As has always been the case, I wasn’t able to go to the Sundance Film Festival at Park City, Utah this year; able only, like so many of us, to fawn over social media, tweets, and reviews of festival films that are worth seeing as I gently caress my computer screen whilst softly whispering “Some day…”
Personal fantasies aside, there’s still something somewhat exciting about following the Sundance hype-cycle from an outsider’s perspective, viewing which movies got the best reviews, which films sounded the most original, which discoveries were made of exciting new talents, and how it all will play out in the future as each film begins to release for the public.
Keep in mind that this list is strictly an “in the moment” thing, and will most likely change as more information is released regarding all of the films released at Sundance. Who knows if a film I’ve never heard of suddenly releases a trailer two months from now that makes me more ecstatic than any of the films on this list. Only time will tell. So without further ado, these are the films I’m currently most anticipating from this year’s Sundance lineup, based solely on plot descriptions, the talent involved, and the general hype that surrounds them.
20.) Land Ho!
The Plot: Two elderly men set out on a road trip in scenic Iceland to recapture their youth. Shenanigans and life lessons likely ensue.
The Talent: Executive produced by David Gordon Green, this road-trip dramedy stars Earl Lynn Nelson and This is Martin Bonner‘s Paul Eenhoorn as the two elderly men in question. Martha Stephens (Pilgrim Song) and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather and Quiet City) co-write and co-direct together.
The Hype: Every year, there always seems to be at least one film about old actors attempting to regain their lost youth, whether it be The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or last year’s Unfinished Song. At least now we don’t have to wait until Oscar season to see what’s in store from that specific subgenre of film, because Sundance has already found it. Land Ho! has received praise for its gentle, light humor, and a solid duo of performances in Nelson and Eenhoorn.
19.) The Trip To Italy
The Plot: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return in this sequel of The Trip, continuing their tour of the world’s finest restaurants, this time in Italy. Silly banter, wry observations of other cultures, and mouth-watering meals are only par for the course.
The Talent: The whole cast and crew of the original The Trip has more or less returned here, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon once again playing somewhat fictionalized versions of themselves. Michael Winterbottom returns to the director’s chair. Also returning: more Michael Caine impersonations!
The Hype: The original The Trip spliced together a British mini-series of sorts and went for a more cinematic approach. While the episodic pacing was lost, audiences were able to get their helping of Coogan and Brydon in a condensed and still thoroughly enjoyable form. The Trip To Italy will most likely be just like the previous film, only in Italy. And that’s totally fine.
18.) They Came Together
The Plot: Listen to this synopsis in your best reimagining of a classic 90s movie trailer narration voice: He’s the owner of a mega-corporate candy store chain. She’s an independent business owner just trying to get by. At first, they seem like total opposites. But when they meet, the sparks fly, and romance is in the air!
The Talent: Wet Hot American Summer‘s writing duo of David Waine and Michael Showalter reunite for this parody of Nora Ephron style romantic comedies, starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler as the two romantic leads, and featuring a supporting cast of Ed Helms, Cobie Smulders, Christopher Meloni, and Max Greenfield. David Waine also directs.
The Hype: Having received positive-to-mixed responses from critics (our own Dan Schindel was part of the latter), Waine and co. appear to be operating under the same parodic elements that made Wet Hot American Summer a success, though it may not be as good of a fit in this film’s romantic comedy template. Still though, it’s always fun to watch a cast like that together, and that alone guarantees that there are laughs to be had in this film. Hell, even the poster for this movie is funny. That has to count for something, at the very least!
17.) God’s Pocket
The Plot: Set in the fictional, titular small town of God’s Pocket, a man tries to cover up the death of his step-son, but finds it hard to hide the truth from pesky columnists, a wife who doesn’t trust him, and a whole town that grows more suspicious each passing day.
