsibility, but newcomer Abraham Attah is a revelation in Cary Fukunaga‘s adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala‘s novel. It’s through his character Agu’s eyes that the whole film unfolds, and Attah’s remarkable performance allows Fukunaga to render lyrical, almost nostalgically beautiful, some of the film’s starkest and most abhorrent moments. It’s a directorial choice that some critics have questioned, but Attah never feels less than honest in those moments, even when high on drugs and hallucinating while part of a marauding band laying waste to a village; or when the exact nature of his and The Commandant’s (Idris Elba) relationship is sickeningly revealed; or even in the quiet, tiny moments at the film’s end when by the merest flicker across his face we understand how much the war outside has been internalized. Amazing as it is, Attah’s performance is of the type that’s in danger of being a one-off, so it’s great to hear that he’s already been cast in “The Modern Ocean,” the next film from Shane Carruth, and one we can’t think about too much or we start feeling a bit ill with anticipation.

Gail Bean — “Unexpected”

Kris Swanberg‘s Sundance film is the kind of gentle, goodhearted drama that relies entirely on its performances, and both the film’s main stars rise to the occasion. Perhaps inevitably, the viewpoint most favored is that of Cobie Smulders‘ science teacher, a white woman in a predominantly black school — so it’s a mark of just how good relative newcomer Gail Bean is as her most promising senior-year student that the resulting story feels much more evenly balanced. When Smulders’ Samantha discovers she’s pregnant around the same time that Bean’s Jasmine does too, the teacher/student relationship evolves into something different as the women, their partners and their families respond in illuminatingly different ways. Samantha is, to some extent, the best possible version of the decent, liberal but unavoidably white, middle-class woman, and a patient, inspirational teacher too — but it is Jasmine who, by being so completely herself, makes the film’s most important point: No matter how good your intentions, “rescue” is not ever really yours to give. Throughout, Bean is almost incandescent with utterly winning self-confidence, so much so that despite the disparity in age, experience, social class, and of course race, it’s always difficult to work out who exactly is supporting whom.

Emory Cohen — “Brooklyn”

Few performances in the past few years were as divisive as Emory Cohen’s turn as Bradley Cooper’s wastrel son in “The Place Beyond The Pines” — throw a rock and you’d find someone marking him as a bright new talent, throw another and you’d hit someone that thought he was mannered and annoying. But almost everyone is united in their praise for his turn in “Brooklyn.” The young actor plays Tony, the Italian-American plumber who falls head over heels for Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, and brings a Brando-like intensity to the role, but with a swooning romantic side. It’s the kind of part that could have been phoned in: that of a decent, solid man. But Cohen makes it unbelievably compelling to watch somehow, his offbeat charisma, utter sweetness and enormous chemistry with Ronan doing so much to sell the cross-Atlantic dilemma at the story’s heart. In fact, he’s so adorable that he might tip the scales a little; as lovely as Domhnall Gleeson’s Irish rival might be, there’s little doubt in the audience’s mind who Eilis will end up with.

Laia Costa — “Victoria”

Sebastian Schipper‘s one-take wonder “Victoria” gets so much chatter for its remarkable shooting technique and the energy and pace it manages that it’s easy to overlook the performances. But that would be a shame: Not only is established young German actor Frederick Lau a terrific foil, but Spanish actress Laia Costa gives a tremendously nuanced and sympathetic performance as the title character. Of course, because the whole thing was shot in one take, we’re watching her performance occur in real time too, and the various colors the film cycles through (which can strain the strictest believability, to be honest) give her so many different notes to play. First out she’s the lonely girl in the big city, then the star of a kind of indie romance as a the tentative relationship begins, before she becomes the action heroine of the film’s genre phases, and finally the heartbroken lover-on-the-run of its last stages. During the whole long runtime, she is our throughline — we really need her as the anchor — and Costa sell’s Victoria’s emotional evolution through all these various phases perhaps even better than the film itself.

