So yes, tomorrow brings the Oscar nominations (and you can take a look at our predictions one last time here). But if there were ever any doubt, there’s a double reason that tomorrow might be the biggest day of the year in the movie calendar because, in a piece of scheduling that’s somewhat infuriating to those of us who like sleeping occasionally, Thursday also marks the start of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Thirty years on from its founding, Robert Redford‘s little Utah get-together remains the premier venue for American independent film, and sees the arrival of a whole host of movies that will be talked about for the next twelve months.
Team Playlist is currently packing their mittens and snowshoes and boarding flights to Park City, but ahead of the festival’s kick-off tomorrow, we’ve picked out thirty of the most appealing movies in the lineup. As that high number suggests, it’s an exceedingly promising year, and we’re more than hopeful that 2014 will bring movies to match the quality of films like “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” “Searching For Sugar Man,” “Sleepwalk With Me,” “Middle Of Nowhere,” “Fruitvale Station,” “In A World...,” “Before Midnight,” “Upstream Color,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and many more. Read on below, and if you’re lucky and Park City-bound, you’ll be able to see the films at Sundance between January 16th and 26th. Some of the line-up will also head across the Atlantic for the Sundance London festival from April 25th-27th. But sooner or later, all of the below should be playing in a theater (or VOD-system) near you. In no particular order, the Sundance films we’re most looking forward to are:
“Love is Strange”
Synopsis: After four decades together Ben and George finally get married, but it results in George being fired from his conservative job, and the couple can no longer afford their New York City apartment. As a temporary measure, Ben stays with his nephew while George stays with neighbors, but the pressures of separation after so long together weigh heavy on both.
What You Need To Know: Director Ira Sachs’ followup to the extremely well-received “Keep the Lights On” (we raved about it two years ago, it won the Teddy award for queer cinema in Berlin and earned four Independent Spirit nominations) boasts an irresistible logline that is both timely and ripe with bittersweet comedic potential. And it has an impeccable cast, with Alfred Molina and John Lithgow playing the central star-cross’d lovers, and Marisa Tomei, among others, in support.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? With a wonderful cast and a director who had a bona fide Sundance breakout with his last entry, this film has a huge amount going for it, and could very well break out of the “gay cinema” ghetto to reach a much wider audience if the buzz is strong enough to get it a good distribution deal. And if nothing else, with its themes of late-in-life love, it has serious potential to be the most adorable film of the festival, and to possibly contend as an audience favorite.
Synopsis: An Irish priest striving to make the world a better place is continually shocked by the meanness he encounters in his small country parish, and when his life is threatened during confession, he feels the forces of darkness closing in around him.
What You Need To Know: Director John Michael McDonagh, brother of the similarly crazy-talented Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”), wrote and directed one of the most underseen gems of the last few years with “The Guard.” “Calvary” sees him retain the rural Irish setting, and his star, the great Brendan Gleeson, in a cast that also includes Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Isaach de Bankole, Dylan Moran and Brendan’s son, Domhnall Gleeson. We absolutely loved “The Guard,” with its foulmouthed, un-PC mix of caustic, iconoclastic Irishness and dizzying verbal wit, and would turn up with bells on to anything McDonagh had a hand in, landing this followup at no. 60 in our Most Anticipated Films of the Year list. But while “Calvary” retains many familiar elements, most importantly Gleeson in the central role, it also changes things up, taking the unfashionable-to-the-point-of-“controversial” step of portraying an Irish Catholic priest in a good light, and retaining elements of “The Guard” ’s dark comedy, but in service of a much more dramatic and serious narrative.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Good, we hope. “The Guard” also premiered at Sundance, but gained surprisingly little buzz off its showing there (in Ireland the film has since gone on to be the most successful homegrown film of all time, but it was still relatively underseen in the U.S.), so we hope the “Calvary” crowd will want to redress that injustice, especially as this time out it does seem like McDonagh’s going for a bit more serious (though hopefully no less caustic) tone, so it may feel more overtly “important” than his debut.
“Listen Up Phillip”
Synopsis: Adoptive New Yorker Philip gets increasingly irritated by the city and his girlfriend in the run up to the publication of his second novel, so when his idol offers him his summerhouse, Philip retreats to its isolation, and gives full vent to his self-absorption.
What You Need To Know: Starring Jason Schwartzman (who else you gonna call for your neurotic New York novelist role?) and Elisabeth Moss, alongside Jonathan Pryce and Krysten Ritter, this is director Alex Ross Perry’s third feature, his last being “The Color Wheel,” which we admit we weren’t as hot on as some in the indie film world. However we love both these leads, we like that it’s being billed as a kind of comedy, and are very curious to find out whether this slightly higher-profile canvas may have done for Perry what is has done for the likes of Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? The film’s inclusion in the Next sidebar, which is dedicated to progressive or innovative storytelling, suggests that there may be something more to it than the potentially seen-it-before storyline. Then again, it could be wildly self-indulgent too.
