The Breakout Performances Of 2012

One of the great thrills of being a movie fan is discovery. In a few weeks, we’ll be rolling out our lists of the films we’re looking forward to in 2013, many of which come from established names. And yet invariably, many of the best movies that will surprise us over the next twelve months will be ones that are, as yet, barely on our radar, from directors with no track record, and featuring actors who you wouldn’t have been able to pick from a line up a few months earlier.

And the same has certainly proven true this year, with all kinds of previously unknown talent emerging across the course of 2012. Some turned up in tiny indies, some in giant studio pictures, but as ever, nothing quite manages to make us as confident in cinema’s future as the stream of bright new actors and actresses who make their way onto screens each year. As part of our continuing year-end coverage (catch up on it here), we’ve picked out our favorite breakout performances in 2012. Check out our list below, and let us know your own favorite surprise performances of the year in the comments section. For all The Playlist’s year-end coverage make sure to follow all our Best Of 2012 features.

Zachary Booth – “Keep The Lights On
In “Keep The Lights On,” Booth’s Paul Lucy is the highest level of functioning drug addict you could imagine, while still being a complete train wreck. Thure Lindehart carries the bulk of this movie, but it’s the essential unknowableness of Booth that keeps Lindehart’s suffering so compelling. When the two share a bed for the first time, Paul urges his lover to not get used to the arrangement, because he has a girlfriend. His rich background remains an intriguing enigma as Booth masks the character’s feelings throughout the films’ runtime, disappearing for days on end, returning not only with a new excuse but, to Booth’s credit, a new mask. Some people are casual liars, and some thrive on having constructed a kingdom of untruths, and Booth is smart enough to not overplay his character’s essential betrayal. He simply cannot slow down — a scene where his lover confronts him after days spent missing keeps spiraling in and out of his character’s self-interest — his eyes suggest he’s entirely lost, but his fast lips and poker face imply it’s all just business as usual, even as his boyfriend’s heart bleeds for him only a few feet away. It’s heartbreaking work, and Booth imbues the character with the native intelligence the audience doesn’t see often, but you can understand is likely his most alluring sober trait.

Jason Clarke – “Zero Dark Thirty”/”Lawless”
Though he was right under everyone’s noses, 2012 ended up being the year Jason Clarke achieved “overnight” success. Known mostly to American audiences as the face of the short-lived Showtime series “Brotherhood,” the Australian Clarke came on in two Annapurna Films productions displaying a very specific slice of the American experience. In John Hillcoat’s “Lawless,” Clark was Howard, the most violent and reckless of a trio of bootlegging brothers. And while his more famous co-stars, Shia LeBeouf and Tom Hardy, gained most of the attention, Clarke’s snub-nosed appearance and menacing countenance made a strong impression. He also brought steely intensity to “Zero Dark Thirty” as a government operative burnt out on extraordinary rendition techniques, desperate to find a moment of grace within a sea of dubious torture. While it’s a much smaller film, Clarke is also superb in the upcoming “Yelling To The Sky,” and he’s got a big year coming up, with roles in The Great Gatsby,” The Green Blade Rises and White House Down,” all of which should benefit greatly from his brutish charm.

Emayatzy Corinealdi – “Middle Of Nowhere
While it never quite got the crossover buzz of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Middle of Nowhere” was one of the best films to come out of Sundance this year; a smart, low-key indie about a nurse who’s devoted years of her life to keeping up the spirits of her husband, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence. As he’s offered the chance of early parole, his morale starts to plummet, and she becomes increasingly drawn to a friendly bus driver. The cast, including familiar faces like David Oyelowo, Omari Hardwick and Lorraine Toussaint, are pretty much impeccable, but it’s newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi, as lead Ruby, who just blows you away. She’s got an amazing screen look — cherubic, expressive eyes almost bigger than her face — but it’s the performance that’s really unforgettable. Steely and dedicated to her husband, the physical and emotional strain always visible on her, Ruby’s nevertheless vibrant and complex, not least when her husband’s secrets come to the surface, and the prospect of something else with Oyelowo’s Brian starts to emerge. It’s sadly a rarity to have a female character as well written as this one, and Corinealdi — whose most prominent credit before now was a small recurring role on “The Young & The Restless” — picks it up and runs with it. She’s already won a Gotham award, and taken an Independent Spirit nomination, and if there’s any justice, even bigger things await.

