The best breakout performances of 2023, from queens and jurors to . . . Billie Eilish?!

Nothing encapsulated our embattled year more than the bizarre bedfellows of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” at the box office. The intensity of fluffy feminism paired with the gut-wrenching celebration of inventing a weapon of war created a cinematic reflection of our conflicted American souls.

After all, this was a year that pulled the world back into a harrowing, divisive war,  broke records for natural disasters and introduced yet more strains of COVID. Is it any wonder that like Barbie, we couldn’t avoid seeing the cracks in our pink existence? Nevertheless, much like Greta Gerwig’s sentient fashion doll, we were also empowered to seek out our own joys and meaning. 

We tuned in to see if one of the Roys triumphed in “Succession.” The return of Miles Morales once again wowed us “Across the Spider-Verse.” And this year even gave us Meg Ryan’s rom-com comeback

But it’s the fresh blood in movies and on TV that invigorated us and kept our hope alive. Whether these are newcomers who made their acting debuts, foreign star catching our eyes in leading roles or even a pop star showing us she can be a threat without singing, they showed us that we could still look forward talent and entertainment. 

Here are the 16(-ish) breakout performances that caught our eyes this year:

BeefYoung Mazino in “Beef” (Netflix)

Role: Paul

Why they’re a standout: Starring in a Netflix series alongside Ali Wong and Steven Yeun is certainly no easy feat. But Young Mazino, in his first major role, makes it look easy while playing Paul Cho in Lee Sung Jin’s comedy-drama “Beef.” Mazino’s Paul is the aimless, himbo-coded younger brother of Yeun’s more uptight Danny. Paul spends his days playing video games, obsessing over crypto and pursuing Kayla Lexington — a woman he meets on Instagram, who is actually Amy’s (Wong) catfish alter ego created to get more intel on Danny. Paul could have been purely superficial, devoid of any depth or any substance. But Mazino’s sincere portrayal adds another layer to him. We laugh at Paul, not in a belittling manner, but more so in an endearing one. In Episode 2, Danny warns Paul that Kayla is a bot and not who he thinks she is. “You’re a bot,” Paul snaps back before turning to his phone to message Kayla, “r u a bot?”

It looks like we aren’t the only ones who believe Mazino deserves all the praise for his performance in “Beef.” Mazino was nominated for a supporting actor Emmy. He also played one of SZA’s many love interests in her hit music video “Snooze.” – Joy Saha

BottomsHavana Rose Liu in “Bottoms” (MGM)

Role: Isabel

Why They’re a standout: The age-old question of whether straight actors should take on gay roles remains a contentious topic to this day. Some say it absolutely matters who is controlling the narrative, while others argue that it’s complicated. Statistically, the number of straight actors (or rather, actors who haven’t explicitly identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community) who play gay onscreen is pretty darn high. That’s why when an openly queer actor is also able to play a queer character, it’s a breath of fresh air. 

That’s how we would describe Havana Rose Liu’s performance in Emma Seligman’s gayest film yet “Bottoms.” Liu, who herself identifies as pansexual, portrays Isabel, a gorgeous high school cheerleader who is dating the star football player but actually develops the hots for Josie (Ayo Edebiri), an uncool, fresh-out-of-juvie lesbian. As Isabel grows closer to Josie — thanks to a feminist “self-defense club” — so does her true self. Isabel’s tale is one of self-discovery, which Liu portrays with such authenticity, care and innocence. We see this in the shy yet adoring glances she exchanges with Josie while the pair harbor unspoken crushes on one another. And we see this in her glowing confidence, which she garners after starting a new chapter with her newfound lady lover. It’s almost like viewers are watching Liu’s own self shine through in Isabel. After all, Liu did reveal that Isabel is also pansexual “by my choice” during this year’s SXSW Film & TV Festival. 

Perhaps what’s so dang cool about Isabel though is her love for violence (the duality of women!). She utters her best line after ending things with her boyfriend upon learning that he’s been having an affair with a much older woman: “Let’s go f**k up some football players.” Cue mic drop. – Joy Saha

Gen VJaz Sinclair in “Gen V” (Brooke Palmer/Prime Video)

Role: Marie Moreau
Why they’re a standout: It’s a large feat to replicate the magic of the Amazon hit “The Boys,” and “Gen V” comes close because of its entrusted lead, Jaz Sinclair. The “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” alum is finally at center stage as the tortured blood-bending orphan Marie who yearns to be a superhero. In the expanding “The Boys” universe, Marie is quite different from any other supe we’ve seen. First, she’s a Black girl. Second she can manipulate people and her own blood, and third, she’s a teenager who accidentally killed her own family. I promise that’s not a spoiler. 