Synopsis: The life of a child told from age six to age 18, following his relationship with his parents before and after they divorce.
What You Need To Know: Nestling at no. 59 on our 100 Most Anticipated Films of 2014 list, “Boyhood” might be the most ambitious thing that Richard Linklater‘s ever attempted: following in the footsteps of Michael Apted‘s “Up” series and Michael Winterbottom‘s “Everyday” (which was conceived after, but completed before this), Linklater has spent a few weeks in every year since 2002 shooting aspects of this film, which stars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as parents, and newcomer Ellar Salmon as their child. As a result, it’s a literal coming-of-age film, which will see Salmon and the other actors age before the cameras: as Hawke described it, it’s like “timelapse photography of a human being.” With twelve years passing between the start of filming and release, it’s likely the longest film shoot in history.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Very strong. The film was a late addition to the lineup, only being confirmed this week as the 121st feature of the festival (indeed, we’d had it pegged as a more likely SXSW premiere, so shows you what we know). As a result it benefits from that last-minute rush buzz that late, high-profile additions get, and, most tellingly, this was where Linklater’s triumphant “Before Midnight” premiered just last year, before going on to conquer hearts (and quite a few best-of-2013 lists). And the indie-royalty director has a relationship with the festival that goes all the way back to the Grand Jury nomination for his debut “Slacker.” Plus, look out for Arquette, who [checks comeback clock] is due for a major renaissance any time now.
“The Skeleton Twins”
Synopsis: An estranged brother and sister reunite in the wake of a family crisis, bringing old memories to the forefront, and forcing both to confront the rather disillusioning way their lives have turned out.
What You Need To Know: This is director Craig Johnson’s second feature (after 2009’s “True Adolescents”) and if its generically indie logline might sound a little off-putting (it feels similar to relationship dramas “You Can Count on Me” and last year’s “Touchy Feely,” to name a couple of titles that spring to mind), the fact that the central siblings are played by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in rare serious roles, gets us back onside. We’re proponents of the school of thought that if an actor can be funny, they can certainly nail ‘serious’ and both these actors definitely seem to have that range. The cast is rounded out further by Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell and Mark Duplass.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Almost too good—this seems like the kind of film that was specifically designed for Sundance, and if it’s to have a chance of picking up an award (it plays in the U.S. Dramatic competition), it needs to distinguish itself somehow. That said, if any one element does help it rise above its relationship-drama brethren, it could really do well, and the goodwill both these actors bring should see it get a decent distribution deal at least.
Synopsis: Based on a true story, the film is set in 1970s Hollywood and follows Amy, the daughter of jazz pianist and deteriorating heroin addict Joe Albany, as she struggles to negotiate her own way in the world after an unconventional upbringing by her beloved father.
What You Need To Know: Director Jeff Preiss is an experimental filmmaker and cinematographer (on the Oscar-nominated Chet Baker doc “Let’s Get Lost,” among others), and has here assembled a hugely promising central duo for his cast: Elle Fanning, who we’ve been tipping as a tremendous talent for some time now, and John Hawkes, who needs no introduction or pre-sell to Sundance audiences, having dazzled everyone in “Winter’s Bone,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Sessions” in successive years.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Kind of off the charts. Preiss may be relied on to the keep period authentic, with his documentary background, and we can expect it all to look great too. It also may possibly boast a somewhat unconventional approach to the storytelling. Meanwhile Elle Fanning is proving a fantastically capable young actress, and John Hawkes is pretty much unassailable indie royalty now, particularly at this festival. Add to that the Sundance staple of a coming-of-age story, along with a period setting, a true story and a dash of social commentary, and you have what looks like a very strong package for the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Synopsis: The unpredictable tale of an ordinary guy who is tasked with organizing his company picnic and meets a girl he likes in the process, then goes home to tell his pets about her and they (a dog and a cat) answer him.
What You Need To Know: From the brilliantly off-kilter mind of Marjane Satrapi, whose live-action “Persepolis” followup “Chicken With Plums” we found a little thin, and whose “The Band of the Jotas” we really liked but were among the only three people to see it, comes another live-action film that seemingly again marries elements of fantasy and whimsy into a decidedly offbeat whole. But this is Satrapi’s starriest cast by far, with Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton and Jacki Weaver all appearing alongside star Ryan Reynolds.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? On cast alone, this should get ‘em in the door, and we have high hopes it sees Satrapi find a slightly more accessible way to bring her unique sensibility to the wider audience it deserves. Certainly, the logline is surreal enough that if it works, it could be buzzy.
