It has become customary to preface these kinds of year-end lists with a lot of eulogizing. The movie star is dead, we’ve been told. Our entertainment has become too fragmented, creating an environment that’s overflowing with talented people you’ve never heard of, doing excellent work you can’t find the time to watch, in movies that are only available for two weeks in theaters or in shows streaming exclusively on services you don’t have. Even this year’s biggest hit, Top Gun: Maverick, was sweating it out behind the swagger: Early on, someone reminds Tom Cruise’s title character that people don’t have much need for superstars anymore. The wars got smaller, and they’re all being waged from inside our living rooms. And who needs some hotshot pilot when our skies are choked with so many serviceable drones?

It’s true that we may never see Tom Cruise’s ilk again (at least until his thetan is reborn into a worthy vessel). But that doesn’t mean we’ve completely moved past the need for great acting, or the ability to recognize burgeoning stars when we see them. Even in Top Gun: Maverick, if you’d bothered to look beyond the corona of Cruise’s grin, you might have noticed Austin’s own Glen Powell standing there, exuding his own old-school charisma. Powell is just one of several Texas performers who are poised to make up the next generation of blockbuster names; his co-star in December’s Devotion, Dallas’s Jonathan Majors, is another. Meanwhile, this year also saw veteran Texan actors like Woody Harrelson and Jamie Foxx doing solid work (and clearly having fun) in big swings like Triangle of Sadness and Day Shift, respectively. Plus we got another season of Selena Gomez more than holding her comedic own in Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, a modern, four-quadrant star if there ever was one.

Many of the ten performances on this list don’t carry that kind of broad cultural cachet, nor have they garnered anything near that kind of attention. Two of them were from long-familiar actors who either showed us something new or offered a reminder of why they still mean so much. But the rest hail from relative newcomers, all of whom proved that—even in an age where the movie star has dimmed and our screens have become too overcrowded to see straight—there is still the potential for someone to break through and give us something truly memorable. Maybe you haven’t seen them all. That’s fine. It just means you have more to anticipate.   

Sadie Sink, Stranger Things

Being a late addition to a popular TV series carries a risk for any actor, let alone one with a cast as instantly iconic as that of Stranger Things. But Brenham native Sadie Sink proved herself to be an integral part of Netflix’s runaway hit from the moment she joined in its second season. And in the recently released fourth season, Sink became the show’s emotional center. Her character, Max, was asked to shoulder a lot: the death of her brother; her parents’ divorce; being stalked by a homicidal demon. But Sink swam with it all, her performance shifting fluidly between grief and snark, sullen teen angst and open-wound heartbreak, and tempered by abject fear, often all within the same episode. She also did a lot of it in silence, letting her uniquely expressive face—and a certain Kate Bush song, which will haunt Sink’s every public appearance for the rest of her days—say everything. It was just the flashiest part of an overall big year for Sink, which also included a plum role in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale and her very first lead in the Netflix feature Dear Zoe. Before long, it will seem like a coup that Stranger Things ever landed her.  

Ten Notable Performances From Texan Actors in 2022
Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde in Pistol.Courtesy FX

Sydney Chandler, Pistol

Danny Boyle’s miniseries about the Sex Pistols is, like the band itself, something of a punk-rock cartoon, one that reduces the British upstarts into avatars for some vaguely defined ideas about anarchy, rebellion, and other T-shirt-ready slogans. But then there’s Dripping Springs native Sydney Chandler, who turns up as a young, pre-fame Chrissie Hynde, and quietly steals every scene—largely by behaving like a genuine human being. Pistol is told through the viewpoint of Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, who apparently believes he bedded every available woman in seventies Britain. Nevertheless, Chandler ensures that, even in Jones’s beery revisionism, her character is far from just another notch on his fretboard. She plays Hynde with rare self-possession; she’s smart, effortlessly cool, and strong even when she’s getting her heart broken. Regardless of whether you knew nothing of Hynde’s own story, the way Chandler plays her, it’s easy to see that she’s destined for bigger things. The same could be said of Chandler herself, who is, yes, the daughter of everyone’s Friday Night Lights dad, Kyle Chandler. But after a year that also included a small yet pivotal role in the buzzed-about Don’t Worry Darling, it’s clear that Sydney Chandler, like Hynde, won’t end up being defined by the famous men in her life. 

