In 2007 newcomers got noticed and some veterans got their chance to shine in breakout performances from actors, screen writers and directors. The wealth of talent working in films continues to grow. Some of those who got their chance in 2007 were seasoned performers waiting for their moment while others were young newcomers just starting their careers.

Juno is the quirky, smart film directed by Jason Reitman with a smart, clever screenplay by screenwriter Diablo Cody, who is probably getting tired of being referred to as “stripper turned screenwriter”.

Ellen Page has been making appearances in films, memorably in 2005’s Hard Candy. But the tough, wry Juno is the kind of performance that is guaranteed to get people to sit up and take notice. Page has an ability to deliver wryly comic lines without stepping outside her character. She brings Diablo’s Juno to life, never letting her slip away under a cloak of sarcasm. As her best friend and the father of her child Superbad Michael Cera also benefits from the success of Juno as the sweet, faithful Paulie Bleeker, who unintentionally proves he certainly “has it in him”. He is truly the cheese to Juno’s al dente macaroni. Laid back and besotted with his Juno, he is the eye in her storm. Cera is one of a few “everyman” types, such as Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill in Knocked Up. But to me out of them all his was the true breakout performance.

For a dramatic breakout James McAvoy’s Robby Turner in Atonement has to be mentioned. McAvoy was great in The Last King of Scotland but that was still Forest Whitaker’s film. Atonement is McAvoy’s film. The cast is as good as you can get, but he has to carry it. If you don’t feel for Robby the film collapses.His Robbie has to be sympathetic even as his ordeal gives him an edge of bitterness at the world and his plight. McAvoy conveys his pain and his innocence without saying a word. We never question why Kiera Knightly’s Cecilia believes his innocence without question and is willing to wait for him. The movie falls on James McAvoy’s shoulders and he carries it aided by stunning direction by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice).

Wright’s direction is a surprise. Sure he did lush and romantic in Pride and Prejudice, but there was no way of anticipating he could pull off Ian McEwan’s brilliant novel much less recreate the heartbreak of Dunkirk. Managing to capture the different points of view and avoid confusion while building dramatic tension is no small feat. He also has understood that while the aborted romance between Robby and Cecilia is the dramatic engine of the film at its core it’s about the power of words. Words can connect lovers, tear them apart, destroy, heal and in the end words are the only gift Briony can offer after a lifetime of living with her guilt.

Two very young actors were standouts in 2007.

Edward Sanders gave a mature and sure to be noticed performance as the orphan Toby in Sweeney Todd. Toby is a linchpin in the story. He has to be believable in his innocence of the bloody goings on at Mrs. Lovett’s bakery and Sweeney Todd’s barbershop on Fleet Street. Sanders has a wonderfully strong and sweet singing voice and his “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You” sung to adopted mother Lovett conveys everything about Toby’s sad belief that he’s finally found a sanctuary from the workhouse and the brutal streets of London. A sanctuary he will defend to the death.

Saorise Ronan made Briony Tallis (Atonement) more than just a romance wrecking teenager. She gave us an intelligent, complex and confused young girl. It is a challenge not to hate Briony for the damage she does. She upends lives causing the innocent to be punished and the guilty to go free. Ronan has an unusual edge to her as Briony that suits the needs of the character.

Breakout performances are not unique to younger members of the film making community. 2007 saw some actors who’ve been working for years breakout and flourish.

And perhaps one of the biggest breakouts was perpetrated by a forty one year old director with one horror film and some commercials to his credits.

For me the breakout film from a director was Zack Snyder’s spectacular 300 which also has breakout performances by Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo and Gerard Butler as King Leonidas. The director also pushed CGI into something of a coming of age. Instead of being a gimmick to create monsters and other worlds, he used CGI to create the film’s historic setting. Frank Miller is a God among the fans of comic books and graphic novels. He has a devoted and large legion of fans. The five comic book series turned graphic novel, 300 has been praised and for good reason. It is a powerful piece of work.

But who thought it could be effectively translated to film?