“Life After Beth”
Synopsis: A young man is devastated by the death of his girlfriend, but when she returns as a zombie, he tries to start the relationship anew.
What You Need To Know: Another zombie movie, yes, but aside from its great title, “Life After Beth” hopefully it has something new to add to the genre, even beyond similar undead-romances like last year’s “Warm Bodies.” For one, it marks the feature directorial debut of Jeff Baena, who co-wrote David O. Russell‘s “I Heart Huckabees,” so it’s unlikely to be generic in the least. And he’s assembled an absolutely superb cast, with rising stars Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in the leads and Anna Kendrick, John C. Reilly, Cheryl Hines, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Alia Shawkat and Matthew Gray Gubler in back-up. Hopefully, this’ll be a rom-zom-com with both heart and, wait for it, BRAAAAAINSS.
Sundance Prospects: Unless it stinks, this is likely to be the source of some fairly major bidding wars, as it seems to have more crossover potential than most.
“The Trip to Italy”
Synopsis: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprise the meta version of their anti-friendship from the original, Britain-bound “The Trip” and this time journey to six different restaurants dotted around Italy, no doubt exchanging similar thoughts on life, celebrity and aging (and surprisingly little about actual food) along the way, and hopefully competing some more in their impersonations of Roger Moore, Michael Caine et al.
What You Need To Know: Michael Winterbottom’s original “The Trip” aired as an episodic TV show in Britain while in the U.S. it was abridged into feature film format. It looks like the same formula is going to be followed here, with the film version coming to Sundance and the show airing later. The first iteration is a great favorite ’round here; a hilarious, off-kilter, weird hybrid of road movie, gastronomic tour and entertainingly bitter skewering of the clashing egos of the two men at its heart. And we can assume the further-from-home Italian setting will only work to throw Brydon and Coogan more uncomfortably close together, this time in spectacular, sun-dappled locations.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects: Somewhat murky—Winterbottom’s last film to premiere here was the brutal “The Killer Inside Me” which got picked up by IFC but went on to be critically divisive (though we were impressed) and made a substantial loss. And even with our ongoing affinity for Winterbottom’s polyglot tendencies, we have to say his recent films, especially “Trishna” and “The Look of Love,” have disappointed. And as far as comedy breakouts go, Sundance tends to favor things a little more broadly quirky and not quite so melancholic and, well British. Still, “The Trip” is fantastic and has presumably seen its fanbase widen in the intervening years, so however it does at the festival, it’s one of our 100 Most Anticipated Films of the year.
Synopsis: A young drummer at a competitively cutthroat music academy is driven to ever more insane levels of perfectionism by a new teacher and also by his own mortal fear of mediocrity.
What You Need To Know: Sounding a little like a riff on “Black Swan” only with drums, this film stars the slowly-exploding Miles Teller as the tortured young musician, and the absolutely-awesome-in-everything-he-does J.K. Simmons as his torturer/teacher. The feature debut from writer/director Damien Chazelle, it sounds like a truly fascinating story, that apparently goes to some very dark places. To be honest, we’d be there to see J.K. Simmons, more often cast recently in kindly, avuncular roles, get back to “Oz”-level viciousness.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? This is the feature version of director Damien Chazelle’s short of the same name, which one a Short Film Jury prize at last year’s Sundance. So you know, even without the extremely promising cast and description, the festival has a vested interest in this one, and even if it doesn’t scoop a prize in the U.S. Dramatic competition, it seems poised to make a breakout up-and-comer out of its director, and to continue Teller’s quiet domination of the young-indie-actor scene.
Synopsis Kaia’s quiet life with her boyfriend in isolated rural Massachusetts is disrupted by the arrival of her pregnant sister (and her fiancé), who comes into conflict with Kaia over the way she is restoring their father’s estate and treating the relics of their childhood.
What You Need To Know: The feature debut of director Mona Fastvold, this Norwegian/U.S. co-production is probably mostly on our radar because it’s co-written by rising star Brady Corbet, who also takes a role here. But with Fastvold coming from a music video background, we also have high hopes for the visual style. The two are due to collaborate again on Corbet’s directorial debut (which is slated to star Juliette Binoche) next, so obviously the experience here seemed worth repeating, which can only bode well.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? It may not have a huge amount of name-recognition going for it, but the sisters-in-conflict theme and what looks from early stills to be a cool, slightly eerie dreamlike-ness of tone could see it contend for an award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, which would bring it a different sort of buzz.
“The Better Angels”
Synopsis: Indiana, 1817. Men and women (including a young Abraham Lincoln) must battle against nature and disease to survive in log cabins. This drama explores Lincoln’s family, hardships, the tragedy that marked him forever, and the two women who guided him to immortality.
