×
Back to IndieWire

The 23 Best Breakthrough Performances of 2020 — Year in Review

From rising stars earning their first big break to known quantities doing something entirely new, this year was a bonanza of fresh talents on screens large and small.

Breakthrough Performances of 2020 in Film and TV

“We Are Who We Are,” “Normal People,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “First Cow”

IndieWire Best of 2020

There will always be a handful of safe bets over the course of one year at the movies — of course Elisabeth Moss is going to make a meal out of a slew of very different roles, there’s no question that Gary Oldman can inhabit any historical figure, who could possibly be surprised that the casts of “Succession” and “Better Call Saul” would only continue to impress, the list goes on and on — but it’s often the unknown quantities, the casting against type, and the fresh faces that turn in the best performances.

This year has been no exception, kitted out with an array of breakthrough performances from a wide variety of talents. There are the first-timers owning their big starring role, the reliable performers tearing into something new, and a generation of rising stars making their mark in parts seemingly made for them. Ahead, IndieWire has combed through an often quite strange 12 months at the movies and on television to single out 23 stars on the rise, all the better to know (and love) them now.

Eric Kohn, Ann Donahue, Anne Thompson, Ben Travers, Zack Sharf, David Ehrlich, Kristen Lopez, Ryan Lattanzio, Tambay Obenson, Libby Hill, and Leonardo Adrian Garcia contributed to this article.

Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

As Tutar, the vulgar daughter of Sacha Baron Cohen’s fake Kazakh journalist, Maria Bakalova holds her own against the world’s most revered prankster. That’s no small feat for the 24-year-old Bulgarian actress, who does everything from goading Rudy Giuliani into a compromising hotel room encounter to bleeding fake menstrual blood before mortified Southerners at a cotillion ball as her character discovers her individuality. In the process, she injects this coarse, irreverent satire of American society with a surprising emotional arc. Though some have compared her zany physicality to Tracey Ullman, the more impressive precedent is Baron Cohen himself, whose singular talent for pushing society past its comfort zone now has some very welcome company. —EK

“The Surrogate”

Monument Releasing

Jasmine Batchelor, “The Surrogate”

In Jeremy Hersh’s smart moral drama “The Surrogate,” first-time film star Jasmine Batchelor (who also produced the microbudget feature) embodies a woman whose bent towards accommodating others is pushed into extreme perimeters. As Jess, a New Yorker who offers to serve as the eponymous surrogate for her gay BFF and his husband, with absolutely startling results, Batchelor turns in one of the year’s best performances, profound work that twists an already propulsive concept into a riveting character study. As Jess endeavors to make everyone as comfortable as possible in the midst of a situation that can only feel terribly invasive, Batchelor begins to interrogate the fraying aspects of her character.

Played by anyone else, Jess might read as cloying, even intrusive, but Batchelor finds a well of empathy in Jess. Her attempts to navigate her way through a story that has no easy answers allow both Hersh and Batchelor to explore even more questions, including issues of racism, privilege, and financial security. Rooted in Batchelor’s transformative performance, these questions feel urgent and necessary, never shoehorned in to bolster a production modest enough to feel like a stage play. —KE

Kingsley Ben-Adir, “One Night in Miami”

Of the many, many things that Regina King does right in her feature directorial debut, it’s difficult to argue the full force power of her canny casting, crafting a foursome of fearsome talent around a group of stars on the rise, including Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. The British actor is no newbie, with credits that include everything from “The OA” and “Peaky Blinders” to Guy Ritchie’s take on the King Arthur mythos, but in “One Night in Miami,” the shape-shifting actor makes a bid for superstardom that’s impossible to overlook.