It is obvious Zach Snyder has great respect for Miller’s work. He wisely chose to stick to it as closely as possible. He uses the colors Miller’s colorist, Lynn Varley used in the book, using CGI technique to create a masterpiece on film. One change he did make is to expand the role of Queen Gorgo and lucky for him he chose his Queen wisely.

Lena Headey is a talent who has had few chances to really shine and was an unknown to most US audiences. Her Queen Gorgo is a creation of beauty and strength. She is a match for her King. Headey makes the stoicism of Gorgo totally believable, the result of being part of a warrior nation and her own inner strength.

Scottish actor Gerard Butler’s spent years in a string of films, working but not finding his way into a box office hit. As King Leonidas the actor has found his stride and gives a powerful performance as the doomed Spartan King. With all of the beauty and spectacular battle scenes in 300 we have to believe Leonidas is a man that other men will follow to their deaths. Butler creates a King of Shakespearean proportion. He is larger than life in every way from warrior’s physique, to his passion for his Queen, his love of his country and his determination to fight to the death for freedom. Remarkably through a combination of physical preparation and makeup Butler looks like he has stepped out of Miller’s book onto the screen.

For foreign language films there were two breakouts. Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a standout in a difficult role. Amalric would be recognizable to US audiences from the film Munich. His performance as Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who was almost totally paralyzed following a stroke is beautifully realized. He keeps the man inside the useless body alive to us without speech or movement, reduced to using his eyes and one eyelid. It is a remarkable feat by the actor made all the more stunning when we remember that Bauby wrote the book the film is based on, in that condition, letter by letter by letter.

Edith Piaf returns to life in the deft performance by Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose. Cotillard looks like Piaf, but she does more than create an imitation. She helps us understand the life the singer, who died at 47, lived. The recreation of the songs is flawless and we believe she’s singing. She also manages to be convincing as the teenage Piaf right up to her death.

A set of brothers broke out as well, but in very different ways. Ben Affleck thrives behind the camera directing little brother Casey in Gone Baby Gone.

Ben Affleck captures the world of the working class Dorchester in Boston where the film, which is about the kidnapping of a young girl takes place. Casey Affleck is the detective who is working to find the two year old child. He gives his character a sense of strength and resolve tempered with vulnerability. The combination of work by both Afflecks is more than a novelty of a brother behind the camera and one in front. It’s a solid film.

Can a composer/lyricist have a breakout performance in a film? Yes, when the man in question is Stephen Sondheim and the work is Sweeney Todd. Sondheim has long been a master of the art of Music Theater and his dark, violent Sweeney Todd is an obvious and perfect fit for director Tim Burton. There is nothing quite like Sweeney Todd with some of the most beautiful and challenging music written for theater. At its bloody center is Sweeney, the demon barber who provides upper class meat for Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.

Musicals are hard to film and Sondheim with his complex lyrics and music has never before been successfully put on film.

Who but Tim Burton in collaboration with his favorite actor, Johnny Depp could bring to life the soaring melodies, the dark violence of the streets of London, the black humor and the grand spectacle of Sweeney Todd?

I have to add that Helena Bonham Carter is a comic surprise as Mrs. Lovett. The actress know for so many costume dramas is a revelation as the lovesick, Mrs. Lovett.

Surely one day there will be a movie about Adrienne Shelly’s long road acting in independent films to her directorial success Waitress. Shelly wrote the screenplay, one of the soundtrack’s songs and acted in the film. Tragically she was murdered in NYC just before the film’s release. The film, about a pie making pregnant waitress is poignant but never mawkishly sentimental. It’s a quiet film, with a sweet and solid performance by Keri Russell as the hopeful pie maker Jenna.

It would be criminal to leave out the best breakout by a canine. Abbey the German Shepherd who plays Sam in I Am Legend is more than just the dog, but Will Smith’s sidekick. She not only held her own with Will Smith, stealing scenes along the way but left an audience who were watching the end of mankind sobbing, for her. There have been many great dogs in film and Abbey takes her place among the great canine actors in the cinema.

2007 was a good year for film with breakout performances by actors, directors and writers. From drama to comedy, original screenplays to adaptations of works from the musical theater to novels, it was a very good year.


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