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.