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The 16 Best Breakthrough Film Performances of 2019

From rising stars earning their first big break to known quantities doing something entirely new, these are the performances that make us very happy for the work we have now, and the work to come.

“Midsommar,” “Parasite,” “Honey Boy,” and “Dolemite Is My Name”

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There will always be a handful of safe bets over the course of one year at the movies — of course Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are stellar in a Quentin Tarantino film, who wouldn’t cast Laura Dern in every possible iteration a family drama, what a no-brainer to gift Eddie Murphy a role like Rudy Ray Moore, 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 an generation of rising stars making their mark in parts seemingly made for them. Ahead, IndieWire has combed through another 12 months at the movies to single out 16 stars on the rise, all the better to know (and love) them now.

Taylor Russell, “Waves”

Taylor Russell is the first person you see in Trey Edward Shults’ devastating family drama, “Waves,” as her character, Emily, glides across the hot pavement of a quiet stretch of suburban Florida road on her trusty bike. You’ll be forgiven if you forget that part soon enough, as Shults pushes outward to introduce Emily’s vibrant big brother Tyler (fellow breakout star Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his pals as they careen along a sun-drenched highway, music blaring and camera spinning.

As the pulse-pounding first half of the film unfolds, it’s Tyler that consumes most of it, cast as a high school wrestler undone by familial pressures, a lingering injury, and a future very much in flux. But after a tragic event flips the film at its midpoint, it’s Emily — and a revelatory Russell — who is forced into focus, turning “Waves” into a showcase for a powerful performance. It’s only fitting that Russell, best known for her starring roles in Netflix’s “Lost in Space” revamp and surprise horror hit “Escape Room,” recently won the Gothams’ Breakthrough Actor award. While “Waves” is filled with excellent performances from its stacked cast, it’s Russell that makes off with its most spectacular turn, including a heartbreaking third act scene with on-screen dad Sterling K. Brown that only hints at the depths of her emotional reserves. —KE

Azhy Robertson, “Marriage Story”

Much has been made about the caliber of performances that propel “Marriage Story” forward, from career-best turns from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple on the verge of collapse to the panoply of lawyers they hire to sort through the mess, played with an astonishing blend of naturalism and tragicomic depth by Alan Alda, Laura Dern, and Ray Liotta. But one of the least showy performances throughout Noah Baumbach’s epic tale of domestic discord is its most important one: As Henry, the 8-year-old child at the center of the movie’s heated custody battle, Azhy Robertson is at once the passive observer and calm inquisitor as he drifts in and out of his parents’ view, lacking both the words and intellectual sophistication to grasp the profound unhappiness gripping them both.

At the same time, Henry’s subtle reactions to the growing frustrations around him epitomize the movie’s profound investigation into the uncertain nature of domestic life. Whether he’s grasping onto one parent over the other or collapsing onto the floor as his father struggles to impress a social worker in their home, Robertson turns Henry into a remarkable embodiment of the emotions coursing through this movie all the way to its tearful finale. With prior gigs on “SNL” and “Juliet, Naked” behind him as well as a central role in the upcoming mini-series “The Plot Against America,” Robertson is just getting started, and has plenty of time left to cement his status as one of the great child actors working today. —EK




Florence Pugh, “Midsommar”

It was in her 2014 screen debut, as one half of a very intense teen friendship at the heart of “The Falling,” that Florence Pugh began to establish herself as skilled at conveying complex characters’ intensity. That performance earned her comparisons to a young Kate Winslet and helped secure her the lead role in “Lady Macbeth” as an abused wife who finds liberation in murder. Just five years into her career, Pugh funnels those strengths into her role in Ari Aster’s twisted “Midsommar” as Dani, who is dropped into a summertime setting at a colorful Swedish commune so far north the sun hardly sets. While the environment is otherworldly, Pugh makes Dani’s troubles entirely familiar as she emotes through loss, anxiety, and the live (and occasionally literal) burial of a toxic relationship with wails, frowns, and pleas to her asshole boyfriend (a pitch perfect Jack Reynor). Her triumph from despair and isolation, though perverse, gives Dani a unique happy ending and is what makes “Midsommar” such a disturbing watch. —CL

Paul Walter Hauser, “Richard Jewell”

First coming to cinematic attention after his surprisingly layered role as the criminally stupid Shawn Eckhardt in Craig Gillespie’s biting fact-based “I, Tonya,” Hauser is about to surprise audiences again this year with another true-life role. As the eponymous star of Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell,” Hauser is cast as a hero-turned-villian in a challenging story about the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. It was Jewell, then employed as a seemingly overzealous security guard at the park, who discovered an explosive device, alerted the authorities and the spectators, and saved hundreds of lives in the process. Initially billed a hero, it was soon Jewell who was accused of planting the bomb to begin with. Eastwood’s film doesn’t pull punches when it comes to calling out the horrific misdeeds of both the FBI and the local news media, but it also doesn’t shy away from the more curious aspect of Jewell’s character.