What You Need To Know: First and foremost it earns its pedigree as having Terrence Malick as one of the movie’s producers. First time narrative feature filmmaker A.J. Edwards is however, no stranger to moviemaking. He’s worked with his mentor/producer often, as an editor on “The New World” and as a second-unit director and editor on “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder,” and the upcoming “Knight of Cups.” You can’t pay for a better film school than that. On top of it all, it stars Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling and Wes Bentley, so that’s hard to beat.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Very good, though the black and white movie sounds much more stark and meditative, which could make it a Sundance awards or arthouse breakout hit rather than a big indie film buy. Still, even then most difficult of films get bought by major players if the buzz is loud enough.
“They Came Together”
Synopsis: Joel, an executive for a candy store chain comes to New York to shut down a tiny sweet shop only to fall for the owner, Molly. But that’s not the only obstacle in their path…
What You Need To Know: Thirteen years after making fun of the teen summer camp genre with “Wet Hot American Summer,” David Wain, and co-writer Michael Showalter are back (after a big studio hit with “Role Models” and a big flop with “Wanderlust“) for another genre-riffing comedy that landed at no. 49 on our Most Anticipated 2014 Films list. This time, they’re turning their attentions to the romantic comedy (“You’ve Got Mail” in particular, but the genre in general, it seems), with Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler as the star-crossed central couple, and a comedy all-star cast including Cobie Smulders, Ed Helms, Melanie Lynskey, Max Greenfield, Michaela Watkins, Jason Mantzoukas, Michael Ian Black and, uh, Michael Shannon. Wain’s directorial efforts have been patchy to various degrees (as was ‘Wet Hot…’ to be honest) but they’ve also all been pretty funny and the rom-com genre’s been ripe for a proper spoofing for a while, with Rudd and Poehler a couple who could viably headline a real rom-com, but are capable of subverting it too.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects: With this cast we can’t see the film having trouble finding a distributor so it’s really just down to how funny it is. But even if it’s as hilarious as we hope, it feels like too much of a sure thing to ever get labelled “a breakout.”
“The Young Ones”
Synopsis: In what sounds like a not-too-distant dystopian future, water is scarce and land is withering away. A father defends his land from bandits, but the boyfriend of his teenage daughter has his own takeover plans in mind.
What You Need To Know: Jake Paltrow hasn’t directed a feature since his 2007 Sundance entry, “The Good Night,” and while that one failed to launch in any memorable way, Gwyneth’s younger brother is back with an ambitious-sounding sophomore effort. Michael Shannon stars as the protective father, Elle Fanning (in one of two appearance on this list) and Kodi Smit-McPhee play his kids, and Nicholas Hoult stars as the boy with coup d’état ideas in his head that will surely make for an ugly showdown.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Like many films with Hollywood stars, its prospects are good, and better than those films without names. It’ll have to depend just how breakout-good it is though, as the 2014 crop is an extremely competitive one.
Synopsis: A documentary on the life and career of immensely respected film critic Roger Ebert, who passed away last year.
What You Need To Know: Not only is the sadly-missed Roger Ebert an absolutely cracking subject for a documentary; as a newspaperman, Pulitzer winner, television star and latterly a major Internet presence as his illness robbed him of the power of speech, this documentary is being put together by a master of the form—“Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” director Steve James, who promises the honest look at Ebert’s life that apparently the man himself was firm he wanted. So we can expect a fascinating insight, not just a hagiography, into a man that many of us here credit with at least partially inspiring our own love of movies.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Ebert was a figure of national importance, had immense name-recognition and respect and was widely seen in his latter years as something of a guardian angel of the film world (another such figure in Martin Scorsese, who gets a producer credit here). As such, we can’t see this being anything but a hot-ticket item at Sundance, especially with revered documentarian James at the helm.
“God Help The Girl”
Synopsis: Over one long Glasgow summer, a young fantasist girl forms a band with a guy and a girl.
What You Need To Know: Not many indie musicians have turned to film direction, but there’s something about the storytelling in the music of Scottish tweecore favorites Belle And Sebastian that’s always made Stuart Murdoch seem like he could do the job well. In the works for a few years now, “God Help The Girl,” based on Murdoch’s concept album from a few years back, is a full-blown musical, set in Murdoch’s home of Glasgow, produced by “Rushmore“‘s Barry Mendel, funded in part through Kickstarter, and starring Emily Browning (“Sucker Punch“), Hannah Murray (“Game Of Thrones“) and Olly Alexander (“Enter The Void“), and since we love a good musical here at the Playlist, it landed on our 100 Most Anticipated Films of 2014 list (we love it even more when someone’s as ill-advisedly ambitious as to make their feature debut with a musical). It could still be a mess, but Murdoch’s had some top-flight technical support, has a strong central trio in the leads, and the songs are already out there and already good, so we’re optimistic about this.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects: The film has been selected to play in the World Dramatic competition and is a blend of elements that Sundance often finds fairly irresistible: off-beat charm, indie music, coming-of-age, misfits-finding-their-place. So if it hangs together at all as a movie, it’s got strong potential to be one of those famous Sundance breakouts, though it may be overall too lightweight to take an actual award.