Sinclair plays Marie with an earnest and kind soul even though her tragic backstory would paralyze just about anyone. And sometimes her traumas find their way to the front and center of her mind but it’s also the reason why she wants to become a member of the 7 and put good out into the world. Sinclair shines as the quiet but fiercely strong Marie. It’s no surprise that “Gen V” was well received and earned a second season, with Sinclair leading the way once again. – Nardos Haile

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and SnakesTom Blyth and Rachel Zegler in “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” (Murray Close/Lionsgate)

Role: Coriolanus Snow
Why they’re a standout: The Julliard trained British actor almost feels like he popped out of nowhere as the new “The Hunger Games” prequel dominated the box office for weeks. But Blyth has quietly been on the rise since last year as he stars in MGM+ Western drama “Billy the Kidand an episode in the HBO period drama “The Gilded Age.” But audiences grew attached to the new heartthrob for his captivating performance as the younger, blonder version of Donald Sutherland’s bone-chilling authoritative dictator President Coriolanus Snow from the original “The Hunger Games” series. 

“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” shouldn’t work because it empathizes with the man who will eventually become a genodicial villain. However, it does work because Blyth plays Corio with an apparent decency and humanity. Despite the character’s relationships with the singing tribute and eventual victor Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler) and his best friend Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera) – the goodness in him becomes corrupted. Somewhere along the way Corio gets lost, and Blyth inhabits the gray of his character so authentically that keeps the audience second-guessing all of Corio’s choices and motivations. When the switch to darkness happens, it’s seamless and Blyth leaves the audience haunted when Corio screams, “Lucy Gray, are you trying to kill me?!” – Nardos Haile

I'm a VirgoOlivia Washington as Flora “I’m a Virgo” (Prime Video)

Role: Flora

Why they’re a standout: Shortly, you’ll read about what I consider to be the second-weirdest sex scene on TV. But for now, Boots Riley’s gravity-defying series wins the gold medal in that category thanks to the intimate coupling between Jharrel Jerome’s 13-foot-tall Cootie and Washington’s average-sized Flora, a average-seeming young woman born with the power of super speed.

In a sequence of scenes flashing back to her childhood, Riley shows us how agonizing it is to live in a world where every moment is an eternity but the delicate, ever-positive Flora never lets her glow slip to show her burden. It’s only with Cootie that she can fully be as much of herself as someone like her can, and that manifests in their encounter, which is as bizarre and thoughtful as it is mind-melting and acrobatic. It is also merely a stitch in the intricate pattern of Washington’s performance, one that maintains a consistent delicateness and sensitivity until an unforgiving world makes her more brittle – but still, amazingly, no less bright. – Melanie McFarland

Joy RideStephanie Hsu as Kat, Sherry Cola as Lolo, Ashley Park as Audrey and Sabrina Wu as Deadeye in “Joy Ride” (Ed Araquel/Lionsgate)

Role: Deadeye

Why they’re a standout: A road trip featuring the comedic charms of Ashley Park (“Emily in Paris”), Sherry Cola (“Good Trouble”) and Stephanie Hsu (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) would’ve been epic enough. But the addition of Sabrina Wu as Deadeye – the fourth traveler in a journey through China to explore identity, sexuality and some good old-fashioned drug smuggling – adds a touch of much-needed whimsy and sweetness to the R-rated raunchiest. After all, it’s Deadeye who is Army and brings BTS’ unifying spirit into play, making friends through dance and even inspiring K-pop airport shenanigans.

With halting speech, wide smile and deceptively self-deprecating manner, Wu is a master of radiating both vulnerability and joy (even in outrage). This not only makes Deadeye a safe space for their travel companions, but is also conveyed in Wu’s comedy. In their set on Netflix’s “Verified Stand-Up” Wu opens up about queerness, dating insecurities and the bizarre expectations for an Asian American entertainer. The tight, hilarious 10 minutes is just a taste of what’s to come. Already Wu is one of the featured performers in the 2024 Netflix Is a Joke festival and has been cast in an upcoming FX comedy pilot. We can’t wait for the Year of the Wu. — Hanh Nguyen

Jury DutyThe cast of “Jury Duty” (Amazon Freevee)

Role: Various

Why they’re a standout: Marsden may be the one racking up nominations this awards season, but if it weren’t for the outstanding improvisational skills of the “anonymous” jurors joining him and Ronald Gladden on this mostly unscripted lark, it never would have worked.