Carloto Cotta and Ana Moreira – “Tabu
Love is in the air for the second chapter of Miguel Gomes‘s “Tabu,” a section narrated by an older gentleman as he reminisces about his glory days in a colonialist African nation. The filmmaker gives everything a whiff of those-were-the-days aroma while doing his utmost to separate the audience from this blissfully ignorant bubble of pop songs and boozing, allowing the viewers to look at things with a clear head, free from any narrative manipulation. Still, that doesn’t mean the actors get to sleep on the job — both Carloto Cotta (playing Ventura, the narrator decades earlier) and Ana Moreira (Aurora) shine as the adulterous couple, a pair so smitten by their ultimately brief fling that nothing else in the world could possibly matter more to them than each other. Since Gomes is playing with some familiar tropes to further his “mission,” if you will, the actors often have to engage in contrived scenarios and dramatic turns. But much credit should go to Cotta and Moreira, who make their love — despite all of the barriers and alienation methods employed by Gomes — feel real, passionate and burning. When the two can’t sneak off together, you feel the regret, the agitation, and the thrill. Similarly, when a gun is brought into play — and you know where they’re going with it — it still feels like it means something to them. When a director is plotting and theorizing as deep as Gomes is, it’s difficult for an actor to stand out — but these two beautiful, fresh-eyed thespians do.

Lola Créton – “Goodbye First Love”
Stripped of any narrative abstraction in its portrayal of two teenage lovers’ affairs, French actress Lola Créton acutely conveys heartbreak through the passage of time in Mia Hansen-Løve‘s understated drama with simply a subtle expression or wounded delivery. While the film around her occasionally drifts due to the frustrating and one-note male performance by Sebastian Urzendowsky (an aspect, one could argue, that is intended as such), Créton keeps thing central and intimate as seasons progress towards her coming of age, but her conflicted feelings eschew any easy answers or avenues. Catch her next in the Olivier Assayas film Something in the Air,” where she’s unfortunately underused, but “Goodbye First Love” promises more carefully observed insight and range moving forward in her young career.

James Badge Dale – “Flight”/”The Grey”
It’s not uncommon for an actor to wind up in multiple movies during any given year, but the likelihood that one would play two dying men in films that both happen to kick off with harrowing plane crashes does boast a certain novelty. Beyond that, underrated character actor James Badge Dale managed two completely convincing and nigh unrecognizable turns as the immediate victim of a plane crash who eases off this mortal coil with Liam Neeson’s assuring guidance, and then as a cancer patient who interrupts a conversation between junkie Kelly Reilly and pilot Denzel Washington in a hospital stairwell, only to steal the scene entirely with his gaunt appearance and a dose of gallows humor. With any luck, his profile will soon be raised between these turns and roles in not one, not two, but three of next summer’s blockbusters: a main villain in Iron Man 3,” along with supporting roles in “The Lone Ranger” and “World War Z”.

The Dancers – “Girl Walk // All Day”
A Kickstarter-funded NYC performance project set to Girl Talk‘s most recent album of mash-ups, this joyous and freely available feature-length music video is a borough-hopping delight in which The Girl (Anne Marsan), The Gentleman (Dai Omiya) and The Creep (John Doyle) leap, thrust and twirl throughout the city, occasionally dancing with one another as their paths cross. Bystanders are left often puzzled, scared or annoyed by their outbursts, but some clearly admire the work and even join in. Their ranks grow as silent scenarios play out on bridges, on streets, even in subway cars and at baseball games, culminating in the year’s second most delightful sparkler sequence (“Beasts of the Southern Wild” has that title locked up). However, none of it would mean a damn thing without the fluid motions and giddy emotions of every fearless performer, especially the seemingly inexhaustible Ms. Marsan.