Ten Notable Performances From Texan Actors in 2022
Mohammed Amer in Mo.Courtesy of Netflix

Mohammed Amer, Mo

There’s nothing funny about political torture, mass shootings, opiate addiction, or our country’s broken immigration system. Yet somehow Houston comedian Mohammed Amer turned all of these things into comic fodder for one of the year’s unlikeliest hangout shows. Mo, loosely based on Amer’s own upbringing, follows an undocumented Palestinian immigrant who’s eking out a living in suburban Houston, a setting that the Netflix comedy lovingly captures through a haze of strip malls prowled by tricked-out slabs, replete with shout-outs to Shipley Do-Nuts and The Breakfast Klub and cameos from local rappers like Paul Wall and Bun B. The show feels instantly like home, in other words, even if you don’t actually hail from the Bayou City. And the same goes for Amer’s Mo, a gregarious if frazzled hustler whom Amer imbues with pathos and cuddly charm as he navigates a world that’s fraught with Islamophobia and the ever-present threat of deportation. Mining this stuff for humor while still being emotionally affecting is a delicate balancing act, but Amer makes it all go down easy.

Ethan Darbone and Brenda Deiss, Red Rocket

Director Sean Baker is known for casting non-professional actors, which gives his films a documentary-style realism that can quickly turn disturbing in light of their dark subject matter. For Red Rocket—the tragicomic story of a failed porn star named Mikey (Simon Rex), who slinks back to his hometown of Texas City, then sets his predatory sights on a high-school girl—Baker again made judicious use of the locals. Two first-time performers stand out in particular. As Mikey’s meth-addict mother-in-law, Brenda Deiss is all iced tea and arsenic, a tough, foul-mouthed mama bear who can turn surprisingly sweet, and who’s as steadfast and weathered as the Galveston Seawall. And Ethan Darbone (whom Baker reportedly discovered waiting tables in Nederland) feels pitiably authentic in his role as Lonnie, Mikey’s wide-eyed stoner neighbor whose desperation for glory, whether reflected or stolen, leads him heedlessly into the movie’s most heartbreaking subplot. Both lend Red Rocket a raw naturalism, even as its story threatens to tip fully over into hicksploitation. And they serve as a reminder of the many fascinating characters that are all around us, just waiting to finally be seen.

Louanne Stephens, Vengeance

The Office star B.J. Novak talked a pretty big game about getting the West Texas touches just right in his blackly comic thriller Vengeance, even wrangling Texas Monthly’s own Christian Wallace into helping him with the research. It gets a lot of the local details right, like the niche rivalry between UT and Texas Tech, or our often-unaccountable obsession with Whataburger—even if the film occasionally lapses into painting Texans as gun-crazy rubes. It does get an added boost of authenticity from Dallas native Louanne Stephens, who plays another irascible Texas granny to rival her Friday Night Lights turn as Grandma Saracen. Although her character is only used sparingly, Stephens instantly enlivens whatever scene she’s in, springing like a coiled rattlesnake on all of her too-few lines. The monologue where she gives Novak’s New York hipster a condensed Texas history lesson is one of the film’s standout moments, with Stephens volleying from tart-tongued sass into genuine tears as she recounts the Alamo “massa-cree” (which she rhymes with “sea,” the way my own granny would have). Sure, she’s playing another broad stereotype in a film that’s full of them. But to Stephens’s credit—and in Novak’s defense—she also feels like genuine Texas.

