The 10 Best New Faces of 2012

Many people made a big splash this year in movies, music, media, etc. Because these people can never get enough attention, here are our ten favorite debuts and/or breakout humans from the American culture.

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Many people made a big splash this year in movies, music, media, etc. Because these people can never get enough attention, we continue our 2012 Year in Review series with our ten favorite debuts and/or breakout humans from the American culture.


Kate McKinnon: Fears of a Wiig-less Saturday Night Live season were soon allayed this fall when featured player McKinnon, who'd made a few modest splashes late last season, came into her own as one of the show's most reliably nimble performers. She shined especially bright in two "Weekend Update" sketches, one as that old lady who ruined the "Ecce Homo" painting and then as a blithe, droning Ann Romney. She also had good, gross chemistry with Louis C.K. when he hosted, making for one of the funnier sketches of the season. She's been curiously absent for the past couple of episodes, but we have high hopes for her in the new year. McKinnon is weird and versatile, just like Kristen Wiig, and while SNL has added some other promising people recently, like Cecily Strong, we're resting a lot of the show's future on Kate McKinnon's shoulders. Sorry, lady. But you're just that good.

Jesse Plemons: So technically he's not exactly new this year, seeing as he already played Landry Clarke on five great seasons of Friday Night Lights, but in 2012 Mr. Plemons broke out of the high-school gym and into the world of serious adults. He first popped up as a seriously unstable new henchman in Walt's gang on Breaking Bad, a role that might return in the second half of the final season next year, and then he turned in a strong, if small, supporting performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's mysterious, moody The Master. Oh, and, yeah, he was in Battleship. Which we kinda liked! All told, a great year for Jesse Plemons, and one where he was hopefully exposed to more people than Friday Night Lights ever reached. Of all the kids from that show to really make it, who woulda guessed it would be Landry? And that's pretty great.

Benh Zeitlin: At just 30 years old, this writer and director has asserted himself as one of the most interesting new filmmakers in recent memory. His Beasts of the Southern Wild first got tongues wagging when it debuted at Sundance almost a year ago, securing a lauded summer release and now seemingly destined for a tour of awards season. (Don't judge by the Globes.) A big, spiritual, existential story, Zeitlin's film was refreshingly not obsessed with the contemporary, with the vernacular of technology or modern coupling or any of those other too-easy young filmmaker tropes. Instead he endeavored to create his own piece of American mythology, earthy and elemental, and ended up with an artsy movie that's also deeply humane and humble. It's thrilling to think about what he might make next.

Scoot McNairy: He's been acting for a little while now, but this really was McNairy's big breakout year. Turning in three completely different performances in this fall's ArgoKilling Them Softly, and Promised Land, McNairy proved himself a character actor with range and a hint of leading man charisma. He's got a bunch of movies coming up, among them Steve McQueen's hotly anticipated Twelve Years a Slave, building on the momentum that this big year gave him. We're eager to watch his career develop, as he's clearly a guy that a lot of talented, acclaimed directors want in their movies.

Lola Crèton: As the saturnine but soulful lead in Goodbye First Love, Mia Hansen-Løve's aching look at young romance, the young French actress Crèton made an impression more lasting than that first swell of swooning puppy love. She's somehow both poised and vulnerable, and seems wise beyond her (almost) 19 years. We'll next see her in Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival this September. Oh, and she's on the late-night Hollyoaks spinoff Hollyoaks Later if you're in the U.K. We're happy to hear she speaks English, because that means she'll have access to more roles and we'll get to see if our hunch is right about her. She could be big.

Lena Dunham: Yes, OK, you're sick of hearing about this very-much-talked-about writer/director/actor/whateverer, she of the trendy HBO show and massive book deal and all that. But no list of big breakout sensations this year would be complete without Lena Dunham. While only watched by a handful of people, her show Girls dominated the cultural conversation for a couple of months this winter, and has just reared back up again in the wake of the news that Dunham was paid $3.7 million to write an advice book, at age 26. But the most significant thing about Dunham is that once you cut through all that noise and get to the heart of what she's making, Girls is a blissfully smart and sensitive show, funny in ways both outrageous and startlingly truthful. There's an unblinking honesty to the series that doesn't get talked about nearly as much as Dunham's privileged background or any other controversial topic surrounding her. (Although she was at least just nominated for a Golden Globe for her acting.) While some were clued into Dunham after her feature film debut, 2010's Tiny Furniture, 2012 was the year she really made her mark. And whatever you think about her, we're hoping it doesn't smudge off easily.

Alicia Vikander: Bringing genuine humanity and a winning earnestness to an otherwise coldly opulent jewel box, Anna Karenina starlet Alicia Vikander made an arresting wide-release debut this year. This Swedish actress also found herself busy in 2012 with A Royal Affair, indicating to us that she's got a future in both English-language and foreign fare. She's got her requisite loud action epic coming up, the supernatural adventure The Seventh Son, and, at a mere 24 years old, Vikander seems like she might just be poised for Keira Knightley levels of stardom. Of course we've no wish to see her swallowed up by the big Hollywood system like so many actresses before her, but we're also eager to see her in more material that finds its way to our shores. A post-Prometheus Noomi Rapace might have some competition in the Swedish-actress-that-everyone-wants department.


Sara Ganim: This year, this young journalist won a Pulitzer, at age 24, as the leading voice in reporting on the Penn State sex abuse scandal. Her thorough, clear-eyed reporting for Harrisburg's Patriot-News gave us hope for a younger generation — a child of a short-burst Internet age, she approaches her work with seriousness and has an appreciation for the newspaper that we'd once thought lost in a generation gap. She's also proven herself to be a charming, self-effacing, but intellectually confident public speaker. Now positioned at CNN in Atlanta, Ganim is someone to watch. She's smart, exceedingly capable and professionally dedicated. She also seems refreshingly humble and comfortable in the public eye. A potential future anchor with a true journalist's heart, Ganim has become, accidentally or not, the flag-bearer for her class.

"Mobutu Sese Seko": Billed on Gawker as "America's screaming conscience," this political writer, hired full-time last winter after running his own blog for a few years, wrote some of the most dexterously long and winding and intricately worded political rants of this hideous election year. Anonymous as he may be — it seems he lives in Florida, that's about all we know — MSS managed to cut to the difficult heart of many a matter while maintaining his drolly verbose, free-associative style. The kind of writer that you might not always agree with but are always thrilled to read, Mobutu Sese Seko proved an invaluable source of well reasoned id in a too often overly manicured political conversation.


Frank Ocean: Sure, this guy had been around for a couple years, collaborating with the likes of OFWGKTA and the Watch the Throne duo, but 2012 was the year that Frank Ocean, soulful peddler of sad R&B grooves, truly made his solo entrée onto the scene. Of course he maybe made the most news with a liner notes reveal that he'd once fallen in love with a man, giving something of a voice to the oft-marginalized queer members of the R&B/hip-hop community. But there was also his stunning album, Channel Orange, a plaintive and thoughtful record that brought to mind Lauryn Hill, Fiona Apple, and other discursive singer-songwriters who challenged the boundaries of their assigned genre not with audaciousness, but with rich and expansive artistry. It's no guarantee that Ocean will continue on his ultra-hot streak in years to come, but he definitely earned a devoted following this year, one that will likely stick with him as his already fascinating career develops.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.