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The 20 Best Breakout Performances of 2020

These unforgettable performances from newcomers illuminate the myriad ways there are to leave an indelible impact on cinema.
Breakout Performances
By  · Published on December 27th, 2020

This article is part of our 2020 RewindFollow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry focused on the year’s movies, we spotlight twenty unforgettable breakout performances of 2020.

Much has changed in the world this year, and cinema certainly hasn’t come away unscathed. But despite shuttered theaters and delayed releases, one gleaming ray of light that has refused to be dimmed is that of the breakout actor. Whether we caught them on big screens pre-COVID-19 or watched them from home in the months that followed, this year has brimmed over with fresh acting talent.

Some were multi-hyphenates long overdue their share of the limelight — Radha Blank, for example — while others, like Alan Kim and Michael Martin, burst onto the scene out of obscurity. Their performances have encompassed a similarly vast array of acting styles, ranging from the devastating naturalism of Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder’s performances in Never Rarely Sometimes Always all the way up to the audaciously improvisational hijinks of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Maria Bakalova.

And while some made their mark by portraying heightened versions of themselves, others did so by taking on the formidable challenge of playing icons of history. Together, 2020’s breakout actors have illuminated the myriad ways there are to leave an indelible impact on cinema. We celebrate twenty of the year’s most exciting new faces below.

Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder (Never Rarely Sometimes Always)

Sidney Flanigan Talia Ryder Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Just as Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats marked an understated debut from Harris Dickinson in 2017, the director’s latest film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, is a quietly striking showcase for its two stars. Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder play teenage cousins from rural Pennsylvania who are forced to travel to New York City when Flanigan’s character, Autumn, unexpectedly needs to access abortion services, a journey that tests their bond and ultimately reveals its profound strength.

In keeping with Hittman’s style, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is raw and realist and finds much of its potency from its wordless moments. Ryder and Flanigan fit perfectly into that low-key fabric: their bond feels genuinely sisterly, and their performances are free of emotional hyperbole. They rely less on dialogue than on quiet gestures to communicate the depth and warmth of the connection they share.

Together and separately, their performances give the film its piercing profundity: you’re just as likely to be moved by Skylar’s (Ryder) unwavering devotion to her cousin as you are by the stark emotion of the clinic scene which gives the movie its name. Flanigan’s performance in the latter is surely the most overtly striking moment of the film: during an incredibly raw long-take, a burst dam of pain cracks and then finally shatters Autumn’s sullen mask.

It’s a career-launching moment, as the non-professional actor does here what seasoned professionals might struggle to do even with the luxury of an edit. As with Ryder’s intuitively subtle and affecting supporting work, Flanigan’s sharp performance pays testament not just to Hittman’s casting genius, but also to the still-potent power of understated acting, and its necessity within cinema.

What’s next for Flanigan: My Twin is Dead
What’s next for Ryder: West Side Story

Alan Kim (Minari)

Alan Kim Minari

From Minari’s otherworldly score and poetic cinematography to its intimate exploration of identity and belonging, there is much about Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical movie that will linger long in the memory. One particular standout, though, is newcomer Alan Kim, who plays David, Chung’s stand-in within this film about a Korean-American family carving out a life in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.

Minari sees everything from David’s sensitive, wonderstruck eyes, and at seven-years-old, Kim proves a precociously authoritative lead, more than up to the task of being the film’s frame. His performance feels as unprocessed as cinema’s best child performances do. David is still young enough to betray his most candid thoughts out loud, but he’s also at the stage of development in which his social self-awareness is burgeoning. It’s a formative period of life, and Kim’s performance gives voice to this barrage of competing influences, whether decisively blurting out his assessments of other people — “I don’t like Grandma” — or confronting Othering encounters with white kids at church with blinking bemusement.

Sipping Mountain Dew in his little cowboy boots, he’s also an endearingly sweet presence, and part of the reason Chung’s film feels so precious is that Kim lends it some of his own natural charm. One of Minari’s most winning dynamics is the one he shares with septuagenarian co-star Youn Yuh-jung as Soon-ja, David’s grandma (another highlight in an already consummate cast). It never gets old, watching the two spar: him, a little old beyond his years, and her gloriously immature for her age. Their relationship draws out the best in Kim, who is at his most gleefully mischievous and precociously commanding in scenes shared with Youn. That, coupled with the vulnerability he displays in scenes away from David’s family, speaks to this nascent star’s formidable range of talent.

Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old Version)

Radha Blank Year Old Version

It’s impossible to separate the naked honesty of The Forty-Year-Old Version’s script from that of writer-director-star Radha Blank’s performance. Playing a fictionalized version of herself — a playwright and teacher who takes stock of her life as her fortieth birthday approaches — Blank is confronting the Final Boss of vulnerability here. Having already laid herself bare on the page in a script that skewers herself as much as it does the New York theater world, she steps up to claim ownership of her words with this candid lead performance.

Blank takes as her focal point life after the big milestones, a time that doesn’t often receive cinematic contemplation when it comes to the lives of Black women. Her character, also called Radha, was once a 30-Under-30 Award recipient and has not long lost her mother (the latter being true for the real Blank, too). It’s hugely moving to see Blank formally integrate commemoration of her mother (also an artist who didn’t get her due) into the film, particularly in a long-deferred reunion with her brother in their mother’s old apartment. The documentary-like rawness of scenes like this blur the film’s official classification as fiction, and press home the profundity of Blank’s performance.

Blank also interweaves self-effacing comedy into her portrayal of Radha grappling with the prospect of another decade of professional disappointment, but neither her gags as written nor her delivery ever undermines the gravity of her character’s crisis or the real-life implications of her film. This, alongside the refreshing directness of Radha’s music — she reinvents herself as a rapper — speaks to the extraordinary candor of Blank’s film and her defining central performance. At a time when the anesthetizing touch of studios is all-too-often palpable in visual media, Blank’s multi-hyphenate work here is a reminder of how necessary creative visions that refuse to compromise on their integrity are to the scene, and how exhilarating it is when a voice like hers finally arrives.

Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm)

Maria Bakalova Borat

Maria Bakalova’s movie-stealing performance in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm proved a bigger surprise than the film itself, which was shot in secret and announced a month before debuting on Amazon Prime Video, just before the presidential election. Already a budding talent in her home country of Bulgaria, Bakalova burst into international consciousness this year with a starring role as Borat’s fifteen-year-old “non-male son,” Tutar, whom Sacha Baron Cohen’s titular character intends to “give” as a diplomatic gift to Mike Pence.

But contrary to what that premise suggests, it is Tutar’s feminist awakening, not her objectification, that is the film’s narrative engine. That puts Bakalova on an even footing with Cohen as the movie’s focus, and it’s a responsibility she handles adeptly. In sheer comic nerve, Bakalova more than matches her seasoned co-star: set-pieces like the debutante ball see her as ready and willing as her scene-partner is to audaciously swerve into gross-out territory, while solo stunts like her impromptu speech on the delights of self-pleasure prove her to be a fearless stand-alone talent.

What’s more, like her co-star, Bakalova is as much a dramatic talent as she is a natural comic. Tutar’s journey of self-discovery and her subsequently shifting relationship with her father bring unexpected emotional heft to the movie and catalyze Borat’s own change of character. It’s Bakalova’s endearing portrayal, therefore, that provides the dramatic underpinning that keeps Borat Subsequent Moviefilm from feeling like an un-evolved rehash of its predecessor. In a sense, then, the movie’s title is a misnomer: this is Tutar’s moviefilm, not Borat’s, and thus Bakalova is its real star.

What’s next: Women Do Cry

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Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.