2016. Trump. Brexit. Prince, Bowie and Rickman. Yep, this year has felt like a vivid and relentless nightmare at times, but there have been bright moments too — and if we're going to put a positive spin on the past twelve months, look no further than some of the emerging talents making their presence felt in Hollywood.
From low-budget #horror movies to supersize blockbusters, mystery thrillers on Netflix to surreal Korean cinema, countless of 2016's best films and TV series featured breakout performances which promised to mark the beginnings of long and exciting careers for some of the brightest young or unsung acting talent out there.
Movie Pilot's editorial staff were asked to vote for their breakthrough performance of 2016, and the results were varied, unpredictable and decidedly celebratory (happily, nineteen of the twenty most popular nominees were human beings). Enough talk — let's take a look at the twenty brightest new talents of the past year.
20-16. Jaeden Lieberher, Sennia Nanua, Adina Porter, Kim Tae-ri, Sidse Babett Knudsen
In Jaeden Lieberher and Sennia Nanua, two of this year's most underrated genre films (the magnetic, Spielberg-esque sci-fi Midnight Special and post-apocalyptic horror The Girl With All The Gifts) found young leads whose performances were as confident and charismatic as those of castmates Michael Shannon and Glenn Close.
Adina Porter has been on the radar since her brilliant work as Tara's demented mother in True Blood, but she hit the mainstream in a bigger way this year as Lee Harris in a stellar season of #AmericanHorrorStory, Roanoke.
Legendary Korean director Park Chan-wook, possessor of a disturbed creative mind, returned in style this year with The Handmaiden, a twisty and twisted erotic thriller in which nobody is quite what they first seem. Among the players in this game is Sookee, the titular handmaiden, brought to life with a heady hybrid of wide-eyed naivety and steely determination by Korean newcomer Kim Tae-ri. Expect to see much more of her in the near future.
Finally, Sidse Babett Knudsen has done some excellent work over the years, especially on the thrilling Danish political drama Borgen, but it's her role as Theresa in #Westworld which has finally brought her to the attention of American audiences. She may be ice cold, but Knudsen somehow gives Theresa a searing likability.
15-11. Gal Gadot, Morgan Saylor, George MacKay, Evan Rachel-Wood, Angourie Rice
Gal Gadot responded in the best possible way to those who questioned her casting as #WonderWoman — with a killer, scene-stealing debut in Batman v Superman which not only silenced the critics, but also gave the #DCEU a much-needed female hero with the ability to match the boys for power (and outdo them in intelligence). Next summer's Wonder Woman should be a riot.
Morgan Saylor did good work as Brody's sulky teenage daughter in Homeland, but deserves more attention here for her breakout lead role as Leah in White Girl, a college student who gets in over her head after meeting a drug dealer. Leah's white privilege looms uncomfortably over the plot, hence the film's title, and Saylor is excellent at every turn. White Girl is available to stream now on #Netflix.
Evan Rachel-Wood has rarely received the recognition she deserves since her initial breakout in Thirteen, but in Westworld gives a brilliant, low-key performance as Dolores, an intelligent robot treading the road toward self-awareness. George MacKay sheds his British accent as the culturally-suppressed son of a hippy home-schooling his six kids in the wilderness in the criminally-overlooked Captain Fantastic.
And fifteen-year-old Angourie Rice proves herself a natural at comedy in The Nice Guys, going toe to toe with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in the very funny story of a mismatched detective duo searching for a missing porn star. Rice is here to stay — she'll be seen next in #Marvel's Spider-Man: Homecoming.
10. Sasha Lane ('American Honey')
American Honey was Sasha Lane's first job, but you wouldn't know it from her assured, sometimes sexy performance opposite the likes of Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough — Lane radiates presence on the screen. Like several movies on this list, American Honey is a coming-of-age movie which allows its star to do the same.
9. Claire Foy ('The Crown')
UK audiences were familiar with Claire Foy long before The Crown thanks to reliably excellent turns in Wolf Hall (as a seductive Anne Boleyn) and various other period dramas, but it's the Netflix story of how Elizabeth II came to be Queen which propels Foy into the stratosphere as a global star. She mesmerizes every moment she's on screen, even though Elizabeth can be cold and difficult to get to grips with.
