Like the majority of movie-buffs, I wasn’t able to go to Sundance. One of these days, perhaps my dream will become a reality, but this year it was not meant to be.
In the meantime, all I could do was fawn over my Twitter feed to see what movies were getting the most hype at the festival, which ones were getting the best reviews, which ones were made by people I liked, and which ones sounded the most bonkers.
So now, because not everyone is as fortunate as Movie Mezzanine Maverick Sam Fragoso, here’s all the things I’m anticipating from the Sundance film festival based solely on plot-descriptions, directors, actors, and general movie-going hype.
20. Two Mothers
The Plot: Two mothers and lifelong friends get into some sexy drama when they fall in love with each other’s sons.
The Talent: Naomi Watts and Robin Wright are the titular mothers of the film, while James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom) and Xavier Samuel (The Loved Ones) play the two sons getting some MILF action. The film is the English-language debut of director Anne Fontaine, most well known for Coco Before Chanel.
The Hype: As horridly awkward as this movie sounds, it’s received lots of interestingly divisive reactions from festival critics. Some claim that it’s a sexually provocative experience while others have called it a so-bad-it’s-good midnight movie. Either way, the results could be interesting, and I’ll most definitely watch anything with Naomi Watts in it.
19. In Fear
The Plot: A couple gets lost while driving around in the Irish countryside, with increasingly sinister situations threatening the two.
The Talent: The actors are mostly unknowns, and while this is Jeremy Lovering’s debut feature, he’s done numerous projects for television.
The Hype: In Fear is one of those horror movies that revolves around a central gimmick, like The Blair Witch Project and La Casa Muda before it. Here, the gimmick sounds genuinely original. Lovering apparently withheld many of the plot’s twists and crucial details from two of the actors, only giving them to the actor who played the mysterious figure terrorizing the couple. The intended result is to bring real fear out of the actors, who act genuinely shocked by the ensuing events. Sadly, reviews have been mixed, but as an avid horror fan craving for interesting takes on well-worn material, I’m interested enough in its premise to want to give it a shot.
18. The Way, Way Back
The Plot: A misfit teen has to work at a water-park with his relatives for the summer. Comparisons to Adventureland ensue.
The Talent: Steve Carrel, Sam Rockwell, Logan Lerman, AnnaSophia Robb, Rob Corddry, Maya Rudolph, and more star in the film, alongside writer/director team Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (who co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne).
The Hype: A nice, old-fashioned coming-of-age tale sounds like a surefire indie hit, but it’s the cast that really stands out. Sam Rockwell’s presence is guaranteed to get my butt in the theater, but seeing Steve Carrell back in dramedy territory is always nice. Logan Lerman, meanwhile, has proved to be a very talented young actor after surprising everyone in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and–Hey! It’s AnnaSophia Robb! Haven’t seen her in a while.
17. Prince Avalanche
The Plot: Two road repairmen in 1988 Texas start working together, first confronting each other with hostility but gradually learning they might have more in common than originally thought.
The Talent: Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch star as the repairmen in question, with David Gordon Green writing and directing.
The Hype: David Gordon Green broke out in the indie scene with quiet, thoughtful dramas like George Washington, Undertow, and All the Real Girls. When he ended up directing the smash-hit stoner comedy Pineapple Express, what should’ve been a step-up in his career turned out to bring out the worst, with commercial and critical failures like Your Highness and The Sitter following it. Now, with Prince Avalanche, Green returns to his indie roots while keeping the broad comedy and star-power of his later pictures. The results, judging by reviews, seem to be positive, and it’ll be nice to see Green back in his groove.
16. Top of the Lake
The Plot: A pregnant 12-year-old mysteriously disappears, sending a small town in New Zealand into a frenzy.
The Talent: Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss stars as the detective on the prowl, with Jane Campion writing and directing. Holly Hunter, from Campion’s The Piano, also has a small part.
