From Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics to Felix Baumgartner’s historic skydive and James Bond’s golden “Skyfall,” there was plenty of shock and awe in 2012. But sometimes what dazzled most lay in the quiet, the understated – an everyday Pakistani girl standing up to the Taliban and an American president reminding us that all human beings are created equal and free.
In 2012, the dazzling demonstrated that a great idea, met with courage and resilience, may be the most stunning thing of all.
Felix Baumgartner – When it comes to dazzling, it would be hard to top setting the world record for skydiving from a height of 24 miles at an estimated speed of Mach 1.24. With his thrilling Oct. 14 jump, Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle.
James Bond – Ian Fleming’s seminal spy capped off 50 years of leaving movie audiences shaken and stirred with “Skyfall,” featuring kinetic action sequences and a kaleidoscopic production design, anchored by Daniel Craig, who continues to excel as 007. But it’s the post-feminist plot – an unusual Bond quest involving mothers and sons and the most compelling villain this side of Dr. No – that proves that nothing dazzles quite like reinventing an icon.
Bill Clinton – Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you had to admit “the Big Dog” was once again the leader of the pack, giving what some pundits said was the best speech of both conventions. Meanwhile, his Clinton Global Initiative continues to be the byword in bipartisanship, attracting both President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney as it strives to improve the lives of 400 million people in 180 countries with a commitment of $73.1 billion.
Anderson Cooper – As anyone who has ever watched his profiles on “60 Minutes” can attest, this peripatetic newsman doesn’t mind swimming with Michael Phelps – or with sharks. The silver-maned host of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360°” made his bones with his moving coverage of Hurricane Katrina and was on the scene once again with Sandy. Neither hurricanes nor blustery pols can dampen his ardor for the truth. Yet he is equally candid on the other side of the mike, as his charming David Letterman appearances attest.
Gabby Douglas – With sparkling outfits, an infectious smile and a bubbly personality that suits her nickname, the U.S. gymnast twinkled in London, quite literally. But she saved her most scintillating moments for the all-around competition. With grit and versatility, she captured gold – and America’s heart.
“Homeland” – Of all the many incandescent manipulations that define Showtime’s multiple Emmy Award winner – about a former Marine POW suspected of terrorism (Damian Lewis) and the CIA agent obsessed with him (Claire Danes) – none is more powerful than the way the writers manipulate the audience. Case in point from season one (on DVD) – the moment when Lewis’ Sgt. Brody teaches his captor’s young son the words to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It will have you balling.
Keira Knightley – The 21st century’s answer to Audrey Hepburn, Knightley has bent it like Beckham, tangled with pirates in the Disney franchise and played Austen’s proud, prejudiced (but lovably spirited) Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Now, though, she shifts sumptuously into another gear as one of literature’s most complex adulteresses in “Anna Karenina.”
Lincoln – His name, one for the ages, needs no further luster from us. But that hasn’t stopped Americans from trying to enhance the golden patina. In the spring, Honest Abe got the camp treatment in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” combining two things we love. This season, he’s being Spielberged in the acclaimed Oscar front-runner, “Lincoln,” starring double-winner Daniel Day-Lewis.
Michael Phelps – This was supposed to be the flashier Ryan Lochte’s year. But after a slow start at the Summer Games in London, Phelps became the most decorated Olympian to date. His finest moment, however, came out of the pool when he told the clearly crestfallen Lochte, who cost the Americans gold in the 4 x 100 relay, “You did a good job.” That generous gesture showed leadership and character.
The Royals – Well, what can you say after you say Olympics and Diamond Jubilee? Sure, there were bumps. Pesky paparazzi. Pippa’s taste in boyfriends. Harry’s discovery that what happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay there. But Wills and Kate carried on with aplomb, while Good Queen Bess proved to be the best Bond girl of all.
Denzel Washington – Has this Mount Vernon native ever given a bad performance? From Malcolm X to the bad-to-the-bone cop in “Training Day,” Washington has left an indelible mark on the psyche of the movie-going public. This season, as the Oscar race heats up, he takes off in “Flight,” as a pilot whose heroism and addictions are all of a piece. The oft-onscreen bad guy is known for his good deeds off, serving as national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and supporting the Boys & Girls Club of Mount Vernon.
Malala Yousafzai – Few qualities dazzle the way courage does. Standing up for women’s education against the Taliban, the Pakistani activist nearly paid with her life. Now recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, Malala has proved herself to be one of the most inspiring teenagers this side of Joan of Arc.
Bob Rozycki and Mary Shustack contributed to this report.