It’s been a peculiarly eventful January on the movie front, with Oscar nomination controversies and now the remarkable performance of "American Sniper" to chat about. There’s also been at least a couple of January releases that feel a cut above the usual dross with which this wilderness period is typically associated. So painlessly has it passed that it’s a pleasant surprise that the Sundance Film Festival, so often the sole bright spot on the dull January horizon, is already upon us, starting on Thursday and running through February 1st.
As ever, we’ll be bringing you loads of coverage, reviews and interviews from Park City, and with a lineup absolutely brimming with fascinating prospects, we’re confident that somewhere in the program there’s the next "Boyhood" or "Whiplash" waiting to be discovered and maybe even to ride the Sundance breakout wave all the way to Oscar 2016.
Whether or not they end up deemed awards-worthy, here are the 30 feature titles from across all areas of the festival that we’re most looking forward to (though we’re also looking forward to the out-of-nowhere surprises that Sundance always provides). Keep an eye out for reviews of these, and much, much more from Sundance, as the cinephile year kicks off in earnest. Warning: a little jealousy may ensue if you’re reading this and not planning to attend.
Synopsis: In 1950s Ireland, a young woman faces a heartrending choice between two countries and two men: essentially between two lives, one that reflects duty, the other love.
What You Need To Know: Irish director John Crowley made an impressive debut with the sprawling, snarling "Intermission," but fell off the radar subsequently as his next three features culminating in 2013’s "Closed Circuit" all underperformed (rather undeservedly, especially in the case of "Boy A"). "Brooklyn," finds him with a bigger canvas in the source material of Colm Toibin‘s book of the same name, and his cast is impeccable, showcasing three of the most exciting younger talents around in Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson and Emory Cohen, with a sweeping, epic period backdrop. With a screenplay written by Nick Hornby, whose work on "An Education" and "Wild" makes him something of a poster boy for literary adaptations and great support in the shape of Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters, this could be big. Then again, it could be merely tasteful, but hopefully some edge will be retained.
Synopsis: In St. Louis, Missouri, Louis attempts to grow up, but his oldest friend Jack, jealous about new pal Andrew, resists.
What You Need To Know: Even at Sundance, your microbudget feature with an unknown cast needs a little help to stand out from the crowd, but fortunately director Michael J. Larnell had some: his debut feature "Cronies" is exec produced by none other than Spike Lee. What’s even more remarkable is that Larnell will still be in film school when his film hits Sundance’s NEXT program: he doesn’t graduate from NYU (Lee’s alma mater, famously) until the summer. As for his film, it’s a low-key drama shot, per the film’s teaser, in arresting black-and-white, that’s reportedly inspired by "Stand By Me" and "La Haine.” NEXT’s been the home of many of the most striking new movies at the festival in recent years, and this is certainly one of the more promising films in its line-up.
"The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
Synopsis: A teenaged aspiring comic book artist growing up in 1970s San Francisco embarks on an affair with her mother’s boyfriend.
What You Need To Know: That "A Walk Among The Tombstones" actress Marielle Heller is making her writer/director debut at Sundance should come as no surprise —she was selected as a Sundance Labs Writing and Directing fellow in 2012, and this adaptation of the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner is the first fruit of her labors. Coming-of-age tales are hardly groundbreaking fare, especially not at Sundance, but Heller has assembled a strong cast around London-born rising star Bel Powley, including Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard and Christopher Meloni, and the details of setting and period in the story should set it apart. In fact, there’s a reason the genre is so enduringly popular, especially among first-timers and if Heller’s fresh voice can capture the mordant, edgy appeal of the source material (Gloeckner’s work has been lauded by and compared to the likes of Robert Crumb), this may be a real treat and Heller may be a real new Sundance-darling find.
“Digging For Fire”
Synopsis: A married couple take a break from raising their toddler by house-sitting for a friend, andthe discovery of a bone and a gun sends husband and wife on separate adventures.
