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Bright Shining Stars: The Breakthrough Performances Of 2011

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 16, 2011 at 12:51PM

One of the many reasons that film never, ever gets dull is the constant changing of the guard. Every year sees a new heap of talent emerging, thanks to film festivals and canny casting directors, often coming from seemingly nowhere to fly off the screen, whether in a microbudget indie or a blockbuster, proving that talent can come out at any level.
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Breakthrough Performances 2011

One of the many reasons that film never, ever gets dull is the constant changing of the guard. Every year sees a new heap of talent emerging, thanks to film festivals and canny casting directors, often coming from seemingly nowhere to fly off the screen, whether in a microbudget indie or a blockbuster, proving that talent can come out at any level.

2011 has been as strong a year as ever, and as part of our ongoing year-end coverage (you can catch up on the Alternate 2011, the Best Moments, and the Best Scores/Soundtracks), we've assembled some of our favorite breakthrough performances of the year: the actors who arrived over the last 12 months and clearly have all kinds of great work to follow. Not everyone here is a fresh-faced ingenue; there are actors in their 40s who showed a whole new side to their talents, or finally managed to get their big breaks. Hell, we were even tempted to include 82-year-old Christopher Plummer, just because he's so revelatory in "Beginners."

We didn't, but there are plenty of actors here who shone brightly in 2011, most of whom already have their projects for 2012 lined up. Check them out below (in alphabetical order), and let us know your own favorites in the comments section. And next week, our coverage of 2011 continues as we start to roll out our Top 10 lists. Some spoilers may be ahead.

Breakthrough Elena Anaya
Elena Anaya - "The Skin I Live In"
Left high and dry after Penelope Cruz, who had been attached to the project for years, dropped out, Pedro Almodóvar was forced to look elsewhere for the crucial female lead in his horror/melodrama "The Skin I Live In." Fortunately, she arrived in the shape of Elena Anaya, who had a brief role in the director's masterpiece "Talk To Her," as well in the controversial "Sex & Lucia" nearly a decade ago. She's been working steadily since, both at home and in the U.S., in films from "Van Helsing" to "Savage Grace," but "The Skin I Live In" saw her really arrive; she's captivating and heartbreaking as Antonio Banderas' mysterious prisoner/patient/lover Vera. Initially despairing and suicidal, a sort of leotard-wearing Frankenstein's monster, once she, and the audience, learn her terrible secret, she gains inner strength, seeming to visibly grow taller onscreen as she puts her plan into motion. The greatness of Anaya's performance only becomes apparent halfway through the film: *spoiler* she's not only playing Vera, but she's embodying another actor, and the echoes of the middle section haunt her performance, and the film, until its bloody conclusion.

Breakthrough Hayley Atwell
Hayley Atwell - "Captain America: The First Avenger"
We liked, but didn’t love, Joe Johnston’s take on "Captain America," one of what felt like a dozen Marvel films this year setting everyone up for next summer’s “The Avengers.” And that’s exactly what most of it felt like -- killing time to get Chris Evans to the future to meet up with the rest of his gang. But one great thing that did come out of the movie is Hayley Atwell’s performance as love interest Peggy Carter. Unlike other summer blockbuster love interests, Peggy actually had a personality, a tough-as-nails role model who never stops seeing li'l Steve Rogers for the pure-hearted weakling he once was. As far as female characters go, Matthew Vaughn should take note for his next “X-Men” installment. It’s her first big American role after starring in TV miniseries “Pillars of the Earth” and playing numerous other supporting roles, and she sashays onto the screen with confidence, walking firmly away with entire segments even against veteran scenery-chewers like Tommy Lee Jones. And when those final scenes hit (in a sly nod to "A Matter of Life and Death"), the tragedy of her character’s situation resonates with the audience probably more than anything else in the film.

