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.
Everyone in "Dear White People"
Justin Simien's hilarious and provocative debut "Dear White People" was a breath of fresh air that lived up to its early promise as a zeitgeist comedy tailor made to appeal to Obama's America. And while Simien, winner of the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent award at Sundance, is the phenomenally talented man behind the picture, his cast is too good to ignore. All relatively unknown, each and every performer in Simien's film takes what could have been preachy material and injects it with a raw energy that's infectious. Watch out for this cast to blow up big in the years to come.
Jennifer Kent, "The Babadook"
No film terrified audiences more at Sundance than Jennifer Kent's mega-promising feature film debut, "The Babadook." The Australian filmmaker, who has a background in acting, wowed the festival circuit with her award-winning short film "Monster," which screened at more than 40 international film festivals. Still, nobody really saw "The Babadook" coming. Acquired by IFC Midnight out of the festival, critics were quick to praise the horror film, with many saying that she even out-skilled "The Conjuring" director James Wan in the fright department. The terrifying thriller centers on a single mother forced to deal with her violent young son and the bogeyman who lurks in their halls at night.
Jenny Slate, "Obvious Child"
If you aren't already familiar with Jenny Slate from her stint on "Saturday Night Live," you probably know her as the voice behind the title character in "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On," the stop-motion short she made with her husband Dean Fleischer-Camp that became a viral smash and screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. She also appeared on TV in "Parks and Recreation" and "Girls." But it's in Gillian Robespierre's comedy "Obvious Child," that Slate proves she can more than carry a project. Playing a Brooklyn comedian who refuses to grow up (think "Frances Ha," just funnier), Slate shines as a lead and is sure to become familiar to many more when A24 releases the film later this year.
Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"
With only one feature under his belt, the little seen indie "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," Damien Chazelle came into Park City as a relative unknown. That changed on the first night of the festival when his phenomenally entertaining sophomore feature "Whiplash" debuted to an ecstatic response that resulted in a Sony Pictures Classics pickup out of the festival. Based on his short of the same name about an aspiring drummer and his psychologically abusive teacher, "Whiplash" continued to ride its deafening reception right through to awards night, where Chazelle was awarded with both the Audience and Grand Jury Prize awards – the same honor bestowed upon last year's sensation, "Fruitvale Station." Like that film, expect to hear a lot more about "Whiplash" come this fall's awards season, where the film is all but guaranteed to net a slew of nominations for various awards.
Malik Vitthal, "Imperial Dreams"
This year's NEXT competition was an extremely strong one, making Malik Vitthal win of the Best of NEXT award for his feature film debut "Imperial Dreams" especially sweet. Developed in the 2011 Sundance Screenwriter's Lab, where it received the Time Warner Storytelling Grant, the Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellowship and the Zygmunt and Audrey Wilf Foundation award, "Imperial Dreams" had plenty of buzz coming into this year's festival and more than delivered on it to tell the powerful story of a reformed gangster and his struggle to re-enter life after serving time in prison.
Andrew Droz Palermo, "Rich Hill"
Andrew Droz Palemro was last at Sundance with the NEXT drama "A Teacher," which he shot. This year he came back as a first-time doc director with "Rich Hill," which won him and his co-director (Emmy winner and cousin) Tracy Droz Tragos the coveted Grand Jury Prize for best documentary. The gorgeously shot film follows three boys on the cusp of adolescence living in Rich Hill, Missouri, who hope for a brighter future. Palermo is clearly one who likes to embrace new challenges. Up next for the DP/filmmaker is a narrative film he co-wrote and will direct, titled "One & Two."
Desiree Akhavan, "Appropriate Behavior"
In 2011, Desiree Akhavan crafted a short "Portlandia"-esque web series called "The Slope," a Brooklyn-based chronicle of a lesbian couple. Both her and copilot/costar Ingrid Jungermann generated lots of buzz that year, and after the show concluded with the characters' separation, Jungermann created a spin-off called "F to 7th." Akhavan came to Park City with her own show-inspired feature film "Appropriate Behavior," which she wrote and directed herself. The film focuses on the post-breakup life of Shirin, a recently-single bisexual girl in a complex, perfect Persian family. "Akhavan's blend of cultural insights and sweetly relatable, self-deprecating humor provide a charming showcase for a new filmmaker worthy of discovery," wrote Indiewire's Eric Kohn in his review.
Jesse Moss, "The Overnighters"
Despite losing out the U.S. Documentary section's top honor to "Rich Hill," there was no documentary more talked about at the festival than Jesse Moss' "The Overnighters" (winner of the Jury award). What first starts out as a massively involving study of the poor in North Dakota and the Lutheran pastor who fights to give them a roof over their heads, turns into a probing character study as provocative as it is moving. Moss -- who previously directed "Full Battle Rattle," "Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story" and "Con Man" -- shows a deft eye for capturing key moments, and deep empathy for the people who's lives he exposes onscreen. You leave "The Overnighters" feeling drained, but excited for what Moss will do next.
Charlie McDowell, "The One I Love"
Feature film debuts don't come much more ambitious than "The One I Love," a zany relationship comedy that has a twist too good to spoil -- so we won't. (How RADiUS-TWC, the film's distributor, will handle it going forward in its promotional material for the film is an open question, one we can't wait to see answered.) Recalling Spike Jonze's collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, "The One I Love" centers on a couple nearing inevitable separation who take a therapeutic holiday, at the order of their therapist, to save their relationship. When they show up at their idyllic home away from home, they each are dealt with a shocking surprise, one that could either make or break them as a couple. Writer-director Charlie McDowell, son to Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, displays a knack for slapstick comedy that should make studios take notice, but with "The One I Love" he's also going for something deeper and more profound, and hits it out of the park. How he gets there…we can't tell you.