This article is part of our 2022 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from the year that was. In this entry, Anna Swanson and Farah Cheded run down the list of the best breakout performances of 2022.
While the movies that make this true for one person might not be the case for another, we can all agree that this was a banner year for movies. Blockbusters hit electrifying new highs. Indies exceeded expectations. And Tom Cruise showed us that, yes, real movie stars can still exist.
But Cruise and his death drive wasn’t the only highlight of 2022. From promising newcomers to seasoned professionals finally getting the spotlight, this year gave us a great wealth of breakout performances. In contemplating the best of the best, Farah Cheded and I found a fair amount of overlap in our selections, each bringing some individual picks that we were more than willing to go to bat for.
Narrowing an impressive year’s worth of offerings down to only fifteen is daunting. If your favorite isn’t here, don’t take it personally — “breakout” is subjective and entirely dependent on who gets on your radar and when it happens. And if you don’t see many names you recognize here, well, consider yourself lucky still to have so many fantastic discoveries available to you.
Anna Cobb in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
There are a lot of films that are ostensibly about the internet, but none that have captured the experience of being chronically online as authentically and eerily as Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. In the film, Anna Cobb plays Casey, a lonely teenager caught up in the “World’s Fair Challenge,” a kind of creepypasta-esque video-based challenge where other people record themselves observing physical and psychological changes in themselves after going through an initiation.
But like most things online, it’s unclear what’s real and what’s a performance or where the line is between these two things. As Casey appears more disturbed by the changes happening to her, Cobb is tasked with the near-impossible duty of conveying multiple contradictory truths in her performance. Everything she does is loaded with various possible interpretations, and how she handles the film’s ambiguous tone enriches every second she’s on screen. (Anna Swanson)
Anna Diop in Nanny
In Nanny, Nikyata Jusu’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning debut feature, Anna Diop plays Aisha, a single mother and former teacher who has migrated from Senegal to NYC. Here, she works as a nanny and French tutor to the daughter of a wealthy white couple (played by Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) and saves her earnings to pay the airfare so her young son can join her. Aisha’s warmth stands out amidst the tense atmosphere created by her employers — who serve her tight smiles and unwelcome, smarmy advances — and the relief she brings does wonders for their daughter Rose, who blossoms in her care.
Diop’s understated performance makes her frustration with Rose’s parents (who also overwork and underpay her) evident yet simmering. Still, things soon bubble over when she begins to experience haunting visions of mythical figures from West African folklore. Rather than react to these encroaching spirits as if they are entirely malignant ones, Diop cleverly blurs the lines of their impact on Aisha: while they clearly frighten her, she also seems empowered by their presence. She begins laying down much-needed boundaries with her demanding employers. Aisha’s guilt at being unable to be with her son in the same way she is with Rose also surfaces as Nanny advances, making for a performance of great emotional depth.
Jusu’s film — remarkable for its rare focus on African domestic workers’ experiences and its complex approach to the supernatural — is grounded in Diop’s equally layered and singular performance. (Farah Cheded)
Austin Butler in Elvis
You may have noticed by now that this list isn’t ranked on merit but rather listed alphabetically, and though this is the more diplomatic route, it does mean that we lose the fun of picking a number one. But trust us when we say that if we did, it would be, hands down, Austin Butler. This isn’t just the breakout performance of the year. It’s the performance of the year. Elvis hinges entirely on its lead and, with all due respect to Baz Luhrmann and his collaborators, without Butler, this could have been an absolute trainwreck. Often with biopics, there’s a perception that physical resemblance rules above all else. And sure, it doesn’t hurt that black hair dye and subtle facial prosthetics help Elvis-ifiy Butler’s appearance, but I believe the real trick is capturing a person’s spirit, which is exactly where he excels.
Butler’s performance is astounding; less of an imitation and more of an embodiment. When he moves his hips or looks into the audience with a glimmer in his eye, it doesn’t feel like he’s playing Elvis as much as he is Elvis. He’s electric, charismatic, and capable of living up to the King’s immense talents. It’s incredible to think that he’s spent more of his career with bit parts on TV or the occasional movie. In retrospect, Butler was a true star just waiting to be discovered. But whether you recognize him from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood or Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure, it’s clear that 2022 is his breakout year, but he has so much more ahead of him. (Anna Swanson)
Brandon Perea in Nope
How often is an audition so good it literally changes the plot of the movie? As Jordan Peele tells it, that’s precisely what happened when Brandon Perea read for the part of Angel in Nope. When we first meet Angel, he is an ill-tempered, conspiracy theory-loving misfit working at an electronics store, stinging from a fresh breakup. However, Angel’s curiosity is soon piqued when he’s recruited by the Haywood siblings (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) to install their unusual security camera setup — unusual because all of the cameras are pointed at the sky.
His tech savviness becomes indispensable to the siblings’ plan to get “the Oprah shot” of the UFO terrorizing the Agua Dulce valley. Still, he is such a scene-stealer that Peele thought he was indispensable to the film, too. Although Angel was initially written as another casualty of the monstrous Jean Jacket, Perea earned him a happier fate with his winning take on the character. In his hands, Angel isn’t just a lever through which the Haywoods get the shot that will catapult them into fame and fortune, but a member of the family of sorts, someone we genuinely root for. Whatever he does next, Perea has our attention. (Farah Cheded)
Charlbi Dean in Triangle of Sadness
The first act of Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness focuses on a sociologically surgical setup typical of the director. When a restaurant bill is delivered to a couple’s table, and only one reaches for their card, an argument erupts between them over the unspoken gendered dynamics at play in their relationship. The squirm-inducing tension of this scene spills out into the rest of the first act until Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who tragically passed away in 2022) breaks the icy atmosphere with a candid admission: she was indeed “being manipulative” when she pretended not to see the bill arrive at the table.
Yaya’s candor is refreshing, not least because everyone else in the film is in varying degrees of denial about their own self-interest. Unlike the other guests (including her boyfriend Carl, played by our 2017 breakout Harris Dickinson) — Dean’s Yaya is under no illusions as to what her social worth is and how it is calculated and is matter-of-fact about how she can use her looks to bargain for the life she wants.
Throughout the film, Dean never flinches in the face of Östlund’s typically unsparing focus, proving her an actor of great nerve and intelligence. Dean also plays Yaya with great warmth and shrewdness — which, when combined with Dolly de Leon’s equally standout performance as Abigail, makes the movie’s ominous will-she-won’t-she ending feel high stakes, emotionally speaking. De Leon and Dean’s performances are so involving that the scene, which could on paper play out like a class struggle by proxy — and therefore be easy to pick sides in — becomes an agonizing dilemma. The loss of Dean, who so skilfully establishes her character as the smartest and most honest in Triangle of Sadness’ sprawling ensemble, is a great one to cinema. (Farah Cheded)
Daryl McCormack in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande
Rising star Daryl McCormack (also seen in Peaky Blinders and Bad Sisters) gives a consummate performance as a young sex worker whose services are hired by Emma Thompson’s unhappy widow Nancy in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. Structured as a two-hander and shot almost entirely in one clinical hotel room, the duo’s performances are under a magnifying glass by definition. Still, McCormack matches his illustrious co-star in the depth and dexterity of his performance. While Nancy is anxious, a little judgmental, and insecure about herself, Leo is gently authoritative, open, and affirming — encouraging but never pressuring her throughout their sessions.
Leo isn’t just a suave foil to the flustered Nancy, though: when she begins to probe his personal life, we sense some anxiety of his own even through his skillful deflections — discomfort that finally erupts when Leo emotionally unspools after Nancy violates a fundamental term of their agreement. In these scenes (and in brief preceding shots of Leo gazing into his own reflection), McCormack smashes the enigmatic facade Leo has fashioned for himself. In doing so, he also justifies its very existence — because, while Leo gallantly goes to great pains to dress up the transactional nature of his relationship with Nancy, he is just selling his services to her, not himself. Such an effortlessly commanding yet sensitive performance make him a very exciting one to watch. (Farah Cheded)
Diego Calva in Babylon
As Babylon careens through an era of Hollywood in a stage of upheaval, indulgence, and uncertainty, the film’s rock is Diego Calva’s Manny. As the film’s central character and audience surrogate, Calva captures Manny’s wide-eyed wonder as a newcomer in the industry, desperate to be part of something big, something that matters. But as the industry changes and Manny becomes part of what shapes it, the stress and frustrations build. While many players around him exist at extremes, Manny has no choice but to try to be the level-headed fixer. Babylon’s take on the film industry as a soul-crushing machine isn’t what we’d expect from Damien Chazelle after La La Land’s doe-eyed perspective on Hollywood’s dreamers. But although this film reaches some truly dark places, Calva’s lovelorn gaze is, in its own way, a special piece of movie magic. (Anna Swanson)
Dolly De Leon in Triangle of Sadness
It’s rare that a film’s star emerges so late in its runtime, but that’s how it is with Dolly de Leon in Triangle of Sadness. For the first two parts of the movie, she is the largely unseen (by design) Filipina toilet manager of a luxury yacht, but this all changes when, around the 90-minute mark, the ship is attacked by pirates, leaving a handful of the cruise’s staff and wealthy guests to wash up on a nearby island. In this fresh context where bank balances hold no weight, Abigail’s lack of a silver spoon becomes her defining advantage, as she is the only one with enough practical life experience to survive on the island.