Breakthrough Demian Bechir
Demián Bichir - "A Better Life"
48-year-old Mexican actor Demián Bichir has the distinction of being one of the rare performers who has graced our Breakthrough Actors list twice  – in 2008 he made our list for his fiery impersonation of Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.” Even though that turn was remarkable, Bichir hasn’t quite broken out yet, but perhaps 2011 is his year. Already nominated at the Spirits and the SAGs for Best Actor, suddenly putting him in serious Oscar contention, in “A Better Life” Bechir plays a gardener and illegal alien living in East L.A. as he struggles to keep his son away from gangs and poverty while trying to give him the opportunities he never had. While the well-intentioned film doesn’t always work, perhaps occasionally devolving into poverty sympathy porn, when it does it's thanks to Bechir’s touching, compassionate performance as a single father just trying to get by and support his ungrateful son. And never does he waver as the determined, but gentle patriarch willing to be abused and reproached if it means his boy will do the right thing. Bechir’s character is a sad ghost in the film, forced to live a life of invisibility so as never to be noticed by anyone, especially the police, and Bechir's performance just aches with a melancholy pang that gradually transforms into an utterly heartbreaking desperation when his circumstances turn tragic.

Breakthrough Jessica Barden
Jessica Barden - "Hanna"
For about half an hour of Joe Wright’s actioner, we’re immersed in the exaggerated-yet-deadly-serious world of Saoirse Ronan’s teenage assassin, watching as she incapacitates adults and evades capture. But then, a funny thing happens: Hanna meets Sophie, played by Jessica Barden, as a teen every bit as programmed as she is, albeit by tabloid culture and not survival instinct. Essentially a loud-mouthed extrapolation of her gossip-craving character from “Tamara Drewe,” Barden gets many of the film’s choice lines (‎"Is 'kraut' an ethnic slur? Like 'queer' or 'lesbo'? I think I'd quite like to be a lesbian. But not one of those fat ones. One who's, like, a supermodel. But we'd only hold hands, and I think I'd probably marry a man"), adding some much-needed levity to the proceedings while Ronan leeches off some much-needed humanity. Of course, Sophie and the family think little of taking in this odd young girl, thus sealing their collective fate, but the aghast look on Barden’s face once she realizes what her newfound friend is capable of chiefly registers because of how much all of that wonderful nonsense endeared her character to the audience in the first place. Sophie thinks that she knows what she wants from life, but in that flashbulb bubble of hers, she’s existed as someone oblivious to even the mere idea that she might one day be forced to face death. Barden manages to make that revelatory moment speak volumes about the person Sophie was, and will probably never entirely be again. 

Breakthrough ATB
John Boyega, Alex Esmail, etc. - "Attack the Block"
Without the exemplary performances of "the kids" (as we'll collectively call them), Joe Cornish's goofy creature feature "Attack the Block" would have been dead on arrival. Everything is entrusted to them: a sense of gritty, street-thug realism; the ratatat, sci-fi-tinged dialogue that sounds like "A Clockwork Orange" mixed with Dizzee Rascal lyrics; and the emotional weight of taking an audience on an incredibly nimble journey as our heroes (for lack of a better word) transform themselves from scuzzy thieves to scared little kids to apocalyptic saviors. It would have been a Herculean task for even the most practiced young actor, but it's downright amazing that most of these kids had never even acted before. That raw freshness adds a lot to the movie, particularly in the case of John Boyega as gang leader Moses, whose performance was so impressive Spike Lee snapped him up for his new HBO show "Da Brick." The monsters, with their jet black fur and neon-blue teeth, might have been the things that made us jump, but it was the kids that made us care.