The Hype: Is it cheating to include a six-hour miniseries on this list? Perhaps, but this project still sounds utterly fascinating. Excluding Campion’s involvement, the plot sounds incredibly dense (perhaps justifying its length), and according to various reviews, it’s heavily atmospheric, channeling the strangeness of a police procedural along the lines of Twin Peaks. The fact that all six hours were shown at the festival, with one intermission and a lunch to break things up, is also compelling.
The Plot: Sheltered and living with her mother, Tina is ready to explore the world with her new boyfriend Chris, who’s conveniently planned a trip across the British countryside. Of course, things get more complicated when their vacation turns into an all-out killing spree.
The Talent: Alice Lowe and Steve Oram play the couple at the center as well as take on screenwriting duties. Ben Wheatley directs.
The Hype: Ben Wheatley made a big splash in the British independent scene with both Down Terrace (which I haven’t yet seen) and Kill List (a movie I kind of respect, but ultimately find kind of overrated). I wasn’t sure whether to find excitement for this film, but after seeing the trailer, it certainly looks like a fun romp of dark comedy, something that doesn’t come along too often. Let’s just hope that we don’t get another God Bless America as a result.
14. Kill Your Darlings
The Plot: The year is 1944. A murder has taken place. The unexpected result? The ensuing events end up bringing together a group of young college students who will eventually grow up to become the defining voices of the Beat generation.
The Talent: Daniel Radcliffe stars as Allen Ginsberg, Dane DeHaan plays Lucien Carr, Ben Foster is William Burroughs, and Elizabeth Olsen portrays Edie Parker. Also in the star-studded cast: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyra Sedgwick, David Cross, and Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac himself. This is the feature debut for director and co-writer John Krokidas, who spent nearly a decade trying to get this film made.
The Hype: I’m not an expert on Beat poetry, or anything involving the Beat generation, but critics who are one or both of those things have assured in their reviews that the film portrays that period of time in New York very well. But what truly has me hyped is the cast, which has been getting tons of buzz, especially for Radcliffe, DeHaan, and Foster in the center. And with all these other terrific actors in the film, I’ll want to see it just for them.
13. Magic Magic
The Plot: A young girl vacationing in Chile with her friends starts to completely lose her mind. Insanity, of course, ensues.
The Talent: One of two movies in this year’s Sundance from Chilean writer/director Sebastián Silva (the other being Crystal Fairy), the film stars Juno Temple, Michael Cera and Emily Browning.
The Hype: Garnering lots of comparisons to early Polanski (specifically Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion), the film has gotten buzz for being deeply unsettling, with large thanks to Juno Temple in the central role. I became a fan of Temple after her brilliant work in Killer Joe, and I’d love to see her completely losing it in the starring role of a psychological horror film. While it’s definitely gotten its fans at the fest, a few critics have decried the movie as “deplorable”, which ironically kind of furthers my interest to see what the hell is gonna happen in this film.
12. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
The Plot: Two lovers are separated after an act of law-breaking in ’70s-era Texas.
The Talent: Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are the couple at the center, with Keith Carradine, Ben Foster, and Nate Parker in supporting roles. David Lowery–whose previous credits include myriad short films and cinematography/editing duties on numerous indie projects–writes and directs.
The Hype: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is getting lots of comparisons to the works of Terrence Malick–specifically Badlands–for its depiction of an outlaw couple in Texas; with plenty of magic-hour shots and softly billowing fields of grass to support the theory. Judging from reviews, the film sounds beautiful, evocative, sentimental, and moody. As an unabashed Malick fanboy, my interest is automatically piqued, and the great cast is certainly helping.
11. Don Jon’s Addiction
The Plot: Don Jon is addicted to porn. Lots and lots of porn.
The Talent: Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars, writes, and directs this story of porn-addiction, with Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, and Brie Larson in the supporting roles.
The Hype: Of course, Joseph Gordon-Levitt writing and directing a movie is enough to increase curiosity, but apparently, the movie’s also pretty damn good, at least according to most of the critics I trust. Managing to create a funny and heartfelt film about this particular subject matter is a feat that many critics and viewers at the fest have applauded the film for succeeding at. Oh, and did I mention Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Who doesn’t love that guy?
