We may be deep in 2014 awards season, but the new year in film starts next month with the Sundance Film Festival. Since its inception in 1978, the festival has done an exceptional job sticking to its mission statement: promote and discover independent cinema. This year, much like every other year, the festival will play host to hundreds of films from around the world. Many will be good. Many will be bad. We’ll cover a lot of them as they play in Park City, Utah, from Jan. 22-Feb. 1.
Here are the films we’re most excited about at this year’s fest.
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.
“Results”: Back in 2013, Andrew Bujalski’s "Computer Chess" took Sundance attendees by surprise, receiving reviews that ranged from effusive to disinterested. In fact, Roger Ebert, in one of his last pieces, called it “a movie by nerds, for nerds, and about nerds.” Bujalski’s follow up—a film about two personal trainers whose lives are “upended” upon meeting a new, affluent client—seems to veer clear of those labels. The cast includes Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Giovanni Ribisi and Brooklyn Decker.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment”: Drawing from the titular Philip Zimbardo experiment from the 1970s, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s latest will be worth seeking out just on the merits of its plot. For those unfamiliar with the Stanford Prison experiment, I’d recommend reading about it here. The cast includes Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan.
“Z for Zachariah”: Regardless of whether you enjoyed "Compliance," which premiered at the festival in 2012, there’s no denying that director Craig Zobel has a gift for provocation. His next movie has a similarly simple premise: one young woman believes she is the last human alive until she meets a scientist searching for survivors. Soon it's discovered that another man lives, forcing the three remaining remnants of a pre-apocalyptic world to coexist. Naturally, a love triangle blossoms. The cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine.
U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Sixteen world-premiere American documentaries that illuminate the ideas, people, and events that shape the present day.
“Call Me Lucky”: The checkered career of comedian/director/actor Bobcat Goldthwait has yielded varying results, with perhaps more ups and than downs. But when Goldthwait is on, either behind the camera (“World’s Greatest Dad”) or in front of it (“You Don’t Look The Same Either”), he’s worth paying attention to. His next endeavor is a documentary on bar comic turned peace activist Barry Crimmins. Apparently “famous comedians” will appear to help draw a portrait of a man who underwent an “incredible transformation.”
“Hot Girls Wanted”: According to the Sundance program, directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus have set out to make the first documentary that dives into the inner workings of the amateur porn industry, replete with unassuming teenage women being exploited.
“Racing Extinction”: In “The Cove,” Louie Psihoyos exposed a severe case of animal abuse to great effect, ultimately winning an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2010. It seems Psihoyos and company are taking the same route with their next project, which will explore the state of endangered species on the verge of mass extinction.
WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION
Twelve films from emerging filmmaking talents around the world offer fresh perspectives and inventive styles.
“Slow West”: Writer/director John Maclean makes his debut with "Slow West," a journey across the American frontier at the tail-end of the 19th century. This journey is led by a teenager determined to find the woman he loves. Complications ensue about the introduction of a mysterious traveler and the outlaw after him. The cast includes Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Rory McCann and Ben Mendelsohn.
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Twelve documentaries by some of the most courageous and extraordinary international filmmakers working today.
“Chuck Norris vs Communism”: I’m not familiar with the work of this director, or the events in which this documentary is determined to explore. But I do know there’s no better title out there than "Chuck Norris vs Communism."
“Listen to Me Marlon”: With complete access to previously unheard audio archives, director Steven Riley has set out to make the definitive Marlon Brando documentary.
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.
“Entertainment”: From the director of “The Comedy,” comes this enticing Next film about a fading comedian stuck playing piss poor shows in the Mojave Desert. Oh, and the enervated comic is doing these shows en route to meeting his estranged daughter, because it’s a Sundance movie and all family members are inherently estranged. The cast includes Gregg Turkington, John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera and Amy Seimetz.
“Tangerine”: After the critical success of "Starlet" in 2012, writer/director Sean Baker returns with "Tangerine," a movie whose logline is too perfect to replicate, so I won’t. It reads: “A working girl tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart.” This movie will either pack a series of emotional (or comedic) punches until knocking me out, or be absolutely awful. The cast includes Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor and Karren Karagulian.
Regardless of where these films have played throughout the world, the Spotlight program is a tribute to the cinema we love.
“99 Homes”: Since “Man Push Cart” in 2006, Ramin Bahrani has delivered one fascinating film after the next, unwilling to work within one genre or subject. His latest movie, which is dedicated to Roger, is a staggering snapshot of capitalism and greed in the 21st century. Revolving around a father willing to do anything to support his family, Bahrani picks up where the aughts housing crises ended. In his review of the film at the Toronto Film Festival this year, Brian Tallerico said “There are times in “99 Homes” when you’ll want to look away, when your gut will turn from the human pain on-screen. Don’t look away. Reassess.” Perhaps that’s why Sundance decided to put the film in the Spotlight section: To reassess. The cast includes Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern.
“Eden”: A second viewing of Mian Hansen-Løve’s love letter to electronic-dance-music will determine whether it contains more on its mind than just appreciation for the genre. Considering the Parisian’s filmography (“Father of My Children” and “Goodbye First Love”), I’m hopeful it will. The cast includes Félix de Givry, Pauline Etienne, Greta Gerwig, Brady Corbet and Arsinee Khanjian.
“Wild Tales”: My favorite film to emerge out of TIFF this year was Damián Szifrón’s rambunctious and rebellious "Wild Tales." The film, which is told through a half-dozen vignettes, essentially amounts to a big middle finger to government control. Through equal doses of satire and drama, Szifrón poignantly comments on the inequality and the injustice that permeates our everyday lives. The cast includes Ricardo Darín, Julieta Zyberberg, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Darío Grandinetti, Erica Rivas and Oscar Martínez.
PARK CITY AT MIDNIGHT
From horror flicks to comedies to works that defy any genre, these unruly films will keep you edge-seated and wide awake.
“It Follows”: Director David Robert Mitchell steps a little out of comfort zone with this homage to John Carpenter about a teenager whose contracted a curse through intercourse. The only way to get rid of the curse? Have sex again. While reporting from Cannes for the site, Ben Kenigsberg said “Mitchell strikes an impressive balance between the loose-limbed conversational scenes of his low-key "The Myth of the American Sleepover" and the more conventional scare tactics that the genre demands.” The cast includes Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto and Jake Weary.
“The Nightmare”: After only two years, Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237” has already ascended to cult status. The widely-discussed documentary is now the definitive bonus disc to Kubrick’s “The Shining.” And, according to the Sundance description, Ascher will continue to walk the line between fiction and non-fiction in “The Nightmare,” a film exploring sleep paralysis through the eyes of eight people.
NEW FRONTIER FILMS
“The Forbidden Room”: In putting together his list of The Best Films of the Decade, Roger placed Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” at the number 10 spot. He wrote Maddin’s films “are like a silent movie dreaming it can speak. No frame of his work could be mistaken for anyone else's. He combines documentary, lurid melodrama, newsreels, feverish fantasies and tortured typography into a form that appears to contain urgent information.” I’m not familiar with the filmography of Maddin or his “tortured typography,” but I know that when Roger gives out praise like that, you listen. The cast includes Geraldine Chaplin, Caroline Dhavernas, Roy Dupuis, Udo Kier and Charlotte Rampling.
“Sam Klemke's Time Machine”: Coming from Australian documentarian Matthew Bate, here’s a documentary about one man who has narrated his life for 50 years. How he has managed to do this, I do not know.
A showcase of world premieres of some of the most highly anticipated narrative films of the coming year.
“Digging for Fire”: It wouldn’t be Sundance without a film from Joe Swanberg, the king of Mumblecore (the definition of that word is still up for interpretation). While it’s easy to pick on Swanberg (there’s a whole swath of his filmography that’s outright bad), he’s made significant headway in the past few years. Both “Drinking Buddies” and “Happy Christmas” showed potential; his attention to emotional fragility, evident. Here’s the festival description of “Digging for Fire”: "The discovery of a bone and a gun sends a husband and wife on separate adventures over the course of a weekend.” It sounds silly, far-fetched, and quirky—all ingredients of typical Park City fare. Here’s hoping it’s not. The cast includes Jake Johnson, Rosemarie Dewitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick.
“End of the Tour”: After repeated visits to "The Spectacular Now," it’s been confirmed that James Ponsoldt delivered a phenomenal coming-of-age tale in 2013. He returns to Sundance, depicting a five-day long interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and beloved novelist David Foster Wallace. I don’t think I have to sell this one. The cast includes Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer and Ron Livingston.
“Mississippi Grind”: Writer/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have yet to make a bad film, or even a mediocre one. From “Half Nelson” to “Sugar” to “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” the Berkeley-born filmmakers have a knack for tapping into human emotion with tact and subtlety. “Mississippi Grind,” which is a about a habitual poker player who coaxes a younger, impressionable card-shark to join him on a road trip, will look to do the same. The cast includes Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton.
“Mistress America”: In the American cinema there are only a handful of filmmakers whose movies I will see no matter their runtime, cast, subject matter, genre, or critical response. Noah Baumbach is one of them. Tell me if this plot synopsis sounds familiar: “Tracy, a lonely college freshman in New York, is rescued from her solitude by her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke, an adventurous gal about town who entangles her in alluringly mad schemes. Mistress America is a comedy about dream-chasing, score-settling, makeshift families, and cat-stealing.” The film is written by Baumbach and partner-in-crime Greta Gerwig, who collaborated on the delightful confection that is “Frances Ha” back in 2012. The cast includes Gerwig and Lola Kirke.
Renowned filmmakers and films about far-reaching subjects comprise this section highlighting our ongoing commitment to documentaries. Each is a world premiere.
“Going Clear”: Alex Gibney will dive into the depths of Scientology by talking to eight former members of the Church that Cruise built. Expect a lot of talking head interviews and narration. And then more talking head interviews. Basically, the opposite of a Wiseman documentary. Expect that.
“The Hunting Ground”: Kirby Dick’s “This Film is Not Yet Rated” gleefully exposed the malevolence (and incompetence) of the MPAA upon its release in 2006. “The Invisible War” similarly unveiled the seedy underbelly of an institution: the rape epidemic in the military. “The Hunting Ground” looks to be the most socially relevant doc at the festival this year in wading through the morally murky waters of rape crimes on U.S. campuses.
“Tig": Over the past couple years, New York comedian Tig Notaro has emerged as a major talent on the standup circuit. She also appears to be incredibly interesting. Director Kristina Goolsby plans to tell her story.
The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 22-Feb. 1.