What You Need To Know: Continuing the second act of previously mumblecore-centric Joe Swanberg‘s directorial career, “Digging For Fire,” co-written with “New Girl” and “Let’s Be Cops” star Jake Johnson (who plays one of the leads opposite the great Rosemarie DeWitt), looks to be Swanberg’s biggest endeavor yet. Aside from the central couple, we also have Swanberg vets like Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Jane Adams and Melanie Lynskey, plus Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Sam Elliott, Chris Messina, Jenny Slate, Judith Light, Timothy Simons and Mike Birbiglia. Oh, and,presumably hoping to kick off a comeback/indie reinvention, Orlando Bloom. That stacked, indie-darling cast in a fun-sounding set-up directed by a guy whose last two movies, “Drinking Buddies” and “Happy Christmas” marked, for us a major step forward? Yep, we’re all aboard, placing this on at 86 in our 100 Most Anticipated Films of the Year.
Synopsis: A 90s hip-hop-loving geek in a tough neighborhood in Inglewood dreams of attending Harvard, but his future’s thrown into question when a drug dealer invites him to his birthday party.
What You Need To Know: Last time Forest Whitaker produced a Sundance movie, it was "Fruitvale Station," a film that turned out to be the breakout hit of the festival that year, going on to become a crossover hit and picking up awards buzz. As such, we should be paying attention to the Whitaker-backed (and narrated) "Dope," a passion project from "The Wood" and "Brown Sugar" director Rick Famuyiwa. Coming across as a blend of "We Are The Best!," "Superbad" and "The Wackness," with the protagonists playing in a punk/hip-hop band together (Pharrell Williams is contributing music), this could be a vibrant crowd-pleaser in the making. And it has the cast to match it: newcomer Shameik Moore takes the lead, with "Grand Budapest Hotel"’s Tony Revolori, "X-Men" star Zoe Kravitz, "Short Term 12" and "Selma" actor Keith Stanfield, and rapper A$AP Rocky and Tyga also involved.
"The End Of The Tour"
Synopsis: The true story of the 5-day interview between Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky and writer David Foster Wallace and what it reveals about public/private personas and the very interview process itself.
What You Need To Know: James Ponsoldt‘s one-two of the promising, well-performed "Smashed" followed by excellent "The Spectacular Now" would have us anticipating whatever he had coming next, but this story, based on the memoir by Lipsky himself, plays right into our wheelhouse while also delivering hopefully meaty roles for Jesse Eisenberg as the reporter and Jason Segel, in a rare properly serious role as the already semi-mythical Wallace. With the supporting cast rounded out with Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer and Ron Livingston, photography by Jakob Ihre ("Oslo 31. August") and music by Danny Elfman, the elements seem in place to make this another leap up in Ponsoldt’s continuing skyward trajectory, and we are eager to see how he brings his proven eye for relationship detail to a different type of relationship altogether.
Synopsis: An aging comedian en route to reuniting with his daughter plays a string of dead-end shows across the Mojave desert, encountering some oddball characters along the way and finding his sense of himself starting to deteriorate as a result.
What You Need To Know: Director Rick Alverson’s latest sees him reteam with two collaborators from his endlessly divisive “The Comedy” —“On Cinema” duo Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington aka Neil Hamburger co-wrote the script along with Alverson; both will also appear with Turkington taking the lead. We were among the appreciable minority who really enjoyed the scathing, scabrous anti-comedy of his last outing and are looking forward to this one, especially with this strong an ensemble, including Michael Cera, John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Dean Stockwell and Amy Seimetz and which, along with the behind camera talent, landed it at no 53 overall in our 100 Most Anticipated Films of 2015 list.
"The Forbidden Room"
Synopsis: [per catalogue] A submarine crew, a pack of fearsome forest bandits and a battalion of child soldiers all get more than they bargained for [as, we’ll wager, does the audience] as they wend their way toward progressive ideas on love and life.
