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See the actors who stole the spotlight last year

Shaun Harrison
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Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Golden Globe Awards

After three back-to-back tours of duty by Ricky Gervais, it was refreshing to have two people up on stage who did not seem completely intent on infuriating the entire industry. Sure, the two SNL vets did get in some unforgettable burns at the expense of James Cameron, Taylor Swift and the Hollywood Foreign Press, for which “there is no known cure.” However, Fey and Poehler were also not afraid to make fun of themselves (see: Poehler's singing and Fey's inability to do her Sarah Palin impression), which made audience members whom the ladies called out, like Mandy Patinkin and Daniel Day-Lewis, much more willing participants.
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The cast of Breaking Bad

There's no weak link in the cast of Breaking Bad, but especially strong performances from Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn and Aaron Paul elevated the show's final eight episodes and solidified it as one of the greatest dramas of all time. In his career-defining turn as Walter White, Cranston made viewers both empathetic toward and terrified of the cancer victim/meth kingpin. Paul, meanwhile, abandoned all vanity to play the enslaved, broken Jesse, while Gunn's portrayal of trapped wife Skyler angered some viewers, but broke the hearts of even more. And we'd be remiss if we didn't also mention Hank Norris' and Betsy Brandt's tragic performances as doomed couple Hank and Marie, and Jesse Plemons as creepy villain Todd, whose calm, disturbing demeanor was far more frightening than Uncle Jack's Nazi crew.
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Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave It's hard to imagine anyone else carrying 12 Years a Slave as superbly as Ejiofor does. Ejiofor imbues Solomon Northup with great will and spirit, but it's the palpable pain in his eyes that says so much while Solomon says so little. As the diabolical Edwin Epps, Fassbender could've played him as a villain with a capital "V." Instead, the actor gives the twisted slave owner dimension, as Epps tries to reconcile his feelings for Patsy and his inferiority complex against Solomon. But it's Nyong'o's shattering portrayal of Patsy, a powerful combo of fragility and strength, that lingers with you after the credits roll — a true breakout performance if there ever was one.
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Michael Cudlitz, Southland

Cudlitz's first-rate performance anchored this gritty cop drama since Day 1, and it only got better in the show's final season. As Officer John Cooper struggled with commitment issues in his personal life and grappled with his place as a veteran in the ever-changing LAPD, Cudlitz brilliantly portrayed the subtle sadness that belied his flinty hero. Whether narrowly escaping an abduction that claimed his partner's life or helping his former training officer cope with life after the badge, Cudlitz continued to dive deeper into his character's complicated, wounded psyche all the way to the show's (and possibly Cooper's) painful end.
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Albert Tsai, Trophy Wife

There's a reason "sitcom kids" induce groans. They can be too cutesy, too "on," too fake or just all-around bad. But Tsai is singlehandedly giving "sitcom kids" a good name. Sure, Bert being a Yiddish-speaking, double-winking oddball helps, but it's the pint-sized 9-year-old's natural charm and perfectly calibrated infectious energy that crack us up and melt our hearts. Besides, we can't picture anyone else pulling off a Bertwheel (they're like cartwheels, but with screaming).
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Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

She's played Queen Elizabeth and Katharine Hepburn, but Blanchett is at her peak as Jasmine Francis. Transcendent and visceral, Blanchett infuses the shallow, modern-day Blanche DuBois with authentic withering and anxiety that illuminates the soul beneath the snooty Park Avenue princess. Don't be surprised if the Best Actress Oscar already has her name on it.
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Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal

You could give Mikkelsen points simply for being brave enough to take on the iconic role of cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. But that would be unfair, since the Danish actor does so much more than that. Mikkelsen effortlessly mixes charm with menace and uses a simple smirk or a cutting eye to let viewers see what's going on in Lecter's twisted mind. As the wily devil on Will Graham's (often disturbed) shoulder, Mikkelsen's understated performance is not only different from Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning turn, but it also makes the latter seem needlessly hammy by comparison. He didn't just take on the role — he reinvented it.
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Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men