Taron Egerton — “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

As little as many of us round here enjoy reliving “Kingsman,” Matthew Vaughn‘s obnoxiously juvenile spy caper, we all have to admit that newcomer Taron Egerton, who plays Eggsy, the film’s lead, is a legitimate find. Exuding a charisma and a kind of quick-witted street-smart confidence that shines through despite the boneheadedness of the movie, Egerton’s turn and the film’s box-office numbers should guarantee that he gets noticed by casting agents. Indeed, it looks like he already has: In addition to small roles in this year’s “Testament of Youth” and “Legend,” Egerton has already completed filming on the biopic of indomitable 1980s aspiring Olympic ski-jumper/punchline “Eddie the Eagle” (also starring Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken) and has the title role in “Robin Hood: Origins” (alongside “The Knick“‘s Eve Hewson as Maid Marion) as well as the inevitable ‘Kingsman’ sequel coming up. Needless to say, we’re looking forward to some of those projects more than others, but if Egerton’s leading-man status is ‘Kingsman”s lasting legacy, perhaps it might have been worth it after all.

Rebecca Ferguson — “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

With many critics pointing out how depressing it is that the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise has a recurring cast of characters playing Ethan Hunt’s “gang,” yet the women involved never seem to last for more than one movie, the announcement of Rebecca Ferguson for the most recent installment was greeted with either a shrug or a “who dat?” But the Swedish actress, previously best known for British TV miniseries “The White Queen” turned out to be one of the strongest women in the franchise’s history, announcing herself as a promising female action lead at the same time: physically capable, resourceful, and able to look good in an evening gown. Also benefitting from not having to be Tom Cruise’s romantic partner in anything but the most loosely hinted terms, Ferguson made the most of a role that wasn’t much on paper, turning Ilsa Faust’s lack of dialogue into an appealing terseness in a character for whom deeds speak louder than words. And it’s a good thing we’re excited to see her again, because she’s going to show up soon in Stephen FrearsMeryl Streep vehicle “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Tate Taylor‘s star-studded “The Girl on the Train,” and Tomas Alfredson‘s “The Snowman” alongside Michael Fassbender.

Arielle Holmes — “Heaven Knows What”

Even going by the trailer for Josh and Benny Safdie‘s critically lauded tale of lies and life and love among the junkie population of New York City, you can’t miss the intention to make its first-time performer a star: “as written by Arielle Holmes”… “as played by Arielle Holmes” … “as lived by Arielle Holmes” — her name flashes up successively in neon capitals. It feels manufactured, and might almost get your back up a little…but Holmes justifies her directors’ faith and then some: Acting as a near-past version of herself, in a story of drug addiction and delusional love that she wrote based on her own life, she is woozily magnetic, with apparently no fear about communicating the grossness as well as the grungy allure of the addict’s lifestyle. The line between acting and reenacting here is blurred, but in case you were thinking this might be a semi-autobiographical flash in the pan, she already has a sci-fi picture and Andrea Arnold‘s next film in the can, and we’re very curious to see how her effortless authenticity translates to a story less close to home.

Dakota Johnson — “Fifty Shades Of Grey”

Frankly, rather like with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” or the “Twilight” franchise, you could have laid money on whoever took the lead role in the adaptation of S&M bonkbuster “Fifty Shades Of Grey” becoming a star off the back of it. But Johnson, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, surprised well above and beyond that. Helped by screenwriting and direction that pruned away the worst excesses of E L James’ largely unreadable book, Johnson even managed to imbue the pallid character of Anastasia Steele with some actual personality and wit, and became far more watchable and engaging than the material really deserved. She was also probably the best thing in the crappy Shakespeare retread “Cymbeline” and proves her mettle totally in Luca Guadagnino’s enormously enjoyable “A Bigger Splash,” which will release in 2016. She also elevated a microscopic role in “Black Mass.” Her contractual obligations to the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise mean we won’t want for Johnson in a leading role over the next few years, but we’re pretty sure her work elsewhere will soon eclipse it.

