Top 10 Breakthrough Performances of 2012

2012 saw a number of bonafide A-list movie stars emerge. Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, and Jeremy Renner all parlayed smaller success into box office hits. But what about those who started their big-screen journeys this year? Here is my list of the ten actors who entered onto my radar in the biggest ways this year. This list is of course subjective, since it depends in part on what movies I have and have not seen in previous years, as in most cases these performances are not actually acting debuts. These are just actors who I had not been familiar with prior to 2012.

1. Dane DeHaan, Chronicle/Lawless/Lincoln

DeHaan was far and away the big discovery of the year for me. I kept going to see movies without realizing he was in them, but he always impressed me. My first exposure to him was Chronicle, where he was convincing and darkly charismatic as a the young anti-hero who accidentally develops supernatural abilities. Then, he stole his scenes as the lovable Cricket in Lawless. His best work is actually yet to be released, though; he is one of the best parts of the impressive The Place Beyond the Pines, which I caught at TIFF. (The movie will get a theatrical release in March of this year.) DeHaan will also star alongside Daniel Radcliffe in the beat drama Kill Your Darlings, and it was recently announced that he’ll play Harry Osbourne in Marc Webb’s Spider-Man reboot sequel. There are definitely big things on the horizon for this guy.

2. Doona Bae, Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas was filled to the brim with Hollywood A-listers, but it was actually this young Korean star who stole the film for many people. Bae has had a prosperous acting career already, having starred in Korean cult favourites like The Host and Chan-wook Park’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but for those (like myself) who are less familiar with contemporary Korean cinema, she was a new face in Cloud Atlas. As a futuristic clone of sorts, Bae evoked the perfect combination of naivite, fear, and rebellion, making for one of the film’s most emotionally resonant storylines.

3. Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

There was a time when child acting largely consisted of charming lisps and mugging for the camera. But recent performers like Max Records (Where the Wild Things Are), Elle Fanning (Phoebe in Wonderland), and Bailee Madison (Brothers) seem to have upped the expectations. And now, Wallis (who was six when Beasts was filmed) offers a shockingly natural and emotional performance. Her maturity here is astounding. Just think of what she could be capable of in a few more years.

4. Samantha Barks, Les Miserables

Like Cloud Atlas, Les Mis had a star-studded cast offering a string of powerhouse performances. But along with Eddie Redmayne (who was a new face for some, but who I quite enjoyed in last year’s My Week With Marilyn) this young brit more than held her own in the role of Eponine. Barks played the role in the London production of Les Mis and was cast as a result of that, and her experience is certainly apparent. Along with havinga a great voice, Bark’s Eponine is an utterly compelling character, and she slays “On My Own”.

5. Skylar Astin, Pitch Perfect

We all love Anna Kendrick, so it’s no surprise that she was lots of fun in the silly but well-meaning Pitch Perfect. But Astin, who played the main love interest, was a very pleasant surprise. As part of the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening (who wasn’t in that production?) it makes sense that he has the vocal chops for the musical numbers. But he also brought a quirky charisma that gave the film a little more bite than it might have had otherwise. Astin’s performance was charming thanks in part to his saucer-like puppydog eyes, but also largely because of some strong comedic timing and a down-to-earth charm that few performances in simple teen comedies can master.

6. John Magaro, Not Fade Away/Liberal Arts

Speaking of offbeat, we have this guy. He had no small feat as the lead in David Chase’s Not Fade Away, playing a rockstar-in-training, going toe-to-toe with James Gandolfini, and also having to embody the ’60s cool that the film celebrates. And for the most part, he did a really solid job. His Bob Dylan-esque vibe served him well, and he even made a convincing frontman in the band that he and his buddies start. I liked Magaro even more in a supporting role in Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts, though, where he plays a depressed, David Foster Wallace-worshipping college student. He won’t be the easiest to cast, but the guy is memorable in the right role.

7. Alicia Vikander, Anna Karenina

Swedish-born Vikander played a naive but fiesty young woman in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, and she brought a slightly ethereal style that suited the film quite well. Her tenuous romance with the character played by Domhnall Gleeson (who is also good, but is disqualified from this list, since I’ve seen him in Never Let Me Go and the Harry Potter films) is charming, and more complex than one might originally think. Between this and A Royal Affair (which I have not seen), she seems to be finding her footing as a costume drama ingenue.

8. Bella Heathcote, Not Fade Away

This Australian beauty actually garnered more attention for her work in Dark Shadows (which I have avoided), but I thought she was quite charismatic in Not Fade Away. She perfectly captures the ’60s vibe, and while her character initially seems one-dimensional, Heathcote does some nice things with the nuance and facets that emerge as the film goes on.

9. James D’Arcy, Cloud Atlas/Hitchcock

It seems almost like cheating to call these “breakthrough”  performances. Out of everyone on this list, D’Arcy certainly has the most extensive resume. I just am not at all familiar with him, since much of his work has been in Britain. But he made his mark in two small roles for me this year. He was so convincing in the 1970s Cloud Atlas storyline that I thought for a while that his character was actually being portrayed by an elderly man. He was also understated and lovely in the storyline where he played Ben Whishaw’s lover. And while he may have gone a touch too far over the top in Hitchcock, he brought some spot-on body language to his portrayal of Anthony Perkins.

10. Cody Horn, Magic Mike

This was actually a pretty divisive performance, but I thought Horn was quite effective as the love interest in Magic Mike. Her ultra low-key style was too affected or awkward for some, but I thought she was a great fit for Soderbergh’s stipped-down filmmaking approach. She brought an unexpected vibe to the film, but I thought it was an interesting portrayal.

Honorable Mentions: It was a good year for kid performances. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman slipped into the Wes Anderson world perfectly in Moonrise Kingdom, while young Pierce Gagnon was disarmingly composed as Emily Blunt’s son in Looper. Sam Claflin edged towards Catching Fire superstardom in Snow White and the Huntsman, while Karan Soni was lovably dorky and understatedly hilarious in Safety Not Guaranteed. And in terms of complete acting rookies, Gina Carano kicked butt in Haywire, while Dwight Henry broke everyone’s heart in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

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One response to “Top 10 Breakthrough Performances of 2012

  1. Pingback: Pitch Perfect |

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