With the entertainment industry fighting off challenges left and right — from the digital world to international competition — Hollywood has been running scared for years now, seeking magic bullets in everything from 3-D to teen vampires. At times like these, the doors swing open to the less traditional talents, and new audiences find their day in the sun. A business that is generally complacent to churn out a steady diet of action francises marketed to teenage boys built around stubble-faced hunks finds itself looking in different directions.
2012 was a year of impossible comebacks and small-timers turned stars; a time when the biggest star on the horizon was an indie actress barely out of her teens, when those used as props in the lives of the giants turned the story around to their advantage, and when wacky television animators got tapped to host Hollywood's biggest night. Some had been counted out, others just ignored, others forced us to see them in a new light. But one thing's for sure: A year or two ago, no one would have expected that these would be the faces everyone would be talking about at the end of 2012.
1. Jennifer Lawrence
From Mel Gibson to Tom Cruise, Will Smith to Robert Downey Jr., the blockbuster stars of Hollywood, those leading lights who could move effortlessly from action to comedy and drama have traditionally had one thing in common — they have all been men. Kristen Stewart knocked on this door with the Twilight series, but this year, Jennifer Lawrence kicked it down, and with no giant action hunk dominating the screens right now, the next few years could easily see the box office crown passing to this young actress, straight out of the indie circuit.
In 2010, the teenage actress proved her indie acting cred with a showstopping performance in Winter’s Bone. In 2012, however, she established herself as perhaps the most potent presence in film today. This year, she gave audiences a one-two punch: first as the front woman of filmdom’s newest goliath, The Hunger Games. Then, she backed up that show of box office creds with a dazzling tour-de-force romantic comedy lead in Silver Linings Playbook, a role in which she both charms the abrasive Bradley Cooper and stares down Robert DeNiro. With range and presence winning over audiences and critics alike, Lawrence is poised to become, essentially, the only giant new star Hollywood has created in years, and ready for a run of box office success unseen by any female star since Julia Roberts' Pretty Woman decade.
2. James Bond
Just in time for his 50th birthday, the superspy became a modern titan. Once the king of big-screen action, a Bond film has not sat atop the box office heap since before many of today’s moviegoers were born. Through recent years, Bond muddled along in the middling ranks of action franchises — far below the Transformers Pirates and Marvel tentpoles that dominate today’s multiplexes. But this year, Bond accomplished a feat never before seen in movie history — revitalizing a series decades after it lost its relevance. They did it by throwing out much of the sacred Bond bible, a floor-to-ceiling revamp that started with 2006’s Casino Royale and came to fruition with this year’s Skyfall. Bond’s longtime custodians changed the rule book by putting the series under the hand of Oscar-bait directors rather than the action journeyman who had directed recent films, crafting personal, introspective scripts that filled in Bond as a real character for today’s audiences, and eschewing the gadget-heavy action of yore in favor of a more visceral nuts-and-bolts feel. As a result, the new film is on track to join just 13 others in history in the elite one-billion dollar club, and Bond is playing with the big boys at last.
3. Lena Dunham
In just ten half-hour episodes, the 27-year-old filmmaker/actress transformed herself from indie niche artist to spokesperson for a micro-generation. The show Girls and Dunham’s subsequent appearances have inspired more controversy and stirred up more debate than a decade of NRA and PETA conventions combined. But love it, hate it, or think she’s on a hot-button-pressing campaign of self-promotion, Dunham’s show has become the one no one can avoid talking about. Throw in a $3.5 million book deal and it's been a good year to be the voice of financially struggling, emotionally stunted young urbanities.
4. Joss Whedon
Since becoming a cult icon with his television adaptation of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Whedon has seemed doomed to occupy that cherished but ultimately frustrating place of “too clever for mainstream Hollywood.” His post-Buffy projects, Firefly, its film adaptation Serenity, and Dollhouse hold totemic status to the acolytes but never found wide audiences. His genre-parody horror film Cabin in the Woods had to fight its way just to get released, sitting on the shelves since 2009 before getting seen this year. But in 2012, not only did Whedon's day in the sun arrive at last, it lit up the sky with such power that the label “cult director” can be retired forevermore. Detractors may say The Avengers was much more a Marvel film than a Whedon romp, but having your name atop this list is the kind of statement that renders questions about your mass appeal academic.
