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Awards Circuit’s Top 10 Breakthrough Performers of 2019

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Another year has come and gone, and with it the end of a decade as well. In 2019, we witnessed an outstanding year of breakthrough performances. The list of talented newcomers was so overwhelming that I could make a pretty impressive second list from those who just missed the cut.

The annual Breakthrough Performances article has long been my favorite list to create. Now in its eleventh year (eighth 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).

Each year, I provide you with my standard recap of how we are defining “breakthrough,” since there truly 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 2020 or 2021,” if you will. Last year’s Spotlight Performers were Florence Pugh (“The Commuter,” “Outlaw King,” “Malevolent,” and “King Lear” and “The Little Drummer Girl” on the TV side) and Zazie Beetz (“Deadpool 2”, “Dead Pigs,” and “Slice,” and “Atlanta” on the TV side). While both ladies had big years, Pugh found HUGE success in 2019 – and (spoiler alert) might appear later in the list. Beetz might still be in store for an even bigger breakthrough in the next year or two.

Without further ado, I give you the 2019 Spotlight Performers.

2019 Spotlight Performers

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Camila Morrone – “Mickey and the Bear” – by Mark Johnson

One of the surprise hits from the 2019 Nantucket Film Festival was Annabelle Attanasio’s “Mickey and the Bear.” Aside from being one of the best films of the year (review here), the movie put a new star on the map with Camila Morrone. Besides being Leonardo DiCaprio’s stunning girlfriend (at the time) and Al Pacino’s stepdaughter (both of which I was unaware of prior to the film), Morrone is an incredible talent whose performance as a headstrong teen dealing with an abusive father absolutely blew me away. Her portrayal reminded me of the star-making performances of Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone” and Brie Larson in “Short Term 12” (both of whom topped this list in their respective years). Morrone’s potential is so great that I decided to place her unworldly performance in the Spotlight Performers section in hopes that we will be debating about her being number one on the list in the near future.

For 2020, Morrone is only listed as having “Daisy Jones & the Six,” a TV series opposite former Spotlight Performer Riley Keough.

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Maya Hawke – “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” “Human Capital,” and “Stranger Things” (TV) – by Mark Johnson

Apparently, the theme of this year’s Spotlight Performers is nepotism. Maya Hawke is the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. The young actress/model made a star-turning performance in the third season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” playing Robin Buckley – a saucy, ice cream-scooping co-worker and former classmate of Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). She was the best addition to the show’s already fantastic ensemble. She had a smaller role in another ensemble film this year: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” 

In “Once,” Hawke played Flowerchild, one of Manson’s followers who backs out just before the film’s incredible climax. It was a smaller role, but one that when paired with her scene-stealing work in “Stranger Things” was enough for us to take notice.

Hawke has a few films slated in 2020, including Marc Meyers’ “Human Capital.” She stars opposite Marisa Tomei, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and Alex Wolff. The film played in Toronto and The Hamptons and has a 2020 TBD release date. She will also appear opposite Andrew Garfield and Jason Schwartzman in Gia Coppola’s “Mainstream” later this year. Hawke has also been cast opposite Andrea Riseborough and Charlie Plummer in Amanda Kramer’s “Please Baby Please,” with a likely 2021 release date coming.

Go down below to see the Top 10 Breakthrough Performers of 2019.

2019 Top 10 Breakthrough Performers

Julia Fox
“Uncut Gems”

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-by Ryan McQuade

In “Uncut Gems,” Julia Fox transforms the role of the protagonist’s girlfriend into one of the most empathic characters of 2019. Fox plays Julia, Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) top saleswoman and muse on the side. She is a lively, animated figure in Howard’s life, making him feel young and giving him the love he can’t get at home. While Howard’s wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel) has fallen out of love with him, she can’t get enough of him. Even when they argue and break-up midway through the film, Julia and Howard rekindle their relationship because they need each other.

Fox is vivacious and calculated opposite of Sandler. While this character can usually play as eye candy, she’s the smartest character in the film by a mile. Fox always knows what to do, and Howard trusts her to help him fix his problems. It’s crazy to think this is her feature debut because she has the natural talent to go toe-to-toe against any veteran actor on the screen. She received the job by running into the Safdie Brothers at a coffee shop and becoming friends for many years. The Safdie’s are notorious for getting unknown talent for their films, and Julia Fox is the best discovery they’ve ever found.

Fox’s next film will be Ben Hozie’s “PVT CHAT,” which currently has a TBD release date.

