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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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Gloria header

5. Paulina Garcia - "Gloria"
If we're going to split hairs, then no, "Gloria" isn't technically a 2013 film by the criteria that we normally judge these things by: Sebastian Lelio's film doesn't hit theaters until next month, missing the 2013 cut-off by barely two weeks. But we're making an exception: partly because it premiered at Berlin in February 2013, partly because the film's already been released in much of the world, and mainly because we have no desire to wait another twelve months to talk about a performance of this caliber. The Chilean actress—best known for her theater work back home—plays a fifty-something divorcee, still glamorous, but deeply lonely after her children have left home, who immerses herself in the world of singles dances, and becomes drawn to an older man still tied up in his own family. Like a sort of South American Mike Leigh heroine, Gloria can be maddening in her self-deception and repetition of past mistakes. But you also love her from the first frame to the last (particularly after her glorious late-in-the-game revenge), with Garcia giving a performance of tremendous warmth and vivacity. Quite rightly, she won the Best Actress prize at Berlin in February, and if there was any justice, she'd be nominated alongside Bullock, Streep, Blanchett, et al. at the Oscars. Still, with Chile currently putting out some of the most exciting cinema around, we sincerely hope there's more to come from Garcia soon.

12 Years A Slave

4. Lupita Nyong'o - "12 Years a Slave"
Turns out that our comments section can occasionally be good for something other than baffling witch-doctor-related spam and various creative ways to tell us to go fuck ourselves: months and months ago, when Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" was barely in the can, we were tipped off that one of the standout performances of the film came from someone called Lupita Nyong'o. And they were absolutely right, because now, the Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised actress, cast in the film soon after her graduation from Yale last year, is on her way to an Oscar nomination after a truly extraordinary performance. Nyong'o doesn't really register in the film until almost halfway through, but once Patsey, the tortured slave so beloved by Michael Fassbender's cruel slave master, arrives, she's not quickly forgotten. Other characters get far more screen time, but every second of Patsey is truly wrenching, from that unforgettable whipping scene to her desperate plea to Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon for him to kill her, rather than let her live any further in the world she can never escape. It's a performance of fierce anger and compassion, and if Nyong'o can pull something like this off at her first time at bat, imagine what she can do a decade from now.

Captain Phillips,

3. Barkhad Abdi - “Captain Phillips”
If necessity is the mother of invention then perhaps desperation is the bastard offspring of survival and necessity. In Paul Greengrass’ kinetic snapshot of the pirating of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, Barkhad Abdi plays Muse, a Somali man forced to turn hijacker because of his dire economic circumstances. Starving literally and figuratively, Muse claws his way to the top of his dismal food chain, dispensing one of his rivals to become the pirate leader. However, we get the sense the Somali man isn’t violent by nature, but that his grim situation has transformed him into the zenith of desperation. Naturally, Abdi plays Muse like a wide-eyed starving rat; all raw nerves, skeletal psyche and false sniggering ego. But his puffed up, inflated self-worth, belies what’s underneath: a scared human being forced to suck up what wicked reserves he has inside to pull off this heist and feed himself and his family. What’s more Abdi goes toe to toe with Tom Hanks in what is one of his strongest performances to date. Not bad for a unknown first-time actor who has to somehow inject some sense of humanity into a character who would otherwise be seen as a one-note villain. In over his head, distressed and dangerously despairing, Abdi’s portrait of hopelessness is truly a haunting thing to witness.

Short Term 12

2. Brie Larson - "Short Term 12"
Brie Larson’s been around a long time (seriously, she was a Disney TV movie and sitcom star in middle school) and she’s built up quite the roster of credits and respect in shows such as Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and in films like  “Greenberg,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and “21 Jump Street.” But 2013 was the year of Brie, with impressive turns as Miles Teller’s ex in the Sundance hit “The Spectacular Now,” and as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sister in his directorial debut (another Sundance hit) “Don Jon.” But it wasn’t until SXSW when Larson got to show off her leading lady chops in that festival’s big winner “Short Term 12.” Often cast in the blonde mean girl roles (see: ‘Spectacular Now,’ ‘Scott Pilgrim’), Larson is decidedly dressed down as Grace, a supervisor at a foster care facility who is dealing with her current life challenges as they collide with the ramifications of her troubled past. It’s a role that demands a lot of Larson, as she has to demonstrate all sides of Grace: her strength as well as her weakness, her deep mourning for herself and others, and her joy in the small victories; her fear and her fearlessness. It’s a deeply physical role that she inhabits fully, whether she’s biking out her anxiety, chasing down a wayward kid, or unleashing her rage on the windshield of a car (in an Oscar-reel worthy moment). In our review from SXSW, we said Larson “manages to convey her character as someone fierce and strong and steely, and also utterly fragile, delicate, scared and broken. It’s an incredible emotional and physical performance.” She’s stunning in this role, proving her might, her vulnerability and just how darn watchable she is. She’s been here all along, but she’s proven she’s got talent to last. The Gotham Awards agreed with us: she scooped up the Best Actress statuette just last night, and has also snagged a nom for Best Actress from the Independent Spirits.

Blue Is The Warmest Color

1. Adèle Exarchopoulos - "Blue is the Warmest Color"
Seemingly moments after "Blue is the Warmest Color" won the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the discussion turned from the relative merits of the film to just about anything else—the prolonged lesbian sex scenes, the original comic book author's displeasure with the adaptation, the endless infighting between various members of the creative team. And it's a shame, too, because lost in that shuffle was the rightful praise of the fearless lead performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos, who was 18 at the time of the film's production. Exarchopoulos' performance borders on the miraculous; she's able to portray a teenager consumed by a fiery love affair with a blue-haired girl (Léa Seydoux, just as electric but more seasoned) and, somehow, an older version of that same girl, one who has loved and lost and matured greatly along the way. Part of that transformation is physical; in earlier parts of the movie she's less a personality than an engine, eating and fucking and throwing herself around. In the later sequences she's more measured, nuanced, and exacting, even her posture becomes more rigid (and, whether she actually did or not, she seems to have slimmed down as well). The sex sequences are feats of infinite bravery, as well, but Exarchopoulos is even sexier in one of the movie's non-sex scenes, where she's sprawled out, nude, a cigarette dangling precariously from her upturned mouth, her arty lover sketching her nearby. Watching "Blue is the Warmest Color," we couldn't help but get that sinking sensation in the pit of our stomach. Exarchopoulos perfectly captures, in a beautifully rendered performance full of wit and grace, the sensation of falling in love with someone and knowing that, no matter how much you try and fight and wish it to be true, that you'll never, ever, as long as you live get over that person. This year, we felt as though we just couldn't get over Exarchopoulos' performance either.

Honorable Mentions: It's not due for release until 2014, but we were struck by newcomer Mackenzie Davis in Drake Doremus' "Breathe In," expect big things from her down the line. While it was overshadowed somewhat by "This Is The End" and "The World's End," apocalyptic indie-comedy "It's A Disaster" gave David Cross and Julia Stiles their best, wickedly funny comedic roles in years, while giving great showcases to less familiar big-screen faces like Erinn Hayes, Rachel Boston, America Ferrera, Kevin M. Brennan, Blaise Miller and Jeff Grace. And for all the film's flaws, we were very impressed by newcomer Lydia Wilson in Richard Curtis' "About Time." Anyone else we've missed? Let us know in the comments section.

- Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Diana Drumm, Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Cory Everett

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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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