Dane DeHaan – “Chronicle”
Josh Trank‘s “Chronicle,” a film about a three high school friends who gain superpowers after making an incredible discovery underground is arguably the breakthrough “superhero” film of 2012, in that it really upended the genre. It’s inventive, smart, but at it’s core, it’s also emotional. Three friends become extraordinary and that’s something to celebrate. But the most damaged and dysfunctional of the trio, played by Dane DeHaan begins to curdle with his burgeoning powers. While the other two friends are galvanized by their heightened telekinetic abilities, DeHaan’s character’s loneliness, anger and misfit status only become amplified by the fact that he’s different. And this soon begins to boil to a misguided rage, aided by the thought that he and his friends have evolved and become better than the stupid, hurtful humans that have tormented him all his life. This is an incredible arc to play and a lot of it is done without dialogue, but DeHaan is a powerhouse in “Chronicle,” transforming from meek, fragile teenager into a full blown monster drunk on power over the course of 90 minutes or so. It’s a completely believeable metamorphosis and one that proves this kid is going to be one of the greats. But don’t take our word for it — filmmakers like John Hillcoat, Derek Cianfrance and Atom Egoyan also approve, casting him in “Lawless,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” and “Devil’s Knot,” respectively.  DeHaan is about to take off and Hollywood is already banking on it — see “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” where Marc Webb has chosen him as the new Harry Osborn.

Christopher Denham – “Sound Of My Voice” and “Argo”
2011 must have been frustrating for Christopher Denham, an acclaimed young theater actor. He had the lead in the taut, fascinating thriller “Sound Of My Voice,” which took great notices at Sundance two Januarys ago, and while Fox Searchlight picked the film up, they wouldn’t release it until this spring. But fortunately, one important person saw “Sound Of My Voice” last year, and that was Ben Affleck, who cast Denham in the key role of Mark Lijek in “Argo.” And the result is that Denham’s given two very different, and excellent, performances in the space of one calendar year. In the former, Denham plays documentary maker Peter Aitken, who’s out to infiltrate the cult run by the intriguing Maggie (Brit Marling), and while Marling got the lion’s share of the praise, Denham is great in the film too. Cocksure and vociferous in his crusade against the mysterious cult leader, and religion in general at first, the character sheds layers as the beguiling Maggie gets under his skin. And then he popped up in “Argo,” as one of the embassy employees that Affleck’s Tony Sanchez attempts to rescue. It’s not a showy part, but the character’s timidity and humor is a long way from Aitken, and sharing bona-fide chemistry with screen wife Clea DuVall, he feels like the heart of that central group of captives. Denham, a Steppenwolf veteran who made his directorial debut with 2008’s “Home Movies,” and cropped up in “The Bay” this year as well, clearly has great things to come after this one-two punch.

Ann Dowd – “Compliance
At first, ChickWich manager Sandra is unassuming, a folksy Midwestern type who simply wants no fuss on just a regular day of work. But, it takes only a few minutes of screen time for Sandra to become the audience’s number one enemy in Craig Zobel’s “Compliance,” and it’s purely through genuine intellectual shortcomings. Veteran character actress Ann Dowd has a difficult task here: she has to be dim enough to believe that the disembodied voice on the other end of a phone line is a cop interested in interrogating one of the restaurant’s employees. But she also has to have that superficial common decency and leadership skills that, as a viewer, one could conceivably see as motivating others to follow her lead blindly. The perpetrator on the other end of the phone line might be the one committing the crime of impersonating an officer, but it’s Sandra that does the heavy lifting, and Dowd achieves remarkable work in turning Sandra into a complete boob, but one who we’ve met a thousand times before, one whom we’ve probably shared a friendly word or two with. Tasked with bringing to life a character that stands in for the injustice of the story, simply by her own ineptitude, it’s a surprisingly touching element, in a film many describe as hostile and inhuman, even if Sandra herself makes the audience’s skin crawl.