Jessica Chastain Breakthrough
Jessica Chastain - "The Tree of Life"/”The Help”/”Take Shelter”
There can be no question that of all the actresses to come into their own this year, none arrived in quite the same way as Jessica Chastain. With a journey that started on the red carpet at Cannes and took her through the end of the year with roles in six films that saw release in 2011, we think it will be her turns in “The Tree of Life,” “The Help” and “Take Shelter” that will likely be remembered in years to come. In Terrence Malick’s film, Chastain balances the line between a woman devoted and loyal to her autocratic husband, but sympathetic and deeply connected to her children with a depth not usually seen in typical 1950s housewife roles. She managed to sustain the same skills in “Take Shelter,” more than holding her own against Michael Shannon. But oddly enough, it was “The Help” perhaps more than any role that truly proved that Chastain was the real deal. Running totally counter to every other performance she gave this year, the busty, ditzy Celia Foote is the kind of character that’s often undervalued. Pulling off the prototypical “dumb blonde” and making it look easy is incredibly difficult, but adding the layers of both charm and pain that infuse her story, and creating one organic whole is a feat few actresses could have achieved. Chastain doesn’t fall back on a push-up bra and wig to do the work, but makes the subplot of Celia’s journey as compelling as the main storyline. If we hadn’t known going in that the woman with the butterfly on her arm in “The Tree of Life” was the Coca-Cola lovin’ burst of sunshine in “The Help,” we wouldn’t have believed it, and even still, we scarcely recognized her.

Breakthrough Olivia Coleman
Olivia Colman - "Tyrannosaur"
Acting alongside greats like Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan is intimidating enough. Being able to stand up strong to their characters’ abuses? Few actresses this year have had as emotionally challenging a role as Colman had in Paddy Considine’s directorial debut. As a shop owner with a strong religious faith, Colman is both wounded and strong, withstanding the abuse of her callous, cowardly husband to come to work every day. Soon, she’s accosted by a drunken local, a broken man with a vicious angry streak who nonetheless has great internal strength. “Tyrannosaur” would be a solid drama in the vein of a television movie had the actress playing Colman’s role delivered something less believable. But there are so many dimensions to Colman’s portrayal, as her mousy countenance defies her bold, stiff upper lip. She shrinks from the violence done to her and cries repeatedly, but in Colman, there’s a savage internal intelligence. When she cottons to Mullan’s abusive alcoholic, it’s Colman’s steady resolve and refusal of victimhood that keeps you on your toes.You KNOW she’s got a secret, you just wonder what it is. A veteran of BBC comedies like “That Mitchell and Webb Look” and “Peep Show,” the actress has a certain visibility to some viewers, but no one could have ever predicted that she would so convincingly bury her luminous smile within the tragic exterior of “Tyrannosaur”’s harried shop owner.

Breakthrough Weekend Tom Cullen
Tom Cullen & Chris New - "Weekend"
One of our favorite little-films-that-could this year, “Weekend” wasn’t on anyone’s radar before SXSW; a tiny budgeted (around $150,000) British indie, virtually a two-hander, about two young gay men in Nottingham and the 48 hours or so following their one-night stand. And like any two-hander love story from “Brief Encounter” to “Before Sunrise,” the film lives and dies on its leads, and fortunately, writer/director Andrew Haigh struck gold with virtual newcomers Tom Cullen and Chris New. Cullen is Russell, the loosely closeted, lonely man pining for something more serious, while New (who’s best known for taking over Gary Oldman’s role of Joe Orton in an ill-fated stage production of “Prick Up Your Ears”) is Glen, the outspoken artist, raging against both the prejudices of the straight community and the hypocrisies of the gay world. Both characters leap off the screen as fully-formed, living, breathing human beings, in part thanks to Haigh’s sensitive, textured writing, but principally thanks to the flawless performances. New will next be seen on stage at the Arcola Theater in London in a revival of Philip Ridley’s “The Pitchfork Disney,” while Cullen is in the next episode of Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror,” alongside Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whittaker, and has a lead role in the Ridley Scott-produced miniseries “World Without End” in 2012.

