2014 Calvin Awards: Breakthrough Performance
By Kim Hollis
February 12, 2014

He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. God, I hope he loves me not.

Every year, we like to celebrate the performers who are either new, re-surging or made a big, big impression on us for the very first time. The beauty of this category is that different voters can have their own definition of what “breakthrough” means. We have no stated “rules”. Thus, we always wind up with a fascinating mix of nominees throughout our top ten finishers, and this year’s results are no exception.

The winner of our Calvin for Breakthrough Performance is Lupita Nyong’o, who simply blew us away in 12 Years a Slave. She was mentioned on 10 out of 17 ballots in this category, indicating that she had a broad cross-section of popular support. She received an Academy Award nomination for her role as Patsey, the beautiful, hard-working and persecuted slave of Edwin Epps. She bears her tribulations in her eyes and her posture, delivering a nuanced performance that leaves a big impression even as her screen time is limited.

12 Years a Slave was the first long-form film appearance for Nyong’o, though she had been on the production crew for movies such as The Constant Gardener and The Namesake. Almost immediately upon her graduating with an MFA from Yale, she was cast in 12 Years a Slave, and it seems safe to say she was the proper choice. She’ll be on the big screen again later this month in the Liam Neeson action flick Non-Stop, and it will be fascinating to watch her career trajectory from here.

Our runner-up is Daniel Brühl, whose portrayal of Niki Lauda in Rush carries the film. That’s not to say that Chris Hemsworth is bad in the film, but his role required him to primarily be attractive and party a lot, which wasn’t really a stretch. Brühl’s role had more depth, as Lauda is a complex human being. Although Brühl doesn’t shy away from his more unpleasant qualities, he still makes the character so interesting that you can’t help but root for him, at least a little.

Although Brühl has been capturing the attention of some of our voters for some time, with bravura performances in films like Good Bye Lenin! and The Edukators, Rush was the first time that he was the centerpiece of a film that was widely seen by our voters. For upcoming projects, his film A Most Wanted Man, in which he stars with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was shown at the recent Sundance Festival. He’s also in the process of filming a Michael Winterbottom film titled The Face of an Angel.

In a quirk of voting, our third place finisher received the most first place votes, but because her film didn’t receive as much support as either that of 12 Years a Slave or Rush, appears lower down on the ballot. Despite five people putting her at the top spot on their ballot, Adèle Exarchopoulos comes in just after them both. In the French film Blue Is the Warmest Color, Exarchopoulos (along with her co-star Léa Seydoux) demand that viewer respond emotionally and viscerally to their story, which is more than just a titillating story of lesbian as a film that explores jealousy, need, cheating, abandonment and self-discovery.

Now that she’s captured a bevy of “breakthrough” and “most promising” awards, Exarchopoulos has two French films planned for future release. We’re certainly a lot more excited to watch a movie with subtitles if we know ahead of time that she’s involved, so we’ll be anxious to see her career continue to blossom.

It’s a pretty big deal when you can stand alongside one of the industry greats like Tom Hanks and make a big impression, but Barkhad Abdi did just that in Captain Phillips. Prior to playing the Somali pirate Muse, Abdi had been a chauffeur and a disc jockey. He was hired from a nationwide casting call that just happened to come to his hometown of Minneapolis to cast Somali-Americans, and is probably as surprised as anyone to be walking the red carpet at the upcoming Academy Awards.

Although Abdi doesn’t officially have any film work on his upcoming schedule, he tells the New York Post, “I’m reading some scripts now. We’ll see if I’m good enough for it. I don’t have anything locked down.” Considering that he received an Oscar nomination – and not Tom Hanks – we’re willing to bet he’ll be on the radar for numerous casting directors moving forward.

Those of us who watched The Wire and Friday Night Lights have been aware of Michael B. Jordan’s strong work for some time, but in 2013 he was truly propelled to the forefront with the lead role in Fruitvale Station. As Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old young man who was shot and killed in an incident with Bay Area Rapid Transit police in Oakland, CA, Jordan helps the audience to empathize with the young man and see the world through his eyes, warts and all.

Jordan’s talent is undeniable, and although his first role in the aftermath of the critically acclaimed film was to appear in the forgettable That Awkward Moment, he is rumored to be in the running to play Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in a reboot of The Fantastic Four.

It would be hard to blame anyone who dismissed Oscar Isaac as a serious actor after seeing him play the villain Blue Jones in Sucker Punch. And yet, last year he received kudos for his appearance in the little-seen 10 Years and followed that up with a haunting performance in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Not only does he sing beautifully in the film, but he is captivating when onscreen, providing a sympathetic portrayal of a musician working in a genre at the end of its era. Look for him to star in 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland’s directorial debut in Ex Machina as well as co-starring with Jessica Chastain in J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year.

Pretty much no one saw Margot Robbie on the television series Pan Am, but those who did recognize that she was a potential talent on the rise. She also starred in the delightful 2013 Richard Curtis Film About Time, but it was The Wolf of Wall Street that made us really notice her as our seventh place Breakthrough Performance achiever. She’s one of the few likable characters in a film full of scoundrels and thieves (though her character is complicit to be sure), and effortlessly stands alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as he chews through scenery. She has an adaptation of the critically lauded memoir Suite Française in post-production, and it’s safe to assume that there will be much more to look forward in Robbie’s career.

It may seem ridiculous that an 84-year-old woman would appear on our Breakthrough Performance list, but we swear we didn’t really know June Squibb until we saw her in Nebraska. Sure, she’d played Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt, but that movie wasn’t really called “About Schmidt’s Wife”, was it? An actress who made her Broadway debut as the stripper Electra in Gypsy way back in 1960, Squibb has had bit parts in a variety of films and television shows through the years, but in Nebraska she truly shines as the elderly wife of Woody Grant, shooting poisonous verbal barbs at everyone who dares to cross her in a bad way. For whatever reason, it’s outrageously memorable for someone of her age to call someone a “slut”. Now we’re all pretty much universally nodding our heads and saying, “June Squibb! Yeah!”

Our final two actors appear in the same movie together, though both are not being lauded for it. Miles Teller, who we’ve seen previously in such stupid teen films as Project X and 21 and Over, was simply remarkable in The Spectacular Now, where he portrayed a hard-partying high schooler who falls for the most unexpected girl. It would sound like a paint-by-numbers character, and yet he gives Sutter real depth and intensity. He may see big box office soon in Divergent, where he reunites with his love interest in The Spectacular Now (Shailene Woodley) in an adaptation of an extremely popular young adult novel.

Tenth place belongs to Brie Larson, who had a supporting role in The Spectacular Now but wins for Short Term 12. Larson had impressed us before when she played Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and had a thoroughly memorable scene in 21 Jump Street, but Short Term 12 is where she was an absolute dynamo, showing us a character who is tough and hard on the outside but broken internally. She’s currently filming The Gambler with Mark Wahlberg, and probably is on the short list for any other number of great female roles.

A few actors who were on the outside looking in this year include Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Chadwick Boseman. All of them had stellar years as well, but just didn’t have quite the support of the performers ahead of them.

2014 Calvin Awards
Calvins Intro
Best Actor
Best Actress
Best Album
Best Cast
Best Character
Best Director
Best Overlooked Film
Best Picture
Best Scene
Best Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Best TV Show
Best Use of Music
Best Videogame
Breakthrough Performance
Worst Performance
Worst Picture