The 10 Breakout Stars of 2012

It’s December, and while the rest of the world is doing normal holiday things – baking cookies, battling crowded shopping malls, building snowmen, getting drunk at office parties – we here at are watching every frame of 2012 celluloid that we possibly can.  This is the time of year when every movie is For Your Consideration, and so we watch, argue, analyze, and watch some more.  Why? So we can nominate and award our favorites, shout down the ones we hate, and write lots of lists. Best Movie. Worst Movie.  Biggest Surprise. Worst Disappointment.  Best Actor.  And so on.  It’s fun!

One of the most enjoyable (and unsung) angles of Award Season is discovering new faces. We love our trusty war horses like Daniel Day-Lewis, but it’s always exciting and intriguing to have someone new on the landscape who might just be the next Day-Lewis in another year or two.  This is the time of year when newcomers shine brightest, primed for the big time, and ready to be placed on all our casting wishlists.   Will they make it? Hopefully. Will they vanish and be a “Remember?  I really wanted [x] to be in everything!” lament on another list? Maybe.   But we’re optimistic about these ten, who we think are the biggest breakouts of 2012. Some are incredibly young and making an incredible debut, some have been slogging it out in bit parts for years, but all of them did something remarkable when they got their chance this year.

Martin Freeman, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

To obsessive consumers of British television, Freeman is a very familiar face thanks to “The Office” and “Sherlock.”  Those unfortunate enough to have missed both hear his name, and think Morgan Freeman is playing Bilbo Baggins.  That’s not a mistake they’ll make after “The Hobbit,” which finds Freeman making the big Hollywood splash that he fell short of after “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”   He’s the perfect Bilbo, all fluster, fear, and false bravado, and while he’s not your conventional hero or A-Lister, we think Freeman will be the new go-to Englishman for Hollywood. The new Simon Pegg, in other words.

Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Child actors are tricky to predict.   Almost every year brings us a new whippersnapper that blows us away with their depth and range, but they often vanish back into real life, never to fulfill that “The next Jodie Foster!” label that was slapped onto them.  But we don’t want to be left out of praising Wallis, who tromps through “Beasts” with such scowling determination that even Daniel Craig would balk.  Her turn as Hushpuppy is a heartbreaking, courageous and truthful journey that’s too nuanced to be mere childish reaction.   “Beasts” may be the moment we all look back on in decades to come, and say “We knew it then, and she’s proved us right!”

Richard Armitage, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

Armitage has been a stalwart fixture in British television for years, poised to make the leap to Hollywood the moment a canny casting director realized his good looks and gruff, growly talent.   It’s only natural he’d land in Middle-earth (though it took a special person to realize he could transform into a squatty and hairy dwarf) brandishing a sword, bellowing at his men, and lamenting his lost homeland.    Bilbo may be the hero of “The Hobbit,” but Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield is the story’s backbone, and Armitage’s turn as the tragic and tormented dwarf is the stuff of which multi-picture deals with Marvel are made.

Gina Carano, “Haywire”

Action fans (male and female) had been looking to the horizon, and wondering where the next Linda Hamilton or Sigourney Weaver was.  The day of the female action hero hadn’t died before it caught on, had it?  We had no more than asked this question aloud when Carano jumped up and kicked us in the face in “Haywire.”  This athlete-turned-actress is precisely the jolt of muscle that action cinema needs.  Men are hot for her and women root for her, making her the heir apparent more than just Sarah Connor, but to Schwarzenegger and Stallone themselves.

Logan Marshall-Green, “Prometheus”

An actor in an “Alien” installment runs the risk of being upstaged by the chestburster who kills him.   But Marshall-Green managed to make a swaggering, sexy impact in “Prometheus.”  His Holloway is the furious antithesis to the cold and humorless David, making their first (and fatal) confrontation a memorable and gripping moment in an uneven film.  Too bad we couldn’t have seen a little more of him, but this is an “Alien” film, and space claims its victims early and nastily.

Alicia Vikander, “Anna Karenina,”  “A Royal Affair”

It’s hard for an actress to stand out in costume dramas. She’s forced to compete with a sumptuous wardrobe, and constrained to behave in the stiff style of whatever century she’s recreating.  For every Keira Knightley, there’s a thousand who are still stuck in made-for-tv Jane Austen adaptations.  Alicia Vikander seems destined to join Keira in the recognizable ranks.   Her quiet and kindly princess grounds the outlandish “Anna Karenina,” and her tragic, doomed Queen Caroline in “A Royal Affair” keeps the film from being bogged down in details.   Vikander deftly reminds us that real women live under those corsets, which means she’ll stand out no matter what century she’s playing in.