The Talent: Mad Men‘s John Slattery makes the jump from acting to directing with this film, which has a great cast including the always reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, John Turturro, and Eddie Marsan. God’s Pocket is based on a novel of the same name by Peter Dexter, and is co-written by Slattery and Alex Metcalf.
The Hype: Sounding like a mix between a Coen Bros.-esque crime parable with elements of Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, God’s Pocket has gotten solid word of mouth and has a great cast of actors. Hoffman’s involvement alone has me interested, but it will also be fascinating to see whether Slattery truly can make the leap from acting to directing (and writing) with this film.
16.) The Skeleton Twins
The Plot: A pair of siblings reunite after years apart when the two of them fail their own suicides on the same day, in an act of unbelievable coincidence. Now brought together, the two most face their inner demons together and find out how it all got so screwed up.
The Talent: Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play the film’s titular Skeleton Twins, with Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson in supporting roles. Craig Johnson (of True Adolescents) directed the film and co-wrote the script alongside Mark Heyman.
The Hype: While the film’s premise is certainly interesting, all of the praise that The Skeleton Twins has received has been centered mostly around Wiig and Hader’s stellar performances that both tap into their comedic strengths while also allowing them to stretch their dramatic muscles. I’ll see anything that has these two paired up, and the film’s dark subject matter only has me that mmuch more intrigued.
15.) Only Lovers Left Alive
The Plot: Only Lovers Left Alive follows two vampires named Adam and Eve who have been in love for centuries. But their eternal love faces its ultimate test yet, when their relationship is threatened by the arrival of Eve’s violent and uncontrollable younger sister.
The Talent: Art-house favorite Jim Jarmusch writes and directs this film, which received lots of praise at both the Toronto and Cannes International Film Festivals. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as the main vampire couple, with Mia Wasikowska as Swinton’s younger sister, and with the likes of Jeffrey Wright, John Hurt, and Anton Yelchin in supporting roles.
The Hype: Even outside of the praise that came from Toronto and Cannes, Jim Jarmusch’s classical, fascinating take on the vampire film sounds sensual and original on its own merits. And with a cast like that? Why wouldn’t you wanna see this movie?
14.) I Origins
The Plot: A molecular biologist and a gorgeous model fall in love in spite of their disparate views of the world, one a man of science, the other a woman of faith. Before they can continue with their romance, however, a stunning biological discovery is made that can change the way the world is viewed as we know it.
The Talent: Mike Cahill impressed audiences in 2011 with his feature debut Another Earth, which was co-written by the film’s star Brit Marling. The pair reunite here, although this time Cahill has the sole writer-director credit, while Marling is joined in front of the camera by Michael Pitt.
The Hype: Reactions for I Origins’ use of sci-fi ideas has received mixed responses, but so did Cahill’s previous film Another Earth, which I was a big fan of. The premise definitely seems to be kept under wraps (just what is this discovery that could change the way we view the world?) but apparently provides fascinating fodder for an exploration of the link between science, love, faith, logic, and discovery. The film, like Another Earth, won the Alfred P. Sloan award.
The Plot: Wannabe musician Jon winds up joining an eccentric pop music duo, featuring a mysterious man named Frank, who is always behind a paper-mache mask obscuring his entire head, and his sidekick Clara. Setting off to a secluded cabin to record their next album, the trio’s creative differences spiral out of control until they’re forced to question why they create music in the first place.
The Talent: About Time‘s Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Scoot McNairy alone make for a well-rounded cast, but the real reason to get excited for this film is Michael Fassbender’s turn as the titular Frank. It’s an interesting (and apparently effective) casting decision having an actor known for his smoldering good looks rely only on his voice while under the giant mask. Dublin-born filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson directs, while Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan act as co-writers.
The Hype: Frank has received praise for managing to be quirky without being overwhelmingly so, and seems to make the most out of its eccentric cast and premise. Also, I’ll watch anything involving Michael Fassbender, my future husband. Don’t judge.