While it’s boxer Cassius Clay’s imminent conversion to Islam that centers the film, based on writer Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name, it’s Malcolm X’s growing concern about his life (and the possibility of his life after the Nation of Islam) that really drives it. As Malcolm, Ben-Adir is given arguably the film’s meatiest role — and it’s telling that he’s credited first among such a deep field of contenders — one that grows in both power and pathos as the film winds on. It’s a searing performance, and also one that does something really wild: forges a new take on a well-known person, while also establishing the power of the man playing him. —KE

"The 40 Year Old Version"

“The 40-Year-Old Version”

Netflix

Radha Blank, “The Forty-Year-Old Version”

Audiences can’t help but root for the underdog, and that’s exactly what writer-director-actor Radha Blank’s black-and-white directorial debut “The Forty-Year-Old Version” gives them. The film posits that there are no age restrictions to career advancement, and it’s a defensible assertion. Blank plays a fictionalized version of herself that she channels with confidence: a once-promising playwright nearing the age of 40 whose career has stalled and who now teaches drama to high school students attempts to come to terms with her own unfulfilled professional accomplishments.

The film won the directing prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, but the film isn’t the typical gritty, New York-set first feature; it’s a relatively laid-back, winsome work, buoyed by Blank’s lead performance. She offers up an absolutely adorable, honest, and vulnerable portrayal as the aging artist (a Black woman, which is rare) having to decide between selling out or being true to herself. It’s impossible not to cheer for her success. —TO

Emma Corrin, “The Crown”

Here’s your assignment: For one of your first roles after drama school, you have to play a glamorous, tragic world-famous icon in a big-budget, award-winning TV series for a streaming service with 170 million subscribers around the globe. Oh, and your character is a literal princess. Emma Corrin handled the pressures of playing Peter Morgan’s Princess Diana in “The Crown” with aplomb, crafting a performance that goes well beyond her uncanny resemblance to the troubled British royal. Corrin delves into both the pettiness and pathos of a Diana lead astray by the Royal Family — but also by the princess’s own lofty and naïve expectations of what her place in the monarchy would mean. Now cracks a noble heart, indeed. —AD

"The Climb"

“The Climb”

SPC

Michael Covino and Kyle Marvin, “The Climb”

After their debut movie “The Climb” debuted at Cannes 2019 and was scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics, indie producer-turned-director Michael Angelo Covino and his co-writer and co-star Kyle Marvin thought they would go on the road to promote their micro-budget buddy comedy. The movie is hilarious; as soon as Covino and Marvin flew back to America, they signed with UTA and went on the meeting and film festival circuit. After Cannes, Topic Studios, which developed, financed, and produced the film after acquiring the original short at Sundance 2018, forged a two-year, first-look deal to develop and produce feature films for Covino and Marvin’s Watch This Ready production shingle.

They were in demand, forging Duplass brothers-esque deals to write, produce, direct, and act in various TV and film projects. The writing team penned an eight-episode anthology TV series about people in failing in relationships, “Failing in Love. ” And Covino landed a supporting role role as a gun-swirling villain shooting at Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass western “News of the World.” Their new careers were launched on the assumption that their first movie would hit big, except that “The Climb” kept not opening. Covino and Marvin’s careers broke out even before their movie finally opened November 13, during a pandemic. After all, funny writer-actor-directors are hard to find. —AT

Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

The bond between cousins Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and Skylar (Talia Ryder) is the beating heart of Eliza Hittman’s aching “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” which, despite its subject matter, isn’t just the wrenching drama many might expect. Yes, it’s a searing examination of the current state of this country’s finicky abortion laws and the medical professionals tasked with enforcing them, but it’s also a singular look at what it means to be a teenage girl today, and with all the joy and pain that comes with it. Who else could possibly play such roles than a pair of remarkable young women?

Hittman’s trio of features — “It Felt Like Love,” “Beach Rats,” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” her first studio effort — have all zoomed in on blue-collar teens on the edge of sexual awakening, often of the dangerous variety. Hittman’s ability to write and direct such tender films has long been bolstered by her interest in casting them with fresh new talents, all the better to sell the veracity of her stories and introduce moviegoers to emerging actors worthy of big attention. Newbies Flanigan and Ryder may fit inside that mold, but their crackling, almost too-real performances also prove why it works so damn well. There’s not a false note in the film, but there are two major stars on the rise. —KE

UNORTHODOX

“Unorthodox”

Anika Molnar/Netflix

Shira Haas, “Unorthodox”

