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The 25 Best Breakout Performances of the Decade

The 2010s produced many indelible cinematic performances that have redefined the art of acting in film. But which breakthrough stars have made the biggest impact?
Decade Breakout Performances
By  · Published on November 7th, 2019

20. Felicity Jones (Like Crazy)

Like Crazy Felicity Jones

In Drake Doremus’ romantic drama Like Crazy, then-rising star Felicity Jones has the rather arduous task of humanizing a character whose personal convictions stem from a frustratingly limited worldview. Jones steps into the shoes of a British exchange student who overstays her visa in America after falling hard and fast for a local boy. A seemingly inconsequential (if thoughtless) decision made in the name of love leads to a downward spiral of events that proceed to threaten this seemingly pure, emotion-driven relationship. In spite of Like Crazy’s obvious melodrama and impossible premise, the film ends up being an understandable distillation of emotional turmoil. That’s primarily because of Jones, who finds unjudging empathy for the girl she portrays. Jones is the kind of actor who openly revels in every ounce of feeling she can muster; when she smiles, it’s with her whole face. When she cries, it cuts straight to the heart. Conversely, she evokes plenty without so much as a word as well. Jones’ body language is magnetism personified, drawing the audience into her warm vibe and willing them to be on her side. She is thus the beating heart of Like Crazy, rising to each occasion of rawness and intimacy with fiery heat.

19. Lakeith Stanfield (Short Term 12)

Short Term Lakeith Stanfield

Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 is a feat of independent cinema; gently lush, dangerously tense, and overwhelmingly raw. Looking at it in retrospect, it ought to be celebrated as a film of breakthroughs, too. The movie features a slew of fine young actors in virtually every role (the film will reappear in this list down the line because of it), and Lakeith Stanfield is one of them. In this film about troubled, misunderstood youths desperately grasping at straws to find self-actualization amid fears of abandonment and loneliness, Stanfield’s character, Marcus, represents a turning point for the rest of his peers. He is about to come of age and will soon have to leave the eponymous facility of the film despite the fact that he feels tremendously unprepared for such change. We cannot fault Marcus for feeling malformed and Stanfield keeps him tightly wound; for a portion of the film, he is a man of few words. Luckily, throughout the course of Short Term 12, we witness bursts of Marcus’ potential, thanks to Stanfield’s tempered approach to expressing his innate vulnerability. Marcus, although a clenched fist ready for impact, has a heart and a voice that yearns to be heard, and through the gravitas of Stanfield’s screen presence, he ultimately is.

18. Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Twows Margot Robbie

In Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, seduction and destruction are inherently linked. Disruptive hard truths wait to pounce at every turn in the narrative, ready to definitively strip back each character’s many facades. So, although Margot Robbie initially steps into the spotlight as a fresh-faced blonde bombshell that the film’s male gaze hungrily fixates upon, she morphs into someone with a far more ferocious bite soon enough. Compared to Wolf’s incessant focus on the brazenly overwhelming masculine energies swirling at its center, Robbie provides a vital, thrillingly witty counterpoint to that disarray. Her hilariously loud, indulgent performance signals the arrival of a firecracker of a filmic ingenue, whose subsequent rise in the film industry has since shaped the 2010s.

17. Haley Lu Richardson (Columbus)

Columbus Haley Lu Richardson

Haley Lu Richardson‘s secret weapon is that she intensifies simplicity. Her gifts as an actor lie in a distinct ability to translate the painful banality of everyday life without robbing it of its own little mysteries and secrets. This opens her up to immense versatility, which is easily witnessed in Kogonada’s contemplative feature directorial debut, Columbus. Richardson reads like an open book in the film, for the most part, carrying herself with a demeanor that is ostensibly unassuming and effortless. But read the contradictory cues in her facial expressions and suddenly new layers of meaning are introduced to the film’s interpersonal discussions about all manner of heavy-hitting topics: life, death, dreams…you name it. Richardson’s affecting, haunting performance doesn’t neatly tie up her character’s coming-of-age narrative, but that’s actually preferable. Torn between emotional and practical conflicts, the actress feels freely and soulfully, revealing her character to be extraordinarily complex.

16. Sasha Lane (American Honey)

American Honey Sasha Lane

Andrea Arnold has a keen eye for finding the most promising and compelling young newcomers, seemingly pulling them out of thin air for one of her emotionally charged character studies. American Honey is no different. Sasha Lane is not unlike a supernova, an unyielding, magnetic force at the center of Arnold’s freeform road movie. American Honey follows the adventures of Lane’s troubled teenager, the prodigiously named Star, who leaves an abusive situation at home, hitching a ride with a traveling magazine sales crew in order to find herself. The film is wilfully chameleonic and does not concern itself with operating on a strict overarching plot. Rather, American Honey is a series of open-ended vignettes; snapshots of moments in Star’s life that could lead virtually anywhere. Arnold demands that the audience sees through Lane’s eyes. They must sit through every distressing, risky, and rash decision that Star makes, but it’s worth it to observe how Lane evolves as a budding actress. Lane is ultra-persuasive as the danger-courting Star because she is perceptively present every step of the way — the model poster child for a restless modern generation that finds itself caught in the fringes of society.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)