It’s hard to pick 10 people who had their breakout year in 2016. First of all, it was a great year for cinema, especially for diverse and quality films with interesting talent connected to them. Secondly, it’s hard to pinpoint an actor’s breakout sometimes because it feels like a lot of moving parts coming together after a few years of “staying in the sidelines” or maybe only being appreciated by critics or niche cinephiles.
However, after much consideration, this list came together with the main breakout roles and performances of 2016 – a lot of these actors has been in one or more projects this year, but I chose the one I particularly think it’s their most compelling turn. Check it out:
10. Sasha Lane in American Honey
Andrea Arnold’s laid back ride through red-state America and 2010s liberal youth is a striking piece of contrast cinema, but it’s never better than when focusing on its lead, newcomer Sasha Lane, on her cinematic debut. As “ingénue” Star, she’s deliciously genuine and full of theatrical spirit at the same time, sometimes within the same scene. She holds her own against a stellar Shia LaBeouf performance, too, so that’s something.
No wonder she already has so many new roles lined up: most notably, she’ll be Desiree Akhvan’s muse in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, sharing the screen with Chloe Moretz, Jennifer Ehle and John Gallagher Jr. She’ll also be in Stephen Kijak’s Stoplifters of the World and in Paul J. Franklin’s Hunting Lila – she certainly has the makings of an indie-film favorite in her.
9. Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad
While she’s been on everyone’s radars ever since playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s trophy wife in brilliant fashion in Wolf of Wall Street, it’s as DC universe’s Harley Quinn that Margot Robbie really stood out like the big star she was destined to be. She’s not just funny in the role – she also takes little hints of the script and expand them into a believable, relatable, unforgettable character that feels lived-in and complex even if it wasn’t written that way.
The great actor’s mark might be making great work out of weak writing, and that’s what she does here, which make her future turns as A.A. Milne’s wife and as Tonya Harding even more exciting. She’ll also reprise her role as Harley in Gotham City Sirens, where she’ll share the spotlight with two other villainesses: Poison Ivy and Catwoman.
8. Angourie Rice in The Nice Guys
Another very young actress in our list, Angourie Rice stood out as the true heart of The Nice Guys, Shane Black’s delicious riff of 1970s culture and buddy action-comedies. As Ryan Gosling’s daughter, Holly, she’s at one time unambiguously fierce and tremendously sensitive. She’s a kid growing up and a great sidekick for her father’s hilarious P.I. antics.
Rice hasn’t been in much before, discounting 2014’s Walking with Dinosaurs (remember that? Me neither), but she’ll be a presence to be felt in future years, be it in Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled or Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, where she’s playing one of Peter Parker’s first comic-book flings, Betty Brant.
7. Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special
Jaeden Lieberher is only 13 years old. After a standout performance in St. Vincent (2014), he was cast in a role that seemed tailor-made for his outwardly sensibility: the gifted child at the center of Midnight Special. As the lead in this mysterious story, Lieberher holds all the mystique and tone of the movie at the palm of his hand, deftly managing difficult emotions and a complex character arc.
Midnight Special’s ambitions as a genre film taken seriously, and a deliberately slowly moving piece of narrative, work because of Lieberher presence holding it together tightly in a whole. Actors like Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst feel comfortable to play off his performance and presence, and that’s quite an achievement for such a young actor.
6. Janelle Monae in Hidden Figures
You never really know which singers would be great actresses if they tried. From Madonna to Cher, every one of them surprised or underwhelmed us, and Janelle Monae certainly belongs to the first of those groups. She delivered not one, but two powerful performances is 2016: as a brilliant mathematician in Hidden Figures and as the girlfriend of a crack dealer in Moonlight.
In both parts, she displays sensitiveness and adaptability, delivering funny and poignant scenes in the same precise, surprising, naturalistic manner. Few musician debuts have been so striking in cinema history, and time will tell how much Monae will really invest in this new career, but we’ll be lucky if she does.