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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

15. Lily James (Cinderella)

Cinderella Lily James

There is a reason that Kenneth Branagh’s reimagining of Cinderella remains the very best of Disney’s live-action offerings. Her name is Lily James. Of course, the film stands on its own merits in all aspects of production design (that signature blue ball gown absolutely must go down in history as one of the most beautiful costumes to ever grace the big screen). But to speak of James’ wonderful performance is to zero in on the core of Cinderella‘s overall themes and message: that love is the best weapon one can wield against even the most formidable adversary. James stoically takes up these largely feminine qualities up as armor without a hint of cruelty. She is a bastion of integrity and compassion in the film; evident in her warm gaze, wide smile, and earthy, welcoming tone. There is also no danger that the character could be stuffy or stiff because James is delightfully witty. Cinderella may be a Mouse House family flick, but that’s precisely why James is so incandescently brilliant in it. Her Disney princess is authentic.

14. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Years A Slave Lupita Nyong'o

I don’t think anyone “enjoys” Steve McQueen’s period biopic 12 Years A Slave — at least, not in a typical sense of the word. There is no denying the unflinching emotional savagery of this interpretation of Solomon Northup’s searing eponymous memoir. All the same, it is the film’s very starkness that sharply amplifies the talents of its markedly gifted cast. It especially allows then-newcomer Lupita Nyong’o ample room to fully explore and unravel the nuance of her character, the abused slave Patsey. Nyong’o breathes life and vibrancy into Patsey, which may be a startling assessment given the taxing demands of the character’s constant physical and mental mutilation in the film. 12 Years a Slave essentially constructs Patsey as a constant open wound, a young woman hardened by the grit of her circumstance who is never given the chance to heal. By default, we’d be moved by a character like her. However, Nyong’o’s performance is extra heartbreaking because of the stoic, quiet ways she embodies Patsey’s inner life and untapped potential. For Nyong’o, finding the tiniest shred of hope, freedom, and wonderment was the key to make Patsey well-rounded. Obviously, with a string of awards including an Oscar under her belt, she succeeded in spades.

13. Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch)

The Witch Anya Taylor Joy

Across the plethora of horror movies that have made a considerable impact on the cinematic landscape of the 2010s, Anya Taylor-Joy surfaces as one of the most gripping scream queens in the genre. Her debut lead performance as the blossoming Thomasin in Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a spellbinding one. There is an ethereal whimsy in Taylor-Joy shining through her piercing gaze. Her eyes are hazel pools that at once express curiosity, innocence, terror, and conspiracy simultaneously. Against the suffocating backdrop of The Witch, Taylor-Joy is an ever-changing enigma who teases out a maturing sensuality and threatens the repressive “stability” of quaint farm life. The actress’s mercurial ruminative qualities meld with her adept physical performance in the film, too; Taylor-Joy lends buoyancy and strong-willed conviction to Thomasin whenever the opportunity to openly rebel arises. The Witch is an amorphous folktale, and Taylor-Joy proves her talents to be just as unsettlingly nebulous.

12. Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)

Call Me By Your Name Timothee Chalamet

After cutting his teeth playing a number of disaffected teenage boys since 2014 — all of them dripping with dry wit and dangerously impulsive behavior — Timothée Chalamet lets a purer side shine through in Luca Guadagnino’s epic summer romance Call Me By Your Name. Some aspects of the actor’s early work seep through in the restless and quietly, insatiably eager Elio Perlman. Chalamet still bubbles with youthful disquiet, which the audience sees in the way he contorts his body to evoke either tension or excitement throughout Call Me By Your Name. Chalamet exudes an equally meditative quality, too. Elio feverishly hangs on the cusp of new life experiences, yet Chalamet understands exactly when to exercise restraint, regardless of how tormenting and frustrating it is to witness. What makes Call Me By Your Name a true breakthrough film for Chalamet is this intricate range of emotional awareness that he is able to unpack in the narrative, turning this coming-of-age affair into an intoxicating, full-bodied experience.

11. Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Martha Marcy May Marlene Elizabeth Olsen

There was a time before Martha Marcy May Marlene when Elizabeth Olsen would have been largely recognized by her connection to other famous family members. However, her captivating performance in Sean Durkin’s bone-chilling psychological drama asserts that this then-ingenue knows exactly what she’s doing. Olsen’s turn as the traumatized impulsive cult escapee Martha (sometimes known as Marcy May and Marlene) lets her tackle an often confusing but thoroughly visceral range of emotions. Considering that Olsen must navigate Durkin’s deliberately vague feature-length examination of memory and paranoia, her penchant for subtlety ensures that her most horrific experiences are deeply and grotesquely grounded, especially during the times she seems the most detached from reality. Mind-boggling and mercurial, it is in fact largely to Olsen’s credit that Martha hits close to home as a story about inner demons and the primal desire to escape them no matter what.

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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)