At the Sundance Film Festival—where sleep-deprived attendees watch five movies a day, searching for kernels of greatness among 118 films—hyperbole spreads like infectious disease. For instance, The Surrogate, starring John Hawkes, sparked frantic tweets predicting a sweep at next year’s Oscars, then sold overnight to Fox Searchlight for $6 million. But just because critics and studio heads get loopy in Utah’s mountain air doesn’t mean the high praise for 2012’s films and performances is undeserved. This is a year without a Sundance “It” girl (like Elizabeth Olsen in 2011, or Jennifer Lawrence and Carey Mulligan before her). Instead, the spotlight has been shared by veteran supporting actresses Lizzy Caplan and Ari Graynor, getting leading-lady moments; a ridiculously charming 8-year-old girl from Louisiana named Quvenzhané Wallis, star of the rapturously received Beasts of the Southern Wild; and seven other actors whose fine work will be burned into our brains even after we return to sea level.
Films: Save the Date and Bachelorette.
The Comedienne With Range: “I like to think of the characters I play as shades of myself sans therapy,” says Caplan”and that should raise some eyebrows given her remarkably different turns in the relationship comedy Save the Date(as a brooding bookstore manager going through a bad breakup) and raunchy gal comedy Bachelorette (in which she plays a bitter, coke-happy party girl). See Also: Vulture’s Sundance Q&A With Caplan Photo: Chris Pizzello/AP
Films: For a Good Time, Call” and Celeste and Jesse Forever.
The Next Kristen Wiig: Graynor is a loud, hilarious, surprisingly vulnerable dervish in her first lead role, as a phone-sex entrepreneur, in For a Good Time, for which she improvised some of her own dialogue: “It was just me in a sound booth coming up with ten different, bizarre options for weird fetishes people on the other line might have.” Photo: Chris Pizzello/AP
Film: Robot and Frank.
The Legend: Langella brings both humor and a sense of loneliness to this near-future buddy comedy about a retired jewel thief who befriends his robot caretaker. “You come to a point in your life when all you want to do is small movies,” he says. “They’re certainly not gonna give me a part that says, “Mr. Langella now slips into bed with Scarlett Johansson’”unless it’s, “He slips into bed with Scarlett Johansson and dies.’” Photo: Chris Pizzello/AP
Film: Simon Killer.
The Budding Brando: Corbet is mesmerizing in the lead role of this year’s most divisive film, a brutal drama about an American sociopath who shacks up with a kindly French prostitute. His ruthless performance”which features very graphic sex and lies that build upon more lies”seems to come from a dark place within. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Best Events
Film: The Surrogate.
Next Year’s Best Actor: Hawkes earned a standing ovation for his funny and touching work as a polio-stricken poet who hires a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) to take his virginity. To prepare, he used something he calls a “torture ball,” which he put under his back to curve his spine. “It wasn’t good for me,” he says. “My chiropractor said my organs were migrating.” Photo: George Pimentel/Getty Images
The Crossover: As an ex-con trying (and failing) to go straight while his 11-year-old nephew watches, Common had a tough job: to show the kind of dignity that would make a boy idolize him while also allowing his dark side to slowly take over. Instead of going for easy histrionics, the rapper-actor achieves this in his uniquely submerged way, bit by imperceptible bit. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Film: 2 Days in New York.
The New Romantic Lead: Rock does his best acting ever as a man meeting his girlfriend’s French family in Julie Delpy’s funny follow-up to 2 Days in Paris. “I was just happy to get a good script,” says Rock. “In most black comedies, you’re a cop or you’re in drag. You’re the coat-check guy. You’re the funny cabdriver. I just want to act.” Photo: Chris Pizzello/AP
Film: Keep the Lights On.
The Danish Import: In this decade-spanning romance, the handsome, gap-toothed Lindhardt”a star in his native Denmark but unknown in the U.S.”gives a raw, sensitive performance as a filmmaker whose relationship with a closeted, drug-addicted lawyer (Zachary Booth) begins as a casual fling and blossoms into something bigger and messier. Photo: Riccardo De Luca/AP
Film: Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The Brash Rookie: The spitfire Wallis (who was only 6 when she shot Wild) carries this epic movie as a girl who has to learn to be tough when her father (non-actor Dwight Henry) gets sick and a storm hits their ramshackle village on the Louisiana Bayou. “I didn’t even know about acting,” she says. “That was just me. Bored. Happy. Sad. Mad. Everything just popped out of me.” Photo: Victoria Will/AP