10. Blue Caprice/Fruitvale (TIE)
The Plots: Blue Caprice is a true account of the events leading up to the 2002 sniper attacks in Beltway. Fruitvale, meanwhile, is a true account of the last day of Oscar Grant, whose death inspired numerous protests regarding police brutality in Oakland. Both, expectedly for their subject matter, explore hot-button topics.
The Talent: Blue Caprice is the feature writing/directing debut of Alexandre Moors, and stars Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond as the shooters of the Beltway murders. Tim Blake Nelson, Al Sapienza, and Joey Lauren Adams have supporting roles. Fruitvale, meanwhile, is the feature writing/directing debut of Ryan Coogler, and stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, with Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, and Chad Michael Murray in supporting roles.
The Hype: Aside from both films exploring very timely issues, both have gotten praise for handling their subject matter in sharp, sensitive ways. Blue Caprice has also gotten high praise for evoking the pain of the recent Newtown shootings in a way that doesn’t feel particularly exploitative, while The Weinsteins have already bought Fruitvale in a heated auction, and are most likely planning for it to be a major Oscar contender. Both films look like emotional, heavy, topical, and interesting true-crime films.
9. The Spectacular Now
The Plot: Party-animal teen Sutter couldn’t be happier being beloved by most of the school community; that is until a recent dumping sends him on a booze-filled rage. Waking up after a night of massive, break-up-fueled drinking, he meets a sweet, lovely, nerdy classmate who bonds with him and attempts to help him get over his alcohol addiction.
The Talent: The third feature film from director James Ponsoldt (Off the Black, Smashed) is based on a book of the same name. The cast includes Shailene Woodley as the bookish classmate, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Brie Larson, and Bob Odenkirk in supporting roles, and Miles Teller as the protagonist Sutter, in what many are already calling his “breakout performance”. The writing duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who penned (500) Days of Summer, are behind the screenplay.
The Hype: With phrases like “The best coming-of-age film in years” being tossed around just about everywhere from festival-goers, and the writers of the incredibly charming (500) Days of Summer behind script duties, it becomes easy to see why audiences have been falling in love with the film. James Ponsoldt as director (his last film Smashed was another audience pleaser at last year’s Sundance) is another sign of good quality.
But really, most of the buzz is directed towards the cast, especially Miles Teller, who’s been in a few smaller roles in films like Rabbit Hole and the Footloose remake, and here he seems to have guaranteed a slot as the next young star to be. Shailene Woodley, from The Descendants, has also gotten praise for her role, proving that she can one day rise above the fact that she stars in The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Also, c’mon, who doesn’t love a well-done coming-of-age tale?
The Plot: They’re back. The makers of the horror anthology V/H/S have returned with another hefty dosage of found-footage scares, humor, and gore in this anthology sequel.
The Talent: With more segments comes more talented directors and writers. Writing and/or directing the anthology segments are: Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project, Lovely Molly), Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, and the original V/H/S), Simon Barret (First-time directing, writer for various V/H/S segments and You’re Next), Gregg Hale (Producer of Eduardo Sanchez’s work), Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption…no seriously, the director of The Raid: Redemption), Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), and Timo Tjhajanto (writer in another horror anthology, The ABCs of Death).
The Hype: Critical reception for the original V/H/S was pretty mixed. S-VHS, on the other hand, has gotten praise right out of the gate for being a sequel that improves and expands on the original in nearly every way imaginable. Also, remember how the director of The Raid has a segment in this? His segment is also getting the most attention and buzz from critics. Even those of you who weren’t fans of the original anthology might wanna check this one out.
The Plot: Set in Mississippi, a fugitive on the run from bounty hunters desperately attempts to reconnect with his lover. To do so, he enlists the help of two young boys, and the three form an unlikely bond in a story that’s part romance and part coming-of-age drama.
The Talent: Matthew McConaughey has been stepping up his game recently. With fantastic performances in Bernie, Magic Mike, and Killer Joe last year, he’s only continuing his uphill stride with his performance in Mud, which is giving him further praise. Reese Witherspoon stars as the distant lover, while child-actors Eric Lofland and Tye Sheridan (one of the three kids from The Tree of Life) are the two young sports who assist McConaughey. This is the third film from writer/director Jeff Nichols, who previously made Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter.