Pierce Gagnon – “Looper
Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is a taut little sci-fi that’s inventive, sharp and entertaining. But it’s also, like Christopher Nolan films, a ruse; its premise is a launching pad for something more meaningful. On the surface it’s about the mob, time travellers, hitmen and targets sent back into the past to be killed. And while this is a fun brain-buster that tickles the minds of audiences for its first half, the true meat of the film is about a boy, the consequences of messing with time and the abilities to change our destinies. In “Looper,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt discovers that a young boy — Cid Harrington, the son of the girl he is falling in love with played by Emily Blunt — also has unusual telekinetic abilities. More importantly, he learns that in the future world of 2074, he grows up to be a malevolent force known as The Rainmaker who uses his power for evil. Point being “Looper” is fun, but blooms into something much more meaningful and transportive when this young, innocent and rather unassuming boy, played by Pierce Gagnon, is revealed to be something much more sinister.  And so Cid is crucial and Gagnon sells this character with astonishing power, playing the intelligent boy with a little secret that can explode with a shocking and tremendous fury when his loved ones are in danger. In short, Cid is the true heart of “Looper” and the film wouldn’t work if it didn’t have this precocious boy at this center who can transform from sweet, lovable rascal to terrifying malignance in a matter of chilling seconds.

Tim Heidecker – “The Comedy”
Primarily known as the less menacing member of the peculiar “Tim & Eric Awesome Show Good Job” duo, Heidecker turned heads in Park City when it was discovered that his role in Rick Alverson‘s “The Comedy” was, despite the title, a dramatic one. Reducing the movie to such a simple genre descriptor is not only a huge disservice to its depth, but it’s also wholly misleading — though it’s a sharp look at disillusionment, maturity, privilege, and jesting in general, often-times the same jokes that are rendered cruel or empty through the director’s eye are a legitimate crack-up. But it was obvious that Heidecker would elicit chuckles, and it’s those quiet, uncomfortable moments when the well runs dry that are the most impressive. He gives the role a subtle shade, hinting at the internal void within but never leaving himself open for something even remotely meaningful to happen to him. Despite being a traditionally unlikable character, you can’t look away, and Alverson utilizes this in a number of close-ups of Heidecker’s deeply enthralling mug. With this role, Heidecker has proven that he can have depth and nuance in a position not solely concerned with goofy comedy, and hopefully we’ll see some more interesting performances come from him soon.

Dree Hemingway – “Starlet
In Sean Baker‘s “Starlet,” Dree Hemingway announces herself as a presence to watch in one of the year’s more delicately balanced performances. It’s her movie, and while she has a winning partner in Besedka Johnson (the older actress carrying a genuine sense of frustration, frailty and eventual compassion) in crafting the relationship that offers the true heart of the film, Hemingway must balance this complicated friendship with the sticky situations in her own personal life. As an often-idle porn actress in the wasteland of the San Fernando Valley, she perfectly portrays the boredom and listlessness of her everyday life that causes her to seek connection outside of her very small world. As a character whose defining characteristic is the slippage of her own identity, Hemingway brings natural intelligence and humanity to the role. It’s really a performance within a performance, and it’s also an incredibly brave one for a debut, particularly in the expertly edited scene of her on the job with a coworker. It’s an interesting and deft little indie, anchored by the multi-layered performance of Hemingway, a feat she pulls off handily.

Nina Hoss – “Barbara”
Talk about a piercing stare. Nina Hoss has been well represented in German cinema for a while now, but it’s her lead role as the titular character in Christian Petzold‘s 1980s set drama “Barbara” that really showcases her power, causing audiences outside of her country to really take notice of her considerable skill. Hoss spends a good portion of the movie as a nurse wearing a chilly, borderline hostile disposition, only revealing true compassion to the various ailing hospital patients she tends to. But a potential romance and increased attention from the State Security begin to weigh on her, spidering a few cracks on her shielded ego, and eventually some warmth begins to leak out. The softening of Barbara is an organic transformation, a slow ripening of the soul that Hoss pulls off in spades. It’s not the most unique character — the standoff-ish person becomes lighter and brighter with love — but the actress makes it feel fresh, and most importantly, tangible. Right now she’s Petzold’s muse, but we’d love to see what Michael Haneke would do with her, or better yet, how up and comers Ulrich Köhler or Markus Schleinzer would utilize her strengths.