12.) The Better Angels
The Plot: The Better Angels explores the quiet upbringing of Abraham Lincoln during his childhood, living in the middle of Indiana in 1817, when the nation was still young and America was just adjusting from the War for Independence.
The Talent: Most of the press surrounding The Better Angels has been fixated by the fact that Terrence Malick is the main producer behind this film. While early trailers and stills certainly show that this has Malick’s stamp all over it, it must still be noted that The Better Angels is a directorial debut for A.J. Edwards whose other credits include editing for Malick’s recent projects The New World and To the Wonder. The film stars Diane Kruger, Jason Clarke, and Brit Marling as various members of the Lincoln family, while child-actors Braydon Denney McKenzie Blankenship play the young Honest Abe himself and his older sister. Wes Bentley also stars.
The Hype: I’ll watch anything Malick touches, and I’ve been a fan of both Jason Clarke and Brit Marling since appearing in Zero Dark Thirty and Another Earth, respectively. But further cementing this film on my must-watch list is the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd. While reviews are slightly mixed when it comes to whether or not The Better Angels offers a substantial enough look at the president’s childhood, it’ll at least be a feast for the eyes.
The Plot: Andrew wants to make it up the ranks of his musical conservatory school as a top-class jazz drummer, but finds it difficult when he has to battle both his own fears of mediocrity and a ruthless musical instructor who pushes his talents to the breaking point.
The Talent: Miles Teller returns to Sundance after wowing audiences with last year’s The Spectacular Now. J.K. Simmons plays Teller’s foul-mouthed, aggressive mentor, and Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) writes and directs the film, which is based on both a short film that he also wrote and directed and his own experiences learning music.
The Hype: Slotted as the festival’s opening film, audiences and critics were impressed immediately by Teller and Simmons’ performances and the film’s depiction of intense artistic anxiety and pressure. With this and The Spectacular Now under his belt, let’s hope Miles Teller continues to wow us all and possibly become a big star.
10.) Blue Ruin
The Plot: Dwight lives a peaceful, quiet life as a vagrant, but that’s all shaken up when he receives news of a tragedy back at his childhood home. Now, he returns there to enact vengeance upon those responsible.
The Talent: This sophomore effort from Jeremy Saulnier (Murder Party) stars Macon Blair in the lead, and plenty of other fairly no-name actors.
The Hype: Having already received lots of buzz from the Cannes, Toronto, and AFI Film Festivals (our own Dan Schindel gave it a rave review), Blue Ruin appears to be a classically wrought yet effectively executed (pardon the pun) revenge tale, with Macon Blair’s intense performance getting praise from plenty of outlets. It also has one hell of a trailer.
9.) The Double
The Plot: Set in a Gilliamesque sci-fi dystopia, a man is driven to insanity when his new co-worker turns out to be a doppelganger, who shares everything about his appearance but acts completely the opposite.
The Talent: Jesse Eisenberg has double-duty as Simon James and his doppelganger James Simon, while a strong supporting cast including Mia Wasikowska, Chris O’Dowd, and Sally Hawkins join him. The film is the sophomore feature film of director Richard Ayoade (Moss from The IT Crowd), following up his charming coming-of-age film Submarine, which also appeared in the Sundance film festival back in 2011.
The Hype: The Double is a big leap from Ayoade’s charming yet simple French New Wave homage Submarine, which has gotten praise for its incredibly dark humor and fascinating world. Eisenberg has also gotten props for his double performance, garnering comparisons to other great duological roles like Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers or Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. I knew that Ayoade would be an interesting director to watch after Submarine and according to the hype surrounding his newest film, which appears to lean more heavily on surrealism, he certainly hasn’t disappointed in that regard.
8.) Imperial Dreams
The Plot: Having just been released from over two years of prison, a gangster named Bambi has to return to his old hood in Watts, Los Angeles where his family resides. Bambi aspires for a normal life, possibly as a writer so he can record and publish his experiences in the streets, but he has to confront his past and his family ties if he wants to move ahead with his future.
