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Check out the actors whose performances linger in our minds as the year comes to a close

Shaun Harrison
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1 of 17 Ben Leuner/AMC

The Cast of Breaking Bad

Fact: Breaking Bad has the best ensemble on TV. That was never more apparent than in the game-changing fourth season. Anchored by strong supporting players (Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt, Dean Norris), the killer triumvirate of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Giancarlo Esposito shone bigger, brighter and badder. As the stakes rose higher, Cranston channeled terror, anger and hysteria before reminding us that Walt is still as cunning as ever, while Paul deftly navigated two vastly different Jesses: one floating in catatonia and one filled with conviction. And when it comes to scheming, Gus takes the cake. Letting his icy-cold, empty eyes and stern expressions speak for him, Esposito has created perhaps the best TV villain ever.
2 of 17 Apatow Productions

The Cast of Bridesmaids

Girl power! Kristen Wiig took pieces of her best Saturday Night Live characters and combined them with a broken heart to form a three-dimensional character … who goes crazy on an airplane when she mixes booze and sleeping pills. Her slightly understated performance balanced the over-the-top antics of the rest of the supporting cast, including street-pooper Maya Rudolph, dirty dog Jon Hamm and Melissa McCarthy, who stole every scene she was a part of. Surely we're not the only ones who wanted to see her character's "Female Fight Club" come to life?
3 of 17 Nick Briggs/HBO

Sean Bean, Game of Thrones

Known for primarily playing the bad guy (Lord of the Rings' Boromir, James Bond nemesis Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye) Bean brought strength and nobility to his Eddard Stark, a loyal and honorable family man. But those traits were ultimately what led to the characters' betrayal and beheading, a scene that was painful to watch, even though we knew the books that inspired the show had pre-destined it. It's a testament to Bean's performance that we wish the producers had somehow found a way to rewrite that ending.
4 of 17 NBC

Steve Carell, The Office

Even though we had roughly a year to brace ourselves for Michael Scott's departure from Dunder Mifflin, Steve Carell's brilliant performance during his victory lap made it all the harder (that's what she said!) to say goodbye. At the end, Carell dialed down Michael's zany antics in favor of watery-eyed smiles, which proved the World's Best Boss was perhaps finally mature enough to enter the next chapter of his life. We just wish the documentary cameras were still there to capture it.
5 of 17 Craig Blankenhorn/CBS

Alan Cumming, The Good Wife

With every angrily raised eyebrow or jubilant happy dance, Cumming's Eli Gold went from merely cunning campaign manager to an integral part of the already well-staffed legal drama. Although the switch from legal story lines to the latest scandal inside Peter's campaign sometimes risked giving viewers serious whiplash, no one complained as long as it put Eli front and center.
6 of 17 Kent Smith/Showtime

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, Homeland

It's easy to get lost in the tightly plotted thrills of Showtime's Homeland, but the show's real strength lies in the two riveting performances at the show's center. Danes plays a whip-smart CIA agent bent on stopping terrorists, including Lewis' suspicious Brody, a Marine sniper who suddenly resurfaces after an eight-year absence. Both are damaged goods — Carrie's a bipolar workaholic who hooks up with strangers for sport and Brody's an American hero who after so many years of isolation can't be made whole — and yet both actors are able to have their complex characters hide behind ambiguous poker faces. They, like the audience, are constantly kept guessing.
7 of 17 Touchstone Pictures

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, The Help

This summer hit about 1960s segregation in the South was another showcase for the always excellent Davis. She brings her stiff upper lip to Abileen, a dutiful maid who breaks societal barriers by talking to Emma Stone's Skeeter about the many white children she's raised for her socialite bosses. But the real surprise is Spencer, whose feisty and defiant Minny lightened the film's mood without ever weakening its message.
8 of 17 Warner Bros. Pictures

