The 10 Biggest Breakthrough Performances Of 2012

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As we discussed on one of our previous Power Hour podcasts, it can be hard to define what a “breakthrough” performance/year really is. It could be someone coming out of seemingly nowhere to land several big roles (ala Jessica Chastain in 2011), or it could be someone who has made a few films and just finally lands that one fantastic role that launches them into stardom (ala Michael Fassbender in 2010). It doesn’t necessarily mean they are new to the screen (though they might be), it just means this is someone who has arrived and it’s time to take notice.

So here are the ten actors and actresses I feel did well for themselves in 2012, giving terrific performances and setting the table for us to be able to see them for years to come. These are the ones I will be taking an Emperor Palpatine-esque approach to, if you will, as I watch their career with great interest.

Honorable Mention(s): When I looked at the rest of my list, it was too hard to include Bradley Cooper. He just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the names (already too big of a star, perhaps). But I do believe his dramatic turn in Silver Linings Playbook has shifted the actor from mostly comedic roles in films like The Hangover, to those that will be much more awards-worthy, for lack of a better word. I’m excited to watch him take chances over the next few years, starting with The Place Beyond the Pines next spring.

Some other names that might be worth mentioning, but just failed to make the cut, are Doona Bae (Cloud Atlas), Samantha Barks (Les Misérables), Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman (Moonrise Kingdom), and Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Lawless).


10. Aubrey Plaza – The first of two stars from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to crack this list, Plaza gave an endearing performance in Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed. The charming film might not have worked so well without Plaza’s alluring persona. She currently has three films planned for 2013, including The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, opposite Shia LaBeouf, Mads Mikkelsen, Evan Rachel Wood, and Melissa Leo.


9. Kelly Reilly – Reilly might have given the best performance in Flight, and yeah, I know that Denzel Washington was pretty incredible as well. Playing the junkie who Captain Whip Whitaker falls for, Reilly’s character has the best arc in the film: she struggles to not only clean up her own life, but also has to deal with the frustrations of keeping her alcoholic love interest sober. Among her four films slated for 2013, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary could be the one to keep an eye on.


8. Quvenzhané Wallis – At only five years old, it’s tough to say how much of her performance was acting and how much was influenced by her director (almost as tough as it is to pronounce her first name: Kwe-VEN-zhah-nay). But regardless, she is terrific as the fierce survivor who lives in “the bathtub” of New Orleans. One thing is certain – In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub. Wallis will be seen next in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. 


7. Dane DeHaan – DeHaan burst onto the scene at the beginning of the year playing an alienated teen who acquires superpowers in Chronicle. And while he had limited screen time, he was a scene-stealer in both Lincoln and Lawless. The 25-year-old actor has three films set for possible 2013 release dates, including The Place Beyond the Pines, where he will appear opposite Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling. You’ll see him again in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, where he has been cast to play Peter Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborn, but you’ll have to wait until 2014 for that one.


6. Mary Elizabeth Winstead – You might remember Winstead for her role as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but in Smashed she becomes a star. Playing a schoolteacher struggling with alcoholism, Winstead’s role required her to do a variety of arduous scenes. Sure, she also starred in the disaster Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer earlier this year, but her performance in Smashed will make you totally forget that film, if you haven’t already. Winstead has several projects going, including The Spectacular Now, A.C.O.D, and A Good Day to Die Hard.


5. Logan Lerman – Lerman played Charlie, the troubled introvert in Stephen Chbosky’s high school drama, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Here is a good example of a young actor who has been seen before, but never quite in the right role. I’m certain that his touching performance in Perks is one that will be looked back at as the turning point in his career. Interestingly enough, his co-star, Ezra Miller, was number two on this list last year for We Need to Talk About Kevin. Lerman will reprise his titular role in Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters in 2013, and will appear in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah in 2014.


4. Nate Parker – Some (like Clayton) took notice of Parker following his performance in The Great Debaters (2007), but others (like me) who were behind the game on Parker certainly caught up after his performance opposite Richard Gere in Arbitage. How could you miss him this go around? Playing a young man with a criminal record whom Gere’s character turns to in his darkest hour, Parker evoked such raw emotion in his performance that he remains my favorite part of the film. Parker also starred in Red Hook Summer and Red Tails this year, and has three films that should arrive in 2013.


