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.

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