The Breakouts of 2016 and Where to Find Them in 2017

By  · Published on December 28th, 2016

You enjoyed them once, now see these 25 risen stars again.

Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan in The Yellow Birds

The traditional idea of the movie star is long gone, yet every year we latch onto new faces and somewhat familiar names who became household famous. Actors and actress and even filmmakers can fall off our train of interest and box office appeal as easily as they’ve hopped on, but for now we’re all excited for these 25 people and what they’ve got going on next. Join us as we celebrate their breakthroughs and look at their follow-ups.

Alden Ehrenreich
Breakout Movie: Hail, Caesar!
Coming Up Next: The Yellow Birds – January 21, 2017 (Sundance)

Although he’d been prominent and popular before in movies including Tetro and Beautiful Creatures, Ehrenreich became a sensation this year in part because of one line reading in one scene of the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (he’s good throughout, but that “Would that it were so simple” bit was an instantly classic moment). He followed it with Rules Don’t Apply, which has received less attention, but he really shot to stardom with Lucasfilm casting him as young Han Solo in an upcoming Star Wars movie. Before that arrives in 2018, look for him in The Yellow Birds, an Iraq War drama from Blue Caprice director Alexandre Moors, debuting at Sundance in the US Dramatic competition program.

Mahershala Ali
Breakout Movie: Moonlight
Coming Up Next: Roxanne Roxanne – January 22, 2017 (Sundance)

Since his recurring role on Crossing Jordan 15 years ago, Ali has been one of those faces you see from time to time on TV and in movies and don’t know by name. That’s possibly changed recently thanks to House of Cards and The Hunger Games, but this year was his most prominent yet, as he played the villain on Netflix’s Luke Cage series, co-starred in Free State of Jones, and has been dominating the best supporting actor awards for his performance in Moonlight. He’s also currently seen in Hidden Figures and on the horizon for 2018 is the manga adaptation Alita: Battle Angel. Next up, though, is the biopic Roxanne Roxanne, about hip hop star Roxanne Shante, debuting at Sundance in the US Dramatic competition program.

Lucy Boynton
Breakout Movie: Sing Street
Coming Up Next: Rebel in the Rye – January 24, 2017 (Sundance)

Many of Boynton’s new fans discovered her at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where Sing Street premiered. Now they can continue that love at the 2017 fest, where Rebel in the Rye is debuting out of competition. Boynton plays Claire Douglas, second wife of J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) and partial inspiration for the Franny character in “Franny and Zooey.” Additionally, Boynton is playing Countess Andrenyi in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, out in November, the horror movie Don’t Knock Twice, a drama titled Let Me Go, and the Netflix series Gypsy.

Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex R. Hibbert
Breakout Movie: Moonlight
Coming Up Next: (For Rhodes) Burning Sands – January 24, 2017 (Sundance)

The three actors who play protagonist Chiron (aka “Little” and “Black”) in Moonlight are altogether amazing, but only the oldest of them is heading to more notable roles. Hibbert has nothing listed on IMDb for the future and Sanders only has a short called The Last Virgin in LA coming soon, while Rhodes may appear as part of the star-studded ensemble of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song (formerly known as Weightless) and does co-star in the college drama Burning Sands, which is debuting at Sundance in the US Dramatic competition program. Rounding out his year will be something called Smartass.

Sunny Pawar
Breakout Movie: Lion
Coming Up Next: Love Sonia – March 3, 2017

The most adorable newcomer of the year, 8-year-old Pawar carried the first half of Lion and could probably completely star in his very own movie. Next up, though, is the sex trafficking drama Love Sonia, which stars Demi Moore, Freida Pinto, and Mark Duplass. It’s the directorial debut of Tabrez Noorani, who worked on Lion as a consulting producer for the film’s India shoot.

Haley Bennett
Breakout Movies: Hardcore Henry, A Kind of Murder, The Magnificent Seven, The Girl on the Train, and Rules Don’t Apply
Coming Up Next: Song to Song – March 17, 2017

Bennett has had a special year, and it’s not just one movie that could be considered a single breakout. Maybe The Girl on the Train or The Magnificent Seven. The point is she’s a big deal now, if not yet part of the A list then heading there fast. Next up is a big deal: the latest movie from Terrence Malick, Song to Song (formerly known as Weightless). Of course, she’s one part of a large ensemble, and given it’s a Malick project there’s a possibility that she won’t even be in the final film. Beyond that, 2017 will also see the release of American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall’s directorial debut, Thank You For Your Service.