Noah Jupe
“Ford v Ferrari” and “Honey Boy”

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-by Audrey Fox

“Honey Boy” is Shia LaBeouf’s story, but it’s Noah Jupe’s preternaturally mature performance that grounds the film in a deeply moving empathy. He plays a child actor, one who is wise and charming and talented, but nonetheless still a little boy desperate for the love of a resentful and frequently toxic father (LaBeouf). He is exhausted and worn out from financially and emotionally taking care of his dad, and it’s heartbreaking to watch him light up when a kind word is uttered his way from the man who is only going to disappoint him again and again. The film relies on Jupe to be able to carry the emotional weight of the story, and he is more than up to the challenge.

In terms of powerful child performances, Jupe in “Honey Boy” is right up there with a young Christian Bale in “Empire of the Sun.” Which makes his other major role of 2019 particularly interesting, as he plays Peter Miles, son of driver Ken Miles (Bale), in “Ford v Ferrari.” He has less to do here, but he still delivers a strong and impactful performance, holding his own against seasoned Hollywood stars.

Next up for Jupe is “A Quiet Place Part II,” John Krasinski’s sequel to the 2018 box office hit. He will also appear in the television series “The Undoing,” with Hugh Grant, Nicole Kidman, and Donald Sutherland attached

Jodie Turner-Smith
“Queen & Slim” and “Jett” (TV)

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-By Shane Slater

Suspension of disbelief is key to watching movies, including those with real world connotations. One such example is Melina Matsoukas’ Black Lives Matter-inspired drama “Queen and Slim,” in which a couple goes on the run after killing a corrupt police officer after their first date. The central conceit requires audiences to believe that a woman would sacrifice her life to help a man she just met, even though her own professional experiences as a lawyer suggest they are doomed. But thanks to Jodie Turner-Smith’s fierce performance in the role, we are convinced by every questionable decision she makes. Fully embodying her character’s unflinching commitment to social justice, she is absolutely beguiling as she slowly reveals the layers of trauma and pain which inform her worldview.

With a formidable screen presence (she was aptly credited as “Statuesque Woman” in 2017’s “Newness”), Jodie Turner-Smith is one of the most promising new faces in Hollywood. And in 2020 we’ll be treated to more of her, as she stars alongside Michael B. Jordan in “Without Remorse” and Colin Farrell in “After Yang.”  

Taylor Russell
“Waves” and “Escape Room”

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-by Matthew St. Clair

In the family drama “Waves,” established names like Sterling K. Brown, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Lucas Hedges make up the ensemble. However, it is newcomer Taylor Russell whose star shines the brightest. As Emily Williams, a girl coping with a cataclysmic event that happens in her family, Russell acts as the picture’s conflicted yet kindly moral center.

Although the Canadian-born actress has been acting since 2012, “Waves” is signaling a tide turn in her career. In addition to winning the Gotham Award for Best Breakthrough Performer, Russell earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Female. Not to mention, she also starred in the horror film “Escape Room” which became a massive hit, grossing $155.7 million worldwide against a $9 million budget. Meanwhile, she currently has a supporting role in the Netflix reboot of “Lost in Space” which streamed its second season last month.

Next up is “Escape Room 2” along with “Words on Bathroom Walls” and “Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets,” two independent coming-of-age dramas. Hopefully, even bigger things are on the horizon for this promising young actress.

George MacKay
“1917,” “A Guide to Second Date Sex,” “Nuclear,” and “True History of the Kelly Gang”

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-by Karen Peterson

As a young soldier in one of the century’s most compelling war films, George MacKay captured the hearts of audiences this winter in Sam Mendes’ “1917.”  Some mistook Mackay for a newcomer, but the British actor got his start more than 15 years ago as a Lost Boy in PJ Hogan’s “Peter Pan.”

Through the years, he has taken on a variety of characters, with notable work in films like the critically acclaimed “Pride” in 2014 and “Captain Fantastic” in 2016. That same year, he also appeared in one of Hulu’s earliest limited series, “11.22.63,” adapted from the novel by Stephen King.

Over the past two years, Mackay has started to find more solid footing in the industry, finding bigger roles in independent films. His work was enough to land him on the radar of director Sam Mendes, who cast him as Lance Corporal Will Schofield in the Best Picture nominee, “1917.” MacKay’s performance was so captivating that he became the subject of many FYC discussions. In a different year, MacKay might very well have found himself an Oscar nominee. The film, a technical marvel, would be nothing without the central performances from him and his co-star, Dean-Charles Chapman. But the journey centers on MacKay, who proves stoicism can be emotionally resonant with viewers.

Where does George MacKay go from here? His next film is expected to be the Julien Temple project, “You Really Got Me,” in which he plays one half of the Davies brothers who founded the 1960s band, The Kinks. We can certainly expect to see him on our screens for many years to come.