Jason Mitchell — “Straight Outta Compton”

It’s perhaps a little unfair to single out one performance from such a strong ensemble cast (and that strength is doubly impressive for coming in a genre — the hip-hop biopic — not traditionally known for powerhouse performances). But while Corey Hawkins is a solid, dignified Dr. Dre and O’Shea Jackson Jr. does a terrific job embodying his dad, Ice Cube, it’s Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E who turns in the most variegated and affecting performance. Of course, part of the film’s remit is the memorialization of NWA’s original lineup, and there have been criticisms, inevitably, that the surviving members somehow sell Eazy-E out with this portrayal. But actually, in showing his journey from almost reluctant founder member, through his mistaken and unfortunate alliance with manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, go-to untrustworthy associate in music biopics, apparently), his ruinously decadent lifestyle and taste for the finer things, and finally his tragic death from AIDS (just when the film suggests they were on the verge of a proper reunion), ‘Compton’ actually makes Eazy-E one of the film’s most sympathetically human characters. Mitchell plays all these different colors brilliantly, and if his Eazy-E is the film’s most memorable turn, it’s probably fitting, seeing as his is the only story that’s over.

Lola Kirke — “Mistress America”

The latest entry in the Noah Baumbach: The Greta Gerwig Years collection, this delightful, insightful little film was co-written by and again features a terrific turn from Gerwig. But the new discovery is certainly Lola Kirke, sister of Jemima (Jessa on “Girls“), who caught attention in last year’s “Gone Girl” and makes good on it here. As Tracy, the naive college freshman in awe of her magnetically scatty half-sister-to-be, Brooke (Gerwig), Kirke turns in a very clever performance in which we only gradually realize that maybe Tracy isn’t quite as sweet as she first appears, or maybe she’s just learning to manipulate in order to get what she wants. It’s an unusual portrait of female friendship and rivalry — exacerbated by a marked difference in age and life experience, as well as outlook — but it’s also a classic story of the writer and the written-about. In that context, Tracy is perhaps even more difficult to play than the sparky, vivacious Brooke: Gerwig is the flame and Kirke must play the moth. But Tracy becomes an interesting mix of self-consciously awkward and oddly sure of herself, which makes her just as fascinating a character as the similarly paradoxical Brooke, and a hell of a turn to announce yourself with as your first lead role.

Oona Laurence — “Southpaw”

In a year where “Creed” has been such a champ, “Southpaw” has been rather forgotten, and probably correctly so: Though it has some very good performances, particularly the lead turn from a still-on-form Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s also a rote and unimaginative boxing flick that hits most of the clichés of the genre throughout. But something of a shining light was young Oona Laurence, who played Gyllenhaal’s estranged daughter Leila. The young actress got her start in “Matilda” on Broadway, and also impressed this year in “I Smile Back,” but she’s particularly great here. Though only 12 when the film was shot, it’s an impressively mature performance from the young actress, who sells Leila’s anger and disappointment at her father, as well as her ongoing grief. If the film’s riff on “The Champ” works at all, it’s because of the lived-in relationship between Gyllenhaal and Laurence, and it suggests big things to come: she was also excellent in SXSW drama “Lamb” and as the young Pensatucky in “Orange Is The New Black” this year, and is playing a lead role in David Lowery’s upcoming “Pete’s Dragon.”

Shameik Moore — “Dope”

A ’90s-obsessed high school senior and self-confessed nerd who falls into a get-rich-quick scheme by accident while also pining for the older girl to whom he hopes to lose his virginity, the central character in Rick Famuyiwa‘s “Dope” sounds like a stock role for a high school comedy. And it kind of is, except that Malcolm, as played by completely endearing newcomer Shameik Moore, is african-american, his obsession is with old-school hip-hop (his college entrance thesis is about finding which exact day Ice Cube‘s “It Was A Good Day” took place) and the scheme is about drugs which fall into his possession after a full-on bloodbath shootout at a local club. The film, as all that might suggest, is a sometimes awkward mash-up of genres and tones, and the female characters leave a lot to be desired (though shout-out for making Kiersey Clemons‘ character a lesbian without too much comment) but Moore, who’s onscreen practically every second, gives a terrifically soulful, sweet and drolly funny performance. He’ll next be seen in 2016’s “The Get Down,” Netflix’s Baz Luhrman-piloted musical show about the Bronx in the 1970s, and if he can sing and dance as well as he can act, we’re definitely looking a new triple threat.

