"Under the Shadow"
The alleged discovery title in this year’s Midnight section is an Iranian tale set in 1988, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War, and revolves around a mother and daughter who face off against supernatural forces in their apartment. Writer-director Babak Anvari makes his feature-length debut with this eerie instance of historical horror that has already garnered comparisons to "The Babadook," another tale of a child fending off evil that broke out thanks to Sundance’s midnight crowd. In a year when programmers are especially keen on attention being paid to the festival’s international selections, "Under the Shadow" may offer just enough bite to keep the foreign quotient in play at this year’s gathering. -Eric Kohn
One of Sundance 2014’s more enjoyable selections was "Life After Beth," a fine showcase for star Aubrey Plaza and a solid directorial debut from writer Jeff Baena. Whether or not it transcended its zombie comedy peers, it at least made sure you didn’t hear that Chuck Mangione song the same way ever again. This year, Baena is back with "Joshy," an ensemble comedy set at a weekend getaway, starring Thomas Middleditch as the title character, fresh off a difficult breakup. The list of performers dotting the rest of the cast include comedy MVPs (Adam Pally, Nick Kroll, Brett Gelman and Jenny Slate) and recent Sundance alumni (Alex Ross Perry and Joe Swanberg) alike. While the therapeutic friends retreat subgenre is well-worn territory, this crew seems like just the right collection of talent to spin the material into something special. -Steve Greene
"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 they 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 letting buzz work its magic, but Sundance director 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." An intriguing new work from little-known filmmakers that might divide audiences? Sounds like prime material for a great Sundance discovery. -E.K.
What’s the cinematic standard-bearer for trivia stories? "Starter for 10"? "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes"? Not exactly titanic footsteps to follow in, but one of the fun subplots of Sundance 2016 will be seeing if "Brahman Naman" has a shot at joining those ranks. Initially set in southern India, a trio of teenage boys, bent on placing first in a quiz competition and losing their virginity in the process, travel the multiple-day’s drive to Calcutta to achieve those twin goals in a single journey. Directed by the excellently monikered Indian director Q, "Naman" seems to have a raunchy streak to go along with its brainy premise. This has all the makings of a fascinating combination: a high-school sex comedy nested inside an underdog competition story, all playing out during a road movie across India. We’re in. -S.G.
Borderline Films member and Sundance mainstay Antonio Campos returns to the festival with his next directorial effort, "Christine," which stars Rebecca Hall as the mostly forgotten (and somewhat bafflingly so) Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news anchor who killed herself on live television in 1974. (Sound familiar? Yes, there’s also a documentary about this same story playing at the festival, thanks to Robert Greene’s "Kate Plays Christine," but both sound equally as essential.) The film will likely give the remarkably talented Hall something very meaty to bite into, and a supporting cast that includes Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia and Timothy Simons only recommends the feature further. Chubbuck’s story has long been something of a curiosity (that the event was recorded by Chubbuck’s station has also given it notoriety in circles intrigued by hard to find films, as distasteful as that may sound), but it’s about to get the attention (and hopefully, the respect) it deserves. -Kate Erbland
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. -K.E.
John Krasinki’s second directorial outing comes complete with a James C. Strouse-penned script that should tap into the deeper domestic sensitivities the filmmaker is so good at mining (last year’s "People Places Things" is a mostly unseen gem that deserves some big love). Krasinski also stars in the film as a man who has to return home to his small town after illness strikes his family, with his own problems in tow. The film features a strong supporting cast, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anna Kendrick, Charlie Day, Richard Jenkins and Margo Martingale, all of whom should be able to elevate what sounds like, at least on paper, a very standard Sundance drama. Strouse and Krasinski both know how to charm, so we’re looking forward to seeing them join forces. -K.E.
"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." – K.E.
There’s zero chance that Kelly Reichardt directing "intersecting tales of different women" could sound anything less than fascinating, but pairing that concept with a very strong cast — including her mainstay Michelle Williams and other outstanding actresses like Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern — means that "Certain Women" should be on the top of everyone’s must-see list at this year’s festival. Not much else is known about the film, but Reichardt excels at putting aching, real and achingly real life on to the big screen, and that’s more than enough to get us excited for her latest. -K.E.
If you’re looking for one reason (just one!) to get amped for Anne Fontaine’s latest, look no further than star Lou de Laâge. I’ll happily keep beating the drum on her work in Melanie Laurent’s "Breathe" (which also featured a stunning turn from Josephine Japy), but perhaps "Angus Dei" will do my work for me. De Laâge is a huge talent to watch, and the period-set WWII feature should give her ample room to break out. As a Red Cross worker, de Laâge’s Mathilde comes into unexpected contact with a group of nuns with a big secret and a huge need for whatever help she can offer. What happens next? Well, we’re going to have to wait until Sundance to find out, but with de Laâge leading the charge, it will likely to be packed with emotion and grace. -K.E.
Kirsten Johnson has spent 25 years as a documentary cinematographer; with this beguiling new project featured in Sundance’s New Frontier section, she turns those decades of experiences into a fresh treatise on creativity. The movie assembles a loose memoir out of footage ranging from "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" to "Citizenfour" to offer a unique meditation on the nature of seeing the world through the prism of her nimble lens. A collage-like diary film, "Cameraperson" promises to showcase a number of memorable non-fiction efforts from over the years while transforming their fragments into something far more personal than their filmmakers ever intended. Expect an illuminating cinematic remix. -E.K.
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," Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth told us last December, 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 Sundance director John 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." Instead, expect a gorgeous, haunting tone poem that’s uniquely of the moment. -E.K.
"Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World"
Werner Herzog has already proven that he can narrate pretty much anything—from amateur bear footage to bedtime stories—and transfix his audiences. Here, he sets his sights on the Internet, which he allegedly describes in the film as "one of the biggest revolutions we as humans are experiencing," but given this filmmaker’s tendency to focus on nature’s inherent chaos, don’t expect a celebratory portrait. Instead, "Low and Behold" is said to provide an overview of the web’s darker possibilities, from online harassment to addiction. These aren’t exactly new ideas, but Herzog’s narration always follows its own idiosyncratic patterns, which is reason enough to anticipate a peculiar journey into technology less focused on the modern world than creating something strange and new out of it. -E.K.
Todd Solondz’s awkward tales of social rejects first came to the forefront of American independent film with 1995’s unnerving "Welcome to the Dollhouse," and he’s played with similar tropes of suburban unrest ever since. "Wiener-Dog" resurrects that earlier movie’s beleaguered Dawn Wiener, previously portrayed by Heather Matarazzo and now embodied by Greta Gerwig in a surreal-sounding tale involving several people impacted by a dachshund. Solondz tends to describe his movies as "sad comedies," and at best they’re equally moving and strange. This one looks like another dose of the wonderfully odd formula he pioneered more than 20 years ago. Anyone with an affinity for Solondz’s offbeat universe should be excited to explore it once more. -E.K.