Traditionally, the Oscar acting categories are made up mostly of proven stars and previous nominees, with a few fresh newcomers added every year. This year, the trend looks to be reversed, and it feels like the bulk of Oscar-bound performers will be new to the ceremony. Patricia Arquette ("Boyhood") and J.K. Simmons ("Whiplash"), front-runners in the supporting categories, would both be first-time nominees; Felicity Jones ("The Theory Of Everything") and Rosamund Pike ("Gone Girl") look likely to pick up Actress nods; and it feels very likely that this year’s Best Actor category will be made up entirely of actors who’ve never been nominated before now (Bradley Cooper’s the only really serious contender with a nod already under his belt).
But that’s a microcosm of the way that the industry is going. Established stars still have power of course (especially abroad), but the idea of the bulletproof hit-factory actor or actress, like Tom Cruise and Will Smith in the 1990s, seems to be a thing of the past. Even the biggest names, like Robert Downey Jr and Johnny Depp, have flops under their belts in recent years, while some of the biggest movies come without an established name at all.
The result is that filmmakers are able to take a gamble on new talent more than ever before, and the results are paying off, with dozens of performers delivering star-making performances over the last twelve months. After looking at the breakout directors of the year yesterday, we’ve picked out fifteen actors who most turned our heads for the first time in 2014 (plus, given that the lines are blurring more and more between the big and small screens, another five from the TV world). Take a look below, and let us know your own favorite breakthroughs in the comments section. And click here for all of our Best Of 2014 coverage.
Tessa Thompson – “Dear White People”
If you recognize the cast of mostly newcomers in "Dear White People," it’s likely from their TV work: Dennis Haysbert, the President in "24"; Tyler James Williams, the lead from "Everybody Loves Chris"; Teyonah Parris, receptionist Dawn in "Mad Men"; Brandon P. Bell from something called "Hollywood Heights." Regardless of how much big-screen work they’ve done before, they make up one of the best ensemble casts of the year, but standing first among them is Tessa Thompson, who gives a revelatory performance that in a just world would be a serious awards contender. Thompson (who is best known as a series regular on a season of “Veronica Mars”) plays Sam, the mixed-race college firebrand who hosts the provocative titular radio show. On the one hand, Sam is a kick-ass activist, but she also has a secret white boyfriend and, as one character points out, “loves Taylor Swift,” and Thompson’s stunning performance expertly makes these contradictions whole. Justin Simien’s film has a surprising amount of heart, and so much of that is down to Thompson, who finds the real pathos and pain of the character, while still being an eminently likable, warm and winning presence. Thompson also crops up in Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-contender “Selma,” and while she doesn’t have a huge part and is essentially a small cog in much bigger wheel, she makes her mark in every scene she has.
Jack O’Connell – "Starred Up"
Jack O’Connell’s turn in the wonderful British prison melodrama “Starred Up” is much like Tom Hardy’s in 2008’s “Bronson” (probably the last time we felt this sort of endorphin rush from a performance). Both are absolutely essential to the success of their respective films (both set in UK prisons), elevating already strong material by sheer force of charisma and their ability to bring tons of capital-T truth. Also like Hardy, O’Connell brings out the best in his supporting cast. Ben Mendelsohn may be among the most gifted characters actor working today, and in “Starred Up” he gives one of his greatest performances as O’Connell’s father. There’s an abundance of soap opera plotting: the father/son dynamic; pulpy criminal underworld twists; a therapist trying to teach communication to a group of prisoners; political backstabbing in the prison employment hierarchy. Director David Mackenzie (a 2014 Breakout Director) crafts the film with the grittiness befitting a modern prison drama, but so much falls on 24-year-old O’Connell’s lead character: the film lives or dies on his angry-dog turn. So despite the cliches, the film feels fresh and vibrant, in love with the truthful details that breathe life into the story. We were hardly the only ones to notice: you can see O’Connell this month in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” early in 2015 in the terrific, jolting "’71," as Toby in Terry Gilliam’s actually happening “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” and alongside George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Jodie Foster’s upcoming “Money Monster.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw – “Belle”
So almost exactly a decade ago, we saw a production of "Romeo & Juliet" at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and walked away firmly believing that the two young, unknown actors in the title roles were going to be stars. One fulfilled that promise almost immediately: he was Andrew Garfield, star of “The Social Network” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” franchise. The other’s taken a little longer to come to the attention of a wider audience, but should make it there off the back of two dazzling performances in 2014, and that’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The actress, who previously starred in short-lived J.J. Abrams drama “Undercovers,” is phenomenal in Amma Asante’s “Belle,” in which she plays a mixed-race woman in 18th century England struggling to feel comfortable in her own skin. Mbatha-Raw’s mix of privilege and uneasiness led to an Austenesque heroine unlike any seen on screen before. And she’s just as good in another woefully underseen 2014 picture, “Beyond The Lights.” A “Bodyguard”-ish romantic drama from “Love & Basketball” director Gina Pryce-Blythewood, it was initially underestimated by both its distributor and the small number of critics who saw it, before a “Margaret”-style critical second wave that’s at least in part due to Mbatha-Raw’s lead turn, in which she displays planet-sized charisma and a melancholy sensitivity as a Rihanna-ish pop-star. She’s got supporting roles in starry films “Jupiter Ascending” and “Concussion” coming up, but someone needs to step up and give her a studio lead ASAP.