After years of delivering stellar performances as Don's shrewd daughter Sally, Shipka officially graduated from the kids' table in Season 6, thanks to several meaty story lines. Watch her childhood melt away as she confronts a thief posing as a long-lost friend of Don's, catches Don and Sylvia in flagrante delicto and, most memorably, gets soused with the mean girls of Miss Porter's. Through it all, Shipka manages to slowly open Sally's eyes without completely shedding her character's innocence. Did we also mention that she makes a mean Tom Collins?
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James Spader, The Blacklist

It takes a certain character to highlight Spader's odd sensibility and wry sense of humor, and fortunately mastermind criminal Red Reddington does just that. Spader's paternal relationship with Megan Boone's Elizabeth Keen and Red's sometimes-visible sensitivity have made us want to root for a man who, at times, can be so awful and manipulative.
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Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

A homophobic bull rider and a transgender HIV patient might seem like the unlikeliest on-screen duo ever, but stellar performances from McConaughey and Leto make their characters' relationship one of the most powerful on the big screen in 2013. McConaughey shed 50 pounds to play Ron Woodroof, a good ol' boy who's diagnosed with HIV at the onset of the AIDS crisis — but it's not just a physical transformation that the character undergoes. Throughout the film, McConaughey shows vulnerability chipping away at Woodroof's bravado. And while Leto provides some comic relief as the flamboyant Rayon, it's his more emotional scenes that really anchor the film. It's a solid bet that both men will (deservedly) attract the attention of Academy voters.
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Lea Michele, Glee

No one would have faulted Michele, who was in a long-term relationship with co-star Cory Monteith when he died in July, for not wanting to appear in the episode paying tribute both to him and his now-deceased character, Finn Hudson. However, Michele channels her grief and sadness into a moving performance that includes both a teary one-on-one with Mr. Schue about Rachel's new future without Finn, and her unforgettable rendition of Adele's "Make You Feel My Love." (Fun fact: The song was written by Bob Dylan.) Although Michele, naturally, only appears in a few scenes in the episode, she is without a doubt "The Quarterback's" shining star.
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Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, Behind the Candelabra

It would be easy for viewers to get caught up in the flashy costumes and the lavish set decoration, or to be distracted by the A-list celebrities playing the roles, but beneath all the feathers and jewels is a true, albeit complicated, love story portrayed by Douglas' Liberace and Damon's Scott Thorson. Both actors balance the over-the-top with understated, powerful performances. Even after their relationship ended, viewers could still feel the love.
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Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black

It's difficult to make one character unique on television, but Maslany does the unthinkable by crafting seven(!) different personalities for each of the clones she portrays on the drama. The Canadian actress — no, she's not British, even though her accent while playing Beth is flawless — even plays a clone pretending to be another clone, and does not miss a beat.
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Tom Mison, Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow should be an unbearable cheese-fest, but thanks in large part to Mison, it's become a breakout hit. The actor's ability to insert an earnestness into Ichabod's fish-out-of-water routine elevates it far beyond the grating shtick it could have become. (One only has to look at Crane's impassioned speech to the NorthStar worker Yolanda to understand just how skilled Mison is at this.) His attention to detail is also to be admired. It was Mison who suggestion that Crane refer to Lt. Abbie Mills as "leftenant," which has quickly become one of the soldier's most endearing quirks.
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Chris Messina, The Mindy Project

Danny started out as Mindy's straight man, the office curmudgeon who provided a sharp contrast to Mindy's rom-com idealism and hyper-femininity. But this season, Messina has exposed Danny's own vulnerabilities and quirks. And while the doctor remains a man of few words, Messina captures every nuance of Danny's emotions in a single glance. Oh, and did we mention his dance skills?
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Michelle Fairley, Game of Thrones