Next time you fancy a binge, watch Foy at work in The Crown — it's the best TV series of 2016.
8. Mahershala Ali ('Luke Cage')
Ever since his pleasingly slimy turn as Remy Danton in House of Cards, Mahershala Ali's career has been in steep ascension. Currently winning award nominations for his role in Moonlight, I'd argue it's #LukeCage which shows off the best of Ali's talent — as the club-owning gangster Cottonmouth, old school in some respects and new in others, he's immensely watchable (to the point that every moment he's not on screen feels slightly dull) and even charming (considering his thirst for bloodshed). Oh, and that laugh. I want it as my ringtone.
7. Tom Holland ('Captain America: Civil War')
Sometimes it pays to take a gamble. Compared with Andrew Garfield (who was fine but unexciting as Peter Parker) nobody had really heard of the young Brit Tom Holland prior to his casting as Spider-Man. After a promising debut in #CivilWar which demonstrated plenty of boyish charm, all eyes are on Homecoming to prove that Holland is the ultimate incarnation of our friendly neighborhood #SpiderMan.
6. Thandie Newton ('Westworld')
Not everybody in TV gets to utter lines line "You don't want to fuck with me, Felix!", but not everybody in TV is Thandie Newton, who gives brothel madame Maeve a uniquely stiff upper lipped British charm — and that's before her attribute matrix is fine-tuned to turn her into Westworld's most dangerous rogue host. To see Newton finally get the awards recognition she deserves for this satisfyingly juicy role feels like a major win.
- 10 Insane Things You Never Knew About Thandie Newton
- How The 'Westworld' Finale Made Maeve Season 2's Most Dangerous Player
5. Blake Lively & Steven Seagull ('The Shallows')
In the interests of total transparency, all of the votes received here were strictly for Steven Seagull, the clear breakout star of this summer's insanely good B-movie The Shallows, but I thought I'd abuse my editorial privilege to pay tribute to Blake Lively as well. Teamwork and all that. Lively's career choices post-Gossip Girl haven't done much for her, but a genuinely brilliant performance here should make her a bigger star in 2017 and beyond (even if she can't wear a wetsuit in every movie).
4. Anya Taylor-Joy ('The Witch')
It's been a while since we saw the birth of a genuine scream queen (no, nobody in that awful Ryan Murphy show counts), but Anya Taylor-Joy seems to be making a serious shot at that title. Between the lab-horror Morgan and next year's Split, Taylor-Joy was simply awesome in the superbly chilling The Witch, making Hollywood her oyster — and if rumors of a lead role in X-Men: New Mutants are grounded in truth, she's making the most of that newfound power.
3. Ruth Negga ('Loving')
As the Oscars race heats up, there's every chance that Ruth Negga will become a household name in the coming months, her highly emotional performance in the interracial marriage drama Loving awakening the world to her eminent talents. She also demonstrates her considerable range as Tulip on AMC's Preacher.
2. The Kids of 'Stranger Things'
I know, I know. You thought Millie Bobby Brown had this one in the bag. But not only did the shockingly mature, eloquent twelve-year-old have to share with her little-person castmates (who, to be fair, are all equally talented), she was pipped to the top spot. No matter. Brown has already won pop culture this year, her unsettlingly quiet, inward performance as Eleven inspiring a whole range of cosplays and dominating Halloween. She'll be back in Season 2 of Stranger Things, and until then you'll probably find her being adorable with her BFF Maddie Ziegler. I can't even.
1. Julian Dennison ('Hunt For The Wilderpeople')
Adorably gangster, unusually natural. That was the office consensus about newcomer Julian Dennison's irresistible performance as the troubled kid we'd all foster in a heartbeat (he named his puppy Tupac, ffs!). In a big year for young actors proving themselves as capable as their grown-up co-stars, Dennison stood out and was rewarded with the award for Movie Pilot's Breakthrough Performance of 2016.
There's no actual prize, though. We spent the trophy fund on beer. Sorry!
Which breakthrough performance stood out the most for you in 2016?