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The Ones To Watch: 20 Breakout Actors, Directors & Talents From The 2014 Sundance Film Festival

The Ones To Watch: 20 Breakout Actors, Directors & Talents From The 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Because we’re usually far too busy for the partying and snowboarding, the highlights of the Sundance Film Festival are, of course, the movies themselves. But almost as pleasurable as the films is discovering new voices and talent and seeing for the first time the performers and filmmakers whose careers will grow and rise long after the locals have reclaimed Park City for another year.

No single festival is as responsible for launching new talent as much as Sundance, and one only has to look at the last few years to see evidence of that: Carey Mulligan, Lee Daniels, Gabourey Sidibe, Cary Fukunaga, Tom Hardy, Duncan Jones, David Michôd, Jennifer Lawrence, Mia Wasikowska, Derek Cianfrance, Brit Marling, Drake Doremus, Felicity Jones, Elizabeth Olsen, Sean Durkin, Dee Rees, J.C. Chandor, Richard Ayoade, Benh Zeitlin, Quvenzhané Wallis, Nate Parker, James Ponsoldt, Colin Trevorrow, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, David Lowery, Lake Bell and Miles Teller are among the many names launched into the stratosphere at the festival recently.

And this year was no exception, in terms of both entirely new talent and actors or filmmakers who might be more familiar but showed new depth or breadth to their talents in 2014. So, after picking out the best films of the festival yesterday, we’ve put together this list of the breakout actors, writers and directors of Sundance 2014, all of whom you can expect to see much more of in the years to come. Take a look below.

Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”)
Even if he hadn’t celebrated his 29th birthday during the festival, Damien Chazelle would have had a magnificent Sundance: his second featureWhiplash” got phenomenal reviews, was bought by Sony Pictures Classics, and won the Jury Prize and the Audience Award. But Chazelle has been destined for big things: while still a Harvard undergrad, he directed his ambitious first feature “Guy And Madeleine On A Park Bench,” a black-and-white homage to MGM musicals that earned rave reviews at Tribeca a few years back, was eventually picked up by Variance Films, and was “presented by” Stanley Tucci on its release. Since then, Chazelle made the short that spawned “Whiplash,” which premiered at last year’s Sundance, and racked up screenwriting credits on a pair of genre movies: “The Last Exorcism Part II,” and festival hit “Grand Piano.” The same love of jazz and music that marked his first feature seems to run through “Whiplash,” and that alone makes him a welcome new voice.

Lenny Abrahamson (“Frank”)
The Irish film and television director is not exactly an unknown talent. The 47-year-old filmmaker has made several features such as “Adam and Paul,” “Garage” and “What Richard Did”—the latter being the most successful Irish film of 2012 and launching the career of 22-year-old Jack Reynor who found himself on Michael Bay’s radar and cast in the next “Transformers” movie following his moody performance in Abrahamson’s film. But “Frankis a game changer for Abrahamson and unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time (and a 180° from his past work). Playful, eccentric, odd and with an immaculate comedic timing (the editing is just aces), “Frank” is a wholly original and distinctive work. It also features some of the best performances by Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Domhnall Gleeson and Scoot McNairy that we’ve seen from in some time (Gyllenhaal in particular is fantastic). It’s very possible that “Frank” and its look at misfits and outsider art is just going to be too weird for mainstream audiences (hence being picked up by smaller indie Magnolia), but it’s exhilaratingly refreshing and an enjoyable laugh riot too.

Jenny Slate & Gillian Robespierre (“Obvious Child”)
Like “Whiplash,” comedy breakout hit “Obvious Child” is an extension of a short, but unlike that film, it didn’t have an easy passage to the screen—nearly five years passed since Jenny Slate starred in Gillian Robespierre’s 23-minute film. But the premiere of the feature-length version looks to prove the making of both leading lady and a filmmaker. A sort-of response to “Knocked Up” and “Juno,”  the film, about a Brooklyn comedian trying to get an abortion, was picked by A24 and looks to put Robespierre, a Tisch grad with a day job at the DGA, in the footsteps of recent comic voices like Lake Bell and Jill Soloway. Meanwhile, Slate is probably best known right now for her one season on “Saturday Night Live” in 2009 (along with roles on “Girls” and “Parks and Recreation,” among others), but she’s won raves for her acerbic but moving turn (our review called it a “deft bit of acting”), and you can expect to see much more of her on screens after this.