Everyone in the cast did something with their performance to make us love them. A few, though, brought out Gladden’s innate kindness for the camera through pushing the limits of believability, like David Brown’s painfully awkward inventor Todd, whose feigned discomfort at one point brought Gladden to the verge of tears, or Mekki Leeper’s conservatively religious Noah and his bizarre coupling with Edy Modica’s wild child Jeannie, giving us the year’s second weirdest and borderline inexplicable love scene, attended to by Marsden.

Making these heightened experiences work, however, are the extremely plausible performances delivered by Rashida Olayiwola’s bailiff Officer Nikki, Alan Barinholtz’s Judge Rosen, and my personal favorite, Cassandra Blair’s perpetually “over it” Vanessa Jenkins. She won my heart by very sanely responding to a mind-bending stupid social media manager by admitting, “When Genevieve was talking? I, like, just really wanted to fight her. Like, I just wanted to hit her.” We’ve all felt like that when faced with the insipid, but only Vanessa was brave enough to say it out loud. – Melanie McFarland

Killers of a Flower MoonLily Gladstone in “Killers of a Flower Moon” (Apple)

Role: Mollie Burkhart
Why they’re a standout: Lily Gladstone is a force to be reckoned with in her masterful performance in Martin Scorsese’s devastating Western epic “Killers of the Flower Moon.” In the nearly four-hour-long film, Gladstone plays Mollie Burkhart, one of the many oil-wealthy Osage people in 1920s Oklahoma. But grief surrounds Osage County when Osage people begin mysteriously dying one by one, including Mollie’s family members. The film tells the horrific tale of white men’s greed and jealousy of Osage’s wealth and power – and Mollie is at the center of it. 

The actress performs opposite Scorsese’s veteran actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in what is her first major breakout role, and she shows them up. It is in Mollie’s deep grief and pain, that Gladstone can unlock real loaded emotion. As the character’s own husband Ernest (DiCaprio) and uncle-in-law Hale (De Niro) plot on her family and her demise – she remains steadfast in receiving justice. Gladstone is the beating heart of the film and she never flinches when she confronts her lying, murderous husband. She walks away with her head held high. – Nardos Haile

The Last of UsBella Ramsey in “The Last of Us” (Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Role: Ellie

Why they’re a standout: Given the figurative gallons of digital ink spilled in praise of Ramsey’s most famous role before this, the tiny and fearsome Lyanna Mormont, it was probably fated that their first lead role would be equally as memorable. But their portrayal of Ellie, the orphan teen immune to this story’s fungal contagion, exceeds even those expectations.

Their take on Ellie puts up a tough front and repeatedly proves that isn’t entirely an act. She is resilient, and when her life is on the line, she fights with everything she has. At the same time what makes her bond with Pedro Pascal’s Joel so precious is that neither of them lets us forget that she is still a teenager, one who loves comic books and video games. She’s also still very much a girl who misses her best friend Riley, through whom she experiences her first trip to the mall. In that episode Ramsey pushes Ellie’s innocent loving spirit to the fore, pieces of which she also shows to Joel long before he’s ready to receive it as her new father. In a series that champions optimism and a sense of hope in the face of monstrous oblivion. Ramsey’s energy reminds us that our humanity, with all its perceived weakness, can be our salvation. – Melanie McFarland

The Little Mermaid 2023Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” (Photo courtesy of Disney)

Role: Ariel
Why they’re a standout: Halle Bailey, the Grammy-nominated, Beyoncé-backed singer in sister duo Chloe x Halle changed the game when Disney announced she would be playing Ariel in the live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” Racists everywhere revolted at the casting that changed the race of a beloved white character. But Bailey held her head high and dyed her hair red for the role of a lifetime. And boy did she prove the haters wrong.

The actress known for small roles in “Grown-ish” or some side parts on Disney Channel broke through in Rob Marshall’s live-action remake. Some would say the trickiest part about playing Ariel is that she’s mostly mute throughout the entirety of the film – even though she has the voice of an angel. Bailey plays Ariel pitch perfectly even when she’s not using her beautiful, siren-like voice in an emotional rendition of the classic “Part of Your World.”

