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The Biggest Breakout Stars, Filmmakers & Newcomers Of The 2015 Sundance Film Festival

The Biggest Breakout Stars, Filmmakers & Newcomers Of The 2015 Sundance Film Festival

The 2015 Sundance Film Festival is staring to wind down. There are a few films still left to unspool, but The Playlist team have returned home, Park City is beginning to empty out and people are starting to look back and reflect on this year’s crop.

And, on the whole, it seems to have been a good year. Certainly commercially, with a record-breaking number of buys (though it’s interesting that three of the most-buzzed titles all went to one place, Fox Searchlight), but also critically, with a strong batch of big hits (though yes, there were a few real stinkers).

But festivals have a value beyond just movie-spotting: they also showcase filmmakers and performers who might be getting their first big break, or launch them into the stratosphere, and recent years have seen the careers of people like Damien Chazelle, Benh Zeitlin, Michael B. Jordan, David Lowery, Ava DuVernay, Jennifer Lawrence, Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan take off, while filmmakers and performers have also managed to reinvent their careers totally by adding new strings to their bows.

So who were this year’s big discoveries? Who stood out? Who surprised? Who shined extra brightly, in some cases like we’ve never seen before to the point they delivered some career-best performances? Well, actually a lot of people and a lot of already established actors too. We’ve consulted our team on the ground (thanks Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh and co.), and picked the most exciting filmmakers and actors to emerge at Sundance this year.

Take a look below, catch up on all our festival coverage here, and let us know who you’re most excited about in the comments.

Sarah Silverman (“I Smile Back”)
We’ve known since “Take This Waltz” that funny lady Sarah Silverman had some great dramatic chops. It’s not always easy for stand-up comedians to play a role outside of their persona, but Silverman takes that assumption and blasts it to smithereens with her sawed-off shotgun of a performance in “I Smile Back.” The story of a desperate, druggy, depressed housewife, the film may have some problems, but Silverman’s performance as Laney, is, in a word, harrowing. The journey through her addiction is chilling, and Silverman sells every moment, no matter how out of control Laney spirals. She demonstrates incredible mental and physical virtuosity, allowing Laney’s pain to read in her gestures, her walk; her eyes changing when she shifts into trying-to-score mode. The last scene is basically one giant full-body goosebump. As we texted our editor during the credits: “dude, I think Sarah Silverman is gonna win an Oscar.” It’s certainly the kind of brave, twisted, playing against type that makes people notice, and with the right marketing and release, she could be a contender. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never write her off as just a comedian again, and we can’t wait to see what other kinds of roles she can attack with this focus and fervor.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon & Thomas Mann & Olivia Cooke & RJ Cyler (“Me & Earl & The Dying Girl”)
If you’ve been paying any attention to the festival this year, you’ll know that the biggest talking-point has been “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl,” a crowd-pleasing, cinephile take on the teen weepie, which bowed to rave reviews (including ours) and a record price when Fox Searchlight picked it up. The film seemed like Sundance-by-numbers on paper, but as our review said, it’s a “wonderfully funny, bittersweet and inventive picture [that] will headlock even the most cynical-hearted viewer and turn him or her into emotional mush.” Adapted from his own novel by Jesse Andrews, it’s helmed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who’s been one to watch: working his way up as a PA and second-unit director under the likes of Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Gomez-Rejon became a protege of TV wizard Ryan Murphy, helming episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” the latter of which won him particular plaudits and an Emmy nod. He made his directorial debut with horror remake “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” last year, but the dizzying visuals and careful tone of the film look to launch him into the stratosphere (there’s already Oscar buzz around the picture). There’s the three young actors who play the characters of the title too. RJ Cyler (‘Earl’) is a relative newcomer, but a scene-stealer nonetheless, while Thomas Mann (‘Me’) is a familiar face from “Project X” and others, but shows new depths to his talent here. And Brit actress Olivia Cooke (‘The Dying Girl’) shows that she has potential far beyond the horror fare (“Bates Motel,” “Ouija”) she’s known for already.

