Independent film is great, not just because it offers a lot of new and original ideas that you won’t find at your local multiplex, but because no one spots new talent better than little-known directors desperate to make a name for themselves. Certainly, while those little films are rarely seen outside of film festivals and major urban areas, the good news is: People like Harvey Weinstein, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and Jason Reitman see those films, and the best directors are dogged about finding the best talent. So, one low-budget film that’s seen not by a ton of people, but by the right people, can launch an entire career.
That’s what happened in these ten cases: Stars were born not from huge blockbusters, but from indelible performances that stuck in the minds of people that matter. Some of these actors were known already, but it was these films that transformed them into serious actors.
Tom Hardy, Bronson ($104,000) — Bronson only fails in that it doesn’t really live up to the potential of its subject. Bronson the prisoner wanted to be a star. He needed to stay in prison — that’s the only thing that he was good at in life. He tried to strangle a pedophile, so they would send him back to regular prison. Refn’s staging would have worked if he’d stuck with it — and there are moments where it’s astounding. But, truly, Bronson lives and dies on Hardy’s epic performance — which brings up the question of Oscar eligibility, since the film premiered in 2008. Plus, I can’t wait to see pictures of him standing next to a frightened Meryl Streep in magazines. It’s a fascinating watch, but you do feel as though you’re confined right alongside him. — Brian Prisco
Eric Bana, Chopper — ($246,000) — Before Eric Bana was Eric Bana, he was an Australian actor little known in America until his brilliant depiction of Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read gained him great acclaim and attention from American critics and filmmakers. Chopper Read is a fascinating Australian criminal (and bestselling crime author), who is as menacing as he is full of sh*t. Between the ages of 20 and 38, he only spent 13 months outside of prison, but it was inside the clink where he arguably gained the most notoriety, starting a prison gang war that got so out of hand that Chopper’s best friend would end up stabbing him, costing him several feet of intestine (note, too, that Chopper was only in prison because he stabbed the judge that put his best friend in prison). Killing between four and 19 people (depending on the account you believe), Chopper, as depicted by Bana, is equal parts charming and terrifying, and wholly psychotic: The kind of guy that would play a prank on you, tell you he was just kidding, and then blow your brains out, and somehow, remain a weirdly amiable character. It’s a great movie, not just for the little-seen performance from Bana, but because Reed is such a compelling nutcase.
Michael Fassbender, Hunger ($154,000) — Painters, sculptors, and video artists like Steve McQueen would seem to make natural auteurs, but cinema, and especially the feature film, is its own beast with its own methods and orientation. McQueen’s debut film, Hunger, is an incredible piece of work, commanding in both form and artistry; I’m just not sure it always occupies a filmic space. In many ways it’s more accurate to call Hunger a series of meticulous installations than to refer to it as anything more concrete; McQueen is obsessed with camera placement, composition, time, and structure in a way far more rigorous than a mere adherence to formalism would show. Hunger is a personal essay, a work of impressions whose real inspiration and narrative are forever distant. — Phillip Stephens
Amy Adams, Junebug ($2.6 million) — Cultures rarely clash the way they so often do in the movies, when a slick lawyer has to deliver a calf or a redneck has to figure out how to order off a French menu. They more often clash the way they do in Junebug, when Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago art dealer, visits the North Carolina family of her husband, George (Alessandro Nivola). The characters here all have good intentions, and for the most part they’re not caricatures. They just lead lives full of very different assumptions. This leads to personal conflicts and stony silences that feel genuine. Director Phil Morrison also has a deft touch with set pieces, like the one in which Madeleine watches George earnestly deliver a hymn at a church social. It’s a beautifully rendered moment of revelation for Madeleine, and for the audience as well. — John Williams
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson ($2.6 million box-office) — OK, yes: Gosling had already been in The Notebook, and he had a career in Canada as a child actor, but it was Half Nelson that launched his career as a serious actor, that made Gosling what he is today. Director Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote with Anna Boden) knows his material and hews — perhaps a bit too closely — to the reality of addiction, without really making Half Nelson a glum addiction film, per se. Still, there are no Bobby Fischer/Finding Forrester epiphanic moments, but neither does it devolve into a Requiem for a Dream-type experience that has you looking for a 10th-floor window. Indeed, there is just enough optimism in Half Nelson to leave you feeling content, but not so much that you feel robbed. In an indie world where quirk and whimsy seem to be constantly battling it out with utter despair, Half Nelson is one of the few films that finds a satisfying middle ground.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mysterious Skin — ($700,000): Because we’ve poured so much affection of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brick. and because Mysterious Skin pre-dated (by days) the existence of Pajiba, we’ve given short-shrift to Gregg Araki’s devastating and beautiful film about the diverging paths of two boys who were molested by their Little League coach. The film that elevated JGL from child star to commanding feature-film presence, Mysterious Skin is an exceptionally understated film, given its subject material, and JGL gives nothing less than a sublime performance. And though this overlooked film deserves to be seen once for its sweetness, it may be to disturbing ever to sit through again.
