By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire January 28, 2014 at 1:33PM
Every year, the Sundance Film Festival serves as a calling card for folks hoping to break out in the film world. Last year's Grand Jury Prize winner "Fruitvale Station" made a star out of its leading man Michael B. Jordan (who stars this month alongside fellow Sundance breakout Miles Teller in "That Awkward Moment") and a multiple award-winner out of its first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler. The year before, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" dominated the festival, culminating twelve months later with an Oscar nomination for its novice director, Benh Zeitlin.
With this year's edition now over, Indiewire has weeded through all the talent with films at the event, to select those who stand the best chance at going the distance based on their performance in Park City. Below are the 14 picks in no specific order.
Earl Lynn Nelson, "Land Ho!"
Who said all breakthroughs had to be under 30? Newbie actor (he's an oculoplastic surgeon by trade) Earl Lynn Nelson bucks the trend. Spewing sexist remarks with salacious glee, Nelson is a complete riot in Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz crowd-pleaser, "Land Ho!." His hilariously endearing performance as Mitch, a wealthy elderly man who embarks on a holiday to Iceland with his ex-brother in law ("This is Martin Bonner' star Paul Eenhoorn), plays a huge part in the film's success -- his effortless delivery is responsible for almost every laugh in the film (and there are plenty).
Josh Wiggins, "Hellion"
Although "Hellion" didn't receive the glowing reaction many going into Sundance had predicted, newcomer Josh Wiggins still emerged as a remarkable newcomer. The 13 year-old from Houston made his Sundance debut with his first acting role and killed it as the titular hellion opposite vets Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis. Appearing in almost every frame of the gritty drama about how a troubled boy (Wiggins) and his wayward father (Paul) deal with the death of a family member, Wiggins effortlessly commands attention with a uncompromising turn that drew comparisons to Leonardo DiCaprio's early work by many, including Entertainment Weekly.
Bill Hader, "The Skeleton Twins"
No actor surprised more at Sundance this year than former "Saturday Night Live" comic Bill Hader. In Craig Johnson's Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award-winning sophomore feature "The Skeleton Twins," acquired by Roadside and Lionsgate at the festival, Hader reunites with his "Adventureland" co-star and "SNL" alum Kristen Wiig, to play one of two deeply depressed siblings, in desperate need of a change in direction and a firm slap to the face. Wiig's showed off her formidable dramatic chops before in films like "Imogene" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," so it's Hader's performance that's the true revelation. Morose and flawed yet totally lovable, Hader's deeply humane take on a gay man at his wit's end will make casting directors see the actor in a new light.
Cutter Hodierne, "Fishing Without Nets"
Winner for the U.S. Narrative Best Director award for his feature film debut "Fishing Without Nets," Cutter Hodierne was visibly shocked when he took to the stage on awards night to accept his award. He shouldn't have been. In fact, this marks Hordierne's second Sundance award. In 2012, Hodierne won the Short Film Jury prize for the 17-minute short that he adapted into the feature length film that netted him Saturday's award. Like the short of the same name, his feature debut concerns a reluctant Somali fisherman who gets swept up in a group of high-seas pirates. Hodierne shot the massively ambitious indie in East Africa using Somali non-actors. The fact that he came away with a solid debut is impressive and bodes well for future projects.
Ana Lily Amirpour, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"
Billed at the first Iranian vampire western, Ana Lily Amirpour's "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" was the oddball question mark of the festival up until its world premiere. Following the unveiling, all people said about Amirpour's feature film debut was how awesome it was, recalling the early work of Jim Jamursch, who coincidentally, had his own vampire movie, "Only Lovers Left Alive," playing at the festival. "The director combines elements of film noir and the restraint of Iranian New Wave cinema with the subdued depictions of a bored youth culture found in early Jim Jarmusch…the comparisons go on and on, but the result is wholly original," wrote Eric Kohn in his glowing review.