Is 2010 the year that audiences cooled on A-list stars? Usual standbys like Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon and Tom Cruise found that their star power couldn’t sell films like “Salt,” “The Tourist,” “How Do You Know” and “Knight & Day” like they could in the past. However, each year brings a new batch of talent that threatens to upset the status quo and this past year was no different, though you may have had to look a bit harder to find them. Foreign and independent films this year seemed to feature the biggest diamonds in the rough, and no surprise since they often boasted some of the most intriguing characters we’ve seen all year. The following are the performances that cut through the static, hit us right where it counts and made us sit up and take notice. These are the actors that should have top shelf talent looking over their shoulder and the names that casting directors in the coming year should be writing down on their call sheets (if they haven’t already).
Hailee Steinfeld - "True Grit"
In Henry Hathaway's 1969 version of "True Grit," John Wayne is ostensibly the star leaving an ineffectual Kim Darby to pout through most of the picture. But the Coen Brothers know what time it is, actually read Charles Portis' novel and wrote an as faithful of an adaption as you'll ever see where young Mattie Ross stars as the brassy and super-willed little teenager who has to avenge her father's death. Enter Hailee Steinfeld. Who knows where the Coen Brothers found this young girl (a massive casting call), but the young girl's amazing turn as the bold and brash Mattie Ross embodies and epitomizes her headstrong determination. And yet, Steinfeld is a teenager, so reasonable notes of fear and doubt creep up where appropriate. It's an unforgettable performance and Steinfeld, who just earned herself a coveted SAG nomination for Best Supporting Actress (even though it should be Lead), goes toe to toe with every male onscreen including Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. Big things are still to come.
Chloe Moretz - "Kick-Ass," "Let Me In"
While we’ve seen Chloe Moretz before briefly -- perhaps most memorably as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s precocious sister in “(500) Days of Summer,” 2010 was kind of like one big breakout role for the 13-year-old star. While Aaron Johnson ostensibly carries “Kick-Ass” as the film’s lead, it’s Moretz as the badass Hit Girl who nearly walks away with every scene she’s in. In Matt Reeves' under-appreciated “Let Me In,” Moretz uses a complex mix of genuine child-like naivety and soullessness to convey exactly what she is: a child who has been alive for hundreds of years because she’s a vampire. While Kodi Smit-McPhee ,as the young, wimpy lead boy does a remarkable job as the latchkey kid trapped in his daydreams who just wants friends, it’s Moretz as the wise, yet still curious vampire taken with this new companion who gives the picture its unexpected texture, plus heart and soul. Kudos to director Matt Reeves for retaining the humanity and warmth of the original, guiding his lead in the right places, and actually making the cold terror of the picture feel downright chilling. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Moretz as she has a lead role in Martin Scorsese's upcoming "Hugo Cabret" and in our minds is poised to be a huge star, especially when she's older and becomes of age to score those plum roles every A-list female in Hollywood wants.
Edgar Ramirez - "Carlos"
Ambitious and sprawling, though not entirely successful, it’s still hard to argue that Olivier Assayas' “Carlos” is anything but compelling, and that fact is owed completely to Edgar Ramirez. He lands the role of a lifetime in the five-and-a-half-hour epic and he commands every single second he’s on screen. Deftly handling a handful of languages, and with composure and handsome features that befit top paid leading men, there is little doubt from Ramirez’s towering performance as to what made Carlos The Jackal a compelling leader and a sexual magnet. And even as he packs on the pounds in his later years, Ramirez still finds the heart of a man at the crossroads of his idealism and ambition.
Lesley Manville - "Another Year"
We all have a friend who over-shares, who isn’t afraid of some social lubricant and who consistently returns to an empty home. Because we rarely give this friend a second thought, what we would consider a lack of dimensions rendering them a background player in the movie of our lives. But as Mary, Lesley Manville represented the painfully real foibles of such a person in Mike Leigh’s drama, and thanks to Manville’s performance, every moment is as warm, funny and inviting as it would be if you were watching the life of the party. Manville’s tragic eyes and shaky, withering breakdowns form the beating heart of a powerful film that ebbs and flows with the tragedy that is a solitary everyday life.
Jennifer Lawrence - "Winter’s Bone"
At the beginning of 2010, “Winter’s Bone” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and Hollywood collectively gasped “who’s that girl?!” after witnessing then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence’s stark, tough-as-nails performance in the equally stark, tough-as-nails film about a girl surviving in Meth Country, USA. Her character, Ree, grasps the audience with a cold fist around the heart with one glowering look and muttered word. The entire film is utterly spare and efficient and yet completely riveting in its storytelling, anchored by Lawrence’s steely-eyed performance, and it’s the moments when she lets the cracks in the facade open up to show the scared and naive young girl inside that really are the beating heart of this unflinching picture. Lawrence is deservedly ringing out 2010 with a Golden Globe nomination, a host of festival and critics awards and nominations, and Oscar buzz for a nomination that’s almost surely in the bag.
