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It's hard to define a breakthrough-- like The Supreme Court famously said about indecency, you know it when you see it. It's not the same thing as a debut, to be sure; a breakthrough is what happens when somebody has been around for a while, maybe even moderately successful, but then suddenly goes supernova. Or when somebody has had a handful of small roles but suddenly gets one or two that make them impossible to ignore. The key here is "suddenly"-- a breakthrough is what happens when, in a single calendar year, a person goes from "nobody" or "washed-up" or "unreliable" to a big star or someone on their way getting there.
Among the big successes of 2012, not many of them have been breakthroughs. Joss Whedon had his first huge hit with The Avengers, yes, but he was already a major name in the industry. Jennifer Lawrence proved both action heroine chops and dramatic heft, but she'd done that in X-Men: First Class and Winter's Bone. And the handful of out-of-nowhere indie superstars, like Beasts of the Southern Wild's Benh Zeitlin or Sleepwalk With Me's Mike Birbiglia, were largely newcomers, which breaks those breakthrough rules we set at the beginning.
So with all that in mind, here are the 10 biggest breakthroughs of 2012, 10 actors and directors who showed us this year that they could do something entirely new.
#10: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Yes, she had the challenge of playing Mary Todd Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, in the same year that Sally Field did it in Lincoln. But what we're talking about here is Smashed, the Sundance hit that earned raves less for the movie itself than for Winstead's stripped-down central performance as a woman slowly moving away from her alcoholism. Paired with Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, Winstead showed depths of acting talent that had never quite come through in Live Free or Die Hard or even as the fiery love interest in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. A muted attempt to get her awards attention never quite gained traction, but this is still the year that many people finally caught wind of talent that's been there all along.
#9: Rian Johnson
Film geeks already loved Johnson for one or both of his first two films, the tiny-budgeted Sundance hit Brick or the underseen romp The Brothers Bloom. But this year he made that leap that every director waits for: he made a hit. Looper, the intricately plotted and head-spinningly-detailed time travel thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, has made $166 million worldwide and has appeared on critics top 10 lists these last few weeks. Whatever Johnson does next, it's clear he'll be operating on a much bigger scale than he could have even a year ago.
#8: David Oyelowo
For years Oyelowo bled into the background of movies that weren't about him, turning in nuanced supporting work in everything from The Last King of Scotland to The Help. But he kicked off 2012 with a lead, in the little-seen World War II pilot drama Red Tails, and followed it up with an astonishing variety of roles-- the buttoned-up British report in Lee Daniels's The Paperboy, the defiant soldier talking to the President at the beginning of Lincoln, the skeptical district attorney in Jack Reacher, and most movingly, the sweet-natured love interest in the indie Middle of Nowhere. Oyelowo isn't a household name yet, but this year he was absolutely impossible to ignore.
#7: Drew Goddard
It's one thing to go from being a relative unknown to directing an instant cult-hit favorite. It's entirely another for that film to be your directorial debut. Drew Goddard was best known as the screenwriter of Cloverfield until this spring, after some frustrating delays, Cabin in the Woods arrived to blow peoples' minds. It wasn't just that the movie was clever, but that Goddard directed it with such a keen directorial eye, nailing every beat of horror and comedy-- and sometimes in the same, unforgettable shot. The movie may have been sold on Joss Whedon's name, but Goddard's obvious skill behind the camera got him all the justly deserved attention as well.
#6: Dane DeHaan
We can probably credit DeHaan's sudden emergence as a talent to watch to a single role, as the troubled kid with sudden superpowers in the surprise hit from earlier this year, Chronicle. But DeHaan has already made good on that promise with an entirely different, small, and very moving role in the little-seen Lawless, and even in a seconds-long appearance at the beginning of Lincoln (in the scene with David Oyelowo, no less!) You've probably heard that DeHaan has already signed on to play Harry Osborn in the upcoming Spider-Man sequel, but that ought to be only the beginning of the major roles we see him take on from here.
#5: Rebel Wilson
Her role as one of Kristen Wiig's bizarre British roommates got a share of the massive attention around last year's Bridesmaids ("It's a Mexican drinking worm!"), but Rebel Wilson was suddenly everywhere this year, from a manic comic high note in What To Expect When You're Expecting to a surprisingly emotional turn as the bride-to-be in the VOD hit Bachelorete. What really sealed the deal was this fall's Pitch Perfect, in which Wilson plays the brash and confident Fat Amy who totally nails her big a cappella performance. Right now there might be reason to believe that Wilson can actually do anything.
#4: Lee Pace
There was no single movie that suddenly made Lee Pace a big deal again this year; it was the completely bizarre combination of them that did it. Playing a fierce vampire in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2, a heatedly pro-slavery Congressman in Lincoln, and a solemn elf in a brief scene in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? Who can even do that? The fact that Pace's role promises to get bigger in the coming Hobbit movies, and that his scenes are the best parts of Lincoln by far, mean that this is the year to start saying you were a huge Lee Pace fan before everybody else caught up.
#3: Anne Hathaway
Yes, Anne Hathaway has been very famous for a while now, and even hosted the Oscars a few years ago. But before this summer's The Dark Knight Rises, Hathaway was on a long streak of movies that either nobody saw (One Day, Love and Other Drugs) or that weren't all that good (Valentine's Day, Bride Wars, Alice in Wonderland), making her a famous person who hadn't proved that anybody actually cared about the movies. Then she kicked ass and stole scenes as Selina Kyle, and followed it up with a show-stopping performance of "I Dreamed A Dream" in Christmas's Les Miserables, which is almost mathematically guaranteed to win her an Oscar. 2012 is the year Hathaway finally followed through on the star power she's been showing for years.
#2: Matthew McConaughey
It's hard to even fathom the huge change that has taken us from 2009's Ghost of Girlfriends Past star Matthew McConaughey to 2012's potential Oscar nominee Matthew McConaughey. There's one tiny bit of connective tissue there in last year's smart legal drama The Lincoln Lawyer, but the way McConaughey mined his charisma in that film was only a fraction of what we've seen this year, in the one-two-three-four punch of Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe and The Paperboy. Even though Magic Mike is the only one of those movies that's been widely seen, it was more than enough to get that Oscar buzz rolling, and to remind audiences in a single line of dialogue in the trailer ("I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house tonight…") why we made him a movie star to begin with. It's fantastic having him back.
#1: Channing Tatum
It's undeniable that this was Channing Tatum's year, Avengers and Batman be damned. The guy was on the kind of hot streak that seems to only exist in "star is born" montages, jumping from the gritty and great Steven Soderbergh movie that nobody saw (Haywire) to the one everyone saw (Magic Mike), from the soupy romantic drama (The Vow) to the insane R-rated comedy (21 Jump Street), and released a tiny passion project indie just for the sake of rounding things out (10 Years). Channing Tatum was such a big deal this year that an entire summer blockbuster-- G.I. Joe: Retaliation-- was reshot to include more of him. And given how much new work he's lined up this year alone, this is a breakthrough we'll be seeing ripples from for years and years to come.