J.J. Abrams – “Infinitely Polar Bear”
Abrams brings a blockbuster mentality to both his feature films (“Star Trek,” “Mission: Impossible III”) and his television projects (“Alias,” “Lost”), so color us surprised when he decided to back a tiny indie film about a manic-depressive father reconnecting with his adorable two children and trying to win back his wife. Granted, all Abrams really did on the film was throw some money at the project, but when you’re as tiny of an indie film as this, all the money you can secure becomes vital in getting the project off the ground. The film premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and was released this summer, featuring Mark Ruffalo in one of his most sensitive performances to date.
Michael Arndt – “Little Miss Sunshine”
Michael Arndt has become one of the industry’s go-to screenwriters for breaking stories on the biggest new franchise entires, from “The Force Awakens” to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Toy Story 3,” but he got his start back in 2006 as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Little Miss Sunshine.” One of the biggest and most profitable Sundance success stories of all time, the movie was an awards favorite and announced Arndt as a writer of stirring human feeling and deep comic touches. Starring Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin and Alan Arkin, the comedy-drama recounts a dysfunctional family road trip on the way to a children’s beauty pageant. Thanks to Arndt’s script, “Sunshine” is still one of the most successful indies ever made.
John Boyega – “Attack the Block”
Joe Cornish’s wildly inventive “Attack the Block” is a cult favorite, and it’s a bit surprising (and disappointing) that John Boyega didn’t become more of a major star after the movie’s 2011 release. He effortlessly dominates the movie as the reserved and committed gang member Moses. The bulk of the film is devoted to how Moses’ gang reacts in the wake of an alien invasion, and the entire production hinges on the kind of rapid and unpredictable tonal switches that define much of Edgar Wright’s work. Balancing a comic force with a piercing vulnerability, Boyega steals the show, and it’s these traits that serve him best as Finn in “The Force Awakens.”
Daisy Ridley – “Scrawl”
The big breakout of “The Force Awakens,” Daisy Ridley is a powerhouse to be reckoned with, and it’s sort of miraculous that such a franchise-anchoring performance comes courtesy of a relative newcomer to the business. The epic blockbuster is truly Ridley’s coming out party, though she did have a role in the small British comedy-horror “Scrawl,” written and directed by Peter Hearn. Mixed with fantasy elements, “Scrawl” centers on two friends who write a comic book, only to find that the situations they illustrate actually come to life. When a mysterious girl shows up from the comic, the three embark on an adventure to avoid what has been written.
Adam Driver – “Hungry Hearts”
Adam Driver has been one of the indie scene’s most promising stars ever since he decided to begin moving away from his Emmy-nominated turn on HBO’s “Girls.” He gave some effective support in films “While We’re Young” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but in the twisted psychodrama “Hungry Hearts,” he got the chance to play the lead and he absolutely delivered, winning the Coppa Volpi Award (Best Actor) at the Venice Film Festival. Written and directed by Saverio Costanzo, the film stars Driver opposite Alba Rohrwacher as a young married couple in New York City who engage in a fateful struggle over the life of their newborn child. As the mother’s increasingly nightmarish child rearing practices take center stage, the husband is forced into an emotional ringer as the film evokes the classic slow-burn thrillers of Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock.
Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis”
After memorable roles in “Drive,” “A Most Violent Year” and “Ex Machina,” Oscar Isaac has become an indie stalwart and one of the best actors working today, making him an at-first odd but reliable choice to star in a blockbuster as huge as “The Force Awakens.” Isaac’s most towering performance to date is his lead role as the struggling folk singer in the Coen Brothers’ highly personal “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Somber and dusty, the musical odyssey leaves you with bruises as funny as they are painful thanks to Isaac’s sensationally subdued work. The actor sings his heart out and makes you feel the inevitable wounds of a man striving and starving to do more than just merely exist.
Lupita Nyong’o – “12 Years a Slave”
The stunning Lupita Nyong’o was the breakout award winner of the 2013-14 season thanks to her devastating supporting turn in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave.” A complete unknown at the time, Nyong’o drew raves for her emotionally startling turn as the abused slave Patsey, going as far as winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her debut film performance. The fragile strength she brought to the role was staggering, and her haunting eyes were like a weapon that pierced the screen. No wonder she was able to follow up such a small (but integral) performance with an essential role in cinema’s biggest franchise of all time.
Domnhall Gleeson – “Frank”
Domnhall Gleeson has been slowly giving his father (Brendan Gleeson) a run for his money with a handful of versatile performances, ranging from the sincere lover back home in “Brooklyn” to the unabashed romantic in “About Time” and the smitten and intimidated programmer in “Ex Machina.” His best showcase has been in “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson’s offbeat and idiosyncratic “Frank.” Full of passion and odd quirks, Gleeson’s Jon is the window through which the audience explores this weird world of emotionally unstable musicians.
Harrison Ford – “Extraordinary Measures”
It’s rare the man behind Han Solo and Indiana Jones takes a step in the independent film world, but such was the case in 2010 when Harrison Ford teamed with Brendan Frasier for the first film ever distributed by CBS Films. The movie was entirely ignored by audiences, grossing a paltry $15 million opposite a budget twice that, but Ford is typically commendable and committed as Dr. Robert Stonehill, who takes on the emotionally and medically taxing job of trying to find a drug that could save children diagnosed with Pompe’s disease, a disorder which damages muscle and nerve cells throughout the body.
Carrie Fisher – “Hannah and Her Sisters”
Carrie Fisher had a juicy cameo in last year’s dark Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars,” but her true indie gem is Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” released by Orion Pictures in February 1986. Viewers have to wait until the film’s third act to see Fischer in action, but when she arrives on the scene as the best friend and business partner of Dianne Wiest’s Holly, she steals the show as her character becomes an adversary in both the professional and personal life of her pal. Wiest went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but much of her performance gets bolstered by the intense conflict Fisher brings to the table.
Andy Serkis – “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”
Andy Serkis is best known around the world for his stellar motion capture performances as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” King Kong and Caesar in the new “Planet of the Apes” franchise, but he’s absolutely dazzled in the few chances he’s had to perform in live action. In Mat Whitecross’ vibrant biographical drama “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” Serkis lets it rip as Ian Dury, the new wave English musician who rocketed to fame in the 1970s while battling the polio he contracted as a child. With an unrelenting energy and unpredictable swagger, Serkis is an ingenious force, constantly putting Dury on the edge of mad genius.