Awards Circuit’s Top 10 Breakthrough Performers of 2018

It’s hard to believe that another year has passed. It sounds like an old cliche, but the older I get the quicker the years seem to be flying by. It feels like yesterday that we were just ranking “The Shape of Water” against “Get Out” against “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” doesn’t it? As with any year-end, we have seen/are seeing a cornucopia of “Best of the Year” lists – from various trades and sites ranking their favorite films (including our very own), to what #filmtwitter deems essential compilations (think: Kris Tapley’s top 10 Shots at Variety, and David Ehrlich’s 25 Best Films Montage over at Indiewire.  Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone’s best performances, moments, and screenplays).

As you know, we are in the business of having opinions, and so making an index of our rankings becomes one of our favorite past times. It’s obvious – based on many twitter interactions –  that most of you enjoy comparing lists and debating the merits of the films, performances, and craftsmanship we preferred this year. My personal favorite list to create is the top breakthrough performers of the year. Now in its tenth year (seventh at Awards Circuit), the list is meant to be more of a forecast to eventual, if not sudden, stardom. We have a history of being well ahead of the curve with this list (Alicia Vikander ranked third on our list for 2012 after starring in “A Royal Affair” and “Anna Karenina,” three years before she’d be appearing on other breakthrough lists for her performance in “The Danish Girl” and “Ex Machina” in 2015).

As per usual, I will provide my standard recap of how we are defining “breakthrough,” since there are multiple ways to look at that term. So, if curious, see below.

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In 2016, we brought an additional layer to the breakthrough piece by installing a Spotlight Performer commendation (inspired by the early forecasting of Vikander’s star power). The intent of this citation is to foresee who might appear on the Breakthrough list the following year or two – a way of saying “keep your eye on this actor in 2019 or 2020,” if you will. Last year’s Spotlight Performers were Haley Lu Richardson (“Split” and “Columbus”) and Ana de Armas (“Blade Runner: 2049” and “Overdrive”). While the former continued to enjoy success in 2018, we might still be in store for a big breakthrough from the latter. Ana de Armas is someone who could explode in 2019, with five titles on her slate (including working with Danny Boyle and Rian Johnson). So we will continue to keep our eyes on the pair, along with this year’s deserving beneficiaries.

Without further ado, I give you the 2018 Spotlight Performers.

2018 Spotlight Performers

Zazie Beetz – “Deadpool 2,” “Slice,” “Dead Pigs,” “That’s Harassment” (Short), and “Atlanta” (TV) – by Mark Johnson

While Zazie Beetz’s biggest role in 2018 was playing Domino in “Deadpool 2,” most folks might already recognize her for playing Van, opposite Donald Glover in his Golden Globe and Emmy-winner show, “Atlanta.” The German-born actress’ other work this year might be a little lesser-seen, and so we aren’t necessarily ready to call 2018 her breakthrough year. Especially not with what’s coming on the horizon. In 2019, we feel Beetz could explode, potentially landing the number one spot on the breakthrough list at the end of all things. Her slate includes no less than seven films currently in post-production, including starring alongside Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm in Noah Hawley’s “Lucy in the Sky;” Dakota Johnson and Armie Hammer in Babak Anvari’s “Wounds;” Joaquin Phoenix and Robert DeNiro in Todd Phillips’ “Joker;” and looks to have the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird.” Along with the seven films likely to be released in 2019, Beetz will also star in “X-Force” – a bridge movie between “Deadpool 2” and “Deadpool 3” – which is just now in the early stages of production. Big things are ahead, to say the least.

Florence Pugh – “The Commuter,” “Outlaw King,” “Malevolent,” and “The Little Drummer Girl” (TV) – by Mark Johnson

Originally slated rather high on the 2018 Breakthrough Performers list, we did a last-minute-switcheroo with English actress Florence Pugh, saving her for one of the Spotlight Performer slots instead. While one could argue she broke out in 2016 for “Lady Macbeth,” we are being rather bullish following her pretty strong showing in 2018 as well. The reason for it? We feel rather strongly about the adroit and stunning starlet, and, like Beetz, feel an even more obvious breakthrough is just on the horizon. While I have been a big fan since seeing her performance in the aforementioned “Lady Macbeth,” I became even more fascinated with the talented ingenue after watching the six-part miniseries, “Little Drummer Girl,” this past fall. She not only held her own against Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård, she, in fact, but also carried the show with her intrepid yet vulnerable depiction.

In 2019, Pugh will play the cunning and manipulative youngest sister, Amy March, in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” adaptation. The film also stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Bob Odenkirk, and Chris Cooper. She also stars in Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” with Will Poulter, and Stephen Merchant’s “Fighting with My Family,” opposite Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey, and Vince Vaughn. I think we are seeing a talent in the realm of Jennifer Lawrence or Brie Larson here, and with the right role, the birth of a new star.

