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The Best of 2019: Breakout Performers

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It’s December, and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for year-end lists! It truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Throughout the month Inside The Film Room will be revealing our “Best of…” lists, ranking the very best from the year in film, TV and entertainment. Today, we’re recognizing the best breakout performers of 2019.

Each year, a handful of newcomers step into the spotlight and truly blow audiences away. Whether it’s on the big screen, in a Netflix series, or in some cases, maybe even both, these rising stars quickly cement themselves as some of the best in the business.

Sometimes they come completely out of the blue, bursting onto the scene demanding to be recognized. Other times they’ve been around for a few years, but you’ve never known them as anything more than “That person from that movie.”

After a year like 2019, it’s clear these breakout stars won’t be mistaken much longer. This was the year these 10 performers became household names, and if 2019 was any indicator, we can expect to see a lot more from them in the years to come.

Disclaimer: This is not a ranking, simply a list by Zach Goins, Johnny Sobczak and Josh Martin.

Florence Pugh

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Florence Pugh on the red carpet world premiere of “Little Women.” (Photo courtesy of Eric Charbonneau)

Performances: “Little Women,” “Midsommar,” “Fighting with My Family”

I know we said this isn’t a ranking, but if it was… Florence Pugh would be at the top. What a year for her? Leading three critically-acclaimed films is no easy task, but three that are so incredibly different in the same year? Only a handful of people are up for a challenge like that, and Pugh proved she is one of the few. We’ve seen her before in movies like “The Falling” or “Lady Macbeth,” but 2019 was the year Pugh truly took center stage, and she has no intention of slowing down with an appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe up next. For what it’s worth, the range Pugh was able to demonstrate in “Midsommar” gave her one of this year’s very best performances, newcomer or not. Pugh has racked up a number of nominations – and wins – for her performances this year for both Breakthrough Performer and Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Little Women.” – ZG

Upcoming: “Black Widow”

Noah Jupe

Twentieth Century Fox FORD v FERRARI premiere, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Nov 2019
Noah Jupe at the Los Angeles premiere of “Ford v Ferrari.” (Photo courtesy of Eric Charbonneau)

Performances: “Honey Boy,” “Ford v Ferrari”

Jupe had been on the brink of breakthrough in the last few years, with roles in “Suburbicon,” “Wonder,” and “A Quiet Place,” but this is the first year he’s finally getting the roles he needs to show off his chops. In “Honey Boy” – playing a child actor with an abusive father – his raw, emotional sparring with Shia LaBeouf has earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Male and a Gotham Award nomination for Breakthrough Actor. In Best Picture contender “Ford v Ferrari,” Jupe’s chemistry with Christian Bale helped give the film its emotional core. Look for Jupe to continue to rise next year in “A Quiet Place: Part II” and HBO’s miniseries “The Undoing.” – JS

Upcoming: “A Quiet Place: Part II”

Ana de Armas

Lionsgate's Los Angeles Premiere of KNIVES OUT at Regency Village Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 14 Nov 2019
Ana de Armas at the Los Angeles premiere of “Knives Out.” (Photo courtesy of Steve Cohn)

Performances: “Knives Out”

It could be argued that de Armas’ breakthrough was two years ago when she portrayed Joi in “Blade Runner 2049,” the holographic AI girlfriend to Ryan Gosling’s Officer K. Despite standing out in Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi masterpiece, she seemed to disappear until storming back this fall in the whodunnit “Knives Out.” In a cast featuring the likes of Michael Shannon, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans and Jamie Lee Curtis, it is de Armas that carries the film on her shoulders. The result is a hit with critics and audiences alike, as well as her first Golden Globe nomination. Look for her to re-team with Craig in next year’s Bond flick, “No Time to Die.” – JS

Upcoming: “No Time to Die,” “Blonde”

Taylor Russell

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Taylor Russell in “Waves.” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Performances: “Waves,” “Escape Room”

Two months after my first viewing, I’m still reckoning with my feelings on Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves.” The director’s third feature is a technical symphony, devoted to dizzying camera tricks and constant aspect ratio changes, yet its sustained onslaught of anxiety and trauma can all feel a bit… cruel. But if Kelvin Harrison’s Tyler receives an uncommonly harrowing and viciously tragic arc, Shults is much more sympathetic to Taylor Russell’s Emily, Tyler’s traumatized younger sister. It helps that Russell — who also appeared in January’s “Escape Room” — is a wonderful actress, playing a potentially ostentatious character with grace and emotional depth. She’s the key to one of the year’s most grueling movie experiences. – JM

Upcoming: “Escape Room 2”

Kelvin Harrison Jr.