Paul Walter Hauser
“Richard Jewell,” “7 Days to Vegas,” “Late Night,” “Beats,” and “Cobra Kai” (TV)

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-by Joey Magidson

Prior to 2017, it wouldn’t be shocking for someone to have no idea who Paul Walter Hauser was. Fast forward to 2020 and not only has the man had a breakthrough in 2019, but he’s also poised to see even bigger and better things in the near future. How did it happen? Well, 2017 introduced Hauser with a scene-stealing supporting turn in “I, Tonya.” His role as Shawn was our first hint that he was an undiscovered talent, especially when it comes to playing up the foolishness of a clueless individual who’s convinced they’ve got it all figured out. That Academy Award winning film helped put him on the map, while a year later, 2018 had Hauser turning heads in another Oscar winner. This time, it was “BlacKkKlansman” that highlighted his comedic abilities. Spike Lee saw his potential and cast him, leading to his comic relief being one of the flick’s most entertaining elements.

2019 broke Hauser into the public eye in a bigger way. There was the Sundance favorite “Late Night,” as well as his first true leading role in “Richard Jewell,” in which he was an absolute revelation. All of his simple every-man qualities are turned towards drama here for Clint Eastwood, creating a portrait of a misunderstood real-life character that manages to be heartbreaking. You feel for Richard, due in no small part to Hauser’s ability to generate deep empathy for the character. In lesser hands, Jewell could have been a caricature. Paul Walter Hauser, however, allows his tender humanity to shine through from start to finish. It’s certainly one of the year’s most underrated performances.

This year, Hauser has a number of interesting projects to be excited for, including “Adam” and “Cruella.” But the film I am most excited about is his re-teaming with Lee for “Da 5 Bloods.” Depending on what his role is like, not only could the up-and-coming actor find himself in another awards film, he may even be able to contend for his first Oscar nomination. After this Breakthrough honor here, wouldn’t some notice from the Academy be quite the cherry on top? Sleep on him at your own risk!

Jessie Buckley
“Judy,” “Wild Rose,” and “Chernobyl” (TV)

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-by Chris James

Few people have had a more interesting or wide array of roles than Jessie Buckley. The Irish-born actress made waves this summer with her starring role in “Wild Rose.” She headlines the film as Rose-Lynn Harlan, an ex-convict trying to re-establish her life in Glasgow. Buckley brings tenacity and spirit to Rose-Lynn that shines through every scene, particularly when acting against talents like Sophie Okonedo and Julie Walters. All her life, Rose-Lynn dreamt of traveling to Nashville to become a country-western singer. Buckley’s voice soars as her character inspires those around her to give her a shot. Her final song, “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” easily was the best original song this year (and was unfortunately snubbed at the Oscars).

However, Buckley did not just stop at “Wild Rose” this year. She also played a key supporting role in “Judy,” alongside Renee Zellweger (on her way to her second Oscar). In the film, Buckley adds warmth behind the cold exterior of Rosalyn Wilder, Judy Garland’s handler on her British tour. Lastly, Buckley also turned heads on the small screen in “Chernobyl” on HBO. In the Emmy-winning miniseries, she played Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a first responder once the Chernobyl fires first burst open.

Currently, you can watch Jessie Buckley in theaters in “Dolittle,” where she portrays an ailing Queen Victoria. She’ll also star in the cold war thriller “Ironbark” alongside Rachel Brosnahan and Benedict Cumberbatch. Other upcoming film roles include “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (the next Charlie Kaufman film), “Misbehaviour” (a comedy also starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw – who topped this list in 2014 – and Keira Knightley) and “Cottontail” (a drama with Ralph Fiennes and Ken Watanabe). In terms of TV, she’s starring in the new season of “Fargo,” FX’s acclaimed anthology series based on the 1996 film.

Ana de Armas
“Knives Out,” “Wasp Network,” and “The Informer”

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-By Mark Johnson

Ana de Armas appeared as a Spotlight Performer on our 2017 Breakthrough list following her head-turning role in “Blade Runner 2049.”  Her stunning beauty was, at times, amplified at a larger-than-life scale, and she stole every scene she was in playing Ryan Gosling’s artificial intelligence love interest. We knew that was just the beginning, and the Cuban-born actress now ranks rather high on this list following her star-making turn in Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out.”

Her portrayal as the ever-loyal house nurse (opposite Daniel Craig) earned de Armas her first Golden Globe nomination (Lead Actress Musical or Comedy), among other critics, list citations. She appeared in three other films in 2019 and is expected to have a rather impressive 2020 as well.

De Armas’ first film this year, “The Night Clerk,” comes out in February and stars Helen Hunt, Tye Sheridan, and John Leguizamo. In April, she will appear in “Sergio,” opposite “Narcos” star Wagner Moura. In that same month, de Armas reteams with Craig and becomes a Bond girl in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “No Time to Die.” Later this year she will star in Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe biopic, “Blonde,” playing the legendary actress. I won’t be surprised if the talented actress is in the awards race this time next year. Finally, de Armas has Adrian Lyne’s “Deep Water,” scheduled for a November run. She will be opposite Ben Affleck and Tracy Letts in this one. There’s no telling what 2020 will do for the future superstar’s career, but the future looks bright.