Teyonah Parris “Chi-Raq

Best known for playing the first major African American character on “Mad Men,” Teyonah Parris also had a role in “Dear White People,” as Coco, the vlogger who wants to be a reality TV star. Parris was great in that conniving-yet-textured role, but the film’s female lead Tessa Thompson sucked up most of the attention (granted, deservedly so). But folks like Spike Lee are always on the lookout for upcoming talent, and so the director gave Parris the lead in his latest film, “Chi-Raq.” A gun-control and battle of the sexes satire about females in Chicago who vow to abstain from sex with their men until a peace treaty is brokered, it’s a bold but iffy movie that doesn’t always work. But the brassy, provocative performances anchor the movie, and the main ballast Parris. She’s sassily confident with the stagey, verse-driven performances and also delivers convincing comical, emotional and dramatic turns all within a few scenes. It’s almost a pity Lee didn’t give her a better movie to truly shine in, but we suspect that, much like Thompson, who has gone off to further stardom thanks to “Creed,” the future is really bright for Parris.

Michael Peña — “Ant-Man” & “The Martian”
It may be nuts to put an actor with 72 IMDB credits to his name on a Breakout list, and it is perhaps as much a function of our desire to boost this career up a further notch as anything, but Michael Peña’s been one of our favorite actors for a while now, and it was gratifying to see him singled out so regularly for his supporting roles in two of the year’s bigger mainstream releases. His smaller part in “The Martian” brought a welcome dose of personality and humor to the rest of the crew and provided, even in just a couple of scenes of interaction, a great foil for Matt Damon‘s astronaut. But even better and more notable was his turn in “Ant-Man” in which he created probably the film’s most memorable, endearing (and funny) character, in motormouthed “master thief” Luis, whose uniquely intricate way of telling a story is maybe the best character attribute written into any big-budget movie (so far) this year. 

Bel Powley — “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl”

Let’s hope that Powley’s recent Gotham Award win for Best Actress has reminded various voters that they should check out their “Diary Of A Teenage Girl” screener, because Marielle Heller’s film should have been the big talking point of this year’s Sundance, and instead ended up rather underseen. The 23-year-old British actress had one of those instant star-is-born moments with the film’s Park City premiere: wry, wide-eyed and both older than her years and younger than she thinks, she, like Heller, grants a story that could have been interchangeable with similar films with an utterly vital specificity. The same breath can bring both brash confidence and deep insecurity, and Powley’s ludicrously expressive face and sly voiceovers lets us not so much see her coming of age as experience it. We get to see the child she was, the girl she is, and the woman she’s becoming all at once. Between this role and a delightful comic turn in the otherwise disposable Brit-com “A Royal Night Out,” it became very clear this year that Powley is someone we’ll be seeing for a long time to come.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor — “Tangerine”

Ordinarily, we try to avoid dual entries like this, but in the case of Sean Baker’s indie sensation “Tangerine,” as great as these two newcomer performances are individually, they feel inseparable, as though the film doesn’t star Rodriguez and Taylor as much as it showcases the the buzzing electric connection between them. As best frenemies Sin-Dee and Alexandra, respectively, Rodriguez and Taylor authentically embody the specifics of their character’s lives —namely, of transgender sex workers on the streets of downtown LA— but at the same time enact a fascinating and immensely relatable snapshot of a tempestuous friendship. Rodriguez’ Sin-Dee is a mile-a-minute force of nature who sweeps everything into her whirlwind. while Taylor’s Alexandra is more restrained, until we realize that she is also a mass of insecurities and lonely ambitions, and needs the outlet of Sin-Dee’s drama as much as Sin-Dee needs a shoulder to cry on. If 2015 was the year that trans issues came to the fore of films and shows at all levels, these actors were the blazing, squalling, bonding vanguard as such.

