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Sundance: 13 Biggest Breakout Performances

The Sundance Film Festival has an impressive track record of launching major careers — from Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) to Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”) to Ryan Gosling (“The Believer”). As this year’s Park City premieres come to an end, Variety’s critics and reporters offer their favorite breakout performances.

1. Kumail Nanjiani, “The Big Sick”
The stand-up comedian and “Silicon Valley” actor proves he’s got the heart of a leading man in “The Big Sick.” Nanjiani partnered with his wife to write the heavily autobiographical story of a Pakistani-comic forced to shake off his arrested development when his girlfriend suffers a life-threatening illness. The film had the audience at its Sundance premiere howling, and went on to top that triumphant debut by landing the biggest deal of the festival, a $12.5 million pact from Amazon, after an all-night bidding war. –Brent Lang

2. Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”
Until this year’s Sundance, Chalamet was known as the actor on “Homeland” who almost got to play Spider-Man in the latest Sony reboot. But his lead performance as a heartthrob in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” is a career changer. As Elio, an Italian teenager who falls in love with an older American tourist (Armie Hammer), Chalamet carries every scene — it’s the best coming-of-age portrait at Sundance since Evan Rachel Wood in “Thirteen.” –Ramin Setoodeh

3. Margaret Qualley, “Novitiate”
Twenty eight years ago, Andie MacDowell was the breakout new star at Sundance when Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape” unspooled in Park City. Now it’s the next generation’s turn. MacDowell’s 22-year-old daughter, model-turned-actress Qualley, has already won fans with her work in HBO’s “The Leftovers,” but proves she can carry a movie with her striking, emotionally vulnerable leading turn as an aspiring nun in Maggie Betts’s acclaimed convent drama “Novitiate.” Qualley immediately followed up a strong Sundance debut, meanwhile, with a supporting turn in another of this year’s festival selections, Shawn Christensen’s “Sidney Hall.” –Guy Lodge

4. Alex Sharp, “To the Bone”
When Marti Noxon (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” fame) decided to base her directorial debut on experiences she’d had as a teenage anorexic, casting was clearly going to be a problem. Lily Collins will no doubt get the most attention for her lead role, but the scene-stealer here is London-born, Juilliard-trained actor Sharp. Playing a charming dancer with an eating disorder, Sharp makes his leap from Broadway (where his work in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” made him the youngest person to win a Tony for best actor in a play) to the big screen. And while he’s clearly a serious actor, it’s his willingness to be silly that makes “To the Bone’s” downbeat story bearable. –Peter Debruge

5. Jessica Williams, “The Incredible Jessica James”
The ex-“Daily Show” correspondent shines in a star vehicle custom built for her by writer-director Jim Strouse. She has an infectious screen presence brimming with self-confidence, but isn’t afraid to let her vulnerable side show in this crowd-pleasing relationship comedy. –Geoff Berkshire

6. Danielle Macdonald, “Patti Cake$”
You could argue that Macdonald’s star-making turn in Geremy Jasper’s directorial debut is worth $10 million. That’s roughly what Fox Searchlight forked over to acquire this Cinderella story about an aspiring rapper from New Jersey, who trudges along as a caterer and lives with her broke mom (Bridget Everett, fantastic). In the last few days, Macdonald has been compared to every Sundance breakout from Jennifer Lawrence to Gabourey Sidibe. That she’s Australian — which you’d never know from her finely calibrated Joisey accent — makes her debut all the more outstanding. –R.S.

7. Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
The R&B singer triggered Oscar buzz with her shattering turn in “Mudbound” as a sharecropper trying to keep her family together despite racism and economic hardship in the segregated South. She’s virtually unrecognizable in the role, but the same fire that makes her such a commanding performer powers her work as Florence, a woman who wants a better life for her family. Every moment she’s on screen she’s completely present — her face registers each flicker of hurt, fierce love, and quiet rage at a society that is so stubbornly unjust. –B.L.

8. Josh O’Connor, “God’s Own Country”
Cheltenham-born O’Connor has been marked as one to watch in Britain for a couple of years now, following a strong lead turn in U.K. indie “Bridgend,” and smaller but more widely viewed roles in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “The Riot Club” and TV’s “Peaky Blinders.” But it’s as a repressed gay Yorkshire farm worker in Francis Lee’s moving romantic drama “God’s Own Country” — warmly received in Sundance’s international competition — that the young Brit proves the true extent of his abilities, carrying a nuanced, not immediately sympathetic role with soulful yearning, quiet physical presence and a streak of earthy humor. Expect his thus-far steady ascent to gain pace this year. –G.L.

9. O’Shea Jackson Jr., “Ingrid Goes West”
Ice Cube’s son scored his major breakout role playing his father in the hit “Straight Outta Compton,” but in only his second film role, Jackson proves he also has the goods to be a romantic leading man. As the laidback pot-dealing landlord of Aubrey Plaza’s social media obsessed title character, Jackson demonstrates an effortless charm that a smart Hollywood studio should put to good use soon. –G.B.

10. Abby Quinn, “Landline”
Though most who answer “Landline’s” calling go in hoping to witness the reunion between “Obvious Child” writer-director Gillian Robespierre and burpy, chirpy comedienne Jenny Slate, the best surprise of this ’90s-set New York comedy is discovering the ingénue picked to play Slate’s kid sister. Rather than picking someone even more eccentric than Slate, the filmmakers went with a young actress who comes across as wise beyond her years — and in many ways, the most mature member of the family. Articulate and assertive, Quinn’s character discovers that her father, played by John Turturro, is cheating on mom, Edie Falco. It’s an overwhelming position for any teen, yet Quinn totally holds her own among such pros. –P.D.

11. Dave Bautista, “Bushwick”
The former pro wrestler has a major role in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, but if there was ever any doubt he could headline his own action vehicles the insanely well-timed “Bushwick” should put it to rest. Bautista plays an ex-Marine ushering a sheltered New Yorker through war-torn New York City streets and scores with the role’s physical and emotional demands. –G.B.

12. Harris Dickinson, “Beach Rats”
Audiences at post-screening Q&As for Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats” were in for a surprise when it came to the film’s star Dickinson: So persuasive as a closeted South Brooklyn dudebro in this tough, explicit coming-of-age drama, the big-screen newcomer turns out to be a British drama school graduate, born and raised in East London. That already bodes well for the young actor’s versatility, but his performance in “Beach Rats” is auspicious enough on its own, deftly articulating a difficult character’s clashing layers of social and sexual identity. Having now revealed a dark emotional range behind his Abercrombie & Fitch physicality, Dickinson will doubtless be surprising us in bigger projects soon. –G.L.

13. Kyle Mooney, “Brigsby Bear”
The “Saturday Night Live” player known for eccentric viral videos co-wrote his first starring vehicle with the same deadpan sensibility he’s known for on the show. A thoroughly unconventional comedy, the Sony Classics acquisition should position Mooney as a formidable player in the alternative comedy scene. –G.B.

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