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The Breakout Movie Performances Of 2016

From Kate McKinnon’s ghostbusting antics to Royalty Hightower’s cinematic coming-out party, these were the star turns that made us take notice of this year’s emerging talent

I watch a lot of movies. Some of them are great. Many of them are bad. But every time the theater goes dark, I get excited. You never know when you’ll spot a breakout star, even when the movie around them is a black hole. In 2016, there was a fantastic new face every month — technically, more often than that if you’ll forgive me for including a dog. Here are the 13 new (or, at least, newly valued) talents that made even the worst films worthwhile. I can’t wait to see what they do in 2017.

Abbey Lee (The Neon Demon)

Casting a model to play a model is a calculated risk. Sure, they look the part — but can they act? Australian supermodel Abbey Lee can do everything from crack jokes to eat eyeballs. Nicolas Winding-Refn’s glam melodrama about a rising starlet fell short of its ambitions, ironically in part because Lee was so good. Her character, an aging beauty, was meant to be outshined by Elle Fanning’s ingenue, but Lee was so magnetic that the entire movie stopped making sense. Just keep hiring that girl, the one who can command a scene just by twitching her lips.

Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight)

A24

There’s so much talent in Moonlight that it’s hard to single out who to watch. While the story keeps its eyes on Chiron, pay attention to first-time actor Jharrel Jerome. As Chiron’s high school friend, Kevin, a popular kid even more cowed by peer pressure than our isolated hero, Jerome wrestles with the trickiest character in the script. Kevin is at once loud and hollow, a warped alarm bell, but Jerome manages to make him empathetic, though his choices scar Chiron for life. He’s not even in the third act, but it — and really, the whole film — wouldn’t work without him.

Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!)

In the Coen brothers’ Hollywood comedy, a star is born, twice over. Alden Ehrenreich spent a decade trying to get noticed with no luck until audiences bought tickets to Hail, Caesar! for mega-names like George Clooney, Channing Tatum, and Scarlett Johansson and walked out pulling up IMDb to figure out who the hell that kid who played the gawky cowboy was. Ehrenreich is brilliant at playing dumb, and he’s got the most expressive forehead since Colin Farrell. Hopefully he’ll have better control over his career than Hobie Doyle. But Ehrenreich’s already signed away the next two years of his life to play Han Solo. It’s gonna be a wild ride, buckaroo.

Elodie Yung (Gods of Egypt)

Behold: the next great movie vamp. As Hathor the love goddess, French-Cambodian actress Elodie Yung lounged around set in gold bras and sparkly skirts like the resurrection of Theda Bara. Still, Yung’s most powerful lure is her cleverness. Gods of Egypt is a slippery blockbuster that’s never quite sure if it’s serious. It’s a straight-faced joke, the kind of tone that’s impossible to navigate, but Yung makes it look as easy as a sunshine stroll. Her Hathor is a self-centered diva who starts the film in a hot tub and, minutes later, dumps her boyfriend for the brute who blinded him. She’s wicked and wonderful and just the right amount of ridiculous. When she’s on-screen, this dumb, fun film suddenly feels brilliant.

Ruth Negga (Loving)

Ruth Negga's performance in Loving is so quiet that you have to see it twice. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of her Mildred Loving, a submissive housewife who spends the first half of the film letting her husband do the talking. And he doesn’t talk much either, especially to the lawyers and judges who want to throw the interracial couple in prison. But one of them is going to have to fight. Mildred’s strength sneaks up on you: a nod here, a question there, and finally, a smile for the press. Negga can say more with her eyes than most actors do with a five-minute monologue. Her Golden Globe Best Actress nomination is a start. Next stop, the world.

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)

On New Year’s Day, Lucas Hedges turns 20. It’s going to be a good year. The redheaded teenager went head-to-head with Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea as an orphaned teenager forced to live with his emotionally distant uncle. Where Affleck does most of his big moments in monotone, Hedges is allowed to get loud. His character, Patrick, grounds the film and gives us someone to fight for when Affleck’s Lee Chandler would rather just quit. And when Hedges does crumple, like when he has a panic attack in the kitchen, he lets you appreciate the shattered child he’s playing, and the maturity it takes to play Patrick truthfully.