3. Alicia Vikander – I am not often a fan of costume dramas, and yet the 24-year old Swedish actress managed to turn my head not once, but twice this year in a pair of them. First in Anna Karenina, where she plays the heartbroken Princess Katerina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (“Kitty”), and then more notably playing Caroline Mathilde in the Danish production of A Royal Affair. Her enthralling performances were easily the best part of the two films, and her skills at playing a naive, yet strong young woman remind me of Carey Mulligan, who topped my list back in 2009. Vikander has the talent to make the crossover into American film, if she so chooses. Look for her in Bill Condon’s upcoming untitled Julian Assange/Wikileaks film.


2. David Oyelowo – Pronounced “oh-yellow-oh,” you could argue no one stayed busier in 2012 than this charismatic actor. He starred in five films this year, including Lincoln, Middle of Nowhere, and Jack Reacher. While you might recognize him from The Last King of Scotland or The Help, Oyelowo has mysteriously slid under the radar for a good decade, though I don’t think that will be the case from here on out. He will appear in Lee Daniels’ The Butler next year.


1. Scoot McNairy – You know him as the mustached hostage in Ben Affleck’s Argo who challenges Mendez’s (Affleck) ideas on how to escape from Tehran (he also appears in Promised Land). But his best performance this year came opposite Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly, where he plays a hapless crook to perfection. He has six films planned for a 2013 release, most notably Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Naming him #1 on this list (something that I did for Mulligan, Fassbender, and Chastain the last three years if you are keeping score) means I am expecting big, big things from McNairy. I truly believe a great actor has been found, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

What performer do you think broke out the biggest this year?

What do you think?

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Written by Mark Johnson

Lover of all things film and Oscar. Fantasy sports’ equivalent of George Steinbrenner. Your very own Han Solo, making friends all over the movie-loving galaxy in spite of himself. When he’s not ranking just about everything or dominating boardgames, Mark is breaking down the Oscar race 24/7 with Rain Man-like stats and knowledge. In his downtime, you can find him commiserating with other Northeast Ohio sports fans because a hero isn’t complete without a little heartbreak. If Game of Thrones, Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Survivor are your style, then congratulations, you have something in common with this inglourious basterd.


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I kept going down the list going “Where’s Scoot McNairy? Where’s Scoot McNairy?” Very happy to see him in the #1 spot.

Although Ann Dowd being excluded is debatable.


Totally agree with McNairy. I found him to be the heart and soul of Killing Them Softly and he was a standout as well in Argo. Can’t wait to see what next year has in store for him!


Jennifer Lawrence deserve the first spot. The Hunger Games make her an international star and was a box-office success AND she will have her second Oscar nomination for Silver Lining Playbook. 2012 was HER year.

Candice Frederick

i love seeing Reilly, Parker and Wallis on this list. great performances from all three this year. i would certainly say McNairy for Argo (since I could’t get through Promised Land). I wasn’t a fan of Safety Not Guaranteed, so I don’t get the hoopla surrounding it. Winstead was also great.


I don’t know how fools haven’t noticed Kelly Reilly before Flight. I’ve loved her since Pride & Prejudice in a role you are supposed to hate. I am also glad to see Vikander on here — she was doubly good this year. Someone who finally did breakthrough although she’s been around since 1994 and I have noticed her in every role she’s been in — Melanie Lynskey. Hello I Must Be Going is her first starring role … about time. This final omission is one I don’t know if I can forgive — Tom Holland. No more needs to be… Read more »


To me he was what made Killing Them Softly so unbearable. Could not sit through his monologues…so monotone and with no breathing pauses it was like he was doing a cold reading. I thought he was awful, the number one spot should have gone to Quvenzhané Wallis.

Clayton Davis

Great list Mark. Very unexpected #1.


I was waiting to see Tom Holland from ‘The Impossible.’ He absolutely stole the film and was undeniably honest and heartbreaking in his performance. I think he deserves much more credit this award’s season.


A little surprised Quvenzhané Wallis is so low. But good list Mark.



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