Ten Notable Performances From Texan Actors in 2022
Sasha Lane as Bobbi in Conversations With Friends.Enda Bowe/Hulu

Sasha Lane, Conversations With Friends

I’ll be frank: I found Hulu’s Conversations With Friends to be pretty tedious stuff, almost irredeemably so. Like a lot of “limited series” in our age of streaming bloat, it’s a story that might have made for a decent movie, but here it’s padded out across a dozen episodes of self-indulgent wheel-spinning. And what seems keenly observed on the pages of Irish author Sally Rooney’s novel—which similarly follows the interior life of Dublin college student Frances (Alison Oliver) as she embarks on an affair with a married older man—mostly translates on screen into a lot of sad-faced people drinking wine and texting. But then there is Houston native Sasha Lane, who briefly revivifies the show as Bobbi, Frances’s bohemian American ex-girlfriend turned BFF. Lane’s Bobbi is a beguiling, bluntly spoken force—confident, quick-witted, playfully seductive—who stands in stark contrast to all the wan Irish specters drifting aimlessly around her. It’s almost worth watching the whole series just to get to the episode where Bobbi finally lets Frances have it, telling her, “Your self-obsession is exhausting, and it’s hurtful, and it’s f—ing boring,” in a speech that feels as though it’s being delivered on behalf of an equally frustrated audience. But mostly, Conversations just offers the argument that Lane deserves her own series (or movie!).

Ten Notable Performances From Texan Actors in 2022
Sissy Spacek as Irene in Night Sky.Courtesy of Prime Video/Amazon Studios

Sissy Spacek, Night Sky

Amazon’s Night Sky is another slow-burn streaming show that might have benefited from being cut down into feature length. In fact, you could improve it instantly by simply hacking away any scene that doesn’t have Sissy Spacek. As Irene, an ailing retiree whose backyard contains a mysterious portal to another planet, the Quitman native is nominally starring in a big science-fiction yarn, one whose sketchy contours stretch to include a conspiracy involving aliens and cults. But nested inside that is a more intimate, far more compelling drama about aging and grief, one where Spacek and J.K. Simmons portray a long-married couple contending with their fear of stepping into the great unknown without each other. Spacek has been on our screens for more than fifty years now, and she’s never done anything so gauche as “acting.” She inhabits, and in every scene with Simmons, you can feel the unspoken years in how they talk to each other. She also never plays “old”; you can always glimpse the same girlish spark Spacek has carried since her film debut. Night Sky wasn’t picked up for a second season, which is probably a shame for anyone hoping for some resolution to its more conspicuous mysteries. But for those who are only seeking further testament to Spacek’s more down-to-earth magic, it’s already revealed everything.

Edi Patterson, The Righteous Gemstones

Texas City native Edi Patterson quickly became the runaway star of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones in its first season, breaking out (and earning a spot on the 2019 version of this list) right before the show went on a long, pandemic-imposed hiatus. On the upside, the long wait for the comedy’s return allowed Patterson—who also writes for the show—to dig even deeper into the mind of her character, the volatile middle daughter Judy Gemstone, which is a place that continues to be a trash-strewn, possum-infested nightmare. The Righteous Gemstones’ second season finds Judy still desperately seeking validation from her male-dominated televangelist family, no matter how many graphically sexual outbursts it takes. But she also has a new independent streak that has only further inflamed her delusions of fame and dancing ability. The second season also sees Judy discovering her maternal side, finding some hidden depths beyond her usual, feral id, and garnering surprise sympathy for Patterson’s ringleted devil. It’s the rare character that can make you fear her, pity her, and laugh at her all at once. Barring another plague, who knows what biblical terrors Patterson and Judy will unleash next year?

Ethan Hawke, The Black Phone

Ethan Hawke has played bad guys before, although typically they’re of the weasel variety: toxic boyfriends and shiftless ex-husbands, and other well-intentioned doofuses whose selfishness ends up causing collateral pain. But there’s nothing inadvertent about his villainy in The Black Phone. Save for the (rightly) little-seen serial killer thriller Taking Lives, you’ve never seen Ethan Hawke play a role like The Grabber, a madman who abducts children in 1970s Colorado, then imprisons them in his basement and torments them from behind a demon mask. The Grabber’s disguise is ever-changing: It detaches in pieces, allowing only fleeting glimpses of Hawke’s familiar features, and never his full face. This requires Hawke to act mostly with his eyes and his body, using a classically theatrical series of exaggerated movements that we don’t often associate with the actor known for talky Richard Linklater fare. Along with his supervillainous turn in Disney+’s Moon Knight, 2022 saw the actor taking an exciting, late-career heel turn that, Hawke has suggested, may point toward his future. Either way, it’s been a revelation to watch an actor who’s always been good turn out to be pretty great at being bad.