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Put them on your watch list

January 1, 2010

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A year ago we barely could spell - let alone identify - Zach Galifianakis. Then came “The Hangover’’ and “Bored to Death,’’ and suddenly he’s a name to know. The same goes for Lea Michele of “Glee,’’ Taylor Lautner of “New Moon,’’ and local comedian Joe Wong. We can’t guarantee that the 16 cultural figures who follow will be quite so well known in 2010. Then again, in the Age of Susan Boyle, who can say they won’t?

THE CURATOR

There will be plenty of celebrating on Huntington Avenue come November when the Museum of Fine Arts opens its new wing. But few museum leaders will be as excited as Hao Sheng. For five years, the MFA’s curator of Chinese art has been planning an exhibition that, he hopes, will change the way the public thinks of contemporary Chinese art.

“Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition,’’ which opens the museum’s new 8,280-square-foot Gund Gallery, will feature 10 Chinese artists creating works inspired by prized pieces in the MFA’s collection, from Jackson Pollock’s “Number 10’’ to a drawing on woven silk from the 12th century.

“I don’t like the contemporary shows that I see everywhere, which appeal very much to the Western market,’’ says the soft-spoken Sheng, 37, who was born in China and attended Harvard. “Large canvases inspired by Pop art with Chairman Mao’s portrait, or an artist will pick up a 2,000-year-old pot and smash it as an act.’’

He also remembers performance artist Zhang Huan, naked and writhing on the MFA’s lawn during a piece in 2005. “I wanted something more grounded in tradition,’’ he says.

GEOFF EDGERS

THE SHORT-STORY WRITER

“How to Escape From a Leper Colony’’ doesn’t sound like beach reading, and it isn’t. However I can’t remember a debut that was quite so assured. Tiphanie Yanique’s collection of short stories, out from Graywolf Press in March, will astound readers with its range of pitch-perfect voices. Yanique - a native of the Virgin Islands and professor at Drew University - might as well be a ventriloquist: She writes in the voice of a Gambian priest, a gangster in love, a 14-year-old leper. At the start of each story it is as if another character steps out from behind a curtain, reciting his or her story, pulling in the audience of readers. In fact it is easy to imagine Yanique’s characters in an adaptation for the stage: think “Our Town,’’ set in the Caribbean, but with raw language and stories full of violence and sexuality. Plus it’s funny, too. Are you listening, Oprah?

NICOLE LAMY

THE BANDLEADER

Fledgling composer, arranger, and conductor Darcy James Argue, a 34-year-old Brooklynite by way of Canada, has been posting live recordings online for a few years, cultivating a small, devoted following among those in the new-jazz know. But Argue didn’t release a proper debut until last May, when “Infernal Machines’’ came out on the New Amsterdam label and word started spreading about a cutting-edge bandleader armed with a tool kit that spans Glenn Miller and Steve Reich. The Darcy James Argue Secret Society is a sprawling steampunk orchestra that embraces big-band jazz with startling complexity, pan-stylistic exuberance, and plain old wit. Argue is that rare bird in any genre - an original thinker - but his real gift is in transposing big ideas into music that is as inviting as it is innovative. He brings his Secret Society to the Regattabar on Feb. 25.

JOAN ANDERMAN

THE LOCAL ACTOR

At 26, just a few years out of Boston University, Daniel Berger-Jones has established himself as a compulsively watchable actor - even when he’s playing a dog.

In Lyric Stage Company’s recent production of “Shipwrecked!,’’ Berger-Jones brought such bounding brio to his depiction of Bruno, the lead character’s slobberingly faithful canine companion, that audience members - adults, mind you - sometimes cried “No!’’ when informed in Act Two that the pooch had perished.

It was further proof of the versatility of an actor who broke through just two years ago, in Company One’s “Mr. Marmalade,’’ then proceeded to win an Elliot Norton Award with a seething portrayal of Jimmy Porter in a 2008 Orfeo Group production of John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger.’’

