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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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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.

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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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