Tom Holland
Breakout Movie: Captain America: Civil War
Coming Up Next: The Lost City of Z – April 21, 2017

His face was barely seen in Captain America: Civil War, in which he made his debut as Spider-Man, but what little we saw and what we heard behind the mask during that terrific airport battle made us very excited for Holland’s upcoming return in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although his newfound fame wasn’t enough to draw audiences to Edge of Winter, his next role has him playing half of an explorer father and son duo with Charlie Hunnam in The Lost City of Z, and it helps that the James Gray-helmed true adventure story received positive reviews at the New York Film Festival last fall. Also coming in 2017, in addition to the Spidey movie, there are more period pieces with Pilgrimage and the Edison vs. Westinghouse biopic The Current War, in which he plays famous American businessman Samuel Insull.

Sofia Boutella
Breakout Movie: Star Trek Beyond
Coming Up Next: The Mummy – June 9, 2017

If she didn’t break out already in 2014’s Kingsman: Secret Service, she did with the latest Star Trek movie, though she wasn’t exactly recognizable in the role of Jaylah. Fans are hoping she is back for the next sequel as part of the main crew, but until then she’s got a bunch of movies on the way, most significantly Universal’s The Mummy, in which she’s the title villain, and then The Coldest City, which is David Leitch’s follow up to John Wick before Deadpool 2. Other movies that could arrive earlier include UK 2016 releases Jet Trash and Tiger Raid, which also played the Tribeca Film Festival last April.

Kate McKinnon
Breakout Movie: Ghostbusters
Coming Up Next: Rock That Body – June 16, 2017

McKinnon has been a standout player on Saturday Night Live, especially this year thanks to her portrayal of Hillary Clinton. Also in 2016 she stole scenes on the big screen in Ghostbusters while also voicing characters in Finding Dory and The Angry Birds Movie and co-starring in Office Christmas Party. So long as Lorne Michaels allows it, she’ll keep doing film work on the side, such as the upcoming dead stripper comedy – this one involving a male stripper, for a twist, and co-starring Scarlett Johansson, Demi Moore, and Zoe Kravitz – Rock That Body.

Angourie Rice
Breakout Movie: The Nice Guys
Coming Up Next: The Beguiled – June 30, 2017

As the daughter of Ryan Gosling’s character in The Nice Guys, Rice perfectly evoked smart, non-precocious 1970s child actresses like Jodie Foster and Tatum O’Neal. She didn’t get any love during awards season even in newcomer categories, unfortunately, but she’s about to have a great year. Her next scheduled feature is Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, though it’s unclear how big her part is, and then immediately after that she’ll be seen in Spider-Man: Homecoming, again apparently not in a big part. She’s also got the coming-of-age drama Jasper Jones in her native Australia.

Sam Claflin
Breakout Movie: Me Before You
Coming Up Next: My Cousin Rachel – July 14, 2017

Claflin is a familiar face thanks to supporting roles in the Pirates of the Caribbean, Hunger Games, and Huntsman franchise, and this year he rose up in status with the rom-com Me Before You, where he’s male lead opposite Emilia Clarke. With his blockbuster series roles apparently all done, he’s only got a few movies of note in the wings, with maybe the only 2017 release being Roger Michell’s remake of My Cousin Rachel, in which he plays the part previously filled by Richard Burton in the 1952 adaptation.

Lucas Hedges
Breakout Movie: Manchester by the Sea
Coming Up Next: Lady Bird

Hedges was a familiar-looking child actor before landing opposite Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea, and now he’s an acclaimed performer with a SAG Award nomination and Critics’ Choice Award, among other honors. Two of his past roles were in Wes Anderson movies, so hopefully he can become one of the filmmaker’s regulars. Until then, Hedges has two features due in 2017, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, and the next from Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He’s also got a short called Pigeonhearts that we hope will show up somewhere soon.

Julian Dennison
Breakout Movie: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Coming Up Next: Chronesthesia

One of our favorite child actors of the year, Dennison is hilarious as the lead of Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’d be great if the filmmaker found the teen a bit part in his upcoming Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, but that’s not likely. Dennison has no unseen movies listed on IMDb, though a New Zealand time-travel feature called Chronesthesia made its US debut at the Austin Film Festival last fall, got some good buzz, and now we’re just waiting on an official release.

