Awards Circuit’s Top 10 Breakthrough Performers of 2016

Breakthrough performers of 2016

It’s hard to believe I’ve been compiling this list for eight years now – the last five right here at Awards Circuit. For the last few installments, the staff has helped me write up and make the final decisions on who gets into the list and who just barely misses the cut. To no surprise, there is always debate on what consists of a breakthrough and what doesn’t. So, like the years before, I’ll remind you how we are looking at the term breakthrough.


As was the case last year – when Alicia Vikander was absent from the list – you can only make our list once (Vikander appeared on the list in 2012 for “A Royal Affair” and “Anna Karenina”). So while they might have an even bigger year this year, if we called it in advance, well, I guess that just makes us even more ahead of the game, right?

So if you see someone missing, it may be due to the fact that they were no longer rookie-eligible. Or it just might be because there were so many incredible options, as was the case this year.

2016 wasn’t good for much. Sure, we saw our first major sports championship in Cleveland in over 60 years, and yes – to my disdain – the Cubs finally won the World Series. But we also saw a hostile election, a country divided more than I’ve seen in my lifetime, and the death of so many celebrities that we began to follow each obit with “Damn you, 2016.”

But the year did deliver a cornucopia of breakthrough performances. It was a very, very strong year in that regard, and I am thrilled to be writing this piece for you to debate over. There were cuts that were painful to make – most notably Sasha Lane (“American Honey”) and Sarah Gadon (“Indignation,” “11.22.63” and “The 9th Life of Louis Drax”). But, hey, at least they remain eligible for future consideration, right?

Before we dive into the list, I wanted to include something new to the post. We’ll call it Spotlight Performer, and try to include it as part of the annual tradition. The Spotlight Performer is intended for someone who didn’t quite breakthrough, but who we expect to breakthrough in a big way in the following year. Sort of a prediction to a prediction, if you will.

So be sure to weigh in on not only who you think the breakthrough performer of the year was, but also who you think will be on this list at the end of 2017.

2017 Spotlight Performer

Riley Keough

You might remember Riley Keough as the fiery, red-headed escaped bride in the post-apocalyptic, high-octane thriller, “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015). While she first caught our eye there, the granddaughter of Elvis – yes, that Elvis – continued her rise in 2016 with the Starz network drama, “The Girlfriend Experience,” and in the indie coming-of-age drama, “American Honey,” alongside the aforementioned Sasha Lane. While Keough is certainly an upcoming star, we feel her big breakthrough is coming in 2017 – thus she is the recipient of our first annual Spotlight Performer citation.

This year, Keough will first be seen in the 2016 Sundance hit, “Lovesong,” opposite Jena Malone. The film opens in February, and is nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at this year’s Spirit Awards.

She has completed filming on three films, per IMDB – “We Don’t Belong Here,” alongside Catherine Keener, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon, Cary Elwes and the late Anton Yelchin; “The Discovery,” co-starring Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, Robert Redford and Jason Segel; and the lead role in the drama/mystery flick, “Welcome the Stranger.”

She has an additional three films in post-production, per IMDB, giving her a slate of seven movies that we will see Riley Keough in throughout 2017. Those films include David Robert Mitchell’s (“It Follows”) “Under the Silver Lake,” starring Andrew Garfield and Topher Grace; “It Comes At Night,” with Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Christopher Abbott; and Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky,” starring Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Channing Tatum, Seth MacFarlane, Hilary Swank, Jack Quaid, Macon Blair and David Denman.

I am hopeful young Ms. Keough finds her way onto our Breakthrough list come this time next year.

  • M005

    Gal Gadot, Haley Bennett, Blake Jenner and not Tom Holland? Quite sure he was ignored in 2013 list too.
    Monáe and Ali are easily this year’s standouts

  • Phill Milner

    Lucas Hedges and it’s not even close.

    • Phill Milner

      Anya Taylor Joy in second.

  • Stein-Erik Rutledal

    Who is the 2014 winner in the picture?

    • Alan French

      Gugu Mbatha Raw

      • Martin A.

        Who’s the 2012 winner?

        • Ryan

          Scoot McNairy

  • Ryan

    Two standouts that didn’t make the list but I think are worth mentioning are Glen Powell from Everybody Wants Some!! and Madison Wolfe from the Conjuring 2.

    • Joey Magidson

      Oh I fought for Powell at the start, believe me.

  • Tee

    1. Alden Enrenreich – From the best part of a strange little ensemble from the Coens to picking up Han Solo’s blaster and driving Warren Beatty around? Talk about a step up.
    2. Mahershala Ali
    3. Lucas Hedges
    4. Janelle Monae
    5. Tom Holland
    6. Anya Taylor-Joy
    7. Ruth Negga
    8. Glen Powell
    9. Angourice Rice
    10. Gal Gadot

  • Aaron

    GO CAVS!!!!!!!!

  • Julie

    I really liked your choices; my first thought was Janelle Monae, who was second on your list. You have a good track record with this: Fassbender, Chastain, J-Law…

    • Julie

      By the way, Haley is from Stow, Ohio! 🙂

  • Michael Eddy

    On your Oscar prognostications – for Adapted Screenplay – “Last Flag Flying” – you omitted the name of Daryl Ponicsan – who wrote the novel of which the film is based and who shares screenplay credit with it’s director, Richard Linklatter.