Scoot McNairy – “Killing Them Softly,” “Argo” and “Promised Land”
We’ve discussed Scoot McNairy before. Most noticed him after “Monsters,” the lo-fi indie picture about a journalist and a tourist walking to the safety of the American border after an alien invasion has hit Mexico. It’s a good performance, and McNairy seemed to be up for all kinds of big parts after the film, and 2012 was his year when all these films hit seemingly at once. McNairy scored the second lead in “Killing Them Softly” opposite Brad Pitt, and he kills as the scared, stupid junkie who robbed a bookie and knows his time is running out. In “Argo,” he shines as the one hostage in a group of many who doesn’t have faith in Ben Affleck’s plan. Distrustful, skeptical and concerned for the safety of his wife and his comrades, much of the fate of this group lies in his hands. And when he finally agrees to go with the almost-ludicrous plan to escape Iran, McNairy’s character gives a silent, but piercing look to Affleck’s CIA character that reads as “this better fucking work” and the moment when he buys into it, narrating the story of their science fiction movie to the Revolutionary Guard, subtly playing up the parallels to the revolution, is a great bit of payoff for the character. In “Promised Land,” McNairy only has two scenes as a prideful farm worker that’s not about to buy into Matt Damon’s bullshit, but they are memorable. More importantly, like the junkie in ‘Softly’ or the Canadian consulate officer in “Argo,” all these characters are completely different and show McNairy’s range. This guy could play the hero, the sidekick, the goon, the everyman or the clerk. Amazing things are going to come out of this actor and we can’t wait to see what he does next.

 Nate Parker – “Arbitrage”
The moral morass of “Arbitrage” is a frightening and sickening one. Lies built upon lies that threaten to ruin more than just one man (a fraud of a hedge fund manager played by Richard Gere), but a family, a friend, and anyone within spitting distance of his circumference. One of the unfortunates in this story, about a troubled businessman who tries to cover up the accidental death of his mistress while he tried to complete the sale of his billion dollar empire, is Jimmy Grant (played by Nate Parker). The ugliness of the situation is exacerbated by race. Jimmy’s father was Miller’s faithful chauffeur for decades and so when the magnate gets in a quandry — his mistress dies in a car accident with Miller asleep at the wheel — he gets the African-American man to help him out. Soon a hounddog of a detective (played by a terrific Tim Roth) is circling and poor Jimmy, who is trying to leave New York to start a business in Atlanta, is at the center of this crime. Miller, who believes he can’t possibly go away, expects Jimmy to take the fall if it comes to that and Jimmy, who puts loyalty and honor above snitching is put in the worst corner of his life thanks to the selfish and increasingly desperate financier. And of course Miller bribes him with the one thing he doesn’t have — money. The way Parker’s character is exploited is base and vile, and throughout the actor deftly demonstrates an arresting spectrum of anger, concern and fear that gives him your full empathy. In a picture full of great performances, Parker manages to stand out as the outlier trying to survive.  It doesn’t hurt that in 2012, Parker played the exact opposite in Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” a tough street hustler who rules the local projects. There’s contour and depth to this actor and it’s only going to flourish from here on out.

Matthias Schoenaerts – “Rust & Bone”
Going toe to toe with Oscar winner and acting powerhouse Marion Cotillard takes some chops, but Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts made it look easy in Jacques Audiard’s compelling “Rust and Bone.” After breaking out on the arthouse scene with “Bullhead,” Schoenaerts took the huge leap to costarring with Cotillard in the emotionally and physically brutal tale of two broken people, Stephanie and Alain, finding strength in each other. His Alain is a feral animal at times and disarmingly sensitive and perceptive at others. In many ways, he is all id, reacting to things in a purely physical way that cuts through the doubts and anxiety in Stephanie’s head when she becomes trapped in her chair and in her house. Schoenaerts brings a soulful quality to this character, a man whose exterior doesn’t always betray his simmering emotions underneath, but when they explode out of him, it’s a truly mesmerizing to behold. Even when getting his face bashed in during an illegal bare-knuckles fight, he manages to find a single expression that communicates so much about who this person is and what drives him. He’s an actor who brings physicality to his role, much like Tom Hardy, but as we said in our review from Cannes, “he’s the rare breed with acting chops to spare, finding the vulnerability beneath his character’s exterior.” With his recent casting in “Suite Francaise” opposite Michelle Williams, Schoenaerts is here to stay as an international star.

