Editorial Note: Our Star of the Year is usually assigned through a staff voting process and this year, our votes were evenly split between two performers who had breakthrough years. No need to deny democracy. This year, readers, you get two Stars. Use the links at the bottom of the page to read about both. 

Star of the Year: Alicia Vikander

Before 2015, Alicia Vikander was most well known for her starring role in 2012’s A Royal Affair, which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Although this film was widely praise, the Swedish actress was not a familiar face outside of cinephile circles until she exploded onto our screens in three of this year’s biggest releases, churning out scene-stealing and award-worthy performances throughout 2015.

alicia vikander 21

A24

Vikander first awed audiences in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina as Ava the soft spoken, stunning female A.I. who was studied and marveled at by her screen partners and the audience. As an experiment in Artificial Intelligence, Ava was created to be regarded as more than human, as otherworldly, an almost ethereal being, and Alicia Vikander embodied those qualities completely. Her wide-eyed, fresh-faced expression exuded innocence and curiosity, ready to absorb information and in turn learn and examine those who were  studying her with the same scrutiny. Vikander’s performance required a deceiving level of restraint that led both her costars and the viewers believe she was one thing, before finally revealing that she was quite another. In Ex Machina she provided us with a rewarding glimpse at very capable acting muscles.

alicia vikander 31

Warner Bros. Pictures

Following her 2015 debut in Ex Machina, Alicia Vikander starred as Gaby in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., revived by Guy Ritchie from the ’60s television show. Gaby is smart, sleek, savvy, and similar to Ava, not entirely who she seems to be. Vikander’s stylish subtlety lends mystery and intrigue to this character that results in a pitch perfect representation of a slick, resourceful spy who is no damsel in distress. Also like her character in Ex Machina, Gaby is surrounded by men who are determined to either take credit for her accomplishments or take credit for being her savior, neither of which she allows in either film. Gaby proves not only that she doesn’t need saving, but she can take care of herself and take down the bad guys in the process.

alicia-vikander11

Focus Features/Universal Pictures International

And in the newly released biopic The Danish Girl, Vikander plays a fictionalized Gerda Wegener, the wife of one of the first known recipients of a sex reassignment surgery. Gerda is self-possessed and talented–her artistic abilities likely exceeding those of her husband Einar, though as a woman in 1920s Europe, her dream to be equally revered as her male contemporaries must be tempered with reality. In her pursuit of her place in the art world, she loses her husband of six years to the woman he’s sure he was meant to be, requiring her to balance both the role of her spouse’s greatest supporter and the household’s only income-earner simultaneously. Alicia Vikander delivers an exquisite performance: it’s subtle, nuanced, and solely responsible for creating interest in a film that otherwise takes few chances. Vikander plays Gerda with a delicate balance. She’s both shattered and stoic as she loses the great love of her life, knowing that the terms of her selfless, unconditional love require losing her husband permanently. Vikander is exquisite in everything she does, but in The Danish Girl, she’s somehow more.

Alicia Vikander didn’t burst on to our screens this year with just any roles; she arrived in a big way, in the form of characters who consistently turn the tables on their male counterparts, rescuing them in return if they deserve it, and taking them down if they get in her way. Ex Machina Director Alex Garland once described Alicia as tough with no affectation–that “somewhere in her she is hard as nails.” Through her varied roles and vulnerable performances, she exudes an undeniable strength.

And with Alicia Vikander’s filmography growing ever so impressively, we can’t wait to see what next year holds for 2015’s Star of the Year.

-Beth Reynolds, Grace Porter

Alicia Vikander | Oscar Isaac