By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com January 31, 2012 at 12:28PM
One of the major benefits of Sundance has always been the new talent it's unleashed on the world. From Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith in the festival's heyday to more recent discoveries like Carey Mulligan, Jennifer Lawrence, Cary Fukunaga and Drake Doremus, the film world shifts ever so slightly each January as burgeoning filmmakers make their mark on the industry.
With this year's Sundance now for the birds, we're capping off our coverage with a look at the names who appear to have broken out at the festival this year, centering on five virtual newcomers and five more familiar faces who delivered stand-out performances or directorial turns that seem sure to boost them up the ladder from now on. Take a look below, and thanks to our Sundance team -- Todd Gilchrist, James Rocchi, William Goss, Cory Everett, John Lichman and Simon Abrams -- both for their bang-up job in Park City this year, and for their insights in putting this piece together.
It's taken a little while, but it looks like 2012 is the year that Lizzy Caplan finally breaks out in the movies. The actress has been around for nearly a decade, since playing Lindsay Lohan's goth-y best friend in "Mean Girls," but the last few years have seen her take a real upswing, with a part in "Cloverfield" leading to TV turns in "True Blood" and, crucially, "Party Down," which in turn led to a romantic lead part in "Hot Tub Time Machine." And at Sundance, she was virtually inescapable, thanks to lead roles in two wedding-themed comedies, the gentle rom-com "Save The Date" and the gloriously mean-spirited "Bachelorette," alongside Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher. In the former, she gets to stretch her dramatic chops a little more as Sarah, an illustrator torn between her ex-boyfriend and her new love, while "Bachelorette" capitalized on her "Party Down" chemistry with co-star Adam Scott for a performance that many critics agreed stole the show. Neither film turned the world upside down (they're both still yet to be picked up, although we're sure it'll only be a matter of days before both find homes), but Caplan was the constant, and we're sure it'll lead to bigger and better things.
A long-time collaborator of David Gordon Green (he co-produced the director's debut "George Washington"), Craig Zobel managed to make waves of his own accord a few years back with his well-regarded indie "Great World Of Sound," but that was nothing compared to the stir that "Compliance" caused this year. One of the most divisive films of the festival, which inspired fervent, emotional debates at Q&As after screenings, his based-in-fact tale of a fast-food worker tricked into abusing a checkout girl by a man pretending to be cop was one of the major talking points this year, and was picked up by Magnolia over the weekend, ensuring it'll reach a far greater audience than his last work. And he's bringing along Pat Healy, who starred in "Great Wall of Sound," as well as Ti West's horror flick "The Innkeepers." Healy's been working steadily for getting on fifteen years, with roles in everything from "Magnolia" and "Pearl Harbor" to "Rescue Dawn," but his super-creepy turn as the would-be cop in "Compliance" was our man Todd Gilchrist's pick for the breakout performance of the festival, and it should gain him all kinds of attention going forward.
Another actor who did the one-two punch at Sundance was Nate Parker, a man who also had the benefit of starring in George Lucas' "Red Tails," which opened during the first weekend of Sundance. The 32-year-old Virginia native broke out a few years back in "Pride," "The Great Debaters" and "The Secret Life Of Bees," but has been quiet lately. But with "Red Tails" -- in which Parker plays one of the leads -- turning out to be a sleeper hit, and being serendipitiously followed by key roles in two Sundance pictures -- as a gang member in Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer" and as a mysterious acquaintance of Richard Gere in "Arbitrage" (a part originally intended for Drake) -- he's suddenly on everyone's lips. Neither are the kind of role that threaten to send him supernova (a la Terrence Howard in "Hustle & Flow" a few years back), but he's sure to suddenly be found much higher on casting lists.
Already beloved by the geek set thanks to playing Ramona Flowers in Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," Mary Elizabeth Winstead seems to have become something of a critical favorite in Park City this year. Taking the lead role in "Smashed," an acclaimed drama about an alcoholic schoolteacher who goes on the wagon, only for it to put her relationship with her equally booze-happy husband ("Breaking Bad" star Aaron Paul) to the test. She's a familiar name to horror fans (which will continue with this summer's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"), but by all accounts, her dramatic chops here are something of a revelation, with some even suggesting she could find some awards love for the film come the end of the year. It'll depend on distribution -- "Smashed" hasn't yet been picked up -- but even if nominations and whatnot don't come to pass, we're sure Winstead will find all kinds of new opportunities coming across her inbox.
Webber was omnipresent at Sundance this year, not only taking charming supporting roles in "Save The Date" and "For A Good Time Call," but also writing, directing and starring in his own film "The End Of Love," in which the "Scott Pilgrim" star acts alongside his own 2-year-old son, based loosely around his own experiences as a single father. Like fellow festival actor/writer/director Josh Radnor (see below), Webber was seen as having taken a huge step up with his second film (following on from 2009's "Explicit Ills"), which left many an audience member bawling from start to finish, so that alone would have give him a boost, but with supporting performances in the other two well-received comedies, we're clearly going to be seeing a lot more of Webber as the year rolls along.
