Dakota Johnson in "50 Shades of Grey"
Jamie Dornan's Christian Grey may have failed to thrill and chill, but -- holy cow! -- Dakota Johnson made Anastasia Steele, quite possibly one of the worst book characters ever written, into a heroine worth cheering for with her unexpected comic timing and her wounded innocence giving way to some sexy, savvy negotiations. With the rest of E.L. James' trilogy heading south from her on out, Johnson will be the only reason to watch the sequels.
Maggie Smith in "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
This excessively twinkly comedy got a much-needed dose of harrumph from Dame Maggie, whose eye-rolling and side-eye single-handedly made the movie worth watching. Whether she's schooling Americans on the proper temperature of boiling water for tea or deflating the film's overly chipper characters, her vitriol was delicious.
Photographed by Corina Marie Howell
Tina Fey in "Monkey Kingdom"
"Sisters" is finally hitting theaters, but good God, we've missed Tina Fey. The comedian brings a rare scampering but still feminist timbre to her voice-over narration in "Monkey Kingdom," an otherwise forgettable Disney nature doc about a peasant primate's rise to princessdom.
Mark Ruffalo in "Avengers: Age of Ultron"
The superhero genre may be all about the booms and the bangs and the kapows, but Mark Ruffalo made the quietest character of this disjointed sequel its greatest strength by bringing his signature rumpled soulfulness to Bruce Banner's torment about his penchant to destroy everything around him.
Levi Miller in "Pan"
One of this year's total fiascoes featured embarrassing turns from several performers who should know better, from Hugh Jackman to Garrett Hedlund to Rooney Mara. Outshining them all was newcomer Miller ("Supergirl"), who offered us a pre-Neverland Peter Pan who was boisterous and exuberant without overdoing the cutes.
Stanley Tucci in "Wild Card"
This Jason Statham vehicle, the second screen treatment of William Goldman's "Heat," had a deservedly brief blip in theaters early this year, and the film's one memorable moment involved Tucci as a Las Vegas fixer trying to keep the peace. It was one of those turns where a skillful actor swoops in, steals one big scene, and then disappears, leaving you to feel his absence for the rest of the movie.
Jennifer Lawrence in "Joy"
Jennifer Lawrence's performance is pretty much the only thing that works in David O. Russell's sloppy, wandering biopic about the inventor of the Miracle Mop. It's really Lawrence who gives HSN star Joy Mangano her due as a devoted daughter and involved single mom whose brilliant brain couldn't stop turning even if she wanted it to. Chances are good Lawrence will receive her fourth Oscar nod in six years -- and she'll deserve it, too.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Paul Bettany in "Mortdecai"
This labored caper comedy may have been the straw that broke the camel's back when it comes to audiences tolerating Johnny Depp being goofy -- if he wants to hide behind makeup and do accents, better that he do so in movies like "Black Mass." The stealth stars of "Mortdecai" wound up being Paltrow, as the title character's much-smarter wife, and Bettany, who turned a second-banana role into a small comic gem.
Viola Davis in "Lila and Eve"
Viola Davis became the new queen of TV with her historic Best Dramatic Actress Emmy earlier this year for "How to Get Away With Murder." But her big-screen performance as a mother grieving for the teenage son she lost to a drive-by shooting shouldn't be overlooked, especially when Davis is one of maybe five actresses in her generation with the weary groundedness to make the otherwise-ludicrous hairpin plot twist in the female-vigilante thriller "Lila and Eve" feel not just plausible, but moving as hell.
Niels Arestrup in "By the Sea"
While writer-director-star Angelina Jolie Pitt and her husband, Brad Pitt, did a lot of photogenic suffering in her overdone domestic drama, Arestrup walked away with every one of his scenes by reminding audiences what human behavior looks like. His barkeep felt rooted to a reality far removed from the brittle poses of his more glamorous co-stars.
Britt Robertson in "Tomorrowland"
A grouchy George Clooney meets his perfect foil in the sunny and ebullient young scientist that newcomer Britt Robertson portrays in the energetic but hollow "Tomorrowland." Playing about a decade her junior, Robertson is thoroughly charming as an optimistic idealist who gets starry-eyed about science and problem-solves her way out of the end of the world.
Parker Posey in "Irrational Man"
This year's Woody Allen movie featured an arch and unbelievable relationship between blocked writer Joaquin Phoenix and sparkly ingenue Emma Stone, but the movie really belonged to Posey, as a wounded wife finding fulfillment for a brief moment before being overtaken by tragedy. One wonders why this director and this actress never found each other before.
Sarah Silverman in "I Smile Back"
Depicting a wealthy housewife in the throes of a deep depression and possibly fatal self-loathing, Sarah Silverman reinvents herself as a dramatic actress in "I Smile Back." She exudes desperation as her character attempts to balance her love for her children and her need to do anything other than take care of them. Too bad this grim, punishing picture doesn't provide Silverman a satisfying story line or character arc.
Lin Shaye in "Insidious: Chapter 3"
The ending of "Insidious: Chapter 2" seemed to set up an entirely different kind of movie, but someone wisely realized that veteran character actress Shaye was the franchise's secret weapon. She's front and center here, and frankly, it's hard to imagine the movie -- an otherwise run-of-the-mill ghost story -- without her. In a genre where thespian turns are rarely appreciated, Shaye offers a rich and multi-faceted performance.
Tom Hardy in "Legend"
One of the best actors of his generation plays twin gangsters in London during the Swinging '60s. What more do you need? Well, for starters, a crime story we haven't already seen countless times would have been nice. Hardy brings the flair, but "Legend" needs more narrative dares.
Juliette Lewis and Molly Ringwald in "Jem and the Holograms"
This now-legendary flop is better than you've heard, and one of its best aspects was the casting of two veteran actresses who turned what could have been one-note nice lady/mean lady characters into vivid creations with far too little screen time. Some shrewd producer needs to harness their deliciously bitchy chemistry into a remake of "Old Acquaintance," stat.