What You Need To Know: Premiering in the New Frontiers sidebar, this latest project from Canadian arthouse pioneer, installation artist and generally uncategorisable auteur Guy Maddin is shrouded in confusion, though it’s hard to tell whether through deliberate or accidental obfuscation. Anyway, not to be mixed up with multi-platform performance project "Seances" (also: "Spiritismes") with which it shares a lot of cast members (Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Gereladine Chaplin, Caroline Dhavernas, Roy Dupuis, Maria de Madeiros and so on) and a similar shooting timeframe, "The Forbidden Room" is in format relatively straightforward: it’s a film co-directed by Evan Johnson who worked assistant camera all the way back on Maddin’s beloved "My Winnipeg." Everything beyond that, like plot, character or whether any of it will make a lick of sense, is anyone’s guess. And we wouldn’t have it any other way —here’s the atmospheric and rather lovely moving poster.
Synopsis: A young Dublin taxi driver gets embroiled in the murky world of human trafficking while trying to rescue his mother from a life of addiction and unite his broken family.
What You Need To Know: The second feature film from Irish director Gerard Barrett, whose "Pilgrim Hill" was a low-key but well-received debut back in 2013, "Glassland" is also kind of a second bite at the cherry for its young star Jack Reynor. Reynor’s status as Next Big Thing, following a terrific performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s "What Richard Did" (as well as Kirsten Sheridan’s little-seen "Dollhouse") took a bit of a knock with a complete non-role in blandbuster "Transformers: Age of Extinction," but the U.S.-born, Irish-raised actor returns to Dublin to remind us what he’s capable of in indie-er territory here. And he’s got quite the cast to play off: Toni Collette plays his strung-out mother, with stalwarts Will Poulter and Michael Smiley also featuring in what looks to be a gritty, hopefully authentic-feeling, grass roots drama in which not one single robot dinosaur will appear.
"I am Michael"
Synopsis: The real-life story of a gay activist and magazine founder who renounced his homosexuality to become a Christian pastor.
What You Need To Know: The second of two James Franco movies at Sundance this year, both of which feature him in a potentially showy, controversial light ("True Story" being the other —see below), this feature debut from Justin Kelly is based on a magazine article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis and sees Franco take the central, chatter-baiting role of the gay man refuting his homosexuality. Also starring Zachary Quinto as his ex-lover, as well as Emma Roberts as the Christian girl who falls for him after his "conversion" and Daryl Hannah as a Buddhist who runs a Colorado retreat, the film sounds like it could either be an illuminating and insightful look at issues of homophobia from a whole new perspective or a total mess. But with "Night Moves" and "Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" DP Christopher Blauvelt behind the camera, we’re at least confident it will look great.
"I Smile Back"
Synopsis: The story of a woman who goes off her meds and starts taking the other sort of drugs, sleeping around and leaving home with no warning, much to the dismay of her husband and kids. Finally, on the verge of her family’s total collapse, she’s makes one last bid for redemption
What You Need To Know: We’d be lying if we said we weren’t a little wary of this film —for every comedian who successfully makes the transition to serious roles, there are five who miss the mark (often at Sundance!) and this storyline’s "bid-for-redemption" arc feels just a tiny bit rote. Frankly, we’d rather see star Sarah Silverman hellraising, whoring and having a great time doing it than necessarily watch her wrestle with the morality of her behaviour and to atone, but maybe that’s just us. In any case, supported by Josh Charles, Thomas Sodoski, Mia Barron and Chris Sarandon, directed by "Dare" helmer Adam Salky, this adaptation of Amy Koppelman‘s novel has enough going for it that we’re hoping it will avoid the potential Lifetime-ish-ness of its outline.
Synopsis: A hedonistic New Yorker has to find reserves of character and strength and to curb his destructive behavior when his mother becomes seriously ill.