Breakthrough Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch - "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
For all of its perceived chilliness, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is an oddly open affair. Yes, it’s a Cold War spy movie, solemnly composed and artfully designed. But it’s also about examining the raw emotion and frayed nerves of male insecurity. Even if you disagree with this assessment and peg the film as a frosty thriller, it’s hard to not tag Benedict Cumberbatch as the movie’s big, beating heart. As a young operative in the increasingly byzantine maze of British intelligence, Cumberbatch is recruited by ex-spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to do reconnaissance work as they search for a mole at the top of the spy food chain. His two key scenes in the movie are polar opposites but equally powerful. In one he must smuggle a document out of the nest of spies, his cool British demeanor giving way to anxious paranoia. The other is a quieter scene where he has to break up with his boyfriend because, as Smiley suggests, there’s a possibility his loved ones might be in danger too. This second scene is a beautiful, heartbreaking moment and the most romantically gay moment in a film ripe with homosexual subtext. The break-up sequence is also the highlight of a banner year for Cumberbatch, which included a stiff-upper-lip performance in Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and a double-sided theatrical role in Danny Boyle’s “Frankenstein” as the monster and the doctor. In the coming years we’re going to see much more of the man even if his name does sound like a J.K. Rowling character.

Breakthrough Artist
Jean Dujardin & Berenice Bejo - "The Artist"
In this day and age, a black-and-white silent film (and one from France, no less!) was never going to be an easy sell. But "The Artist" has been playing to rapturous houses since Cannes, and really, once an audience sits down in the theater, it only takes about 10 minutes for any suspicions to completely evaporate, thanks principally to the utterly charming performances of stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. In the opening sequence of the movie, Dujardin bounds onto the screen as actor George Valentin there to charm an onscreen audience who has just seen his latest film. By the time he leaves the stage, we’re believers too; this guy is a stone-cold star. Bejo is equally delightful as Peppy Miller, who goes from day player to rising star, and the two share a wonderfully old-fashioned chemistry together, replacing love scenes with dance routines. But “The Artist” wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if it had been all roses, instead Valentin’s star begins to fall and he goes on a serious downward spiral which takes the film in an unexpectedly emotional direction, with both actors, who previously worked together on director Michel Hazanavicius's enjoyably silly spy comedy "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies," getting to show that they can bring on tears as well as laughter.

Breakthrough JE
Jennifer Ehle - "Contagion"
While the world’s population rightly panics at the relentless spread of a heretofore unknown infection as it proceeds to thin the global herd a bit, the cooler heads of scientists like Jennifer Ehle’s Center of Disease Control staffer try against all odds to prevail from the safety of their labs. Her Dr. Ally Hextall is especially pragmatic, a face of calm amid so much justifiable fear, holding on tight lest she too give in to the despair and the rash behavior that accompanies it. It’s a fascinating facade that she puts up and keeps up, even after pulling a desperate gambit with which to maybe – just maybe – create the crucial antidote, and as she visits her sickly father in a moment of utter resignation, her demeanor never fails or flags. Whether or not her efforts were all ultimately for naught, Ally knows deep down that she’s done her dad proud in exercising every last option in order to help these scared, often selfish masses. Given the considerable star power of the ensemble, her humble saint tack nonetheless makes for a remarkable little turn, a quietly beating heart in an intentionally clinical film. Just as Steven Soderbergh’s direction doesn’t hope to give the audience an easy in, Ehle plays it cool and consequently manages to be our back door to empathy in a world where caring is creepy.

Breakthrough Elle Fanning
Elle Fanning - "Super 8"
At some point in "Super 8," J.J. Abrams kind of gives up on the whole "ensemble" conceit and fractures the group of kids until, for some reason, it's just the main character Joe (Joel Courtney) and the kid who loves fireworks. But long before that happens, it's already clear that the standout in the young cast is Elle Fanning, who gives a performance as deep and measured as just about any adult actor we've seen on screen this year. As the daughter of a local alcoholic/town troublemaker who falls in line with a band of misfit amateur moviemakers, Fanning gives that elusive aura of the girl all the boys want to hang out with (and, a few years later, will probably want to kiss). In her two standout scenes, she lets the tears flow – first on-camera as part of the movie-within-a-movie, a scene oddly reminiscent of Naomi Watts in "Mullholland Drive," and then in a confessional moment as she and Joe watch footage of Joe's dead mother. Both scenes are equally commanding, hitting different emotional notes but conveying the same amount of power. Seeing her shine through "We Bought a Zoo" just cemented the fact that this Fanning sister might really be the one to watch.