Jason Segel (“The End of the Tour “)
Jonah Hill may be working with Martin Scorsese, James Franco has proven super versatile, and Seth Rogen will star alongside Michael Fassbender in what sounds like an Oscar-bait drama about Steve Jobs. But as one of the founding members of the young Judd Apatow crew, Jason Segel isn’t really known for serious roles. But that all changes with James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour” a dramedy about a Rolling Stone journalist who takes a life-changing five-day road trip with celebrated author David Foster Wallace not too long after “Infinite Jest” turns him into a literary sensation. Segel plays Wallace, and he’s terrific, capturing the philosophical, somewhat introverted and dude-stoner persona mixed with a highly sensitive perceptivity of the world. We already know Jesse Eisenberg is a great actor, but Segel actually steals the movie from him and gives as good as he gets. It’s a wonderful performance and really helps lift the movie’s inspiring tone. There’s already been awards chatter, but let’s table that and just say, welcome to the serious drama club, Jason Segel, you’ve proven yourself.

Rick Famuyiwa & Shameik Moore (“Dope”)
Another of the hottest tickets and biggest money buys in Park City was raucous coming-of-ager “Dope,” and though director Rick Famuyiwa isn’t exactly a newcomer, it should give his career a belter of a second act, and launch lead Shameik Moore to stardom. Famuyiwa, a USC grad, made his directorial debut in 1999 with the strong “The Wood,” and followed it up with the equally good “Brown Sugar” in 2002, before co-writing the terrific “Talk To Me” in 2007. His last film, “Our Family Wedding,” was something of a disappointment, but he’s firmly on the comeback trail with “Dope,” a restless, hip-hop crime coming-of-age comedy that, as our review said, is like “Tarantino on ecstasy,” while also including “witty and sharp African-American cultural commentary a la ‘Dear White People.’” Sure, it’s a bit indulgent and overstuffed (“in need of serious taming,” as our review put it), a further re-cut could make it even better by the time Open Road release it later in the year. And among a strong cast (Tony RevoloriA$AP Rocky, Keith Stanfield), 19-year-old newcomer Shameik Moore, best known for Cartoon Network sketch comedy “Incredible Crew,” looks to be a huge star in the making.

Robert Eggers & Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”)
The first big buzz movie of the festival, and one of its best-reviewed films altogether, was artsy period horror film “The Witch,” about a family of New Englanders in the 1600s whose infant son is taken from them, a blend, according to director Robert Eggers, of “The Shining” and Bergman. It marks Eggers’ feature directorial debut, but he’s not a neophyte in the film industry, having been a production and costume designer, as well as a theater director, and “The Witch” was developed through the Sundance Institute. It’s a startling debut, one our review called “immaculately haunting, exquisitely ominous and unequivocally haunting,” and it’s also beautifully acted by the cast, who are mostly British character-actor types. Particularly impressive is lead Anya Taylor-Joy, an 18-year-old Argentinean-born, London-based model with a few previous acting credits (Canadian TV movie “Viking Quest” among them), but who seems all but certain to go on to bigger things from here. Eggers, meanwhile, has already set up his next project, with Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8 company.

Cobie Smulders (“Results,” “Unexpected”)
Forgive those of us who didn’t really want to spend nine years on a broad network sitcom with a laugh track, but most of us did not spend those years watching “How I Met Your Mother.” Fans of the show have always sung her praises, but the jury’s been out otherwise, because roles like Maria Hill in “The Avengers,” a dead ghost in “Safe Haven” or Vince Vaughn’s underappreciated girlfriend in “Delivery Man” really didn’t demonstrate much. But she certainly found some meaty roles at Sundance to chew into. And she’s terrific in Andrew Bujalski’s “Results,” as the star player who outshines even Guy Pearce and Kevin Corrigan as an acerbic and dysfunctional fitness trainer with serious anger issues. Smulders shows range too, comedy, dramatic chops and some very convincing rage. In the other Sundance drama she’s in, Kris Swanberg‘s  “Unexpected,”  Smulders is a teacher at an inner city Chicago high school who suddenly finds herself pregnant. It’s an emotional but natural performance and she sells the anxiety of retaining her identity while also being a mom, and the deep friendship she has with her pregnant student. If we weren’t convinced before, we are now.

Lola Kirke (“Mistress America’)
Looks like the ranks of cinematic sisters (the Deschanels, the Maras, et al) have another pair of siblings for their club. British-American actress Jemima Kirke has been impressing in “Girls” across the past four seasons, but Sundance saw her younger sister Lola, who’s been increasingly omnipresent over the last six months or so, cementing her burgeoning stardom. After standing out in “The Leftovers” and “Gone Girl” (she played the teen drifter who rips off Rosamund Pike’s Amy), Kirke starred in Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman’s Amazon series “Mozart In The Jungle” just before Christmas, proving a winning lead even when the series around her was uneven. Then, in Park City, she co-starred with Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s latest “Mistress America,” a performance we described as “luminous” in our review. She’s already shown a hugely impressive range in her on-screen appearances — we’ll be intrigued to see how she handles more commercial fare, with young adult novel adaptation “Fallen,” co-starring Jeremy Irvine, up next.

Ben Mendelsohn (“Mississippi Grind,” “Slow West”)
Paraphrasing what more than one person said on Twitter over Sundance, put Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn in anything and the movie generally becomes instantly better. After his breakout role in “Animal Kingdom” in 2010 at Sundance, some of the best directors working today instantly took notice; Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight Rises“), Andrew Dominik (“Killing Them Softly”), Derek Cianfrance (“The Place Beyond the Pines”), Ridley Scott (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”) and more. And so the streak continued at this year’s festival. The role was smaller, but Mendelsohn chewed into the role of Michael Fassbender’s old outlaw gang mentor and father figure in “Slow West.” And in the gambling drama “Mississippi Grind,” Mendelsohn is everything, the heart and soul of the movie. As a three-time beautiful loser down on his luck beyond redemption, Mendelsohn is more than a little fucked up and broken. And he certainly can’t stop gambling for shit even though it eats away at his life, but man, this is just a sad, hang-dog performance that’s impossible to forget.

Bel Powley & Marielle Heller (“Diary Of A Teenage Girl”)
Like ‘Me & Earl,’ “Diary Of A Teenage Girl” has a premise that sounds like it could have come from a random Sundance movie generator: it’s a 1970s-set film about a young woman having an affair with her mother’s handsome boyfriend in San Francisco. But it’s executed well enough to stand out from the crowd in a big way, and should be a hell of a calling card for both director Marielle Heller and young star Bel Powley. Heller’s an actress and writer, mostly in theater (she appeared briefly in “A Walk Among The Tombstones” recently, and fun fact: her spouse is Lonely Island member and “MacGruber” director Jorma Taccone) who adapted Phoebe Cloeckner’s graphic novel and demonstrates “technique to burn” in her “sharply observed, funny and textured” film, according to our review. But the film is also, said our reviewer, “for the most part the Bel Powley show,” and the British actress is poised for a Carey Mulligan-style breakout: the 22-year-old got her start in TV show “M.I. High,” before wowing on stage in “Tusk Tusk” and “Jumpy.” Big things are already on the way for her: she’s starring as Princess Margaret with Sarah Gadon and Jack Reynor in long-gestating royals-in-disguise rom-com “Girls Night Out,” and will also appear with Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult in Drake Doremus’ sci-fi picture “Equals.”

