Every year, the Sundance Film Festival serves as a calling card for artists hoping to break out in the film world. Last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner, “Whiplash,” made a star out of its leading man Miles Teller and its director, Damien Chazelle, went on to earn his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director. With this year’s edition now over, Indiewire has selected those who stand the best chance at going the distance based on their performance in Park City this year. Below are our picks in no particular order.
Lola Kirke, actor (“Mistress America”)
Lola Kirke may not be as well known as her sister, “Girls” star Jemima, but the younger actress is on the verge of much wider recognition. She stole scenes with supporting parts in last year’s “Gone Girl” and “Free the Nipple” and currently plays the lead role in “Mozart in the Jungle,” the first season of which is now available on Amazon. But it’s her performance alongside Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s 2015 Sundance premiere “Mistress America,” which was recently picked up by Fox Searchlight, that really shows she has what it takes to become one of the most in-demand actresses of her generation. In his review of the comedy, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn called Kirke the “driving force of the film,” adding that her “sleepy-eyed, quasi-sarcastic delivery makes for the perfect foil to Gerwig’s ceaseless energy.”
Christopher Abbott, actor (“James White”)
Ex-“Girls” star Christopher Abbott was no stranger to Sundance coming into this year’s festival, having appeared in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Hello I Must Be Going.” But the 2015 edition of the event marked a major breakthrough moment for the actor. In John Mond’s gut-wrenching NEXT Audience Award winner “James White,” Abbott was tasked for the first time with carrying a picture, and he kills it, delivering a deeply felt performance as a young New Yorker struggling to keep his self-destructive behavior in check shortly after learning that his mother (played by Cynthia Nixon) is losing her battle with cancer. Abbott’s been a fascinating screen presence for some years now (he made a strong impression in a bit role in his most recent thriller, “A Most Violent Year”), but as the titular “James White,” he reached new depths to show surprising range.
19-year-old newcomer Shameik Moore, best known for Cartoon Network sketch comedy “Incredible Crew,” looks like a huge star in the making if his performance in Rick Famuyiwa’s crowdpleaser is anything to go by. The actor effortlessly leads the film as a teenager obsessed with ’90s hip-hop, who one day dreams of attending Harvard. Hilarious, charismatic and very handsome, Moore has the makings of a major star, should “Dope” become a hit when Open Road opens it sometime this year.
Sarah Silverman, actor (“I Smile Back”)
Comedians often make for great dramatic actors; we’re glad to report that Sarah Silverman is no exception. She shocks in the severely bleak drama “I Smile Back” in her first starring role. Silverman plays Laney, a suburban wife and mother who struggles with depression, reckless behavior and addiction. Within the first first 20 or so minutes of Adam Salky’s harrowing adaptation of the 2008 novel by Amy Koppelman, Laney goes on a drug and alcohol fueled rampage that causes her husband (Josh Charles) to check her into rehab. Silverman is astonishing in the role, fearless in her portrayal of a woman on the verge of self destruction.
Bel Powley, actor (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”)
In her American feature film debut, “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” 22-year-old British actress Bel Powley is so convincing playing a teenager in San Francisco in 1976 that you’ll swear it’s an autobiographical role and she’s somehow time-travelled from the ’70s. Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name by writer-director Marielle Heller, “Diary” follows 15-year-old Minnie (Powley) as she explores her sexuality by losing her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard). Powley is total marvel in the role, appearing in every scene. She’s currently on a roll; next up is Drake Doremus’ futuristic love story “Equals,” in which she co-stars opposite Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult.
Crystal Moselle, director (“The Wolfpack”)
Crystal Moselle, 34, had one of the most buzzed-about documentaries coming into Sundance… and also one of the most baffling. As Sundance director John Cooper told Indiewire back when the competition lineup was first announced, “No matter how much you read about it, it’s going to sound odd.” Odd or not, the film was a hit with audiences and critics — and won the first-time filmmaker the U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary). Her haunting and artfully rendered achievement centers on six teen brothers whose father forced them to spend their entire childhood locked away from the outside world in a cramped apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. During their years of solitude, the boys turned to movies to teach them about life. Moselle meets them when the boys begin to break out of their insular world. “The Wolfpack” is unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen and marks the arrival of a major new talent.
Relative newcomer RJ Cyler plays the titular “Earl” in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Grand Jury Prize (U.S. Dramatic) and Audience Award (U.S. Dramatic) winner, and although he plays second fiddle to the “Me” of the title (played by Thomas Mann), he walks away with the most memorable breakthrough performance thanks to his deadpan delivery and killer comic timing. In the crowdpleaser, he plays a teen trying to keep his best friend in check after they learn a classmate is leukemia-stricken. As Indiewire’s Eric Kohn wrote, “the narrative fails to emphasize its best ingredient — the titular Earl (RJ Cyler), the protagonist’s laid-back black friend, who takes the dying girl’s plight with a casual disposition and philosophical clarity his friend sorely lacks. If the movie dropped ‘Me,’ it would automatically smarten up.” Couldn’t agree more.
Anyone who watches CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” know actress Melissa Rauch as series regular Bernadette Rostenkowsi. Sundance audiences got to see a very different side of Rauch on the opening night of Sundance when she premiered her passion project, “The Bronze,” in which she stars and also co-wrote with her husband Winston Rauch. In “The Bronze,” directed by Bryan Buckley (who has over 50 Super Bowl commercials to his name), Rauch plays Hope Annabelle Greggory, an extremely foul-mouthed Olympic bronze medalist gymnast who can’t let go of her former glory. When she’s forced into training a promising gymnast (Haley Lu Richardson) after the passing of her former coach, Hope does everything in her power to sabotage the girl’s chances at making it to the Olympics. Rauch delivers a wholly committed performance that’s by turns hilarious, scary and oddly endearing. Expect big things from her.
Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” rode into Sundance on the second day of the festival to screen for critics and emerged as an early breakout hit with a buy from A24 and glowing reviews, including one from Indiewire’s Eric Kohn who called it a “uniquely spooky discovery.” The first-time filmmaker went on to win the U.S. Best Director (Narrative) award on closing night. Bone-chilling, emotionally involving and exceedingly well-executed, “The Witch” marks the arrival of a true visionary. The writer-director already has his next film lined up with Jeff Robinov’s new production house Studio 8.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, actors (“Tangerine”)
Thanks to the tremendous success of shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent,” transgender characters and actors are finally breaking into the mainstream. That factor bodes well for Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, the two transgender women who are a riot to watch in Sean Baker’s critically acclaimed NEXT film, “Tangerine.” The two newcomers play a pair of sex workers who embark on a hilarious mission on a long Los Angeles Christmas eve. As Indiewire Eric Kohn wrote in his review. “Taylor and Rodriguez give their characters more charm and exuberance than many more experienced actors could have brought to the roles.”
Anya Taylor-Joy, actor (“The Witch”)
18-year-old Argentinean-born, London-based model Anya Taylor-Joy came to Sundance with close to no acting credits to her name (she appeared in the Canadian TV movie “Viking Quest”) and emerged as one of the most promising young actors coming out of this year’s festival. In Robert Egger’s period horror film “The Witch,” Taylor-Joy gives a star-making performance as a teenager on the verge of womanhood, whose family starts to unravel when her young brother mysteriously vanishes. Indiewire’ Eric Kohn wrote in his glowing review of “The Witch” that “Taylor-Joy is the true standout for her grim, nervous delivery that gives the story its chief focus.”