Jessica Chastain, The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter and Tree of Life
Hollywood usually relies on star power to bring in the big bucks, but every now and again we are able to sing the praises of an unknown actor who commands a film so naturally you wonder why they weren't "discovered" sooner. Sharing the screen with Brad Pitt no less in Terrence Malik's Tree of Life, Chastain stole the film with an engrossing and nearly silent performance as the ethereal, pure mother of Pitt's children that left us wondering what she would do next. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait too long to find out: Chastain's appeared in six films this year, playing everything from a Southern sexpot in The Help to an Israeli secret agent in The Debt. In the latter film, she crackles in her scenes as the younger version of Helen Mirren. Like the Dame, we believe Chastain will have a long career.
2 of 15 Weinstein Company
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Not many actors have the ability to leave such a lasting impression without uttering a single word. But Jean Dujardin does just that as George Valentin in The Artist, a film that celebrates silent films. Dujardin's charisma carries the film, and he proves he'll have serious staying power in Hollywood.
3 of 15 Carole Segal/AMC
Mireille Enos, The Killing
Say what you will about how The Killing treated its audience with regards to solving Rosie Larsen's murder. For us, Enos was the reason to watch this show from the beginning. Sure, she is the rare female cop who leads with her brains instead of her sexuality. But Enos was at her best when conveying the inner turmoil AMC viewers have to come to expect (from the Don Drapers and Walter Whites) through the eyes of a conflicted single-mother. Even during all that rain!
4 of 15 Prashant Gupta/FX
Taissa Farmiga, American Horror Story
The younger sister of Vera Farmiga began acting just last year, when she appeared in Vera's directorial debut Higher Ground. The 17-year-old's performance was enough to catch Ryan Murphy's eye, and in his ghoulish, psychosexual fantasy American Horror Story, Farmiga's vulnerable portrayal of a broken, love-struck teen in a house of beastly horrors is every bit as compelling as the performances of veteran actresses Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy and Connie Britton.
5 of 15 Abott Genser/Fox Searchlight
Michael Fassbender, Shame, A Dangerous Method and X-Men: The First Class
Capturing Magneto's brooding form of malevolence is no easy feat, but that's the least of Fassbender's triumphs this year. The actor has already been recognized for his work in erotic drama Shame as a sex addict who cannot control his urges. He'll also co-star opposite Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley in the Freud drama A Dangerous Method and has a dizzying string of movies coming out next year. 2008's Hunger may have been his breakout role, but Fassbender's career is just beginning.
6 of 15 Paramount Pictures
Felicity Jones, Like Crazy
The heir apparent to Carey Mulligan (Jones' real-life friend, natch), this Brit captured audiences with her doe-eyed beauty, but broke our hearts repeatedly in this tale of bittersweet, transatlantic love. What could have been overly saccharine, Jones instead made into a reminder of what it was like to be in love for the first time — vulnerable, yet completely unwavering.
7 of 15 ABC Family
Katie Leclerc, Switched at Birth
In her first major role, Leclerc has beautifully played Daphne, the quick-witted deaf teen who learns she was, you know, switched at birth. Although Leclerc suffers from Ménière's disease in real life, the 25-year-old has perfected a hearing-impaired accent and had already learned American Sign Language prior to being cast on the series. Best of all, Leclerc has a "girl-next-door" presence and likeability that ensures we'll be seeing a lot more of her in the future.
8 of 15 Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC
Jane Levy, Suburgatory
Equal parts Daria, Angela Chase and Rory Gilmore, Levy's Tessa Altman is Suburgatory's wry observer in a land of fake tans, overwatered lawns and mean girls. The actress, 21, who made her debut in Weeds earlier this year, pulls off a delicate balancing act in being charming, prickly and totally relatable: You roll your eyes with her when she's snarky — slut costumes on Halloween! — but also root for the day that she embraces a little bit more of well-meaning folks like Dallas.
9 of 15 Adam Taylor/ABC
J.R. Martinez, Dancing with the Stars
If you weren't an All My Children fanatic, you were probably asking "who?" when J.R. Martinez was announced as part of the Dancing cast (only 4 percent of our readers picked him to win then). But as everyone found out, Martinez is so much more than a soap opera star: He's an Iraq vet who suffered burns to more than 40 percent of his body and a picture of resilience, as his joyful, infectious spirit and outlook captivated viewers week in and week out. Couple that with the fact that he ain't too shabby a dancer either and you've got a winning formula: He and Karina Smirnoff won the Mirrorball trophy and he unquestionably won over the country.
10 of 15 Michael Becker/Fox
Scotty McCreery, American Idol
"Well hellfire, save matches, f— a duck and see what hatches!" OK, so the rest of America probably wasn't thinking exactly what Steven Tyler said when the then 16-year-old Scotty McCreery opened his mouth for the first time, but voters were just as smitten. Faster than you can say "baby, lock them doors," the North Carolina native was an odds-on favorite to win the competition thanks to his consistent performances, Southern charm and easy-on-the-eyes looks. Just someone make sure to tell good ol' boy Scotty to memorize his lyrics!
11 of 15 Adam Taylor/ABC
Tristan MacManus, Dancing with the Stars
It's only fitting that Dancing added a lucky charm in Season 13. As the two other new pros fell by the wayside in the first two weeks, Tristan took Nancy Grace all the way to the quarterfinals, charming the pants off us with his wit, Irish brogue and boyishly handsome looks, all the while doing what seemed to be impossible: bringing out Grace's sexy and funny sides. And hey, it's not every day that a pro, much less a new one, gets to be the focus of a DanceCenter ad.
12 of 15 Bob Mahoney/The CW
Joseph Morgan, The Vampire Diaries
Morgan has taken evil to a new level by playing original vampire Klaus as a soft-spoken and leisurely menacing vamp who's so despicable that you actually like him. We're not saying we're rooting for Klaus' world domination, but it sure is fun to see the Salvatore brothers meet their match.
13 of 15 Jody Lee Lipes/Fox Searchlight
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
As a young woman haunted by her experiences in a cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen, 22, has quickly separated herself from the, er, work of older sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley. Olsen, who did in fact perform alongside her sisters in their lucrative line of home videos, stuck to theater work before making her film debut this year at Sundance. Her chilling performance has earned her raves as well as an Independent Spirit award nomination for Lead Actress.
14 of 15 NBC
Blake Shelton, The Voice
The country world has known about him for years, but to the rest of the world, Shelton was known — at best — as Mr. Miranda Lambert. That is, until Blake met Adam Levine and Cee-Lo. The three Voice judges' instant bromance made Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul's rocky Idol relationship look as artificial as Seacrest's hair-do. Blake won over America with his cheesy but genuine sense of humor, but he also proved to be a strong mentor (and so much more!) for runner-up Dia Frampton. Their "I Won't Back Down" duet — in matching black suits and sunglasses — on the season finale is a fitting example of Blake's perfect mix of heart and humor.
15 of 15 Paramount Pictures
The Super 8 Kids
Newcomer Joel Courtney did an admirable job of being likeable enough without being precious in this fantastical tale. Playing Joe, he's the wide-eyed everyboy with a big dream and he earned our sympathy even more when he fell for Alice, played by the utterly arresting Elle Fanning, who performs with an ability decades beyond her 13 years. Their faces may be new, but their talent had the ability to deliver nostalgia for childhood and days of cinema gone by.