Lee Pace, “Lincoln, “ “Breaking Dawn: Part II,”  “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

Pace has a fervent fan following thanks to “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies,” but that’s rarely enough to shove a guy onto the A-List. However, a hat trick of unusual and splashy performances will usually do the trick.  Anyone in “Lincoln” had the daunting task of competing with Daniel Day-Lewis, but Pace was up to the task with the juicy, grandstanding role of Fernando “Let’s keep slavery” Wood.   He was the perfect embodiment of the adventurous Garrett in “Breaking Dawn: Part 2,” and added even more excitement to an already action-packed finale.  Finally, he’s winning hearts as the elven king Thranduil in “The Hobbit,” which is no mean feat in a cast full of terrific characters. And if there’s one thing we know about the “Lord of the Rings” films, it’s that the elves always wind up being big-time movie stars.

Samantha Barks, “Les Miserables”

“Les Miserables” had barely wrapped before the Oscar buzz started for Anne Hathaway, but she’s not the only one causing audiences to reach for the Kleenex.  Barks’ desperate and lonely Eponine – a character who has been a fan favorite for decades – anchors the second half of the film with two haunting solos.  She’s the mascot for the heartbroken, but Barks keeps it grounded, avoiding bombastic howls in favor of quiet despair and genuine shock that Marius could snub her.    If you doubt she can make the leap from stage to screen, just look at her costar Hugh Jackman. He made the jump from “Oklahoma!” to Wolverine, and he didn’t have nearly as much screen punch as Barks does now.  If we don’t see more of her, we’ll eat our copy of the soundtrack.

Fran Kranz, “The Cabin in the Woods”

Kranz could have been a vanishing act.  As “Cabin” fans know, the horror film has been sitting on the shelf since 2009, but blessedly saw the light of day this year.  It’s hard for the stars of a horror film (especially one penned by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard) to stand out against the wit and the monsters, but Kranz did.  As lovable, suspicious stoner Marty, Kranz is the character we expect to die, but with everything upside down and backwards, he comes out swinging.   His place in the Whedon casting stable seems secure, and judging by his IMDB page, it seems other directors have taken note of his ability to play complicated, compassionate and unlikely heroes.

Rebel Wilson, “Pitch Perfect,”  “Bachelorette,” “What To Expect When You’re Expecting”

Everyone walked out of “Bridesmaids” a winner, particularly Rebel Wilson, who quietly came in and took 2012 as her own.  Wilson is a terrific blend of manic energy and droll wit. “Pitch Perfect” is full of her delicious and devastating bon-mots (always said as if she’s bored with the zinger already), and it’s to her enthusiastic credit that Fat Amy survives both burritos and Bella breakups with her snark intact.  She delivers a more nuanced and girl-next-door performance  in “Bachleorette,” and  manages to out-quip everyone in her brief time in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”  Expect to see her in everything funny, sad, and serious in the coming years, because Wilson has no reservations about doing anything to get at her audience.

Dane DeHaan, “Chronicle,”  “Lawless”

DeHaan pulled a one-two emotional punch this year. His fragile outsiders in “Chronicle” and “Lawless” aren’t pity portraits, but real and sympathetic young men stuck on the edges of their respective worlds. The similarities stop there, though. “Lawless” finds him in the crossfire of bootlegging, an innocent victim of the greed of others. “Chronicle” finds him exploiting his new superpowers, and rationalizing the death and destruction he’s raining down on those around him, whereas he’s just the innocent caught in the crossfire.  It’s no wonder he’s been plucked up from the “Chronicle” wreckage to embody the Green Goblin in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” becoming a piece of pop culture almost overnight.  Welcome to the big time, DeHaan.

Zoe Kazan, “Ruby Sparks”

Kazan has arrived on the scene as a triple threat: a writer-actress-producer capable of producing and performing in unusual and enjoyable material.  Her “Ruby Sparks” is both the romantic comedy and heroine that women want – funny, engaging, warm and realistic.  Ruby is a guy’s dream girl, and yet steers clear of all those narrative and needy traps that gave the Manic Pixie Dream Girls their annoying category.    It was an auspicious screenwriting debut, her ability to navigate page and screen and suggests Kazan will be a vibrant, exciting voice on both sides of the camera.

Suraj Sharma, “Life of Pi”

Many actors have gone up against CGI and green-screen, and failed miserably. Sharma isn’t one of them, which is particularly remarkable given that this is his acting debut.  As the titular Pi, Sharma has to embody the film’s spiritual and survival aspects, and do so with only a CG tiger for company.  Sharma handles the role with grace and grit, not only convincing us he’s desperate enough to eat fish ( a sad day for a dedicated vegetarian) but strong enough to stand up to the menacing Richard Parker.   It’s exciting to think what Sharma could do with a script set in the ordinary world, acting opposite physical actors, because the evidence suggests he’ll be extraordinary.