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Best of Fest: Sundance 2014′s Top 10 New Faces

They range in age, amount of screen time, supporting or principle characters, and have previous (television work, stage and or bit parts in Hollywood/Indiewood productions or next to no film experience at all. In essence these folks have a special gift and have essentially broken out. I had the fortune of having a team of four journalists (Caitlin Coder, Jordan M. Smith, Nicholas Bell and myself) covering the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and when you got a small army covering a major fest it ensures that fine performances from a new crop of acting talents don’t go undetected. Michael B. Jordan, Robin Weigert and Miles Teller (who follows up The Speculator Now with a dramatically and physically charged perf in the marvelous Whiplash) were just some of the new faces included on our top list last year.Worthy mnetions that did not break into our Top 10 include Fishing Without Nets‘ Abdikani Muktar, Happy Christmas‘ Jude Swanberg, I Origins‘ Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Imperial Dreams‘ John Boyega and Naomi Christie from Lilting. So here are our Top 10 New Faces discovered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

#10. Cameron Monaghan (Jamie Marks is Dead)

Cameron Monaghan (Jamie Marks is Dead)

While many may recognize him from the television series “Shameless” or for various other roles in film and television, including the Adam Sandler flick, Click (2006), Cameron Monaghan is on the cusp of some more potent street cred with his lead role in Carter Smith’s Jamie Marks is Dead, a genre defying mood piece that gives Monaghan a chance to shine as a teen that tries to help the ghost of a young dead man. 2014 will be a big year for Monaghan, which will hopefully see the premiere of Jamie Marks alongside his splashier roles in Vampire Academy and the Philip Noyce helmed adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. (NB)

#9. Earl Lynn Nelson (Land Ho!)

Earl Lynn Nelson (Land Ho!)

We have filmmaker Martha Stephens to thank for bringing the burly, larger-than-life personality of Earl Lynn Nelson into the indie landscape fold. After appearances in Passenger Pigeons (2010) and Pilgrim Song (2012), Nelson was allowed to roam free and generously add more bite to an already well-fleshed out, easy to like arrogant, childlike, pot-smoking, womanizing and not so soft-spoken supporting character of Mitch in Land Ho!. Armed with zingers and an instant charm, auds will champion the character as he proves to be the ideal “wingman” on any occasion, one that plows ahead to give the others behind him a chance to shine. We could easily see him in a Coen bros. or Wes Anderson type film in the future. (EL)

#8. Christopher Abbott (The Sleepwalker)

Christopher Abbott (The Sleepwalker)

While you may recognize him from a bit role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, his short stint on Lena Dunham’s Girls or as Melanie Lynskey’s paramour in Hello I Must Be Going, the bearded and brooding Abbott makes a lasting impression in Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker, which plays like one of those classic Euro potboilers of uncomfortable adult interaction, with traces of early Polanski and Ingmar Bergman bubbling up. Abbott stars as an intense vessel of barely contained masculine rage, as much a victim of it as he is its transgressor. If you’ve seen him in one of his previous films, he’s hardly recognizable here, an equal in a quartet of strange and fascinating performers. Future films he grabs a significant amount of screen time in Carlos Puga’s SXSW award-winning dramedy All That I Am, and in Josh Mond’s highly anticipated directorial debut, James White. (NB)

#7. Gitte Witt (The Sleepwalker)

Gitte Witt (The Sleepwalker)

Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker is more haunting than the sum of its parts. It’s shooting-site, a 1920s modernist estate turned architectural labyrinth and grayish Massachusetts landscape, together with the ominous score by Sondre Lerche contribute to an aesthetic of dread. The rest is owed to an inclusively strong acting ensemble, from which the hypnotic intensity of Norwegian actress Gitte Witt deserves mention. Witt’s character Kaia and her younger sister Christine function as reverse manifestations of shared trauma. Past sexual abuses are hinted at in present perversions, deep-seated resentment and the outwardly decent male characters bound to latent patriarchal violence. The dysfunctional familial history remains unclear even as the credits roll, but in light of Witt’s loaded performance, such ambiguity reflects the natural consequences of willful amnesia. She made tiny appearances in the boozy euro-sex flick Pornopung (2013) and tsunami survival drama The Impossible (2012), but Gitte Witt has proven herself to be leading lady material. (CC)

#6. Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood)

Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood)

After 12 years in the making, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood finally premiered, making its young lead an instant name of note. Previously credited as Ellar Salmon, the young actor has actually been in a few roles since he began filming with Linklater, including an appearance in Linklater’s 2006 film Fast Food Nation. It’s unclear if acting will continue to be one of Coltrane’s pursuits, but if his performance in Boyhood is any indication, he seems well groomed for success. (NB)