“Wish I Was Here”
Synopsis: A 35-year-old struggling actor/father/husband decides to home school his kids after he can no longer afford to send them to private school.
What You Need To Know: Director Zach Braff seized the zeitgeist for better or worse with his 2004 debut, “Garden State,” which soon became the poster boy for cute, quirky Sundance dramedy. But like it or not, “Garden State” had its charms and was an assured directorial debut. It’s taken him nine years to get another film off the ground and he had to do so, controversially, by going to Kickstarter to get it funded, but that shouldn’t have much to do on the final verdict of the film. Written by Zach and Adam Braff, “Wish I Was Here” also co-stars Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene, and Joey King and could do for existential crisis what “Garden State” did for twentysomethings, only this time with a hell of a lot more responsibility and problems.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Presumably great. “Garden State” was a big hit for Fox Searchlight ($35 million off a $2.5 million budget), and presumably buyers will be circling this one like hawks hoping that lightning strikes twice.
“The Raid 2: Berandal”
Synopsis: Picking up immediately after the events of the first film, this sees supercop Rama going undercover in prison to befriend the convict son of a fearsome mob boss, in the hope of uncovering corruption in Jakarta’s police force.
What You Need To Know: A couple of years back, “The Raid” arrived like a knee to the throat of the action scene: a relentless Indonesian actioner, directed by ex-pat Welshman Gareth Evans, that saw instant star Iko Uwais fight his way through a tower block full of gangsters by any brutal means necessary. Evans ignored the advances of Hollywood to make this follow-up, subtitled “Berandal” (which translates loosely as ‘scamp,’ we believe). Uwais, who’s presumably spent the last couple of years recovering, is reprising his role for a sequel that’s bigger and bolder in scope, and though “The Raid” wasn’t perfect, at least to anyone who cares about plot and character and things like that, it was a blast of pure adrenaline-cinema heady enough to land the sequel at no. 45 on our Most Anticipated Films of 2014 list. This time out the action looks to be bigger and crazier than anything in the original, with prison riots, car chases and subway brawls all glimpsed in trailers. Best of all, there seems to be something more of a storyline this time, the film shifting gears from “Assault On Precinct 13” to something closer to “Donnie Brasco” by way of “A Prophet.” And with a two-and-a-half hour running time, there’d better be a little substance in there somewhere…
What Are Its Sundance Prospects: Interesting. It’s a deeply genre film, but if it’s like the first one, it’s such pure, pared-back genre, and foreign-language to boot, that it kind of becomes arthouse anyway. And expect an up-to-their-eyeballs-in-relationship-dramas festival crowd to lap this up gratefully. “The Raid” picked up the Midnight Madness award at TIFF and various audience awards from other festivals, so if this delivers it could be looking at a similar profile here.
Synopsis: An anthropologist doing research in Morocco returns to New York to discover that her brother, a young musician, has suffered an accident that has left him comatose.
What You Need To Know: It’s an interesting concept: An estranged brother and sister and the near-death of one of them propels the other into their world, in this case, the music scene of Brooklyn. Anne Hathaway stars as the emotionally distant sister who tries to make up for lost time by honoring her brother’s commitment to music and in doing so meets his musical idol. Tonally, it’s probably a tricky dance to get that right, but the talent is top notch. For one, Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley and Johnathan Rice wrote the music together, so the music angle is obviously covered. On top of Hathaway (who already demonstrated she has crazy singing pipes, see “Les Miserables”), the film also co-stars Johnny Flynn (as the hunky musical idol), Mary Steenburgen and Ben Rosenfield.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Sundance is full of optimists because everyone wants to be there in case “the next big thing.” And so this one has tons of “Once”-like potential (a film that was a big breakout hit for Fox Searchlight), so if it’s remotely good, buyer will come running.
Synopsis: A young woman stuck in arrested development flees a proposal from her boyfriend and hides out at the home of her new 16-year-old friend.
