There were no stars born at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—no Carey Mulligan, no Gabby Sidibe—but it still felt like the beginning of a new era, as some of our favorite actors played parts that redefined their careers. From sunny sitcom lead Josh Radnor to downtown theater vet John Ortiz, familiar faces surprised us, none more so than two of Sundance’s most famous alumni. In Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling—whose career took off at Sundance in 2001’s brutal The Believer—manages to combine that film’s ferocity with the sweet pathos of The Notebook; he and Michelle Williams, as his wife, elevate an okay film into something incandescent.
Our other favorite twosome, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, play a lesbian couple who finally meet the sperm donor for their two adolescent children (Mark Ruffalo) in The Kids Are All Right. Moore, too, got her big break at Sundance in 1995, in the harrowing Safe. Though she’s no stranger to funny, her career is heavily weighted with repressed, intense women. What a shame. “Her scenes—especially her sex scenes—were supposed to be kind of heightened and out-there,” says director Lisa Cholodenko, who co-wrote the hilarious, at times jaw-dropping screenplay (the film was picked up by Focus Features). “I didn’t know how she’d respond once we got on the set. But her readiness was stunning.” The Kids Are All Right feels invigorating and fresh in other ways, too. “It’s not like an eighties or nineties gay-festival film about politics,” she says. “It’s just a family is a family is a family. I said, ‘Let’s have some fun, weird romp with this new era.’ ”