Essie Davis – “The Babadook”
One uniting theme we’ve heard in conversations about cult horror hit “The Babadook” is what a shame it is that genre fare is so resolutely ignored by the Academy. In a year that prognosticators keep telling us is a weak one for Best Actress contenders, passing over the astonishing tour-de-force central turn by Australian actress Essie Davis in the film seems like the kind of thing that future generations will shake their heads at. Davis is a well-known figure at home, but despite Olivier and Tony nods and small roles in “The Matrix” sequels and Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” she hasn’t been on international radars till now, but her performance as grief-broken mother Amelia, frazzled by a difficult child and tormented by a monster that could be part of herself, is a thing of wonder. So much more than the protective momma bear that you often see in this kind of film, Davis makes’ Amelia’s struggle to connect with a child that she loves but may not like very much a palpable thing, while also showing the basic human needs —sexuality, some fucking sleep— that lesser films brush over. She keeps you guessing as to the character’s mental state, darting between being the brave hero of the piece, and possibly its terrifying big bad, while always remaining someone you root for. It’s an immediately iconic horror performance, and one that, if we had our way, would be giving Julianne Moore, Felicity Jones et al a run for their money at the Oscars.
Katherine Waterston – “Inherent Vice”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” is, as usual, stuffed with great supporting performances, from Josh Brolin’s showy, hilarious, scenery-chewing to quieter, subtler work from Owen Wilson, of all people. But the real revelation for us was a relatively new face, in the shape of Katherine Waterston, who plays Joaquin Phoenix’s ex-lady Shasta. Waterston, the daughter of “Law & Order” star Sam, is generally better known for her stage work (though she has had small parts in films like “Being Flynn” and “Michael Clayton”), but even given that she shares almost all her screen time with the great Joaquin Phoenix, Waterston owns every second in which she appears. It’s a sly, sexy performance, cannily keeping Shasta’s true nature and motivations just out of reach, like a carrot on a stick, and it’s easy to see why Phoenix’s Doc is wrapped around her little finger. But she isn’t just a femme fatale: it’s a warmer, more melancholy role than that, with Waterston subtly suggesting (particularly in her big centrepiece moment) that she’s still in thrall of a dope addiction that Doc seems to have mostly escaped from. Waterston mostly disappears from the film in its second half, and it’s a damn shame, but it won’t be long before we see her again: she’s starring with Elisabeth Moss in Alex Ross Perry’s next film, “Queen Of Earth.”
Jenny Slate – "Obvious Child"
If filmgoers knew Jenny Slate before Gillian Robespierre‘s brilliantly observant "Obvious Child," it was probably from one of her countless television appearances where she bolted in, usually for a handful of episodes, and then left just as quickly —she is maybe most remembered for a somewhat infamous single season stint as a regular on "Saturday Night Live." But with "Obvious Child," she commands an entire movie, one crafted around her performance as a struggling Brooklyn stand-up comedian who finds herself knocked up (like in the movie "Knocked Up"!) and chooses to have an abortion (unlike in the movie "Knocked Up"). This is a performance that commanded a vast amount of range; she’s got to hit every note —from heartbroken and scared to vulgar and outrageous (and just about everything in between, including one of the best drunk dial montages in recent memory). The fact that Slate is a relative unknown makes her performance an even more miraculous feat, requiring a subtlety and dimension that far better known actresses would have a hard time mustering. But Slate makes it look downright easy, as indeed does the Robespierre with the tricky tonal balance of a endearingly warmhearted, romantic but also semi gross-out comedy about abortion. Now the wait begins for another project fashioned around Slate’s unique talents.
