1. Tom Hardy For his brutal, operatic performance as Britain’s most violent prisoner in Bronson, this former pretty boy packed on pounds of muscle to transform himself into a man who lives to fight and fights to live.
2. Gleendilys Inoa No actor seemed more natural in front of the camera than this Harlem-born teenager, who brought uncommon grace to her first film role as a Dominican wise-ass who grows up fast in the Brooklyn drama Don’t Let Me Drown.
3. Mark Duplass With Humpday—the most moving comedy about “two straight dudes having sex” you will ever see—affable indie star Mark Duplass (left) becomes the first actor to break out of the mumblecore ghetto.
4. Mo’Nique In Push, Lee Daniels’s adaptation of Sapphire’s Harlem novel, the Phat Girlz comedienne shocked us with a vicious turn as a vile, damaged mother. She’ll nab some awards for this.
5. Nisreen Faour As a Palestinian mother who moves to rural Illinois during the Iraq War in Amreeka, Faour broke our hearts when her optimism hit the hard wall of American reality.
6. Zach Gilford Playing the tough kid in the middle of a messy threesome, the Friday Night Lights star confidently explores his character’s neuroses in the thorny teen film Dare. As his TV character might say: “Score!”
Photographs: Courtesy of Vertigo Films (Bronson); Courtesy of Rollin’ Deep Productions (Don’t Let Me Drown); Courtesy of Lee Daniels Entertainment (Push); Courtesy of First Generation Films (Amreeka); Courtesy of Next Wednesday Productions and Gigantic Pictures (Dare); Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival (Humpday)