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The 25 Best Breakthrough Performances Of 2013

by The Playlist Staff
December 3, 2013 2:20 PM
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25 Breakthrough Artists of 2013

One of the great pleasures of being a movie fan is the discovery of new performers. Faces that, months earlier, you'd have passed by in the street, suddenly gifted the role of a lifetime, and whose lives will never be the same again. It feels to us that 2013 was an especially strong year for new faces: festivals like Sundance, SXSW and Cannes, not to mention films that went straight to wide release, unleashed a veritable hurricane of talent that we'll be seeing for years to come.

Having kicked off our year-end coverage with the breakout directors of the year last week, we continue today by rounding up our 25 favorite performances by new faces—or performers that we knew, but really got to shine for the first time—from the last twelve months or so. Take a look at them below, in order from 25 to 1, and you can quibble about the ranking, and suggest your own favorite breakout stars of the year in the comments section. And here's to a whole new batch of talent in 2014.

You're Next

25. Sharni Vinson - "You're Next"
As hugely entertaining and mostly well-made as it is (it was one of the better horror movies of the year), "You're Next" is hardly something to go to if you're looking for top-quality acting. Amy Seimetz shines briefly and Joe Swanberg acquits himself nicely, but otherwise the supporting cast are pretty ropey, in true low-budget horror movie fashion. But perhaps it was almost a deliberate move, because it makes the film's lead Sharni Vinson shine all the more. The Australian actress (who gets to use her native accent here, in a way that cunningly feeds into her backstory), previously best known as the lead of "Step Up 3D," is immediately iconic as Erin, the girlfriend of A.J. Bowen's Crispian, whose family are targeted by mysterious masked invaders. Most of them are like lambs to the slaughter, but Erin, initially so sweet and endearing, is a secret badass, having grown up on a survivalist compound. Vinson takes to the action like a combination of Ripley and Laurie Strode, but while it's enormously convincing as a physical turn (if Hollywood is looking for their next badass female lead, they need to look no further), she's not some killing machine: there's a very real person dodging the axes and setting the traps. The long-delayed film was disappointingly underseen on release but Erin is a character who'll be inspiring horror fans for generations to come.

What Maisie Knew

24. Joanna Vanderham and Onata Aprile - "What Maisie Knew"
The cast of Scott McGehee & David Siegel's very solid "What Maisie Knew" are themselves very solid across the board, even if they're playing mostly loathsome people, as Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore do. But the ones that really turned our heads were the two least-well known performers in the main cast, in the shape of Onata Aprile and Joanna Vanderham. We'll have more to say about Aprile's performance in the title role down the line, but in brief: she's heartbreakingly good as the innocent used as a pawn in her parents' divorce battle, never even coming close to the precociousness of most child performers. Just as impressive, though less immediately attention-grabbing is young Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham, best known for BBC TV show "The Paradise," and who plays Margo, Maisie's nanny-turned-stepmother. Vanderham sells that Margo is young and naive enough to end up in a relationship with, and even marrying, Coogan's character, but also wise enough to realize that she's quickly made a mistake. She and Aprile have natural chemistry together, something so crucial to making the film's ending work, but she resists making the character into a saint at the same time. If more casting directors wise up, there's a massive movie star in the making here.

Enough Said

23. Tavi Gevinson - "Enough Said"
Casting a 17-year-old feminist style blog prodigy in her first major acting role is the kind of thing that, in the hands of anyone but Nicole Holofcener, would smack of attention-seeking stunt-casting. But Tavi Gevinson's performance in "Enough Said" more than justifies her unusual route to the screen. Chicago native Gevinson made her name as the 12-year-old writer of fashion blog Style Rookie, and at 15, founded the impressive Rookie Magazine, but makes her feature debut in Holofcener's latest, as Chloe, the friend of Tess (Eve Hewson), the daughter of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Eva. It's not a huge role, but Gevinson makes a real impression with what she has. Chloe's not an unhappy kid, though she is a little neglected by her own parents, finding a surrogate parent in Eva that puts her relationship with Tess, and Eva's with Tess, in trouble. But she doesn't need soapy storylines or histrionic moments: there's a deeply authentic awkwardness to Gevinson's performance that makes it one of the more memorable teen performances of recent times. Expect Lena Dunham-style all-media dominance within the next few years.