Suraj Sharma – “Life Of Pi”
Ang Lee faced the biggest challenge of his career with the magical-realist “Life Of Pi.” It’s a film that piles on all kinds of obstacles, with a story that involves children, animals, shooting on water, myriad effects and the extra hurdle of shooting in 3D. And while there are a few iterations of the boy Pi Patel in the picture, Lee pins pretty much the entire film on the teenage version of the adolescent played by Suraj Sharma. Possessing expressive eyes and an innocent appearance, one must remember that for half of “Life of Pi” — essentially about a boy stranded at sea in the Pacific Ocean with only a tiger aboard his lifeboat — Sharma is playing opposite nothing but green screens, soundstages with water being thrown at him and a CGI tiger that isn’t there. While ‘Pi’ has its flashback sequences of an older Pi (played by Irrfan Khan), the picture is a mostly solo venture for Sharma, next to the digital Bengal tiger Richard Parker. And so while the effects and dazzling imagery of “Life Of Pi” steal the show — Parker is a beautiful digital creation, and every seafaring disaster in the picture looks like it’s made from “Avatar” on steroids — the picture is deeply moving, spiritual and hopeful. It’s a film about belief, survival, compassion and the endurance of the human spirit and without Sharma to shepherd each one of these emotions, there’s no movie. The young actor — in his first ever performance — is the centerpiece that anchors this triumphant visual tale beyond its beautiful aesthetics.

Iko Uwais – “The Raid: Redemption”
Gareth Evans‘ breakout Indonesian actioner “The Raid: Redemption” has its fair share of problems, not least muddy storytelling and paper-thin characters. But what it also has, that manages to redeem the rest of it, is about 90 minutes of relentless ass-kicking, depicted through Evans’ restless, inventive camerawork. And the man who dispenses almost all of said ass-kicking is pint-sized lead Iko Uwais. The 29-year-old Jakarta native, a former semi-pro soccer player, is an expert in the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat, and first encountered Evans while working as a driver for a telecoms company, when Evans was making a documentary about the form. The two worked together on Evans’ first martial arts movie “Merantau,” but got his real showcase as hero cop Rama in ‘The Raid.’ You wouldn’t necessarily want the guy to play Hamlet or anything, but like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Tony Jaa, he’s an instant martial arts superstar, and a special effect more impressive than any amount of CGI. The acts of physicality that Uwais pulls off are, frankly, astonishing (and exhausting…), and there’s a quiet, Eastwood-ish charisma to him that him makes him compelling to watch, and easy to root for. Evans’ follow-up “Berandal,” which shoots in the new year, should stretch Iwais’ acting chops a bit more, while he’s also co-starring with Keanu Reeves in the actor’s directorial debut “The Man Of Tai Chi.”

Alicia Vikander – “Anna Karenina” and “A Royal Affair”
In 2012, two of the very best period dramas were anchored by performances by one very young girl: Alicia Vikander, a 24-year-old Swedish actress from Gothenburg. “A Royal Affair” was one of the year’s best, most under-seen movies, an Enlightenment Era-set tale about the mentally unwell king of Denmark and the British woman he made his bride. Produced by Lars Von Trier‘s Zentropa production company, it nicely eschewed sentimentality for a kind of gilded historical romanticism that still felt real. Vikander, as the put-upon queen-to-be, is the movie’s narrator and emotional center, especially when she becomes embroiled in a passionate affair with the king’s advisor (played by Mads Mikkelsen). Most of what makes “A Royal Affair” such a special movie lies in Vikander’s performance. And while Keira Knightley may play the title role in Joe Wright‘s gorgeously rendered “Anna Karenina,” it’s Vikander’s Kitty that comes off as the more relatable and fully realized character. Your heart breaks for Anna but you fall in love with Kitty. In 2012, nobody wore a bodice quite like Alicia Vikander.

Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry – “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”
Getting great performances out of well-trained, well-established actors is one thing. Getting them out of non-professionals is another. But to give the credit to helmer Benh Zeitlin would be to do an enormous disservice to the astonishing work done by Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, the entirely unknown actors at the center of the director’s magic-realist fairy tale “Beasts Of The Southern Wild.” Wallis, who auditioned for the role when she was only 5, and Henry, who is a baker and worked with an acting coach while doing the night shift in preparation for the film, had never acted before, but you wouldn’t know from Hushpuppy and Wink, the father-daughter duo they play in Zeitlin’s flooded allegorical dystopia. Henry is tremendous; proud, angry, drunken and loving. But it’s Wallis that you can’t take your eyes off. There were questions in some quarters about whether a performance from one so young could ever really be called “a performance.” But as un-self-conscious and unguarded as Wallis is, it seems from the film that there’s no question she’s an enormously gifted actress, one who’s created a very detailed and three-dimensional turn, able to pull off everything from the acts of heroism to powerful emotional points. It’s a truly miraculous turn, one that finds her channeling both wordly wisdom and naive innocence with ease. Both actors will pop up again next year in Steve McQueen‘s “Twelve Years A Slave” — let’s hope that that’s just the start.

Rebel Wilson – “Pitch Perfect”
Whither “Pitch Perfect” without Rebel Wilson? Would the singing sound as bright? The jokes as sharp? The cappella sufficiently aca’d? Nope, the musical comedy wouldn’t have been what it was without everyone’s favorite deadpan Aussie comedienne. The film could have been rendered toothless without her, as what the genre comedy really had going for it was its gentle skewering of the genre itself, with Wilson as its flag bearer. Her absurdist humor was the female yin to Adam DeVine’s (“Workaholics”) yang, and the two of them together brought just the right amount of acid to what could have been a sugary-sweet sappy one-note disposable teen flick. The filmmakers smartly let Wilson just be Wilson, a unique voice developing since “Bridesmaids,” and through “Bachelorette,” allowing her to steal the whole damn show from under the noses of Annas Kendrick and Anna Camp. Can we give it up to the casting director of “Pitch Perfect” though, too? That cast was stacked with some of the most likable fresh and familiar faces from Comedy Central to Broadway, including sure-to-be stars Wilson and DeVine, Skylar Astin from the stage production of “Spring Awakening” and singer/songwriter Ester Dean. With that many talents in the mix, it’s even more remarkable that the whole show belonged to Rebel Wilson.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead – “Smashed”
Everyone seems to know Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She had a small role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” and a bigger one in Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and let’s face it, she’s so bloody cute, everyone wants to girlfriend the shit out of her (sorry boys, she’s married). But up until now, Winstead has been just an almost-attainable pretty face. Could she act? The indie drama “Smashed” about an alcoholic couple put to the test when the wife decides to get sober, proves she can. While she and co-star Aaron Paul play inebriated well, it’s actually the second half of the picture when Winstead’s character gets sober that she truly begins to shine, and brightly, but in an understated manner. We see this woman (played a bit doughty and makeupless which is a nice change) struggle with sobriety, but perhaps more importantly the growing distance between her and her husband. Every selfish mishap on her drunken husband’s part breaks like a little ache across her face in the self-recognition that this marriage isn’t going to get better and this situation isn’t going to resolve itself. Overall, it’s a pretty subtle performance, but a distinguished one. When we see her school teacher character at the end, she wears the accelerated visage of pain and wisdom, but also, a hopeful and inspiring resolve.

— Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh, Chris Bell, Gabe Toro, William Goss, Charlie Schmidlin, Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor

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