The Hype: Outside of the McConaughey factor, Tye Sheridan and Eric Lofland have also gotten buzz as talented child-actors to watch for. But the real show-stealer is Jeff Nichols, whose brilliant Take Shelter didn’t get quite the success that its terrific Sundance debut promised him. Here, he’s crafted what critics have been calling a genuine crowd-pleaser. Mud could easily be this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild-style, inspirational indie break-out, even if it’s not as dark or unconventional as Nichols’ last two films.
If this didn’t spark your curiosity, Sam Fragoso interviewed Nichols about the film during his adventures at the fest. You can read the full interview here.
6. The East
The Plot: Secret agent Sarah Moss is assigned to go undercover and infiltrate a deadly anarchist group that’s targeting the corporations behind environmentally hostile products.
The Talent: Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, the duo behind another Sundance hit about infiltrating potentially threatening organizations Sound of My Voice, is back at it, with Marling co-writing with director Batmanglij and with a bigger budget to boot. Providing some star-power are Alexander Skarsgaard and Ellen Page as the leader of the titular anarchist group at the center of the film.
The Hype: While The East has already been reported to be not quite as mind-bending as Sound of My Voice was, it’s still a deftly written, intensely directed follow-up that serves up on the promise that the two displayed in Marling and Batmanglij’s previous feature. The cast has also gotten some praise, with Ellen Page going back into Hard Candy territory with her menacing turn as one of the leaders of the group. Plus, a trailer was released not too long ago and it definitely looks to be just as intense as the duo’s previous film.
5. Stories We Tell
The Plot: In this deeply personal documentary effort, Sarah Polley interviews various friends and family members in order to capture a better understanding of her mother who passed away when she was very young. The results, however, lead to a thought-provoking study of families and memory itself.
The Talent: Sarah Polley, after only two films, has garnered a reputation for lovely, quietly heartbreaking romantic dramas with Away From Her and Take This Waltz. To see her extend her talents to documentary form will be interesting, to say the least.
The Hype: Polley’s documentary has been praised through the roof for being richly emotional, managing to use her own family’s stories to create an experience that universally speaks to just about anyone. Sounding just as tender and intimate as her previous two films, this looks like a truly affecting doc to keep on the radar.
The Plot: When young India Stoker’s father dies, she becomes more emotionally distant from her deranged mother. Right at the nick of time, however, their Uncle Charlie steps in to stay with the two. As expected in a story like this, Uncle Charlie has some dark secrets and ulterior motives lurking beneath the cracks of his charming exterior.
The Talent: The cast of Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, and Mia Wasikowska is enough to elicit interest, as well as a script co-written by actor Wentworth Miller (Prison Break). However, the real cause of excitement for Stoker is that it’s directed by Park Chan-Wook, South Korean auteur behind the Vengeance Trilogy, Thirst, and I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK.
The Hype: Park has a unique brand of dread-laden insanity that seems a perfect fit for a Gothic American tale such as this, and as a huge fan of his films, that alone is worthy of hype. Reviews for Stoker have been all over the map, with many lauding the film for its demented story, and others criticizing it for its lack of depth. Either way, everyone seems to agree that Park directs the hell out of it and the cast is excellent, meaning that it will at the very least be an eerie enough ride to take.
3. Upstream Color
The Plot: Shane Carruth blows your mind again.
The Talent: Shane Carruth and his mind-blowing superpowers.
The Hype: Okay, jokey-ness aside, I wasn’t a fan of Carruth’s first film Primer, but I get why it gets so much praise: It’s uncannily intelligent, original, and one of the few time-travel movies that seems to make more sense the more times you watch it. My problem with the film was that as smart as Carruth was at employing engineering terminology to make the time-travel more believable, he wasn’t the best filmmaker (or actor), and the film didn’t feel interesting to me, despite all those really cool elements.
