They were in micro-budget movies that barely grazed theaters. Or indies with so much star-power, they were overlooked. Or, for whatever reason, they just weren’t given the props they deserved. Until now. Yes, consider this a creative corrective, in which we identify a handful of singular artistic performances this year from some of our favorite people to watch. Keep an eye out for all the folks below—their talent suggests they’re in it for the long, masterful haul.
Janelle Monae, playing Teresa in Moonlight. While this beautiful, wrenching meditation on growing up black and gay in America has received much-deserved attention and Oscar hype, we’re not sure the world has yet properly sung the praises of pop star Monae’s performance. How good was she, as the straight-talking Teresa with the platinum heart? Well, she hung right with Mahershala Ali, and he’s an actor so intensely good we’d happily pay to watch him read the phonebook. Hell, at several moments, it was the nuanced, casually brilliant performance by Monae that took good scenes to poignant greatness. If she doesn’t get her own Oscar nomination for Moonlight, she may very well get one for her next role, as a Space Race-age mathematician in Hidden Figures, out December 25. — Maccabee Montandon
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, playing Conor in Sing Street. It’s a lot to ask of a young actor to convey the awkward cringey-ness of adolescence, while also sporting 80s period dress, while also morphing his looks from Duran Duran glam boy to brooding Robert Smith clone to foppish Echo and the Bunnymen chic. Oh, and did we mention he has to sing original songs the whole time, too? Not only is Sing Street one of 2016’s most underrated movies, but Walsh-Peelo shines as budding musician Conor grows from timid self-consciousness to confidence and resolve. — Eric Alt
Dessa, performing “Congratulations” on The Hamilton Mixtape. The lineup for The Hamilton Mixtape features superstars like Ja Rule, Ashanti, John Legend and, sure, Jimmy Fallon—but the independent Minnesota rapper/singer Dessa delivers one of the record’s highlights, dropping a deleted track from the show in a voice that’s as comfortable rapping Angelica Schuyler’s dexterous lines as it is singing a soaring condemnation of Alexander Hamilton’s sensational stupidity. As the Mixtape repackages the Broadway smash’s familiar tracks in famous voices, the star of the show might be a previously-unheard tune from an underground artist—which may just be the most Hamilton thing of all. –Dan Solomon
Gillian Jacobs, playing Samantha in Don’t Think Twice. You may know Jacobs better from Community or the Netflix series Love, but it is in Mike Birbiglia’s charming, precious gem of a film that Jacobs delivers what is arguably her best performance yet. As a sometimes wise, often witty, silly, and sensitive member of an ambitious improv group, Jacobs conveys the full range of growing pains found in many 20-something, creative souls. And lest you think Jacobs is just playing herself (which, in itself, is one sneaky trick), the truth is she’d been too intimidated to try improv before preparing for this role. — Maccabee Montandon
John Early, playing… many, many roles. This year, Early popped up in scenes seemingly everywhere you looked–and he always stole them. He wrung laughs from small roles in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Julie Klausner’s gem of a show, Difficult People (itself highly underrated.) He poured some pathos into the mix for Chris Kelly’s somber comedy, Other People (again, highly underrated.) He also got two chances to broaden the scope of his talents: the TBS hipster mystery, Search Party, in which his every line reading is masterfully calibrated, and on his episode of the Netflix show, The Characters, a solo showcase bursting with quotables. The best may be yet to come, though, since he has an even bigger 2017 lined up. — Joe Berkowitz
Michaela Coel, playing Tracey Gordon in Chewing Gum. Tucked away among marquee Netflix binges like Black Mirror or Luke Cage is one of the most charming TV comedies of the year, created by and starring breakout talent Michaela Coel. Chewing Gum plops you smack in the middle of Tracey Gordon’s life, a 24-year-old shop girl bumbling her way out of her mother’s suffocating religious fervor and toward a path of finding herself. First stop: losing her virginity–maybe. What makes Chewing Gum the gem that it is rests entirely on Coel’s ability to balance in Tracey an endearing innocence with spastic slapstick. What’s unique about Coel’s performance is the attention to detail she brings that’s never lost in the comedic chaos of the show–sometimes the funniest moments arrive in Coel’s insanely elastic facial expressions or painfully awkward movements. It’s no wonder she nabbed a BAFTA for best female performance in a comedy earlier this year. Your move, Emmys. — KC Ifeanyi