Breakthrough Felicity Jones, Like Crazy (small)
Felicity Jones - "Like Crazy"
If you’ve read appraisals about Drake Doremus’ indie-romance picture “Like Crazy,” one of the criticisms you’re likely going to hear on repeat is that the film is familiar and doesn’t reinvent the wheel.  And while that's a fair comment, what elevates the basic story of two twentysomethings torn apart by circumstance, besides strong direction and a raw, improvisatory tone, are the two leads of the film Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones. And while Yelchin is good, as is supporting actress Jennifer Lawrence, Jones is utterly terrific, dynamic, captivating and quite simply, you just can't take your eyes off her – suddenly everyone in the cast is playing opposite this dazzling rookie who's charged the room with an electricity that's jolted everyone to the top of their game. While Elizabeth Olsen grabbed all the headlines at Sundance early this year, let's not forget that it's Jones who ultimately won the Best Actress award. And she appears to be making all the right moves too: instead of just scooping up tentpole roles like some young actresses have done, her next picture is once again with Doremeus, so it looks like she is keen to build relationships and plan her career carefully rather than simply trying to capitalize on what could have been a fleeting 15 minutes.

Brit Marling - "Another Earth"
Brit Marling - "Another Earth" & "Sound Of My Voice"
When Brit Marling landed in Park City 11 months ago, the aftershocks could be heard all over the world; one of the most distinctive new voices in independent cinema had just arrived. She co-wrote and starred in both “Another Earth” and the upcoming Fox Searchlight release “Sound of My Voice” and easily landed on the map as one to watch. In 'Earth,' she’s compellingly fragile as a reformed drunk driver trying to come to terms with the past. She begins a relationship out of emotional desperation, but the film pivots on the strength of her hope for a better tomorrow, one that flickers stronger during characters’ discovery of the titular planet. While she’s nuanced and unforgettable gazing at the stars in that film, she’s a bona fide star in “Sound of My Voice.” In this immediate, intense thriller, she plays the leader of an underground cult, attempting to convince two dubious documentarians that she’s arrived from the future, warning against some very bad things to come. Her claims become increasingly absurd and unhinged, and yet she remains an ethereal, calming influence, her words delivered softly but curtly, suggesting a kind heart, but a savage fury hidden behind her white cloak. She’s ready to embrace others, but perhaps more prepared to demand that they “disappear.” “Another Earth” showcases a character with a deep emotional affliction but with great reservoirs of compassion and intellectual creativity. “Sound of My Voice” depicts a silky smooth kitten with a shark’s jaw. It’s hard to believe that they’re the same person.

Neil Maskell/Michael Smiley - "Kill List"
Neil Maskell & Michael Smiley - "Kill List"
Few movies (if any) shook up the members of The Playlist staff like “Kill List” did. Even Martin Scorsese is a professed fan. So what’s all the fuss about, exactly? Ben Wheatley’s hit man chiller is one of those rare films where even describing the genre is kind of a spoiler. Basically, the less you know about it going in, the better. Ostensibly, it’s about former black ops soldier Jay (a volatile Neil Maskell) who is forced by financial pressures to take on the occasional job as a contract killer. At home he’s engaged in frequent blowouts with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring), all in front of their young son, but on the job, he’s almost scarily calm. Displaying sociopathic perseverance even as things start to unravel, you can’t take your eyes of Maskell, which is a good thing, since you’d probably be tempted to close them during some of the film’s more gruesome moments. He’s aided by longtime friend Gal (Michael Smiley), a great counterpoint, and while not exactly a moral compass, he’s probably the closest thing the audience has to a relatable character. The two have an easy chemistry together; whether cracking jokes or skulls, their camaraderie keeps the film from veering into total darkness, until, well, it does. When things really get bleak (and it's not like they were ever light), you'll be surprised at how much you feel for the pair.

