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The Top 10 Breakthrough Performances Of 2014

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So here we are again: a year has come to a close, a new one has begun, and I sit writing the post I most look forward to putting together each January. However, this time around I have some help. With an increasingly busy schedule, I have sought out and graciously received assistance from some of the staff to compose this year’s list. So thank you, to them, for what you are about to read; to my friend Chelsea who put the pictures together; and to you, the readers, for taking a peek at this annual piece I have been compiling since 2009 (though the first three years were at my previous site). You can view the list from 2013 here, and the performer who topped the list each year in the picture above.

Before we proceed, let me start by saying thank God 2014 is over, cinematically speaking. I’m not sure what my problem was, but this was either a very mediocre year for film, or I was just disconnected from just about every possible gem that was out there. Whether it was the former or the latter, I’m glad to be putting it behind me and hoping that 2015 is more my cup of tea.

Now, as I feel the need to do every year, let me specify how I perceive a “breakthrough” performance, since there are so many ways of defining such a term. And forgive me for being lazy, but I will just copy/paste the same thing I said last year, as I feel it adds it all up neatly enough:

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.

To put it in short: You could argue Rosemund Pike’s breakthrough performance came in this year’s Gone Girl. I’d argue that it came in An Education back in 2009. Both statements could be considered true, I suppose. Savvy?

So you won’t find Pike, Miles Teller (Whiplash), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up), David Oyelowo (Selma), or Shailene Woodley (Divergent; The Fault in Our Stars) on this list because, well, they’ve already appeared in years past.

But let me introduce you to the ten that made the cut this year, instead.

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Honorable Mention: Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood)

We watched Ellar Coltrane grow up before our eyes this year in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. But beyond his physical growth we also witnessed his growth as an actor. Having to craft a singular performance from age 6 to 18 is a daunting proposition, but Coltrane was able to create a strong central character. We don’t know what’s next for Coltrane, but he signed with United Talent Agency in December, indicating that Boyhood isn’t likely to be the last time we see Coltrane on the big screen.

– Michael Balderston

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10. Macon Blair (Blue Ruin)

Macon Blair, the star of Jeremy Saulnier’s terrific Blue Ruin, is no one’s idea of a conventional leading man. He takes on a disheveled, pallid appearance as the homeless drifter Dwight, and for a long time uses nothing but his eyes and timorous body language to communicate the kind of deep-rooted emotional scars that have broken thousands of others down to his level of vagrancy. A cripplingly fearful protagonist would seem ill-suited to a propulsive revenge thriller, and a lesser actor might have been tempted to portray Dwight gaining a sudden sense of personal agency as soon as he learns of Wade Cleland’s release. But Blair smartly holds to Dwight’s panicked, irrational temperament and positions it as the principal driver of his actions, preserving the film’s unique setup. It also happens to add another layer of suspense to an already intense first act. And even as Blue Ruin’s main conflict changes drastically, Blair doesn’t portray his anti-hero changing the way one would expect him to by “toughening up” or indulging our desire for some kind of personal catharsis despite many opportunities to do so. But neither does he go the other easy route of inviting condescending humor towards the man’s frequent series of mistakes and injuries. Instead, he reveals to us Dwight’s courage to take responsibility for his actions even while remaining palpably unable to completely overcome his past. What Blair’s performance articulates through Saulnier’s story is that for all his shortcomings, Dwight’s sister was wrong about him. He’s not weak, but simply the result of tragedies building upon more tragedies. All Dwight can do in the end is to confront them with as much dignity as he can.

I imagine there will be some dispute with Macon Blair’s inclusion on this list, and it’s partially understandable. The term “breakout performance” typically conjures images of a young, glamorous up-and-comer destined for red carpets and top-billed starring roles in their immediate future. However, tucked away from the headline-grabbing narratives of fresh faces soaring (or crashing) from their star-making turns are those newcomers whose humbler breakouts plant the seeds of what often evolves into a longer-lasting and sometimes even richer body of work. They don’t show up on next month’s cover of People Magazine. They don’t get thrown offers to headline multi-million dollar franchises. They won’t engender a lot of star crushes from young consumers. But that’s okay; neither did Frances McDormand after her breakout role in Blood Simple. Notable breakout performances do not always need to come from gorgeous young starlets, box office hits, or be preceded by a publicity campaign to be a herald for what can and should be a long, fruitful career. Macon Blair’s next film appearance will be in the upcoming thriller Green Room (aka the Skinhead Patrick Stewart movie), set for release later this year.

– Robert Hamer 

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9. Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar; Black Eyed Dog)

You might have noticed young Mackenzie Foy as one of the daughters in The Conjuring, or perhaps heard her as the voice of Celestine in the English language version of Ernest & Celestine (along with the final two films in the Twilight franchise and the indie Black Eyes Dog), but most likely you know her from Interstellar, and rightly so. Playing the ten year old version of Murph in Christopher Nolan’s epic, Foy brings more emotion to her part than just about anyone her age could have. Up until seeing her in Interstellar, I’ll admit to barely having considered her, let alone her future. Now? I can’t wait to see where her career goes. She’s just barely into her teenage years, so there’s tons still to come from her. Just look at the scene in her bedroom with Matthew McConaughey where she asks him not to go. He’s obviously great in the scene, but she matches him beat for beat. It’s the best performance by a young actress in 2014 and definitely showcases her as a talent to watch out for. She very well might be in line to do great things one day. If Interstellar is any clue, mark her down for some great roles over the next decade or so.