Günes Sensoy — “Mustang”

Definitely one of the year’s most beguiling performances came in one of the smallest packages: Günes Sensoy, star of Deniz Gamze Ergüven‘s “Mustang,” the Turkish-language film confusingly entered as France’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. As Lale, the youngest of five sisters growing up under a cruelly repressive religious regime in rural Turkey, Sensoy is the mischievous, willful heart of the film’s sense of rebellion and outrage. In response to the progressive crushing of her and her sisters’ spirits, as the older ones are married off and the younger forced to adopt modest dress and silent submission, Lale becomes a kind of warrior, fighting tooth and nail to hang on to her sense of herself amid a community of sometimes abusive grown ups who would see her corralled and broken, like the wild horse of the title. But beyond emblemizing the hateful repression of women that some restrictive religions deal in, Lale is a funny, lively, bright little girl, and it’s in embodying those universal qualities that Sensoy makes “Mustang” such a bittersweet delight.

Karidja Touré — “Girlhood”

A film we first saw and reviewed at Cannes 2014, Celine Sciamma‘s brilliant, vibrant “Girlhood” only made it to U.S. screens in early 2015, and so it feels like a long way to cast back for this list. But the film’s pulsating sense of life and self-discovery, set against the backdrop of an underprivileged black neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris, can’t be forgotten, especially for its discovery of Karidja Toure as Marieme, the girl whose coming of age we witness in such painfully authentic fashion. From her younger persona as a sporty but self-conscious schoolgirl, through her time as part of a girl gang involved in petty theft and other forms of experimentation, right up until she gets sucked into the shady world of drug dealing, Toure’s great strength in the role is an unusual kind of reserve. It’s like we can tell that whatever Marieme’s is involved in, there is a part of her that is hers alone and no one can get at. It’s rare to see a young person, especially a young black female person, given such a degree of individuality, but Toure’s unassailably dignified performance makes Marieme feel like a whole human being, even when her circumstances seem beyond broken.

Jacob Tremblay — “Room”

On the child-actor scale that runs from ‘irritatingly precocious stage-school kid’ to ‘Dakota Fanning,’ Jacob Tremblay is one of the few who falls into an extra special category: the “where-on-Earth-did-they-find-this-kid-and-how-does-he-give-a-performance-like-this” category. Lenny Abrahamson’s harrowing yet somehow never quite bleak story of a child raised in captivity, and his mother’s struggle with new-found freedom, simply wouldn’t work without a stellar performance from the young actor playing Jack. And thank god they found Tremblay (whose most notable appearance before now was in “The Smurfs 2”), a 9-year-old Canadian actor who takes material that performers four times his age would shy away from and simply tears into it. Jack is both wiser than his years and an utter naif, a volatile child and an emotional rock, and in both these qualities and his mother-son bond with an equally amazing Brie Larson, Tremblay is never anything other than utterly convincing. It’s possibly put him on the road to an Oscar, and we’ll be seeing much more of him: next up is Colin Trevorrow’s “Jurassic World” follow-up “The Book Of Henry.”

As ever, we had plenty of other possibilities from other movies this year that didn’t quite make the list. Among them are Kiersey Clemons from “Dope,” Geza Rohig, the anchor of “Son Of Saul,” R.J. Cyler, Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke, the talented trio of “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl,” the two impressive women of “Tomorrowland” in Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy, Jafar Panahi’s niece in “Taxi,” and the brides of “Fury Road,” in particular newcomers Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton.

Past that, more established names Sarah Silverman and Cobie Smulders showed new sides with “I Smile Back” and a double header of “Results” and “Unexpected” respectively, while we were impressed by Logan Miller from “Take Me To The River” as well. The film isn’t up to much, but Melissa Rauch makes an impact with “The Bronze,” while Caren Pistorious shines in “Slow West,” Milo Parker is excellent in “Mr. Holmes” and the kids of the excellent “Sleeping Giant” are all very good. Keep an eye out for the actress playing Jennifer Lawrence’s daughter in “Joy” as well —she’s definitely going places. Anyone else? Let us know in the comments.

– Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez

Click here for our complete Best Of 2015 coverage

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