Breakthrough Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy - "Bridesmaids"
The standout of the ensemble cast of "Bridesmaids" isn't exactly a new face as she's worked continually on TV for close to 10 years from "Gilmore Girls" through to current ratings smash "Mike & Molly," for which she won an Emmy this year. But her movie roles have been minimal, and arguably few other actresses have made such an impact or have become such an unlikely star virtually overnight this year. McCarthy plays Megan, the sister of the man that Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is marrying, and something of an outlier in the bridal party; she's a drinker, an eater and a man-chaser, who suggests "fight club" as a possible activity for the bachelorette party. She could have so easily become a caricature, a sort of gender-switched version of a Kevin James fatty-fall-over role, but steers well clear. In part it's because McCarthy is so raucously funny, making full use of her training with legendary improv group the Groundlings (which also birthed Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz, Conan O'Brien and Paul Reubens, among many others), but it's also because she brings real truth and dignity to the part, no mean feat considering the character is seen shitting in a sink at one stage. As revealed in the film's crucial third-act turnaround scene, Megan is a woman who's developed absolute self-confidence despite years of insults and bullying as a teenager, acting like she does because she's entirely comfortable in her own skin and doesn't care what anyone else thinks about her. It's deservedly made McCarthy one of the most in-demand names in comedy, and frankly, we can't wait to see her take on a leading role.

Breakthrough Hunter McCracken
Hunter McCracken - “The Tree of Life”
Discovered after an extensive audition process/casting call, Hunter McCracken is arguably given the hardest job in the movie as Brad Pitt’s eldest son who bears the brunt of his father’s exacting discipline and tough love. And watching him in "The Tree of Life," there is no denying that newcomer McCracken matches Pitt in every step of their scenes together. With his face stonily silent, McCracken uses his body to transmit the discomfort and disgust he feels around his father with every slightly withdrawn hug and tentative step back. But in one of the film’s most memorable sequences, when he stands up to his father telling him to “shut up,” the rebelliousness is fierce, charged and dangerous. What Terrence Malick likely wanted when searching for the character of young Jack was someone free from the habits that an experienced actor might bring to the set; in essence, he wanted a genuine child who would bring natural, unaffected emotion to the table. And not only did he get that in McCracken, but he also found someone acutely aware – consciously or not – of how those divisions between father and son rankle, hurt and fester. If Malick’s film is about the poetry of existence and the tides through which our destinies are channeled, through McCracken we see how the bumps and scrapes can leave marks and impressions that can affect us for a lifetime. He hasn’t lined up any other films yet, but we hope this isn’t the last we hear from Hunter McCracken.

Ezra Miller  - "We Need To Talk About Kevin"
Ezra Miller  - "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
Lionel Shriver’s titular creation is one of the trickier parts that had to be cast this year; a creature of seemingly pure evil from birth, who knows exactly what buttons to push to bring his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) to the brink of sanity – at least, that’s how he seems through Lynne Ramsay’s deeply subjective lens. It’s a tough role, but Ezra Miller, who actually broke through a few years back in the excellent “Afterschool,” manages to embody the darkness of the character, a sort of Gregg Araki take on Damien from “The Omen," waxing and waning Kevin’s manipulations. But crucially, he also manages to add some vulnerability into the mix, particularly in a prison-room confrontation with his mother. The texture that Miller brings under that malevolent, Joker-like grin is crucial to Ramsay’s nature vs. nurture theme; was he just born that way, or did Eva’s ambivalence towards him twist him? Between this and Miller’s performance in “Another Happy Day,” we're glad there'll probably be plenty more from him even before he hits his twenties.  