– Joey Magidson

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8. Charlie Cox (The Theory of Everything)

With all the nominations that stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones have been getting for The Theory of Everything, you wouldn’t be faulted in thinking they are the only two in the film. However, behind the former two great performances is a solid supporting cast that includes a promising performance from Charlie Cox. Cox plays a choir director who becomes close with Jones’ Jane Hawking and is a strong third wheel with his two co-stars.

Cox may be familiar to some for his run on Boardwalk Empire as Nucky’s Irish bodyguard who brought some needed energy after Jimmy Darmody got offed, but his next TV role is what could make him a household name. Cox will star in his first superhero role as Matt Murdock/Daredevil on Netflix’s Daredevil and The Defenders, set to premiere later this year. Entering the Marvel universe has made stars of Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans and others, now Cox looks to be next.

– Michael Balderston

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7. Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars; Divergent; Men, Women and Children)

Despite making his debut opposite the hugely successful Chloe Grace-Moretz in last year’s Carrie remake, it wasn’t until 2014 that this talented young man became a certifiable household name.  Thanks to a trio of well-received performances, Elgort has cemented himself as one of Hollywood’s finest up-and-comers. Elgort’s year kicked off strong with a pivotal supporting role in the adaptation of YA bestseller Divergent, a film that went on to earn over $300 million worldwide and become the first franchise not named Hunger Games to break the “Young Adult” box-office curse. But it was Elgort’s astounding turn in Josh Boone’s teen tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars that made us a firm believer in his talents. Not only could Elgort make us completely forget he was Shailene Woodley’s brother – now lover — only months before in Divergent, but the actor proved how essential it is for the casting department to select young stars for roles close to their age. Some people have taken issue with the character of Augustus for being too pretentious and obnoxious, but Elgort perfectly sold his character’s flawed sense of self-worth, and wasn’t afraid to behave immaturely or naïve for the sake of preserving Augustus’s youth. While he landed on many directors’ radar after his sensitive turn in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children, Elgort owes his entire year to a film that made him an instant teen icon, a heartthrob who isn’t above perfection, and a star we should all be keeping a closer eye on through the coming years.

– Joseph Braverman

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6. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People; Selma)

Tessa Thompson is a name you’ll be sure to hear in the near future as she has landed the female lead in Creed starring Michael B. Jordan, but its her 2014 that has launched her into public consciousness. It just so happens that both her parts this year were rabble rousing women, not content to sit by and let the status quo remain. As Diane Nash in Selma, she’s one of the few women who can hold their own in Dr. King’s inner circle. We’ll most remember her as Sam in Dear White People, a young woman striving to understand her place in the world while fighting the injustices faced by many black faces in white places. Whether she’s playing tough or confronting her characters insecurities, Tessa Thompson can do it all.

– Terence Johnson

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5. Jenny Slate (Obvious Child)

Some may scoff at the inclusion of comedian Jenny Slate on this list of “breakthrough” performers and performances. Sure, she spent one headline-making season on Saturday Night Live (to that end, if Aidy Bryant or Michaela Watkins gave a great leading performance in an awesome independent film, would you really not think it’s a breakthrough?). I say she’s a breakthrough, and since Mark agreed with me, here we are.

But there’s so much more to Slate’s performance in Obvious Child than the fact it catches you by surprise. In my interview with her, Slate admitted that this was the first step in what she hopes will be a great career in film. Heck, she even admitted on a recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron that being a film actress was always her goal. Slate commands the screen in a film that focuses solely on her. That might seem like an easy task, but it’s something that is difficult to achieve. In fact, being able to successfully lead a film is, I think, one of the hallmarks of a future star. While I wouldn’t call this a “movie star” role, it is certainly a role that proves Slate can star in movies.

Slate is funny and she’s creative. She gave depth to Donna as a young woman looking for guidance at a crossroads in her life. She wrestles, she laughs, she’s flirty and confident, while being deprecating and serious. One of the best things about Slate in Obvious Child is Donna’s duality — how she’s so open on stage, yet so fearful of commitment in real life. Tiptoeing the line of her ultimate decision to have an abortion, Slate channels pathos, comedy, and humanity into this performance. With such a creative mind and great acting skills, one can only imagine that we might be looking at the start of something great in Jenny Slate.