However, all the marketing for his sophomore effort Upstream Color seems to suggest that he’s taken a few lessons at film school since we last saw him, because it looks breathtakingly beautiful, enigmatic, and fascinating. I have no idea what the hell it’s about (and according to reviews, not even the people who actually saw the damn thing are 100 percent sure), but either way, it looks like a crazy ride of a film, both intellectually and viscerally.
2. Escape From Tomorrow
The Plot: On the final morning of their family vacation, a father named Jim gets a call from his boss informing him that he’s been let go from his job. Unable to break the news to his family, Jim withholds the information from them and embarks on a trip to the Walt Disney World theme parks at Orlando, Fla.
But things take a dark turn quickly in this black-and-white descent down the rabbit hole. Soon, Jim continually sees the same two underage, skimpily dressed French tourists wandering around the park over and over again, becoming obsessed by their presence and going so far as to stalk them in a manner that would guarantee multiple restraining orders. Along the way, hallucinations plague his mind, the rides shift into nightmarish versions of themselves, and Jim’s loosening grip on his sanity threatens the very safety of his family.
The Talent: This is the writing/directing debut of the film’s helmer Randy Moore, with TV character actor Roy Abramsohn as the father at the center.
The Hype: Festival-goers love a good, trippy surrealist film, but that’s not the main cause for hype. Perhaps the most talked about film of the entire festival, the gimmick for Escape From Tomorrow is that a majority of the film was shot within the Disney Parks without Disney’s permission, right under the noses of literally thousands of wandering tourists unaware they were extras. The logistics of filming in a public place such as that, especially with all the security surrounding it, is mind-boggling enough for you to want to see how the filmmakers did it.
But for me, the concept itself is fascinating enough to warrant my hype as well. I grew up going to Disneyland constantly, to the point that I practically know the ins and outs of 98 percent of the park and have been to almost every ride and attraction they have. It holds a very personal connection to me, and a film flipping that familiar, nostalgic place on its head through the lens of a mentally unstable character sounds like a disturbing yet brilliantly original experience. The reviews have been mostly enthusiastic as well, largely complimenting how the film manages to work mostly as a whole in spite of its distractingly clever gimmick.
The only problem, of course, is that this might be the only film of the festival that everyone who didn’t attend may never be able to see, what with the all but guaranteed lawsuits from Disney executives sure to be underway. Hopefully it find a distributor in some form or another. Hell, I wouldn’t mind if they distributed the film via torrents if there was literally no other way.
1. Before Midnight
The Plot: Jesse and Celine reuinte after another nine years apart (?) in the third entry of Richard Linklater’s Before series of films.
The Talent: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their roles as Jesse and Celine, perhaps one of the best on-screen couples of all time, with Richard Linklater returning to the helm to direct. All three wrote the script together, just like the previous entry.
The Hype: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are small masterpieces of dialogue, romance, character, and beautifully subdued direction. To see the trio that made the previous two movies possible return, especially after the last entry’s tantalizingly ambiguous ending, is an event in and of itself. But even more exciting than any of that: The reviews have come and the film has exceeded even the highest of expectations, with many calling it the best film in the series. Could Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have ended up creating one of those few trilogies that literally gets better with each entry? I honestly don’t doubt that notion for a second. As a huge fan of the first two, and the added hype from this installment’s apparent perfection, Before Midnight is the film I’m most anticipating out of the Sundance Film Festival this year. Bar none.
That’s it for my list, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any other movies in the line-up that are any less worthy of getting attention, even if they didn’t quite make the cut. If you’re curious to see what movies would interest you, go to the festival’s website for a full list of the films that were screened, and take a gander at Sam Fragoso’s coverage of the fest, including his interview with Mud‘s Jeff Nichols.
In the meantime, here are some honorable mentions for films that I was certainly intrigued by…
Honorable Mentions: The Gatekeepers, Il Futuro, Hell Baby, Lovelace, Valentine Road, Touchy Feely, Crystal Fairy, After Tiller, In a World, Breathe In, Toy’s House, We Are What We Are