Berger-Jones stayed busy in 2009, appearing in Orfeo’s “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)’’ and Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Taming of the Shrew,’’ as well as “Shipwrecked!’’ Next month, he will star in Orfeo’s production of “The Island of Slaves,’’ a 1725 satire by French playwright Pierre Marivaux, and in May he will be featured in an ASP production of “Timon of Athens.’’

This is one actor who is not scanning the horizon for opportunities in New York or Los Angeles. “I see myself in Boston for a good long time,’’ he says.

DON AUCOIN

THE HOLLYWOOD ACTRESS

Is this the year Mia Wasikowska blips up from beneath the radar to on it? The 20-year-old Australian actress has been on many people’s short list of talents to watch since her performance as Sophie, the troubled teen gymnast in the first season of HBO’s “In Treatment.’’ In nine episodes, Sophie regressed and progressed with harrowing realism, and Wasikowska’s performance charted every step with empathetic clarity. Since then the trained ballet dancer has marked time among the manly men of “Defiance,’’ gone toe-to-toe with Hal Holbrook in the little-seen “That Evening Sun,’’ and played a rival aviatrix in “Amelia.’’ She’s ready to pirouette into a title role when Tim Burton’s 3-D “Alice in Wonderland’’ arrives this March. Wasikowska will be literally in our faces as a tremulous but tough grown-up version of Lewis Carroll’s eternal heroine. She’s the least-known of a big-name cast, but trust this talent to play well with the likes of Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, and Helena Bonham Carter. And if that doesn’t take, there’s always 2011: Wasikowska has been cast as Jane Eyre for “Sin Nombre’’ director Cary Fukunaga.

TY BURR

THE LOCAL FILMMAKERS

Ilisa Barbash and her husband, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, are Harvard anthropologists and documentary filmmakers. She is curator of visual anthropology at the Peabody Museum; he’s an assistant professor of visual and environmental studies and of anthropology. But in 2001 they were living in Colorado, which is where they heard about a family of sheepherders in Montana who were among the last to make the seasonal 150-mile trek driving 3,000 sheep up into the mountains for summer pasture. They knew it had all the makings of a compelling observational film; what they didn’t know was how arduous and dangerous the journey would be, what with the grueling climb and the constant threat of grizzly bears and gray wolves. Castaing-Taylor, who calls himself a “recordist’’ rather than a cameraman, spent two months with the modern-day cowboys in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains, cut off from civilization. When he came down he was 20 pounds lighter and needed surgery on both feet, due to injuries caused by carrying the equipment day and night. Eight years later, they’ve completed “Sweetgrass: The Last Ride of the American Cowboy.’’ After 2009 showings at the Berlin and New York Film Festivals, it comes to the Kendall Square Cinema on April 2.

LINDA MATCHAN

THE HOLLYWOOD FILMMAKER

Yes, Floria Sigismondi is another fashion photographer and music-video director who wants to make movies. But have you seen the videos? Sigismondi’s work - for Christina Aguilera, Fiona Apple, and Marilyn Manson, among many others - have been strange pieces of optical theatre. They’re humid, alluringly blurred, entropic, erotic, beautiful, grotesque, full of wild poses and gesticulations. Often, what you’re watching approximates the memory of a dream (faraway, canted, silent, lightning quick, underwater slow). The images can be both hot and cool, which is why she’s a smart choice to direct “The Runaways,’’ about the pioneering all-girl band, with Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Lita Ford. What should distinguish “The Runaways’’ from other teen-rock movies is Sigismondi’s eye. It will be exciting to see whether her sense of opulence adds an emotional new element to the turbulent band’s legacy.

WESLEY MORRIS

THE SINGERS

It seems like only yesterday when, in the wake of Amy Winehouse, we got plenty of worthy successors. Duffy, Adele, and Estelle were leading lights in 2008 but were little heard from a year later. This year’s most exciting prospects include three more soul sisters who fall on various ends of the spectrum.