Maika Monroe – "The Guest"
It’s irksome when an actor is cast as a teenager in a movie and he or she doesn’t really feel like a teenager. This could be because they’re too old, too mannered or too redolent of the phony 90210-style approach that goes along with being raised in the Hollywood system, where every smile or laugh comes across as forced. But none of these problems apply to Maika Monroe in Adam Wingard‘s indie thriller "The Guest." Nor should they: after all, Monroe’s first professional acting job was only two years ago, when she was still a 19-year-old professional kite-boarder, meaning she has a long and extremely promising career in front of her. In "The Guest" she plays a young girl who is instantly suspicious of the man (Dan Stevens) who moves into her family home following the death of her older brother in combat. The man claims that he fought alongside her brother and promised him that he’d look after the family, but she suspects otherwise. Her journey of uncovering his actual story is a delight, and she’s a strong, forceful character that borders on feminist (even when Wingard’s camera leers at her in her underwear and long socks). Monroe is the heart and soul of "The Guest," and she’s essayed one of our favorite performances of next year too, in David Robert Mitchell brilliant horror film "It Follows."
Tony Revolori – “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Coming to major attention in a Wes Anderson movie is something of a double-edged sword — the exposure is great, but his aesthetic is so distinctive that it can threaten to overpower an individual performance. But our sense is the contrary: if you can deliver a genuine performance in a Wes Anderson movie, you can do anything. And that’s how we feel about Tony Revolori, whose beautifully underplayed, deceptively simple-seeming turn in “Grand Budapest Hotel” grounded all the archness and injected a real sweetness right into the heart of the film. Zero, more even than Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustav (which was itself a delightful left turn for Fiennes), is the central character in the sense of being the audience’s proxy on this weird wild Lubitschian ride, but he’s not just a passenger. A young man coming of age, negotiating mentors and villains and puppy love, Zero is a truly charming creation, a great deal due to Revolori’s winning, wide-eyed performance. Amid so much capering about, it’s a rare trick to be able to invest your character with any sort of interiority, let alone the palpable soulfuless and yearning to belong that Revolori brings to Zero. We very much hope he won’t be consigned to a kind of one-hit wonder status, and indeed a pretty full slate of upcoming (albeit supporting) roles seems to suggest otherwise.
Chris Pratt – "Guardians of the Galaxy"
It’s hard to remember now, but when 2014 began, Chris Pratt was the cute chubby guy from NBC’s "Parks and Recreation"; by the end of the year, he’s become a bona-fide superstar, having anchored two of the year’s biggest films, "The Lego Movie" and Marvel‘s "Guardians of the Galaxy." Much has been made about Pratt’s physical transformation from a creampuff to the stuff of swoony fantasies, but he had bulked and toned up before (for Kathryn Bigelow‘s "Zero Dark Thirty"). The difference this time was that for "Guardians of the Galaxy" he got in shape and was able to maintain his charming everyman persona; he is the goofy schlub we know and love, but now is just as big and tough a piece of of eye candy for sweet-toothed ladies as Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth. It was Pratt’s performance as the lone human in an intergalactic smorgasbord of otherworldly creatures that grounded "Guardians of the Galaxy" emotionally, and his vocal performance as Emmett in "The Lego Movie," full of sadness and longing as well as jokes, helped to elevate the material above what could have been seen as a crass commercial exercise. Pratt is an actor who now finds himself in the enviable position of being the focal point of a number of high profile franchise films (including next summer’s dino-riffic "Jurassic World") and one of the rare actors who can find even the most jaded filmgoer actually looking forward to those giant studio confections.
Chadwick Boseman – “Get On Up”
It’s fair to say that Chadwick Boseman had already made an auspicious debut playing Jackie Robinson in "42," but it wasn’t until this year’s take on another legendary 20th century figure that we really knew what was up. In a word: everything. While the cyclical and repetitive structure of “Get On Up” didn’t always work to best serve the incredible life story of James Brown, Boseman’s electrifying, shape-shifting performance as the Godfather of Soul ensured that every moment he was onscreen was riveting. Portraying Brown from teenager to elderly man, Boseman morphed his voice, face, and gait to capture the inimitable musician. He nails the lightning fast fancy footwork, every "yow!" and pours himself into the performances of Brown’s songs. And though he shines in the musical performances, he also rides the edge of brilliant and crazed that is so peculiarly and uniquely Brown. While his incredible catalog does much of the heavy lifting in terms of sheer entertainment, and many of the musical performances are near-direct replicas (including the awesome performance at the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964 with the Rolling Stones), Boseman is the real star of the show, making it look effortless but never taking the easy option of mere impersonation, instead inhabiting the character from the inside out. Playing James Brown is hard work because, after all, he’s the hardest working man in show business. And Boseman works hard at portraying him and it pays off. It’s no wonder Marvel took notice and cast him as Black Panther, which should catapult him into the A-list where he rightly belongs.
Nelly Tagar – “Zero Motivation”
The cast of Tayla Lavie’s excellent Israeli military comedy “Zero Motivation” (a sort of “M*A*S*H” meets “Broad City” satire) is terrific all around, with rising star Dana Ivgy as virginal rebel Zohar and Shani Klein as put-upon officer Rama putting in solid turns. But our favorite performance in the film comes from actress Nelly Tagar, whose Daffi is at the centre of two of the three stories in the film’s triptych structure. Neurotic, spoiled, and despondent, Daffi dreams of a plush posting to Tel Aviv, but is instead stuck in a stationery cupboard in the desert and is prepared to do almost anything to get out. Tagar is howlingly funny from the first moment that we see her, an entirely complete comic creation, but what’s truly impressive about the performance is how she gives it texture and nuance as it goes on: when she returns in the third segment, Daffi’s gone through officer training and has a new-found responsibility, or at least the pressure to look responsible, and there’s truth and pathos in the way it tests her friendship with Zohar. Tagar’s mostly worked in TV back in Israel, but with the growing buzz around “Zero Motivation,” we wouldn’t be surprised to see her ending up with gigs further afield down the line.
David Gyasi – “Interstellar”
As much as we love Christopher Nolan (and our controversial review for "Interstellar" to the contrary, we mostly do —here’s our retrospective), his enormous, ambitious approach to blockbuster filmmaking does mean that at times it feels like he can’t quite capitalize on the unpredictable human element within all his whiz-bang spectacle and Lofty Themes. So the heart of "Interstellar" was written as being the relationship between Matthew McConaughey’s lonely astronaut and his daughter, but as much wallop as that sometimes packs, for our money it’s rivalled by the remarkable turn by David Gyasi as Romilly. Left on the craft to experience 23 years without human contact while his companions experience mere minutes on the surface of the planet, his reappearance is one of the film’s most resonant moments —the more so for being so quiet and so delicately played by Gyasi. There’s a titanic loneliness that he brings to this utterly tragic character that is totally compelling despite him being among the least well-drawn supporting characters to that point. And as the flip side to another character’s dalliance with isolation-induced insanity, his Romilly is all decency and duty, a broken but still fundamentally good man, and how he has managed to retain that store of humanity when others have not is a compelling question to which the film does scant justice. Gyasi hasn’t come out of nowhere —he was in “Cloud Atlas” and has a list of UK TV credits as long as your arm, but here’s to “Interstellar” hopefully being the start of huge things for him.