Michael Angarano, Billy Crudup, Tye Sheridan and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez  (“The Stanford Prison Experiment”)
Based on the famous and landmark social experiment by Dr. Philip Zimbardo that quickly went off the rails in the summer of 1971, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” has all kinds of riches besides its insane, too-good-to-be-true story. First off you have an excellently crafted film by Kyle Patrick Alvarez who has made darker films in the past before, but nothing quite as shocking and abrasive as this. Then you’ve got an outstanding cast doing some of the best work we’ve seen in ages or ever. Let’s say this: Billy Crudup has never been nominated for an Oscar, let alone won one, and the rigorous choices from his career may dictate that he’ll never win such an award. And while, sure, it’s meaningless, it would be a shame for him to be passed over again, because Crudup is fantastic here. And once again, he demonstrates this with believable work that shows off many facets of human behavior. Also terrific in the film as a prisoner psychologically beaten into submission is Tye Sheridan. But if there’s an MVP — and it’s an unexpected one — it’s Michael Angarano. Not because he doesn’t have chops (see “The Knick,” “Ceremony” and “Snow Angels” for evidence), but because we’ve just never seen this sweet kid turn into a monster. And monster it up he does, Angarano plays a young man who takes role playing just a little too seriously and sets the tone for the correctional officers in a mock prison to assume the roles of cruel aggressors. Angarano pulls it off with style as a student who adopts a Southern hick police officer personality and just runs with it. It is by turns incredibly humorous and then, on a dime, chillingly scary. Big ups for this one.

Saoirse Ronan & John Crowley (“Brooklyn,” “Stockholm, Pennsylvania”)
Saoirse Ronan may just have everyone beat on this list. She’s always been good, sometimes great, but there’s just a super confluence of terrific forces that crescendo wonderfully in John Crowley’s wistful romantic coming-of-age film, and she’s the focal flashpoint. “Brooklyn” is about a young Irish immigrant who leaves country, friends and beloved family behind to try to make a prosperous life for herself in America. But lonely and estranged, with her heart and soul back in Ireland, she’s devastated to be apart from her loved ones. Boys change all this, and then conflicts back home make it even more challenging. “Brooklyn” is sad, but too golden to be a weepie, too beautifully authentic to be described in the same breath with most lame tearjerkers. And it’s also funny, intoxicating and charming, and Ronan controls and guides out all these emotions with deeply impressive consideration. It is probably one of the top performances of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and while awards chatter always feels premature at this time of year, its quality and worthiness is certainly not in doubt. Crowley immaculately crafts the movie with a thoughtful and graceful touch that puts it all over the edge. You may get your heart broken, but at least it won’t be done cheaply. Ronan is quite good in “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” as an abducted girl returned to her parents 17 years later, but estranged and alienated from the world upon her return.

Logan Miller (“Take Me To The River,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment”)
Every year there’s a crop of actors who show up in more than one Sundance title, but these are often slightly more established performers (like say Ron Livingston and Cynthia Nixon this year). 23-year-old Logan Miller may have more than 20 film and TV credits to his name already, but aside from small parts in “The Bling Ring” and “Night Moves,” he hasn’t cut too deeply into our consciousness — maybe because we’re not avid followers of the “Ultimate Spider-Man” animated series on which Miller voices Nova. But that’s all changed now, with a lead and a smaller role in two Sundance features that prove he’s more than just a pretty face, and that he has significant range. He’s front-and-center of Matt Sobel‘s audacious, peculiar, sometimes frustrating debut “Take Me To The River” which sees him play an ambiguous fish-out-of-water Californian whose family reunion trip to Red State America turns dark — it’s a tricky role, especially with the peculiar register the film works in, but he negotiates its difficult rhythms with quiet style. Then in Kyle Patrick Alvarez‘s chilling “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” Miller plays as part of an excellent, mostly young male ensemble alongside other standouts Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan and Ezra Miller. He has the daft-sounding “Scouts vs. Zombies” coming in 2015 too, but it’ll be these two Sundance films that are his showcases, particularly ‘River,’ and in an industry ever ravenous for young male talent, we’ve no doubt his ascent starts here.