Hauser brings real depth to a complex character, a naive wannabe cop who truly wanted to do good, and was horribly scarred and defamed in the process. As he did in “I, Tonya,” Hauser ably matches wits with big stars like Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates, and seems to have wholly thrived under Eastwood’s notoriously quick shooting schedule, finding nuance and pain in every interaction. Hauser may be an unlikely leading man, but his wrenching performance in “Richard Jewell” makes the case that he’s the kind we need now. —KE

Julia Fox, “Uncut Gems”

While she was the inspiration for a character in longtime friends’ Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems,” Julia Fox had very little acting experience when it came time to play the part. There was the after-school job she had in high school, where she honed her roleplay skills as a dominatrix — teaching her grace under pressure and people-reading skills, she recently told Paper Magazine. Since her high school days, she’s written and directed a forthcoming human trafficking short, “Fantasy Girls,” held a solo exhibition of her post-Hurricane Katrina photography, and another show featuring her paintings. For Fox, the thread is a mandate for creative expression. We’re lucky that acting has, for the moment, become her outlet. As a standout in a cast of deplorable characters who do anything to get their way, Fox’s Julia commands rare empathy in “Uncut Gems” — but not because she’s not hustling too. At first blush, it’s easy to read Julia as a gold digger who sleeps with her boss, Howard (Adam Sandler), to get ahead, but Fox soon reveals the depth of Julia’s imperfect relationship with Howard and as a woman well-aware of how to navigate the world of the film by outwitting the sleazy men who dominate it. —CL

"Dolemite Is My Name"

“Dolemite Is My Name”


Da’vine Joy Randolph, “Dolemite Is My Name”

In Craig Brewer’s “”olemite Is My Name,” larger-than-life comedian/singer/actor/producer Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) launches a new chapter of his career as a blaxploitation star with 1975 indie movie “Dolemite.” Of course, Murphy dominates the raunchy, giddily entertaining film written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, which is jampacked with “titties, action, and kung-fu.” But even with such notorious scene-chewers in the sprawling ensemble as Chris Rock, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Wesley Snipes, and Tituss Burgess, one fabulous actress steals the show: breakout Tony nominee Da’Vine Joy Randolph. She landed the role of Lady Reed, Moore’s protégée and frequent Blaxploitation costar, with schooling from her father, who knew more about this often hidden sub-culture than she did.

While Randolph could study Lady Reed in Moore’s movies and comedy albums, there wasn’t much history on her. In the movie, when Moore meets Lady Reed, he recognizes her power as an entertainer in a way that she herself does not see. Lady Reed is in pain, but as Randolph plays her, she’s a strong woman who is not only ready to ditch her man and embrace single motherhood, but one that can more than hold her own in a male-dominated world. Collaborating with costume designer Ruth E. Carter, Randolph builds growth into Lady Reed: as she feels better about herself, she also looks better and better, scene after scene. Since shooting “Dolemite Is My Name,” Randolph’s career has taken off, with roles in Sundance movies “Kajillionaire” and “The Last Shift,” TV series “High Fidelity” and “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” and Lee Daniels’ currently-filming “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” —AT

Honor Swinton Byrne, “The Souvenir”

Based on the director’s own coming-of-age as an artist, Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” feels like watching the contents of a diary spilled across the screen. It’s a farewell to toxic love, a window into a woman’s tortured psyche, and an aching monument to the catharsis that comes from shaking off that person who has held you down. Anchoring the movie is Honor Swinton Byrne, making her leading-role debut as Julie, a version of Hogg, a burgeoning filmmaker swept but the charm of a dissolute junkie (Tom Burke). Joined onscreen by her real-life mother Tilda Swinton (also playing Julie’s mother here), Byrne makes a strong impression in an often silent performance alive with empathy. When her heroin-addict boyfriend falls down one more time, and she finally dumps him to save herself, it cuts. Physically lithe yet emotionally tough, Byrne’s Julie is the vessel to deliver this film’s ultimately hopeful ode to letting go of that elusive and impossible thing that once kept you so allured by its momentary glow. —RL

