Notice that the title of my post doesn’t say “breakout stars,” like some other similar lists do. That’s because my list includes filmmakers as well as hot new actors. What all these people have in common is that they all popped up on my radar in ways that they didn’t in 2009. By the way, if you’re outraged about Jennifer Lawrence not being on this list, I’m saving her up for my upcoming post about 2010’s great performances. Stay tuned.

Ben Affleck
Yeah, where’d this young whippersnapper come from? Just think, if a few of those flop movies that he starred in had been hits instead, he’d probably be sleepwalking through another Jack Ryan movie right now instead of directing films like The Town. Sometimes the failure works in your favor. It’s not surprising that he handles his fellow actors quite well. What is surprising is his sure-handedness in staging big action scenes, and it marks him out as a major-league director to watch.



Gemma Arterton
Usually, I’m not interested in the doings of British lad mag pinup girls. This former GQ cover model did nothing in Quantum of Solace or Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to make me interested in her, either. But then she starred in Tamara Drewe, and what do you know? It turns out she can actually act when she’s given the chance. As a freewheeling London gossip columnist, Arterton is funny and thoughtful, and doesn’t shy away from her character’s breakdown at the end when she realizes what a mess her life has become. Nicely done.


Derek Cianfrance
More than a decade elapsed between when this filmmaker started writing Blue Valentine and when it finally reached the screen. He encouraged heavy amounts of improvising between his two actors, even having them live together for several weeks. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are powerful actors, but Cianfrance’s unorthodox methods inspired them to an even higher tragic pitch than we would have suspected. That’s a major reason why his uncompromising film about a marriage’s end is so tremendous.


Lena Dunham
They say “Write what you know.” Unable to find a job after getting her film degree, 24-year-old Lena Dunham coped by writing, directing, and starring in Tiny Furniture, a terribly funny comedy about an aspiring filmmaker who moves back in with her successful artist mom and prettier younger sister (played by Dunham’s real-life mother and sister). The film is visually sparse and elegant, yet it’s also full of sharp dialogue about dating and hanging out with young artistes in the Internet age. Big-time comedy stars have noticed this tiny movie. Let’s see where its maker goes.


Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
The writers of Bad Santa ran into some massive, well-publicized troubles getting their directing debut I Love You Phillip Morris into theaters. The film sat on the shelf for a year, but it turns out to have been worth the wait. In telling the story of a real-life former church organist and cop who became a con artist and repeat prison escapee for the love of a fellow inmate, this straight screenwriting team did extraordinary work keeping the angst out of their antihero’s gayness while still keeping him human. And they did it all in the confines of a breezy, amoral caper flick. They made a difficult job look easy.


Armie Hammer
Technically, Justin Timberlake should be here, too, but he’s been acting for a while and his character in The Social Network wasn’t too far out of what we knew him to be capable of. Granted, it’s not exactly a stretch for Hammer to play handsome, athletic, privileged guys, either, but he managed to convey the Winklevoss twins’ outdated sense of honor and fatal lack of imagination, differentiating the twins from each other and scoring some big laughs. (It helps when you have lines like, “I’m six-five, 220, and there’s two of me!”) Most viewers had never seen him before; this is a great first impression.


Katie Jarvis
Fans of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone might want to compare this British newcomer’s work in the similarly themed Fish Tank. The setting is the housing projects of Essex instead of the Ozark mountains, and Mia (the 15-year-old heroine of this story) thinks her way out of poverty is to become a hip-hop dancer. But in much the same way, the story constantly throws her back on her own resources. Alert and believably hard-edged, Jarvis still projected vulnerability stemming from Mia’s age, and that helped make her as uncannily present as any other movie character we saw this past year.


Aaron Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz
Their work together on Kick-Ass would be reason enough to include them on this list. However, they both followed up that movie with vastly different performances. Johnson went from nerding it up as an American high-school kid to evoking John Lennon’s charisma and musical rebelliousness in Nowhere Boy. Meanwhile, Moretz pretty much cornered the market on preteen girls who can take you apart, playing both the free-swearing whirling dervish Hit Girl and the stilted, decorous vampire with an animalistic streak in Let Me In. These two were in a lot of places in 2010, being cool.


Giorgios Lanthimos
I left this Greek filmmaker’s Dogtooth off my list of the top 25 movies of the year, and I’m wondering now if I might have made a mistake. His second feature is a thoroughly bizarre exercise about two parents who keep their 20-year-old children sequestered in their mansion away from the outside world. You can make all sorts of comparisons to try to describe this movie (I’ve got one — it’s like Tangled, only live-action, with less musical numbers and more incest), but this funny and horrifying viewing experience is really like no other film you’ve seen.


Chris Morris
This British TV comedian made the jump to the big screen with Four Lions, a movie that was hugely controversial in its native country but earned widespread polite applause when it came here. Why the controversy? The film is about Muslim terrorists planning a suicide bombing, but it’s a wacky comedy because the terrorists are idiots who don’t know what they’re doing. The film has problems deciding where to go with its subject, but its scenes of terrorist idiocy are worthy of Christopher Guest at his best, and contain some of the most creative insults (“You floppy camel sphincter!”) you’ll ever hear.

Noomi Rapace
Don’t mess with Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson’s greatest creation came indelibly to life in the Swedish film versions of the Millennium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest). The films themselves were only average-to-slightly above average thrillers, but Rapace’s fierceness and intensity were every bit of what the character needed. Rooney Mara has a tough act to follow.


Hailee Steinfeld
Surely it’s not every 14-year-old girl who can hold the screen with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon and do it seemingly without much effort. Her Mattie Ross in True Grit manages her affairs with great common sense and practicality, and she’s so sure of herself that never realizes what a huge pain she is for her traveling companions. Her lack of self-awareness is precisely why she’s funny, and this newcomer played it perfectly.


Emma Stone
She amassed a nice body of work in supporting comic roles in Superbad, The House Bunny, and Zombieland, and even stood out in crap like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Still, the comic invention and energy she showed as the star of the smarter-than-average teen comedy Easy A came as a surprise. Watch her sing “Knock on Wood” in that movie and you’ll see a performer with presence and magnetism as well as talent. There’s already a bunch of big projects coming up for her, but sharp moviegoers have been onto her for a while.