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The 15 Best Breakthrough Performances of The 2010s (So Far)

29 June 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Justin Gunterman

best breakthrough movies

When writing lists on films, there a certain terms that are hard to define. For example, when creating a list that covers overrated films, it’s hard to define what makes something overrated. If it’s commercially successful but a critical failure, can the movie still be considered overrated? It’s things like this that make creating these lists a bit difficult. The confusion over these terms can often lead to readers getting upset over certain inclusions and exclusions. They’ll question why a certain film made the list and another didn’t.

In this list, we will be discussing breakthrough performances. Similar to a list on the most overrated and underrated, it might be hard to define what a breakthrough performance is. For example, if an actor or actress had modest success as a side character on a TV sitcom, does a big film role count as a breakthrough performance?

Additionally, if a performance is critically lauded in an otherwise underseen movie, could it still be considered a “breakthrough performance?” After all, some might believe that a breakthrough performance is one that makes an actor or actress a household name. So as you can see, this is something that is, unfortunately hard to describe.

So to make things simple, we’ll say that a breakthrough performance is the first performance by an actor or actress that helped move their career forward in a significant way. If a performance you believe to be a breakthrough performance is missing from the list, it could be because our definitions differ. Keep that in mind while reading through the list!

 

15. Abraham Attah – Beasts of No Nation

Abraham Attah in “Beasts of No Nation” (2015)

Abraham Attah gives a revelatory performance in Netflix’s excellent original film based on the 2005 novel of the same name. The movie itself may not have been the Oscar heavyweight pundits were predicting, but it still stood out as one of 2015’s most compelling movies.

Elba was phenomenal as always, but that was a given from the moment the movie was announced. Attah was a genuine surprise. With absolutely no prior acting experience, Attah still managed to keep up with Idris freakin’ Elba. That’s not something just anybody can say. It obviously helped his career out too because it recently helped him get a park in the upcoming Spider-Man movie. Attah’s still young, so it’s going to be fun to watch his career grow.

 

14. Margot Robbie – The Wolf of Wall Street

Margot Robbie - The Wolf of Wall Street

Before the DiCaprio-led Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie starred in an Australian soap opera. In other words, she wasn’t exactly a household name. Now she’s playing Harley Quinn in one of this year’s most anticipated blockbusters. Obviously her role in Scorsese’s most recent movie earned her some attention, and rightfully so.

Though she didn’t pick up an Oscar nomination like DiCaprio or Hill, she still managed to pack quite a punch in the 180 minute behemoth. At first glance, one might think of Robbie’s performance as pure eye candy, but there’s more than meets the eye. She shows undeniable range in a movie with numerous tonal shifts. Robbie shows us that she can be funny, serious, and sexy. Although she isn’t necessarily the center of attention, she’s still a welcome addition to the movie.

 

13. Jessica Chastain – The Help

Jessica Chastain - The Help

Jessica Chastain starred in a number of films in 2011, so it’s hard to really say which one could be considered her breakthrough role. One thing is for certain though, she went from a little dot on the radar to one of the most in demand actresses after that year.

So honestly, you could name any of her roles in 2011 as the breakthrough performance, but to keep things simple, we’ll just talk about The Help since it was the film that earned her an Oscar nomination. Be aware, however that The Tree of Life and Take Shelter also significantly helped launch her career.

Though The Help was definitely a weaker Best Picture nominee, it benefited from a number of strong performances that resulted in widespread attention from numerous awards. Chastain was just one of the many performances that managed to stand out in a movie with an incredible ensemble.

Her turn as Celia Rae Foote, the ditzy but loveable employer of Octavia Spencer’s character was admirable and earnest. If you didn’t know any better, you might have trouble believing that this was one of her first roles. She handles the role with confidence that even some A-List stars lack.

 

12. Adèle Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Color

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, (aka BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR, aka LA VIE D'ADELE), Adele Exarchopoulos, 2013. ©Sundance Selects

It’s easy to describe Blue is the Warmest Color as “that three-hour French movie about lesbians,” but it’s so much more than that. The film is an absorbing character study that delves so much deeper into relationships than viewers have become accustomed too. This isn’t some “been-there-done-that” sappy romance movie. Blue is the Warmest Color is a fervent look at the struggles that come as a result of romance and sexuality.

