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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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10. Veerle Baetens - “Broken Circle Breakdown”
It’s one thing to ask an actress to play a woman deeply wounded by the death of her child. But it’s quite another to demand that she sing bluegrass songs, possess palpable and immediately magnetic sexual energy and go on a journey from first love to bitter divorce. However Veerle Baetens make it all look so easy with her terrific turn in Belgium’s award winning Oscar entry “Broken Circle Breakdown.” In the span of just under two hours, in a film that fractures its narrative jumping between past, present and future at any given moment, you’re never at a loss for one second as to where we find Baetens at any moment. Playing tattoo artist Elise who falls for a bluegrass lovin’ man, Baetens connects the patchwork of the narrative to construct a beautifully complex, complicated woman, one whose life is filled up by her marriage, child and music and shocking drained of it almost immediately, leaving her desperately clinging for something that gives her meaning to go on. It’s tricky stuff, the kind of material that could easily become showy or mannered, but Baetens' performance finds deeper, more truthful and even painful depths. Whether it’s saucily spreading across the hood of a pickup truck in a bikini for her man, or stepping on stage in the spotlight to deliver a song in full country regalia (and it should be said, her singing is equally strong as her acting), Beatens indeed goes full circle, in a turn that leaves no doubt she will be one to watch.

9. Kathryn Hahn - “Afternoon Delight”
Chances are pretty good that you haven’t seen Jill Soloway’s “Afternoon Delight,” the award-winning indie that pulled in just a fraction of a million dollars when it snuck into theaters late this Summer—it’s especially unfortunate that the film skipped VOD where it probably would’ve found a decent audience—but it found its fans here at the site and we’ve been championing it ever since Sundance. Our love for the film is due in no small part to the wonderful leading performance of perpetual supporting player, Kathryn Hahn. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen Hahn for a decade now, haunting the edges of your favorite comedies (“Anchorman,” “Step Brothers,” “Wanderlust”) or as a recurring player on shows like “Girls” and “Parks And Recreation,” though your parents probably know her from “Crossing Jordan.” But it wasn’t until “Afternoon Delight” that she finally landed a role that allowed her to showcase her full range, and we realized that Kathryn Hahn is a giant fucking star. As Rachel, a bored Silverlake housewife who decides to spice up her marriage by inviting a stripper to be her nanny, she takes a role that in the hands of a lesser actress may have been insufferable and makes it a star making performance. She’s hilarious, affecting, real and seemingly fearless. (There aren’t too many actresses who would appear as natural wearing only sheer pantyhose and firing imaginary lasers out of her crotch but Hahn doesn’t break a sweat.) For years Hahn has been a little secret shared by the various comedy clans (Adam McKay, Judd Apatow, David Wain) but after this film, it’s hard to imagine her staying their secret for too much longer.

8. Robin Weigert - "Concussion"
Without Robin Weigert at its center, “Concussion” could have been an interesting if minor entry in a subgenre of films about sexual discovery. The drama is capably directed and well-written, but it’s Weigert’s performance that draws the audience deeper into the film. In the film’s early scenes, she’s equally adept at displaying brittle frustration and boredom in her existence as a wife and mother after an accident involving one of her children sends her to the hospital. In our first moments with her, we see her snap at the the kid responsible for her injury, but it’s a testament to the actress that we still like and want to engage with her character, Abby. From there, Abby is eager to explore sexuality beyond her relationship with her wife, and things get interesting as she embarks on a career as an escort. Her love scenes with various clients are sexy, but it’s not due to the skin shown; it’s Weigert’s portioning of equal parts vulnerability and strength that keep her lovers interested and the audience rapt. She feels like you could run into her at the grocery store, but it’s no less believable when she dominates clients. Though her face is familiar to TV and movie audiences (mostly due to her portrayal of Calamity Jane in HBO’s short-lived “Deadwood”), this is her biggest film role to date, and she’s deserving of all the attention—and more—that she’s earning for it.

7. Michael B. Jordan - "Fruitvale Station"
Anyone paying attention the last few years knew that Michael B. Jordan was a movie star in the making. After terrific performances on the small screen in "The Wire," "Parenthood" and "Friday Night Lights," the actor started to turn heads cinematically speaking in 2012 with performances in "Red Tails" and "Chronicle" that, to be frank, risked overshadowing the ostensible leads of the movies. He felt like a movie star in waiting, but Jordan wasn't waiting, making his own stamp thanks to indie "Fruitvale Station," which was one of the main talking points of Sundance back in January, and has subsequently launched him to awards buzz and future stardom ("Fantastic Four" and "Rocky" spin-off "Creed" beckon in the new year). Ryan Coogler's based-in-fact tale tells the story of Oscar Grant, a troubled, but decent kid gunned down without cause by transport cops in the Bay Area on New Year's Eve. The film itself has its flaws, but Jordan goes a long way to rectify some of them: he's magnetic and enormously charismatic, while introducing ambiguities that Coogler seems more reluctant to focus on. If he was better-known before the film arrives, the performance might have gotten even more credit—the deftness with which Jordan builds the character isn't as obvious if you're not so familiar with how different it is from his earlier work. But as the supernova beginning to what's sure to be a stellar career, it'll only gain in power in retrospect.

6. Oscar Isaac - "Inside Llewyn Davis"
As fans of Oscar Isaac since his breakout role in Ridley Scott's otherwise unremarkable "Body of Lies," we couldn't have been more delighted to learn a couple of years back that he'd landed the lead in a Coen brothers movie. And we were not disappointed in the least by the results in "Inside Llewyn Davis"—Isaac gives a performance for the ages that, if there's any goddamn justice in the world, will make him a megastar. Talented but unsuccessful folk singer Llewyn Davis is a singularly Coen-ish creation, a semi-repentant asshole who's starting to realize that his big break is never coming. Isaac has a natural gift for the brothers' dialogue, but he's even better in the silences: no one this year could convey as much with a single reaction shot, whether he's discovering that Carey Mulligan's withering occasional lover is pregnant, or baffled by the backing vocals that Adam Driver lends to "Please Mr. Kennedy." Isaac was already in demand, but after this, we can only imagine that A-grade filmmakers will be hammering down his door to work with him.

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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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