Lance LeGault

22. Lance LeGault - “Prince Avalanche”
David Gordon Green’s sublime and hilarious “Waiting For Godot”-esque two-hander is pretty much all Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd, the duo playing two distinctly different men coming to terms with each other and themselves as road crew workers spending a summer fixing highways next to a landscape ravaged by wildfire. But the arrestingly funny, spit-take, laugh out loud comic relief from their bickering comes in the form of Lance LeGault, an unnamed shit-kicking Truck Driver, who occasionally stops by for chit-chat and to share the wealth of his moonshine. LeGault, a then 76-year-old man and former character actor was rediscovered on the set of commercials by Green who loved his stories and wild, off-the-cuff, “I’m old so I don’t give a shit anymore” nature. And while the specifics of Green’s direction is unknown, it appears that the scene-stealing LeGault (one of 2013’s biggest scene stealers bar none), was just turned loose and let buckwild in front of the camera. He’s utterly hilarious in the movie and his sassy joie de vivre is infectious in this odd little joy of a movie. LeGault unfortunately died only a few months after shooting, so he didn’t have time to get on any comeback trail (and you best bet that would have happened had he lived), but “Prince Avalanche” is a terrific film to go out on—a snapshot of an electric and dynamic comedic energy that we sadly were only able to catch a tiny glimpse of.  

Emory Cohen

21. Emory Cohen - "The Place Beyond The Pines"
We won't hide it: Emory Cohen's turn in Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond The Pines" is one of the more divisive of the year. Some loved it, some absolutely hated it, and the arguments in Playlist HQ over his place on this list caused enough anger and resentment that it'll likely spark off at least one multi-generational blood-feud. Those of us on pro side of the equation would maintain that it was one of the more striking turns by a young actor this year. Cohen only turns up in the final third of the crime epic, as AJ, the douchey, doughy apple-fell-far-from-the-tree offspring of Bradley Cooper's upright but compromised copper, who finds himself the target of the revenge schemes of Dane DeHaan's Jason. He is, at first, almost unbearably unlikable, Cohen doing almost too good a job at showing what an entitled little dick little AJ's turned out to be, but he's still a kid too, and the young actor shows real vulnerability once he realizes who Jason really is. Dane DeHaan, with whom Cohen shares much of his screen time, has already established himself as one of the best actors of his generation, but that Cohen was able to even stand out alongside him is certainly a testament to the potential he holds.

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  • Joyce M. Johnson | January 12, 2014 1:42 PMReply

    Oscars for Captian Philips and 12 Years of Slavery. Great movies.

  • Joshua Chambers | December 24, 2013 4:02 PMReply

    I really enjoyed Yaya Alafia and Dorian Missick in Big Words. Saw the film at Slamdance and loved their chemistry.

  • Milton Grossman | December 16, 2013 3:23 PMReply

    I would nominate Hadas Yaron. Her strong performance made "Fill the Void" almost believable.

  • Jordan Porch | December 11, 2013 8:01 PMReply

    Emory Cohen has gotten a lot of beef for his performance, but I think he was perfection. Sure, he repelled most people, but that was the purpose of his character's existence. He was meant to foil Jason and show how new generations cannot always be blamed on the previous. I can only hope that Terry Winter will cast him in Boardwalk Empire after having lost the main young energy in Jimmy's Season Two demise.

  • Oscar | December 11, 2013 3:39 PMReply

    Lupita Nyong'o...

    That is all.

  • Daniel Delago | December 10, 2013 3:53 AMReply

    I just saw 'Blue is the Warmest Color' over the weekend and I was so impressed with Adele Exarchopoulos' performance. She will be a major star. I don't see how the Academy can ignore this film. It's groundbreaking cinema.