Carrie Coon – “Gone Girl”
Some things are just inevitable. The new phone you buy this year will look dated in two years. A new Christopher Nolan movie is going to make millions of dollars. And Carrie Coon is going to breakthrough in feature films. You’re allowed to be puzzled by that last one only if you haven’t seen David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” or one of the summer’s most flawed but also fascinating new television shows, HBO’s “The Leftovers.” As it happens, Coon filmed with Fincher before landing her recurring gig as Nora Durst on the post-rapture drama series everyone needs to watch. So while most of us were introduced to her on the small screen, she already had her brilliant turn as Nick Dunne’s loyal twin-sister Margo in her back pocket, almost waiting to ambush everyone looking forward to a new David Fincher film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. While Affleck is good and Pike is certainly head-turning though a little too established for this list, the surprise star is undoubtedly Coon, going head to head with Affleck and winning out most of the time, delivering her dialogue with perfectly natural ease and just enough sarcasm, and quietly breaking our hearts as the only real moral compass in Gillian Flynn’s fucked-up, unscrupulous milieu. She succeeded on stage with a Tony-award nominated performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” she made her mark on television (unequivocally the best episode of "The Leftovers" was the atypical one that focused on her for practically the whole episode), but Coon really had us at “There’s some wood, bitch!” 2014 is very much her year, and, we can’t wait to see what she does next.
Agata Trzebuchowska – “Ida”
Crazy story: In a Warsaw café, the natural beauty of a random young girl captures the attention of director Malgorzata Szumowska. So much so, she takes a sneaky photo and sends it off to her friend, renowned Polish arthouse director Pawel Pawlikowski, who is in the process of casting for his next film “Ida.” Pawlikowski finds out who she is, and, after a few screen tests, movie magic is certified. This is how Agata Trzebuchowska landed the lead role in Pawlikowski’s first film filmed in his native Poland. For that alone, it’s his most personal film to date, which makes Trzebuchowska’s central role that much more important and remarkable. She plays the role of Anna/Ida with the poise, grace, and supernatural screen presence of a golden age ’60s icon. Her character speaks very little and is perfectly foiled against her aunt Wanda (performed with equal brilliance by Agata Kulesza), which gives Pawlikowski and his cameramen Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal all the time in the world to focus on Trzebuchowska’s ethereal presence. Truly existing within the role, she magnifies the external beauty of Pawlikowski’s film with her internal, mesmerising, soulful elegance. She’s still studying for a bachelor of arts and has no projects lined up, so we’ll see what the future holds, but whatever it is, it’s unlikely that she’ll ever be forgotten after her breakthrough in “Ida.”
Antoine-Olivier Pilon – “Mommy”
The word “electrifying” is bandied around pretty frequently in regard to performance, which is a shame, since when we really need it, we find its currency devalued. And this is one case where the word, with all its connotations of shock, immediacy and volatility is totally earned: Antoine-Olivier Pilon’s turn in Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” simply buzzes with a pure current of uncontainable, uncontrollable energy. It’s really a case of a director finding his perfect muse, and both young men raising their game as a result —Pilon had a small part in Dolan’s “Laurence Anyways” but takes center stage as the troubled, manic, potentially violent but equally ferociously loving teenaged son of Anne Dorval’s Diane (Dorval incidentally matches him beat for beat, and is even more impressive than we’ve come to expect from her). Pilon is simply a force of nature in the role, and Dolan’s directorial choices around the performance hint that he knows he is capturing lightning in a bottle. “Mommy” had the briefest of releases to qualify it as Canada’s Oscar entry, so chances are you haven’t seen it yet, but it’s equally sure that once you do you will not forget Pilon and his remarkable blue eyes.
TV Breakthrough Performances
Lorraine Toussaint – “Orange is the New Black”
Sure, we know Toussaint’s been around for a long time already and has never been less than a strong presence, whether in films like “The Soloist” or Ava Du Vernay’s “Middle of Nowhere” or in any of her many TV appearances, notably as co-lead with Annie Potts in the 1950s-set interracial friendship drama “Any Day Now.” But almost as though bored with being a constantly undersung presence, Toussaint simply leapt out of the screen and grabbed us all by the throats as Vee in season two of Jenji Kohan’s utterly superb “Orange is the New Black.” Vee emerges as an alpha female to rival even Red, and from the first moment Toussaint is everything in this role: malicious, serpentine and deadly, coldly out for herself while also projecting an image of protection and leadership that leads to her assuming the same kind of fucked-up surrogate mother role she had on the outside. It’s a gift of a part for an actress of such extraordinary range as Toussaint and she makes it her own, pulling off the remarkable feat of being a standout in a show absolutely brimming over with cherishable, note-perfect powerhouse performances. She is currently on the big screen reuniting with Du Vernay for “Selma” —and much like Tessa Thompson makes an emotional impact in the few scenes she has on screen— and can be seen on TV in the Ioan Gruffud series “Forever,” a show we’ve as yet not caught up with, but her stint on ‘OINTB’ has kicked her up several profile levels to the point that she’ll hopefully be headlining something soon.