Krisha Fairchild (Krisha)

Krisha Fairchild’s turn as a broken pill addict trying — and failing — to win back her estranged family is the kind of ballsy performance you’d expect to see Meryl Streep or Kathy Bates brave after shoring up decades of goodwill. But this is Fairchild’s first major role, and she’s merciless, thanks partially to her nephew, Trey Edward Shults, who wrote the script in order to show off what she can do. “I’m 65,” she told The Guardian. “It’s like I got no time for fear.” We have no shortage of talented older actresses hunting for good material. Still, Streep and Bates need to make room.

Royalty Hightower (The Fits)

Eleven-year-old Royalty Hightower pads through Anna Rose Holmer’s mystical film about a preteen boxer turned dancer turned psychosomatic-seizure victim with her eyes large and her mouth shut. She barely needs to talk. She’s got presence. It’s rare to see a young actor who moves with this much strength, especially in her very first film. (Holmer found her on YouTube.) But Hightower conquered Sundance. Not only did she rock The Fits’ premiere in a black-and-white fur vest, she went back to sixth grade with her second movie deal, this time co-starring with Laurence Fishburne.

Yôsuke Kubozuka (Silence)

Paramount Pictures

In Japan, Yôsuke Kubozuka’s been a famous bad boy actor for over a decade, ever since he attacked paparazzi, bragged about smoking weed, and survived a nine-story fall from his own balcony. Thanks to the tabloids, he was blacklisted as unhirable. The ban didn’t last long — he’s too talented. Now Kubozuka's crazy energy comes to America with Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which the actor scored the perfect part: as a wild-haired drunk who can’t stop sinning — and begging for forgiveness. Hollywood is ready to take him on. Next up, he’ll be trapped on an island with Elizabeth Banks for 30 years in the WWII drama Rita Hayworth with a Hand Grenade.

Markees Christmas (Morris from America)

Markees Christmas had never been on a plane when director Chad Hartigan flew the 15-year-old from Los Angeles to Germany to star in his Sundance comedy about a kid stuck in small-town Heidelberg with his soccer coach father, played by Craig Robinson. Before then, he’d only done comedy skits for Channel 101 and the school play, mainly because his teachers said he wouldn’t pass sixth grade unless he did it for extra credit. In Morris from America, Christmas is cocky and cuddly (though he’d never admit to the latter). Watching him try to romance an older, blonde heartbreaker is agony, but Christmas is the most believable kid you’ll see on movie screens this year — and he’s hands-down got the best smile.

Jumpy (In a Valley of Violence)

Courtesy of James Ransone

Ti West’s western gleefully subverts every cliché. It’s the liveliest flick John Travolta has made in years, and every time I watch it, I like it more. But at its SXSW premiere, the only thing I could talk about was Ethan Hawke’s other co-star, Jumpy the dog. He emotes. He improvises. He leads a horse by the reins. And in commercials where he doesn’t have to play a normal dog, Jumpy skateboards and walks on his front paws. Someone give Jumpy an action-comedy where he can go wild.

Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters)

During Paul Feig’s all-women Ghostbusters reboot, I was afraid of ghosts — only because they took screen time from Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann, a lunatic forever mumbling things under her breath that we probably shouldn’t hear. McKinnon isn’t a naturalistic actor. She quietly pulls focus in the back of the frame while other characters are talking and stares down the camera like she dares it to look away. You win, McKinnon. Let’s keep the lens on you. Who’ll give her a film all to herself?

Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch)

Last December, I’d never heard of 20-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy. Today, it’s impossible to avoid her. And why would you? At this year’s Sundance, her otherworldly Puritan girl hooked audiences on The Witch, though the film itself was overhyped. (Taylor-Joy and Black Phillip, the satanic goat, made the script seem better than it was.) Her sci-fi thriller Morgan was a fiasco, but it made sense that director Luke Scott, Ridley’s son, would look at her alien intelligence and cast her as a cyborg. But it was her candid yet complicated performance as Barack Obama’s white girlfriend in Vikram Gandhi’s Barry which convinced me that Taylor-Joy has earned her slot as the latest mega-talent ingenue to chase Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence, and Brie Larson down the Oscars red carpet. Welcome to the big leagues, Taylor-Joy. You’ve cast a spell on Hollywood.