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2017 Sundance Film Festival Preview

The RogerEbert.com team is headed back to Park City, Utah for another movie marathon at the Sundance Film Festival. As our schedules' sails constantly change with the gust of one curious title to the next, here's a look at just some of the high-profile titles receiving their world premieres, a few recommendations to make note of, and the left-field selections at the top of our to-do list. Watch for coverage in the next few weeks by Brian Tallerico, Nick Allen, Tomris Laffly, Sam Fragoso, Patrick McGavin, and the Ebert Fellows: Emma Piper-Burket, Sasha Kohan and Walker King.

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U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION 

Presenting the world premieres of 16 narrative feature films, the Dramatic Competition offers Festivalgoers a first look at groundbreaking new voices in American independent film.

"Brigsby Bear": Anyone who's seen the last two seasons of "Saturday Night Live" knows that Kyle Mooney is going to be a cast member to cherish—even though his segments are usually cut for time, they still reach an online audience. For years, a Mooney film project has been the stuff of big curiosity, especially as he does so well with reoccurring characters for short videos. Now, he's in his first leading role with "Brigsby Bear," about one man and a children's show made just for him. Joining him in the cast for this giant mystery of a project are the likes of Mark Hamill, Michaela Watkins, Andy Samberg and Claire Danes. This movie's world premiere on Monday afternoon can't come soon enough. 

"Landline": After giving Jenny Slate the breakout lead role she deserved with "Obvious Child," writer/director Gillian Robespierre comes back to Sundance with her second film, "Landline," about a family in 1990s Manhattan. Joining Slate in the cast are the likes of John Turturro, Edie Falco, Finn Wittrock, Jay Duplass and more. 

"Novitiate": This movie from debut writer/director Margaret Betts concerns a young woman training to be a nun in the 1960s, and along with the audaciousness of the concept I'm excited about the cast; there's bound to be a breakout performance from this group. Acting opposite Oscar-winner Melissa Leo are rising names like Dianna Agron, Morgan Saylor, Margaret Qualley, Liana Liberato, Maddie Hasson and more. 

U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION 

Sixteen world-premiere American documentaries that illuminate the ideas, people and events that shape the present day.

"Dina": The logline for this very curious documentary tells of an unconventional romance between "an eccentric suburban woman" and "a Wal-Mart door greeter." Aside from the many possibilities of beauty this simple set-up offers, the doc boasts a score by actor and unique songwriter Michael Cera

"Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of Free Press": With Gawker recently departed, this story about Hulk Hogan and his trial against the website has the promise to engage the role of media when going up against money. The key part to this story is that this investigation is done by director Brian Knappenberger, of previous timely media explorations like "The Internet's Own Boy." 

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"Whose Streets?": In keeping with the festival's tradition of being incredibly current with its programming, this documentary tells of the activist's perspectives in Ferguson, Missouri from 2014. Along with this movie's opening night scheduling, this competition entry from Sabaah Folayan promises to have more than a few questions for its audience.

 WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Twelve films from emerging filmmaking talents around the world offer fresh perspectives and inventive styles.

"Free and Easy": Park City may not be the place you want to see a movie about a frigid Chinese town, but that's part of the charm of "Free and Easy," from writer/director Jun Geng. It's stubborn, it's empty, it's cold. And yet, it's pretty special, as viewers will find out soon enough. I look forward to telling you more about this bizarre crime story soon. 

"My Happy Family": We'll have a longer review on this beautiful film in a few days, but this movie about a woman trying to divorce her family is like if "Krisha" spiked the punch at "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." From "In Bloom" co-directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, it boasts masterful touches when presenting an overwhelming family (and an awards-worthy performance from lead Ia Shugliashvili) that make this a must-see from the category. 

"Pop Aye": Along with "An Inconvenient Sequel," the festival kicks off on Thursday night with "Pop Aye," a special treat for viewers. Previous openers have been a bit rough ("The Bronze," and then the next year "Other People") but this story of a man reunited with his elephant from his childhood is more memorable, not to mention complicated than its log line. A full review is coming, but this movie is one to keep an eye out for. It's an animal movie that doesn't bank on likable characters, while never overplaying the instant charm it has for featuring a beautiful elephant in almost every scene in the film.  

WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION 

Twelve documentaries by some of the most courageous and extraordinary international filmmakers working today.

"The Good Postman": Fans of documentaries with excellent real-life comedy, political relevance and superb filmmaking cannot miss "The Good Postman," a film about a Bulgarian village's mayoral election, and the two men with contrasting takes on how Syrian refugees should be treated. I'll write more about Hristov's filmmaking in a longer review soon, but it's a movie with a unique grip in more ways than one. 

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"Machines": This documentary from Iranian filmmaker Rahul Jain focuses on the machines, man and industrial, in an Indian textile factory. But before one attempts to look at it with the artful interest of a Godfrey Reggio joint, or even as existential poetry, this film wields a political importance that's bigger than art, using its extensive cinematic potential that could hopefully bring change. 

"Tokyo Idols": Documentarian Kyoko Miyake provides an in-depth look at the culture of idols in Japan—regional pop stars that create some very personal followings, particularly among middle-aged men—and the results are illuminating and horrifying. A documentary that can be more unsettling than some Midnight selections, "Tokyo Idols" has the jarring nature of an expose, except it's about a billion-dollar business. We'll have a longer review in a few days but this is one to put on your schedules or keep an eye out for future fests. 

PREMIERES 

A showcase of world premieres of some of the most highly anticipated narrative films of the coming year.

"The Big Sick": Kumail Nanjiani is one of the best comedians out there, but has been a supporting act for too long. His first big lead role is for this story he co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, about their marriage. To add onto the excitement this project inspires, it's directed by Michael Showalter ("The Baxter," "Hello, My Name is Doris") and produced by Judd Apatow. I'd watch a series based off of this logline, but a movie sounds just as good. Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and more also star. 

"Mudbound": "Pariah" director Dee Rees returns to the fest with a pioneer epic based on the novel by Hillary Jordan. Along with Rees' notoriety, this is bound to be one of the fest's biggest premieres, especially with its cast: Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige, Jonathan Banks, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan and Carey Mulligan. Keep your eyes peeled when this movie premieres on Saturday night. 

"The Polka King": Jack Black is the title figure of this bizarre true story about ponzi schemes and polka music, as from "Infinitely Polar Bear" writer/director Maya Forbes. The promise of Black playing a polka king is enough to make it a top priority, especially with a cast that includes Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, Jacki Weaver and Vanessa Bayer

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DOCUMENTARY PREMIERES

Renowned filmmakers and films about far-reaching subjects comprise this section highlighting our ongoing commitment to documentaries.

"An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power": "An Inconvenient Truth" premiered eleven years ago at the Sundance Film Festival. How far have we come with saving the Earth since then? What's gotten better? What efforts failed? Is this sequel inconvenient because Fisher Stevens' "Before the Flood" already said a lot about global warming just a few months ago? I've many questions for this new venture, but I'm ready to listen. This doc will kick off Sundance 2017, premiering at 5:30pm on Thursday.

"Give Me Future": Along with that 240-minute Grateful Dead doc, "Give Me Future" brings music to the Premieres section with a historic concert in Cuba by group Major Lazer. Whether you're a aan of their music or not, this documentation of their performance in downtown Havana—which no American group has done before—promises a victory for the uniting power of music.

"Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities": Stanley Nelson returns to the festival with this documentary about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Given the impact of his previous films like 2015's "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," this endeavor is bound to challenge the way we look at American history and understand identity within higher education. 

NEXT

Pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling populate this program. Digital technology paired with unfettered creativity promises that the films in this section will shape a "greater" next wave in American cinema. Presented by Adobe.

"A Ghost Story": This is one of those Sundance titles that snuck up on everyone, a feature shot in secret that was announced to the world when it made the festival's NEXT lineup. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star in this self-titled story, and one that was reportedly picked up for distribution by the inimitable A24. We'll have a review not long after it premieres, so stay tuned. 

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"Gook": Actor/writer/director Justin Chon is going all-out, and I'm stoked to see his second film. His first movie, "Man Up," was like an exercise with filmmaking using very broad comedy, but this movie has a grittier vibe, as shot in black and white and an aggressive title. 

"Lemon": Janicza Bravo previously made a name for herself with the short "Gregory Go Boom," and now has her first feature with "Lemon," starring comedian Brett Gelman (who happens to be her husband) as a man whose life unravels after he is dumped by his girlfriend. Along with her intriguing vision and his unique dry comedy, "Lemon" could very well be an entry within the forward-thinking NEXT category to remember.

MIDNIGHT

From horror and comedy to works that defy genre classification, these films will keep you wide awake, even at the most arduous hour.

"78/52": In a way that seems similar to how Sundance movie "Room 237" dissected every inch of "The Shining," this documentary about the shower scene in "Psycho" has the intrigue of using real people for its unsettling nature. The director behind this venture is Alexandre O. Philippe, previously of "The People vs. George Lucas." Here, he brings in the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Jamie Lee Curtis, Elijah Wood, Karyn Kusama and Bret Easton Ellis to talk about "Psycho," with a project that sounds like a movie geek feast.  

"Bitch": Marianna Palka ("Good Dick," "Always Worthy") directs this story about a woman who takes on a "canine persona." That should be enough to pique your interest, as it has done for mine (I'll be in line, Friday midnight). Jason Ritter, Palka and Jaime King also star.

"XX": This intriguing compilation is a quartet of horror shorts, as directed only by women. Along with the likes of Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin and Jovanka Vuckovic, St. Vincent herself, Annie Clark, will make her debut as a director. The film already has a release date (February 17), but I can't wait to hear reactions from its world premiere on Sunday night. 

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