But most of all when Ariel does trade her voice for legs during her quest for love on land with Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), some of the best acting in the film Bailey does with her big brown beautiful eyes. As Eric and Ariel travel through his kingdom on land, they communicate through gestures and looks. It’s no wonder Eric falls for Ariel instantaneously. Bailey has a glistening wonder in her eyes as Ariel – it’s enrapturing even if the movie is a little silly. In Ariel, the star has cemented herself as a quiet force in a young generation of multi-talented performers. – Nardos Haile

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PriscillaCailee Spaeny in “Priscilla” (A24)

Role: Priscilla Presley

Why they’re a standout: Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic “Elvis” may have cast Priscilla Presley as a second thought, but Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” places her in the spotlight. Much of the latter’s success has to be credited to Cailee Spaeny, whose remarkable portrayal of Elvis’ ex-wife heightens just how lonely and tumultuous her heavily glorified life actually was.

Spaeny nails every aspect of Priscilla, so much so that it feels like the role was meant for Spaeny and Spaeny only. Despite being in her mid-20s, Spaeny perfectly captures the youthful persona of a 14-year-old Priscilla, who meets a 24-year-old Elvis for the very first time at a party. Priscilla appears on our screens all dolled up in a ’50s-style poodle skirt and penny loafers, an ensemble that screams innocence, especially when it’s coupled with Spaeny’s awestruck gaze and soft demeanor. Although much of Priscilla’s story centers on heartbreak and loss, it’s ultimately one of self-discovery. Spaeny masters this transformation, nailing each and every one of Priscilla’s wide array of emotions, including naivete, apprehension and defiance.  

“It’s an incredible responsibility to make sure that Priscilla felt seen,” Spaeny said in a behind-the-scenes clip released by A24 in October. Hopefully, Spaeny knows that she has succeeded in fulfilling that responsibility. – Joy Saha

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton StoryIndia Amarteifio as Young Queen Charlotte, Corey Mylchreest as Young King George in “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” (Liam Daniel/Netflix)

Role: Queen Charlotte and King George
Why they’re a standout: Before “Bridgerton” couples Kate (Simone Ashley) and Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) or Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon (Rege Jean Page) swept audiences off their feet with their sensual period romances, there was Charlotte (India Amartfelio) and George (Corey Mylchreest) in the prequel “Queen Charlotte.” This Shondaland project penned by Shonda Rhimes herself, explores Golda Rosheuval’s Charlotte that we know so well as the frigid and lonely Queen in “Bridgerton,” but more than 50 years in the past when she was just getting started. 

The beating heart of “Queen Charlotte” is the focus surrounding the arranged marriage between Charlotte and George – a union meant to depict togetherness and the mixing of Black and white constituents in a newly post-racial “Bridgerton” world. Newcomers Amartfelio and Mylchreest have limited experience, only really working in British theatre and a few British television shows. But that doesn’t mean the duo isn’t up for the challenge of crafting a timeless and heartwrenching love story for “Bridgerton’s” rabid fanbase. The bubbling over chemistry between the leads works in tandem, as George shields his new young wife from his troubling mental illness and Charlotte is left wondering if life as a royal with an absent husband is worth it. The pair deliver some of the most pained love confessions. As George battles putting Charlotte in danger by being with her, she tells him, “I will stand with you between the heavens and Earth! Do you love me?!” It’s electric. Their love story stands the test of time. – Nardos Haile

Rye LaneDom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oprah) in “Rye Lane” (Chris Harris/Searchlight Pictures)

Role: Dom

Why they’re a standout: Some actors are praised for their ability to play the same kind of character time after time. Others are praised for their ability to tackle very contrasting roles. David Jonsson is one of very few breakout stars who successfully mastered the latter.

Those who are familiar with HBO’s “Industry” may recall Johnson’s ensemble role as Augustus “Gus” Sackey, a young, queer graduate competing for a permanent spot at a prestigious investment bank in London. Sackey is composed, confident and badass . . . traits that can’t be said of Jonsson’s lead character in “Rye Lane.” Jonsson’s Dom is sweet, reserved and sensitive. For much of the film, Dom struggles to process how his girlfriend of six years could cheat on him with his best mate Eric (Benjamin Sarpong-Broni). But even after he gets his well-deserved happy ending, Dom still remains the sweet, reserved and sensitive man we met at the film’s start.

