The Sundance Seven

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.’ ”

Ryan Gosling
Blue Valentine
“Most movies just focus on the good stuff,” Gosling says. “But if you know the good and the bad and you still see the love, that’s romantic.” Indeed. In Derek Cianfrance’s gritty New York romance Blue Valentine, it’s Gosling, equally magnetic and infuriating”sweeping Michelle Williams (predictably wonderful) off her feet, then failing to follow through”that makes the film such an affecting and unusually complex take on marriage. “Everyone has a shadow side,” he says. “Two things can be true.”
Photograph by Jason Merrit/WireImage

Dax Shepard
The Freebie
Yes, really. The guy from Punk’d. He plays a husband offered a “freebie” one-night stand in Kate Asleton’s low-budget comedy. That Dane Cook movie, Employee of the Month, didn’t prepare us for Shepard’s low-key charm.
Photograph by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Jennifer Lawrence
Winter’s Bone
As a tough teen who holds her troubled family together while searching for her meth-head dad, the 19-year-old actress”whose few screen credits include the daughter of Charlize Theron in The Burning Plain“is the stern soul of Debra Granik’s byzantine Ozark neo-noir.
Photograph by Andrew H. Walker/WireImage

John Ortiz
Jack Goes Boating
It figures it would take this stage actor’s pal, Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his directorial debut), to come up with a film role that fully employs Ortiz’s talents. As the antic, blundering limo driver driven batty by his cheating wife (Daphne Rubin-Vega), he’s the most poignant depressive in a cast of stellar sad sacks.
Photograph by Ray Tamarra/Getty Images

Kate Mara and Josh Radnor
Not only did the star of How I Met Your Mother make a crowd-pleasing debut as a writer-director, but he showed terrific instinct in casting the underused Mara (a TV regular and the daughter in Brokeback Mountain) as his cabaret-singing Lower East Side love.
Photograph by Mark Von Holden/WireImage

Rebecca Hall
Please Give
The always excellent Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt get the showy roles in the latest gentrified comedy from Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing), but Hall (the Vicky of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) steals hearts as the quiet granddaughter of an elderly lady being circled by Manhattan real-estate vultures.
Photograph by Ray Tamarra/Getty Images

The Sundance Seven