Christopher Abbott, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, director Josh Mond (“James White”)
It’s not like Christopher Abbott needed more indie cred — as an ex-series regular on “Girls,” with a role in Sundance breakout “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (from director Sean Durkin, who produces here), and even a small part in JC Chandor‘s “A Most Violent Year,” all he really needed was a lead role showcase. And he got one, and how, in Josh Mond‘s feature debut “James White,” in which he tears into the role of the titular James, a hedonistic New Yorker driven to the brink of self-destruction when his beloved but fucked-up mother (Cynthia Nixon, also outstanding) becomes seriously ill. Abbott also has 2015’s “Criminal Activities” in the cards — directed by Jackie Earle Haley and co-starring Haley, Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens and John Travolta, and beyond that, well, if you can find a bookie who’ll give you odds, take a bet on him being a big star soon. No less impressive is rapper-turned-actor Scott Mescudi (“Need for Speed,” “Two Night Stand“) who plays James’ gay best friend in a remarkably judgement-free role, giving a performance that makes us look forward to his other 2015 titles: “Vincent ‘n’ Roxxy” co-starring Emile Hirsch, Zoe Kravitz and Emory Cohen; “Meadowland,” the directorial debut of ace cinematographer Reed Morano; and the “Entourage” movie. (Okay, maybe not that last one.)

Patrick Brice (“The Overnight”)
It seems like every time we’re at Sundance, we get excited about a promising-looking comedy featuring the great, oft-underused Adam Scott, only to discover that it’s actually pretty-to-very disappointing. But after the likes of “Bachelorette,” “A.C.O.D.” and “Our Idiot Brother,” 2015 was the year that the Scott-starring comedy finally paid off with not just Leslye Headland’s “Sleeping With Other People,” but also the “The Overnight,” a film our review called “hysterically funny.” The man responsible? Writer-director Patrick Brice. The film isn’t actually Brice’s directorial debut: he’s a long-time Duplass pal who co-wrote (with Mark) and helmed well-regarded SXSW horror “Creep” last year. That it’s so different from ‘The Overnight,” a sex-comedy where Scott and “Orange Is The New Black”’s Taylor Schilling end up in an evening of swinging with Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche, will only help to make Brice one to watch: our review said that the film’s script was “incredibly well-written, and that the film effectively managed to mix “broad, bawdy humor and real heartfelt vulnerability,” and make “weird situations seem totally normal and real.” Newcomers The Orchard picked up “The Overnight” for a hefty $4 million, and with Radius releasing “Creep” sometime this year too, Brice’s range and diversity is sure to gain attention.

Michael J. Larnell & Federico Cesca (“Cronies”)
Leaving the warm security blanket of higher education is always a terrifying thing (as is reflected in the subject matter in about one out of three Sundance movies, it sometimes feels…). But director Michael J. Larnell and cinematographer Federico Cesca must be feeling more comfortable than most about graduating: the pair are both MFA students in the film program at NYU, but months before they leave for the real world this summer, their film “Cronies” is one of the big hits of the NEXT program at Sundance. A low-key story of a childhood friendship under pressure in St. Louis, Missouri, executive-produced by another NYU grad, one Spike Lee, the film’s “an auspicious debut,” according to our review, reminiscent of “La Haine” and “She’s Gotta Have It,” that feels “alive and of-the-moment,” and with “terrific energy.” Larnell’s clearly a huge talent to watch, and his DoP, the Argentina-born Cesca, equally so: our verdict particularly praised “The stunning and atmospheric black and white photography.” Clearly, neither will be starving for work come summer…

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor and director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”)
There’s obviously a long way to go, but it felt like the last year or so has seen some big leaps forward in terms of transgender characters and actors on screen, thanks in large part to “Orange Is The New Black” and Jill Soloway’s tremendous TV show “Transparent.” Which is good news for Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, the two stars of “Starlet” director Sean Baker’s latest film, one of our favorites from the festival. The two actresses happen to be transgender women, but that’s almost incidental to Baker’s film, which tracks a pair of sex workers across a long Los Angeles Christmas Eve. The film’s “a breath of fresh air in an indie landscape that often tends to focus on #WhitePeopleProblems,” per our review, Rodriguez and Taylor, both essentially first-timers, shine alongside more established talent like James Ransone. As Katie put it, “There’s a quick, funny rapport between the two girls, who are a joy to watch onscreen; totally different but also totally in tune with each other. Taylor possesses a wonderful elegance and screen presence, and Rodriguez is an unstoppable force, her antics covering up her pain and vulnerability.” Hopefully we’ll see both ladies elsewhere in the future.