For her tour-de-force breakout in “Unorthodox,” Israeli actress Shira Haas delivered her powerful performance in English, German, and Yiddish. Based on a true story, the exquisitely crafted Netflix limited series follows a Hasidic girl who leaves her community behind for the freeing climes of Berlin. Jumping between a stifling religious life in Brooklyn and liberated city life in a metropolitan arts scene, the show’s parallel storylines emphasized her versatility, showing off the many textures of her subtle, deeply specific work. The 25-year-old Haas is undoubtedly the driving force of the series, and she’s so consuming that the show’s meticulous authenticity would have been entirely moot were it not for her riveting portrayal. —JD

Marielle Heller, “The Queen’s Gambit”

Marielle Heller is no stranger to the business, and this year proved that her talents aren’t only behind the camera. She burst onto the scene in 2015, having written and directed her first feature film, the superb “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” before going on to direct Oscar-contenders “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” But 2020 saw Heller return to acting in a big way, with her supporting turn as Alma in Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit.” Alma is a sensitive woman, with a lot of love to give, who struggles to find appropriate receptacles for her affection, too often finding comfort at the bottom of a bottle. In Heller’s hands, Alma comes alive. She’s already displayed such a deft touch at both screenwriting and directing — no matter how she’s involved in any future project, we’re hungry for whatever comes next. —LH

Zora Howard, “Premature”

“Premature” is the provocative sophomore feature from Rashaad Ernesto Green (“Gun Hill Road”), headlined by a breakthrough performance by Zora Howard, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Green. Adapted from their award-winning 2008 short of the same name, the coming-of-age drama serves as both an ode to a vanishing piece of New York City and a universal story of love among Black youth. The film follows 17-year-old Ayanna (Howard) who falls for twentysomething musician Isaiah (Joshua Boone) during her last summer in Harlem before she heads to college out of state. She’s thrust into a situation that forces her to grow whether she’s ready to or not.

What follows is a script that captures Ayanna’s world in flux, with an aching performance by Howard as a young woman experiencing the deeply human journey of self-discovery. Ultimately, this is her story, and Howard beautifully captures the resolute character’s vulnerability, as she gradually learns to deal with the real world choices she makes. —TO

“Ted Lasso”

Toheeb Jimoh, “Ted Lasso”

He was bound for a breakout year sooner or later, whether playing Anthony Walker, a Merseyside teen murdered in a racist attack, in BBC’s “Anthony” or being part of the ensemble for Amazon Prime Video’s upcoming global thriller “The Power” or in Wes Anderson’s much-ballyhooed (but also much-delayed) “The French Dispatch.” But perhaps in no role would Jimoh have made as big a splash as that of Sam Obisanya, AFC Richmond’s marauding right fullback on Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso.”

In a show full of memorable ensemble performances, Jimoh’s portrayal of Sam imbued each of his scenes with an effervescent joy that in many ways exemplified the series itself. It’s an energy that mirrored Jason Sudeikis’ title character (“I think we should all be goldfish”) and simultaneously acted as foil in the locker room against Bret Goldstein’s Roy Kent (“I never liked Tartt.” “We know, Roy.”). Sam may not have been at the center of many episodes, but here’s hoping subsequent seasons of “Ted Lasso” give Jimoh even more room to run on the pitch, both in literal goal-scoring and figurative comedic opportunities. —LAG

Marlo Kelly, “Dare Me”

Figuring out what powers Beth is one of the central mysteries of this criminally short-lived USA series adapted from Megan Abbott’s equally fantastic novel. Is this high school senior cheerleader driven by anger, jealousy, revenge, desire, or a misplaced need for attention? As the season progresses, the answer becomes a little clearer, but the idea that Kelly can keep all those explanations plausible and shift between them at a moment’s notice makes her one of the year’s most fascinating characters. If all that guided Beth was a tenuous frenemyship with Addy (Herizen Guardiola, another valuable anchor for this series), that would be enough to build a show around. When every character’s fortunes begin to change dramatically as the season draws to a close, Kelly elevates her corner of the series from a simple cat-and-mouse tale to the kind of mystery that can ensnare an entire town. —SG

“First Cow”

Orion Lee, “First Cow”