Jonsson plays Dom with a tenderness that’s infectious. We can’t help but root for him when he’s cooped up in the bathroom, crying all by himself. Or when he’s timidly bonding with Yas (Vivian Oparah), who’s also recovering from her own relationship troubles, at a playground and at karaoke. It also helps that Jonsson effortlessly rocks Dom’s signature pink high-tops and bulky headphones, which he wears around the neck. – Joy Saha  

SaltburnAlison Oliver in “Saltburn” (Amazon Studios)

Role: Venetia

Why they’re a standout: The true underrated star of Emerald Fennell’s twisted black comedy is undoubtedly Alison Oliver’s Venetia. When Venetia is first introduced, she’s seen lurking around the halls of Saltburn manor, as if she’s merely a living extension of the sprawling estate itself. We’re led to believe that Venetia is just a background character, one who exists in the shadows of her brother Felix (Jacob Elordi), mother Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and father Sir James (Richard E. Grant). Beyond that, we don’t really learn much more about her. All we know is that she belongs at Saltburn. Venetia is one of the chosen few who was born into this life and is able to embrace it so effortlessly. So despite her character being awarded very little backstory, how did she manage to steal the show? 

That’s why credit must be awarded to Oliver, who brought so much life and depth to this ephemeral character. Her expressive smirks and body language alone communicates so much of Venetia’s sense of arrogance, boredom and entitlement. Oliver is absolutely intoxicating as she struts down a tennis court in full glam and lounges in the house garden wearing nothing but the most delicate of night gowns. Oliver delivers one of the most brutal and vulnerable monologues in the entire film when Venetia teeters precariously over the precipice of an all encompassing grief following her brother’s sudden death. Her emotional range in this scene is harrowing and makes for a stand-out moment. 

Simply put, when it comes to playing a stunning and haughty heiress like Venetia, Oliver gets it right. – Joy Saha

ShrinkingLuke Tennie in “Shrinking” (Apple TV+)

Role: Sean

Why they’re a standout: There are so many ways Tennie’s part could have been utterly disastrous. “Shrinking” is a comedy about people learning to get back on their feet after life knocks them down, centered on recently widowed therapist Jimmy (Jason Segel) whose erratic behavior since his wife’s death has estranged him from his teen daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell), who is also still grieving.

Into this mix comes Sean, a military veteran with explosive anger issues who moves in with Jimmy and Alice after his parents kick him out. Many worse shows would have eagerly jumped into an assortment of horrendous tropes set up by this scenario but thanks to both the conscientious writers and Tennie’s tender performance, Sean’s arc becomes one of individual growth for his own sake, one that isn’t solely there to uplift Jimmy or Alice, with whom she forges a fraternal bond that endures even after her hormones misinterpret his gentle perceptiveness for something else. Tennie has had many roles before this one, including as a key ensemble player in the short-lived action pleasure “Deadly Class.” But his work in “Shrinking” allows us to immerse ourselves in his widest emotional range yet, commanding our attention. In a cast that includes Harrison Ford, that’s no small accomplishment. – Melanie McFarland

SwarmBillie Eilish in “Swarm” (Amazon Studios)

Role: Eva

Why they’re a standout: Maybe it was the long blonde wig with bangs that threw us off. It could have been the crunchy floral jumpsuit she was wearing. Between those and her unaffected performance, it took a few beats to recognize the soothing leader of a white-girl cult as Eilish, for whom Eva represents her first TV credit.

Amazon asked critics not to spoil her casting which didn’t make sense at first; she’s one of several pop stars showing up in this series. Once I watched her performance, though, I understood – Eilish plays the perpetually serene Eva with a natural familiarity with the character’s type. Eva is a shepherd of lost white girls with names like Cricket and Salem, a version of Mother God with better real estate and design sense. Unto her she gathers Instagram influencers decked out in Anthropologie-style frocks who rave about nonsensical treatments that Eva clearly made up. When Dominique Fishback’s Dre crosses their paths, they’re overjoyed to add a Black woman to their collection; the modern hippie finds us to be so primal, earthy and spiritual! Inevitably Dre snaps, and appropriately it happens during a stupid drum circle. Eilish works overtime to build toward the catharsis of watching the wild-eyed Dre dispatch her character, as if acknowledging she would too. That knowing quality makes me curious to see what she does with the other acting roles that come her way. – Melanie McFarland

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looks back at the year 2023


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