Maricel Álvarez - "Biutiful"
Javier Bardem’s street hustling Uxbal character has his hands full in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s gut-wrenching humanist drama, “Biutiful.” His preternaturally strong gift to communicate with the dead is made doubly ironic when he realizes he is dying of cancer. Plus he’s struggling to make ends meet, feeding and parenting two kids, exploiting refugees who are also his friends and shouldering the weight of going on without his children. And then comes the hurricane -- his estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), a bipolar hot mess who’s out of control and sleeping with Uxbal’s brother. All the while, this boozed-up, pill-popping woman still wants her normal life back. She wants her kids, she wants her husband and she’s desperate to return to the love and comfort she once had. Alvarez plays Marambra with intoxicating, yet compassionate abandon. This is a good-hearted woman with good intentions, but her illness is like a demon inside and seemingly at the worst of times, is quite happy to be her own worst enemy.
Jacki Weaver - "Animal Kingdom"
Who loves you better than Mom? That love comes with a poisonous price in “Animal Kingdom,” the chronicle of a criminal family fraying at the edges while the matriarch, played with a devilish two-facedness by Jacki Weaver, plays both ends to serve her own. The film follows J. (James Frecheville) as he tries to carve out his place in the family and he soon discovers that the grandmotherly Janine is both Mother Hen and the wolf in the hen house. Weaver plays it smart and beautifully subtle. This mommy dearest won’t push you down the stairs, but knows someone that will, and as Weaver smiles and hugs her boys just a little too close as their world spins apart, it’s her eyes that send a undeniable chill down your spine.
Ben Mendelsohn - "Animal Kingdom"
The police might be tailing them and the criminal family business may come crumbling down at any moment, but don’t tell that to Pope. Ben Mendelsohn steals the show in “Animal Kingdom” as the wiry, fearless and totally paranoid eldest brother whose confidence matches his gnawing fear that he’s being sold out. The actor is electric here, a bundled nerve of energy whose unpredictability is the film’s greatest asset and source of tension. There was perhaps no greater set piece in any film this year than Pope eyeballing the shit out of J., quietly questioning his loyalty. Watching Mendelsohn turn the gears in his character’s mind is a total thrill, and it’s no surprise that Hollywood has already taken notice, casting him in a handful of projects due to hit in the coming year including "Trespass" with Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage.
John Hawkes - "Winter's Bone"
There are two mysteries in “Winter’s Bone”: Where is Ree’s father? And can his brother Teardrop be trusted? Debra Granik’s affecting Ozarks’s tale doesn’t show all its cards until the film’s very last reel, but the biggest factor in the deck, and the one who holds a lot of the answers that Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is seeking, is Teardrop. John Hawkes, a character actor with a long and healthy resume, has never been better than he is here. The very question of what Teardrop knows or doesn’t know lies at what makes him so frightening. When we first meet Teardrop his guard is way off, and his bark is as bad, or worse than his bite. But Ree wears him down and as we learn his secrets, Hawkes finds the shades and complexity of a man split between loyalty to his family and loyalty to the powers that be that are pulling the strings in the rough hewn mountain town that even he can’t see clearly.
Katie Jarvis - "Fish Tank"
At this stage, if 19-year-old Brit Katie Jarvis is known for anything, it's for the nature of her discovery -- plucked from the train station where she was fighting with her boyfriend by a casting agent, and placed in the lead role of Andrea Arnold's hugely acclaimed "Fish Tank." As troubled 15-year-old would-be dancer Mia, Jarvis is even better than her origin story would suggest -- she's fierce like a wild animal one moment, and heartbreakingly tender the next. As terrible as some of Mia's acts are, the young actress is so good that you feel audiences would have lynched Arnold if she hadn't given her a somewhat hopeful ending. There's no sign if Jarvis will work beyond that film -- she's been more than preoccupied with raising her young daughter, born shortly before the film's premiere at Cannes in 2009 -- but she was a late-breaking contender to play Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," and it would have been fascinating to see that come off.
