20. June Squibb and Will Forte - “Nebraska”
Comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” actor Will Forte and character actress June Squibb are not new actors on the scene. They’ve both been around for several years (the latter made her onscreen debut in Woody Allen’s 1990 film “Alice”). But it's unquestionable that 2013 and their performances in Alexander Payne’s deadpan and nuanced comedy “Nebraska” are both the breakthrough performances of their careers thus far. Previously, Forte made his name as a goofy comedian, best known for the ridiculously asinine (but also hysterical) “MacGruber” sketch character and film. But his gentle, unassuming turn as David, the sympathetic, understanding youngest son in the Grant family, willing to bend for the demented dreams of his aging father (a terrific and soon-to-be Oscar nominated Bruce Dern), is authentic, free of pretense and demurely naturalistic. Squibb’s supporting roles (“Far from Heaven,” “About Schmidt,” “The Perfect Family,” “The Big Year”) haven’t been all that much to write home about but the character of a lifetime comes along in “Nebraska” with the indignant, put-open, foul-mouthed mother Kate who’s not afraid to tell her sons she’s had it with their aged father or tell TMI stories about her sex life. Audacious, loud and brassy, Kate has no filter and had you never seen Squibb before, you might believe it if someone told you Alexander Payne plucked her off the streets of Nowheresville, Nebraska. She’s just that genuine and real as she curses up a storm.
19. Danai Gurira "Mother Of George"
While Andrew Dosunmu’s excellent sophomore feature didn’t land on our Breakout Directors of 2013 list (which might have been an oversight though he is mentioned), it is a striking film worth watching (and the cinematography by Bradford Young is breathtaking). But pretty pictures a good movie does not just make, and so Dosunmu’s picture is anchored by two great lead performances. One is Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankolé, who is notable for all his great Jim Jarmusch performances, and the other is relative newcomer Danai Gurira. Yes, you may already know her from her regular role on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but her quiet, prideful performance in “Mother Of George” is something else. One thing's for sure: you probably haven’t seen this story before. The movie centers on a Nigerian couple (De Bankolé/Gurira) living in Brooklyn and having trouble conceiving a child. Cultural expectations are high and at the behest of his domineering mother, Gurira’s character has to make a shocking decision to “save” her family, which only threatens to harm or destroy it. A complex tale of love, duty and the pressure of cultural demands, “Mother Of George” is a moving and poetic piece of work, in large part due to the illuminating and internalized Gurira, who transforms from hopeful bride to a woman almost shamed beyond reproach for having to carry the burdens of her culture.
18. Nick Robinson and Moises Arias - "Kings Of Summer"
In “The Kings of Summer,” Nick Robinson has the difficult task of balancing the wild and joyful freedom that he and his friends achieve with their isolated summer “home” in the woods, and the darkness and anxiety that his character Joe, struggles with. As his first starring film role (he’s also been recurring on the series “Melissa and Joey” and appeared on “Boardwalk Empire”) Robinson certainly made the most of it and truly broke out, snagging a part in the forthcoming blockbuster “Jurassic World,” to be directed by Colin Trevorrow. His nuanced portrayal of Joe is the axis on which the often funny and fantastical ‘Kings’ spins, and he does a fine job of showing Joe’s transition from heckled kid to darker, mature teen, sporting a ridiculous mustache no less. It’s clear he’s got talent beyond his years and there’s no doubt we’ll see much more of him, beyond the world of the Jurassic. All the kids in the film alongside Robinson are great too, but a special mention to force-of-nature Moises Arias: the “Hannah Montana” star came up with one of the most memorable comic creations of the year in the non-sequitur spouting weirdo Biaggio (he also stood out as the intense Bonzo in “Ender’s Game”).
17. Miles Teller - "The Spectacular Now"
To be honest, Teller would normally be higher on this list if it weren't for the fact he should have been on our Breakthrough list of 2010 (an oversight on our part). Teller made a small, but memorable splash that year in John Cameron Mitchell's underseen and underappreciated drama "Rabbit Hole" (which earned Nicole Kidman her fourth Best Actress nomination despite a lack of genuine buzz or box office; the movie sadly tanked). Those in the know are already aware that Teller shines in the movie, matching Kidman note for note, and while the performance opened several doors, including the one for "The Spectacular Now," it's very possible you hadn't heard of Teller three years ago. He's been buzzed about since then, but didn't get the chance to prove himself in teen fare like "Project X" and the "Footloose" remake. But you can consider the hype justified after his performance in "The Spectacular Now." Teller does, admittedly, have a gift of a role in James Ponsoldt's sweet, sincere teen romance. He plays Sutter, the heavy-drinking life-of-the-party who forms an attachment to shrinking-violet classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley, who broke out a couple of years back with "The Descendants," and is just as good here). Teller's easy charisma exactly captures this kind of guy—the one everyone likes, but few really love—never letting the below-the-surface sadness slip far from view even when he's at his most charming. He's like a self-medicating Ferris Bueller played by early John Cusack, and for a teen movie like this, we can't really think of a higher compliment.
16. Alice Lowe - "Sightseers"
Even in her native Britain, Alice Lowe had not, before "Sightseers," been a marquee name. She'd featured, and been hilarious, in things like "The Mighty Boosh," "Hot Fuzz" and most famously, "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace," but retained a sort of chameleonic quality that, without a signature character, meant that she often flew under the radar. But then came Ben Wheatley's film, which Lowe co-wrote with cast mate Steve Oram (who's equally brilliant), and it resulted in not just one of the best comedies of the year, but also one of our very favorite turns of 2013. As Tina, the lonely Black Country woman who leaves her mother for a holiday with new beau Chris (Oram), only to leave a bloody trail in their path as the relationship falls apart, Lowe takes a potentially ridiculous character and makes her very, very human. As increasingly unhinged as Tina becomes (or, arguably, actually was all along), there's something grounded and recognizable about her, with each choice Lowe makes driven entirely by her rich and fiercely original character. By the time the film reaches its ending (arguably the best conclusion of the year), you're even strangely rooting for her.