Justin Simien & Tessa Thompson (“Dear White People”)
“Remember when Black movies didn’t necessarily star a dude in a fat suit and a wig? Or have major plot twists timed to Gospel numbers for no apparent reason?,” began the synopsis for “Dear White People,” released even before the film went before cameras. And writer/director Justin Simien lived up to that promise with the finished movie, a smart satire about African-American students at an Ivy League college that looks to make his name. Simien actually has a background in the studio system: he was a publicist at Paramount before stepping behind the camera. While some have found the filmmaking to be a little rough around the edges, it’s clear that Simien is a bright comic voice with a perspective that’s been lacking in the last few years in independent cinema and a generosity towards his well-drawn characters that seems to make him the real deal (the Sundance Jury seemed to agree, giving him a special prize for Breakthrough Talent). His cast all look to be highly talented as well, but it’s “Veronica Mars” star Tessa Thompson, as a Taylor Swift-loving outspoken activist and campus radio host, who seems most likely to get the biggest boost off the project, with her performance coming in for particular praise.

Mona Fastvold (“The Sleepwalker”)
A powerful and intimate look at sisters, sibling dynamics, class clashes, mental illness, and more, Norwegian filmmaker Mona Fastvold’s “The Sleepwalker” was certainly one of the most striking and unnerving surprises of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The ex-wife of Norwegian singer songwriter Sondre Lerche (he does the discordant score), a short film and video director, “The Sleepwalker” is Fastvold’s feature-length directorial debut and the icy, European chill is akin to Ingmar Bergman making a suburban David Lynch movie about emotional fragmentation and claustrophobia. Fastvold also seems to have found a mutual muse in actor(/boyfriend) Brady Corbet. The duo wrote “The Sleepwalker” together and have already written their next project, “Childhood of a Leader,” that Corbet will take the directing reigns on this time. Considering just how unusual and arresting the disquieting ‘Sleepwalker’ was, we’ll be keeping close tabs on all their future collaborations. While we’re at it, let’s give acting breakout plaudits to the two relatively unknown sisters of the film Gitte Witt and Stephanie Ellis. Without their estranged, but convincingly unique connection, “The Sleepwalker” doesn’t work as well as it does (check out our interview with the director and Corbet here). 

Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey (“I Origins”)
A French actress and model, you may know Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as the mermaid in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” or as the young girl in Rithy Panh‘s indie “The Sea Wall,” but unless you bothered to see the aforementioned Depp blockbuster, there’s a good chance you’ve never seen her before. Being beautiful doesn’t hurt her mysteriously spiritual character in Mike Cahill’s heady, slightly sci-fi-ish drama/thriller “I Origins,” but Bergès-Frisbey nails the role. About a PhD student (Michael Pitt) studying molecular biology with a specialty in eye evolution who falls in love with his secretive polar opposite (Bergès-Frisbey), this alluring French actress is only in the first half of the movie, but she’s integral to making this sprawling and involved story about love, faith, science and the afterlife (which we won’t spoil here) work. A role akin to meet cute and then blooming hipster romance, the first half of “I Origins” could have been potentially too precious, but Pitt and especially Bergès-Frisbey with her child-like, wondrous nature, ground the movie in a very convincing dynamic of opposites attract. She’s one to keep an eye beyond her bewitching looks.

Alex Ross Perry & Joséphine de La Baume (“Listen Up Philip”)
If you’re a film critic, hardcore cinephile or proponent of Filmmaker magazine, you probably already know the name Alex Ross Perry, the writer director behind “Impolex” and “The Color Wheel.” But you could be all three and perhaps never had the inclination (or stomach) to hang with these micro-budgeted, divisive indies. Perry’s latest, “Listen Up Philip,” will potentially be just as polarizing as his previous works, but starring Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce (as opposed to non-professional players), these actors truly make the filmmaker’s material shine. About a caustic and irritating young novelist (Schwartzman), his equally haughty literary idol (Pryce), and his talented, but disregarded photographer girlfriend (Moss), Perry’s film is an acidic look at a self-absorbed asshole. But apart from being terrifically well-written (shades of Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach) and directed (reminiscent of Cassavetes), Perry makes the wise decision of casting a charmer (Schwartzman) in the role of this insufferable artist. A major artistic leap forward, Perry’s film won’t be for everyone, but it’s easily one of our favorites from Sundance: extremely well-observed and a hilariously trenchant look at the dynamics of artists with complicated egos. Full of terrific actors at the top of their game, one largely-unknown thespian, French actress Joséphine de La Baume, shines through the talent as Schwartzman’s literary enemy/eventual girlfriend. We’ll be seeing more of her no doubt as well.

Josh Wiggins (“Hellion”)
Some of us were a bit mixed on Kat Candler’s “Hellion,” a drama about a motocross-obsessed teenager and the delinquent behavior that pushes his family to the edge. Well-made and well-shot, it does possess a lot of Sundance indie film tropes (a dark, dour depressing drama), but at the film’s center is the undeniably good 13-year-old Josh Wiggins. A bruising look at family dysfunction, where Candler’s film sings pitch-perfectly is the way it captures the unbridled rage of teenage angst, that next-level form of anger that comes from severely damaged children that don’t know what to do with their pain. And Wiggins embodies that, going beyond just moody, but tortured, scarred and full of so much anger the kid could just explode. Wiggins goes toe-to-toe with “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul too (who plays his negligent father), and, if he wants it, a bright future lays ahead of this astonishing young performer (read our review here).

Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”)
Now here’s an true discovery. While Aussie writer/director Jennifer Kent’s award-winning short film, “Monster,” screened at over 40 international film festivals and she studied under Lars von Trier on “Dogville,” this young filmmaker has been essentially an unknown up until now. And her feature debut, the terrific and raved-about horror movie “The Babadook,” instantly lands her on the filmmaking map. And kudos should also go to the two leads of the film, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, arguably worthy of their own breakout slots. Like an inventive mix of Tim Burton and Roman Polanski, “The Babadook” is psychological horror about a single mother raising a dysfunctional, difficult boy and the boogeyman haunting the child and may or may not be a figment of his imagination. Dark, funny and sometimes downright frightening, “The Babadook” is something horror fans will be cherishing and championing all year long. And it would be hard to fault them for it. Kent’s cachet is earned and we can’t wait to see what she does next.

Ellar Coltrane & Lorelei Linklater (“Boyhood”)
It’s been a long wait for Richard Linklater’s new film, “Boyhood,” which as you probably know by now, was twelve years in the making. The two actors were only seven years old when the project began, but both have appeared on screen in the meantime—Ellar Coltrane appeared in forgotten Joshua Jackson vehicle “Lone Star State of Mind,” and in the director’s “Fast Food Nation,” while Lorelei Linklater (the filmmaker’s daughter, as you might have guessed) popped up briefly in her father’s “Waking Life.” But the director really seems to have struck gold with his casting, with both performers (especially Coltrane, who as the title suggests, is the main focus of the movie) doing positively stellar work as kids, and blossoming into legitimately impressive performers as young adults (they’re now nineteen). It’s unlikely that they’ll ever be part of a project like “Boyhood” again, but expect plenty of other directors to come calling.

David & Nathan Zellner (“Kumiko The Treasure Hunter”)
Given that it’s a movie that tips its hat to, and is directly about, the Coen brothers’ masterpiece “Fargo,” it feels very appropriate that “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter” comes from a pair of filmmakers who are 1) brothers, and 2) work closely together, but are billed differently: like Joel and Ethan Coen for the early part of their career, David and Nathan Zellner co-wrote the script, but David takes the directing credit, and Nathan the producing one. The pair have been familiar faces on the underground indie scene for a while thanks to a brace of impressive shorts and low-budget features “Goliath” and “Kid-Thing” (the latter of which was nominated for a Gotham Award in 2012). But ‘Kumiko,’ which stars Rinko Kikuchi as the Coens fan who heads to Minnesota to find the loot buried by Steve Buscemi in “Fargo,” looks to bring them into the mainstream: the film has already won the backing of Alexander Payne, who came on as an executive producer before the festival kicked off, and our review, which called it “a bizarre joy and a beautiful delight” was one of many that praised it to the skies.

Charlie McDowell & Justin Lader (“The One I Love”)
The One I Love,” starring Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass, is an ingenious little romantic-comedy-drama with a killer conceit that (fortunately) has so far remained under wraps, and hopefully will until it’s long been in theaters. And it marks the arrival of two very bright young things in writer Justin Lader and director Charlie McDowell. The former has only a couple of shorts under his belt but is likely to be highly in demand from now on, drawing comparisons to Charlie Kaufman with his first feature script, which our review said is “funny, emotionally honest and nails its pivot from the conventional to something much richer.” Meanwhile, McDowell is someone that you’d be irrationally jealous of even if he wasn’t a hugely talented filmmaker: he’s the son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, he wrote the popular ‘Dear Girls Above Me’ Twitter feed and book, and is dating Rooney Mara. Oh, and by all accounts, he knocked it out of the park with this first feature. Radius-TWC picked it up, so you’ll be able to see for yourself very soon.