Kelvin Harrison, Jr., “Luce” and “Waves”

After an early career that saw him play primarily supporting and peripheral characters in film and on television, Kelvin Harrison Jr. landed not one, but two breakout roles this year, leading both Julius Onah’s psychological drama “Luce” and Trey Edward Shults’ semi-autobiographical drama “Waves,” both critically-acclaimed films for which his performances were particularly lauded. The 25-year-old has very quickly become an indie darling, receiving an Indie Spirit Award nomination for his role in “Luce,” playing a reluctant poster boy for the new American Dream. Both films evoke an uneasy, smothering atmosphere for teens growing up in America, especially for African Americans, which Harrison grasps, capturing each character’s interiority and outward ambiguity with amazing range. He boasts an effortless, frank transparency, and brilliant instincts that bolster his performances, and which he has finally been put in a position to demonstrate prominently in star-making roles. And Hollywood is certainly taking notice, as his dance card quickly fills up, thanks to roles in upcoming high profile projects like Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” —TO



Yeo-jeong Jo, “Parasite”

Much of what makes Bong Joon Ho’s wickedly entertaining hybrid horror so enjoyable is the deliciously dark humor that courses through every scene. Even the film’s devastating final sequence elicits shocked guffaws, peppered with squeals of laughter from the most morbid among us. Director Bong’s sharply timed cuts guide the audience to see his meticulously designed world through his black sense of humor, but the performances are his crowning achievement. As the overly trusting housewife of the wealthy Park family, Yeo-jeong Jo milks every ounce of humor from her character’s frenzied maternal concern. Her comedic instincts are immediately apparent in the way she moves her body, whether she is being jolted awake by a loud clap or anxiously tapping her foot during her son’s lessons. It’s not easy being funny in translation, but the South Korean actress manages to infuse every scene with her electric energy, maniacally balancing her character’s unhinged ditziness and child-like sincerity. In a cast full of standouts, she rises even higher. —JD

Kaitlyn Dever, “Booksmart”

Kaitlyn Dever’s prodigious talents are no secret to anyone who has witnessed the actress’ work in everything from the breakout drama “Short Term 12” to recently resurrected sitcom “Last Man Standing,” but 2019 finally gifted her with something long-deserved: a true leading role, and in a comedy no less. Olivia Wilde’s winning debut “Booksmart” hinges on the deep (and often uproarious) bond between long-time BFFs Amy (Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), and the duo make an absolutely charming pair. And yet it’s Dever’s work as Amy, still grappling with her sexuality and hiding a handful of secrets from the more outgoing Molly, that serves as the true heart of the film. Dever is as funny as she’s ever been, but her background in indie drama brings true pathos to the coming-of-age tale, making it clear that Hollywood should have handed over the reins to Dever (and the always-wonderful Feldstein) long ago. —KE

Zhao Shuzhen, “The Farewell”

One of the breakout performances of 2019 comes from an actress who’s been in the business for more than 60 years. After starring in countless TV shows and movies in her native China, Zhao Shuzhen is poised to become a household name among indie filmgoers and awards voters this year with her supporting turn as a grandmother who doesn’t know she has cancer in Lulu Wang’s summer sleeper “The Farewell.” The bond that lead star Awkwafina shared with Shuzhen during production is apparent all over this tender and elegiac movie, as Awkwafina’s Billi struggles to temp down her guilty conscience over the elaborate lie her family has devised to conceal Nai Nai’s (Shuzhen) sudden terminal illness. Shuzhen’s performance — occasionally bemused but peppered with moments of the kind of clear-eyed, no-nonsense pragmatism you’d expect from a grandmother — is made all the more heartbreaking by the secret hanging over everyone’s heads. —RL


“Honey Boy”


Noah Jupe, “Honey Boy” and “Ford v Ferrari”

The English actor, now 14, plays two very different California kids this season, who both love their fathers, but in very different ways. One is a conflicted adult-child actor (“Honey Boy”) and the other idolizes his British racer dad (“Ford v Ferrari”). On “Honey Boy,” rookie writer Shia LaBeouf and first-time narrative director Alma Ha’rel required an actor with specific skills to play the child “Otis” opposite LaBeouf as his alcoholic father: the kid needed to be vulnerable but strong enough to stand up to his belligerent dad. Har’el and LaBeouf sought the right chemistry as they auditioned 400 kids, but Jupe was the one who had the technique to deliver 20-page scenes as well as scat in jazzy improvisations with LaBeouf. The two actors bonded as they lived in the same hotel and built Otis together off the script. The challenging 21-day production was not easy, as Har’el and her director of photography Natasha Braier used documentary techniques to give the actors the space to act in a fluid 360-degree space.

