Later this week, LRM will be attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival. While the festival tends to be a mixed bag of indie films, some will be picked up for distribution by studios and turned into mainstream hits, others will flounder and be lucky to get a VOD release. Even so, there’s no denying that Sundance is the real beginning of the year for most movie lovers as we’ll be talking about the movies below for the next 12 months.
Last year alone, Sundance held the premieres for The Birth of a Nation, Manchester by the Sea, Captain Fantastic, Love and Friendship, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Sing Street and many more films, some that appeared on The Weekend Warrior’s year-end Top 25. One or two of those might even receive Oscar nominations when they’re announced next week on January 24.
Most of the films I’ve selected for this preview come from the U.S. Dramatic and Premiere sections, because those are usually the categories with the most prominent stars and returning directors who have previously been to Sundance, so it’s easier to determine they might have the most interest and eyes from distributors.
1. Wind River
The directorial debut by Sicario and Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan—who may have his first Oscar nomination before the end of the festival--looks to continue some of the themes of those films with another look at crime and law enforcement with Jeremy Renner playing Cory Lambert, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent who finds a body at an Indian reservation. The FBI sends in a rookie, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who employs Cory as a tracker as the two try to find those responsible for the murder. Also starring Jon Bernthal (aka Marvel’s The Punisher), this should be one of the festival’s hottest properties with the Weinstein Company opting out of their option.
2. The Big Sick
Two years back, Michael Showalter--member of MTV’s The State and Stella comedy troupes--brought his popular comedy Hello, My Name is Doris, starring Sally Field, to the South by Southwest Film Festival. That said, he’s no stranger to Sundance as his 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer premiered there way back in 2001. He also appeared in David Wain’s rom-com They Came Together, starring Wet Hot’s Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, a few years back. His new movie, produced by Judd Apatow, is a collaboration with writers Emily V. Gordon and her Pakistani-American stand-up comic boyfriend Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), the latter who has to deal with the expectations of his traditional parents who try to set him up in an arranged marriage. Kumail plays himself (sort of), and he’s paired with Zoe Kazan.
Probably one of the Sundance documentaries that will get a lot of attention is this follow-up to the Oscar-winning Al Gore climate change doc An Inconvenient Truth, which premiered at Sundance ten years ago before being picked up by Paramount Pictures. It ended up grossing $24 million domestic and won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature that year, but more importantly, it had a huge impact on the world as it made climate change an important topic, which sadly, is still being debated by certain political factions. Hopefully, this follow-up by directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (The Island President) will give us an update on what the Vice President has been doing to continue his efforts ten years later. As you can imagine, climate change is an important topic in Park City, Utah since most of the businesses rely on snow. That may be why they have an entire sub-section of the festival dubbed “The New Climate” including Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral (accompanied by a VR Experience), Esteban Arrangoiz’s The Diver and more. This is Sundance’s Opening Night Doc Premiere.
The last time writing/directing spouses Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky were at Sundance was with the 2014 autobiographical film Infinitely Polar Bear, starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, and now they’re back with this comedy starring Jack Black as the title character, Polish immigrant Jan Lewan, who is trying to create a musical empire for himself. It also stars Jenny Slate (also in Landline below) and Jason Schwartzman, so it should be worth more than a few laughs.
Charlie McDowell’s sci-fi romance The One I Love was another one of the memorable films from the 2014 festival, and he’s back with his co-writer Justin Hamer, for a film starring Sundance founder Robert Redford as a physicist who is trying to prove the existence of the afterlife. When his experiment goes wrong, he’s confronted by his estranged son (Jason Segel) and a mysterious woman (Rooney Mara) at the remote New England island where he’s based. Should be another intriguing look at a subject in a unique way from McDowell and Hamer.
This year’s opening night movie in Sundance’s popular Midnight section is the new film from Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, Joshy), a medieval comedy starring Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci as nuns… and honestly, if you need more than that, then you’re not familiar with any of those three funny women. They spend their day spying on one another and insulting the day laborer. When he leaves in disgust, so Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings in a new hired hand, played by Dave Franco, who pretends to be deaf-mute to avoid tempting the nuns. The raunchy sex comedy should be a great way to kick off the festival (as long as it’s better than The Bronze.)
7. To the Bone
The directorial debut by prolific screenwriter Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more) stars the amazing Lilly Collins (Rules Don’t Apply) as an anorexic girl who has been trying to get better, so her dysfunctional family sends her to a group home for youths, led by an unconventional doctor, played by Keanu Reeves. It also stars Carrie Preston and Lili Taylor, and it should be a funny movie about a difficult subject.
Gillian Robespierre’s follow-up to her acclaimed 2014 debut, Obvious Child, reunites her with Jenny Slate for a NY period piece set in 1995—hence the title--where it explores the dysfunctional family, the Jacobs. It co-stars John Turturro, Edie Falco (The Sopranos), Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass and Finn Wittrock, and it’s guaranteed to be one of the top films that buyers will be looking at.
9. Brigsby Bear
One of Saturday Night Live’s funnier newer members, Kyle Mooney, teams with one of the show’s writer/directors, Dave McCary, for a movie he co-wrote in which he plays James, a 25-year-old who is kicked out of his parents’ home and becomes obsessed with his favorite childhood television show “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” which ended abruptly, so he decides to make a movie to end Brigsby’s story. Sounds positively surreal, and it co-stars Greg Kinnear, Andy Samberg and Michaela Watkins. It’s part of Sundance’s prestigious U.S. Dramatic competition this year.
