Last year I rounded up some weirdly specific incidents that popped up in pop culture. But there wasn’t an overarching theme in 2011, besides Russell Brand’s not being funny. There were, however, plenty of incidental trends and patterns in the world of entertainment.
Hardest-Working Woman in Show Business: I know I’m not the first person to observe how abruptly ubiquitous red-headed wunderkind Jessica Chastain has become, but seriously, after nothing bigger than a “Veronica Mars” bit part, she rang in with no less than six films this year. They were in roles as diverse as the saintly mother in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” the goofy white trash newlywed in “The Help” and a conflicted Mossad agent in “The Debt.” Next up? No less a role than Princess Diana.
Hardest-Working Man in Show Business: Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender isn’t new to the acting scene; he was justly praised for his roles as an unfortunate British spy in “Inglourious Basterds” and IRA man Bobby Sands in “Hunger.” But this year he was impossible to ignore, popping up as a young Jung (heh) in “A Dangerous Method,” a hollow-eyed sex addict in the indie drama “Shame,” a budding supervillain in “X-Men: First Class” and Hollywood’s answer to the question, “Why do we need another adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’?” Not bad for a guy with “Jonah Hex” on his resumé.
Most Oddly Specific Antagonist: This was a great year to watch television if your mother terrifies you. The small screen gave us no less than three unforgettable homicidal matriarchs: Gretchen Mol’s Machiavellian, retired showgirl in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” Lena Headey’s incestuous queen on “Game of Thrones,” and most effective of all, Margo Martindale’s titanic performance on “Justified” as a Kentucky pot kingpin, who seems as natural inviting the neighbors to a “big ol’ whoop-de-doo” on her land as she does taking a hammer to her stoner son’s hand.
Most Rewarding TV-to-Film Transition: British actor Benedict Cumberbatch has done movies before (notably his roles in “Atonement” and “Amazing Grace”), but his real breakout was the title role on the BBC’s “Sherlock.” He amps up the classic detective’s quirks to turn him into a narcissistic, socially inept savant. Now he’s getting excellent notices (and some Oscar speculation) for his performance as nervous, closeted fledgling spymaster Peter Guillam in the acclaimed adaptation of John Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Next up is the voice of Smaug in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” -- just in case he didn’t have enough geek cred.
Least Rewarding TV-to-Film Transition: Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan on AMC’s “Mad Men,” has a retro, femme-fatale look that made her ideal for Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir “Drive.” At least she seemed ideal before she was gruesomely killed after about 10 minutes onscreen. But even that was more dignified than her other big-screen appearance this year: a supporting role in the hideously misogynistic Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle, “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” I don’t know why she did it.