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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

10. Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens)

The Force Awakens Daisy Ridley

Making an acting debut in any franchise film is no mean feat, but imagine if one of those premier projects is literally Star Wars. Then think about how good an actor one must be in order to make this gargantuan opportunity and responsibility seem graceful, like they were born to be a star. That’s how it feels to watch Daisy Ridley slip into the role of Rey in J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. With a sturdy, unflinching physical presence, Ridley cuts the perfect silhouette as both the scrawny scavenger on Jakku and the ideal formidable opponent against the movie’s towering antagonist, Kylo Ren. Meanwhile, any close-up on the actress gives way to genuine emotional accessibility, from Ridley’s inquisitiveness and cherubic enthrallment to the depths of anguish and fear. In her very first outing to a galaxy far, far away, Ridley showcases just why she fits right into this series’ illustrious legacy and could lead any film she so chooses.

9. John Boyega (Attack the Block)

Attack The Block John Boyega

John Boyega was born to be a leading man, and Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block made it happen sooner rather than later. Possessing the charisma and gravitas necessary to prop just about any film on his shoulders is but one part of Boyega’s success, though. There is a complementary social significance to his portrayal of this particular protagonist. Attack the Block is a delightful creature feature that effectively eschews the idea of “hoodie horror.” In a film in which a gang of aggressive, rash teenagers takes it upon themselves to save their council estate from predatory aliens, Boyega steps up as the group’s hotheaded, brooding leader with a heroic bent. His performance is imbued with authority and earnestness, adding considerable weight to a film that is already so compassionate to its unlikely hero. In essence, Attack the Block is the ideal movie to precipitate Boyega’s eventual arrival in the cultural zeitgeist. From day one, he was ready to make a critical impact on cinema as we know it.

8. Tom Holland (The Impossible)

The Impossible Tom Holland

Tom Holland delivers one of the most impressive performances of the 2010s, and I’m not talking about Spider-Man’s homecoming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These days, he is no stranger to playing sincere, good-hearted hero types, and it all began with his very first feature, J.A. Bayona’s disaster drama The Impossible. Alongside show biz veterans Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor (who play his fictional parents), Holland stands out as a crucial third protagonist in Bayona’s intense, frenetic exploration of desperation amid compounding tragedy. He does excellent work opposite his seasoned co-stars but is exceptionally compelling when left to his own devices. Despite persistent depictions of loss and pain, Holland embodies kindness, sensitivity, and even childlike hopefulness. He is the audience’s emotional crux navigating unrelenting chaos, at once potent and starkly vulnerable. Holland didn’t go home empty-handed during The Impossible‘s award season campaign, but damn, was he snubbed for a potential Oscar.

7. Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina)

Ex Machina Domhnall Gleeson

The 2010s saw Domhnall Gleeson find fame in a variety of character acting roles that eventually led to him becoming one of the decade’s most compelling leading men. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina wouldn’t have necessarily been Gleeson’s breakout in a technical sense. He has had both mainstream and indie appeal for a while, appearing in a smattering of Harry Potter films, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, and even the Richard Curtis rom-com About Time among other titles. That said, Ex Machina is the one Gleeson vehicle that completely distills the actor’s sensibilities into a single cinematic experience. It is a film that makes full use of his inherent likability without unnecessarily rewarding it. Rather, Ex Machina subverts the niceness of Gleeson’s signature friendly demeanor, refusing to make a definitive statement on his status as an “anti-hero.” The film is both an unforgettably squirmy experience for Gleeson fans and for those who have yet to watch the 10 other movies he had released prior.

6. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Inside Llewyn Davis Oscar Isaac

Oscar Isaac’s roguish handsomeness and irreverent allure make him the right fit for both a strong-jawed hero (Star Wars) and a dangerously smarmy villain (Sucker Punch). But he’s even better when he lives in the skin of someone with a less definitive moral compass, when his only motivation is sheer spiteful survival. In Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac is plainly, mundanely, imperfectly human. The character himself rarely lets on what he’s truly feeling, but Isaac — who in the film exists in a constant state of physical tension like a taut rubber band — is incredible at conveying Llewyn’s bubbling anger, mounting depression, and increasing indifference anyway. Whether he’s good or bad barely matters by the end of the film. All that is certain is that Llewyn is sad, lonely, and desperate, a waning dreamer with hardly any choice but to carry on as he is. And this is all to Isaac’s credit as a phenomenally nuanced actor.

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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)