What You Need To Know: Josh Mond, probably best known as the Borderline Films producing partner of "Martha Marcy May Marlene"’s Sean Durkin and "Simon Killer"’s Antonio Campos, gets his turn at the revolving helm (Durkin and Campos produce here) and will make his directorial debut with this highly personal story that he also wrote. Starring "Girls" alum Christopher Abbott who is also currently on screens in "A Most Violent Year," with Cynthia Nixon as his mother and featuring Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi, Mackenzie Leigh, David Call and Ron Livingston in the ensemble, the film has been shot by "Southcliffe" and "Miss Bala" DP Mátyás Erdély and plays in the Next sidebar. We’ve been fans of the Borderline gang’s directorial output so far, and are rooting for their innovative, creative and apparently amicable three-way producing/directing partnership to bear fruit.
"Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck"
Synopsis: A documentary focusing on legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
What You Need To Know: Aside from Gus Van Sant‘s loosely-inspired-by "Last Days" and a controversial Nick Broomfield film, cinema has stayed away from tragic grunge legend for the most part, but that just makes this new documentary, from "The Kid Stays In The Picture" and "Chicago 10" director Brett Morgen, all the more anticipated. For the first time, Cobain’s estate have given the thumbs up to the film (daughter Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer), and Morgen’s had full access to the Nirvana frontman’s archive, with home movies being mixed with animated sequences and interviews promised as ‘revelatory.’ There’s a risk, of course, that the film ends up as hagiography, but the idea of a documentary focusing on Cobain’s life and work, rather than his end, is a promising one. Lord knows what Courtney’ll make of it…
“Last Days in The Desert”
Synopsis: An imagined incident from the end of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness sees him struggle with the Devil when he encounters a stricken family, testing his resolve.
What You Need To Know: Rodrigo García‘s last feature film "Albert Nobbs" may have felt a little starchy overall, but the director did get some great performances, and if all his new film promised was an intriguingly pared-back chance for Ewan MacGregor, playing Jesus, to stem the run of disappointing roles and bit parts that he’s had for the last few years, we’d be all for it. But there also promises to be some meaty discussions about faith, God and the Other Guy, reliable supporting actors Ciaran Hinds and Tye Sheridan along with "Man of Steel"’s Ayelet Zurer play the imperilled family, and most excitingly it’s shot by no less a name than Emmanuel Lubezki, so this has a lot going for it. If nothing else, the film should be entirely out of the run of your standard Sundance coming-of-age comedy or family drama.
Synopsis: A down-on-his-luck gambler teams with a charming young drifter for a road trip that leads them to a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans.
What You Need To Know: “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story” may have felt like a misfire from “Half Nelson” directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, but they return to Sundance this year with a film that gives us serious 1970s character-drama vibes —a gambler-road-trip-mismatched-duo mashup with a cracking cast. Ryan Reynolds, who’s been making smart choices lately post "RIPD" debacle, and the great Ben Mendelsohn (“Animal Kingdom,” “Starred Up”), finally getting a deserved leading role in a U.S. movie are front and center, but the supporting cast looks strong too, with Sienna Miller continuing her quiet, surprising conquest of the "supporting female character in indie drama" category, along with Analeigh Tipton, Robin Weigert and Alfre Woodard, while “Blue Valentine” DoP Andrij Parekh is shooting. Perhaps it should even have been higher than 74 on our 100 Most Anticipated 2015 Titles feature?
Synopsis: A lonely Barnard freshman is befriended by her madcap stepsister-to-be who frets her out of her solitude with ridiculous schemes, one involving a stolen cat.
What You Need To Know: Noah Baumbach ("The Squid & The Whale") not only rather reinvented himself with “Frances Ha” his last collaboration with actress/co-writer Greta Gerwig, but he also shot it under the radar and has done the same with this follow-up, also to star Gerwig along with Lola Kirke. This film’s been described as "looser and wonkier" than "Frances Ha," (which was already pretty charmingly loose and wonky) and Baumbach has named "The Great Gatsby" and "Something Wild" as comparison points. Aside from that though, little is known about the project, bar it being shot in color this time and that Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips (ex Luna) are writing the score, but with Fox Searchlight recently picking it up, and "Frances Ha" being so damn adorable, the signs are good (and we placed it at 20 on our overall 100 Most Anticipated 2015 Films list).