Diane Birch is only 26, but her sound is a lot older. The globe-trotting vocalist’s 2009 debut, “Bible Belt,’’ was a throwback to the classic singer-songwriter era of the ’70s with a dash of soul - think Carole King mixed with Birch’s mentor, Betty Wright. Although the well-reviewed album made a little splash last year, we think 2010 will produce a few more long-lasting waves for Birch since her latest gig puts her in front of the Jonas Brothers’ wildly enthusiastic audience. Birch hits the House of Blues as the opening act for Nick Jonas and the Administration on Jan. 12.

Already a budding star in Europe, Nneka is finally poised to make a splash stateside with the February release of a new album, “Concrete Jungle.’’ Like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, Nneka, who’s of Nigerian and German descent, blurs the line between hip-hop and cosmic R&B, couching her songs in messages of self-empowerment and social justice.

Lissie (né Lissie Maurus) is another creature altogether, not so much a soul singer as she is an incredibly soulful Americana artist who finds the sepia-toned sweet spot between Neko Case, Laura Marling, and the Shangri-Las. The proof is in the stunning “Wedding Bells,’’ off Lissie’s new EP, “Why You Runnin’.’’ You can catch Lissie opening for City and Colour on Jan. 10 at Somerville Theatre, a venue she could (and should) be headlining by the end of this year.

JAMES REED and SARAH RODMAN

THE TV WARRIORS

In 2001, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman executive produced “Band of Brothers’’ for HBO. The 10-part miniseries dazzlingly re-created World War II battle, but the well-chosen cast - including Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Donnie Wahlberg, and Neal McDonough - was terribly overcrowded and underdeveloped. That’s why I’m really eager to see “The Pacific.’’

On March 14, HBO is premiering the second 10-part miniseries about World War II from the same set of executive producers. But “The Pacific,’’ is going to solve the problems of “Band of Brothers’’ by focusing on the lives of three Marines in the Pacific theater.

These three actors - all of them mildly familiar onscreen faces - will have a chance to show range and give specific faces to the many who fought in World War II. James Badge Dale appeared in the movie “The Departed,’’ as well as the TV series “The Black Donnellys,’’ “Rescue Me,’’ and “24.’’ Joseph Mazzello began as a child actor in movies such as “Jurassic Park’’ and “The River Wild.’’ And Jon Seda as appeared in “Oz,’’ “Homicide,’’ and “Third Watch.’’

HBO continues to work to bring life to the miniseries format, after the networks tried to kill it with special effects and bloated story lines. Let’s see if these three actors can’t help in that mission.

MATTHEW GILBERT

THE COMPOSER

The imaginative Chinese-American composer Zhou Long faces a big test in 2010, as his first opera will be brought to life on the stage of the Cutler Majestic Theatre in late February. Co-commissioned by Opera Boston and the Beijing Music Festival, it is titled “Madame White Snake,’’ after an ancient Chinese legend adapted by Brookline librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs. It will be directed by Robert Woodruff as his first local staging since departing from the American Repertory Theater in 2007.

The entire creative team must be chastened by the example of “The First Emperor,’’ a grandly scaled Met commission by Zhou’s contemporary Tan Dun. It flopped due to a flawed libretto and a score that lost its way in trying to fuse Eastern and Western operatic traditions. But Zhou’s is a thoughtful musical voice, less given to spectacle, and it should be fascinating to hear what he has written. The opera already has a champion in its conductor Gil Rose, who described the new score as “intriguing and musically sophisticated but also entertaining for the audience. In the best opera tradition it’s going to get the left and the right side of the brain going.’’ Performances are Feb. 26, 28, and March 2.

JEREMY EICHLER

THE CHEF

Working everywhere from Eastern Standard to KO Prime to Toro, Jamie Bissonnette has gained a reputation as a master of charcuterie. Expect to start hearing more: In December, he partnered with Ken Oringer to debut Coppa, an Italian enoteca that was instantly as hot as its wood-burning ovens. With all that buzz, and knockout dishes such as oxtail and bone marrow pizza and spaghetti carbonara with sea urchin on the menu, Bissonnette is likely to draw national attention for the South End restaurant. When does Food & Wine magazine announce those annual “best new chef’’ awards, again?

DEVRA FIRST