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

8. Ellar Coltrane – Boyhood

Boyhood (2014)

It may have taken him twelve years of hard work, but Coltrane finally got broke through with Boyhood proving once again that a good work ethic pays off. Despite the gigantic twelve year commitment, Linklater’s dedication ended up working in his favor. Boyhood remains the highest rated new release in Metacritic history with a perfect 100.

Whether or not it deserves that score is up for debate, but Boyhood is definitely a special movie for a lot of people. It’s easy to get distracted by the filmmaking craft, but don’t ignore the cast. Arquette managed to take home her first Oscar for the role, but she obviously doesn’t fit the criteria for this list.

Coltrane is the perfect fit for the list, on the other hand. Technically, he had been acting for twelve years prior to the release of Boyhood, but he didn’t get his big break until the movie was actually released because this was the extent of his acting experience. His only other noteworthy film role was a very small role in Linklater’s Fast Food Nation.

It’s kind of crazy to think that Coltrane avoided the spotlight and focused solely on his work in Boyhood. It worked out in the end though. His performance feels undeniably authentic, likely because the role was authentic. This was a film about growing up, and every year shown in the film we got to watch Coltrane grow, both as an actor and as a person.


7. Brie Larson – Short Term 12

Short Term 12

Larson had a few roles before this phenomenal indie hit was released, but none of them really pointed to her being the “next big thing.” One couldn’t tell just by watching 21 Jump Street that Larson was going to be a future Oscar winner. It wasn’t until the release of Short Term 12 that people could really see something special in the young actress. Short Term 12 wasn’t much of a hit outside of the indie crowd, but those that did see it seemed to claimed it was one of the best movies of 2013, myself included.

The movie paints a surprisingly accurate picture of life working at a home for troubled teenagers. Brie Larson’s portrayal of Grave paints the character as caring but troubled. This is a multilayered character that’s made more complex as a result of Larson’s dedication to the role. It’s no wonder she went on to win the Oscar for Room. She’s an acting force to be reckoned with.


6. Quevenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of The Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild is as unique as it is compelling. It’s also surprisingly adorable thanks to the casting of Quevenzhane Wallis. Let it be clear that she’s not just in the movie to be cute, though that certainly helps. Quevenzhane has unbelievable acting chops for a girl her age. The entire cast for Beasts of the Southern Wild is filled with unknowns.

This is not a movie that relies on a classically trained ensemble to deliver stellar performances. Finding the perfect actress for the role of Hushpuppy was likely a challenge, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could tackle the role so perfectly.

For the role, Wallis went on to become the youngest actress ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, as well as the first person born in the 21st century. Watching the movie, it’s easy to see why. It’s not as if there wasn’t any competition.

Wallis actually beat out a number of fantastic performances to earn that nomination. She shows expertise when it comes to balancing humor and sincerity. Since this film, her most notable role was in the recent remake of Annie. Despite the negative reception to the film itself, Wallis’s performance as the titular character managed to earn a fair amount of praise.


5. Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit

Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit

Hailee Steinfeld was apparently up against 15,000 applicants for the role of the spunky Mattie Ross in 2010’s True Grit. The people in charge of casting should get an award because it’s hard to imagine anybody more perfect for the role. Hailee Steinfeld was only 13 when she got the part, but that clearly didn’t affect her acting skills. True Grit has a stellar cast, and the fact that Steinfeld is one of the standouts says a lot about her skills as a young actress.

As of right now, she seems more interested in making catchy pop music than acting, but you can find her in Ender’s Game, Pitch Perfect 2, and Begin Again. These roles are a notable departure from the type of role she had in True Grit, but that’s a testament to her range. Though she didn’t blow up to be an actress like Jennifer Lawrence, we’re still delighted to see her in whatever film she chooses to appear in.