What You Need To Know: Lynn Shelton is hitting a seriously prolific period, and only a year after “Touchy Feely” (which was barely a year after “Your Sister’s Sister” cropped up at TIFF ’11), she’s back again, with another organic comedy-drama, albeit one that, she told us, is a little more tightly scripted than her previously partly-improvised pictures (for the first time, she’s working from someone else’s screenplay: “Laggies” is written by novelist and “This American Life” contributor Andrea Siegel). She’s also assembled her starriest cast to date: Keira Knightley takes the lead role, with Chloe Moretz as her teenaged friend, and Sam Rockwell, Mark Webber, Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garlin and Kaitlyn Dever among the rest of the cast. Ben Gibbard, of “Death Cab For Cutie” and “The Postal Service” contributes the score.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects: If we were betting people, we’d probably punt a few quid on “Laggies”‘ chances for Sundance breakout status. “Touchy Feely” premiered here last year, and while it didn’t fully connect with critics or audiences, it feels like the festival is looking for an opportunity to boost Shelton, and this higher-profile, more tightly-scripted film could be the one they get behind, especially as its offbeat relationship logline, Sam Rockwell-ishness and hip indie musician involvement, are traditionally Sundance-friendly elements, and its female focus feels timely. It also made no. 48 on our Most Anticipated 2014 list.
“A Most Wanted Man”
Synopsis: A Chechen Muslim illegally emigrates to Hamburg, where he gets caught up in the international war on terror.
What You Need To Know: After “The Constant Gardener” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” rekindled Hollywood’s love for the spy and international intrigue genre via John le Carré, the author’s work has become all the rage once more in Tinseltown (the adaptations in development are myriad). And the next to arrive will be “A Most Wanted Man,” which, while a much more modern vision of le Carre’s espionage milieu, still sounds like a morally complex crackler, and it sure looks great, according to the trailer (which has been pulled by Lionsgate for now, but will hopefully be re-upped soon). But what has it as a towering no. 13 on our Most Anticipated Films of 2013 list is that it’s directed by rock-photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn, who has made two essential works so far, “Control” and “The American,” the latter of which was one of the most introspective and haunted assassin movies in forever. And then there’s his cast, which is terrific: Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, “Rush” star Daniel Brühl and terrific German star Nina Hoss.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects: Very, very good. Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions already have the rights, so the film isn’t schlepping for distribution, and this cast and director have it entirely in their power to deliver something exceptional. In fact, we’re expecting nothing less, though to be honest, it’s a film that probably doesn’t even need whatever Sundance buzz it gets to have us drooling.
Synopsis: Inspired by the cult character Frank Sidebottom, the cardboard-headed alter ego of musician Chris Sievey, the film follows a Jon, new recruit to a band fronted by the mysterious titular Frank, as he struggles to fit in with their odd sensibility and the band wrestles with mounting creative tension.
What You Need To Know: This comic concoction comes from director Lenny Abrahamson, who previously helmed the hard-hitting but deftly handled drama “What Richard Did” earlier this year. He’s got a strong cast, including Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy, and the music is expected to be a highlight. Peter Straughan (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) and Jon Ronson (“Men Who Stare At Goats”) have penned the screenplay. Sidebottom became something of a cult sensation in the U.K., holding court on radio, television and in concert until Sievey’s death in 2010, but he is only a start point for this tale which is set in the present and is less a biography than an irreverent tribute to Sievey’s story, and the creative process in general. The question of course is… are we gonna get to see Fassbender’s face at all?
What Are Its Sundance Prospects: Very good. With a cast this strong, a rising director making his Sundance debut and a defiantly uncategorizable, offbeat logline, we think this will definitely be one of the most talked-about premieres in Sundance, in spite, or perhaps because of, the decision to take Michael Fassbender’s beautiful head and hide it in papier mache or whatever. It is our 47th Most Anticipated Film of the Year, and we’re really rooting for this one to burst out of the gate.
“Cold In July“
Synopsis: In a small Texas town, a man kills a burglar, only to fear for his family when the dead man’s father comes seeking revenge.
What You Need To Know: Director Jim Mickle took a big step between his breakthrough feature, the fun but disposable horror “Stake Land,” and last year’s Sundance film “We Are What We Are,” a rare example of a remake that can stand up to the original, and one of the best-reviewed horror films in recent memory (it even played Cannes!). Only a year on, he’s back in Park City, stepping away from horror for this ’70s-style action-drama, based on a cult novel by Joe Lansdale. The vibe seems to be muscular, kick-ass noir, of the kind that Charles Bronson might once have starred in, and the cast is certainly intriguing: Michael C. Hall, in his first post-“Dexter” role, squaring off against Sam Shepard, with Don Johnson and Vinessa Shaw as welcome support.
Sundance Prospects: Probably too genre-y to make an awards impact, but this could be a major target for genre homes like Magnet, Radius or even someone like Lionsgate.