Ellen Page, Hard Candy ($1 million)— Hard Candy is a resolutely focused film, and except for a brief appearance by Sandra Oh as Jeff’s neighbor, the story belongs entirely to Hayley and Jeff, and to the vicious game of cat and mouse that plays out between them. Wilson is powerful as the tortured villain forced to deal with a hellish version of karma, and Page is nothing short of magnetic as Hayley. The 19-year-old actress has a relatively short resume, but her upcoming turn in X-Men: The Last Stand as the third person to play Kitty Pryde in as many films will undoubtedly help introduce her to a larger audience. Her work in Hard Candy is somewhat reminiscent of Alison Lohman’s faux ingenue in Matchstick Men, but Page fully inhabits the role in her own ways, her awkward body language and passion verging on madness standing out as hallmarks of teenage years. — Daniel Carlson
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone ($6.5 million) — But the acting is what makes Winter’s Bone so outstanding. It’s essentially an ensemble piece centered around young Ree. Most of the actors are relative unknowns or familiar character faces, but they imbue all the various figures with a southern dignity. A particular standout is John Hawkes, who’ve you seen recently on “Lost” as Dogen’s translator Lennon and not recently enough on “Deadwood.” Hawkes has always been a go-to guy for solid character performances, but Teardrop is unlike anything I’ve seen from him before. Usually Hawkes plays a little towards the nerdish side, but here he’s all spitfire and venom. There’s constantly an undercurrent of violence crackling just beneath the surface. But even he gets outshone by the luminous Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence’s most recognizable credit is Lauren on “The Bill Engvall Show,” but this will be her breakout performance. She embodies Ree with a stubborn fury, but still manages to capture the frustration and fear of a teenager. She’s a child who’s been forced to become a woman early, and she honestly maneuvers the sea change with grace and class. You can see the world weariness sagging on her shoulders and in her bitter stare.
Andrew Garfield, Boy A ($113,000) — Boy A, despite launching the film career of Garfield, is so little seen that we don’t even have a review of it (nor of the Red Riding trilogy, which also helped to launch Garfield’s career), although no one has ever had anything but glowing things to say about Garfield’s performance in the film. It’s about a 24-year-old kid who just got out of a lengthy prison sentence and attempts to start his life all over again, without becoming like the person he was. Our friend Maryann Johanson spoke well of Garfield’s performance, however: “Anglo-American up-and-comer Andrew Garfield is uncomfortably heartbreaking as Jack, to whom it is distressingly difficult to grant absolution at the same time one castigates oneself: shouldn’t it be easier to forgive a child even a terrible crime?”
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene ($2.9 million)— Not yet a huge star, Olsen will be with four projects out in 2013, including the Oldboy remake. Martha Marcy May Marlene lurches inside of you and crawls around like a nasty beetle, and much of the success of the film can be attributed to the exceptional performance of Elizabeth Olson. She’s unreal in the way she depicts Martha, quietly inhabiting the dissociate personality disorder of her character, and pulling you down into her misery. It’s almost best you don’t know who her older sisters are going in, as that’s likely to taint your perception of her performance. She’s so far removed from the troll dolls who grew up on “Full House” that it’d never occur to you otherwise that she shares the same parents. Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a movie that’s going to get a lot of attention in movie theaters this year but it will make a star of Olsen and leave you scratching your head for yet another year about how John Hawkes isn’t yet a familiar name to every filmgoing citizen on the planet.