By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com January 25, 2013 at 1:06PM
Sure, "The Way Way Back" writers/directors Jim Rash & Nat Faxon might have already won an Oscar, but even with both actors killing it in regular roles on network sitcoms (Rash is the Dean on "Community," Faxon is one half of the title duo on Fox's recently axed "Ben & Kate"), most of the country, and even the industry, might have struggled to pick them out of a line-up, but that could all start to change once their directorial debut, "The Way Way Back," leaves Park City and finds audiences around the world. The pair met performing with improv group The Groundlings a decade or so ago, and while they had separate acting careers (Rash appeared in "Sky High" and "That 70s Show," Faxon in "Orange County "and "Bad Teacher," among others), they were working together as screenwriters, with "The Way Way Back," originally intended to be directed by Shawn Levy, being their calling card script. While the script got them other work, including on Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," for which they shared the Oscar with Payne, "The Way Way Back" -- a coming-of-age comedy about a young man working at a waterpark to avoid his dysfunctional family -- languished in development hell. But their Academy win earned them enough heat to get the film set up as their own directorial debut, with an A-list cast including Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Sam Rockwell (plus Faxon & Rash in cameos). And the film was perhaps the popular hit of the festival this year, greeted by a standing ovation, and bought by Fox Searchlight for a near record-breaking $9.75 million. Whether or not it becomes the next "Little Miss Sunshine," as Searchlight clearly hope, remains to be seen, but given that Faxon & Rash are likely to be without shows by the summer (barring a surprise pick-up for either), we should see a lot more of them behind the camera from now on.
Every year, Sundance brings at least one bolt from the blue; a film that no one had really registered, but soon becomes one of the must-sees of the festival thanks to word of mouth. This year, it was "Escape From Tomorrow," a modest black-and-white drama in the NEXT section that became the talk of the festival. It's possible that it'll never see the light of day, but it's sure to make writer/director Randy Moore one to watch from now on. Famously, Moore surreptitiously shot his film, which follows the breakdown of a father who's lost his job while on family vacation, at Walt Disney World in Florida, without the knowledge of the Disney corporation (unsurprising, given that, among other things, it depicts the Disney princesses as escorts-for-hire). The 35-year-old Moore had been working as a story editor for "The Terminator" producer John Daly, and put the film together after he "turned 33 and got very depressed," in his words to Indiewire, and shot it on the cheap and quiet. The film received excellent reviews (including our own), and while many assumed that legal issues would prevent it from ever getting distribution, experts have since suggested that everything Moore does falls within fair use. Regardless of whether or not it gets picked up (potential buyers may still be too scared of the Mouse House to bite), it seems that we've found a distinctive new voice in Moore.
With her last couple of films, director Lynn Shelton seems to be making a habit of showcasing undersung character actors. "Your Sister's Sister" gave a much-needed showcase to the great Rosemarie DeWitt, and her follow-up "Touchy Feely" (which also stars DeWitt, alongside Ellen Page, Allison Janney and Scoot McNairy) has a doozy of a role for character actor Josh Pais. The actor is one of those guys who you recognize when he comes on screen even if you can't name him, but really shines in a rare leading part here, with our review calling him "particularly excellent, affecting and funny." Pais' first big role was, of all things, both playing and voicing Raphael in 1990's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and has gone on to appear in smallish roles in "Rounders," "Scream 3," "Phone Booth," "The Station Agent," "Adventureland," "Teeth," "Please Give," "Arbitrage" and, inevitably, "Law & Order." But after the reception to his role in Shelton's film, hopefully more filmmakers will be inspired to use him in more prominent roles in the future.
While it's been as front-loaded as ever, Sundance isn't quite over, and one of the last films to screen at the festival is "The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister And Pete," about two Brooklyn kids (Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon) who leave their drug-addicted mothers to set up for themselves. Produced by Alicia Keys, directed by George Tillman Jr. ("Notorious"), and starring Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Mackie, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jennifer Hudson and Jordin Sparks, the film has drawn comparison to "The Wire" and "Precious" since it started screening for the press at the festival, and while Tillman may get a boost, it's screenwriter Michael Starrbury who seems to be the biggest beneficiary of its success. Starrbury broke through with his Black Listed script "Watch Roger Do His Thing," about a retired hitman, but is becoming a hot property around town, not least because of his Sundance flick. He's got two big studio pictures in the works; "The Great Unknown," a comic book adaptation for "MacGruber" director Jorma Taccone, and actioner "Fully Automatic" at Warner Bros. And he just landed the plum gig of rewriting the Tupac Shakur biopic off the back of the notices for 'Mister & Pete.' Screenwriters getting a big break out of Sundance is a relatively rare thing, but Starrbury seems to have cracked it.
Over the last few years, Amy Seimetz hasn't come anywhere near threatening to crack the mainstream, but has served as a sort of "Zelig"-figure for a particular kind of American independent film, crossing paths with many of the most notable players in the scene in some way or another. The latest is Shane Carruth; the actress stars in the "Primer" director's sophomore feature "Upstream Color," and while the filmmaker's work doesn't quite serve the actors in the way of some of his contemporaries, Seimetz has picked up strong enough notices that it could see her go on to bigger things from here on out. Seimetz first surfaced with a small role in 2006 Sundance flick "Wristcutters: A Love Story," and two years later produced Barry Jenkins' excellent "Medicine For Melancholy." After that, she appeared in both "Tiny Furniture" and "The Myth Of The American Sleepover" in the same year, as well as leading Adam Wingard's "A Horrible Way To Die," 2011 saw her return to producing with both Joe Swanberg's "Silver Bullets" and the Greta Gerwig-written "The Dish & The Spoon," before making her directorial debut in 2012 with crime tale "Sun Don't Shine," one of the best-received films at SXSW (and edited by "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" director David Lowery). She's clearly quite the polymath, and while "Upstream Color"'s hardly likely to help her penetrate the mainstream, the role of Chris O'Dowd's love interest on Christopher Guest's HBO series "Family Tree" might help her in that direction.
That's just a quick pick of 15 talented people, but there were other candidates too. Underrated, but bubbling comedian Kathryn Hahn has a breakout turn in "Afternoon Delight," but we recently included her in our 10 Actors Who Deserve More Work feature. There's also "Kill Your Darlings" director John Krokidas; while we were more mixed on the film than some were, he's clearly very talented. And one Playlist correspondent was impressed by "Glee" actor Jonathan Groff as the lead in David Sedaris adaptation "C.O.G," while actor Keegan Michael Key is said to steal the show in "Hell Baby," even if he's better than the film. "Smashed" director James Ponsoldt also consolidated his rise with "The Spectacular Now," while Dane DeHaan confirmed he might be the most exciting young actor out there right now with "Kill Your Darlings." And if you were at Sundance, let us know who impressed you in the comments section below.