Thrones fans knew that the HBO series would eventually catch up to the dreaded Red Wedding, and Fairley's performance as Catelyn Tully didn't let them down. As the Stark family was slaughtered, Fairley conveyed a desperate mother willing to do anything to save her son so well that fans hoped she could actually will Walder Frey to change his mind — right up until the point where the Stark matriarch got her throat slit.
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John Oliver, The Daily Show

We bow down to John Oliver. Few can replace Jon Stewart, but this past summer, Oliver brought his own brand of zany, irreverent humor to the Daily Show anchor's desk when Stewart went on hiatus. Yes, his Britishness gave the show a certain charm when he'd scold Chris Matthews for sounding "pervy," but overall, his childlike zeal was infectious. Whether he played with robots and sharks at his desk or pleaded for a segment called "Can't You at Least Wait Until Jon Stewart Gets Back," Oliver revitalized the show. The folks at HBO are no dummies, and on the strength of his anchoring stint, the network offered him his own topical comedy series, which will launch in 2014.
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The cast of Orange Is the New Black

Other than "That Guy from American Pie," OITNB was a show devoid of any mainstream stars. But whether urinating on the floor, mocking white politics or getting off with a screwdriver, the entire cast of Orange repeatedly demonstrated their range, making us laugh, cry and wince with unadulterated glee. There are many ways a show set in a women's prison could have gone terribly wrong, but the entire cast captures the hardships that come with being marginalized from society with ease, and that includes the Southern transplant guard Pornstache and the one-legged Bennett. Because even though it's a show about women, every single character, no matter their gender or how small their role, feels as real and developed as any of the original "lead" Piper.
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Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU

For anyone who thought Hargitay's Emmy-worthy days were behind her, the performance she gives in this season's opener may just put her back in the running. Watching the scenes of Benson being tied up, brutally attacked and forced to drink just vodka at the hands of Pablo Schreiber's The Beast are not just cringe-worthy, but actually painful to look at. In the end, Hargitay doesn't just show off her acting chops, but how physically demanding of an arc she can take on.
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Patton Oswalt, Parks and Recreation

Political progress is often disrupted in Pawnee by citizens spewing nonsense, but no one did it better than Patton Oswalt. In order to stop the city council from voting to remove outdated laws, Oswalt's character goes on an eight-minute filibuster about the upcoming Star Wars sequel, which he hilariously proposes crosses over with the Marvel universe. While the whole speech didn't make the episode, NBC released Oswalt's full — entirely improvised — spiel, which Nerdist then delightfully animated (for those of you who are like Leslie and might need some visual cues to follow along).
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Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, House of Cards

Meet America's new most delightfully dangerous political power couple. The partnership of Frank and Claire Underwood is one of television's most fascinating marriages. They are completely dependent upon each other... to pursue their own underhanded agendas. Spacey is excellent as manipulative Southern politico Congressman Frank Underwood, while Wright gives us a modern-day Lady Macbeth as his conflicted, hardhearted wife. The political plotlines on Cards are interesting on their own, but watching these two spar is the real bread-and-butter of the show.
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James Purefoy, The Following

Was there a more terrifying villain on TV in 2013 than escaped serial killer Joe Carroll? Purefoy's chilling yet charming performance makes the erstwhile college professor-turned-mass-murderer horrifying, but also disarmingly alluring. When he's playing the Poe obsessive, Purefoy's line readings of Carroll's demented theories are like poetry. Though the world would be a better place without Joe Carroll in it, we have to admit there's part of us that's happy to see him back in action for Season 2 of the Fox thriller.
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Elisabeth Moss, Top of the Lake

Despite her iffy Kiwi accent, Moss delivers as Robin Griffin, a smart detective who returns to her New Zealand hometown to visit her ailing mother, but gets caught up in the case of a missing pregnant teen. The town, its people and even the eerie landscape aren't exactly inviting, but in the midst of all the secrets and lies, Moss brings a sense of strength and calm that is at once reassuring and intriguing. Like the actress' Mad Men character Peggy, Robin is vulnerable and sympathetic, but also displays a determination and dignity that is essential in dealing with the rather heated inter-gender politics and bizarre characters on the series.
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Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex

This year's best new drama is anchored by its two captivating leads. Sheen's Bill Masters is a tightly wound ball of repressed emotion whose stern demeanor only begins to crack when he hires Caplan's Virgina Johnson to be his partner (in more ways than one) in pioneering the study of human sexual response. Caplan is charming and bold, and Virginia, a woman ahead of her time in 1956, complements Master's brains by being the empathy of both the partnership and the study itself. We all know opposites attract (and history tells us this pair is no exception), but we're happy to watch this pair dance around each other a little longer.
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Bellamy Young, Scandal

For someone who wasn't meant to be a series regular, Young sure knows how to stand out. Whether she's fighting with her husband, stern-talking Olivia, devising a plan with Cyrus or just plain getting drunk, Mellie is one of the most fun characters to watch on the political drama — and heartbreaking as well. Say what you will about Mellie's rape by her father-in-law, but Young makes that twist work, capturing Mellie's confusion and pain. Forget Olivia Pope, we'd happily be one of Mellie's gladiators.
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Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel

This Psycho prequel series is no doubt about Norman Bates' descent into madness, but for now, Farmiga's adrenalized performance as Norman's smothering mother Norma is the reason to watch. The actress brilliantly balances her character's (sometimes manic) neurotic streak with being a loving mama bear who'll go to any length to protect Norman — both from the world and from himself. And even though the audience can see Norma's good-intentioned actions are doing more harm than good, Farmiga's vulnerability makes it nearly impossible not to sympathize.
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Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, The Americans

It's not an easy feat to get viewers to sympathize with the enemy, but Russell and Rhys prove that their characters are much more than spies — they're also a family struggling with normalcy in an unfamiliar land. Without their genuine emotion and sheer devotion to their roles, it's unlikely viewers would have taken to the Jennings family so easily.
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Gildart Jackson, Whodunnit?

Whodunnit? wouldn't have been anywhere near as addictive or fun without Jackson's cheeky, method-like portrayal of Giles the butler. There is nothing quite like watching an actor having a total blast with a role, and few would have embraced the utter ridiculousness of Giles, let alone the show, as fully and with such shameless gusto as Jackson did. Tranquilizing a mountain lion? Reciting pun after pun? Limbo-ing? The butler did it. And it killed us.
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Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness, Sherlock, 12 Years a Slave Technically no new episodes of Sherlock aired in 2013, but one can't discuss Cumberbatch's ubiquity without giving a nod to his breakout role as the famed sleuth. The Brit came to the attention of mainstream American audiences this summer with his smoldering take on classic villain Khan in the big screen Star Trek Into Darkness, a role which he imbues with such blazing, frenzied anger and physical butt-kicking that we were fascinated yet exhausted watching him. Although Khan had committed crimes against humanity and Starfleet in general, his magnetism and loyalty were enough to make us root for him. And this is where Cumberbatch excels. His embodiment of ambiguously moral characters — such as 12 Years a Slave's "kind" plantation owner — are nevertheless so vigorously and earnestly portrayed that one can't help wanting to keep that kind of honesty on our screens.
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Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels' The Butler

For Lee Daniels' moving period story, Winfrey shed her media mogul image to play Gloria, the wife of Forest Whitaker's character Cecil Gaines, a former plantation worker who becomes a butler in the White House. While historical events and figures whirl around Cecil, it's Winfrey's grounding take on Gloria that gives the film a beating heart. At times passionate, fragile, humorous, distraught and warm, Gloria connects us to the inspiring tale and, in that way, embodies the perfect wife. Cecil's story may have drawn us in, but it was Winfrey's welcoming presence that made us stay.