By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire January 28, 2014 at 1:33PM
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.