The 25 Best Breakout Performances of the Decade

This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.


The term “breakout performance” carries with it a sense of stark immediacy. By and large, it is an actor’s defining role, a character that will hopefully kickstart a long and successful career in the arts in the years to come. That said, when considering a performer’s breakthrough moment across an entire decade of movies, I believe that an element of observed or at least perceived longevity should also come into play in deciding which ones remain more salient.

The years between 2010 and 2019 gave us many a scene-stealing actor. Some, in particular, have not just held onto the spotlight since but continue to shape our cultural psyche as film lovers with their important or otherwise intriguing contributions to cinema. In this list of 25, I explore the most affecting film performances from the past 10 years — the ones that spawned a legion of stars that we can all depend on as cinema keeps evolving.

25. Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair)

2012 was a huge year for Alicia Vikander. By the end of it, she had two remarkable movies under her belt, one of them being the lavish Joe Wright period piece Anna Karenina, in which she is a true standout noted for her emotionally generous and intuitive performance. However, months prior, Vikander was already gaining traction and buzz after appearing as one of three hefty leads in Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair. This lofty historical drama gives Vikander ample room to explore the pensive, internal, and even explosive tenets of her craft, intensely disentangling the many layers of her character, Queen Caroline. Vikander unravels an intelligent, sharp-tongued, charismatic woman who is trapped by circumstance and willing to seize any chance to break free. Her moving, all-encompassing performance includes many elements that would eventually become part of her distinguished cinematic signature, as demonstrated in later films such as Ex Machina and The Light Between Oceans.

24. Jessica Chastain (The Help)

Much like the aforementioned Vikander, Jessica Chastain had one massive year of movie releases that put her on the map. But among the six 2011 films that Chastain appeared in, which of them should be the real focus of her breakthrough? One could point out the actress’ tendency to play women of conviction even early on in her career, constantly commanding the screen even when her roles call for a particular softness. For Chastain, gentleness does not negate from inner strength, which she showcases in Tate Taylor’s The Help with the added bonus of cracking comedic timing. On its own, The Help is far too glossy to be an especially useful film about racism and the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America. Instead, it should be valued as a performer’s piece. In Chastain’s case, she fearlessly portrays a character that borders on kooky. As the brittle Celia Rae Foote, she goes from excitable highs to sorrowful lows, careful to never stray into the land of sheer caricature either. Even in this supporting capacity, Chastain proves that she has always been an actor to watch.

23. Will Poulter (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

Eustace Scrubb – annoying and petulant as he is – had it in him the whole time. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader basically marks the beginning of Will Poulter’s illustrious career as the Sometimes-Lovable Asshole. He has such a knack for conveying Eustace’s childish sullenness with so much foolish and stubborn conviction most of the time, no character or audience member can stand him. That is, until Poulter divulges the fragility of Eustace’s heart. It’s not so much that we grow to feel sorry for him; we’re just happy that he’s learned not to be a jerk. Despite being the newcomer among Narnia veterans by the time of Dawn Treader, Poulter is a genuine scene stealer. Eustace even amusingly ends up being one of his tamer, more likable roles, as virtually every film in his repertoire moving forward features some spin on the layered jackass.

22. Jaeden Martell (St. Vincent)

Jaeden Martell could have started out as any one of those incredibly cute child actors who would’ve easily sold a lesser role with nothing but a doe-eyed expression. St. Vincent doesn’t let him rest on his laurels, though. Necessarily naïve but seemingly also wise beyond his years, Martell is never adorable for its own sake in the film. His actions and facial expression feel easy and natural, but St. Vincent largely works because of the believable intelligence that he brings to the table. This simple heartwarming narrative requires a crucial sense of innocence, yet Martell encourages audiences to take the shrewdness of his precocious character seriously, grounding St. Vincent‘s straightforward narrative in surprising heartrending realism. Opposite Bill Murray’s grumpy, worn-out protagonist, Martell actually shines as a worthy equal.

21. Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight)

The triptych structure of Barry Jenkins’ sweeping love story Moonlight necessitates strong actors all around. Still, singling out Jharrel Jerome as a breakthrough revelation of the movie makes sense. Of the three actors who get to portray Kevin (the film’s secondary protagonist and love interest), Jerome inhabits the most conflicted, complex version of him. In Moonlight, Kevin utilizes confidence as the ultimate shield to protect his identity. He wraps himself in various representations of machismo, be it in his speech or mannerisms, to fit into a status quo and avoid examining the conflicts in his life, namely his sexuality. Nevertheless, each time the camera pans toward Jerome when he’s in a casual conversation with scene partner Ashton Sanders, the expression on his face is far from relaxed. What could ostensibly be a look of ease and self-acceptance is often mingled with hesitancy and tension. Confession dances on the tip of Kevin’s tongue, his fear of being found out palpable and heartbreaking. It’s a wonder that Jerome does so much with so little screen time and that’s what makes him so impressive in this film.


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Sheryl Oh: @sherhorowitz Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.