Charlie Day, Horrible Bosses

With the surprise box-office success of this comedy, the rest of America learned what fans of FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia already knew: Charlie Day is hilarious. Given the dubious task of making most men's fantasy (being lusted after by an atypically randy Jennifer Aniston) seem like a nightmare, Day somehow makes it work with his manic energy and squeaky line delivery. In the hands of another actor, the role could have become tired quickly, but Day's sharp comedic timing and unpredictable performance was at the heart of what made this film a laugh riot.
9 of 17 Isabella Vosmikova/Fox

Zooey Deschanel, New Girl

Ugly Duckling she's not, but Deschanel makes her adorable nerd Jess emotionally immature enough to help sell the character's eventual transition to a well-adjusted swan. In the meantime, her impromptu singing, her difficulty saying the word "penis" and her Dirty Dancing sob sessions are a fun and funny detour. Deschanel seems to have an endless grab bag of tics for Jess — the "giggle scream" being one of our favorites — which simply adds to the quirky realism of the performance. It's hard to imagine any other actress pulling off this role.
10 of 17 HBO

Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones

Tyrion Lannister could easily be played for comic relief, but Dinklage would never allow that. While dwarves on film have typically been cartoonish, Dinklage's Tyrion — cunning, quick-witted and puckish to the core — is a fully realized character. His Emmy win for the role may not be his last.
11 of 17 Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Ricky Gervais, Golden Globes Host

Dear Hollywood Foreign Press Association: If you don't want Ricky Gervais-type jokes during your broadcast, don't hire Ricky Gervais. However, we're thankful you did. Gervais delivered a blistering show-opening monologue that took aim at everyone from Hugh Hefner and Charlie Sheen to the casts of Sex and the City 2 and The Tourist. Did Gervais bite the Hollywood hand that's feeding him? Who cares, he was spot-on and hilarious. We can't wait for this three-peat come January.
12 of 17 Bold Films

Ryan Gosling, Drive

Real life hero? Psycho vigilante? Who knows? More importantly, who cares? With few words (and backed by a dreamy electronic pop score), Gosling's isolated Driver pulses bottled-up energy right up until and through his emotional (and bloody) awakening in Nicolas Winding Refn's neo-noir thriller. Notebook shmotebook, ladies. Gosling's got far more formidable talents.
13 of 17 Ray Mickshaw/FX

Jessica Lange, American Horror Story

Homicidal Southern bigotry never looked so good, and only Lange, doing her Tennessee Williams best in kitten heels, can pull off American Horror Story's complicated grande dame. Those ghosts don't stand a chance against her hot-blooded determination to rule the supernatural roost.
14 of 17 Prashant Gupta/FX

Margo Martindale, Justified

Martindale was simply transfixing in this role, which earned the veteran actress her first Emmy. Powerful and gripping, Martindale gave the delightfully menacing matriarch Mags Bennett some old-school rural charm and sympathetic humanity that made Mags a dynamite villain for the ages.
15 of 17 Frank Micelotta/Fox

Naya Rivera, Glee

Whether she's delivering a brutal put-down ("I think we'd get further staging a gel-ervention for Blaine than singing lady music"), confessing her love for Britney via song ("Songbird," swoon), or proudly parading down the halls of McKinley ("I kissed a girl and I liked it"), we can't get enough of Rivera's sassy Santana. And that means, no, we don't care if she mispronounces abuela ' til the cows come home.
16 of 17 Randy Holmes/ABC

Madeleine Stowe, Revenge

ABC's soapy mystery Revenge may be the story of Emily Thorne, but we can't help root for the Madeleine Stowe's icy Hamptons queen Victoria Grayson. Playing the kind of woman who'll smile at you while she stabs you in the back, Stowe has perfected snooty arrogance and nails the subtle moments that indicate how much pain lies underneath her designer gowns and behind her "my life is perfect" facade.
17 of 17 Fox Searchlight

Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

On Secret Life of the American Teenager, Woodley plays a teen who had to grow up fast when she ended up pregnant. In The Descendants she displays an even deeper maturity as a daughter who's both heartbroken that her mother is dying and furious that her mother would cheat on her father. Woodley is foul-mouthed and terrific as she puts on a brave face for her younger sister, all the while not being afraid to teach her that the world can be a painful place.