Sebastian Stan — Before 2014, I barely knew who this guy was. He was best known for roles in Gossip Girl and Once Upon a Time, and though I’d seen Political Animals, I barely remembered him from his stint in that mini-series. But Marvel clearly knew what it was doing when it cast him as Bucky Barnes in Captain America and the Winter Soldier in the sequel, as he phenomenally played evil against his every type, elevating him into one of Marvel’s best villains and our very own Pajiba 10.
Chris Pratt — The good thing about Pratt is that, though he’s practically shape-shifted from schlubby everyman to abtastic pelvic sorcerer, Pratt has maintained his sense of humor throughout the transformation. A year ago, he was our lovable Andy Dwyer — with a couple of stand-out roles in Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball — and now he’s everyone’s 21st century Han Solo, which is not anything anyone would’ve called him a year ago.
Rose Byrne — Always a reliable presence in both comedy and dramas, Byrne’s type is usually that of the uptight straight woman, the hard-ass corporate type, or your typical rom-com/horror movie female lead. She turned her entire CV on its head with Neighbors this year, not only using her own natural Australian accent, but subverting the shrewish, buzzkill wife. Byrne’s character in Neighbors wanted to play just as much as her husband, and when he tried to Kevin-James out on her, she insisted on being the bigger (wo)man-child.
Tom Cruise — How did Tom Cruise subvert expectations in 2014? By doing the same thing he does practically every year of his career and somehow still surprising us by being as good as he is. You’d think by now that Tom Cruise apologists would have to stop defending Tom Cruise movies and let them speak for themselves, but it seems like every year, the man has to begin without the benefit of the doubt. No matter the box-office ledger, Cruise starts with a clean slate every time out, and he has to work harder to earn the respect (and the ticket sales) of his audience. Hell, if he doesn’t do just that.
Evan Peters — The guy from American Horror Story finally managed to stop being the guy from American Horror Story this year by instead being the best part of X-Men: Days of Future Past and arguably, the only part of the film anyone will remember a year from now. That may not bode well for the legacy of Days of Future Past, but it certainly bodes well for its future, especially if it involve more Quiksilver.
Zac Efron — Efron has been trying to credibly break away from his Disney past for six years, and after a series of maudlin romantic comedy and melodramas, a few smaller roles that went nowhere, and as a cad in That Awkard Moment, Efron finally found the role that helped redefine him: As a frat-boy asshole villain in Neighbors. Of all the stand-out performances in that film — Byrne, Dave Franco, and even Ike Barinholtz — it was Efron who will be the most remembered. The guy just needed to own his douchiness, turn it into a positive.
Godzilla — After 60 years of films of various levels of cheesiness, and one incredibly bad 1998 film that nearly destroyed the franchise (in America, at least), Gareth Edwards did something remarkable with Godzilla: He turned the beast into a big-screen force, combining Godzilla mythos with an incredible cast and great special effects to give us one of the best popcorn flicks of the entire summer.