Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

The 25 Best Breakthrough Performances Of 2013

by The Playlist Staff
December 3, 2013 2:20 PM
  • |

15. Josh Pais - "Touchy Feely"
Josh Pais is one of those guys: the kind of character actor who you might recognize when he pops up (as he has in "Scream 3," "Phone Booth," "Adventureland" and many others), but you couldn't really place. Since he played Raphael in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," he's rarely had a leading role but Lynn Shelton proved in her undervalued "Touchy Feely" that Pais has a lot more to offer than the guy who steals a scene or two. The actor plays Paul, the uptight, nervy dentist brother of Rosemarie DeWitt's Abby, whose struggling dental practice is turned around when he seems to develop, without explanation, some kind of healing touch. When we first meet him, Paul is repressed, closed-off and virtually fades into the background, but suddenly he becomes the center of attention and there's a lovely ambiguity to the way he deals with it: there's a real joy in the way that he's drawn to Allison Janney's character, and the way that he finally draws closer to his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), but he's still someone who doesn't quite feel comfortable in his own skin. So well does Pais inhabit his funny and touchingly awkward man that there's almost a kind of relief when the touch fades.

14. Conner Chapman - "The Selfish Giant"
Still not due in the U.S. for a few weeks, "The Selfish Giant," director Clio Barnard's (very) loose social-realism reworking of Oscar Wilde's fable has been winning rave reviews since Cannes and no element of the film is more worthy of praise than the lead performance of Conner Chapman. The actor, only 13 when the film was shot, plays Arbor, a young tearaway from a troubled family with rage and attention-deficit issues who, when we meet him, has just been permanently excluded from school. A born wheeler-dealer, he enlists best pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas, just as good as Chapman) to collect scrap-metal with him to sell to dodgy local bigwig Kitten (Sean GIlder). But jealousy and greed eventually lead to tragic consequences. Chapman's Arbor is a near-feral kid, one who just doesn't give a fuck about authority, but who does have a fierce loyalty to friends and family, and the young performer, never less than totally convincing, never makes him a dark figure, but instead one full of charm and life. And when the truly devastating conclusion comes, your heart shatters for him.

13. Mickey Sumner & Michael Zegen - "Frances Ha"
"Frances Ha" might be an unabashed showcase for co-writer/star Greta Gerwig, but as is standard for Noah Baumbach movies, the entire cast do sterling work in support of the title character, even if most only get brief appearances. We've already spoken about Mickey Sumner, who plays Frances' best friend, in our For Your Consideration piece, but to sum up: her gawky, confident-yet-insecure woman is at the very heart of the film, every bit as fascinating a creation as Frances herself and Sumner should go on to bigger things from here on out. A special moment of recognition also deserves to go to Michael Zegen, a familiar face from "Rescue Me," "Adventureland" and "Boardwalk Empire." As Benji, the roommate of Adam Driver's Lev, he's the closest thing the film has to a romantic lead (though Baumbach and Gerwig hold back from being as obvious as to go there), and is a real boon to the film, neurotic and funny and self-deprecating and somehow always an obvious match to our Frances. Though he only pops up a handful of times, it's a crucial role that Zegen shines in. It's already lead to more work (he's joined the cast of "Girls" for Season Three), but we hope someone like Woody Allen's been paying attention, because Zegen would fit right at home in that world.

12. Jack Reynor - "What Richard Did"
We only talked about this performance, in Lenny Abrahamson's powerful morality tale "What Richard Did," last week, as one of the turns we believe deserve awards recognition. But we're gonna bring it back up again, if only because 99.9% of you didn't see the film on its very brief U.S. release (or, indeed, its release anywhere). Much of the films power derives from young Irish actor Jack Reynor's central performance as a popular student and amateur rugby player who wins over the heart of the girlfriend of a schoolmate, only to end up accidentally killing his rival in a drunken brawl. As you might imagine from someone who's taking over from Shia LaBoeuf in the "Transformers" franchise, Reynor is perfectly matched to golden boy Richard: a born leader and a good guy. This of course makes his later act all the more shocking and then the ensuing moral dilemma all the more powerful. For one so young (he's only 21), Reynor grapples with every facet of the complex characters, and sears his agony onto your brain—nearly a year after we saw the film, we still can't shake this performance.

11. Gaby Hoffmann - “Crystal Fairy”
We’ll admit there, for a moment there, we really didn’t think Gaby Hoffmann’s kind of batshit, go-for-broke performance in Sebastián Silva’s bizarre and oddly funny Chilean travelogue, “Crystal Fairy” was going to get much recognition, let alone awards season love, but Film Independent's Spirit Awards for 2013 totally took us by surprise (she scored a Best Female Lead nomination alongside Cate Blanchett and Julie Delpy for crying out loud). Silva’s picture centers on a group of Chilean friends, including the American expat Jamie (played by Michael Cera) who go on a quest to extract the fabled mescaline hallucinogen from the San Pedro cactus in the southern part of the country. The drunken, cocaine-fueled jerk that is Jamie randomly invites an eccentric weirdo named Crystal Fairy (Hoffmann) to join them on their voyage and the next day, much to their collective surprise, she shows up ready for their trip. Much of the film’s humor is derived from the fact that the self-absorbed and intolerant Jamie can’t stand the hippie-dippy free-spiritedness of Crystal Fairy and he almost immediately regrets his half-baked decision to invite her. Fairy, all hairy armpits, unabashed nakedness and patchouli-smelling wardrobe, is a nightmare of a companion that you probably wouldn’t want to travel with either, but Hoffmann’s capacity for making you understand, empathize and then ultimately love this endearing wacko freak character is no small feat. Forget the fact that she drops trou often, it’s Crystal Fairy’s vulnerability and ability to see past her companion’s insults that makes Hoffman’s performance truly rounded and brave.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    


  • 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

Email Updates