Kelvin Harrison Jr.
“Waves,” “Luce,” “Gully,” and “The Wolf Hour”

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-by Alan French

There are few actors that can turn out multiple breakthrough performances in a year. For Kelvin Harrison Jr., he stamped his passport to this list in January of 2019. “Luce” quickly drew attention to the 25-year-old for his charismatic and uneasy turn. At Telluride, he bounced back into the awards discussion with “Waves” from Trey Edward Shults. Playing an angry and athletic teen, Harrison embedded himself into the minds of cinephiles and Hollywood. With two brilliant turns, Harrison quickly became one of the most promising actors of his generation.

The comps will range drastically, but Harrison’s upside as a performer has few rivals. Perhaps the most exciting can be summed up in one name: Leo. Few actors can display a penchant for drama and comedy, all while allowing their raw emotion to shine through. In “Luce,” Harrison brings the boyish charm that creates a teen heartthrob. You understand why everyone in Luce’s world would be draw to him. The menace and fear he instills clicks the film into place. He can also collaborate with his directors and an early career tie to Shults will create success. Harrison’s ability to put himself into his roles cannot be ignored. The autobiographical elements on screen and in his characters show a vulnerability endears audiences to stars. For Harrison, the sky is the limit.

For 2020, Harrison already has two projects of note. The buzzier of the roles comes in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” as Fred Hampton. Portraying a Civil Rights hero will draw attention, but anyone who knows about Hampton’s tragic life makes it all the more tantalizing. While he will run into issues finding space for a nomination as part of the ensemble, it will likely put him in a position to pick up his first SAG nomination. This summer, he will also have a role in the new Nisha Ganata (“Late Night”) film, “Covers.” The LA-based love story could push him to superstardom, especially if it allows him to showcase his musical talent. 2020 will be an interesting year for Harrison, but 2019 will be seen as the beginning of an exciting and meteoric rise for the young actor.

Florence Pugh
“Little Women,” “Midsommar,” and “Fighting With My Family”

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-by Mark Johnson

Florence Pugh’s breakout has been years in the making, honestly. It could be argued that she actually broke through in 2016 playing the vicious and alluring Katherine in “Lady Macbeth.” In 2018, Pugh had a very strong year, earning her a citation as one of our Spotlight Performers on this very list. With film roles in “Malevolent,” “The Commuter,” and “The Outlaw King,” and TV performances in “King Lear” and “The Little Drummer Girl,” it was obvious that Pugh was on the verge of stardom.

Enter 2019, and it looks like the decision to hold her off the 2018 Breakthrough List was a good one. 2019 took Pugh from budding star to an A-list, Oscar-nominated actress. Her year started with a charming performance in the surprisingly good film, “Fighting With My Family.” In July, she starred in Ari Aster’s follow-up nightmare to “Hereditary,” “Midsommar.” Her virtuoso performance blew audiences and critics away, and despite being only halfway through the year, I knew we had found our eventual Breakthrough Performer champ of 2019.

But Pugh wasn’t done with her remarkable year, as she would go on to earn her first Academy Award nomination playing Amy in Greta Gerwig’s Best Picture nominated film, “Little Women.” Pugh is an extraordinary force in the film: headstrong, astute, and persuasive. All eyes are on her performance, as she captivates the capricious and ofttimes bratty youngest March sister better than anyone before her.

Pugh’s burgeoning star will continue to rise in 2020, as she next appears in Marvel’s “Black Widow,” playing Scarlett Johansson’s sister, Yelena.

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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!

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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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Joey Magidson

A fine collection once again!

Peter Cho

1. why are all these performers american or british?!

2. Some of my fav breakouts:
Aisling Franciosi – The Nightingale
So-dam Park – Parasite
Noémie Merlant – Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Rosa Salazar – Battle Angel
Catrinel Marlon – The Whistlers
Raffey Cassidy – The Other Lamb
Hayley Bennett – Swallow
Tom Mercier – Synonyms

Peter Cho

Also, Ella Balinska was great in Charlie’s Angels. Movie is terrible but she shines and will go far from here.

Luke McGowan

Glad to see Pugh at #1, I thought for sure you’d disqualify her because she was on the shortlist for last year!

Ryan

Excellent calls on Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrison Jr. being as high as #2.

Jonathan Majors, Billie Lourd, Himesh Patel, Keke Palmer, Skyler Gisondo, and Eliza Scanlen would also make my list.

Nezunoban

Archie Yates! :)

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