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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.