Also Turning Heads:
Not many were particularly excited about Josh Radnor's follow-up to "happythankyoumoreplease," but the "How I Met Your Mother" star was seen to have taken a jump in the right direction with his sophomore film, which co-stars last year's sensation Elizabeth Olsen. Meanwhile, frequent scene-stealers Brady Corbet and Aubrey Plaza both made big impressions when they had a chance to lead in, respectively, "Simon Killer" and "Safety Not Guaranteed," while Helen Hunt is probably disqualified from this list by virtue of being an Oscar-winner, but she's been absent from the screen for most of the last decade, and her brave, bare-all performance in "The Surrogate" should see her back in the awards conversation this year, along with co-star John Hawkes.
As much as "Safety Not Guaranteed" looks to give mainstream exposure to its cast, the filmmakers behind the picture stand to take the lion's share of the credit, particularly as they've essentially come from nowhere. A pair of NYU grads who met as interns at "Saturday Night Live," the pair have plenty of screenwriting experience together, having sold projects like "Blood Brothers," "Cocked and Loaded" and another untitled project to studios, while Trevorrow's pitch for sci-fi actioner "World War X" went for big money a little while back. But their proper debut (a decade after Trevorrow's short "Home Base," which has been watched by 20 million online) was very different; a charming little comedy with a lot of heart, and a high concept (based around the internet meme of a mysterious personal ad looking for time-travel companions). By most accounts, Trevorrow and Connolly (the former directing, the latter writing, although they also pen scripts together) did a top class job at balancing a tricky mix of tones, and it's sure to land them bigger things, particularly after FilmDistrict acquired the project in one of the festival's biggest sales.
Australian thriller "Wish You Were Here," Sundance's opening film, has more than a few hot prospects in it. The movie comes from Blue Tongue Films ("The Square," "Animal Kingdom"), and stars Joel Edgerton ("Warrior," the upcoming "Kill Bin Laden") and Teresa Palmer ("I Am Number Four," this summer's "Warm Bodies"), both actors going places fast in the U.S. But the film's true breakout seems to be someone basically unknown in the U.S -- co-writer and star Felicity Price. Having appeared in a few movies and TV shows back home in Australia, Price, co-writing with husband and director Kieran Darcy-Smith, penned herself a doozy of a role, as the wife of Edgerton's character, struggling to come to terms with betrayal and the secret that they share after a fateful trip to Cambodia. "Wish You Were Here" didn't get the rave reviews that "Animal Kingdom" got a few years back, but there's clearly enough love for Price's contribution to see that she gets plenty of work down the line.
Breaking out on your own when you're married to one of the biggest comedy stars on the planet has got to be a little tricky. Even if you have your own project, someone will always cry nepotism. But despite Lauren Miller's other half Seth Rogen cameoing in "For A Good Time, Call," in which Miller not only stars but also wrote, few are going to suggest that she's not made it on her own steam. A former PA who's been dating Rogen since he was a mere writer on "Da Ali G Show," Miller's bawdy script won her a host of new fans in Park City, while her performance (co-starring with Ari Graynor) should ensure it's only a matter of time before she becomes just as well known as her beau. Focus picked the film up, so it stands an excellent chance of being one of the major commercial breakouts of the festival.
The story of a Texan family whose 13-year-old son disappears, only to discover, three years later, a man surfacing in Spain, claiming to be their missing child, despite a thick French accent. It could have made a gripping fictional thriller, but it's a true story, and the debut of "The Imposter" has made Bart Layton a key documentary maker to watch in the next few years. The British helmer, best known as the creator of Channel Five series "Banged Up Abroad" (or "Locked Up Abroad" in the U.S., where it airs on the National Geographic Channel) makes his feature debut, aided by long-time producer Dimitri Doganis, and his blend of interviews and reconstructions caused many to draw comparisons with "Man On Wire." The film hasn't yet sold, but given the ecstatic reviews, it's surely only a matter of time before someone picks it up.
No filmmaker has become quite such an overnight sensation this year as Benh Zietlin. A 2008 SXSW award-winner for his 25-minute short "Glory At Sea," and a member of the Court 13 collective (which also include Playlist favorite Ray Tintori, who directed second unit on the new film), "Beasts of the Southern Wild" picks up the same kitchen sink, post-Hurricane-Katrina fairy tale vibe as "Glory At Sea," but to even greater effect, with the movie drawing near-unanimous raves, comparisons with Terrence Malick, and a high-profile sale to Fox Searchlight. It's undoubtedly going to make him one of the most sought-after young talents of the next few years. And winning over just as many fans was his young star, six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis. Delivering an astonishing performance from one so young, and charming cynical journalists in interviews, she's clearly going to be looked for by the studios; whether she, or her parents, have any interest in continuing her acting career, remains to be seen.
Also Turning Heads:
Even as the son of 'Raiders' scribe and "The Big Chill" director Lawrence Kasdan, and brother of "Bad Teacher" director Jake Kasdan, few were particularly amped for Jon Kasdan's teen comedy "The First Time" -- no one much liked his debut "In The Land Of Women," and the breakdown sounded like Sundance-by-numbers. But the film won most critics over with its honesty and performances, and should see Kasdan and stars Dylan O'Brian and Britt Robinson get some heat. Meanwhile, collective Radio Silence were our team's tip for the best segment of horror anthology "V/H/S," and we're certainly keen to see something longer from the quartet, while Canadian debut documentary makers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot saw Scott Rudin pick up remake rights to their "Indie Game: The Movie," so they've arrived in a big way, too.