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Kelvin Harrison Jr. in “Waves.” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Performances: “Luce,” “Waves”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. is another star who has been on the rise for a while now, but it’s his two starring roles in “Luce” and “Waves” this year that have gotten him more recognition than ever before. New York Film Critics Online gave him the award for Breakthrough Performance in both films, and he’s earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead with his performance in “Luce.”  But it’s his performance as Tyler in “Waves” that may be the highlight of his young career, with his drug-fueled fall from grace standing as one of the most heartbreaking cinematic narratives of 2019. – JS

Upcoming: “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Covers,” “The Photograph”

Maya Hawke

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Maya Hawke at the premiere of “Stranger Things 3” in Santa Monica. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Performances: “Stranger Things 3” “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”

Sometimes talent just runs in the family, and that’s definitely true with Maya Hawke, daughter of actors Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. Hawke’s role as the sarcastic, honest but lovable Robin Buckley in “Stranger Things 3” turned out to be the breakout star of one of the year’s most popular TV shows. It’s not easy to join an already established series three seasons in and instantly become a fan favorite, but Hawke didn’t miss a beat. For a season that split up the core group and featured a number of subplots, Hawke played a huge part in why her group’s story was the most entertaining. On top of her adventures in The Upside Down, Hawke had a brief appearance in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” as one of Charles Manson’s devoted followers. While it may not have been a starring role, it was still an appearance in a prestigious film and shows the way Hawke will be headed in the years to come. – ZG

Upcoming: “Stranger Things 4,” “Mainstream”

Julia Fox

UNCUT GEMS
Julia Fox in “Uncut Gems.” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Performances: “Uncut Gems”

“I know you wanna cuddle, Howard.”

Kevin Garnett is incredible (more on that in a sec), but if I were forced to pick one true breakout star in the Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems,” it’s Julia Fox. The model-turned-actress stars as Julia, Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) beautiful, charming, and deeply determined girlfriend. Fox is a first-time actor, but you wouldn’t know it from this performance. In a film built on the sustained intensity of a single, relentlessly vigorous pace and mood, the Safdie Brothers require every performer to be on the exact same page. Sandler’s Ratner seems to achieve an almost sexual pleasure from his big gambling scores — and, at a certain point, so does Julia. Their chemistry together is electric, a genuine sense of romantic energy that carries the film even in its quieter moments. Still, try to find a more twisted, yet romantic image than Howard passing a bag of money to Julia to place a big bet at a casino — and Fox sells it beautifully. If there’s any justice in the world, she’s a superstar by the end of 2020. – JM

Upcoming: TBD

Zack Gottsagen

'The Peanut Butter Falcon' Film Screening, After Party, ArcLight Cinemas, Los Angeles, USA - 01 Aug 2019
Zack Gottsagen (left) and Shia LaBeouf promoting “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” (Photo courtesy of Variety)

Performances: “The Peanut Butter Falcon”

Despite sharing the screen with Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen turned out to be the biggest star in “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” The simple, southern love letter to Mark Twain-style adventure took Gottsagen, a first-time actor with Down syndrome, and placed him front and center – and boy, did it pay off.  Gottsagen’s charm is magnetic, and he served as the heart and soul of one of the year’s most touching feel-good stories. On top of his raw talent, the fact that directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz chose to cast Gottsagen instead of choosing another actor to simply portray a character with Down syndrome proved to be a huge step forward for diversity in Hollywood. – ZG

Upcoming: TBD

Julia Butters

Sony Pictures' "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" film premiere, Arrivals, TCL Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, CA, USA - 22 July 2019
Julia Butters at the Los Angeles premiere of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” (Photo courtesy of Stewart Cook)

Performances: “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”

“I don’t like names… like ‘Pumpkinpuss,’ but since you’re upset, we’ll talk about that some other time.”

This is the end of Julia Butters’ first scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” in which the young actress delivers a surprising tour de force debut so magnetic that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton can only chuckle through tears in response. The scene is arguably the centerpiece of Tarantino’s epic, even if it’s just a quiet, dialogue-driven back-and-forth that ultimately results in a brilliant emotional catharsis. For a film with so much to talk about, the fact that so many audience members walked away discussing Butters’ brief-but-brilliant turn as dedicated actress Trudi Fraser is a testament to her greatness. She holds her own against DiCaprio at his peak, making an unforgettable splash in the year’s finest film. – JM

Upcoming: TBD

Alexa Demie

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Alexa Demie at HBO’s Official 2019 Emmys Afterparty. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Performances: “Euphoria,” “Waves”

It was quite the year for Alexa Demie and chaotic high schoolers. After starring in both “Waves” and the HBO series “Euphoria,” Demie instantly made herself a force to be reckoned with in the young adult genre. From her role as the manipulative yet endearing boss bitch, Maddie, in “Euphoria” to the tragic victim in “Waves,” Demie showed an incredible range and provided a complex look at the often-simplified high school archetype. – ZG

Upcoming: “Mainstream”

Honorable Mention: Kevin Garnett

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Adam Sandler (left) and Kevin Garnett at ArcLight Cinemas in Boston for a screening of “Uncut Gems.” (Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe)

Performances: “Uncut Gems

Okay, so Kevin Garnett has been a celebrity for years, but he also might be an incredible movie star. The former world champion with the Boston Celtics holds his own in “Uncut Gems,” Josh and Benny Safdie’s masterful portrait of one New York gambler/jeweler’s rapid self-destruction. With Adam Sandler and Julia Fox tearing up the screen at every frenetic moment possible, it would have been easy for Garnett to slip into the background as a plot point rather than a real, flesh-and-blood character. Instead, Garnett takes his “role” and rolls with it, delivering a version of his persona that’s as funny as it is thematically relevant to the Safdies’ tragicomedy. He’s a legit actor: if any studio head happens to catch his scenes with Sandler in this, Garnett will end up in some major roles very soon.  – JM

Upcoming: TBD

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Posts by Inside The Film Room involve writing from multiple ITFR contributors.

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