Shocker, right? Like anyone didn’t already know that Fassbender was this year’s biggest breakout. Consider the films he starred in in 2011: Jane Eyre. X-Men First Class. A Dangerous Method. Shame. All, to one extent or another, acclaimed pictures. All well recognized. All widely seen. Throw in next year’s double-shot of Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, and you’ve got a lineup that Brad Pitt or George Clooney would envy, let alone a newcomer like Fassbender.
The man is great–what else is there to say? He was stuffy in the best ways in Jane Eyre and A Dangerous Method. He compelling portrayed Magneto’s inner anguish and pain in X-Men First Class. And his portrait of a sex addict in Shame is positively devastating. He’s an actor that can seemingly do everything.
Like I said: Breakout of the Year.
If Fassbender was the male’s shining star this year, then Chastain was the female’s. Starring in a jaw-dropping six films–including The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help, and Coriolanus–Chastain pronounced herself this year as a talent to take seriously. I mean, come on–if Terrence Malik casts you in his movie, you must be at least decent.
Not all of her performances were knockouts–her turns in The Debt and The Texas Killing Fields were, admittedly, less than impressive, and ultimately ended up costing her the title of Breakout of the Year. Yet it’s hard to argue with her range and genuineness. Playing characters that are everything from high-minded to dull-witted, Chastain is the year’s most dynamic chameleon.
It’s hard to play heartache convincingly on film; as an emotion, it’s not as defined as more recognized feelings such as happiness or anger. It’s more of a mood, really, a sort of ambience. It works best when manifested in little details, such as in the unusually slow pouring of a cup of coffee, or a slightly tweaked tone of voice. In Like Crazy, Felicity Jones demonstrates this practice masterfully.
The film is ultimately a little on the treacly side, but Jones is never less than convincing as a college-age girl heartbroken over her separation from the love of her life. Exuding gentle innocence with just the right tinge of sexual edge, Felicity Jones proved herself to be the year’s most surprising delight.
I wanted to include a director on my Breakout list, if only because it was such a strong year for breakout auteurs. Sean Durkin did great work in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Drake Doremus demonstrated a real eye for emotional rawness in Like Crazy. Ultimately, however, I decided to go with J.C. Chandor, whose financial drama Margin Call was one of the year’s best-kept secrets.
It’s a slick, skillfully made look at the moral cesspool that is humanity’s unquenchable need to come out on top, with J.C. Chandor making the whole thing look easy. He coaxes subtly desperate performances out of Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto and, most pleasantly, Jeremy Irons. He simplifies yet never mischaracterizes the tricky inner workings of high-stakes finance. And he manages to integrate all of this into a damn good thriller–all with having only a few small documentaries under his belt. Keep an eye out for Chandor–for my money, he’s the year’s directorial voice to watch.
If Felicity Jones is the delightful cutie of this bunch, then Elizabeth Olsen is her dark stepsister: scared and confused, twitchy and on edge. It’s a performance based not on words, but a distinct mastery of ‘eye-performing.’ Like Ryan Gosling in Drive, Olsen shows a remarkable ability to convey thoughts without so much as a single word, and her role in Martha Marcy May Marlene gives her the perfect opportunity in which to show off her cinematically rich pupils.
Had the film dared to dig a little deeper into Martha’s psyche, I think we could have seen something even rawer out of Olsen. Yet as it stands, her portrayal of a cult-abused young woman still stands as one of the year’s most chilling. This is acting of the toughest caliber.
Okay, so I’m cheating a little bit here. Technically, McCarthy was already fairly well known for her role on CBS’ Mike and Molly, which debuted in 2010. But let’s be honest: it’s not like that role was calling for her to deliver anything new–at least comedically speaking–and it especially didn’t require the type of carefully calibrated lovability that she demonstrates in this year’s best comedy, Bridesmaids. With almost no effort, McCarthy managed to single handedly steal Kirsten Wiig’s labor of love right out from under her.
What makes McCarthy so effective is the same thing that makes stars such as Jesse Eisenberg or Paul Rudd so likable–they wear their hearts on their sleeves. While other comedic actors tend to rely upon their physical schtick to garner laughs, these performers let their souls be the fulcrum upon which their comedy swings. Like Eisenberg and Rudd, McCarthy isn’t just funny; she’s 100-percent human. That’s what makes her performance stick.