The three-hour runtime would be hard to sit through if we weren’t interested in the characters. The script is obviously a big part of what makes these characters fascinating, but it’s also a lot easier to fall in love with characters when they’re played by actresses that are so obviously committed to holding the audience’s attention.

Seydoux had some experience prior to the release of the film, but Exarchopoulos was anything but an established actress. She was able to bring the necessary amount of passion into this role. As a result, we had no problem sitting through the lengthy runtime. Adèle and her co-star made sure to keep us absorbed and they did a phenomenal job.

 

11. Ezra Miller – We Need to Talk About Kevin

Ezra Miller - We Need to Talk About Kevin

Before Ezra Miller became the Flash, he was just a teenager trying to get his career started. He managed to sneak into a TV shows here and there, but it wasn’t until 2011’s harrowing We Need to Talk About Kevin that Miller earned recognition.

Watching Ezra Miller’s state of mind slowly fall apart is one of the most rewarding aspects of the movie. Ezra Miller’s take on the school shooter is as mesmerizing as it is haunting.

Miller isn’t playing a static character. Kevin is a kid that descends into madness throughout the entire runtime, and Miller makes sure to keep that in mind. We see the changes in his personality regardless of how subtle these changes happen to be. Though Miller has continued to stick to mostly independent films, his big blockbuster debut is right around the corner.

 

10. Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Before this unique thriller’s release, many people didn’t even know there was another Olsen sister. While the twins from Full House have mostly stayed away from Hollywood, Elizabeth has only grown to be more prominent. Martha Marcy May Marlene, a fascinating thriller about a woman escaping from the clutches of a cult, was the film that launched Olsen’s career.

Olsen’s performance was subtle but always engrossing. Similar to Miller, she plays someone who is struggling to maintain sanity. It looks like she did her research because her grasp on the mental state of cult survivors is evident in her nuanced performance.

Olsen has gone on to star in Godzilla, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and a couple noteworthy biopics. So let’s just say that the acclaim she earned in this small indie title helped her career lift off.

 

9. Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips

barkhad-abdi-captain-phillips

I think it’s safe to assume that Barkhad Abdi wasn’t expecting to steal the spotlight from Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. In many people’s opinions, however, Abdi was the one that stole the show. Hanks was as good as he usually is, but Abdi was unexpectedly excellent.

Abdi wants you to hate the Somali pirate leader he plays. The character is downright detestable and we have Abdi to thank for that. Obviously it’s hard to play this kind of villain and be likeable, but Abdi takes it to a completely different level.

Despite having no prior acting experience, it really seems like he’s focused on getting a reaction out of the viewers. Despite the numerous blockbusters released that year, Abdi’s take on Abduwali Muse made the characters one of the strongest villains of the year. He may not have superpowers, but he’s still complex and nasty.

 

 

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  • Brandon Thompson

    Jessica Chastain should be here for The Tree of Life or Take Shelter not The Help.

    The Tree of Life began shooting in 2008 and being in a Malick film even before it’s even released would help your career.

  • Erin

    Thanks for your list, I thought it was great! I love Ezra Miller, and agree about his performance in Kevin. I think his true breakout, however, was in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even if people didn’t like the movie, it was hard to deny he was the heart and soul of it. Both in my opinion were extraordinary performances.

  • Mortimer

    Rooney Mara – The Social Network, TGWTDT
    Katherine Waterston – Inherent Vice

    • Brandon Thompson

      Katherine Waterson was also great in Steve Jobs

      • Mortimer

        Agree. She’ll be great in Alien: Covenant also 🙂

  • ‫אלון י‬‎

    Can’t believe you’ve put Lupita Nyong’o in the #1 spot. Absolutely mediocre performance in a mediocre movie.

    • Mortimer

      ’12 Years a Slave’ is great movie.