Synopsis: A gay couple trying to have a baby with the help of their best friend encounter unexpected resistance from a neighborhood personality known as the Bishop, which becomes more aggressive as time goes on.
What You Need To Know: Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva likes to take audiences into uncomfortable places with a mix of comedy, drama, absurdity and sheer awkwardness, and he returns to Sundance having made it something of his spiritual home after the award-winning “The Maid” and then the 2013 double header “Magic Magic” and “Crystal Fairy.” His latest, a mix of sexuality, parenting, homophobia and religion sounds like he’s again combining genres and moods and he has again attracted an engagingly eclectic cast in Kristen Wiig, Tunde Adebimpe (from TV on the Radio), Alia Shawkat, Mark Margolis and Reg E. Cathey. All of which earned it a spot on our radar for 2015 —it was our no. 82 pick for the 100 Most Anticipated Films of the Year.
Synopsis: Just the vague idea of sleep paralysis sounds terrifying, and so this documentary/horror film explores the terrifying phenomenon of those that suffer from this disorder and find themselves trapped in the nightmarish in-between netherworlds of sleeping and semi-consciousness.
What You Need To Know: Thanks to the documentary “Room 237”—about the crazy fan conspiracy theories revolving around Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”— filmmaker Rodney Ascher firmly landed on the filmmaking map. It’s a bit of a polarizing work around The Playlist, but less so about Ascher’s filmmaking, which was certainly intriguing and much more about the topic (batshit crazy fans and their terrible ideas). Still it’s a memorable film and Ascher moving into quasi-doc/narrative horror territory sounds fascinating.
Synopsis: A couple who have just moved to L.A. befriend another couple when their children meet in the park. But when then spend an evening at their new friends’ house, things become progressively more bizarre.
What You Need To Know: The sophomore film from Patrick Brice, whose debut "Creep," co-written with Mark Duplass (who produces here) played SXSW and should be released in 2015 (we loved it), this U.S. Dramatic Competition title marks a step up in terms of profile and prospects. Starring Adam Scott and ‘Orange is the New Black”s Taylor Schilling as the couple-out-of-water and Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche ("The Man in the Iron Mask," "Stoker") as the weird L.A. residents, the film is a 180 from the found-footage horror of Brice’s first, with the focus this time on mining the foibles of long-term relationships and personal insecurities for comedy, for which he appears to have assembled a practically perfect ensemble.
Synopsis: An unlikely team of tech innovators, conservationists and animal activists collaborate to highlight the issue of species endangerment in arresting new ways.
What You Need To Know: Louis Psihoyos won a documentary Oscar for his last (also first) feature "The Cove," a thrilling, enraging, shot-in-secret expose of criminal fishing practices leading to the massive depletion of Japan’s dolphin population. His new film does not stray far from the concerns of the first, which also had an emphasis on the usefulness of tech to catch wrongdoers in the act, but this time it seems the focus is less on exposing individuals and more on methods to raise general awareness of the corrosive effects of black marketeering and the impact that humans have on the environment. Which, if it leads to more imagery like that above, may make this not just one of the more vital but also one of the more visually striking docs of the year too.
Synopsis: Two mismatched personal trainers fall for each other due in part to the machinations of a wealthy client.
What You Need To Know: Mumblecore maven Andrew Bujalski’s last film “Computer Chess,” was an offbeat charmer, taking a super lo-fi approach to an oddball story about geeks at a 1980s computer chess convention. Which makes the logline for his follow-up, which sounds like it could have starred Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in the early 90s, all the more surprising. But he’s assembled a nicely indie cast with Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders as the odd couple at the center, and Kevin Corrigan, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Michael Hall and Brooklyn Decker in support. The residual goodwill from "Computer Chess," along with the faith we have that Bujalski of all people is unlikely to have entirely sold out on his fiercely independent provenance, is enough to land "Results" at number 53 on our overall 2015 Most Anticipated list.
Synopsis: At the end of the 19th century, a teenage boy travels across the American Frontier in search of the woman he loves with a mysterious traveler as a companion and an outlaw in hot pursuit.
What You Need To Know: Director and former Beta Band member John Maclean has worked with star Michael Fassbender previously on the BAFTA-winning short "Pitch Black Heist," and here the two reteam for his feature debut, a long-gestating passion project for both men. Premiering in the World Dramatic Competition section of Sundance, the film is a western which will co-star "The Road"’s excellent Kodi Smit-McPhee and the always-brilliant-in-everything-even-that-Ryan-Gosling-movie Ben Mendelsohn, plus Rory "The Hound" McCann alongside Fassbender — a pretty mouthwatering prospect. So much so that the UK/New Zealand co-production has already been picked up by A24 (in partnership with DirectTV) and even more impressively featured at 46 in our 100 Most Anticipated Films of 2015.
"The Stanford Prison Experiment"
Synopsis: The story of the now infamous 1971 sociological/psychological experiment whereby 24 young men were randomly assigned roles of guard and prisoner in a mock prison setting and took to them with frightening dedication and speed.
What You Need To Know: The Psych 101 bias of this year’s Sundance is marked by "Experimenter" (see outro), "Stockholm Pennsylvania" (see below) and to a certain extent "Z for Zachariah" (see below) all dealing, whether anecdotally, historically or allegorically, in psychological what-if scenarios and thought experiments. The most straightforward of these is this film from director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who returns to the Sundance US Dramatic Competition where his sophomore film "C.O.G." also lined out, in which Billy Crudup plays the experiment’s originator, Dr Zimbardo, who must deal with the repercussions as it spirals out of control. A prime project to showcase upcoming (young, largely male) talent, the film also features Olivia Thirlby, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Moses Arias, Callum McAuliffe, Johnny Simmons and Tye Sheridan (his 3rd time on this list!), among many other rising stars.
Synopsis: A young woman kidnapped as a small child and forced to live with her abductor for 17 years is finally returned to her biological family and struggles to readjust.
What You Need To Know: The directorial debut of Nikole Beckwith, this US Dramatic Competition entry has not just a fascinating, potentially fertile logline, but a terrific cast with the excellent Saoirse Ronan taking the complex central role, Cynthia Nixon playing her mother and the oft-undersung Jason Isaacs playing her captor. Beckwith may be an unknown quantity now, but the stars are certainly aligning for her —as well as also writing the script here, her second screenplay for comedy/drama "Three Generations" is being finished up now (it stars Elle Fanning as a gender-transitioning teen). "Stockholm Pennsylvania" looks to be an altogether darker affair, but if it makes good on the promise of its cast at all, it could well see Beckwith claim one of those coveted "Sundance breakout" sobriquets.
Synopsis: On Christmas Eve in Hollywood, a young prostitute goes on winding odyssey of Los Angeles to get to the bottom of a scurrilous rumor about her pimp boyfriendwho may have been unfaithful when she was locked up.
What You Need To Know: This picture is the third feature-length effort of Sean Baker, who has spent his short but vibrant indie career thus far exploring different sub-cultures and unlikely friendships of those living on the margins. In “The Prince Of Broadway,” he examined a hustler trying to be a father and in “Starlet” (our review) he portrayed a porn actress’ improbable relationship with an octogenarian bingo player. Compassionate and judgment-free, Baker’s intimate considerations of such characters have been completely compelling, humanistic and original, and “Tangerine” sounds like it could break through in a major way.
"Ten Thousand Saints"
Synopsis: In the late 1980s, a teenager moves from Vermont to New York to live with his father in the East Village on the eve of the Tompkins Square Park riot.
What You Need To Know: Directing (and life) partners Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman have never really quite made good on the immense promise of their feature debut "American Splendor," diverting their attentions instead to less worthy fare like "The Nanny Diaries" and "The Extra Man" and some documentary work. 2012’s "Girl Most Likely" with Kristen Wiig was flawed return to form, and we have hopes that "Ten Thousand Saints," boasting a terrific ensemble cast in Asa Butterfield, Ethan Hawke, Hailee Steinfeld, Emile Hirsch, Emily Mortimer and the always great Julianne Nicholson, will continue the trend. It’s a colorful period to choose, a volatile locale, and the story’s backdrop of citizen protest, police brutality and the gentrification debate is remarkably topical.
Synopsis: A murderer living in Mexico under the assumed identity of a New York Times journalist is caught and brought back to the States to stand trial, but will only tell his story to the NYT reporter.
What You Need to Know: Produced by Brad Pitt, starring James Franco and Jonah Hill in another of those serious dramatic roles that he tends to get Oscar nominated for (though admittedly as a Supporting Actor where here he’s co-lead) as well as 2015 nominee Felicity Jones, "True Story" feels extremely promising from the get-go. And while theater director Rupert Goold is an unknown quantity on the big screen, the story here sounds like it could be not just a performance showcase (especially for Franco, who has the showy role of the disturbed killer) but also a meta-commentary on the thorny relationship between fact, truth, journalism and storytelling. Already slated for an April 10th wide release, it also landed at 69 on our Most Anticipated Films of the Year list.
Synopsis: A colonial family attempts a challenging harvest near the woods of an imposing ancient New England forest. Superstition, dread and ethereal forces soon corrode their human nature.
What You Need To Know: So it’s a menacing tale in the paranoid era of Salem’s Lot witch hunts with a potentially haunted forest and other creepy and nightmarish psychological forces at work. Sign us up! Robert Eggers has already-cited Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and “Barry Lyndon” as influences on the movie —mood, atmosphere and disquiet likely being key factors— and while that might sound like ambitious folly for a first-time filmmaker, we’ll admit we’re already deeply intrigued by the possibilities.
Synopsis: A documentary following the six teenage brothers in the Angulo family, who all their lives have been kept locked away in a Manhattan housing project, learning all they know of the world from movies, which they obsessively recreate, until one of them finally escapes.
What You Need To Know: A true example of the kind of jaw-dropping documentary premise that is so strange and unbelievable it could only be true, Crystal Moselle’s debut film has to be an early frontrunner in the U.S. documentary competition. And with a very Sundance- and Playlist- friendly subtext about the power of film and storytelling, it promises to be not just an expose of a disturbing secret world that exists within one of the most populated places on the planet, but also an insightful look at the nature of film as a portal to the real world, and what happens when escapism can no longer quell the desire for actual escape. Also: music is courtesy of rising composing stars Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans ("Enemy," "The One I Love") along with newcomer Aska Matsumiya, so we confidently expect it will sound great as well.
“Z for Zachariah”
Synopsis: A young woman believes she is the sole survivor of a civilization-ending disaster until a dying scientist shows up, who is followed by another man. The love triangle that ensues reveals darker sides to all three.
What You Need To Know: Craig Zobel‘s "Compliance" courted controversy but was never less than a fascinating, provocative and original film. His followup looks like a much different beast, though the kind of high-concept, what-would-you-do? moral dilemma/sociological experiment aspect is somewhat similar. Based on the 1974 book of the same name by Robert C.O’Brien, ‘Zachariah’‘s plotline bears a striking resemblance to that of 1985’s “The Quiet Earth” and 1959’s “The World, The Flesh and The Devil” (we wrote about both here). However, directed by Zobel, shot by Tim Orr and starring “Wolf of Wall Street”’s Margot Robbie, Chris Pine and the endlessly watchable Chiwetel Ejiofor as the central trio, we’re excited to see this new take, placing it at 70 on our overall Most Anticipated Films of the Year list.
Honorable Mention & More Films We’re Looking Forward To
It may seem like a list of 30 films in a Sundance anticipated feature is overkill, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The potential riches at Sundance are myriad. Where do we start, past the 30 described above? Well, “The D Train” with Jack Black and James Marsden could be a big crowd pleaser, and the romantic comedy “Sleeping With Other People” starring Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie already looks poised for mainstream traction. Jared Hess returns with “"Don Verdean" which features the strong cast of Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Amy Ryan, Danny McBride, Leslie Bibb and Will Forte, and Eli Roth has the horror “Knock, Knock” starring Keanu Reeves. In other somewhat mainstream-sounding films that may not need our “anticipated” help so much, there’s Nicole Kidman in “Strangerland,” Jennifer Lopez tops "Lila & Eve" with Viola Davis, and “A Walk in the Woods” starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte (how that latter film got into the festival, we’ll never know).
A little bit off the beaten path but of interest is Matt Sobel‘s "Take Me To The River" featuring featuring Logan Miller, Robin Weigert, Josh Hamilton and Richard Schiff, Jennifer Phang‘s ("Half-Life") "Advantageous," an expansion of her award-winning short of the same name (watch it here) starring James Urbaniak, Ken Jeong and Jennifer Ehle among others. Kris Swanberg (yes, Joe Swanberg’s wife) tackles motherhood with Cobie Smulders in “Unexpected,” Paul Weitz’s “Grandma” with Lily Tomlin and up-and-comer Julia Garner could be an inspired pairing, and "I’ll See You in My Dreams" starring Blythe Danner, Martin Starr and Sam Elliott sounds like it could be a strong humanist drama. Other notable films and filmmakers to keep an eye out for include Bruce McDonald’s midnight horror “Hellions,” “Zipper” starring Patrick Wilson and Lena Headey,
"Partisan" with Vincent Cassel, “Umrika” which features two legitimate breakouts in Suraj Sharma ("The Life of Pi," "Homeland") and Tony Revolori ("The Grand Budapest Hotel"), the NEXT section film “The Strongest Man” sounds enjoyably quirky, and Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter” about the Milgram psych experiments starring Peter Sarsgaard could be compelling too.
The documentary category has plenty of films to get excited about as usual. Top of mind is Amy Berg’s doc about Mormon life “Prophet’s Prey” (but don’t forget her sex abuse scandal doc either, it’s terrific and has no distribution), Alex Gibney’s Scientology doc "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" —the church has already tried to smear the film in advance— and the Ross brothers’ impressionistic doc “Western.” Also super intriguing is “Dreamcatcher,” about a former teenage prostitute turned community advocate, the doc “Tig” about comedian Tig Nataro who has dealt with mastectomy and cancer via some really bracing humor, the “Being Evel” doc about America’s most famous daredevil and showman, the Marlon Brando portrait “Listen to Me Marlon,” “Welcome To Leith,” the story of town versus a white supremacist, and “Chuck Norris vs Communism” about the female translator who brought western movies to Romania. “Drunk Stoned Brilliant” about the humor magazine National Lampoon is sure to be a riot, 3 ½ Minutes," by Marc Silver ("Who is Dayani Cristal") sounds tragic and compelling, Bobcat Goldthwait has moved into documentaries with “Call Me Lucky," the documentary about University rape “The Hunting Ground” from the director of “The Invisible War” and “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” also sounds must-see too.
In case you’re wondering where some films already critically acclaimed films are, well, we’ve already seen and have recommended “99 Homes,” “Eden,” “Wild Tales,” “It Follows,” “Girlhood,” “’71,” “The Tribe,” and “White God” and most of them are featured in our The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We’ve Already Seen feature that you should check out.