Filmmaker Jim Strouse is no stranger to Sundance, having premiered previous films Grace is Gone, The Winning Season and People Places Things there, but the last one is the most significant because it brought him together with The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams, who stars in his new movie. In it, she plays a New York City playwright trying to get over a breakup with a boyfriend—both things that are typical of Sundance storylines—when she meets Chris O’Dowd’s Boone, as they try to help each other get over tough times. Honestly, if there’s anyone destined to be one of Sundance’s breakout stars this years, it's Williams.
Having to pick only ten movies was tough, but here are a few other movies (in alphabetical order) I’m looking forward to that felt worth mentioning and I’ll try to catch sometime at Sundance, time-permitting:
Band Aid - Writer/producer/actress Zoe Lister-Jones (Lola Versus) makes her directorial debut as a woman who decides to start a band with her husband (Adam Pally) to try to save their marriage. Fred Armisen is on drums!
Beatriz at Diner – Chuck and Buck creators Miguel Arteta and Mike White reteam for this comedy starring Salma Hayek and John Lithgow.
Before I Fall – Sundance vet Ry Russo-Young directs this adaptation of a young adult novel starring Zooey Deutch that already has distribution (through Open Road) and release date (March 3).
Berlin Syndrome - Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland's new thriller, starring Teresa Palmer and Max Riemelt, has already been picked up for distribution by Vertical Entertainment and Netflix.
Bitch - Bad Dick director Marianna Palka is back, this time in the Midnight section, with a dark comedy starring Jaime King as a harried housewife who rebels against her cheating husband (Jason Ritter) by taking on a vicious canine persona.
Bushwick – Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, directors of the excellent Cooties, return to Sundance with a movie starring David Bautista and Brittany Snow trying to get across a war-torn Brooklyn. Also, in the Midnight section.
Call Me By Your Name – A collaboration between Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) and James Ivory, starring Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg. Already picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.
Crown Heights – Matt Ruskin’s drama about the real-life arrest and trial of Colin Warner, played by Lakeith Stanfield (Short Term 12, Dope), which may be looking to be this year’s Fruitvale Station.
Fun Mom Home - Alethea Jones’ comedy—the festival’s closing night premiere—stars Katie Aselton (The League), Molly Shannon, Toni Collette and Bridget Everett as a group of Moms who plan a ladies’ night out.
Golden Exits – The newest film from Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Phillip) is another ensemble piece starring Emily Browning Adam Horovitz, Mary-Louise Parker, Jason Schwartzman and Chloë Sevigny.
The Hero – Sam Elliot is due for a renaissance and awards attention and reuniting with filmmaker Bret Haley (I’ll See You In My Dreams) might be the movie that does just that.
Ingrid Goes West – Aubrey Plaza is the “Ingrid” in Matt Spicer’s comedy about an unstable woman who moves to L.A. to get closer to a “lifestyle guru,” played by Elizabeth Olsen
I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore – Sundance darling Melanie Lynskey stars in the directorial debut by Macon Blair, who you may know as the star of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin. She plays a woman who wants revenge on the criminals who robbed her.
Manifesto – If anyone can play 13 different roles in a movie, it would be Cate Blanchett, who does just that as the star of German video artist Julian Rosefeldt’s debut feature.
Marjorie Prime – The new movie from prolific filmmaker Michael Almereyda (Experimenter) is also a sci-fi tinged drama about an 86-year-old woman who spends her last days with a computerized version of her husband, played by Jon Hamm.
Mudbound – Filmmaker Dee Rees (Pariah) returns with an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s Memphis-based ‘50s drama about a family trying to settle there.
Newness – A late addition to the festival is the new film from Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) about the relationship between two Millennials, played by Nicholas Hoult and Laia Costa.
Rememory – Mark Palansky’s sci-fi film about a scientific pioneer (Martin Donovan) who dies after discovering a way to record memories with Peter Dinklage being a stranger who shows up to steal the machine from his widow.
Sidney Hall - Shawn (Curfew) Christiansen’s new movie stars Logan Lerman as the title character, a writer who finds success and love at an early age then disappears. Also starring Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan and a very impressive cast.
Wilson – Graphic novelist Daniel Clowes adapts his own graphic novel with Woody Harrelson playing the cranky lead role. The movie is having a premiere at Sundance before Fox Searchlight releases it on March 24.
The Yellow Birds – Alexandre (Blue Caprice) Moors’ war movie based on Kevin Powers’ book and starring Alden Ehrenreich, Jack Huston, Tye Sheridan and Jennifer Aniston.
Long Strange Trip – I don’t watch a lot of docs at Sundance but when it’s a four-hour doc about the Grateful Dead by Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That), I’m all in.
If you can’t tell from all the movies mentioned, there’s a lot movies to see at Sundance and a lot more that we’ve missed in this preview, but that’s part of the pleasure of attending… to find those surprise discoveries.
The Sundance Film Festival starts on Thursday, January 19, and LRM will be posting regular updates throughout the festival while also looking for interesting interviews to share with readers.