Sundance Film Festival: 10 Park City Breakthroughs 2017

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Let these 10 faces be your antidote to every name who elbowed his film into the Sundance Film Festival line-up as so-and-so’s nephew.

This is the fourth year in a row that we’ve published our Park City Breakthroughs list, of talents who bloomed freshest in our consciousness from Sundance’s feature slate. It’s also the first year the festival beat us to the punch: Last week, juries awarded an inaugural Breakthrough Performance award to Roxanne Roxanne star Chanté Adams and a Breakthrough Director one to Novitiate director Maggie Betts. And while many of the most-lauded titles this year came from established filmmakers like David Lowery and Luca Guadagnino, the modest praise that met many of this year’s crop did bear a few bona fide star-is-born moments—for example, when audiences laid eyes on Danielle Macdonald, star of Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, whose explosive charisma festival director John Cooper compared to Jennifer Lawrence’s. With their purchase of the film—for an impressive $9.5 million—distributor Fox Searchlight is betting on that star rising quickly this year. Not everyone on our list has been granted that level of backing yet, but you should look out for their work on the festival circuit this year (and many years to come, we hope).

Team MovieMaker expanded this Sundance to seven writers on the ground—Carlos Aguilar, Caleb Hammond, Daniel Joyaux, Maddy Kadish, Kelly Leow, Jeff Meyers, Andy Young—meaning we cast a larger net in 2017 than we have before, but inevitably there’s a film or two that slips through our grasp. (We have a lengthy honorable mention list that includes the post-production and sound team of Bitch, Newness DP Sean Stiegemeier, L.A. Times DP Nicholas Wiesnet, actors Madeleine Weinstein and Harris Dickinson of Beach Rats and Walking Out composer Ernst Reijseger.) Putting aside any claim to definitiveness, then, we present the following moviemakers on the rise.

Timothée Chalamet (actor, Call Me By Your Name)

Timothée Chalamet at the premiere of Call Me By Your Name. Photograph by Brandon Cruz

When the credits started rolling at the close of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, many viewers at the Yarrow Theatre got up to leave—then stopped on the stairs, arrested by an extended close-up take of Timothée Chalamet staring into a fireplace. It’s hard to describe exactly what Chalamet was doing in those minutes, beyond, well, thinking and feeling… even so, it was fascinating. Chalamet plays the film’s 17-year-old protagonist Elio, caught in the throes of a heady romance, as cocky, uncertain, broody, sweet, lustful—teenage-boyhood epitomized. He’s in almost every frame for 130 minutes and effortlessly commands the screen opposite veterans Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar. The 21-year-old American actor is best known from TV’s Homeland, as well as supporting parts in recent indies Miss Stevens, The Adderall Diaries and One & Two. It’s clear that he’s now ready for the major league. – Kelly Leow

Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan (directors, Whose Streets?)

Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan at the premiere of Whose Streets?. Photograph by Ryan Kobane

With their documentary Whose Streets?, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, both first-time filmmakers, take us deep into the chaos, rage and pain of the African-American community in Ferguson, Missouri after the police shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, to death on August 9, 2014. Shot amidst the ensuing protests, the film reflects a sense of immediacy and urgency and a perspective that the news media often left out. The footage (totaling over 400 hours) comes from 40 different sources. Folayan and Davis weave together video of the rawness on the streets (some from citizen journalists’ cell-phone cameras) with stories of the home lives of three leaders in the movement. Folayan, an activist and former pre-med student, and Davis, interdisciplinary artist in St. Louis (with a piece in the permanent collection of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture), highlight the power and importance of empathy in storytelling. – Maddy Kadish

Keegan DeWitt (composer, Golden Exits, Newness, The Incredible Jessica James and The Hero)

Composer Keegan DeWitt (center, gray) at a Q&A for Golden Exits

Composer Keegan DeWitt has come to prior Sundance editions with multiple films in tow—in 2016, for example, he scored Morris From America and Kate Plays Christine. Having four films at the festival this year, though—with Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, Drake Doremus’ Newness, Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James and Brett Haley’s The Hero in 2017—qualifies him as a true Park City all-star. I was particularly impressed by his Golden Exits score, which is the heart and soul of the film, letting the viewer in on what is really going on with the characters when they can’t voice that themselves. Since DeWitt’s score for Perry’s 2014 film Listen Up Philip was heavy on the brass section, Perry told Dewitt that Golden Exits could have no brass; the new film’s tender string-centric music softens its characters’ rough edges. It humanizes them and their plights for brief moments. – Caleb Hammond

Francis Lee (writer and director, God’s Own Country)

Francis Lee. Photograph by Agatha A. Nitecka

A trained thespian, Francis Lee acted for over two decades in British television and film. (You’ve seen him in Topsy-Turvy.) A few years ago, however, he decided to give up his career in front of the camera to fully embrace his aspirations as a storyteller. God’s Own Country, his debut feature following a series of successful shorts, is a delicate and magnificently acted romance that centers on John (Josh O’Conor, a stunning newcomer himself), a young man who must confront his self-imposed emotional isolation when a Romanian immigrant, Ghoerghe (Alec Secareanu), comes to help out with the family farm in rural Yorkshire. Testosterone laced with tenderness is the lens Lee uses to observe masculinity, in breathtaking fashion, through two performances that capture an unsentimental but honest love. To say Lee is a talented writer-director to watch is an understatement. – Carlos Aguilar

Zoe Lister-Jones (director, writer, producer and actress, Band Aid)

Zoe Lister-Jones at the premiere of Band Aid. Photograph by Jemal Countess

Every year at Sundance, there’s a new batch of high-concept indie comedies that all look a little too Sundance-y. Band Aid, about a feuding couple who turn their fights into songs and form an indie rock band, initially seemed a likely culprit. But Zoe Lister-Jones, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in Band Aid, never allows the film to feel contrived. Lister-Jones is a revelation: Her dialogue feels emotionally honest, the songs she wrote (and plays and sings—she does it all!) for the movie are hilarious and infectious, and her acting impressively fills both the comic and dramatic demands of the script with lovely nuance. While not every single element in the film works, the remarkable talents of Lister-Jones are undeniable. – Daniel Joyaux
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1 Comment

  1. Vincent Le

    February 6, 2017 at 10:42 am

    Can’t wait to see Call Me By Your Name! Really liked Timothee Chalamet in Homeland so I’m excited to see what he can do. Great to hear that he’s a commanding screen presence!

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