Alison Tolman – “Fargo”
Among the many great turns from familiar character actors like Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt, Colin Hanks and Martin Freeman in the unexpectedly great “Fargo," there nestled a centerpiece jewel of a performance by the all-but-unknown Alison Tolman. Perfectly striking the series’ balance between nodding to the peerless original film by creating a wholly new story within a similar loopy, darkly skewed universe, Tolman’s Molly Solverson (love the name incidentally, since she does do a lot of solving) evokes Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson but never imitates her. And so the recognisable character motifs —her pregnancy; her watchful smarts; her lack of cussing; her comfy pragmatism; even her accent all come across as little easter eggs to the film’s fans, while still allowing Tolman room to create a totally different character. And Molly is different from Marge: somehow sadder, maybe a little less outspoken but just as dedicated a cop and just as led by her own inner sense of justice. Tolman was robbed of an Emmy, in our opinion, and the second series change-up nature of "Fargo” means we won’t be seeing her in this role again, at least not unless she cameos. But she will appear among a cast of ringers in 2015’s “Fresno,” and with “Fargo” proving she has both dramatic talents and comedic timing, she should be up for a lot of work based on versatility alone.
Along the lines of their characters on the show, we can’t bear to separate these two actors so we’re cheating a little with this entry and splitting the honor between them. “You’re the Worst” was one of the more pleasant (read: deeply mean and unpleasant) surprises of the year in TV comedy: an arch, nasty anti-romantic comedy between two arch, nasty, anti-romantic individuals. But while the romance or lack thereof between Aya Cash’s Gretchen and Chris Geere’s Jimmy is ostensibly the central relationship, it’s the BFFs Gretchen and Kether Donohue’s Lindsay that feels even fresher and realer. Both actresses have CVs that belie their youth (Donohue will be familiar to "Pitch Perfect" fans), but neither has found a vehicle so sparky and so jaggedly suited to their strengths till now. Gretchen as co-lead gets more screen time and the more prominent arc, but Lindsay, who could in other hands be simply the duller, married-best-friend foil is perhaps even the weirder of the two, especially due to the split-personality element that her marriage and new social status has fostered. We expect great things from both, because without the slightest shred of sentimentality they’ve steered a bitter, acerbic show in a surprisingly warm direction: there may not be love out there for all of us, but Cash and Donohue convincingly suggest that a best friend who totally gets us, warts and all, is way more important anyway.
André Holland – “The Knick”
We may as well warn you right now, there will be very few eligible Playlist end-of-year lists on which we won’t make space for Steven Soderbergh’s superlative period surgery drama (it’s already been called out for its fantastic score). And as for breakout performances, we could probably have populated half this list with names from the show — Eve Hewson is destined for next-big-thing ingenue status; Cara Seymour is genius as the abortionist nun Sister Harriet, especially sparring with Chris Sullivan’s boorish ambulanceman; Juliet Rylance is similarly excellent as the patrician liberal Cornelia and of course the show offers established star Clive Owen his best role ever. But if we’re going to pick just one name as the flagship breakthrough, it has to be André Holland as the troubled, conflicted Dr Edwards, the brilliant surgeon fighting not only his inner demons, as Owens’ Thack does, but exterior ones —stomach-churning racism, love that must be kept secret and peers and patients alike who regard him as a liability, no matter his surgical talents. Holland has cropped up on TV before, and like others on this list shows up in “Selma” playing pioneering political Andrew Young, but it’s “The Knick” that has brought him top of mind, with Holland a big reason we’re hotly anticipating season two.
Amy Landecker – “Transparent”
Again, picking a single standout from the standout cast of the outstanding “Transparent” feels a little unfair (maybe we should do a Best Ensemble feature soon), but with a knife to our throats we’d probably consider that we’ve crowed about Gaby Hoffman enough already, Jeffrey Tambor is way too high profile, and Jay Duplass, while terrific, has kind of had the least surprising role to date (though that looks set to change with the cliffhanger ending of season one). And the one performance we really can’t imagine the show working without, aside from Tambor’s, is probably that of the relatively omnipresent Amy Landecker as Sarah Pfefferman. It’s true that Landecker can hardly be considered a neophyte, and just recently played Louie’s Mom in the flashback episodes of “Louie,” but “Transparent” gives her her most nuanced central role yet, as ostensibly the most well-balanced of this dysfunctional family, yet also the one who effects, along with her father, the biggest life change of any of them when she leaves her husband for her lesbian college lover. Watching her deal with the fallout of that choice, the small disappointments of domesticity as well as the grand passions, yet retaining a kind of level-headed practicality in contrast to her siblings’ flightiness is one of the show’s biggest pleasures —the role requires pinpoint precision that Landecker delivers in every scene, never feeling anything but totally true to her character. Bring on season two, and bring on Landecker showing up in absolutely everything as a result of her sexy, steely, yet vulnerable turn here.
Honorable Mentions: We can’t mention everyone, and with the best will in the world, some actors always end up slipping between the cracks. We tried to keep our picks to some degree to those who are kicking off a fruitful career to come. It remains to be seen whether "Boyhood"’s Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, or the "We Are The Best!" kids Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne will stick with acting, so we ultimately decided to stick with a special mention here. Similarly, it’s unclear if Adam Pearson, who delivered a startling cameo in "Under The Skin," will make another movie, but he’s excellent nonetheless.
Some other performers were ultimately decided to be a little too well-established, like "Selma" big noise David Oyelowo, Spirit Award-nominated "Nightcrawler" secret weapon Riz Ahmed (previously seen being excellent in "Four Lions," among others), former child star Gaby Hoffman, "Downton Abbey"’s Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens, "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" villain Toby Kebbell, "Whiplash"’s Miles Teller, "Fury"’s Logan Lerman, and "Gloria"’s Paulina Garcia, who we included on this list last year.
Others who impressed us this year and nearly made the cut included musician Willis Earl Beal in "Memphis," young "Interstellar" standout/Jessica Chastain mini-me Mackenzie Foy, the bravely disgusting/disgustingly brave Carla Juri from "Wetlands," Macon Blair from "Blue Ruin," "Nymphomaniac" breakout Stacy Martin, Mackenzie Davis of "Breathe In" and "Halt And Catch Fire," "Days Of Future Past" MVP Evan Peters, "Fault In Our Stars" lead Ansel Elgort, "Guardians Of The Galaxy" scene-stealer Dave Bautista and the very impressive Angeli Bayani from "Ilo Ilo,"
And that’s without mentioning the late non-professional Gary Poulter in "Joe," one of the year’s most terrifying villains, swoonsome "Belle" romantic interest Sam Reid, who also impresses in next year’s "71" and ‘The Riot Club," horror leads Olivia Cooke and Perdita Weeks from "The Quiet Ones" and "As Above So Below" respectively, Marine Vacth from Ozon’s "Young & Beautiful," "Palo Alto" stand-outs Jack Kilmer and Nat Wolff, comedy monster Jillian Bell from "22 Jump Street," "Land Ho!" actor Earl Lynn Nelson, "A Most Wanted Man"’s Grigoriy Dobrygin, Charlotte LeBon from "The Hundred Foot Journey," Peter Ferdinando, the slimy bad guy in "Starred Up" (who’s also excellent in festival thriller "Hyena"), "God Help The Girl" lead Olly Alexander, now heading for musical stardom as the lead singer in hotly-tipped band Years & Years, Brian "Astro’ Bradley, a highlight of "A Walk Among The Tombstones," and veteran British actress Dorothy Atkinson, a standout in "Mr. Turner."
And there’s also the established actors who staged major comebacks this year, like Michael Keaton. And TV breakouts, like "Game Of Thrones"’ star Pedro Pascal (who apparently came close to bagging the "Doctor Strange" role, "Brooklyn Nine Nine"’s Melissa Fumero, "Broad City"’s cast, Sam Richardson from "Veep," much of the cast of "Manhattan," and many more. Anyone else we’ve forgotten? Let us know in the comments.
– Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Nik Grozdanovic, Erik McClanahan & Katie Walsh