Kelly Reichardt’s eye for casting has always been one of her greatest weapons, whether she’s mining new depths from established stars (Michelle Williams in “Wendy and Lucy” comes to mind) or tapping into some raw mettle from less famous sorts in her career-long quest to capture the resilient spirit of the American Northwest (e.g. Lily Gladstone’s stand-out supporting performance in “Certain Women”). Reichardt’s sublime “First Cow” is almost entirely cast with unknown talents, but Orion Lee’s sly yet sincere turn as the 19th century fugitive and aspiring baker King-Lu is so lived in and self-possessed that it doesn’t feel created so much as unearthed.

You love the character from the moment you hear the sweet tone of his vaguely accented voice, which doesn’t sound the least bit foreign in a place where everyone is struggling to feel at home. The journeyman Hong Kong-born actor — who put his faint stamp on three different franchises by playing bit parts in “Skyfall,” “Justice League,” and “The Last Jedi”  with only a Wookieepedia page to show for it — has said that he related to the character’s itinerant spirit and his zeal for opportunity, and both of those elements shine through. But if Lee’s performance embodies the complicated, aspirational nature of the country where King-Lu is ultimately buried, it’s because of the tender honesty with which it pokes a hole through the kill-or-be-killed ethos of life on the American frontier. Dough will always be an issue around these parts, but Lee sells you on the idea that life tends to be sweeter when it’s shared. —DE

FBI Special Agent Doug Mathews, “McMillion$”

OK, OK, OK, this isn’t so much a “breakout performance” as “breakout talking head” that gave us all a realization that some people who have not been formally trained to be on camera — and are, in fact, instead trained to kill people quite efficiently — should absolutely take every chance they get to be on camera. As part of HBO’s “McMillion$,” a six-part documentary that explores the crime ring that used the McDonald’s Monopoly promotion to steal $24 million, FBI Special Agent Doug Mathews narrates the investigation with a perfect mix of hilarity and forthrightness. Based in the Jacksonville, Florida office of the FBI — and therefore the epicenter of every potential batshit weird crime only Florida can offer — we hope Mathews is on speed dial to provide commentary on any case that comes to TV from here on out. —AD 

"Normal People"

“Normal People”

Hulu

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, “Normal People”

Having great chemistry is one thing, but the physical specificity and emotional magnetism needed to pull off “Normal People’s” extremely intimate romantic relationship is on a whole other level. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal were asked to give everything they’ve got to Marianne and Connell, revealing the vulnerability and ferocity of young love — often at the same time. The scenes that helped Hulu’s excellent adaptation get noticed were always in service of the story, as the two high schoolers, then college students, then young professionals shared more about their true feelings, their relationship status, and their innate personalities in the privacy of their bedroom than they were often able to speak out loud outside of it. Mescal, as the shy, quiet jock, imbued Connell with a tenderness reserved for the one person he trusted. Edgar-Jones, as a fiercely intelligent outcast, often used words as a shield, and the actress conveyed her character’s accepted reality with the smallest of movements. Apart, they’re exceptional performances. Together, they form an epic new love story. Either way, we should be watching them both for decades to come. —BT

Weruche Opia, “I May Destroy You”

“Your birth is my birth, your death is my death.” As the ride-or-die other half to Michaela Coel in the boundary-breaking HBO series “I May Destroy You,” Weruche Opia brings a lovably chaotic comic energy as aspiring actress Terry. Arabella’s best friend, Terry helps the protagonist put together the pieces of the night of her sexual assault almost like a deranged private eye. But Terry also withholds crucial information that at first portends devastating consequences for their friendship, but then only serves to affirm their daffy and infallible bond. In the third episode “Don’t Forget the Sea,” Terry meets up with Arabella in Ostia, Italy for a weekend of debauchery, culminating in a hilarious scene on drugs before the pair split off for a harrowing evening. Opia, like creator and star Coel, carries the show’s often blurry juxtaposition in tone, lurching from psychological discomfort to laugh-out-loud schadenfreude, often in the same scene or line delivery. Though Coel’s empowering arc forms the basis of the series, Terry is on her own inward journey that could easily carry a spinoff by itself. —RL

