Park City 2014: 10 Breakthrough Moviemakers from Sundance
by Kelly Leow, Jeff Meyers and Valentina I. Valentini

Presented in alphabetical order, the following are 10 moviemakers who made career breakthroughs at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as nominated by our little team of stalwart movie-watchers.

These names represent, for us—induced by the festival’s chaos into a heightened subjectivity, not to mention the inevitable lacunae amongst our coverage (none of us saw Imperial Dreams, for example)—the happiest discoveries to be made in the trenches of Park City. Some notes: age-wise, we’ve run the gamut from 15-years-old to 71; the most commonplace role is the female writer-director (which can only be a good thing); and we didn’t see enough documentaries to accurately nominate anyone from that end of the equation (no excuses there; we’ll do better next year). All in all, we wanted to spotlight relatively unheralded talent whose stellar performances this year will propel them to heretofore unreached career heights. We look forward to seeing much more of these guys.

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Desiree Akhavan (writer, director and actress, Appropriate Behavior) If you know the web-series The Slope, you are probably already an Akhavan fan. Yes, Appropriate Behavior is another awkward character-driven comedy about a neurotic young New Yorker. But unlike a certain HBO series that shall remain unnamed (and is a frequent-but-poor comparison), this lightweight middle-eastern lesbian rom-com is blissfully free of hipster affectations and self-congratulatory narcissism. Akhavan’s exasperated cynicism is tempered by a refreshing sincerity, and her frank (and, yes, clumsy) sex scenes seem less like attention-seeking stunts and more like necessary stages in her character’s lurching evolution. If Akhavan’s debut is any indication, we suspect her career will develop a lot more smoothly. – Jeff Meyers

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Ana Lily Amirpour (writer and director, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) The second of four new female writer-directors on this list (wahoo!), Amirpour arguably displays the pluckiest, most original ambition of this year’s slate of Sundance debuts with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. “You’ve never seen this before,” cried critics everywhere—while at the same time throwing out a cacophony of possible stylistic precedents (Lynch! Leone! Jarmusch! Tarantino!). Most interesting about this gender-reversed modern vampire tale is the complexity of its national backdrop: filmed in Bakersfield, CA, but set in (fictional) Bad City, Iran, Amirpour takes advantage of this discrepancy to imbue her landscape with a stark, poetic surrealism. - Kelly Leow

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Mona Fastvold (co-writer and director, The Sleepwalker) There’s atmosphere to burn in The Sleepwalker, one that’s both voyeuristic and disquietingly dream-like. For her first feature, Fastvold displays an uncanny confidence of tone and pace as she presents a Bergman-like chamber drama about two sisters and their unspoken past. It’s hard to get sibling dynamics just right but Fastvold and her international actresses—Norwegian Gitte Witt and American Stephanie Ellis—strike each note perfectly. Co-written with actor Brady Corbet (who is laying the foundations for a fascinating indie career), this quietly provocative film never panders as it navigates some tricky sexual history. Add to the mix a brilliantly discordant soundtrack by Norwegian popster Sondre Lerche and you’ve got a singularly striking debut. - JM

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Jennifer Kent (writer and director, The Babadook) Though the horror genre is typically dominated by men, The Babadook proves that a woman can scare the hell out of you too. The kick-off midnight movie at this year’s Sundance, this psychological children’s horror flick not only features a monster that’ll give you a serious case of the heebie-jeebies; it also spins a sophisticated tale of grief and emotional instability. Kent raised much-needed finishing funds through Kickstarter and proves that she’s ready to helm bigger and better-budgeted spook shows. – JM

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Matthew J. Lloyd (director of photography, The Better Angels) Matthew Lloyd’s gorgeous black and white cinematography was, in my book, the best thing about The Better Angels, A. J. Edwards’ meditation on Abraham Lincoln’s childhood. It’s difficult to think of Lloyd’s camerawork outside the looming shadow of (the film’s co-producer) Terrence Malick—sweeping strokes explore lush forest and fields with the latter’s famously heady, rhythmic lyricism—coupled with a similarly impenetrable relationship to plot. Yet as any exquisitely lit still will make obvious, Lloyd (whose previous feature DP credit is 2012’s Robot & Frank, though his television work has been nominated for an ASC award) has a true gift for the monochromatic. - KL

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Earl Lynn Nelson (actor, Land Ho!) As the brash, vivacious counterpart to Paul Eenhoorn’s gentle, reserved Colin, Earl Lynn Nelson is handed a lot of comedic responsibility (mixed in with touches of pathos) in Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s bromance-come-Icelandic-road-movie, Land Ho! And he absolutely nails it, with a trick of delivering the bawdiest lines with the thunderous gravitas of James Earl Jones. With only two prior credits on his filmography (Passenger Pigeons and Pilgrim Song, both by Stephens—who is Nelson’s cousin), we’re looking forward to seeing a wave of non-nepotistic offers come knocking on this charismatic septuagenarian’s door. - KL

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Sean Porter (director of photography, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) The Zellner Bros.’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a subdued and often slow movie, in a good way. DP Sean Porter, who lensed last year’s NEXT programmed film It Felt Like Love, took the story of a young woman obsessed with some fictional buried treasure and made it into an entire world that the viewer could inhabit, but without an ounce of pretension. From freezing, vast Minnesotan vistas to contemporary streets and offices of Tokyo, Kumiko’s world became the audience’s for 90 minutes. I can’t wait to see what Porter comes out with next. - Valentina Valentini

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Justin Simien (writer and director, Dear White People) Satire is hard. Making a satire about race is a heck of a lot harder. Making a satire about race that’s actually funny is damn near impossible. Enter Justin Simien, whose Dear White People has all the sting of early Spike Lee but understands that nuance is not a dirty word. As polished as it is persuasive, this first-time feature about race, gender and class friction at an upscale university updates School Daze and Higher Learning for Obama’s America. The former publicist-turned-writer-director displays a remarkably sure-hand with his young cast and comic timing, making his low-budget production look like a million bucks. - JM

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Tessa Thompson (actress, Dear White People) While it’s hard not to include EVERYONE in the cast of Dear White People, I’m forced to single out the one who singled herself out. Thompson is a quiet force of pure intelligence in Justin Simien’s feature debut. While due credit has to go to the script for giving her character, Sam White, the platform from which to spout her Obama-generation, neo-race relations rhetoric, Thompson was able to take the lines and give them depth and feeling. Sam White made you want to stand up and join forces, no matter the color of your skin. - VV

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Josh Wiggins (actor, Hellion) When the 15-year-old East Texas native began shooting in his first-ever film Hellion, I can’t imagine he had any clue he’d be begged for interviews with his co-star Aaron Paul at Sundance the following January. With no acting experience besides messing around with little short skits on YouTube with his friend, Wiggins carried an entire feature and did it with grace and chops as well. Paul has said of him, “This is one of the greats.” Congratulations to (Hellion writer-director) Kat Candler for finding this little guy… not to be little for very long. - VV

Agree? Disagree? Did you find a revelatory moviemaker at Sundance whose work we’ve missed? Share your thoughts in the comments! MM

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