That upending of the social hierarchy doesn’t happen by accident: we watch de Leon bring this new pecking order to life in one deft, gratifying move during a tense scene revolving around an octopus dinner, in which another member of the yacht’s staff demands she behave as if she’s still on the clock. Abigail isn’t just a heroic cipher for social revolution, though — she is a genuinely psychologically engaging character in her own right. Consider the film’s knife-edge ending: with a conflicted expression and a tentative pause, de Leon conveys the clash between Abigail’s still-ticking moral compass and her atavistic urges to preserve her newfound spot at the top of the heap. It’s a fascinating, make-of-it-what-you-will performance on which the entire film hinges. (Farah Cheded)
Frankie Corio in Aftersun
Frankie Corio had never acted before she was cast as 11-year-old Sophie in Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, but it hardly seems like she’s acting at all here. Her performance evokes the fierce vitality and wonder of childhood, and yet, through her, we’re also reminded of the traumatic widening of one’s inner world that takes place during the slide into adolescence: burgeoning romantic interests, stormier emotions — and, with them, a clearer view of the people around you. It’s an extraordinarily natural-seeming turn, even more so given her chemistry with a devastating Paul Mescal (who plays Sophie’s troubled young father, Calum), which is as familiar and teasing as you might expect of a real-life father-daughter duo who have less than 20 years between them.
The film is framed as the memory of a father-daughter vacation ominously playing out in the older Sophie’s (Celia Rowlson-Hall) head. Still, Wells’ directorial hand is light, never forcing or explicit. The performances follow suit, with Mescal and Corio saying much outside their allotted dialogue. That’s particularly true of Corio: although the older Sophie is primarily sifting through her memories to see her father as he really was, she’s also reckoning with a pivotal coming-of-age point for herself, and so the undercurrent of tragedy requires as much nuanced expression from Corio as it does Mescal. In this, she delivers as fully and intuitively as her more seasoned co-star, suggesting a bright future ahead. (Farah Cheded)
Gabriel LaBelle in The Fabelmans
Technically, Gabriel LaBelle is playing Sammy Fabelman. But let’s be real; we all know he’s playing Steven Spielberg. In the director’s thinly veiled biopic, we watch Sammy come of age while discovering the power he wields over images and storytelling as a budding filmmaker and the incredible lack of control he wields over keeping his parents’ marriage intact. A large chunk of discussion around the film has concerned Michelle Williams’ frenetic turn as Mitzi Fabelman and Paul Dano’s soulfully sad portrayal of Sammy’s dad, Burt — not to mention the brief but memorable inclusions of Judd Hirsch and you-know-who as you-know-who. But as impressive as the cast is, it wouldn’t work without LaBelle as Sammy.
The Fabelmans has been characterized as a love letter to the magic of movies, and sure, on some levels, it is, but it goes far deeper than that. This is a film about Spielberg interrogating his own impulses to get overly sentimental when things get tough, and it’s far more self-aware and self-critical than some give it credit for. Integral to this is LaBelle, who conveys Sammy’s hurt and anger, how it morphs into a desire for control, and how resentment and jealousy can fester into something that can’t be controlled. There is heart and humor, and these aspects are touching, but how LaBelle works with some of the film’s darker moments makes him such a standout in an already incredible movie. (Anna Swanson)
Guslagie Malanda in Saint Omer
Though the film’s wide release is in 2023, we’re counting Saint Omer as a 2022 release, and trust us when we say that when this film does roll out, you cannot miss it. The film follows Rama (Kayije Kagame), an academic with a professional interest in the myth of Medea. Rama attends the trial of Laurence (Guslagie Malanda), a Senegalese immigrant woman accused of murdering her infant daughter. The proceedings stir up personal feelings for Rama as Laurence recounts the years leading up to her daughter’s death.