Adepero Oduye - "Pariah"
Adepero Oduye - "Pariah"
Dee Rees' feature film debut has been riding a wave of buzz ever since it premiered at Sundance back in January. On the surface, it follows the archetype of the certain kind of gay coming-of-age film that has become a staple of independent cinema, but what elevates "Pariah" to something truly special is the astonishing performance of newcomer Adepero Oduye. The film centers around Alike, and embodied by the young actress, she makes every moment of Rees' film feel new, fresh and vital. It's not often we see stories about the black community so thoughtfully and honestly rendered on the big screen. It's even rarer that it's through the eyes of a young woman – not to mention a lesbian. But instead of becoming a film that wears its politics on its sleeve, it's the heart that comes to the fore instead. Navigating her burgeoning sexuality and how it plays against the expectations of her best friend, her concerned mother and ambivalent father, Oduye's face becomes the canvas on which the film's emotions are laid bare. For much of the film, that face is a stony shield used to hide behind to protect herself from a world that may not accept who she is. But it's those rare moments when she smiles – conveying strength, confidence, hope and happiness – that we realize that Alike will come out of this tough time in one piece. And it's also the moment we become fully aware Adepero Oduye has an incredible wealth of acting gifts that we can't wait to see further unwrapped in years to come.


Elizabeth Olsen - "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Elizabeth Olsen - "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Every year, there seems to be one massive breakout from Sundance, a young star who gives a scorching performance; think Carey Mulligan two years ago, or Jennifer Lawrence last year. This year, that performance belongs to Elizabeth Olsen. Playing Martha, a young woman haunted by her time in a commune, Olsen (who, in case you've missed it somehow, is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) has launched herself into the spotlight and even into serious consideration for that wide-open fifth spot for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Her balancing of the hysteria of Martha’s fear with the simmering anger and resentment she has for her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy), is right up there with the likes of Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams this year. Sean Durkin’s script doesn’t give us a lot to work with – we never know exactly what made Martha go to the cult – but we know from the very beginning that there’s something very fragile and broken about her. Only through flashbacks do we get hints about what happened in the cult, mostly involving its leader, Patrick (John Hawkes, in another great performance). We want to understand where her pain is coming from, and at times, we want her to just grow up and accept the consequences of her actions. It’s a frustratingly magnificent performance, and Olsen has a lot to look forward to, with a supporting role in Rodrigo Cortes’ newest, “Red Lights,” up next.

Yasmin Paige & Craig Roberts - "Submarine"
Yasmin Paige & Craig Roberts - "Submarine"
Sadly overlooked this year, we’d hoped Richard Ayoade’s witty, beautifully made directorial debut would make more of an impact on its summer release. But while it didn’t become the next “Little Miss Sunshine” as The Weinstein Company might have hoped, there’s no doubt that we’ll be seeing plenty more from Ayoade and his two young stars, Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, both 20 years old. Paige was previously best known for roles in the “Doctor Who” spin-off “The Sarah-Jane Adventures” and opposite Emma Watson in “Ballet Shoes,” but she was a revelation here as a neat inversion of the pixie dream girl. Idealized by her would-be beau, troubled and prickly and confident in her shoes, she couldn’t be more different from that archetype. But it's Roberts’ film, and he firmly sets out his stall as a real star of the future as Oliver Tate. Equal parts Hoffman and Hanks, he’s odd and self-absorbed, as, well, all teenagers are, but strangely sympathetic in his precociousness; like Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” one of the film’s most obvious comparison points, when his mask slips, he’s sympathetic and vulnerable. Next year will see him (with Elizabeth Olsen) in Rodrigo Cortes’ “Red Lights” with Robert De Niro and Cillian Murphy, heist comedy “Comes a Bright Day” and perhaps most intriguingly, another Sundance teen comedy, Jon Kasdan’s “The First Time.”