Sophie Hyde, Tilda Cobham-Hervey & Del Herbert-Jane (“52 Tuesdays”)
We’ve been big fans of the recent renaissance in Australian cinema (“Animal Kingdom,” “Snowtown Murders,” et al.), but it’s been decidedly testosterone-heavy. But that changed at Sundance this year: not only did we get Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” (see above), but also “52 Tuesdays,” which won filmmaker Sophie Hyde the World Directing award at the festival. Shot in a unique, and somewhat “Boyhood”-esque manner—it shot on every Tuesday, and only Tuesday, for a year, with elements from every shoot finding their way into the film—it tells the story of a teenager dealing with her mother’s transition into a man. Sensitively dealing with matters of fluid gender and sexuality, the word is that the film is as powerful and authentic as it is formally playful, and definitely marks out Hyde as one to watch. Her cast (mostly non-professionals) are also stand up: Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Del Herbert-Jane both impressed pretty much everyone who saw the movie, and we look forward to seeing more from both of them down the line too.

Malik Vitthal (“Imperial Dreams”)
After the success of last year’s “Fruitvale Station,” everyone was on the look out for its 2014 equivalent, and that seemed to arrive in “Imperial Dreams,” the feature debut of writer/director Malik Vitthal, which won the audience award in the competitive NEXT strand. Developed with help of the Sundance Labs, the project hails from L.A. native Malik Vitthal, who’s been behind a string of shorts but steps confidently into features with this project, the tough but moving story of a reformed gangster (played by “Attack The Block” breakout John Boyega) trying to forge out a career as a writer while protecting his young son, despite the influence of family members and his environment. Vitthal (who started out in the post-production world) is clearly a serious talent: our review called it “a gem” and “incredibly moving,” with a central performance that looks to cement Boyega’s megastardom. The film’s still seeking distribution, but all being well, someone will step up to the plate and see Vitthal’s picture find the wide audience it deserves.

Desiree Akhavan (“Appropriate Behavior”)
Given its Brooklyn setting and frank depiction of sex, the specter of being “the next Lena Dunham” always threatened to follow Desiree Akhavan, the 29-year-old Iranian-American filmmaker behind “Appropriate Behavior.” But fortunately, the comparison is more than superficial: according to most, including our review, the film shares most of its strengths with Dunham’s work—sharp, acerbic humor, autobiographical, painfully true situations, and a fresh and unique voice. Akhavan is best known, before now, for web series “The Slope,” but this should be a “Tiny Furniture”-style boost up for her. Katie Walsh wrote in her review that its “light and ironic outlook on the things that make Brooklyn life what it is” is balanced by “the very real issues of culture, identity and sexuality, and the two work so well together due to the genuine honesty that Akhavan brings to the material.” Drawing comparisons to Louis C.K. and Noah Baumbach, Akhavan looks to be a real comic talent going forward. Get on board now, and you can tell everyone else you were an early adopter once she has the million-dollar-book-deal and the Vogue cover.

Eskil Vogt (“Blind”)
With literally hundreds of films in the line-up, it’s easy enough for a film that we’d otherwise jump at the chance to see to slip through the cracks. We say this because if we’d known that “Blind” marked the directorial debut of Norwegian screenwriter Eskil Vogt, it’d have been at the top of our list. After all, Vogt worked with Joachim Trier on the screenplays to the excellent “Reprise” and “Oslo August 31st,” both of which have been firm Playlist favorites in the last few years. And from what we’ve heard, this will sit happily alongside those (the film was Playlist correspondent James Rocchi’s favorite of the festival by some distance—read his review here). Centering on a woman who’s recently lost her sight and the fictional narrative that she creates and writes her husband into, the film seems to have the same literary, thoughtful tone as its predecessors, and the same humanity. Vogt also apparently proves to be as adept behind the camera as Trier is, shooting and scoring the film beautifully and pulling off a tricky structure with aplomb, all the while getting indelible performances out of his cast. We can’t wait to see it for ourselves.