From the Leno/Conan follies to Community’s backstage soap opera, the Peacock’s ineptitude seemed so much a part of its culture that the network’s doom — sooner rather than later — was considered a foregone conclusion. At the beginning of this new TV season, more people would have given odds to the DIY Network dominating the charts than put money on an NBC comeback. But what a difference a couple medium-sized hits can make, particulary when they're the only success stories in network television. J.J. Abrams' Revolution became the sole breakout hit of this fall's premieres, and the network's decision to bring The Voice back for a fall run just three months after last season ended has paid off, with its audience holding steady. By today's standards of broadcast TV, that counts as a brilliant success. Throw in a new series by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and the Peacock is ready to strut its feathers again.
5. Britney Spears
When it was announced that the pop icon would be a judge on this season’s X Factor, the question wasn’t about whether she make it through the season, but what form her meltdown would take. Two months of live shows later, Britney has shown up week after week engaged and present. While she may not be the most biting contest-judge wit, her very public, live-TV-without-nets display of sanity has brought her back from the abyss of public trainwreckdom.
6. Seth MacFarlane
The hugely successful animation tsar has long sought to show the world that he is more than a hugely successful animation tsar: dabbling in acting, hosting Comedy Central roasts and releasing an album of American standards. While those brand-expansion efforts have won him grudging success, this year he burst through the “Just an Animator” glass ceiling once and for all. After Fox, home of his TV hits, passed on the chance to release MacFarlane’s first big-screen live-action foray, a comedy about a foul-mouthed stuffed bear, MacFarlane took his dream project on the road and found it a home at Universal. Grossing half a billion dollars thus far worldwide, Ted is by far the year’s biggest comedy. To top it off, he was chosen for the top hosting gig on Earth, fronting the next Oscar ceremony. While he hasn’t won over everyone yet, there are few who still think of MacFarlane as merely American Dad’s dad.
7. Charlie Sheen
After the most public meltdown in sitcom history, we all wondered whether Sheen would be alive at the end of 2012. Not only has he survived, but despite universal declarations that his career was deader than month-old roadkill baking in the desert sun, a year after Tiger Blood glory his career is very much alive and quite well. When it was first announced that the ousted Two and a Half Men star would front a new comedy — Anger Management on FX, the news seemed an ill-advised stunt destined to end badly. After a first mini-season, however, the stunt is turning out just fine, averaging four and a half million viewers per episode — not CBS prime time numbers, but extremely respectable by basic cable channel standards. The show was just picked up for a full syndication-ready order. Whatever is going on with Sheen behind closed doors, he's cackling all the way to the bank.
8. Young Women
Hollywood’s perennially ignored audience is perennially being declared ready to break through, but this time, an actual critical mass has formed. On TV, despite ups and downs, female-driven shows remain where the excitement lies — from HBO’s Girls to a host of network sitcoms. At the box office, The Hunger Games has proven that Twilight was no fluke; that lo and behold, young women will come to see films oriented toward them. And if the day has finally arrived when a film about a male stripper can become a hit, Hollywood might be, just maybe, putting it together that half of the world is an audience worth considering.
9. Ben Affleck
As his acting career burned out, it was difficult to see a future for Affleck beyond the sad traditional decline of wildly overexposed action stars. But with this year's Argo, the actor's reinvention as one of Hollywood's most respected directors is complete. Now, with not one but three well-regarded directing gigs under his belt, and the latest — Argo — a shoo-in for Oscar nominations, there is no one who is not rooting for this comeback story.
10. Katie Holmes
When the young actress hitched her wagon to Tom Cruise and the Scientology carnival, it seemed a desperate end to an acting career that had largely flamed out. Emerging on the other side, Holmes has become America’s leading celebrity heroine. Her escape from Scientology was a Not-Without-My-Daughter type showstopper on which she brilliantly guided the story in her favor. She's acting again, appearing on Broadway, and showing a happy face to the public at last.