  • NewYorker | December 6, 2013 3:40 PMReply

    my 25 favorite breakthrough actors in 2013 are
    1-Ashley Benson-Spring Breakers
    2-Taissa Farmiga-The Bling Ring
    3-Gina Rodriguez-Filly Brown
    4-Miles Teller-Spectacular Now
    5-Michael B. Jordan-Fruitvale Station
    6-Tania Raymonde-Texas Chainsaw 3d
    7-Jane Levy-Evil Dead
    8-Tye Sheridan-Mud
    9-Dianna Agron-The Family
    10-Jackson Nicoll-Jackass presents: Bad Grandpa
    11-Alexa Vega-Machete Kills
    12-Charlie Day-Pacific Rim
    13-Liam James-The Way, Way Back
    14-Moises Arias-The Kings Of Summer, Despicable Me 2 & Ender's Game(he came along way from Hannah Montana)
    15-Alice Englert-Beautiful Creature
    16-Gabriella Wilde-Carrie
    17-Colin Ford-Disconnect
    18-Chadwick Boseman-42
    19-Will Poulter-We're The Millers
    20-Ty Simpkins-Iron Man 3 & Insidious Chapter 2
    21-Dylan O'Brien-The Internship
    22-Max Burkholder-The Purge
    23-Gaelan Connell-The Secret Life Of Dorks
    24-Nicholas Hoult-Warm Bodies & Jack The Giant Slayer
    25-Shanley Caswell-The Conjuring

  • Jordan Porch | December 11, 2013 7:56 PM

    Miles Teller was the worst! Shailene Woodley really disproved herself in that one after The Descendants. I agree with Taissa Farmiga, though -- just look at her as Violet in American Horror Story Season One. She was absolutely fantastic.

  • Daniel Delago | December 10, 2013 3:59 AM

    As far as 'The Bling Ring,' Katie Chang was the standout performance. 'Spring Breakers' was rubbish. Still in shock, the LA Film Critics Circle honored James Franco's marginal supporting actor performance.

  • Scott | December 5, 2013 12:58 PMReply

    Llewyn Davis is definitely Oscar Isaac's breakout lead but I think he really stood out in Drive as well.

  • Nia | December 5, 2013 10:13 AMReply

    I've been a fan of Brie Larson since United States of Tara - to "overshadow" Toni Colette's 4 character (5? or was it 6?) performance, that's saying something - can't wait to see her latest. can't wait to see Blue Is the Warmest Colour too, from all the praise I've read, preparing for a punch in the stomach

  • Jordan Porch | December 11, 2013 7:57 PM

    Yes, cannot wait for Blue is the Warmest Color to get to iTunes, since we cannot count on it expanding in theaters ;)

  • Roger Bean | December 4, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    Chaske Spencer in "WINTER IN THE BLOOD" -- his performance is one of the most haunting spells cast all year.

  • - | December 4, 2013 2:07 PMReply

    I don't know if it was just that awful accent or what but I couldn't stand watching Emory Cohen.

  • poppop | December 4, 2013 11:40 AMReply

    Glad to see Michael Zegen getting recognized for his stand out performance in Frances Ha. He was my favorite part of that movie and made Benji so lovable. Hes also in my favorite play of 2013 Bad Jews.

  • Prudhvi Raj | December 4, 2013 9:27 AMReply

    Wow Adele n Brie larson at the top.. They surely deserve all the top honours but why is Greta gerwig left out ?? where do she fit in?

  • bob hLaOrSrTis in translation | December 4, 2013 12:38 PM


    GREENBERG was her breakthrough years ago

  • Jina | December 4, 2013 10:45 AM

    I was wondering about Greta too, but I suppose she already had her "breakthrough" year with Greenberg.

  • j | December 4, 2013 7:44 AMReply

    Man i have to stop reading these things. You simultaneously encourage us to catch up with films like What Richard Did and Broken Circle Breakdown - and then ruin the plots. Surely an article like this can be written without giving away crucial plot details? Scratch that - it definitely can. Please be more sparing in future.

  • Kevin | December 4, 2013 9:07 AM

    Btw, everything mentioned in the Broken Circle Breakdown writeup is established pretty quickly early on in the movie.

  • Alex | December 4, 2013 2:32 AMReply

    I'm elated and stoked, as I've very much expected, to see Robin Weigert on this list. I hope she gets more recognition and another nomination for this one for the books performance. I want more of this kind of portrayal from her and I can't wait to see what's next. Writers, directors, producers- please give this wonderful actress more substantial roles that she truly deserves. It's about damn time.

