There’s no better feeling than sitting down to a movie and watching a fresh face (or even one very familiar singer) become a star. Here’s a salute to the 15 breakthrough performances that formed a new constellation over the Hollywood sky—and here’s to what we’ll get to see them do next in 2018.
“The queen is in the building!” hollers a pharmacist (Siddharth Dhananjay) when Danielle Macdonald’s aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowski — aka Killa P — saunters into a New Jersey drug store grabbing her tits. Damned straight. Patti Cake$ is Macdonald’s big entrance as the next ballsy, blonde Australian to conquer a movie since Rebel Wilson. And as much as I love weirdo Wilson, Macdonald can actually play a human being. In Patti Cake$, a Sundance flick that should have been a big hit, Macdonald is street-smart, stubborn, and insecure, a self-described “boss bitch” shackled down by her neighborhood’s malaise. Look fast and you can catch her in Lady Bird credited as “Another Young Lady.” With five lead roles on her plate in 2018, she’ll never go nameless again.
For the last 12 years, hailing Tessa Thompson has been like building a mansion out of matches, stacking her solid performances in Veronica Mars, For Colored Girls, Dear White People, and Creed and waiting for her name to catch spark. (Not to brag, but I saw her do Shakespeare in LA in 2003.) If she’s been impatient, it doesn’t show in Thor: Ragnarok where her Valkyrie stalks down a plane catwalk looking powerful, calm… and so wasted on space booze she trips. Thor is the indie actress’ most expensive movie by eight zeros, but in the middle of CG chaos, she’s grounded and charming, qualities she’s also brought to her sudden blockbuster fame. Now Thompson’s on fire — no Viking funeral, but a career rebirth.
Chilean actress Daniela Vega started her career as a nine-year-old opera mezzo-soprano. She transitioned at 17, spent a year depressed in bed, and then rebloomed as an actress who takes her cues from Bette Davis and Pedro Almodóvar’s wild and wonderful femmes. A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio’s drama about a trans woman barred from her boyfriend’s funeral, was custom-built for Vega. Her suffering is at once naturalistic and surreal, a series of small, painful indignities capped by a fantasy scene where a sequin-clad Vega flies into the air. And when she sings opera for a posh crowd—the only people in the film who see her as an idol, not an interloper — we, too, want to cheer.
21-year-old Timothée Chalamet is a paradox, or really, a prism. The slender, fragile actor plays boys who look sensitive, but tilt the angle, and they’re obnoxious. In Lady Bird and Call By Me Your Name, he constructs dramatic roller-coasters from teenage inertia. His smallest actions — a lit cigarette, a shrug — make the audience’s hopes soar and plummet. Chalamet has the looks and potential of a baby Daniel Day-Lewis. Since the Phantom Thread star claims he’s retiring this year, what perfect, Oedipal irony that they’re competing head-to-head for the Golden Globes’ Best Actor.
Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige is the most famous person on this list by a factor of millions. She’s been selling out stadiums since before most of these newbies could speak. The R&B legend is known for letting fans see her heartbreak. On this summer’s “Strength of a Woman” tour, she crumpled onstage while singing about her ex-husband. Yet Dee Rees’ Mudbound is the first time in her career Blige has allowed audiences to see her — no hair, no nails, no eyelash extensions — in a performance that’s practically transparent. Her WWII-era sharecropper housewife Florence barely speaks, but Blige radiates energy like a woman with her own internal fire. She’s cameoed before in musical-based comedies like Burlesque and The Wiz, but Mudbound makes us look at one of the most celebrated artists on the planet in a whole new way. Lucky for every actress in LA that she already has a gazillion-dollar career, or Blige would scoop up every role.
Kelly Marie Tran
How unknown was sketch comedian Kelly Marie Tran when she was cast as The Last Jedi‘s idealistic engineer Rose Tico? Rian Johnson whispered she had the part on her lunch break, and then the 25-year-old office assistant had to go back to work and answer phones. From there, things moved at light-speed as Tran quit her day job to run across Pinewood Studios next to John Boyega and BB-8. In a universe of special effects, Tran is one of the most dazzling discoveries — a character who morphs from Finn fangirl to the film’s moral center, insisting that the galablue-collarollar workers, exploited by the profiteers of the franchise’s endless civil war, deserve their chance, too, to fight back.
This year, Irish actor Barry Keoghan, a 25-year-old who shrinks himself to look a decade younger, played one victim and one villain. In Dunkirk, the 25-year-old is one of the most nonsensical casualties of Operation Dynamo. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he goes on the offensive in a role that’s just as brutal and desperate. A Keoghan character doesn’t asked to be liked. He plays on your pity, even when he molts into a blotchy, big-nosed teen. Leaving Sacred Deer, a friend gushed about that homely child actor only to realize Keoghan doubles as a Dior model. This slippery kid can’t be pinned down. But I don’t blame every producer in Hollywood for trying.