Ruth Negga
Breakout Movie: Loving
Coming Up Next: TV’s Preacher

Negga has had a good career in the UK and arrived fully in the US with recurring roles on the comic book-based TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Preacher. She was also in Warcraft. However, her performance as Mildred Loving in Loving is turning her into a star, one with multiple major awards nominations plus Oscar buzz. She has no other known movies on the horizon but she will be returning for the second season of Preacher.

Janelle Monae
Breakout Movie: Moonlight
Coming Up Next: Unknown

Monae made the big leap from singer-songwriter to actress this year with two movies that have earned her raves and award contention. First was Moonlight and that was soon followed by Hidden Figures. There are no known roles in her future, but we can be sure they’ll come about very soon.

Jovan Adepo
Breakout Movie: Fences
Coming Up Next: Untitled Darren Aronofsky Project

After Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, the performance most being talked about in Fences is Adepo, who plays their son. Prior to the movie, he’s been known for his regular role on HBO’s The Leftovers. Now he’s broken out on the big screen, and he’s destined for more attention from Hollywood. The primary place to look for him in the coming year is an untitled drama from Darren Aronofsky also starring Jennifer Lawrence, Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, and Javier Bardem.

Sasha Lane
Breakout Movie: American Honey
Coming Up Next: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Andrea Arnold discovered Lane on a beach and cast her as the lead in American Honey. Now the actress has three more features and a short on the way. First up is probably Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, in which she plays a character named Jane Fonda. Then there’s Shoplifters of the World, a true story from music documentary filmmaker Stephen Kijak, making his dramatic feature debut. She’s also set to play the title character in the sci-fi movie Hunting Lila from Oscar-winning effects artist Paul J. Franklin.

Riz Ahmed
Breakout Movie: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Coming Up Next: Una and City of Tiny Lights

Ahmed’s real breakout should have been Nightcrawler, if not something earlier, like Four Lions. Technically his first notable performance this year was as the lead in HBO’s The Night Of, and he recently appeared in the Netflix series The OA. On the big screen, though, he broke out with mainstream audiences in the latest Star Wars movie. He surprisingly has nothing in the works according to the IMDb, so we’ll just have to hope that his two 2016 Toronto International Film Festival titles, Una and City of Tiny Lights has some kind of official release in America.

Auli’i Cravalho
Breakout Movie: Moana
Coming Up Next: Unknown

Plucked from obscurity to voice one of the most memorable movie characters of the year, the title heroine of Disney’s Moana, 16-year-old Cravalho is now hooked on Hollywood and says she’s had more offers that she won’t reveal yet. She also wants to pursue a career in science, though, claiming she can do both.

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Breakout Movie: Moana
Coming Up Next: Speech & Debate

Miranda, whose mostly known for the musical Hamilton, made his biggest break in the movies this year by contributing songs and some singing to Moana. He will eventually be bringing his shows In the Heights and Hamilton to the big screen, plus he’s doing songs for Disney’s live-action redo of The Little Mermaid and Sony is fast-tracking his animated musical Vivo. He will make on screen appearances, as well, including a role in Dan Harris’s high school debate team movie Speech & Debate due out next year.

Barry Jenkins
Breakout Movie: Moonlight
Coming Up Next: TV’s Dear White People

Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins broke out one time in 2008 with the feature Medicine for Melancholy. It took until this year for him to finally make another feature, and it’s even more of a breakthrough than before. He does possibly have his next movie lined up, a biopic about Olympic boxer Claressa Shields, though first would be an episode he helmed of the upcoming Netflix series Dear White People, based on the movie.

David Mackenzie
Breakout Movie: Hell or High Water
Coming Up Next: Damnation

Mackenzie has been working as a director for a couple decades and has made some acclaimed movies that never hit the mainstream like his latest, Hell or High Water. Now he’s likely to be offered some big Hollywood projects, though his next gig is also for the small screen: a USA Network movie called Damnation, about a man posing as a small-town preacher.

Yorgos Lanthimos
Breakout Movie: The Lobster
Coming Up Next: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Depending on how you measure success, Lanthimos broke out back in 2009 with the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth. However, his English-language debut, The Lobster, has been more widely seen due to the more-accessible dialogue and stars, including Colin Farrell. He’s continuing to work in English and with Farrell on his next movie, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which will co-star Nicole Kidman and Alicia Silverstone. Plot details can’t possibly give away how weird the movie is likely to be, but it has something to do with a surgeon and a dysfunctional family.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.