Kim Hye-ja - “Mother”
It’s weird to think of a woman about to enter her seventh decade on this earth turning in a “breakthrough performance” (usually a distinction for fresh-faced up-and-comers), but this is definitely the case with Kim Hye-ja’s fearless job in Bong Joon-ho’s underrated “Mother.” As a woman with a borderline incestuous relationship with her grown son (Won Bin) who is forced to take on the role of a detective in order to clear said son’s name after he’s accused of murdering a local girl, she is funny and determined and absolutely spellbinding. Few performers in a genre film can hold your attention like she does; it’s a mesmerizing performance that feels entirely new and fresh -- at times heartbreaking, at times hysterical, and always totally brilliant. Bong Joon-ho says that he was subverting Kim’s image as a goodie two shoes mom in scores of South Korean television shows, which was lost on Western audiences. What wasn’t lost was the raw, paternal power of the performance. If we got in trouble, we wouldn’t mind Kim Hye-ja in our corner.
Sarah Steele - "Please Give"
Where adults behave like children, it can be extraordinarily rough for a teen coming of age. Such is the predicament of Sarah Steele’s Abby in “Please Give.” Struggling with a plethora of body issues while feeling that her parents couldn’t care less about her predicaments, Abby is in the precarious position of worrying about her future while fretting about the fluid nature of a young woman’s body, all the while her mother is troubling her with thoughts of a dangerous future for the less-fortunate. The result is Steele’s beautifully conflicted, confused, defiant performance, a work of genuine truth in a movie where everyone has a dirty little secret.
Rooney Mara - "The Social Network"
While the articles accusing "The Social Network" of misogyny on its release were, at best, intentionally provocative and at worst, giant misreadings of the film, it's undeniably true that the girls in the picture get short shrift compared to the boys. But when someone like Rooney Mara can make this kind of impression with three scenes, who wants to be Joseph Mazzello? As Mark Zuckerberg's Rosebud, as it were, relative newcomer Mara (who, as we all know, won the much-sought after lead in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" off the back of her performance here) displays in less than 15 minutes why a girl as fierce and funny as Erica Albright would haunt someone like Zuckerberg, why she's far too smart to put up with him, and why she's still capable of being hurt by a creep like him. As the smart girl deeply unimpressed by Facebook, she's basically serving as the skeptical voice of Sorkin and Fincher, but manages to create a living, breathing human being off it. We can't wait to see what she does with Lisbeth Salander.
Armie Hammer - "The Social Network"
In the midst of all the sturm und drang anti-social whiz kid Zuckerberg dealt out in “The Social Network,” one actor stealthily snuck in two of the best-mannered comedy performances of the year. That gentleman is Armie Hammer, a TV alum who turned heads with a delectable turn as privileged twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. Thankfully avoiding simplifying two disparate personalities, Cameron and Tyler stand out from the background and feature prominently in some of the funniest scenes in a film that gladly capitalizes on every scathing belly laugh. By holding his own against a tough crowd of young actors, Hammer has effectively put out a calling card the industry is already acting on. Next for him is a high-profile gig alongside a little guy named Leonardo DiCaprio in Clint Eastwood's biopic of J. Edgar Hoover.
Tahar Rahim - "A Prophet"
So yes, Tahar Rahim's on our list for the second year in a row, for giving the same performance. But let's face it, most of us only caught up with the film in 2010, and if we didn't include him, he would have left a gaping hole in the list; it was undoubtedly the most explosive debut performance of the year. The 29-year-old French-Algerian actor's transition from naive, terrified, petty thief to grizzled, cock-of-the-walk ganglord is so gradual that you only realize it's taken place as you walk home from the theater, and Malik's place at the end is a truly terrifying one. To no one's great surprise, Rahim's been gaining a huge amount of attention, and in addition to a villainous role in Kevin Macdonald's "The Eagle," he's got WWII drama "Free Men," opposite Michael Lonsdale, and Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Black Gold" on the way in 2011.
Felicity Jones - "Cemetry Junction"
Not to kick a film when it's down, but considering it died on its U.K. release and barely saw the inside of U.S. theaters, but the two dozen people who actually saw Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's big-screen follow-up to "The Office" and "Extras," "Cemetery Junction," know that it was not very good. Not terrible, but bland, and fairly dull, and certainly not living up to its creator's promises that it would launch a new generation of British movie stars: leads Tom Hughes, Christian Cooke and Jack Doolan didn't hugely impress. But the bright spot of the cast, and indeed the film, was 26-year-old Felicity Jones. The veteran of period pictures like "Brideshead Revisited" and "Cheri," Jones gave dimension to her love interest character that, frankly, weren't there on the page, effortlessly embodying a free spirit who's just a little too scared to follow her heart. Hollywood's clearly taken notice as she's booked solidly into 2011, including a possible high-profile lead in "Snow White and the Woodsman."