#5. Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior)

 Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior)

Desiree Akhavan won’t find any reprieve here in terms of Lena Dunham comparisons — which is pretty much what one might get when your talent set in acting, writing comedy and directing one’s self. In playing Shirin, a drifter-Iranian-lesbian-hipster post break-up survivor, Akhavan loads Appropriate Behavior with familiar musings found in her web based The Slope. Two toes still in the closest, the black swan du jour adult still working through her awkward teenage phase, serves us a character that is the buttend of an endless series of one-liners and visual jokery, but is also served with a I don’t know how to build this Ikea furniture honesty. Her brand of acting shall have a larger reach than just the one she currently serves. (EL)

#4. Josh Wiggins (Hellion)

Josh Wiggins (Hellion)

At the tender age of fifteen, Josh Wiggins has made his debut with a resounding roar of a lead performance in Kat Candler’s Hellion as Jacob Wilson, ripping through town on dirt bikes, enraged by the loss of his mother and the lack of guidance by his absent father (played by Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul), yet the youngster possesses emotional restraint, delivering a powerfully nuanced performance that calls to mind other modern greats who got their start as kids, like Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale, or more recent discoveries like Tye Sheridan. Found by Candler and her casting director by chance through Youtube videos posted by Wiggins and his friends, the teen looks well on his way to a steady acting career, having signed with UTA & Leverage Management just days before Hellion‘s World Premiere in Park City, the same handlers as his mentoring co-star Paul. If his portrayal of Jacob is any indication of things to come, expect Wiggins to deliver more emotionally charged performances in the near future. (JS)

#3. Carla Juri (Wetlands)

Carla Juri (Wetlands)

The young and effervescent Juri has been appearing in variety of supporting and television roles since her 2010 screen debut in 180°. But audiences who happen to catch her turn as the precocious, perverted, and refreshingly unabashed sexual tornado in David Wnendt’s Wetlands are unlikely to forget her. A role that calls for a particular presence in that it requires an actress who can charm and repulse, often within the same breath, Juri’s performance is one that wags tongues and will hopefully make her a fresh new face not only in the fest circuit but beyond the fray as well. Some of her other 2013 titles have yet to reach any kind of US audience (one of which, Finsterworld, also stars Margit Carstensen), but she’s got a 2014 thriller lined up called Fossil, directed by Alex Walker. It will be curious to see how the reception of Wetlands may dictate her next move. (NB)

#2. Jenny Slate (Obvious Child)

Obvious Child Jenny Slate

Jenny Slate is the little weirdo behind AFI’s 2010 Best Animated Short and Youtube gem “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”. She is “the worst person in the world” Mona Lisa Saperstein, a recurring character on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. In addition to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Kroll Show appearances, Slate began her short-lived SNL career by swearing on air and we F-ing love her for that. At long last, Gillian Robespierre’s hilarious and socially progressive debut Obvious Child has allowed Jenny Slate to prove that she is more than just a funny face. Her character Donna is a Brooklyn comedian that gets dumped, fired from the Unoppressive Non-Imperialist bookstore and pregnant after a one-night stand with Max, a business degree and slip-on shoes kind of guy. While the film assumes an unapologetically pro-choice stance, Slate rises to the challenge of more difficult material. Drunkenly grooving to Paul Simon in her undies, to laying sedated and teary-eyed on a clinical table, Slate is a talented “human woman” and actress of impressive emotional range. (CC)

#1. Boyd Holbrook – (Little Accidents & The Skeleton Twins)

Boyd Holbrook - (Little Accidents & The Skeleton Twins)
With upcoming roles/appearances in films from David Fincher, Terrence Malick, Scott Frank, and Gavin O’Conner’s Jane Got a Gun, it’s safe to anoint the year of 2014 as the official breakout year for Kentucky native Boyd Holbrook. Having sojourned in modeling before breaking into acting, filmmaking and other artistic endeavors, it’s at Sundance where he’ll have made the shift from bit parts to a male lead carry a film candidate. He plays the handsome swimming pool scuba instructor and the key source of internal distress for Kristin Wiig’s character in The Skeleton Twins, but it’s his lead perf as a maimed coal-miner with the weight of a town’s people in Little Accidents that comes from both an earnest and honest place. A role that Holbrook could identifiably relate to because of its Appalachian settings, what percolates here isn’t a huge, emotionally sweeping display of his dramatic range, but rather, a showcase of a character’s inner turmoil dealing with loss, shame and deeply embedded survivor’s guilt. (EL)


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