Go down below to the see the Top 10 Breakthrough Performers of 2018.

2018 Top 10 Breakthrough Performers

“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Ocean’s Eight,” “Dude,” and “Animals” (TV)

-by Karen Peterson

Nora Lum was a sixteen-year-old actress and singer in Queens when she adopted the stage name Awkwafina. She released the rap song, “My Vag” on YouTube in 2012 where it went viral and eventually to the first of two rap albums in 2014. Her second was released in 2018, in the midst of a stellar year for her acting career.

Awkwafina made her film debut in 2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” followed by some voice work and appearances on several television shows. But in 2018, she joined Debbie Ocean’s band of criminals as pickpocket extraordinaire Constance in “Ocean’s 8.” Starring alongside Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and Anne Hathaway was a major breakthrough.

After “Ocean’s 8” premiered in May, Awkwafina book-ended the summer by starring in “Crazy Rich Asians” in August. That film was a major hit and sealed her place as a star. It earned her an invitation to host Saturday Night Live, where she became the first Asian woman to host the show since Lucy Liu did it in 2000.

But all that attention did come with some controversy as some audiences criticized Awkwafina for adopting a so-named “blaccent,” a term used to describe a non-black person appropriating black culture and language.

The controversy has led to a more general discussion of cultural appropriation. It has not derailed Awkafina’s trajectory, though. She is headed to Sundance later this month with two films, the drama, “The Farewell,” and the fantasy, “Paradise Hills.” She is also signed on to appear in the upcoming sequel to “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.”

Joanna Kulig
“Cold War,” “Milosc jest wszystkim,” “7 uczuc,” “Kler,” “Play” (Short), “Pulapka” (TV), and “O mnie sie nie martw” (TV)

-by Alan French

If you didn’t know who Joanna Kulig was when 2018 started, it’s impossible to blame you. Frankly, it’s a surprise that she has become so popular in a film year like 2018. It would be easy to ignore the foreign-born ingenue in a year full of incredible performances by women. Yet the very point of Kulig’s breakout status must be our inability to forget her. That tells you the real talent and well of potential that exists for Kulig as a performer. Starring in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” might be our introduction to the actress, but if she becomes the next Isabelle Huppert, it is doubtful anyone would be surprised.

Kulig dominated “Cold War” in a way that only an emerging star can. Her passion and intensity were clear from the word go, and her transformative role inspired awe. Despite the narrative only spanning fifteen years, she seemingly reinvents herself with each segment. Over the 88-minute run-time of “Cold War,” Kulig seemingly turned in a half-dozen performances. Yet you can feel the same ache, pain, and hurt in each version of the doomed Zula. You can put her toe-to-toe with any performance in 2018, and reasonably say she could come out on top. That is saying a lot in 2018.

While “Cold War” might be what brought Kulig to our attention, she has a lot on the horizon. She’s also a workhorse, appearing in four films in 2018 as well as a television show. Her schedule appears to be open according to other reports. Even if she just becomes Pawlikowski’s muse for the next decade, the actress has an extremely high upside.

Letitia Wright
“Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “The Commuter,” “Ready Player One,” and “Drake: Nice for What” (Video Short)

-By Sam Coffey

As you may or may not have heard, the box office champion of 2018 wasn’t an A-list celebrity, but rather a name few had probably heard of before Marvel’s “Black Panther” graced the multiplexes in early 2018: Letitia Wright.  With massive hits such as “Avengers: Infinity War,” “The Commuter,” “Ready Player One,” and the aforementioned “Black Panther” under her belt, Wright seemingly became a ubiquitous star overnight.  Add to that an Emmy nomination for her work on “Black Mirror” and a hot-off-the-presses nomination for the EE BAFTA Rising Star Award, Wright is here to stay.

Ever the scene-stealer, Wright’s Shuri is clearly the future of the MCU, and one can only hope she’s given the opportunities afforded her MCU counterparts.  In addition to “Avengers: Endgame,” Wright has “Guava Island” lined up from the minds that brought us “Atlanta:” Donald Glover and Hiro Murai.  It goes without saying that Wright will probably be in the Phase 4 MCU progeny of films (both “Black Panther” follow-ups), as well as any additional “Avengers” films.  Ideally, she’ll be able to follow in the footsteps of her co-star Lupita Nyong’o, being cast in the oeuvre of all upcoming Disney films following her breakout year.

Elsie Fisher
“Eighth Grade”

-by Christopher James

Eighth Grade” depicts an age on-screen that’s rarely taken seriously. Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day, an eighth grader struggling to find her place in her school’s social strata. Most movies that deal with middle school usually deal with it as a subplot. If its the focus of a film, it’s an oversimplified children’s film. What’s so extraordinary about Elsie Fisher’s performance is she’s able to convey the high stakes of her social gaffes. For an awkward girl trying to find her way, fumbling her words to a cool girl feels like falling off a cliff. Sitting with high-schoolers during lunch might as well be a Royal Ball. Elsie Fisher brings us into Kayla’s world. It’s frightening, full of great ups and downs, but ultimately rewarding experience. Her Golden Globe nomination is richly deserved.


Up next, Fisher returns to the world of animation (she was in the “Despicable Me” franchise). She joins the cast of “The Addams Family,” the animated adaptation directed by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan (“Sausage Party”). Fisher plays Parker Needler, the daughter of reality TV host Margaux Needler (voiced by Allison Janney), the antagonist of the film. Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll and Bette Midler round out the titular family.

Henry Golding
“Crazy Rich Asians” and “A Simple Favor”

-by Karen Peterson

Henry Golding arrived in Hollywood ready to be a star. The Malaysian and British actor spent years building his on-camera resume as host of BBC’s The Travel Show. That show took him around the world, from luxury five-star experiences to traveling on a budget.

He made the leap to the big screen in 2018 with back to back starring roles. It seems almost impossible that “Crazy Rich Asians” was his feature film debut. As the dashing Nick Young, he won the hearts of Constance Wu and legions of new fans. The film had been on many most-anticipated lists, and the trailer played for months ahead of time. By the time it was finally released, it seemed everyone already knew everything there was to know about Henry Golding.

He followed that summer hit one month later with Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor.” In this stylish thriller, he plays Blake Lively’s husband Sean, a university English professor with writer’s block. He clearly worked well with Feig as the two almost immediately signed on to another project, “Last Christmas,” which is expected this December.

Variety named Henry Golding one of 2018’s People to Watch, and people are certainly watching. His next film, “Monsoon,” is in post-production and looking for distribution. And he is currently filming Guy Ritchie’s “Toff Guys” alongside Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, and Michelle Dockery.

If 2018 was just the beginning, there may be no limit to how high Henry Golding’s star can rise.

Amandla Stenberg
“The Hate U Give,” “The Darkest Minds,” and “Where Hands Touch”

-by Sam Coffey

Amandla Stenberg has gotten the short end of the stick this awards season.  Her harrowing, natural performance as Starr Carter in George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give” should be cementing her as a star of the next generation of Hollywood actresses.  The film (written by the late Audrey Wells), as well as her activism, has lead Stenberg to grace the cover of TIME Magazine – no small feat for the actress who played Rue in “The Hunger Games” a few short years ago.  While her other 2018 films are dubious at best (flop “The Darkest Minds” and Nazi love story “Where Hands Touch”), her iconic turn in “The Hate U Give” was the breakout performance that proves Stenberg is here to stay.

Despite her trio of films in 2018, Stenberg has nothing lined up at the moment, though she has expressed interest in starring as Nikki Green in the long-wished-for “Kill Bill Vol. 3.”  What would you like to see Stenberg in moving forward?

Stephan James
“If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Homecoming” (TV)

-by Shane Slater

Despite his young age, 25-year old Toronto native Stephan James is no stranger to the film industry. From his early years in Canadian television, he has since been featured in such notable films as “Selma” and “Race,” where he starred as the legendary politician John Lewis in the former, and Olympic athlete Jesse Owens in the latter. But it wasn’t until 2018 that we finally stood up and took notice of his true potential as an actor. Under Barry Jenkins’ intimate gaze for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” James displayed incredible emotional depth and stood out among an impressive ensemble. As Fonny, the actor is as charming as a love-struck romantic lead as he is vulnerable as a wrongfully accused victim of injustice. His undeniable screen presence suggested a major movie star in the making.

On the small screen, James also had a major breakthrough opposite Julia Roberts in “Homecoming,” further proving he could hold his own alongside some of Hollywood’s finest actors. The role landed him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Drama Series and will surely be the first of many plaudits to come in his promising future. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait too long to see him again, as he already has a role lined up in Brian Kirk’s “17 Bridges,” set for release in July 2019.

Cynthia Erivo
“Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale”

-By Christopher James

Few actors have had as good of a year as Cynthia Erivo. The renowned theater actress finally brought her talents to the big screen. In doing so, she proved that she has the makings of a great movie star. “Bad Times at the El Royale” found Erivo cast alongside an ensemble cast that includes Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, and shirtless Chris Hemsworth. As Darlene Sweet, a soul singer searching for a break in all the wrong places, Erivo becomes a fan favorite. She manages to upstage even Hemsworth’s abs with her rendition of “This Old Heart of Mine.”