The Talent: Black filmmaker Malik Vitthal makes his feature debut after having directed six short films. John Boyega of Attack the Block fame is our protagonist Bambi, while Keke Palmer, Rotimi, De’aundre Bonds, and Glenn Plummer are given supporting roles. The film is co-written by Vitthal and Ismet Prcic.
The Hype: Winner of the Sundance Best of NEXT Award, the film has garnered lots of praise from various critics (including our own Sam Fragoso) for Vitthal’s warm and empathetic take on gangland Los Angeles, with John Boyega continuing to amaze on the screen with his natural performance. Managing to receive positive comparisons to the likes of Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, and even City of God, this one looks well-worth checking out.
The Plot: Ingrid is going through a traumatic experience now that she’s lost her sight. Deciding to retreat to her lonesomeness in her apartment with her husband, she begins to sense things she’s not really supposed to be seeing. She uses these new senses to create her own means of expression, but will she suffer further psychological damage from it?
The Talent: This is the feature debut of Norwegian screenwriter Eskil Vogt, who co-wrote the scripts for two of director Joachim Trier’s projects, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. The film stars Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Henrik Rafaelsen, and Vera Vitali.
The Hype: I adored Oslo, August 31st not just for its direction but for its beautiful screenplay that Eskil Vogt helped realize. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles a project like this without Trier, but even so, the concept of this film sounds incredibly intriguing, bringing to mind Polanski’s Repulsion but with a fresh new twist that deals more with physically altered perception than mentally deranged hallucinations. Blind has gotten plenty of accolades from the critics who’ve seen it at the festival, with special note to Vogt’s direction and Petersen’s affecting performance as the blind woman.
6.) The Babadook
The Plot: A single mother and her young boy find a mysterious children’s book about a sinister creature called The Babadook. Scarring the kid with nightmares, his mother has to deal with his growing derangement until the creeping fear begins to unfold that the Babadook might just be real, and might just be after her son.
The Talent: Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, this Australian horror film stars Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman as the mother and son.
The Hype: While The Babadook has gotten attention for being one of the few films in the horror genre to be brought to us by a female filmmaker, it also helps that the actual film is apparently really good and really scary. Essie Davis’s depiction of a mother combating evil forces to keep her son safe has gotten plenty of praise, as has child actor Noah Wiseman, while Kent’s direction and script have been lauded for managing to be both scary and smart, as it uses its horror conceit to tap into very real familial fears. Also, it has a terrific trailer. As a horror fan, this looks like a can’t-miss film.
5.) The Voices
The Plot: A nice, well-mannered man receives advice from his pet cat to do unspeakable acts of violence. Wait, what?
The Talent: Ryan Reynolds goes crazy as the disturbed man who can hear his cat and dog advising him to kill. The film also stars Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton, and Jacki Weaver, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is that it’s directed by Marjane Satrapi, of Persepolis and Chicken with Plums.
The Hype: The Voices sounds weird, and according to word of mouth, it is just as weird as it sounds. Reynolds’s performance has received praise for balancing the line between psychotic and gentle with pitch-perfect precision, but it’s Satrapi’s direction that appears to be the main attraction, as she’s constantly juggling a plethora of different tones and genres with this bizarre premise that manages to go in unexpected, uncomfortable, and amusing directions. I’d be interested just to see if she could even pull it off, but since everyone appears to be saying that she totally succeeds makes me even more excited to experience this weird tale.
4.) Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
The Plot: A Japanese woman treks all the way to Minnesota, believing that the buried briefcase of money in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo is real and simply needs to be dug up.
The Talent: Brought to us by director David Zellner and his co-writer/brother Nathan, this offbeat comedy stars Rinko Kikuchi as the title character.
The Hype: A delightfully strange premise for sure, but Rinko Kikuchi’s involvement and the near-universal praise her performance and the film’s bizarre sensibilities have received from audiences who have seen the film have gotten me even more excited.