Jake Johnson and Brie Larson (“Digging for Fire”)
It
should be said that the entire ensemble cast of Joe Swanberg’s marriage
dramedy “Digging For Fireis very good, including Rosemarie DeWitt,
Mike Birbiglia
and Sam Rockwell among many others. But if we had to
choose one lead and one supporting character that stood out just a tiny
bit more, we’d have to go with Jake Johnson and Brie Larson. Johnson’s
known to most audiences for the FOX comedy “New Girl,” and while it has
some charms, his work in indie films has been much more interesting.
Plus he’s seemingly begun a great partnership with Swanberg, having
starred in “Drinking Buddies” and now co-writing “Digging For Fire.”
Johnson stars as a married man and father in what soon reveals itself to
be a kind of mild crisis that manifests with a curiosity that won’t
stop and some social drinking that maybe goes a little too far. Brie
Larson was on the verge for a long time until she shot out in “Short
Term 12
.” And while her role here is much, much smaller and much less of a tour de
force, in this subtle and nuanced drama about individuality, compromise
and longing for more, she has just that little thing that sticks out.

John Maclean & Caren Pistorious (“Slow West”)
There are many things that help you become a breakout at a festival like Sundance: a big star in the cast, a quirky premise, being produced by a Duplass Brother. To that list, you can add ‘already having won a BAFTA’ — John Maclean picked up the British equivalent to an Oscar for his short “Pitch Black Heist” a few years back, and reteams with star/producer Michael Fassbender for this cracking, much-anticipated Western, also starring Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn. Maclean, a former member of indie favorites The Beta Band, immediately shows his directorial chops with the “brilliantly executed” “Slow West,” a film that, per our review, contains “sharp wit, absurdist violence and fairy tale qualities,” with a “wicked sense of humor.” It’s an ambitious move to start off your career with a Western, but Maclean shows himself more than up to the task, aided no end by a small cast. From which, it should be said, special mention should be given to newcomer Caren Pistorious, who plays the object of Smit-McPhee’s affections: the Australian actress is best known back home for TV show “Offspring,” but she’s a stand-out in “Slow West,” and should have big things on the horizon, as she’s reteaming with Fassbender, along with Rachel Weisz and Alicia Vikander, for Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans.”

Cynthia Nixon (“James White,” “Stockholm, Pennsylvania”)
Cynthia Nixon’s career thus far has been defined by the role of Miranda Hobbes on “Sex In The City” (though she’s also a respected Broadway stage actress) but this year the 48-year-old actress shuns some serious vanity with some incredibly go-for-broke performances. It’s as if she’s almost tearing down that chipper persona and proving something. And it’s not like she needs to either, but she really hit a kind of stride at Sundance that we’ve never seen. In “James White” she plays Christopher Abbott’s mom (we loved Abbott so much we gave him his own entry here too, see above) dying of cancer, but putting up the fight with humor and cathartic anger. It could just be another mother role, and one dying of terminal illness of course, but it’s not, and what eventually unveils itself is really a heartbreaking love story between mother and son that’s super affecting. While the movie itself loses its way, Nixon plays another mom in “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” but one who has reached the end of her patience and sanity — having already suffered for 17 years at the abduction of her daughter — who, when she finally snaps, oh boy does it get ugly. The film might descend into an absurd thriller, to a degree, but Nixon shocks and surprises us yet again regardless.

Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”)
Non-fiction films don’t always get the same amount of attention as their scripted brethren at Sundance, or other festivals, but one exception this year was “The Wolfpack,” helmed by first-time feature director Crystal Moselle. The director, who’s spent the last few years working mostly in commercials, has spent five years working on the film about six teenage brothers raised mostly by movies and by their shut-in parents. It’s an extraordinary story that took real blood and sweat to pull off, and not every viewer found the finished film entirely satisfying: our review, by Kate Erbland, found that the film left too many unanswered questions, and didn’t always capitalize on the tougher tangents it could have followed. But other Playlist writers who saw the film were more enthusiastic, and either way, Moselle clearly has a killer eye for a good story, a strong visual approach, and an admirable ability to separate herself from her subjects to some degree. We’ll be very, very intrigued to see what she does next.

Margot Robbie (“Z for Zachariah”)
While
she had a brief stint in the shuttered show “Pan Am” and a memorable
little turn in “About Time,” almost everyone knows Margot Robbie from
Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” And while
that’s a good turn, ‘Wall Street’ is mostly the Leo and Jonah show with
Robbie left to be the Long Island shrew who gets fed up with her insane
husband. So it’s with some surprise that we highlight her graceful, quiet and
internalized performance in Craig Zobel’s “Z For Zachariah,” perhaps
the world’s first love triangle set in an post-apocalyptic setting. The
movie also stars Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the latter of whom seems destined for all-time greatness (see “12 Years A Slave,” which
he crushed). But it’s Robbie who is the standout in this film, playing an introverted
and resourceful preacher’s daughter who becomes the object of both men’s
affections. It helps that the character is three-dimensionally drawn, not
just an “object,” and Robbie sensitively sketches out the role. We’re
willing to bet this is the beginning of something big.

Rupert Goold (“True Story”)
Coming in to this Sundance, (as in our Most Anticipated Sundance feature) the main question mark hovering over “True Story” was its director — with previous experience largely on stage, Goold’s transition to the big screen was the major unknown quantity in what otherwise sounded like a terrifically promising real-life story of crime, incarceration and the ethics of journalism, starring dramatic ringers Jonah Hill and James Franco in the showy role of the killer/fugitive. So it’s satisfying that, coming out the other side, it’s Goold who’s made the biggest leap of all concerned in terms of profile. Most impressive, perhaps, is that his debut displays a very filmic approach to storytelling, as opposed to just strong dialogue and performance which we might have expected from someone with a theater background. In fact our review calls out the film’s chilly visual style, frequent close ups and overall tight control over rhythm and tone, meaning even if we found the film’s most salable asset, Franco’s performance, a little difficult to engage with, Hill’s turn and mostly Goold’s direction make this one to seek out. As yet Goold has no more film projects lined up (he’s busy running London’s buzzy Almeida Theatre, admittedly), but expect that to change, and soon.

Honorable Mentions: Of course, we’re barely scratching the surface of new talent unearthed by Sundance. First and foremost might be Lily Tomlin in “Grandma,” she seems to be receiving some raves, but we missed the film in Park City. Sony Picture Classics bought the film. A late-game comeback for her…well that’s kind of an awards season narrative, now isn’t it? There were also a few filmmakers or performers showing promise, but the movies they were in weren’t quite perfect. But others to keep an eye on include Charles Poekel (“Christmas Again”), Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel (“The D Train”), Jon Watts (“Cop Car”), Melissa Rauch (“The Bronze”) and Nikole Beckwith (“Stockholm, Pennsylvania”).

We were also impressed by comedian Gregg Turkington, AKA Neil Hamburger, in Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment,” newcomer Avan Jogia, who has small roles in “Ten Thousand Saints” and “I Am Michael” and impressed in both, Gail Bean in “Unexpected,” and “I’ll See You In My Dreams” writer/director Brett Haley. In the doc world, it also sounds like we’ll see and hear more great things from Chad Gracia (director of the doc “The Russian Woodpecker“), Michael Beach Nichols (“Welcome To Leith“) and Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land“) among others.

Browse through all our coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival by clicking here.

– Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh, Oli Lyttelton

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