– Sam Coffey

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4. Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy; The Lego Movie)

Thanks to The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy, Chris Pratt will no longer be known as “that one guy” from all these Best Picture-nominated movies who was relegated to minor speaking parts. Yes, Parks and Recreation fans are probably throwing a tantrum reading this post, but their numbers are small compared to the legions of Marvel fanboys and toy lovers across America who can’t get enough of Hollywood’s new leading man. Pratt’s aloof yet endearing portrayal of everyman Emmet Brickowski played wickedly funny against a plethora of personality types who needed an Average Joe to sort out their chaotic mess of a world. However, it’s Pratt’s bumbling, awkward, doofus-driven performance as Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy that should have easily nabbed him a Golden Globe nod for “Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.” Pratt is one of those rare actors who’s both leader and collaborator; we never second-guess that he’s in charge despite his occasional incompetence, but neither do we find Pratt’s Star-Lord to be an attention whore who dismisses the value of each member of his team. What Star-Lord lacks in edge, he makes up for with humor and unassuming gallantry. This rare hero combo is the perfect counterbalance to all these brooding anti-heroes Hollywood seems to go nuts over. With Pratt in charge, not only are you guaranteed to have a great time at the movies but you might actually find a leading actor who you might, I dunno, relate to? I know…big words in this business.

– Joseph Braverman

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3. Carrie Coon (Gone Girl; The Leftovers)

My personal bias aside, there is no actor or actress I fell in love with more than Carrie Coon this year. Coming off of a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway debut as Honey in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?“, Coon stars as the emotional epicenter in one of the best new shows on TV – Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers – a show that like Lindelof’s previous masterpiece, LOST, hinges on an uninterpreted phenomenon. Playing Nora Durst, the woman who incredibly lost her entire family in a rapture-like event, Coon delivers one of the most heart-breaking performances you got to see on the screen – big or small – in 2014. While The Leftovers is a terrific show, it really didn’t hit its peak until the unpredictable and fascinating Nora-centric episode, “Guest,” thanks in large part to Coon’s sizzling and triumphant performance.

Coon showed an impressive range, moving from the emotionally crippled Nora to the cynical mitigator Margo Dunne in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. As Margo, Coon acts as the snarky, no pretense surrogate for what the audience is thinking as Nick and Amy play out their fucked up game of cat and mouse. When Nick finally decides to do the unthinkable in the end, it is Coon that steals the show, driving home the gut-wrenching climax for the viewing public.

IMDB does not have anything listed for Carrie’s upcoming projects (aside from season two of The Leftovers), but as one of the shining new stars from 2014, I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more from her soon.

– Mark Johnson

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2. Jack O’Connell (Unbroken; ’71; Starred Up; 300: Rise of an Empire)

Early in the year, Jack O’Connell turned heads for his performances in Starred Up and ’71, but it is his portrayal of World War II hero Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken that best paves the way for this handsome new star. Say what you will about the film (I happen to think it was just fine), but there is no denying O’Connell’s outstanding performance. And apparently I’m not alone in that sentiment, as O’Connell has already finished shooting his next flick, Tulip Fever, opposite Christoph Waltz, Judi Dench, Zach Galifianakis, Dane Dehaan, and Alicia Vikander (the latter two being former mentions on this list). Even before Tulip had wrapped, O’Connell was already slated to star in two new projects – Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and – a film I am already targeting as an Oscar player for 2015 – Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, opposite the likes of George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

Not a bad start for a kid from a small town in England, amiright?

– Mark Johnson

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1. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights; Belle)

The crown jewel of this list is the elegant and sumptuous Gugu Mbatha-Raw (pronounced Goo Goo mBAH-tah Raw), the galvanizing star of two films that couldn’t be any more different from the other. In Belle, Mbatha-Raw plays an 18th century mixed-race woman struggling to find her place in society, and in love, with a heart-wrenching effect that would have made Jane Austen proud. While I wasn’t as taken with the film as most people were – period dramas are admittedly the one genre I struggle the most to connect with – there was no denying the celestial performance given by this skilled breakthrough actress.

Mbatha-Raw followed her Austen-esque performance in Belle with a Rhiana-esque turn in Beyond the Lights, playing a rising superstar trying to find personal authenticity in the music industry. Beyond the Lights caught several film critics by surprise thanks in large part to its poorly packaged ad campaign, misleading many moviegoers (present company included) into thinking it was – as In Contention’s Kris Tapley best put it – another “How Stella Got Her Groove Back, or better yet, like Nicholas Sparks for an African American audience or something.” But the film has much more to offer beneath a shitty poster or two, as it delves into the harsh demands that are put on female entertainers in the industry. And who knows what would have been for Mbatha-Raw had the film been taken more seriously a bit sooner? Maybe we would be talking about her being Julianne Moore’s biggest threat to win the Oscar.

While Gugu Mbatha-Raw has supporting turns in upcoming films like Jupiter Ascending and an untitled NFL concussion drama, lead roles are almost certain to come piling in soon, and by the truckload. Or at least they better.

– Mark Johnson

So there you have it – the updated roster for breakthrough performances is pictured below. Do you think Mbatha-Raw deserves the crown? Feel like we left anyone off that should have made the list? Let us know in the comments below.

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