The 15 best breakout performances in 2021

From experienced professionals who have received their long-awaited recognition, to newcomers who were picked out of obscurity through pure coincidence, here are 15 artists who signaled a bright horizon for the cinema this year.

Best breakout performances

By Farah Cheded · Released January 3, 2022

This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Stay tuned as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances and more from this very strange year. In this post, we explore the best breakout performances of 2021.


This year marked a partial return to the form of cinema: while the backlog of delayed 2020 releases began to clear up, and (some) films got their long-awaited return to newly opened cinemas, the ongoing pandemic meant much of our film-watching continued with being done from home.

Whether we saw their progress by returning to the cinemas or via streaming, nothing, however, could dampen the glow from this year’s rising stars. Some were seasoned professionals who got their long-awaited recognition, while others were picked out of obscurity by pure chance. And while some dazzled under the full beam of the spotlight, others quietly made touching impressions in minor supporting roles.

No matter how they got to our screens, they each gave us the thrill of discovering and cheering us on by demonstrating the diversity of talents popping up on the cinema horizon. Below, we celebrate 15 of the most exciting rising stars that 2021 introduced us to.


Adarsh ​​Gourav and The White Tiger

Adarsh ​​Gourav The White Tiger

Already an established talent in India, Adarsh ​​Gourav made his international breakthrough with a starring role – his first starring role – in Ramin Bahrani’s The white tiger. He plays Balram, an ambitious young man who finds cunning ways to circumvent the glass ceiling of India’s caste system.

Gourav provides a smart acrobatic performance. When Balram is around his condescending employers, he takes the dutiful mask of fawning help, but Gourav ironizes over this facade, while the injustice in their predetermined dynamics of power gradually dawns on Balram. He makes this a complete organic transformation, weaving fine threads into his performance – among them desire and self-loathing – without which The white tiger would have been a significantly flatter portrait. Instead of the rich character study it is.

This child-storming performance garnered Gourav nominations from BAFTA and the Independent Spirit Awards this year, as well as another major international role in Apple’s upcoming anthology series on climate change. Extrapolations.


Agathe Rousselle and Titanium

Agathe Rousselle Titanium

There is certainly no more unique role this year than that Agathe Rousselle come into play Titanium. Director Julia Ducournau’s second-year feature adds to the eerie efforts of her debut, Raw, with the story of an erotic dancer who, after being out for a traumatic childhood accident, is sexually magnetized by cars and equally attracted to serial killers. Forced to flee, she breaks her own nose and ties down her mysterious engine oil-leaking breasts so she can pass like a young man who disappeared 10 years ago.

Such a concise summary contradicts Rousselle’s visceral performance as Alexia, revealing unexpected sensitivity and humor out of the plot’s extreme eccentricity. In a film full of rude cross-border elements, it is Rousselle’s hints about gender, performance and sacrifice that leave the deeper impression.

In particular, it’s hugely influential to see Alexia struggle to control impulses that she never seems to have denied before because of a reason she’s never had before: love. That she performs such a transformation largely through body language – due to the restraint of her character and the movement-centered nature of the role – marks her as an extraordinary one to look at.


Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza

Alana Haim Cooper Hoffman Licorice Pizza

Live. It’s the first word that comes to mind when reflecting on Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim‘s breakout performances in Paul Thomas Andersons Licorice pizza. Although they work through characters with their fair share of differences, Hoffman and Haim are brilliantly alive.

As a teenage actor with an entrepreneurial spirit, Hoffman’s Gary is only teenager’s charm and unique energy. He’s a joker, a swindler, and a flatterer, but there is a lurking frequency of doubt humming through him. When we see him turn down the barrel of adulthood and so eager to get there, it’s hard not to feel protected from this early, feverishly living and abundantly deficient young man.

Opposite Gary is Haims Alana, a 20-year-old who goes from job to job and romantic interest to romantic interest. She fights with her family and gets lost in conversations with the “real” adults around her. Haim is at once ferocious and insecure, trapped in a space of maturity and possesses a desire to withdraw from it.

Hoffman and Haim also play incredibly well out of each other, and it’s an honor for their performance and Anderson’s writing that when Gary and Alana are stuck in a quarrel, we can not help but feel with both sides. These are characters who, in all their problems and triumphs, seem as real as if they were standing right in front of us instead of on the screen in the world of 1973. That we get to see these two young actors perform for (hopefully) many years to come feels like nothing short of a miraculous gift. (Anna Swanson)


Amir El-Masry and Limbo

Amir El Masry Limbo

IN Transit, Anna Seghers’ novel from 1944 about a refugee’s long wait to secure the visa that would allow him to escape from the Nazis, a character tells a joke about a dead man waiting to hear where God will send him hen. After a century of being stuck, he is asking for a decision, which he is told, “What do you think you’re waiting for? You’ve already been in hell for a long time.

With the appropriate heading Limbo, author-director Ben Sharrock evokes the same sense of absurd humor and crushing discouragement out of the Kafka-like bureaucratic situation that refugees are currently facing in Britain and large parts of the West. The complex tone is partly created by Sharrock’s sensitive script and instruction. But its second lead author is Amir El-Masry, starring the film, a Syrian musician waiting endless days in the cool purgatory of a refugee treatment center on a remote Scottish island.

Whether he is a farcical cultural consciousness class or quietly longing to be at home in the past, his performance is gentle, never exaggerated or strenuous. The result is that Omar is never flattened into a binary figure or played as a one-tone sociopolitical shorthand. He is a person with depths like any other, something that years of cinematic depictions – both well-meaning and otherwise – of refugees, Arabs and Muslims have not been able to convey.

Add to that the authentic linguistic details that El-Masry adds solely for the benefit of Arabic-speaking viewers – often neglected as audiences, despite being portrayed so often – and his performance becomes more than just a demonstration of talent. It also announces the arrival of a truly enriching on-screen presence.


Dominique Fishback in Judas and the Black Messiah

Dominique Fishback Judas Black Messiah

Dominique Fishback was not exactly unknown until this year. Her credits from before 2021 included starring roles in Deuce, Project Power, and It hates you give. But her biggest breakthrough probably came in the form of her work in Judas and the Black Messiah, for which she received a BAFTA nomination.

Fishback, who plays Fred Hampton’s partner and co-activist Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri), moves enormously in a quiet and destructive way. Through a balance of sensitivity and conviction, her performance enriches the film by pulling the softer, less confident side forward of Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton and imprinting on us the painful personal efforts of his work.

In an eye-catching scene of great intimacy, Fishback recites a poem about their unborn child. A poem that Fishback, a spoken word artist, actually wrote himself. Another piece of Fishback’s writing – the one-woman play she wrote as her thesis – is already being adapted into a thesis (to be produced by her Project Power co-star Jamie Foxx), suggesting she has a bright future both in front of and behind the camera.


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Related topics: 2021 Rewind

Farah Cheded is a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside the FSR, she can be seen with revelations about Martin Scorsese films here @AttraktionF and review Columbo section here.

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