Call Daniel Kaluuya the Man of a Thousand Stares. He spends most of Get Out armored-up and observant, projecting swagger like an anthropologist who shakes hands with a cannibal tribe while looking out for spears. Kaluuya is greatest in the gulf between what his character says and what he suspects. His smile is confident — but his eyes disagree with a roll, a wink, a squint. He appraises his girlfriend’s family home as though it’s a battle map, which makes him feel even worse when he walks into a trap he’s saw coming.
Saoirse Ronan romances two screw-up guys in Lady Bird. But her real love story is with her best friend Julie, who in Beanie Feldstein’s hands becomes the film’s anchor. While everyone else fights, Feldstein stays steady, an even-tempered social outcast who, unlike her wild best friend, knows when to rebel and when to play by the rules. Next to Lady Bird, Julie never gets to command attention — unless she’s on the stage, a compliment that turns into a damaging wedge. Still, Feldstein makes us aware that Julie, too, is the star of her own teen drama, even if no one else gives her the spotlight. When Lady Bird bursts into her house on prom night, Feldstein’s wounded caution hints at the entire life she’s been living in the margins, and her forgiveness is the movie’s most optimistic moment.
Caleb Landry Jones
Once, Domhnall Gleeson was the creepy redhead in every movie. But while he busies himself with a small art film called Star Wars, Caleb Landry Jones has snuck in to steal all his roles. In 2017, Jones sneered in everything — the killer prepster in Get Out, the anti-authority sign-maker in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the freeloading brother-in-law in American Made, and as a bad boyfriend rattling around Twin Peaks — before surprising people by playing it sweet as Willem Dafoe’s son in The Florida Project. Jones is the best kind of true weirdo: talented, tireless, and instantly recognizable.
Peep Bria Vinaite’s Instagram in 2016 and she was posting dance videos and wistful pictures of Drake. After the tattooed stoner twerked in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, she flew to its Toronto Film Festival premiere where she got to go on a date with, yes, Drake. When Vinaite signed on to play a broke, selfish young mother who supports herself by stealing Disney wristbands and entertaining paying customers in her Orlando motel room, she had less acting experience than her seven-year-old co-star Brooklynn Prince. It’s rare to see such a first-timer be so ferociously alive. Can an actress this singular prove she has dramatic range? Maybe. Or maybe she can stay just the same — her second film, The Beach Bum, is directed by Harmony Korine.
A bullet hit Hong Chau’s father when her family escaped Vietnam in a small boat — a lucky break, according to her mom, as the blood kept pirates from riffling through his pockets. Once in America, her parents’ heavy accents made them “the people who always had to stay in the background,” says Chau. Hollywood wasn’t much different. She spent a decade stuck as the lab tech, cook, or masseuse. How lovely that her first major studio lead in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing as a flinty, but big-hearted Vietnamese immigrant let her amplify their voice — and earn her a Golden Globe nomination. But Chau refuses to be typecast. Ask her what inspired her off-puttingly odd Ngoc Lan Tran, and she also points to E.T.
There’s nothing cute about Dafne Keen. In Logan, the bilingual 11-year-old packs a superhero-sized rage into her four-foot frame. The darkest X-Men movie to date wouldn’t work if Keen’s mutant ever let the audience coo at the sight of a small girl slashing a man’s throat. Instead, she deliberately makes X-23 hard to love — which means it matters more when we do. And yet, every so often, Keen reminds us that her killer kid is, well, still a kid, one who annoys Wolverine by fidgeting with the car door locks and picks herself out a pair of obnoxious pink sunglasses before, er, attacking the store clerk. In a town cluttered with moppets, Keen reigns supreme.
I didn’t fall in love with Girls Trip‘s Tiffany Haddish right away. Her character Dina is introduced bludgeoning a co-worker for stealing her yogurt, the kind of unhinged comedy that makes you think the whole performance is going to be a string of exploding balloons. But a half-hour in, I was aching to pull out my phone to Google her resumé — and would have, if I wasn’t scared I’d miss her next gag. How could a comedian this brave apparate next to three famous leads fully formed, like the goddess Athena crawling out of a keg? Haddish seizes every scene like she knows Girls Trip is her big chance to show the world who she is. What makes it special is the sense that you’re not watching someone transform into a star — she’s just revealing who she’s been all along.
Stubbornness is a virtue, especially for Luxembourg-born actress Vicky Krieps whose been working toward a film career for nearly a decade. With Phantom Thread, she finally breaks through playing, yes, a stubborn, possibly Luxembourg-born beauty, and director Paul Thomas Anderson is so entranced by her face, he stops staring at Daniel Day-Lewis and starts studying her. Both men might take credit for transforming her — Anderson with his attention, and Day-Lewis with his character’s clothes — but Krieps has the quality of seeming gentle, but immovable. She’ll give in when it suits her, but hold stiff when it counts. If she has a flaw, it’s that Krieps looks too much like a classical Roman statue. I worry that the next time she’s onscreen, I won’t recognize her at all. But as the film implies, you can upgrade a poor waitress from sweaters to satin, but she’ll stay the same inside. Here’s hoping Krieps keeps insisting on the last word.