A wild whirlwind of a mess, without any coherence, without even a guiding principle.
The Sundance Film Festival is starting tomorrow, January 24th, and promises 11 days of cinematic discovery. The film year doesn’t really start until Sundance starts, premiering some of the movies that will be on year-end lists in 11 months. The 2018 iteration was a particularly strong one, including the premieres of “Sorry to Bother You,” “Blindspotting,” “Eighth Grade,” “Leave No Trace,” “Wildlife,” “Minding the Gap,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “Blaze,” and many more. Looking over the lists of what will play at Sundance over the next week-and-a-half, it’s easy to pick out 20 movies that we’re particularly excited to cover, although we’re just as excited at what will come completely out of nowhere, surprising us with its stellar quality. Come back soon for coverage from Brian Tallerico, Nick Allen, Monica Castillo, Tomris Laffly, and the Ebert Fellows—Niani Scott, Whitney Spencer, and Tiffany Walden, including reviews of all 16 films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition program. Below are twenty stand-outs from various programs that we’re eager to cover, alphabetically, including the official synopsis courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.
“After the Wedding”
Written and Directed by Bard Freundlich
Isabel (Michelle Williams) has dedicated her life to working with the children in an orphanage in Calcutta. Theresa (Julianne Moore) is the multimillionaire head of a media company who lives with her handsome artist husband (Billy Crudup) and their two adorable twin boys in New York. When word comes to Isabel of a mysterious and generous grant for the financially struggling orphanage, she must travel to New York to meet the benefactor—Theresa—in person. And when Isabel is spontaneously invited to Theresa’s daughter’s wedding, Isabel discovers a connection to Theresa that takes her on an unexpected journey into her own past.
“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, and Lily Banda
Written and Directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor
Young William Kamkwamba lives with his family in rural Malawi, where he attends school regularly and shows great aptitude for his studies. Yet after land development and poor weather lead to a meager harvest, famine strikes the village, alarming the community and forcing William to drop out of school when his father (Chiwetel Ejiofor) can no longer afford the fees. Determined to find a way out of the life-threatening situation his family is facing, William sneaks into the school library to research—and soon conspires to build a windmill pump to irrigate the land. Caught between his father’s close-minded skepticism and the difficulty of creating a machine out of bicycle parts and scrap materials, William races against the clock to fight for his community’s survival.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Written by Michael Werwie
1969. Ted (Zac Efron) is crazy-handsome, smart, charismatic, affectionate. And cautious single mother Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins) ultimately cannot resist his charms. For her, Ted is a match made in heaven, and she soon falls head over heels in love with the dashing young man. A picture of domestic bliss, the happy couple seems to have it all figured out … until, out of nowhere, their perfect life is shattered. Ted is arrested and charged with a series of increasingly grisly murders. Concern soon turns to paranoia—and, as evidence piles up, Liz is forced to consider that the man with whom she shares her life could actually be a psychopath.
Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, and Jiang Yongbo
Written and Directed by Lulu Wang
Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
After learning their beloved matriarch has terminal lung cancer, a family opts not to tell her about the diagnosis, instead scheduling an impromptu wedding-reunion back in China. Headstrong and emotional writer Billi rebels against her parents’ directive to stay in New York and joins the family as they awkwardly attempt to rekindle old bonds, throw together a wedding that only grandma is actually looking forward to, and surreptitiously say their goodbyes.
Written and Directed by Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Luebbe
Jill and Lisa live in their perfect homes in their idyllic suburban community with their happy families. Their days are spent in the grocery store exchanging fashion tips and at birthday parties complimenting their neighbors’ potluck dips. As the women desperately vie for validation, they struggle to maintain pleasantry and normalcy, even when things get weird. And they do get weird. When Jill gifts Lisa her newborn baby in an altruistic gesture, paranoia overwhelms Jill while her fears and anxieties quickly unravel.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra
Written by Mindy Kaling
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a pioneer and legendary host on the late-night talk-show circuit. When she’s accused of being a “woman who hates women,” she puts affirmative action on the to-do list, and—presto!—Molly (Mindy Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine’s all-male writers’ room. But Molly might be too little too late, as the formidable Katherine also faces the reality of low ratings and a network that wants to replace her. Molly, wanting to prove she’s not simply a diversity hire who’s disrupting the comfort of the brotherhood, is determined to help Katherine by revitalizing her show and career—and possibly effect even bigger change at the same time.