Her frankness betrays a deep trauma, and the film resists a histrionic tone, instead leaning into an impersonal feeling that reflects the empathy denied to Laurence in France. This is a courtroom drama unlike anything else that’s been done before. It is a credit to Malanda’s performance that one of the most complicated characters we’ve seen on screen in years is handled with such deft care and with such unsentimental honesty. (Anna Swanson)
Rachel Wolfson in Jackass Forever
We talk a lot about the importance of representation in film, which is why I believe it is important to single out a performance from 2022 that offered so many of us the one thing we so desired to see on screen while in our most formative years: a girl Jackass. It’s tough work, but someone’s gotta do it, and that someone is Rachel Wolfson.
The comedian was one of several newcomers in Jackass Forever, and we have to commend the whole cast, new and returning, for taking the art of self-injury to new highs. But Wolfson’s inclusion in the boys’ club cast is worth singling out. She proves to be fearless and daring, willing to partake in stunts that could even make Steve-O shudder. (Anna Swanson)
Sami Slimane in Athena
The defining theme of Athena, Romain Gavras’ film about a Parisian banlieue plunged into revolt following the murder of a 13-year-old boy, is chaos. Amidst all the explosive action of its electrifying tracking shots, however, one element seems immune to the contagious nature of the mayhem unfolding around him: Sami Slimane, who plays Karim, brother of the murdered boy. It’s Karim’s anger that galvanizes the young inhabitants of the titular housing project into rioting — he is the de facto commander in this war against the police, whom he believes are responsible for his brother’s death. While Athena’s young residents gleefully pose for photos with weapons stolen in the film’s sensational opening raid on a police station, Slimane preserves Karim’s fury as a quiet yet resolutely blazing flame.
From the very first glimpse we get of him in that thrilling 11-minute-long opening shot — even before we know who he is — we instinctively recognize from his steely, gaunt expression that Karim is driven by a higher sense of purpose, one that will prove more dangerous than the Molotov cocktail in his hand. It’s an immediately commanding performance that only becomes more so as Slimane continues to draw on seemingly unlimited reserves of furious energy throughout his time on screen, forcing the rest of the film to react to him (indeed, even Mathias Boucard’s cinematography seems hypnotized by him). Slimane’s authoritative performance proves an astonishingly propulsive dramatic force that surely deserves as much credit as Gavras’ direction and Boucard’s feats of visual spectacle for Athena’s sense of epic tragedy. (Farah Cheded)
Sofia Kappel in Pleasure
The word “fearless” gets tossed around a lot to praise performances. And sure, there are a lot of actors who think they are indeed up for anything. But then there’s Sofia Kappel. In Ninja Thyberg’s erotic drama centered on LA’s porn industry, Kappel plays Bella Cherry, a newcomer eager to dive in headfirst and prove herself. As Bella navigates the industry, Thyberg never shies away from showing high highs and brutally low lows.
And Kappel is right there with her. She portrays Bella as likable and savvy but also naive and not as prepared for this career as she once believed to be. Bella’s experience oscillates wildly, and it’s hard to imagine how it would have handled these swings without a performance like Kappel’s to ground it. Considering Pleasure is also Thyberg’s feature debut, the film is a promise of great upcoming talent both in front of and behind the camera. (Anna Swanson)
Stephanie Hsu in Everything Everywhere All At Once
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Stephanie Hsu effectively plays two poles-apart versions of the same person: Joy Wang, an anxious twenty-something desperate for her mother to accept her relationship with her girlfriend, and Jobu Tupaki, the nihilistic, universe-hopping menace who threatens to destroy creation itself. As Jobu, Hsu effortlessly exudes the intimidating magnetism of an arch-villain, while she is quietly devastating as the dejected Joy.
The marvel of Hsu’s performance isn’t just in how she is utterly convincing in both registers but in how she blends the two with a magician’s sleight of hand when the movie’s plot twist is revealed. Hsu traces for us the path from Joy’s shrinking self-confidence to Jobu’s all-consuming depression. And, in doing so, illuminates the vulnerability at the heart of the movie’s monster. Hers is a stunning breakout that is as kaleidoscopic as the movie’s mind-bending plot. (Farah Cheded)
Related Topics: 2022 Rewind