5. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
As far as feisty debuts go, Hailee Steinfeld steals the show in the Coens’ adaptation of True Grit. The character of Mattie Ross would have been any aspiring actor’s creative dream. Spunky enough to be damn fun to play and strong enough to hold her ground, the role actually gives her plenty to dig into, too. That said, the Coens don’t compromise on the density of their script, and Steinfeld deserves all the praise for ingesting it all and bringing Mattie to life with so much intelligence, poise, and authenticity. Headstrong, determined, and earnestly tough, Steinfeld has an unwavering assured awareness of the character’s spirited nature. While filled with tenacity and fiery, seemingly unshrinking teenage gusto, Steinfeld grounds Mattie in warmth and naivete, as well, reminding audiences to not underestimate her keen acting sensibilities. In the years to come, Steinfeld would go on to conquer the indie stage in The Edge of Seventeen and singlehandedly save the Transformers franchise from utter destruction. Her breakthrough role was truly auspicious.
4. Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth)
There’s a reason that 2019 is the year of Florence Pugh. Between her game-changing performance in Ari Aster’s Midsommar as well as highly-anticipated upcoming roles in Little Women and Black Widow, her rise is nothing short of meteoric but definitely well-earned. Backtracking several years reveals just how masterful Pugh is at her craft. Specifically, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is a beguiling piece of cinema that soars primarily because of her incredibly complicated, unhinged performance. Pugh dives headfirst into the film’s protagonist, Katherine Lester. While the character is shuttered away in a rural English estate, bound to a loveless marriage, she marinates in resentment and boredom. Pugh fully commits to each instance of rebellion that she can afford to scrounge up. However, there is no distinction between her rightful indignation and toxic rage. Even when her actions become explicitly villainous, Pugh fights for what Katherine irrationally believes is hers, calling into question the film’s themes of personal freedom, racial inequality, and female empowerment.
3. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network)
Let’s be real, most of the lead actors in The Social Network could credibly consider the David Fincher classic their breakout moment. Still, the film endures in Andrew Garfield’s repertoire as one of his very best; it certainly inspired one of the most striking performances of his career. The Social Network has itself become a timeless depiction of ambition, self-determination, and fraught friendship. Similarly, Garfield’s turn as Eduardo Saverin is so sure-footed and naturalistic that it could have been anyone’s slighted best friend. It’s the kind of performance that transcends Fincher’s initial lens, leaving behind the confines of a burgeoning social media age and creating a perennial work of art. As Saverin, Garfield displays palpable sincerity in a multitude of gentle glances, so much so that when he aches and yearns, the audience feels it, too. He then lets the character slip up and fall from grace due to his own self-interest, just enough to keep him human. Garfield becomes a sweeping force of reason for audiences to latch onto. Without being unrealistically decent, he champions some kind of honor code in a film full of apparently emotionless conduits of enterprise.
2. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out)
Daniel Kaluuya’s emergence as a bona fide genre movie legend feels like it’s been a long time coming. After years of notable British TV appearances (Skins, Black Mirror) and a handful of supporting film roles, Kaluuya has a technique down pat: you can’t help but be drawn to his magnetic screen presence, even when he is standing on the edge of a frame. It is this understated quality that led Kaluuya to be cast in his meatiest, most engaging work yet: Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Despite playing a character entangled in the most unnerving waking nightmare, Kaluuya gets to be an action hero, romantic lead, and dramatic heavyweight all at the same time. The amalgamative nature of Get Out is perfectly suited to the actor’s emotional versatility and piercing wit. Kaluuya confronts and uproots themes of agency, racism, and violence while negotiating his own identity of practiced nonchalance as a conditioned everyman. He is the hero that other cinematic offerings should aspire to.
1. Brie Larson (Short Term 12)
Before Oscar glory – and long before donning Captain Marvel’s iconic colors in the MCU – Brie Larson already displayed a disarming knack for portraying realness onscreen. Of her earliest and most noteworthy ventures, Short Term 12 draws out Larson’s impressive arsenal of acting tools, resulting in her full-bodied rendering of a young woman who is both broken and powerful. Her lead role as Grace, the supervisor of a group home for troubled youths, is truly multifaceted. Although she is always ready to uplift others around her, Grace is one of Short Term 12‘s most taciturn people. Her empathy and emotional openness for each tumultuous narrative thread in the film anchors the narrative’s weighty and oftentimes depressing truths about past and present identity. We’d expect Grace to crack in a film like this and she does. Yet, there is nothing showy about her catharsis. Larson depicts Grace’s every dichotomy dexterously, embodying everything from vulnerability to steely resolve, quiet charisma to unsettling detachment. Her talent for inexplicable naturalism has kept audiences watching her career closely ever since.