All photos courtesy of the Sundance Institute or Getty Images
Unlike previous years, this year’s Sundance Film Festival didn’t necessarily have an obvious “breakout” film that everyone was clamoring for. There wasn’t an equivalent to Manchester by the Sea or The Birth of a Nation (although that didn’t turn out how everyone expected). Even so, there was no shortage of amazing films, but without a predetermined standout, all the films were on a level playing ground — which made audiences throw caution to the wind and go in blind with zero expectations with their film choices. At the same time, it made for the discovery of breakout actors, filmmakers, and writers exciting. Here are 17 names — some familiar faces, others new — that made a considerable impression with their films at this year’s Sundance.
As the lead in the rom-com The Big Sick, Nanjiani is funny. Really funny. But that is expected from the talented stand-up comedian and co-star of HBO’s Silicon Valley. But in the film based on his life and his real-life wife (which they co-wrote), he goes beyond expectations, acting out a very personal story with wit, charm, and a heaping dose of heart. All of which will make you laugh, cry and then laugh some more.
Williams has a track record of slaying as a Daily Show correspondent, a stand-up comedian, and one-half of the uber-successful podcast “2 Dope Queens.” The massive slayage continues with her lead role in The Incredible Jessica James. She’s appeared in various TV shows and movies, but this should (and will) mark her beginning as a comedic lead.
Director Sydney Freeland and writer Shelby Farrell for DEIDRA AND LANEY ROB A TRAIN
Freeland’s follow-up to her critically acclaimed Drunktown’s Finest made quite an impression at the fest. As Farrell’s first feature-film script, the duo executes a heartfelt dramedy about two sisters who rob a train to support their family after their mother ends up in jail.
Newcomer Dickinson has only appeared in a handful of TV series, but after his role in Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, his name will be one to remember. Playing a delinquent teenager from the outer edges of Brooklyn struggling with his sexuality and self-identity, Dickinson wowed audiences with his memorable performance.
Music video director Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ received multiple standing ovations during the festival largely in part to the incredible performance of Macdonald who plays aspiring Jersey rapper Killer P a.k.a. Patti Cake$ who tries to make it as a top MC in the game while fighting through a world of strip malls and strip clubs.
Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan in MUDBOUND
We’ve seen Blige in a TV and film role here and there, but Dee Rees’ Mudbound marks the R&B icon’s foray into a dramatic role that she could sink her teeth into — and she went above and beyond the call of duty as a devoted, strong mother struggling to get by in the Mississippi delta during World War II. Right alongside her is Morgan, who recently appeared in a streak of successful Netflix series including Stranger Things, Luke Cage, and Daredevil. But is unbelievably mesmerizing as Blige’s hardworking husband who stops at no lengths to do what’s best for his family.
Bitch is a very bizarre film — but that’s what makes it fascinating. Director Palka also stars in the film as the mom-turned-canine and proves her filmmaking skills has no boundaries. She takes risks, is unapologetic, and shows extreme commitment in her vision.
Stepping into the role of one of hip hop’s pioneers can be a daunting task, but Adams feels like she was made to play the role of iconic rapper Roxanne Shante. As her feature film debut, Adams holds her own against A-list actors Nia Long and Oscar-nominated Mahershala Ali and disappears into the swagger and strut of Roxanne and gives us her untold story of struggle, heartbreak, and overlooked success.
As a smart-mouthed, rebellious Ali in the dysfunctional family dramedy, Quinn makes you frustrated and irritated by her, which means she is doing her job — and doing it well. Reminiscent of talented actresses like Alia Shawkat, Bel Powley, and Amber Tamblyn, Quinn is destined to be the next indie darling.
It seems difficult to play a character in the face of adversity with an even-handed and soft-spoken demeanor, but Aaomugha and Stanfield handle their performances in Crown Heights with incredible respect and authenticity. Playing real-life people in the story about Colin Warner, who spent 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the two actors carry the riveting drama with strong, even-handed performances. Stanfield, who is known for his supporting role in the indie hit Short Term 12 and FX’s Atlanta gets his time to shine in a leading role while Asomugha, a former NFL cornerback, is a pleasant surprise, carrying the narrative pressure of the film with a quiet confidence and grace.
Luca Guadagnino’s follow up to A Bigger Splash, Call Me By Your Name garnered attention before Sundance started, getting acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. The studio’s confidence in the film proved to be contagious as audiences lauded the film which followed the romantic relationship between a 17-year-old boy and a summer guest at his parents’ Italian Riviera mansion. But it was Chalamet, who plays the aforementioned teenager, that was at the center of the buzz for his unforgettable performance.
Simone Baker and Justin Chon in GOOK
Known for his role in the Twilight films, Chon has slowly been showing us his creative indie side with roles in films like Seoul Searching. But the actor takes an ambitious leap in Gook not only as the star, but as the director — a risk that has paid off. Set in the ’90s, the film follows two Korean-American brothers who own a struggling shoe store. They develop an unlikely friendship with 11-year-old streetwise Kamilla (Baker). On a typical day of hanging out at the store, things turn for the worse when the Rodney King verdict is announced and riots break. Gook further proves his chops as an actor and now as a director, while young Baker delivers a truly stunning performance.
Qualley has made a name for herself in the HBO series The Leftovers and roles in The Nice Guys and Palo Alto. But in Margaret Betts’ period drama Novitiate, Qualley tackles her first starring role as a nun-in-training struggling with family, faith, and love during a crucial time of the Catholic church. Qualley goes toe-to-toe with Melissa Leo and wows in her performance as the conflicted Sister Cathleen, giving her a solid starring feature to add to her resume.
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer