Morgan Neville (along with co-director Robert Gordon) returns to Sundance with his first film since his Academy Award-winning "20 Feet from Stardom." Relying on archival footage and insightful interviews, "Best of Enemies" looks back at the explosive 1968 televised debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. The lively debates, which gave ABC News the ratings they so desperately needed at the time, were not only a battle of wits, but they were also a precursor to the wall-to-wall punditry which dominates cable television news today. Though it’s unlikely that "Best of Enemies" will take off as a mainstream hit the way that "20 Feet" did, the film is sure to prompt discussions about the role of television in politics — and the political rift that divided the country back in 1968 and has only deepened since.
Director: Rick Alverson
"The Comedy," Rick Alverson’s provocative 2012 portrait of a bored, privileged Brooklynite, was one of the more memorably divisive Sundance Film Festival premieres. Its fans and detractors both had strong reactions to the abhorrent protagonist (Tim Heidecker), whose unruly antics Alverson portrayed in a series of unnerving vignettes. Now Alverson is back with a reportedly even more challenging character study revolving around an aging comedian (Turkington) attempting to revive his career with a series of shows in the middle of the desert. Alverson’s ability to probe the depths of American losers reached some remarkable extremes with "The Comedy," but here’s hoping "Entertainment" goes even further as the director continues to push beyond his audiences’ comfort zones. Bring it on.
"Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"
Director: Alex Gibney
Academy Award-winning Sundance veteran Alex Gibney ("Finding Fela") returns to Park City with this exposé about Scientology based on Pulitzer Prize-winning Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction book. Featuring interviews with eight former members of the church, the documentary, not surprisingly, has already been challenged by the Church of Scientology International (with a full page ad in The New York Times, no less). Anticipating trouble, HBO, which is set to air the documentary in March, reportedly had 160 lawyers look at the film to make sure "Going Clear" is in the clear. As far as we’re concerned, Alex Gibney plus Lawrence Wright plus Scientology plus controversy equals gripping cinema.
"I Am Michael" Director: Justin Kelly After writing and directing music videos, Justin Kelly makes the transition to feature with the help of mentor Gus Van Sant. Written and directed by Kelly and based on Benoit Denizen-Lewis’ New York Times Magazine article "My Ex-Gay Friend," the drama tells the controversial story of a gay activist who becomes a Christian pastor. And who else but James Franco could play such a part? We’re expecting nothing less than a gripping exploration of love, desire, religion and betrayal.
"Mistress America" Director: Noah Baumbach "Frances Ha" duo Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are back with their second under-the-radar offering. Not much is known about the comedy apart from the fact that it stars Gerwig as an outgoing young woman who invades the life of her soon-to-be stepsister (played by "Gone Girl" breakout Lola Kirke). Gerwig excels at playing larger than life personas, and she created true magic with Baumbach in "Frances Ha." We have a feeling lightening struck twice with this duo. Fox Searchlight snatched up rights to distribute the comedy earlier this month, which bodes of good things to come.
Director: Rodney Ascher
In 2012, Rodney Ascher’s oddball collage of conspiracy theories surrounding the meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s "The Shining" came out of nowhere to become the great discovery of Sundance that year. Now Ascher has shifted gears from focusing on a nightmarish fiction to the real-deal: "The Nightmare" explores the phenomenon of sleepwalking in numerous subjects, exploring the eerie state of being trapped between waking and dreaming worlds. The film reportedly uses reenactments to replicate the often horrific visions experienced by those afflicted with the condition — including the filmmaker himself. Just as "Room 237" took a bizarre premise and turned it into a compelling portrait of obsession, "The Nightmare" (which screens in Sundance’s midnight section) is likely to give viewers a wholly original look at its disturbing malady.
A few years ago, when the term "mumblecore" was rampant, many of the filmmakers looped into this loosely defined American indie movement were left out of the Sundance equation. That included Andrew Bujalski, whose perceptive dramedies "Funny Ha Ha," "Mutual Appreciation" and "Beeswax" played elsewhere. The festival accommodated the director’s delightfully offbeat "Computer Chess" two years back, and now he’s made his way into the U.S. competition. "Results," which revolves around a pair of personal trainers who land an affluent client, stars Kevin Corrigan and Guy Pearce — marking the biggest name talent in a Bujalski production to date. We’ve been tracking Bujalski’s unique penchant for observational comedy for years; here’s hoping "Results" provides an excuse for the rest of the world to take notice, too.
"Sleeping With Other People" Director: Leslye Headland A story about the will-they-won’t-they platonic relationship between a charming womanizer (Jason Sudeikis) and a serial cheater (Alison Brie) may sound like a giant rom-com cliché, but you should never underestimate the edgy charms of former playwright Leslye Headland. The writer-director’s 2012 debut, "Bachelorette," had the misfortune of following in the footsteps of the similarly themed blockbuster "Bridesmaids," but the NYU Tisch graduate showed a promising comic spirit that was feistier and more fearless than any Melissa McCarthy poop-in-the-sink joke. Last February, her raunchy screenplay for the Kevin Hart-starring "About Last Night" was a delightful surprise as it confidently walked the line between naughty and crude without ever indulging in crass immaturity. Given the talented ensemble and the starry Sundance premiere the director has lined up for "Sleeping With Other People," this rom-com will be Headland’s biggest break yet and we can’t wait to see how she pulls it off. Luckily for Headland, the lovely Alison Brie ("Community") is poised for a star-making turn of her own, and we’re hopeful these two ladies will be a match made in comedy heaven.
"Slow West" Director: John MacLean
The practice of remixing has been a part of Scottish writer-director John MacLean’s vocabulary at least since he formed The Beta Band back in 1996 — a group that produced magnetizing tracks in the vein of Radiohead, featuring a combination of folk, electronic and rock. Fast-forward to the present, where MacLean is about to release his feature fiction directorial debut starring Michael Fassbender. And while it might seem like a complete 180, we’re interested in seeing how Maclean’s musical sensibilities might reshape the American Frontier period drama into something that appeals to postmodern audiences.
"Stockholm, Pennsylvania" Director: Nikole Beckwith Saorise Ronan plays a young woman who was kidnapped as a little girl and now, 17 years later, is returned to live with her parents. The fact that Ronan anchors the film is more than enough of a reason to go see the film, as she has consistently delivered strong performances since her breakout in 2007’s "Atonement." Ronan’s role in "Stockholm, Pennsylvania," however, stands in stark contrast with most of the roles she has had up until this point — resilient female characters in films such as "Hanna" and "The Lovely Bones," who manage to push through their anxieties in order to accomplish what they seek. According to the synopses, Ronan’s character in "Stockholm, Pennsylvania" appears to spend the majority of the film not only struggling with how to find her place in a world that she has only just come to know, but also finding the courage to allow other people, namely her parents, help her make the adjustment. And while the role certainly offers new challenges for Ronan, we’re excited to see what she makes of them onscreen.
"What Happened, Miss Simone?"
Director: Liz Garbus
Liz Garbus, the Academy Award-nominated producer and director (“The Farm: Angola USA”, “Bobby Fischer Against the World”) returns to Sundance with this passion project about the late classically trained pianist, singer and civil rights activist. The opening night film interweaves never-before-heard recordings of the legendary chanteuse with rare archival footage and interviews with Simone’s close friends and family. From her Jim Crow childhood in North Carolina to her chart-topping recording career, from her political activism to her self-imposed exile, the film follows Simone’s life, struggles and all. We can’t wait to see this complex portrait of a complex woman. What happened, Miss Simone? We want to know.
"The Wolfpack" Director: Crystal Moselle
The premise of Crystal Moselle’s feature documentary directorial debut, "The Wolfpack," is very curious. It tells the story of six teenage brothers who have been sequestered in an an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for their entire lives. According to the brief synopses on the Sundance Film Festival website, the film appears to spend a great deal of time examining the boys’ unique relationship with film, which provided them with the means (albeit imaginative) to escape from the physical confines of their imprisonment in the form of homegrown re-enactments of their favorite films. Given what we know so far, the film seems to raise unique questions and perhaps even some answers about the various ways in which psychology, cinema and identity cross paths with one another. We’re also curious to see how the film grapples, if at all, with the very obvious ethical questions related to exhibitionism of its subjects.
"Z for Zachariah" Director: Craig Zobel Romance meets the apocalypse in Craig Zobel’s emotionally charged adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 award-winning novel, in which a love triangle develops between three of civilization’s last known survivors. All eyes are on the gorgeous Margot Robbie this year as she follows up her breakout role in "The Wolf of Wall Street" by playing elusive love interests in both this science-fiction drama and February’s heist thriller, "Focus." But considering the latter is more of Will Smith’s show, "Z for Zachariah" will be the first opportunity Robbie has to front a picture all her own, and our gut feeling tells us she’ll be just as confident and sizzling as she makes the jump from supporting to lead. Also enticing is the involvement of director Zobel, whose debut "Compliance" was one of 2012’s best independent thrillers. Considering "Compliance" was also about the psychological chess game between three characters in a very specific environment, we’re confident Zobel has everything he needs for a second feature knockout.
[Editor’s Note: Paula Bernstein, Shipra Gupta, Eric Kohn and Nigel M. Smith contributed to this article.]