Written and Directed by Abe Forsythe
After a rough breakup, directionless Dave (Alexander England) crashes at his sister’s place and spends his days expanding his young nephew’s questionable vocabulary. When an opportunity arises to chaperone an upcoming school excursion alongside the charming and enigmatic teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), Dave jumps at the chance to impress her. What he wasn’t anticipating was Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), an obnoxious children’s television personality who shapes the excursion’s activities. What he was expecting even less was a zombie invasion, which unfolds after an experiment at a nearby military base goes awry. Armed only with the resourcefulness of kindergartners, Dave, Miss Caroline, and Teddy must work together to keep the monsters at bay and carve a way out with their guts intact.
Directed by Rashid Johnson
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
Bigger “Big” Thomas, a young African American man, lives with his mother and siblings in Chicago. Half-heartedly involved with a girlfriend, he sports green hair and a punk jacket, smokes weed, and carries a pistol—but rebuffs his buddy’s “easy-money” scheme to knock off a corner store. Full of self-determination, Big accepts a job as the chauffeur for wealthy businessman Will Dalton’s family. Moving into their mansion, he begins driving Dalton’s vehemently progressive daughter, Mary. But his involvement in an accidental death places Big on a collision course with the powerful social forces pitted against him.
Directed by Gavin Hood
Based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, Official Secrets tells the true story of British secret-service officer Katharine Gun, who during the immediate run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq leaked a top-secret National Security Agency memo. The memo—which exposed an illegal U.S.-U.K. spying operation against members of the United Nations Security Council—proposed blackmailing smaller, undecided member states into voting for war.
Directed by Alex Lehmann
Written by Alex Lehmann & Mark Duplass
An unlikely bromance between two misfit neighbors becomes an unexpectedly emotional journey when one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Suddenly facing their mortality, the two bros (who spend their free time playing a game they made up called Paddleton) decide to go on a trip. Yet their literal journey turns into a metaphorical one as their experiences reveal the true bond of friendship—and what that means between two men who use humor to avoid expressing any real emotion.
Directed by Alice Waddington
Written by Nacho Vigalondo & Brian DeLeeuw
When Uma wakes up alone on a strange island called Paradise, she instantly suspects it’s anything but. Helmed by the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), Paradise Hills is a center for emotional healing that at its core serves as a reformatory-style boarding school for privileged young women. Yet behind the rose-covered pathways and fairy-tale decor, Uma and her friends learn something more sinister is at work.
Written and Directed by Scott Z. Burns
Senate staffer Daniel Jones is assigned the daunting task of leading an investigation into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. After analyzing extensive evidence, he learns about the “enhanced interrogation techniques”—proven to be brutal, immoral, and ineffective—that the CIA adopted after 9/11. When Jones and the Senate Intelligence Committee attempt to release the results from his investigation, however, the CIA and White House go to great lengths to prevent the truth from getting out.
Written and Directed by Pippa Bianco
Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
After a night of partying, high-school sophomore Mandy discovers that a series of cell-phone videos of her—half-dressed and semiconscious—have gone viral. Struggling to piece together what happened, reeling at how quickly the normalcy of her life has been upended, unsure about her friends’ attempts to usher her back into their normal social routine, and uneasy about her parents’ inclination to take action on her behalf, Mandy has to navigate a landscape littered with others’ good intentions and find a way to heal from a wound she can’t identify.