Speaking of ensembles, Erivo scored a role in perhaps the grandest ensemble of the year. Steve McQueen’s “Widows” stacks itself with a powerhouse cast that includes Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya and many many more. Erivo stands out as Belle, a mother who works multiple jobs to make end’s meat. Between babysitting and hairdressing, Belle becomes embroiled in the titular widows’ heist plot. In her intro, Erivo proves that she can run like no other in a breathtaking race to the bus. Even more impressive is how she waltzes into her first scene with Viola Davis and gives her a dressing down. Though she’s a newcomer, Erivo isn’t afraid to take on one of our most prolific actresses. She proves, just as she did in “Bad Times at the El Royale,” that she has what it takes to be one of our most exciting new actresses.

What’s up next for Cynthia Erivo? What isn’t on the horizon for this bright talent? She stars as a pivotal supporting role in “Chaos Walking,” Doug Liman’s big-budget science fiction film. The screenplay may have six writers attached to it, but one is Charlie Kaufman so the film could be exciting. It opens on March 1, 2019. She’s sticking to the science fiction genre with her second upcoming project, “Needle in a Timestack,” written and directed by Oscar-winner John Ridley. The film also stars Leslie Odom Jr., Freida Pinto, Orlando Bloom, and Jadyn Wong. Perhaps most exciting is her role as Harriet Tubman in the biopic “Harriet.” The film is directed by Kasi Lemmons and is slated for a fall 2019 release. Could this lead to Erivo’s first Oscar nomination? Very possibly.

John David Washington
“BlacKkKlansman,” “The Old Man & the Gun,” and “Monsters and Men”

-by Joey Magidson

Just one short year ago, you could be forgiven for not knowing who John David Washington was. Sure, maybe you’d heard of him simply because of who his father is. Or, perhaps you followed his aborted attempt to play professional football. Aside from a few credits in his father’s movies, his only major credentials come from his performance in the HBO series “Ballers.” Well, 2018 saw Washington breakthrough in a big way. He portrayed police officers in a trio of well-regarded films that have made appearances throughout the awards season.

At Sundance, he played a pivotal part in one section of “Monsters and Men.” Then, at Cannes, he had his massive showcases with the starring role in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” Throw in a supporting part in “The Old Man & the Gun,” which debuted at Telluride, and he’s been everywhere this year. In fact, his supremely compelling turn in Lee’s opus has him in contention for an Academy Award nomination. He’s already received a Golden Globe nod, putting him in the thick of Oscar season. Can a nomination from the Academy be far off? If it doesn’t happen this year, the safe money is on it happening soon. Washington is no longer his father’s son, he’s simply an up and coming star-in-the-making. He’s got the goods, no doubt about that.

Brian Tyree Henry
“Widows,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “White Boy Rick,” “Hotel Artemis,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Family,” “Irreplaceable You,” “Atlanta” (TV), “Room 104” (TV), “Drunk History” (TV), and “BoJack Horseman” (TV)

-by Mark Johnson

Brian Tyree Henry became someone to immediately keep an eye on following the premiere of Donald Glover’s F/X series, “Atlanta,” on September 6th, 2016. Starring as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, the deadpan rapper/friend of Glover’s Earnest Marks, Henry brought both hysterical comic relief and intense dramatics through his character’s expressionless stoicism. So while fans of the series have likely been fans of the actor for a couple years now, it is impossible to say Henry did not break out in a meteoric way in 2018.

Starring in seven movies and four television shows (including season two of “Atlanta”), Henry was everywhere this year. His most notable turns were as the menacing political candidate, Jamal Manning, in Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” and as the sobering and lamentable ex-con, Daniel Carty, in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.” In the former, Brian Tyree Henry’s presence ominously hovers over the already bleak themes of the film, while in the latter, the adept actor gives a scene-stealing performance that lingers long after his act draws to a close. It surprises me that he has received very few citations for what might be the best supporting performance this year.

In 2019, Henry is not slowing down by any means. The actor has three films in post-production scheduled for release this year, including “Child’s Play,” “Superintelligence,” and perhaps most notably, Joe Wright’s “The Woman in the Window.” He also has two films already in store for 2020: “The Outside Story” and “Godzilla vs. Kong.” It’s clear he is in high demand at the moment, and with his abilities, the sky is the limit for this year’s breakthrough champion.

So there you have it. Another year in the books and another breakthrough list completed. What are your thoughts on the selections? Whose star do you see shining the brightest moving forward? Share your thoughts in the comments!

What do you think?

AC Fan

Written by Mark Johnson

Lover of all things film and Oscar. Fantasy sports’ equivalent of George Steinbrenner. Your very own Han Solo, making friends all over the movie-loving galaxy in spite of himself. When he’s not ranking just about everything or dominating boardgames, Mark is breaking down the Oscar race 24/7 with Rain Man-like stats and knowledge. In his downtime, you can find him commiserating with other Northeast Ohio sports fans because a hero isn’t complete without a little heartbreak. If Game of Thrones, Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Survivor are your style, then congratulations, you have something in common with this inglourious basterd.


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