  • Agnes | December 4, 2013 2:20 AMReply

    Great list, but would have liked to see Penn Badgley's performance in "Greetings from Tim Buckley" acknowledged. The film was choppy, but he had one of my favorite performances of the year.

  • MARGIN CALL my favorite film in 2012 | December 4, 2013 12:40 PM

    Penn Badgley is like a teenage mark ruffalo

    isn't he ?

    ha ha ha

  • Zack | December 3, 2013 11:04 PMReply

    Both Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie (who I've loved since "American Violet") in "42."

  • jusa | December 10, 2013 12:30 PM

    yun must be kidding

  • sp | December 4, 2013 2:20 PM

    Agreed. A couple of years ago , I saw American Violet on television , and I was blown away by Beharie's remarkable performance. Seriously , she was very Oscar-worthy.

  • greg | December 3, 2013 8:05 PMReply

    The kid from The Way Way Back was astounding.

  • Maile | December 3, 2013 7:58 PMReply

    Jamie Chung in Megan Griffith's EDEN!

  • brent stein | December 3, 2013 7:47 PMReply

    wtf is kellan lutz? my boy got the snub. now y'all gettin the snub. removin y'all from my favorites. peace.

  • hank | December 3, 2013 6:59 PMReply

    love you guys

  • grlica | December 3, 2013 6:15 PMReply

    I really liked Corey Stoll and Kristen Connolly in House of Cards. While not a film these two are the first names to pop up in my mind after seeing this article.

  • woody allen = peado | December 4, 2013 12:41 PM

    wait till you see stoll in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

    oscar worthy imo

  • Stella | December 3, 2013 5:46 PMReply

    yes adele!

  • aatx1228 | December 3, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    Count me in the detractor column for Emory Cohen in The Place Beyond the Pines. I was with the film up to the point the character is introduced. Very distracted by the accent, mannerisms, etc...however I imagine the role would've been challenging to any actor....

  • serena | December 11, 2013 4:15 AM

    Ugh, hated every minute of Cohen's performance. I actually thought he was some local non-professional Cianfrance picked out for realism, but then I remembered his equally atrocious turn in "Smash," (so mocked on social media he was written out of the second season). His performance actually makes me so doubt Cianfrance's reputation with actors; his improvisation-heavy style worked well on BLUE VALENTINE thanks to his stellar actors Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, but PINES goes to show it can't work with everyone.

  • benutty | December 3, 2013 3:01 PMReply

    Thank you for acknowledging the brilliance of something like Rabbit Hole, specifically for Tenner's remarkable performance.

  • Karl | December 3, 2013 2:56 PMReply

    Both Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland in Mud and Jackson Nicoll in Bad Grandpa are worth mention. I agree with most of your list though, especially Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan.

  • Mark Johnson | December 3, 2013 2:56 PMReply

    You don't consider Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance in 12 Years a Slave a breakthrough? Sure, many of us knew his face before this year, but how many more will now remember his name?

  • alonzo harris | December 4, 2013 12:42 PM

    INSIDE MAN was his breakthrough

  • Oliver Lyttelton | December 3, 2013 2:59 PM

    Not really, no. He was winning awards for Dirty Pretty Things a decade ago, he's had a bunch of big roles, and was co-lead in a movie that made nearly $800 million worldwide (2012). It kicks him up a level, for sure, but he was much better known than even, say, Oscar Isaac.

  • Jennifer | December 3, 2013 2:39 PMReply

    Barkhad Abdi? I feel like I watched a different version of Captain Phillips than everyone else. He was fine in the part, but all he really did was stand around and say "Everything's gonna be all right" like 10 times.

  • FP | December 6, 2013 2:09 AM

    And what did Tom Hanks do for that entire movie? Half was standing in his control tower, half was sitting on his ass, waiting for the cavalry. I know Americans enjoy proving repeatedly that they can kick ass and take names, but anyone who thinks that was not Abdi's film from start to finish needs to stop listening to the Toby Keith record playing up their asses for 2 hours and rewatch CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.

  • bernie rose | December 4, 2013 12:46 PM

    Don Cheadle + the christian bale 'machinist' diet = barkhad abdi

    if they wanna praise a foreign actors performance
    praise vithaya pansringarm genuinely scary work in only god forgives

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