“The Sunlit Night”
Directed by David Wnendt
Written by Rebecca Dinerstein
Summer is off to a terrible start for Frances (Jenny Slate). Her art project fails, her boyfriend unceremoniously kicks her out of his Hamptons home, and, to top it all off, her younger sister reveals she’s engaged just moments before her parents announce their separation. Out of a mixture of panic and frustration, Frances hastily takes an opening for an art residency in Norway and heads off to an isolated island where the sun never sets.
“Them That Follow”
Written and Directed by Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage
Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
In the rugged wilderness of Appalachia, the members of an isolated community of Pentecostal snake handlers led by Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins) risk their lives to attest themselves before God. Lemuel’s daughter Mara (Alice Englert) prepares for her upcoming wedding to the young believer her father has singled out for her under the watchful eye of Hope (Olivia Colman), while scrambling to hide a secret that has the potential to drive her father’s church to ruin.
“To the Stars”
Directed by Martha Stephens
Written by Shannon Bradley-Colleary
In a god-fearing small town in 1960s Oklahoma, bespectacled and reclusive teen Iris endures the booze-induced antics of her mother and daily doses of bullying from her classmates. She finds solace in Maggie, the charismatic and enigmatic new girl at school, who hones in on Iris’s untapped potential and coaxes her out of her shell. When Maggie’s mysterious past can no longer be suppressed, the tiny community is thrown into a state of panic, leaving Maggie to take potentially drastic measures and inciting Iris to stand up for her friend and herself.
Directed by Ursula Macfarlane
Category: Documentary Premieres
The inside story of the meteoric rise and monstrous fall of movie titan Harvey Weinstein, Untouchable reveals how Weinstein acquired and deployed his formidable power over the course of decades. Former staffers, college friends, and reporters reflect upon the public perception of Weinstein as a visionary, while detailing his ruthless attempts to preserve his power as scandal threatened to engulf him. In candid, emotional, often-harrowing testimony—with many accusers speaking on camera for the first time—Untouchable exhumes both the method and the collateral damage of Weinstein’s alleged abuse. As the criminal case against him continues, the film questions whether meaningful change in the justice system—and in the film industry—is really possible.
Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy
In the cutthroat world of fine-art trading and representation, up-and-coming agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) stumbles across a secret weapon: hundreds of dazzling paintings left behind after an elderly tenant in her building dies. Ignoring the instructions the clandestine artist left to destroy his work, she promptly starts circulating the paintings, which soon attract the attention of the heavy hitters around her—including her boss Rhodora (Rene Russo), art critic (and Josephina’s sometime lover) Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), and competing collectors, managers, and curators like Bryson (Billy Magnussen) and Gretchen (Toni Collette). Yet as the deceased artist’s portraits gain posthumous acclaim, they also awaken something imperceptible and sinister that threatens to punish those who have profited from his work.
“The Wolf Hour”
Written and Directed by Alistair Banks Griffin
It’s July 1977, and New York City is awash with escalating violence. A citywide blackout is triggering fires, looting, and countless arrests, and the Son of Sam murders are riddling the city with panic. June, once a celebrated counterculture figure, attempts to retreat from the chaos by shutting herself inside the yellowed walls of her grandmother’s South Bronx apartment. But her doorbell is ringing incessantly, the heat is unbearable, and creeping paranoia and fear are taking hold. Visitors, some invited, some unsolicited, arrive one by one, and June must determine whom she can trust and whether she can find a path back to her former self.
Written and Directed by Babak Anvari
Will is a bartender in New Orleans. He has a great job, great friends, and a girlfriend, Carrie, who loves him. He skates across life’s surface, ignoring complications and concentrating on enjoying the moment. One night at the bar, a violent brawl breaks out, which injures one of his regular customers and causes some college kids to leave behind a cell phone in their haste. Will begins receiving disturbing texts and calls from the stranger’s phone. While Will hopes to not get involved, Carrie gets lost down a rabbit hole investigating this strange malevolence. They’ve discovered something unspeakable, and it’s crawling slowly into the light.
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