4. Michael B Jordan – Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Although this isn’t the film that made him a household name, it’s certainly the one that earned him attention from film critics around the globe. Though not quite the hit that Creed was, Fruitvale Station was definitely the movie that put Michael B. Jordan on the map. After small supporting roles in movies like Hardball and Chronicle as well HBO’s critically acclaimed series The Wire, Jordan finally got to play the lead in this heartbreaking true story by first-time director Ryan Coogler.

Based on events leading to the death of Oakland citizen Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station was raw and frankly hard to watch at times. Jordan’s committed performance was the highlight of the movie. Considering the stellar supporting cast and Coogler’s ambitious direction, that’s quite the compliment.

Although Jordan has had a few hiccups in his career with the release of movies like That Awkward Moment and the abysmal Fantastic Four, he’s still a dynamite star. After earning plenty of praise for his role in Creed, it seems Jordan’s career is just beginning. If his best movies are anything to go by, it’s safe to say that he’s going to have a bright career.


3. Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone

Unfortunately, a lot of people are fed up with Jennifer Lawrence. It’s hard being the Hollywood “it” girl because that means you’re destined to get a lot of backlash, and that’s precisely what’s happening to Lawrence. Regardless, it’s hard to deny that the girl’s got talent. Even in her weaker films, she is still able to bring something special to the table. While it’s kind of hard to imagine a time when Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t a household name, it actually wasn’t all that long ago.

If you rewind back to 2010 you have an actress who’s actually best known for starring on The Bill Engvall Show, which could hardly be considered a success. Yes, before she was Katniss Everdeen, Mystique, and Joy Mangano she played Bill Engvall’s teenage daughter. Luckily for her, it didn’t take long to find a better role that would help launch her career into the place it’s at today.

Best Picture nominee Winter’s Bone was the first movie that showed Jennifer Lawrence’s acting expertise. The southern gothic about a woman whose father has gone missing is a slow-burn, but it’s always compelling thanks to Lawrence’s obvious dedication to the craft. Despite your feelings on Lawrence, it’s hard not to be sucked up by her career-defining breakthrough role.


2. Jacob Tremblay – Room

Jacob Tremblay - Room

Sure, Brie Larson may have won the Oscar for her admittedly stunning role in last year’s Room, but let’s not ignore Jacob Tremblay. Casting a child in a movie with this much emotional heft can be somewhat troubling. Do they understand the material? Can they handle the mature subject matter?

There are a lot of questions that come to mind when casting child actors or actresses. In addition, Room is a movie that desperately relies on this character. Without someone who can adequately take on the role of Jack, the entire movie falls apart.

Tremblay handles the role and then some. It’s honestly awe-inspiring just how good Tremblay is when it comes to portraying a kind of role that has this many layers. His acting chops are reminiscent of someone three times his age or more.

It doesn’t feel like this is a child taking on one of his first roles. It feels like a seasoned veteran has been given yet another meaty, dramatic role to add to their growing list. Jacob Tremblay’s performance in Room ranks among the greatest performances by a child this century. Don’t believe me? See it for yourself.


1. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Lupita Nyong’o - 12 Years a Slave

Lupita Nyong’o’s work in 12 Years a Slave stands out as one of the best big screen debuts in recent memory. After earning her master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama, she sought out the perfect role for her. Steve McQueen discovered her and put her in what was, without a doubt, the perfect role for her. This resulted in her becoming one of the few actresses to earn an Oscar for her film debut. Let’s just say Yale did a great job of training her as an actress.

This certainly isn’t a “light” role. An actress taking on the role of the mercilessly abused Patsey needs to be able to bring plenty of grit to the role. Nyong’o not only brought that necessary grit to the role; she also brought a surprising amount of passion. Nyong’o was stunning in the part. She brought a spectrum of emotions to the film in a way that shows an indisputably impressive range.

Nyong’o went on to star in a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a motion captured character named Maz Katana. Once again showing just how much she can do, she takes on a more lighthearted character while still managing to keep the audience’s attention until the second she leaves the frame.

Author Bio: Justin is a paraprofessional teaching assistant and full-time film enthusiast with a degree in English. When he’s not writing about films, he’s probably watching them in his spare time.