Lars von Trier

Leave it to Lars von Trier to make a film that finds favor even with his legion of detractors, only to undermine his own achievement with a publicity gambit gone way wrong. Such was the case with Melancholia — a film that turns depression into a literal apocalypse as a meteor hurtles toward Earth — and the director's subsequent self-destruction in front of an international Cannes press corps that found him answering a question about aesthetics by tying himself into a rhetorical knot and then unraveling it with the world's worst punchline: "OK, I'm a Nazi." A filmmaker of astonishing technical mastery in service of a prankster's impudence and a darkly vulnerable soul, von Trier is like his own mismatched-roommates sitcom all in one person—That's Our Lars!

Woody Allen

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris was received largely as a playful travelogue and nostalgia piece, a waxworks tour through the cultural history of Paris as Owen Wilson brushed shoulders with Zelda, F. Scott and Ernest, Gauguin and Degas. But Allen's sucker-punch is to conclude that rather than fetishize the past, one should cherish the present tense most of all. Coming from a man who still uses a manual typewriter, this was a counterintuitively radical notion. And an unexpectedly popular one, leading to Allen's biggest box-office hit since 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters.

Andrew Haigh

Writer-director Andrew Haigh's award-winning quasi-documentary Greek Pete completed its gay film festival run in 2009, then quietly vanished. No one could have predicted that his follow-up 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 half-a-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 this 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 spiritually hollow 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. Next year's roles in a Steven Soderbergh thriller and a Ridley Scott sci-fi should quickly fix that.

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