Tom Hardy - "Inception"
Yes, we had Mr. Hardy on our list last year (like a few of these picks to be honest) and his astonishing performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s theatrical prison film, “Bronson,” was his breakout performance of 2009. Call his charming turn in Christopher Nolan’s heady “Inception” as the savvy and stylish forger Eames his mainstream breakthrough performance of the year. We knew “Bronson” would draw him some good attention and clearly with “Inception” it did, but now he’s on the lips and minds of directors and casting agents alike and on a collision course with the A-list if he isn't already there. Next up, roles in McG's "This Means War" next to Reese Witherspoon, an unknown, possibly villainous role in Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," the lead in George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" and John Hillcoat's prohibition-era drama, "The Wettest County In The World." He's also been sought for countless other roles, but it's hard to say whether his schedule will allow it.
Giovanna Mezzogiorno - "Vincere"
Unless you're a film critic or an IFC usher, you probably missed Marco Bellocchio's 2009 Cannes' entry about Mussolini's secret lover, Ida Dalser. At times a bombastic film, no matter how big or loud it can get, the picture is anchored by wonderful Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno (who looks like an Italo version of Marion Cotillard). Dalser, a well-to-do beauty salon owner instantly falls in love with the charming young Benito Mussolini and does everything in her power to help the Socialist and union activist including selling all her possessions to fund his new newspaper, which assists in the rise of Fascism. He returns the favor by revealing that he's already been married and then denies he was ever married to Dalser. Pregnant, impoverished and eventually taking care of their newborn son on her own, she goes into a fury when she watches him rise up the political ranks of Italy as she struggles to get by. She screams to anyone that will listen that she is the wife of the new leader of the country and for it she is thrown in a mental asylum and her indignation decays into madness and defeat. While an uneven movie, Mezzogiorno is astonishing. Filippo Timi who plays Mussolini is rather great too.
Whitney Able - "Monsters"
When Gareth Edwards was casting his low-budget opus "Monsters," he was determined to capitalize on true actor's shorthand by casting a real-life couple as his travelers, Andrew and Samantha. "In Search Of Midnight Kiss" star Scoot McNairy was the first on board, so it must be deeply satisfying for his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Whitney Able, that she turned in the superior performance. The two actors don't have a great deal to work with (Edwards is clearly a talented helmer, but he ain't Mike Leigh when it comes to character development), but of the two, Able (best known for the cult slasher "All The Boys Love Mandy Lane") is the most interesting; a soulful daddy's girl who manages to escape the year-abroad cliches it could have so easily have fallen into.
Elle Fanning - "Somewhere"
Previously better known as the younger sibling of Dakota, Elle Fanning has now jumped out of that shadow with her starring role in Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere." Fanning shines as the daughter of actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a part that requires equal parts innocence, maturity and depth and surely preparation no less disciplined than a Portman or Kunis for a beautiful, hypnotic ice-skating scene. The few minutes watching her disapprove of an awkward breakfast with her father and an Italian actress is also a highlight. And with starring roles in films by J.J. Abrams, Cameron Crowe and Francis Ford Coppola on the horizon, we're sure she'd be a shoe-in for a place on this list next year too.
Dieter Laser - "The Human Centipede"
At the beginning of the year, we were all toasting the ingenious casting of Jackie Earle Haley as the new Freddy Krueger, knowing that if the movie would be terrible, at least his performance would haunt us long after the last reel ended. Instead, at year’s end, we turn off the lights and hope the mad Dr. Heiter isn’t standing over our bedside. As far as cinematic boogeymen in 2010, none were more creepy than Dieter Laser’s demonic Nazi doctor, a man attempting to replicate his “beloved three-dog” by creating one nervous system out of three people. Sure, his unsettling cackle and medical coldness are stuck in our minds, but mostly that thousand-mile stare suggesting wheels turning that we can’t even begin to comprehend. It’s the performance of mad scientist-as-severe misanthrope that rang true in a movie of unimaginable horrors.
Honorable Mention: In Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," Mila Kunis proved she may have a career beyond "That '70s Show" and shallow romantic comedies. Both Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield have been on our Breakthrough Performances list in previous years (2007 for Garfield's "Boy A" and 2009 for Mulligan's "An Education") and while neither of their subtle performances in Mark Romanek's ever-so mannered, tragic and heartbreaking dystopian drama "Never Let Me Go" were properly recognized, both actors were in fine form, as was Keira Knightley, who put in her best performance since "Atonement." While we suppose everyone knows Emma Stone from "Superbad" and "Zombieland," arguably what got her the female lead in the new "Spider-Man" film was her stand-out, infectious and utterly charming turn in Will Gluck's "Easy A." Dan Byrd, as her gay friend was great too and we suspect you'll be seeing more of him too. That's our list. Inevitably we'll leave someone displeased, so sound off in the comments section as to who you think belongs there and we'll try our best not to make fun of you. ;) - Oliver Lyttelon, Kevin Jagernauth, Katie Walsh, Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Simon Dang, Mark Zhuravsky