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 feature “Whiplash” 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 “Frank” is 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).