Synopsis: When his stepson is killed in a construction accident, Mickey tries to move on, but when a journalist starts to uncover the truth behind the death, things get much, much worse…
What You Need To Know: Aside from a few tiny indies and a couple of small roles in blockbusters like “Iron Man 2,” “Mad Men” star John Slattery has mostly stayed away from the movies, preferring to focus on tv directing (he’s been behind some of the best recent episodes of the series that made his name). Now, his feature directorial debut arrives with this blue-collar drama, based on the novel by Peter Dexter (“The Paperboy“), and you couldn’t ask for a better cast than the one he’s assembled: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christina Hendricks take the lead roles, with John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, Eddie Marsan, Caleb Landry Jones and Domenick Lombardozzi also in the cast. The streets of Park City are laid with the remains of badly-reviewed directorial debuts by actors, but this feels like it could be something special.
Sundance Prospects: Will depend on the reviews, but with this cast, it would be very surprising if distribution didn’t follow soon after.
Synopsis: A family grieving over the death of their son in Afghanistan are confronted by a mysterious stranger who says he knew their son. But is he who he says he is? And if not, what does he want?
What You Need To Know: Between his solo directorial efforts “A Horrible Way To Die” and “You’re Next,” and his crucial role in the burgeoning “V/H/S” franchise, director Adam Wingard has marked himself out as one of the most exciting horror filmmakers around. But he’s taken a left turn for his latest, a twisty action-thriller that will hopefully capitalize on the chops he showed with his underrated and underseen slasher movie from last year. “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens is the unlikely choice for the title role, while “At Any Price” breakout Maika Monroe, Sheila Kelley, Joel David Moore, Leland Orser and Lance Reddick are in support.
Sundance Prospects: Premiering in the Midnight section, so likely to be more of a genre affair than an awards magnet. Again, though, this might well turn out to be a smart buy, though hopefully whoever takes it won’t hold on to it for as long as Lionsgate did “You’re Next.”
Synopsis: When his bad behavior causes his brother to be taken by Child Protective Services, 13-year-old Jacob and his father Hollis must come to terms with each other as they try and reunite the family.
What You Need To Know: Having found success at Sundance with “Take Shelter” and “Mud,” Jeff Nichols is now well-established enough that he can lend support to projects as an executive producer in the way that David Gordon Green did for his debut “Shotgun Stories.” The result is “Hellion,” a decidedly Nichols-esque coming-of-age tale about a tearaway kid and his grief-stricken father, from Texan filmmaker Kat Candler. Based on her 2012 short (which was edited by “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery), this features newcomer Josh Wiggins in the lead role, with “Breaking Bad“‘s Aaron Paul as his pops and Juliette Lewis also in the cast. Probably more under the radar than some right now, but we’ve heard some very promising buzz around this one for a while.
Sundance Prospects: This actually feels like it could be a potential prize-winner, assuming it turns out as good as the advance word. Even if it doesn’t, Paul’s presence should ensure that someone picks it up at some point.
Synopsis: Jenny breaks up with her boyfriend just before Christmas, and with nowhere else to go, moves in with her brother and sister-in-law.
What You Need To Know: Unexpectedly, last year’s “Drinking Buddies” saw Joe Swanberg working with bigger more established names than he’s used to, and even more unexpectedly, it proved a success, the film being easily the filmmaker’s most likable effort in a long time, and turned out to be something of a sleeper hit too. Swanberg’s made a couple of other pictures since, but this looks to be his return to the similar kind of territory as “Drinking Buddies,” with Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey in the lead roles, and Mark Webber, Lena Dunham and Swanberg in support. Regardless of your feelings about Swanberg, if the idea of a movie pairing Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey doesn’t float your boat a little bit, there might not be any helping you.
Sundance Prospects: “Drinking Buddies” proved a surprise VOD success, so don’t be surprised if Magnolia go for this one again. But with Swanberg having sold a project to Fox Searchlight, some of the bigger companies might be interested too. Either way, given the title, don’t expect it in theaters before December…
Synopsis: A young woman joins the military only to end up as a guard in Guantanamo Bay, where she befriends a detainee.
What You Need To Know: Kristen Stewart: Guantanamo Guard might sound like some kind of Funny or Die sketch, but “Camp X-Ray,” which stars the “Twilight” actress, is deadly serious. First-time feature director Peter Sattler, a former graphic designer and screenwriter, compares his film to “Elephant” and “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” among others. Guantanamo is a subject that’s been shamefully avoided by the movies so far, and while Stewart is a divisive figure these days, post-Bella, she’s always had the raw talent to make her way back to the power of her early performances.
Sundance Prospects: Whether it’s good or bad, Stewart’s presence ensures this’ll be one of the most talked about—or at least tweeted about—films of the festival. Her indies haven’t always performed, though, so distributors may be cautious unless the reviews are strong.
Synopsis: A PhD student specializing in the evolution of the eye falls in love with a masked model, only to make a discovery years later that threatens everything he knows.
