Top 10 Breakthrough Performers of 2015

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It’s the time of year when best-of and top-ten lists will be blazing across the internet on various sites, so please forgive me for adding one more log to the fire. The annual breakthrough performances list has become my favorite post of the year – now in its seventh overall installment (fourth on this site) – and is something I know the rest of the Awards Circuit staff is passionate about, as I found out through assorted conversations and incredibly engaged support with the post itself. So I’ll start with a big thank you to the nine staff writers who contributed to this post, for their time, talent, and opinions: thanks for helping me keep this fun tradition going strong.

Over the years, I’ve learned that everyone has a different take on what a “breakthrough” truly is. So, as a bit of a disclaimer, I’ve felt the need to annually include the following statement so that we can all be on the same page for what this particular list is all about:

What technically makes for a “breakthrough” performance? Is it someone who comes out of nowhere and stars in a few films, becoming more identifiable to the public eye? Is it someone who has been around for a long time but finally nails that one major role that catapults them from supporting player to leading man/lady? For the purpose of this post, I’m looking at both. I don’t believe you have to be new to the screen to have a breakthrough year. Sometimes you have to work from the bottom up.

Also, this list isn’t solely looking at the best performances of the year, as it pertains to breakthrough stars; it also is my projection of whose star will shine the brightest moving forward.

A new debate we had this year was whether to include people who have appeared on these lists in the past. We understand that there is a breakthrough (people following our site closely know the actor at this level), and then there is a BREAKTHROUGH! (where the general public now knows who they are). Think Rosamund Pike, who made the list in 2009 for An Education. You and I knew who she was then, but the rest of the world found out last year when she exploded in Gone Girl.

While it was tempting to include past finalists on this list who may have exploded to an even greater extent this year – think: Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Danish Girl, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) – we’ve ultimately decided to take pride in where we placed them in the past, and claim the “I told you so” bragging rights of calling those future stars in advance of their ultimate success. So you will not find Vikander here, as she ranked #3 on my list way back in 2012. You will not find Brie Larson (Room) either, as she was actually my #1 breakthrough star of 2013. Creed’s Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson are also to be found on the 2013 and 2014 lists, respectively, and will not be found here.

If you are interested in who made the list in year’s past, start with 2014’s archive here.

First up are a couple honorable mentions that we couldn’t pass on recognizing.

Child

The child actors of 2015

As a general rule, we tend to grade child performances on a curve. In 2015 however, that wasn’t necessary in a number of cases. Specifically with the stunning work of Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation and Jacob Tremblay in Room; they did things I’ve never seen children asked to do on film before. Throw in the impressive work from Raffey Cassidy (just as strong as Britt Robertson – her Tomorrowland co-star and fellow breakthrough honoree) and it’s been a damn fine year for child performances. Attah and Tremblay both have been mentioned during the awards season, with the latter still a potential Best Supporting Actor nominee at the Oscars, while Cassidy has really caught our attention and set herself up for a nice little career. With Attah, he displayed the loss of humanity and the plague of violence set upon a young boy with heartbreaking realism. Tremblay broke our hearts as well, but lifted us up in the end by outstandingly depicting the act of seeing the world with new eyes. Cassidy was no slouch herself, combining the mannerisms of a robot with that of a loving girl. Less showy? Perhaps. But no less complex and worthy of acclaim. The three young actors put forward as impressive a slate of child performances as I can remember in any previous years. It’ll be quite exciting to see what they do next!

Abraham Attah will next be seen in the short film Out of the Village. Jacob Tremblay has four films slated for a 2016 release, including the spring horror film Before I Wake. Raffey Cassidy does not yet have anything on the table (per IMDB), but we’re sure that will change quickly. – Joey Magidson

In this Wednesday, June 24, 2015 photo, singer/actor Mya Taylor, left, and actor Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, pose for a portrait in promotion of their new film "Tangerine," at the Redbury Hotel in Los Angeles. The movie releases in U.S. theaters on July 10, 2015. (Photo by Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP)

The girls of Tangerine (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor)

On the one hand, Tangerine is the kind of film that you want to hold over your head, Simba-style, and sing a la The Lion King‘s announcement to the masses. What it symbolizes is something of a ribbon-cutter for the movie industry: director Sean Baker worked with fellow cinematographer Radium Cheung and shot his latest film entirely on three iPhone 5s smartphones, each mounted to a Steadicam rig, an anamorphic clip-on lens and an $8 app called Filmic Pro.

That’s it. Now ask yourself what are you doing with your spare time and spare change?

In all seriousness, this is not some throwaway little indie movie. Tangerine also is groundbreaking in another way. The film casts two transgender black women, in the leading roles of Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra (Rodriguez, Taylor), portraying two transgender prostitutes who are attempting to locate their pimp’s girlfriend on an inordinately sunny and hot Christmas Eve day.

For those seeking polish in their acting, you’re probably going to want to bite your lip. The work of Rodriguez and Taylor is rough, engaging, the chemistry undeniable, and we simply cannot take our eyes off of them. Their rapid-fire banter and timing in the delivery is a sight to behold​. And while I would not say that Sin-Dee and Alexandra are the nicest people you will ever meet, the actresses give them heft and a power that leaps off the screen.

Sin-Dee and Alexandra may bicker, cut deep verbally, and seem to exist in a love-hate relationship with one another and their lot in life, but they also forge a bond that makes Tangerine something kind of special. And not special because these are actual transgender women, or even transgender actresses portraying transgender sex workers, but because they represent new faces and personas that have been largely absent from the cinematic big screen.

Tangerine reminds us that art should be a reflection of the world we live in and no matter how it was created or what it depicts or does not depict, Baker’s film adds a square or two to the quilt of American cinematic storytelling. Time will be the ultimate determinant on how groundbreaking Baker’s film happens to be. For now, and for those who give this a chance, we should celebrate how bold and confident a film this is and applaud the ease with which two new performers glide into their feature film debut, embracing fearlessness every step of the way.​ – Michael Ward

Before we begin, here are a few other rising stars that will probably show up here in the next couple years:

Shameik Moore – Dope
Lola Kirke – Mistress America
Maika Monroe – It Follows
Dakota Johnson – Fifty Shades of Grey; Black Mass

Without further ado, the list:

  • Alexandro

    2015’s breakthrough star is, without a doubt, Alicia Vikander.

    • Greg

      I also think Alicia Vikander was the breakthrough star of the year. Because honestly, she was totally unknown before this year.

      And maybe i’m alone but I wasn’t that impressed with Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens…

      • mrbraindead12 .

        She was good, but I think being at the helm of the biggest movie of all time helps propel anyone, especially a person with a lot of potential. I personally think, though, that she was decent in it but not the best breakout of the year. Alicia Vikander gets that one. Ex Machina was a sleeper hit, and The Danish Girl is one of the most lauded films of the year, and it netted her two globe nominations.

      • Many knew her work from “A Royal Affair” or “Anna Karenina” or “The Fifth Estate.” She made this list back then in 2012

    • Yeah, when I do these lists, people can make multiple years

  • Jason

    I’m fine with Daisy Ridley taking the top spot, but Alicia Vikander definitely deserved a spot on this list, probably at 2 or 3.

  • JJ

    So you really think Alicia Vikander did not deserve this?!?!? That’s nuts!

    • She was on the list for “A Royal Affair.” Performers can’t be on the same list twice. It would be like Adele getting nominated twice for “Best New Artist” at the Grammys.

      • Yeah, but John Boyega was the lead in Attack the Block, which–as much as I love The Force Awakens–might be a better film. I mean, he’s hardly a breakout, especially if Alicia Vikander isn’t.

      • JJ

        aaah okay didn’t know that! thank you for clarifying 🙂

  • RJ Niemczura

    Great list. Wish Sarah Silverman had been included for her masterful work in “I Smile Back”, though.

  • Jamie Teller

    I’d have put Taylor and Rodriguez on this list over…someone.

  • Joey Magidson

    A pleasure to contribute to, as always.

  • Pablo

    I’m really hoping for Ridley to get great screenplays sent her way and be able to show us how much range she has.

    Amy Schumer is an established comedian now and she will keep trying to solidify her talent as Kristen Wiig has done.

    I havent seen some of the people on the list actually act, but I do believe some are still pushing through, not really bringing anything new to the very big acting table.

  • Andrew Gillespie

    Raffey Cassidy?? Especially over Oona Laurence? That’s nuts.

  • ryanmcc

    It’s weird to put John Boyega on this list since his real breakout performance was in Attack the Block. Other than that, I’m really glad to see Bel Powley made this list. She gave probably my favorite performance in a movie in 2015.

  • jmlatinsir

    Clayton I understand your rule about a star not appearing twice on the list and that Alicia Vikander was on the list before. I didn’t know who she was until this year. And to deliver the performances that she did… it is some kind of breakthrough because if she keeps picking the right projects her talent will take her into the stratosphere … I think breaking into the stratosphere deserves some additional breakthrough recognition… Maybe there should be an addendum to the list… as in stars who lived up to their promise and more….