A great actor is one who takes their role, researches it, studies that character's story and puts themselves in that person's shoes without holding anything back. A fantastic actor is all of the above, plays well with others, and takes direction and criticism with a grain of salt.
An Oscar-winning actor is all of the above and at some point in their life have had one hell of a year in movies. There were several intense and thrilling performances in film this year, and these actors are the most noteworthy.
1. Michael Fassbender
-- This year's "It Man" headed into 2011 as basically an unknown. It wasn't until his performance as Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre" that this fine performer popped up on my radar. Fassbender, 34, added a whole new depth to the brooding Rochester to a point where he didn't come off as a complete creep, as co-star Mia Wasikowska is only 22 and looks even younger. In June, he hit box office glory by playing the young Magneto in "X-Men: First Class," one of the greatest origin superhero movies I've ever seen. Now that award show season is here, Fassbender is getting buzz for both his roles in "A Dangerous Method," where he plays psychiatrist Carl Jung, and for "Shame," where he portrays a sex addict whose private life is interrupted by the indefinite stay of his sister, played by Carey Mulligan. With a year like this, let's hope this promising actor gets more starring roles noteworthy of Oscar buzz.
2. Jessica Chastain
-- This actress has been in more films this year than I can count on one hand and the amazing thing is, she was perfect in all of them. She played Brad Pitt's scared and grieving wife in "The Tree of Life," one of the most artistically creative films of the year; a Mossad undercover agent in "The Debt;" and the tight dressed, desperate high society wannabe Celia Foote in "The Help." In addition, indie films "Take Shelter," "Coriolanus," and "Wilde Salome" have all debuted this year as well. Up next, Chastain will appear opposite Tom Cruise in the sci-fi thriller "Horizons."
3. Melissa McCarthy
-- Though the actress' first claim to fame was Sookie St. James on "Gilmore Girls," Melissa McCarthy has proved to be one of the best comedic actresses of our time. This year's "Bridesmaids," the highest grossing female casted comedy ever, featured several scene-stealing performances by the talented McCarthy. She also took home the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for CBS's "Mike & Molly." She will appear in Judd Apatow's "This Is 40" in 2012.
4. Rooney Mara
-- I can't wait for the day this girl takes home her first Oscar. I've been a fan ever since she played Mark Zuckerberg's fictitious girlfriend in "The Social Network." This year, director David Fincher took her under his wing again by casting her as the female protagonist Lisbeth Salander in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." One of my favorite films of 2011 and certainly one of my favorite performances as well, Mara will shine in the spotlight for years to come and deservedly so.
5. Elizabeth Olsen
-- There's been nothing but praise for this fine young starlet, who has truly out-shined her famous older sisters, the Olsen twins. Her acting debut in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," as a girl fleeing from an abusive cult, may have been one of the most surprising breakout performances ever. Though it has a strange title, I hope that didn't discourage anyone from seeing the film. Olsen will appear in "Red Lights" opposite Robert De Niro and Cillian Murphy in 2012.
6. Chris Hemsworth
-- The Australian actor first came to my attention when he played the doomed Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" in 2009. Hemsworth's breakout role came earlier this year, where he starred as the title character in "Thor." Looks like superhero films had a big role for a lot of our breakout stars in 2011! The actor added a refreshing boost to the God of Thunder, bringing strength and comedy to the role. Hemsworth will star as the Huntsman in "Snow White and the Huntman" in 2012.
7. Octavia Spencer --
All of the actresses in "The Help" hit their character's personality right on, but it was Octavia Spencer who justified herself as an actor and advanced her profile this year for her role as Minnie from the beloved Kathryn Sockett novel.
8. Jennifer Lawrence --
Yes, it was last year's "Winter's Bone" that brought attention to the 21-year-old actress, but this year she starred in "X-Men: First Class," "The Beaver" and "Like Crazy." In addition to these films, she's starring as Katniss in the wildly popular series, "The Hunger Games," set to release March 2012.
9. Shailene Woodley --
It was "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" that brought fame to the now 20-year-old actress. However, it was this year's "The Descendants," where she starred as George Clooney's oldest daughter who is suffering over the loss of her mother and trying to reconnect with her distant father, that we saw that Woodley can really act. She was hysterically crying under water and stole every scene with her sarcastic personality that added comic relief to the movie. I can't wait to see what she'll do next.
10. Armie Hammer --
In 2010, Hammer starred as the Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network." We saw that he was a stud, had some talent, but was he anything more than just a pretty face? In this year's "J. Edgar," he starred as Clyde Tolson, associate director of the FBI and the alleged lover of Hoover. This role gave him exposure as an actor that he might not have been able to gain anywhere else. In 2012, he will star in "Mirror Mirror" as Prince Andrew with Lily Collins and Julia Roberts.