3.) Life Itself
The Plot: This documentary chronicles the life and career of beloved film critic Roger Ebert.
The Talent: Steve James of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters managed to crowd-fund this movie, which celebrates Ebert’s legacy after his battle with throat cancer and subsequent death.
The Hype: As someone who has been inspired beyond measure by Ebert’s writing, I would’ve seen Life Itself either way, but with James attached and the glowing recommendations this film has gotten from like-minded critics who have also admired Ebert, this seems to be the ultimate send-off for this wonderful man and his iconic career. Two thumbs up.
2.) The Raid 2: Berandal
The Plot: Set mere minutes after the events of The Raid: Redemption, Officer Rama is now forced to bring justice to a corrupt mob family. But really, are you gonna pay much attention to the plot? Because BANG! PUNCH! KICK! PUNCH! BASEBALL BAT! PUNCH! CAR CHASE! PUNCH! PUNCH! KICK! KICK! PUNCHKICK! PUNCH! KICK! PUNCH! PUNCH!
The Talent: Gareth Evans writes and directs once again, with Iko Uwais and some of the cast of the first film returning, along with a fresh batch of new faces to PUNCH! KICK! PUNCH! PUNCH!
The Hype: After The Raid: Redemption and the Safe Haven short included in V/H/S 2, Gareth Evans may very well be the most talented action director working today, and according to the hype surrounding this film from festivalgoers, this sequel ups the ante in just about every respect. Running at two and a half hours, and filled with tons of ludicrous setpieces and amazing fight choreography, The Raid 2: Berandal has gone totally for broke; going bigger, badder, and more violent than other action films of its ilk, especially in the modern era. And you can already get a taste of the insanity from this trailer.
The Plot: Boyhood goes through twelve years in the life of a young boy named Mason, as he ages from five to eighteen years.
The Talent: Ellar Coltrane is Mason for the entire twelve year period, while Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette portray his mother and father. Richard Linklater writes and directs, while his daughter Lorelei Linklater plays Mason’s sister.
The Hype: Curse you, Richard Linklater. Last year, when I wrote my 20 Most Anticipated Films of Sundance 2013 list, your breathtaking, beautiful film Before Midnight was at the very top. And now you’ve done it again. Are you even willing to give other directors a chance, Mr. Linklater?
But I digress. Boyhood is a project the likes of which we’ve never seen before. We’ve seen actors grow up over the course of a series of films, from Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical Antoine Doinel saga, to the Harry Potter series, and even with Linklater’s own Before trilogy. Never before, however, have we experienced something of that scale in the span of a single film. Shot over a period of twelve years, with Linklater visiting actor Ellar Coltrane once every year to shoot new material for each of the twelve years, the two and a half hour film gives to us an uncompromising portrait of, well, boyhood, and all the highs and lows that come with it. And according to critics and regular audiences alike, it was well-worth the wait.
If this has even half of the honesty that adorns Linklater’s Before trilogy, this would be worth viewing, but the director appears to be working at the height of his abilities. Ellar Coltrane has received lots of attention for his affecting and committed performance, as audience feel as if they’ve grown up along with him, while co-stars Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and even Lorelei Linklater have gotten critical love as well.
All in all, Boyhood looks like nothing else the cinema has ever attempted, and it would appear that the experiment was a resounding success. And I can’t wait to experience it more than any other film at the Sundance film festival this year.
Here are some films that couldn’t fit in my top 20, but I’m still rather interested in seeing for various reasons: Infinitely Polar Bear, A Most Wanted Man, To Be Takei, Camp X-Ray, Cooties, Dear White People, Fishing Without Nets, Life After Beth, Love is Strange, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, R100, The Signal, To Kill a Man, Wish I Was Here, White Bird in a Blizzard, Young Ones, Laggies, Listen Up Philip, Calvary, What We Do in the Shadows, The Guest, Private Violence, Appropriate Behavior, Hellion, and Obvious Child.