Breakthrough Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer - “The Help”
"The Help" is like an overstuffed bouquet of talented actresses, but if there's one who surprised us most, aside from maybe Jessica Chastain, it's Octavia Spencer. Previously confined to making funny faces in broad studio comedies like "Bad Santa," "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!," and "Big Momma's House," her performances are usually brief but memorable (like as the doomed nurse in the hallucinatory opening of Rob Zombie's "Halloween II"); she seemed destined to frequently have the dubious distinction of being a good thing in a bad movie. But with "The Help," itself perhaps not a great film but certainly one in which the characterisations are a cut above, she was able to come into her own. As Minny Jackson, a housemaid who takes brutal, delicious revenge on her vindictive employer (queen bitch Bryce Dallas Howard), she helps embolden the community of maids and servants to tell their story to plucky journalist Skeeter (Emma Stone). And it's not an easy role to pull off. With less calibrated performances, "The Help" could have tipped unevenly into the maudlin territory of a southern melodrama. Instead, Spencer manages to be impish and abrasive, yet steadfast and resilient, while exposing the vulnerability of a victim of domestic abuse and the heartache of being a black woman trying to work for a living in the minefield of the segregated South. She goes from bashful to empowered and it's her mini-revenge plot, as insubstantial as it might seem, that acts as a call to arms while also affording these brave women a thin layer of protection. Minny’s arc shows us that sometimes a prank is just as powerful as a protest, and Spencer delivers that character fully, in all her contradictory humor, fear and strength.

Corey Stoll - "Midnight In Paris"
Corey Stoll - "Midnight In Paris"
Once Owen Wilson's Gil travels back to the Paris of yesteryear in Woody Allen’s examination of never-ending nostalgia and begins his “You’re [Person]? [Famous Person]?!” routine, it isn’t long before he encounters the wonderfully surly Ernest Hemingway and seeks his advice on storytelling. In the role, Corey Stoll (best known for “Law & Order: Something Something Crime Unit”) embraces the legend’s bull-headed reputation, portraying him as a man composed of equal parts passion and arrogance, and though this kind of hyperbole gets tossed around a lot, his scenes really are never less than a delight to watch. Whether he’s espousing the virtues of lovemaking, defending the honor of battle or picking a fight with anyone who’s in earshot, his Hemingway boasts a rare quality: he’s commanding throughout without once succumbing to hamminess, a bluntly spoken support for Wilson’s aimless author at a time – granted, in another time entirely – when he needs it most. Few other historical figures are given nearly as much screen time with which to establish themselves as more than a name for Gil (and, by extension, Allen) to check off his/their fantasy roster, and Hemingway does in fact take off for Africa about halfway into the film, but until that point, Stoll earns his share of the spotlight with a performance that’s funny, sage and oddly credible, reeking of drink and experience alike. Now, who wants to fight?!

Breakthrough Shailene Woodley -
Shailene Woodley - "The Descendants"
While George Clooney is typically generous in his performance, being a virtual newcomer and holding your own against an actor of his stature is no mean feat, so it’s a testimony to Shailene Woodley’s turn in “The Descendants” that she frequently draws attention from her megastar screen dad, who himself gives one of the best performances of his career. A TV veteran, despite being only just into her twenties, she’s had a recurring role on “The O.C.” and starred in “Secret Life of the American Teenager,” but made her cinematic debut as Alex in Alexander Payne’s film. On the page, the character isn’t something entirely new; a rebellious teen acting out after discovering her mother’s infidelity. But Woodley makes it feel both authentic and fresh; a girl just on the threshold of womanhood, with all the anger, confusion and sadness that it entails. And indeed, doubled, thanks to the unreal situation that she finds herself in, grieving a mother who’s not quite gone, who she feels betrayed her and her father, while still understanding why she might have done so. It’s not some precocious caricature, but a very real portrait, and we’re certain we’ll be seeing a lot more of the actress as time goes on.

– Cat Scott, William Goss, RP, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Oliver Lyttelton, Cory Everett, Kevin Jagernauth

This article is related to: Features, Best Of 2011


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