By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com January 31, 2011 at 3:18AM
Every year, the Sundance Film Festival serves not only as a showcase of the best of independent cinema from around the world, but as a strong indicator of some of the rising talent likely to make waves in future years. As much as the festival showcases young writers and directors, it's for its instant creation of movie stars that it's perhaps become best known in recent years.
2009 saw Carey Mulligan become the next big thing seemingly overnight after the premiere of "An Education", while last year saw Jennifer Lawrence's performance in "Winter's Bone" become the talk of the festival, winning the actress roles in "The Beaver" and "X-Men: First Class." With Lawrence capping off her rise with an Oscar nomination last week, talk has already turned to who at Sundance 2011 could be the next next big thing.
Below, we've got five picks for the breakout actresses of this year's festival, based on the buzz that their films have generated over the past week or so. All have picked up outstanding reviews, are likely to turn up on casting wishlists tout de suite, and are likely to follow in the footsteps of Mulligan and Lawrence. So, with no further ado...
Who would have thought that the first star-of-the-future to break out of the festival would be the younger sister of child-stars-turned-troubled-punch-lines Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen? But 21-year-old Elizabeth, a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts, seems to take her craft far more seriously than her sisters, and looks to be a major force in the next few years. The first weekend of the festival saw her in two lead roles, the one-shot horror flick "Silent House," and the cult drama with the impossible-to-remember title "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Her performances in both gathered immediate acclaim, with awards buzz already starting to circle for the latter; remarkable, considering that the films mark her screen debut, along with the upcoming Bruce Beresford comedy "Peace, Love and Understanding." They're both incredibly demanding roles, by all accounts -- Olsen features in every frame of "Silent House," while "Martha Marcy May Marlene" seems to be an incredibly raw performance for any young actor. Like the younger Culkins, Olsen seems to have learnt from the mistakes of her older siblings, managing the media expertly in the last week or so. Within a few days, she was cast alongside Robert De Niro and Cillian Murphy in "Red Lights," the paranormal thriller from "Buried" director Rodrigo Cortes, and we're sure she'll be lining up plenty of high-profile roles as the year goes on.
Unlike Elizabeth Olsen, 27-year-old British actress Felicity Jones had at least been heard of before things kicked off in Park City. Indeed, she's been acting for well over a decade, and gathering serious heat for the past few years; we named her role in "Cemetery Junction" one of the breakthrough performances of 2010, and just before Christmas she was linked to the lead in "Snow White and the Huntsman." With no fewer than seven projects set to hit theaters or go before cameras in the next year, it was only a matter of time before she found the role that tipped her over the edge, and it looks to have arrived, in Drake Doremus' "Like Crazy." A well-reviewed, and Sundance Jury Prize-winning relationship drama filling the slot set up in previous years by "(500) Days of Summer" and "Blue Valentine," Jones plays a British student studying in the States who falls head over heels for a fellow student (Anton Yelchin), but visa complications force them to make their relationship long distance. It seems, even from the critics who were a little more down on the film, that Jones is at least as delightful as she was when she was the highlight of Ricky Gervais' film, and the film's pick-up by Paramount, for a cool $4 million, means she's likely to be exposed to a wider audience than ever before. So even if she's been beaten out for Snow White by Kristen Stewart, we're sure she'll start booking some high-profile gigs in the next few months, and, as long-time fans, we're delighted.
Unlike the other names on this list, former investment banker Brit Marling isn't just an onscreen talent, but also an offscreen one; she co-wrote, produced and starred in two well-regarded sci-fi pics, "Another Earth" and "The Sound of My Voice." They're wildly different films, and roles -- in the former, she plays a student involved in a fatal hit-and-run who connects with the father of the family she killed, just as a second earth appears in the sky, while in the latter, she's a cult leader who claims to be from the future. She lived with fellow Georgetown grads, and the directors of the two films, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, writing the scripts simultaneously with them, so it's doubly impressive that the films, and especially the performances, are so different. While "The Sound of My Voice" hasn't yet been picked up, Fox Searchlight snapped up "Another Earth," and it's bound to launch Marling both as an actress and a writer. She seems to be a pretty unique talent: the films have drawn comparisons with the diverse likes of "Moon," "In The Bedroom," "Twelve Monkeys" and the mumblecore movement, but repackaged into something fresh. The world's her oyster at this point, and we imagine a studio will allow her to play on a bigger canvas very soon.
Belgian-born actress Lubna Abazal is a recognizable face to many, after the last few years: she played a lead in the Oscar-nominated Palestinian film "Paradise Now," which led on to roles in projects such as Ridley Scott's "Body of Lies" and the top-notch BBC Iraq drama "Occupation." This week, however, should see her move up further; not only did Denis Villeneuve's "Incendies," in which the actress stars, play Sundance, but the Canadian drama also picked up an Oscar nomination. The film's good, if a little familiar, as our review from VIFF attested, but Abazal's outstanding in it, and we're sure her performance will continue to be talked about for the rest of 2011. Like Marling, Abazal had two films in the official selection, so she's had twice the buzz of some of the actresses: she also co-stars with Ben Foster in the Armenian-set romance "HERE" from director Braden King. Foster's performance has been widely acclaimed, but by all accounts Abazal, as an independent-minded photographer, more than holds her own against him (you can check out some clips from the film here). The film's probably too obscure to truly penetrate the mainstream, but the double whammy should see Abazal's star rise in a big way. Whether she can break out of the slightly thankless nature of her role in "Body of Lies" remains to be seen, but we're just glad that a terrific actress has had such a strong start to 2011.
It's both lazy and faintly depressing that any serious, African-American drama to play at Sundance will draw comparisons to "Precious," which went from Park City hit to Oscar nominee in 2009 -- partly because Lee Daniels' film is so vastly overrated, and partly because it seems that the film that's attracted the label this year, Dee Rees' "Pariah," seems to be wildly different, displaying far more subtlety and restraint that the earlier film. But, like "Precious," it showcases a young actress who, like Gabourey Sidibe, should be moving forward with leaps and bounds from now on. Adepero Oduye isn't a first-timer: she cropped up briefly in "Half Nelson" for instance, and previously starred in Rees' short of the same name, from which this feature version is expanded. The word is that, as Alike, a Brooklyn teen struggling with her sexuality, Oduye is transcendentally good and, while the film risks being ghettoized, focusing as it does on black lesbian sub-culture, it sounds like it can't fail to attract attention for the actress. Focus Features have picked the picture up, which gives it more than a fighting chance of crossing over to the mainstream, and if the film catches on, could we see Oduye following in Sidibe's footsteps to the Kodak Theatre this time next year?