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige appear in Zola by Janicza Bravo, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Anna Kooris.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Zola”

A24

Taylour Paige, “Zola” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Paige started her career as a dancer with appearances in “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” and the music video for Usher’s “She Came to Give It to You” and then transitioned into acting with a series regular role on VH1’s “Hit the Floor” and guest appearances on “Ballers” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” She’s been racking up solid credits at a steady pace for 12 years now, but 2020 changed all that with a pair of performances that bookended the year: at Sundance in January, Paige blew the roof off the Eccles Theater with her breakthrough role in “Zola,” and come December she’ll be the newcomer everyone is talking about as Dussie Mae in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In both roles, there’s a spontaneity to Paige’s work that makes her a dangerous livewire you can’t take your eyes off of every time she pops up on screen. Next up for Paige is a role in Eddie Huang’s feature directorial effort “Boogie,” and the roles should continue to pour in after such a stellar 2020. —ZS

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, “Never Have I Ever”

I hate to say teen performers are a dime a dozen, but look at the sheer number of performers under the age of 25 on the CW, the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and throughout history and it’s a long list. So, when a teen actress comes along that makes you sit up and take notice, it’s a big deal — that’s where we are with Maitreyi Ramakrishnan from the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever.” Ramakrishnan, who plays Devi Vishwakumar, left me feeling like I was witnessing this generation’s Molly Ringwald the minute she stepped on-screen. Devi, as a character, is difficult. She’s a teenager, and that could have devolved into a heavy dose of narcissism and selfishness, but Ramakrishnan balances that with an authenticity and a complete lack of artifice. The audience doesn’t want to just be besties with Devi, but Ramakrishnan specifically. —KL

"We Are Who We Are" Episode 8 finale HBO Jordan Seamon

Jordan Kristine Seamón in “We Are Who We Are”

Yannis Drakoulidis / HBO

Jordan Kristine Seamon, “We Are Who We Are”

Subtlety. Calmness. Consistency. These aren’t traits that typically get actors noticed, but they’re often the most honest benchmarks of everyday people. Most folks aren’t big, extreme, and erratic, contorting their personalities at the drop of a hat and attracting as much attention as possible. They stick. They react. And eventually, they resonate. As Caitlin in HBO’s “We Are Who We Are,” Jordan Seamon is immediately absorbing; without saying much, she lets the audience notice her, see a bit of what she’s doing, and let natural curiosity do the rest. By the time we see her wrestle with father drama and personal tragedy, the slight cracks in her naturally static expression are all the more heartbreaking. Similarly, her exuberance — over bands, friends, or just a random paintball fight — offers an impossible high. Caitlin feels authentic from the start, and Seamon’s measured performance always keeps her there, while knowing just how to elevate our emotions as she grows. It’s a joy to behold, and the kind of quiet, character-first acting we all should appreciate more often. —BT

Odessa Young, “Shirley”

“Little Wifey? Little Rosie? That was madness.” By the end of “Shirley,” Odessa Young’s housewife turned awakened writer’s apprentice Rose knows she won’t be going back into her philandering husband Fred’s (Logan Lerman) arms, but to where? Her destination is uncertain in Josephine Decker’s scorching, elliptical portrait of gothic fiction writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who coil a young couple into their orbit.

While Moss’ character gets the film’s title, and probably steals most of its scenes, it’s Young as a quietly blooming flower, who falls freely into Shirley’s almost supernatural aura, who shines. Decker’s film, penned by Sarah Gubbins, is as much about a brainwashed domestic’s coming-to in the 1950s as it is its source author. Young has a quiet fire behind her eyes even when she’s being shut up by men, and especially in the presence of the bewitching Shirley Jackson. You know who you’re in for when, in the opening scene, Rose goes from reading Jackson’s famously twisted “The Lottery” one minute to, somehow aroused by it, screwing her husband in a train car the next. Young is among the best in a new wave of screen stars to emerge from Australia, and just as many filmmakers are likely to find a muse in her the same way Shirley does. —RL

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film, Television and tagged


Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox