The Sundance Film Festival lineup always creates an explosion of speculation and anticipation in equal measures. By next week, we’ll have a better idea of the overall program, as the Premieres section will showcase a number of veterans returning the festival this year. But today’s announcement of the NEXT and competition lineups already provide a window into many intriguing possibilities.
Indiewire checked in with Sundance director John Cooper and programming director Trevor Groth for some tips on a few hidden gems from the selection so far (and did a little digging of our own). Stay tuned for more in the days and weeks to come.
"Swiss Army Man"
This U.S. competition entry stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in a drama featuring a man who finds a dead body in the wilderness and forms a strange bond with it. With name actors and the seemingly familiar formula of the survivalist drama, this one might sound familiar. But there’s more going on here. Writer-directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan make their feature-length debut here, but have steadily developed a following in the music video world for several years. Their 2010 video for The Hundred and The Hands infamously features vomiting fireworks and other disorienting developments in one girl’s depraved night; their short film, "Interesting Ball," focuses on the unlikely exploits of a bouncing red ball that spends the day at the beach.
In essence, they’ve already crafted a brand as unorthodox storytellers, and "Swiss Army Man" is poised to continue that trend. Sales agents are reportedly keeping the film on wraps while generating buzz, but Cooper described the filmmakers as "visionaries who take no prisoners," adding that "it’s a really wild film that I hope creates both confusion and excitement." —EK
Tim Sutton is the rare filmmaker to return to Sundance’s off-beat NEXT section, where he last screened his idiosyncratic portrait of a musician, "Memphis." His new movie is likely to generate more attention for its subject matter alone, as it examines the aftermath of a movie theater shooting inspired by the events at the screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Colorado. "It’s a sensitive subject matter people will have a challenging time with," Groth said, but noted that Sutton’s lyrical style means that "Dark Night" won’t be viewed as pure provocation. "He has a really fascinating approach to looking at the lives that were affected," he said. Expectations of something along the lines of Gus Van Sant’s "Elephant" are imminent, but Cooper went one step further in describing the new movie’s tone. "It takes you into a dream state," he said. "It’s not so hard-hitting that it will be controversial." —EK
"The Eyes of My Mother"
The Borderline Films collective has regularly left an impression at Sundance in recent years with "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Simon Killer" and "James White" all delivering memorably tense, focused character studies. The group’s biggest title at the festival this year comes from "Simon Killer" director Antonio Campos’ "Christine," but the Borderline trio of Campos, Josh Mond and Sean Durkin also helped to produce the NEXT entry "The Eyes of My Mother," from first-time director Nicolas Pesce. The director of several shorts and music videos, Pesce makes his feature debut here with the story of a young provincial girl who raises herself in complete isolation after family is taken from her. It’s just the kind of peculiar premise — with a cast of unknowns, no less — readymade to be a genuine Sundance discovery. —EK
Buried smack in the middle of the U.S. Documentary Competition, "Holy Hell" is intriguing not because of what its synopsis tells us (in short, it appears to be about a hidden long-time cult that eventually went wildly, wholly off the rails), but because of what it doesn’t, namely who directed the damn thing. Billed as coming from an "undisclosed" director, "Holy Hell" looks to take viewers deep inside a West Hollywood-based "spiritual community" that imploded two decades after its inception. The documentary promises to include a bevy of archival material from inside the group itself — again, thanks to said obscured director — and may even ramp up to the kind of stunning reveal that could rock Park City, Hollywood and beyond. —KE
Director Andrew Neel is a Sundance newbie, but his deranged found footage satire "King Kelly" was a hit at SXSW a few years back and his 2006 documentary on fantasy role playing "Darkon" was a cult sensation. "Goat" finds the filmmaker stepping up in scope with this fraternity-set drama — co-written by David Gordon Green and produced by James Franco — in which a 19-year-old college kid signs up for his brother’s frat only to face a harrowing hazing process. The movie stars pop sensation Nick Jonas, though Cooper said the singer comes into his own as an actor here. "It doesn’t shy away from its subject matter," Groth added. —EK
"Kate Plays Christine"
Sundance 2016 will play home to two films about the tragic life of television reporter Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself live on-air in 1974. The somewhat splashier of two very different films is Antonio Campos’ Rebecca Hall-starring "Christine," but that feature comes with a built-in companion on the documentary side of things, thanks to Robert Greene’s "Kate Plays Christine." Starring indie darling Kate Lyn Sheil as herself as she prepares to play Chubbuck on screen, the feature looks to again blur the lines between reality and performance, just as Greene did with his ambitious and well-regarded "Actress." —KE
Writer-director Matt Johnson’s "The Dirties" was a sleeper hit in 2013, when it won the Slamdance Film Festival and wound up getting released by Kevin Smith. The movie was a clever riff on found footage, as it envisioned the tale of a would-be high school shooter though the lens of his own filmmaking project. Johnson graduates to the Sundance lineup with his NEXT entry "Operation Avalanche," which sounds like another unique attempt to provide fresh context for real world events — in this case, the moon landing. More specifically, the movie revolves around CIA agents pretending to be documentarians as they infiltrate NASA in the late sixties and uncover a conspiracy. "It’s a really smart, clever look at what could’ve happened there," Groth said. Considering the way "The Dirties" played with heavy material with unexpected tonal sophistication that included disarming comedic moments, this new bizarre effort is certainly worthy of anticipation. —EK
Don’t Miss the International Stuff
As the highest profile American film festival, Sundance is obviously best-known for celebrating U.S. cinema. But it has included international competition sections for over a decade, and this year, the programmers are especially excited by the diversity in the world dramatic competition. "There are some years where the section is a lot of heavy dramas because that’s just what’s submitted to us," said Groth. "This year, we’ve got comedies, cult-y horror films, and a really wide range of other stuff that I think will connect." As examples, Groth cited the Indian sex comedy "Brahman Naman" (about a bunch of Bangalore University students trying to lose their virginity) and a "Polish vampire-mermaid-love story" called "The Lure." Cooper also plugged another sex comedy — this one from Lebanon — called "Halal Love (and Sex)." In other words, it should be a worldly affair in more ways than one. —EK
For her feature debut, award-winning shorts filmmaker (and current "Orange is the New Black" writer) Sian Heder is adapting her own work — her 2006 Cannes-nominated short "Mother" — into a longer narrative, starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney. Based on her own experiences working as a babysitter in a posh Beverly Hills hotel, "Tallulah" looks to explore questions of motherhood, femininity, possession and obsession with a fresh approach. Reuniting Page and Janney is just icing on the cake. —KE