Dan Stevens (“The Guest”)
If you want to find a new power source, take a time machine, travel back a year or so, and tell the world that cinema’s next iconic action star would be Cousin Matthew from “Downton Abbey.” Then, sit back and watch the laughter power the entire Eastern Seaboard, “Monsters Inc”-style. But that’s what became quickly apparent after the first screening of Adam Wingard’s “The Guest” at Sundance. The new film from the man behind deeply pleasurable slasher film “You’re Next,” “The Guest” is a John Carpenter-ish grindhouse actioner, proving to be a real crowdpleaser in the Midnight section of the festival, and in large part because of Stevens’ performance. The actor, severely slimmed down after leaving ‘Downton,’ has popped up in American fare like “The Fifth Estate,” but seems to be a revelation here. Our review said “Imagine if a young Tom Cruise had been cast in the title role in ‘The Terminator,’ ” and said of Stevens “he’s absolutely magnetic here,” and while the whole cast (particularly Maika Monroe, who was so good in “At Any Price”), should do well out of the movie, it’s Stevens—who’ll soon be seen in Scott Frank’s “A Walk Among The Tombstones” and as Lancelot in “Night At The Museum 3”—who looks likely to rise to the top of casting wish-lists in the near future.

Bill Hader (“The Skeleton Twins”)
It might be a little puzzling to put Bill Hader as a breakout actor, especially among the mostly unknown faces and filmmakers here—after all, he was the MVP for most of eight seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” he’s a voiceover veteran and Pixar favorite, and has movie credits including “Superbad,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Men In Black 3.” But Hader’s generally been a utility player rather than a lead, and, aside from his vocal turn in “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs,” has tended to stick to cameos. That’s likely to change now, though, partly because he left SNL last summer, and partly because of the reviews he’s picking up for indie drama “The Skeleton Twins.” Pairing him with fellow Studio 8H survivor Kristen Wiig, the duo play a pair of estranged, suicidal twins. And while Wiig’s been able to display dramatic chops on screen before now, this is Hader’s first chance to really show his range, and per our review and many others, he “aces it.” Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions have picked the film up, and with the similarly dramatic “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby” also coming up, this could be the start of Hader’s path to being the next Tom Hanks it always seemed he might be destined to be.

Hong Khaou (“Lilting”)
Though the focus of Sundance tends to be on the U.S., there’s always a few interesting films from Europe and elsewhere that stand out in the line-up, and Cambodia-born, British-based filmmaker Hong Khaou’s “Lilting” might be one of the more notable ones. The young director spent years working at U.K. distributor Peccadillo Pictures, with his shorts “Spring” and “Summer” premiering to great acclaim at Berlin and Sundance, but when the script for this drama, about a Chinese-Cambodian woman (Cheng Pei-Pei, who played Jade Fox in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”) who seeks out the lover of her late son (Ben Whishaw), made the Brit List and got funding from BBC Films and the Microwave scheme, he was able to move into features. And with great success, it seems. Reviews have been strong, with Khaou’s direction and writing, and the central performances getting particular praise, and the cinematography by Ula Pontikos (“Weekend”) winning an award from the jury. The film will hit U.K. screens later this year, and hopefully a U.S. distributor will follow swiftly.

Jude Swanberg (actor, “Happy Christmas”)
It’s extremely possible we may never see this young man act again. Maybe this was just a one-time whim and his parents will tuck him away and push him towards other endeavours, but Jude Swanberg, director Joe Swanberg’s upstaging toddler son steals every scene he’s part of in the indie filmmaker’s “Happy Christmas.” About an irresponsible sister that comes to live with her older brother and his family in the suburbs of Chicago, Jude plays Jude, the little baby of the household. With a great cast that includes Melanie Lynskey, Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber and the senior Swanberg himself, you’d think an ensemble like that could outshine a two-year-old, but literally, this ham-ish little scene stealer is a riot. “Happy Christmas” is slow to get started and chugs a little bit in its opening 30 minutes, but it’s made all the more unobjectionable because of the little boy. Now a few years older, who knows if Swanberg and his filmmaking wife Kris Williams (“Empire Builder,” “Kissing On the Mouth”) will continue to use Jude in their films, but either way, they’ll always have this excellent little family portrait to remember.

Honorable Mentions: Of course, the above is only a relatively small taste. Also turning our correspondents’ heads during the festival, and likely to pop up again, are “Life After Beth” writer/director Jeff Baena; “Land Ho!” actor Earl Lynn Nelson; “Song One” co-star Johnny Flynn (who will crop up in Olivier Assayas‘ next film); “Hellion” writer/director Kat Candler; and Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, whose “Rich Hill” won the top documentary prize. And had “Blue Ruin” not debuted nearly nine months ago at Cannes, we’d undoubtedly be including the film’s director Jeremy Saulnier, and star Macon Blair.

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