Kristen Wiig. Six years of Saturday Night Live was threatening to calcify Kristen Wiig's brand of highly physical yet conceptual comedy of awkwardness. Turns out she was working on a second act all along. As co-writer and star of the summer blockbuster Bridesmaids, Wiig proved, first and foremost, female-fronted comedy can fuel mainstream box office, which is, to date, nearly $170 million. She also proved she can carry a film (and write a career-changing role for costar Melissa McCarthy). Next up for Wiig: a starring role in the indie drama Imogene, directed by American Splendor pair Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.
Jafar Panahi. Sentenced to house arrest in his Tehran apartment and banned from filmmaking (his crime allegedly was planning to make a film about postelection unrest in Iran), writer/director Jafar Panahi collaborated with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who himself was just released from Evin Prison after three months in jail) to make This Is Not a Film, a video diary documenting a day in Panahi's life, his struggle to come to terms with his restrictive situation, and reconcile his identity without breaking the law. This stunning "not-a-film" was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a cake so that it could premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, which it did, to huge praise. The movie won't be released stateside until sometime this year, but Panahi's ongoing persecution and remarkable act of resistance was the world cinema story of 2011.
Steve James. One would be hard-pressed to find scenes in any drama last year with as much impact and resonance as those in Steve James's documentary The Interrupters. Following a group of former Chicago gang members who now act as intermediaries in disrupting street violence, the film approaches main subjects Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra not so much as heroes but as humans, capturing the ways each of them is trying to get right with the world. The film's straightforward style is immersive and overwhelming — overflowing with heartbreak, insight, startling access, and hard-won uplift. After the legendary snub of his landmark Hoop Dreams, that James has again been left out of the race for the documentary Oscar only proves that category is in need of its own intervention.
Harvey Weinstein. After rounds of layoffs at the company that bears his name and a failed 2010 bid to buy back Miramax, 2011 was Harvey's comeback year. Weinstein began 2011 by ending a nearly decadelong Oscar slump with a Best Picture win (and perhaps more controversially, a Best Director win) for The King's Speech. He was back to his old buying ways by Cannes, where he picked up current Best Picture frontrunner The Artist. And as distributor of both The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher) and My Week With Marilyn (Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe), he almost certainly stands to benefit from an expected impersonation race in the Best Actress field.
Andrew Haigh. Writer-director Andrew Haigh's award-winning quasi-documentary Greek Pete completed its gay film festival run in 2009 and then quietly vanished. No one could have predicted that his followup would win raves most directors spend a lifetime chasing. Haigh's Weekend is a smart, erotic, melancholy chamber piece about what happens when a one-night stand between two British men stretches into a weekend of conversation, tackling everything from the soft homophobia of "enlightened" straight friends to the ways gay men cripple themselves in relationships. It swept awards at gay and mainstream film festivals around the world, won gushing reviews from mainstream outlets (it has a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes), grossed a half-million dollars in extremely limited run, and quietly but forcefully broadened the definition of what makes a romantic leading man.
Michael Fassbender. He turned in flawless performances in four wildly different films last year, starring as the young Magneto in Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, Rochester in Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, Carl Jung in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, and sex addict Brandon in Steve McQueen's art-house scold, Shame. The 34-year-old actor, who has been pegged the thinking cinephile's sex symbol, is still not a household name. This year's roles in a Steven Soderbergh thriller and a Ridley Scott sci-fi should quickly fix that.