In James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” the tender, emotional scenes between Le Mans racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and Jupe as his adoring son Peter center the movie. While the film is not a reinvention of cinema, when Miles shares his goal of the perfect lap with Peter, Bale and Jupe draw the audience into truly caring about what happens in the action scenes. They feed one another. The more you care about characters, the more the action is engrossing. When Miles straps himself into his race car, his son watches his father face extraordinary danger with a mix of fear and pride. Next up: Jupe returns as Marcus Abbott in “A Quiet Place Part II.” —AT

Ana de Armas, “Knives Out”

In “Knives Out,” filmmaker Rian Johnson sets the table for a plethora of movie stars to sink their teeth into some delicious roles in his clever update on the whodunit. Yet at the center of the donut hole (within a donut hole) is salt-of-the-earth Marta Cabrera, the selfless caregiver surrounded by a family of spoiled brats. It’s a role with major goody-two-shoes potential that star Ana de Armas gives genuine soul. Even Johnson’s device of Marta throwing up any time she tells a lie is in safe hands with de Armas, who brings a true intelligence to the (literal) gag that washes away any naiveté. De Armas’ familiar, but guarded interactions with the family get at the social class stratification and upstair-downstairs elements of the story, which is beautifully juxtaposed with her wonderful chemistry with Christopher Plummer’s soon-to-be deceased patriarch. She is not only the moral center of Johnson’s skewering of the one-percent, she demonstrates a magnetic screen presence powerful enough to anchor a film filled with free-wheeling movie stars hamming it up. —CO

Julia Butters, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Nailing the art of an extended Quentin Tarantino scene can be difficult for even the most beloved and well-trained actor, so it’s something of a miracle when 10-year-old Julia Butters shows up in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and sinks her teeth into a Tarantino monologue that reflects on the art of acting. Facing off against Leonardo DiCaprio at 10 years old is no easy feat, but dominating the scene and making DiCaprio feel small in comparison is the definition of an acting triumph. Butters stars in “Hollywood” as Trudi Fraser, a young actress with the devotion of Meryl Streep whose sternness forces DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton to get his shit together on the set of “Lancer.” Butters shows off a no-nonsense maturity beyond her years and is single-handedly responsible for one of the best characters and best scenes in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” By making a name for herself in Tarantino’s most star-studded ensemble cast yet, Butters is rightfully one of the year’s breakout performers. —ZS

"The Last Black Man in San Francisco"

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”


Jonathan Majors, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

It’s been a very busy 2019 for Jonathan Majors, who appeared in four features this year: “Captive State” (March), “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (June), as well as festival premieres “Gully” and “Jungleland.” But it was the A24-produced “Last Black Man” that brought him the most attention. Following its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the actor became an instant breakout, with a winning supporting performance in Joe Talbot’s wistful drama, even overshadowing the film’s lead, Jimmie Fails. Majors’ performance as quirky artist Montgomery “Mont” Allen scored the 30-year-old Yale School of Drama graduate both Gotham and Spirit Awards nominations this year, both of them firsts for him, and very likely not the last, given what’s ahead for him. Things are moving fast for the humble Majors, who now finds himself in high demand just three years after graduating from Yale. Spike Lee snatched him up for his war drama “Da 5 Bloods,” and he will play his first true leading man role in Jordan Peele’s upcoming HBO horror series “Lovecraft Country,” immediately following that up with “The Harder They Fall,” the Jay-Z produced western which he will also lead alongside Idris Elba. —TO

Franz Rogowski, “Transit”

German actor and unlikely sex symbol Franz Rogowski, with his snarled lip and gaze caught somewhere between a leer and total crushing sadness, previously made strong impressions in Sebastian Schipper’s one-take heist movie “Victoria” and Michael Haneke’s “Happy End.” But it’s in Christian Petzold’s devastating revisionist WWII drama “Transit” that Rogowski gets a leading-man role that leaves you absolutely gutted. He stars as a German refugee trying to evade Nazis in Paris by assuming the identity of an author, and in the process, he falls in love with the author’s wife, who had planned on leaving him anyway. Rogowski’s background in choreography is evident in his elegantly physical performance, but it’s also one that bears the weight of history and immense despair as Rogowski’s Georg faces the futility of life, and escape from, Nazi-occupied France. —RL

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