What You Need To Know: Three years ago, Brit Marling was the toast of Sundance as the co-writer and star of two ambitious and distinct sci-fi projects, “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice.” This year, she’s back, reunited with “Another Earth” director Mike Cahill for this new project, albeit without script input and in a supporting role. Instead, “Boardwalk Empire“‘s Michael Pitt and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey take the lead roles. Even more so than his previous sci-fi romance, Cahill seems to be tackling some heady, decidedly low-concept premises and themes with this project, but that alone is exciting, even if we weren’t all that crazy about “Another Earth.”
Sundance Prospects: “Another Earth” underperformed a bit, and this seems less commercial on the surface, but if it’s really good (and this sounds like it could be this year’s answer to “Upstream Color,” in theory at least), then there should be an audience out there for it.
“Kumiko The Treasure Hunter”
Synopsis: A lonely Japanese lady travels to Minnesota to find the buried treasure from a popular American film.
What You Need To Know: You know that urban legend about a Japanese woman that died while searching for the money Steve Buscemi buried in the Coen Brothers‘ “Fargo?” “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter” is a film inspired by that, which probably marks a definitive snake-eating-its-own-tail moment in American independent cinema. But for all its metatextuality, there’s plenty to be excited about here: it’s the return of David and Nathan Zellner, who were behind the excellent “Kid-Thing,” and it had a boost going into the festival, with Alexander Payne attaching himself as an executive producer yesterday. Plus “Babel” and “Pacific Rim” star Rinko Kikuchi takes the lead role, which is always good news.
Sundance Prospects: Could turn out to be a curio, could be one of the films of the festival. Payne’s association suggests it could be the latter, and bodes well for distribution pick-ups.
And There’s Always More: It feels like we say it every year, but this year we really mean it: the Sundance lineup is absolutely stacked. And while the above 30 are the ones that have pinged loudest on our radar so far, there’s a whole host of other pictures we’re excited about and that we will be doing our durndest to cover for your reading pleasure over the next fortnight. They include: “20,000 Days On Earth” (the Nick Cave documentary); “Dear White People” (which is reportedly early Spike Lee-ish); “Land Ho!” (from Aaron Katz of Cold Weather); “Little Accidents” (a dark crime drama starring Elizabeth Banks, Chloe Sevigny, Boyd Holbrook, Josh Lucas and “Mud“‘s Jacob Lofland from hotly-tipped new filmmaker Sara Colangelo );”Rudderless” (William H. Macy’s directorial debut, Billy Crudup and Anton Yelchin star) “War Story” (which stars Catherine Keener and is from Mark Jackson, who did the excellent “Without“); and Gregg Araki‘s “White Bird In A Blizzard.”
Other films you can look out for reviews of from us are: “Hits” (directed by David Cross); “Finding Fela” (Alex Gibney documentary about Fela Kuti); “Jamie Marks Is Dead” (coming of age story featuring Liv Tyler and Judy Greer); “Infinitely Polar Bear” (Mark Ruffalo stars); “Appropriate Behavior“ (debut feature from Iranian-American director Desiree Akhavan); “Blue Ruin“ (FIPRESCI prizewinner from Cannes); “Cooties“ (Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill); “Drunktown’s Finest” (feature debut from Sydney Freeland); “Fishing Without Nets” (a Somali Pirate story); “Foxy Merkins“ (apparently a comedic, female-centric riff on iconic male hustler films); the baseball documentary “No No: A Dokumentary” which features a score by founding Beastie Boy Ad-Rock), “Happy Valley” (Joe Paterno documentary from the “My Kid Could Paint That” director); “Imperial Dreams“ (starring “Attack the Block” breakout John Boyega); “Lilting“ (stars Ben Whishaw); “The Lunchbox“ (Irrfan Khan from “Life of Pi “stars); “Memphis“ (docu/fiction hybrid); “Mitt“ (documentary about Mr. Romney); “Mr. Leos CaraX“ (documentary about the “Holy Motors” filmmaker); “Nick Offerman: American Ham“ (recording of a stand-up gig from “Parks and Recrecation“‘s Ron Swanson); “Obvious Child“ (starring Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffman, David Cross); “The One I Love“ (stars Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, and Ted Danson); “Ping Pong Summer“ (Susan Sarandon, John Hannah and Lea Thompson star); “The Signal“ (hacker thriller/road movie featuring Laurence Fishburne); and “Whitey” (documentary about notorious criminal Whitey Bulger by director Joe Berlinger of the “Paradise Lost” trilogy). And while we’ve already seen the following at festivals previous we can heartily recommend: “Only Lovers Left Alive,” “Ida,” “Stranger By The Lake” and “Locke.”
It’s gonna be a busy festival… — Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez