2016 is nearly over and most people can’t wait to reach the finish line, so the Sundance Film Festival lineup couldn’t arrive at a better moment to give us something to anticipate for the new year.
With the announcement of the U.S. and World Competition sections as well as the ever-tantalizing NEXT category of edgier fare, the first set of Sundance announcements kick off a wave of expectations from new talent and veterans alike. There will be much to dig through, from potential sales titles to breakthrough talent, and more announcements to come (the midnight section, short films, and forward-thinking New Frontiers section are all around the corner). In the meantime, we’ve dug through the initial Sundance blast to unearth a few standouts worthy of anticipation.
David Lowery’s Secret Movie Isn’t a Secret Anymore
For months now, there have been rumors and semi-confirmations about a secret project directed by David Lowery, a Sundance favorite whose short film “Pioneer” screened at the festival before he made his competition debut with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” Though Lowery headed to the studio arena this past year with “Pete’s Dragon,” he also found time to squeeze in a smaller, stranger project that reunited him with “Saints” stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.
“A Ghost Story,” shot in Lowery’s native Dallas last summer, founds Lowery heading to the NEXT category — a designation that some filmmakers may shun as a lower-profile sidebar, even as it has become the most exciting arena for discovery in the lineup. And “A Ghost Story” certainly does have an intriguing premise: Affleck reportedly shows very little of his face in the film, spending much of the running time draped in a sheet as he haunts a house filled with residents that include Mara and Will Oldham, who last worked with Lowery on “Pioneer.” The odd magical realism of the premise and the cast suggest a merging of Lowery’s quixotic earlier efforts with the resources he has gained in recent years.
Lowery’s been busy lately. In addition to working on a “Peter Pan” adaptation for Disney, he also wrote the screenplay for “The Yellow Birds,” a Sundance competition entry from Alexandre Moore (who last came to Sundance in the NEXT section with his eerie sniper tale “Blue Caprice”). The Gulf War-set “Yellow Birds” follows a fear-stricken soldier and features a tantalizing cast that includes Tye Sheridan, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Patric, Toni Collette and Jennifer Aniston. This is something of a pattern for Lowery, who co-wrote Yen Tan’s “Pit Stop” the same year he came to Sundance with “Saints.” In short, it’s yet another chapter in a career that’s quickly becoming one of the most exciting to watch in modern American cinema. —Eric Kohn
Syria Reveals Itself
The civil war in Syria has dominated headlines for years now, but few filmmakers have managed to venture into the wreckage since 2013’s acclaimed “Return to Homs.” That’s starting to change, and this year’s Sundance lineup will show some of the results. With “Last Men in Aleppo,” premiering in World Cinema Documentary competition, Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen follow some of the leading members of the bomb-relief group The White Helmets (recently profiled in a Netflix short film) as they deal with a heavily bombarded city running out of resources and times. Complicating that perception, Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts” follows a group of citizen journalists who worked together in the wake of Raqqa being overtaken by ISIS. Heineman last found his way through a gripping portrait of social unrest with the drug war exposé “Cartel Land,” an Oscar nominee that started its journey at Sundance as well. “Cartel Land” proved the filmmaker was willing to put his life at risk to capture astonishing footage of troubled times, and “City of Ghosts” suggests another bracing look at defiance amid corruption and persecution. According to Cooper, “the footage is really going to affect people in these films.” —EK
Bring on the Strange and New in NEXT
Most of the movies that generate buzz at Sundance are crowdpleasers with good marketplace potential. But that’s never the whole story. The festival’s programmers take risks as well, and don’t shy away from wacky and diverse material. Look to the midnight section announcement for most of the possibilities on that front, but it’s not alone. There’s definite promise among the newcomers in NEXT year. such as director Michelle Morgan, whose “L.A. Times” brings together a wide-range of promising actors — from Dree Hemingway to Jorma Taccone to Kentucker Audley — together for an eccentric ensemble piece about soul-searching Angelenos.
Hailing from the other side of the country, Joshua Z. Weinstein’s “Menashe” (produced by Sundance regular Alex Lipschultz) takes place in the midst of an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, unfolds exclusively in Yiddish (with English subtitles) and features a cast exclusively compromised of real Hasidic Jews. The film promises a compelling snapshot of a community widely misunderstood and underrepresented in popular culture.
But the most intriguing NEXT newcomer may be writer-director Janicza Bravo, who has steadily been making her way into the festival scene with a series of dark and engaging shorts (“Gregory Go Boom,” “Man Rots From the Head”); earlier this year, she made her television debut directing an episode of “Atlanta.” Now she’s entering the feature-length arena with “Lemon,” a peculiar-sounding character study produced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films. The premise is listed as the story of a man (Brett Gelman) struggling from a breakup with his blind girlfriend, but the cast suggests so much more than that. Gelman’s joined by a cast of promising comedy figures including Michael Cera, Judy Greer, Fred Melamed, Jeff Garlin, Martin Starr and Rhea Perlman. “Boy, is this an unusual film, and I love it for that,” Groth said. “It’s smart and engaging — confrontational, but not challenging to watch.” —EK
Anton Yelchin’s Finale
When Anton Yelchin tragically passed away earlier this year, he had already wrapped a few unreleased projects, from the latest “Star Trek” movie to the romance “Porto.” Now, Yelchin’s all-too-brief filmography finishes up with NEXT entry “Thoroughbred,” the filmmaking debut from playwright Cory Finley, although he’s not the lead. The film focuses on two teenage girls in suburban Connecticut who attempt to solve a breach in their friendship by solving a murder together. With a cast that includes Olivia Cooke and “The Witch” breakout Anya Taylor-Joy, this one looks to be a genuine actors’ showcase. —EK
A Festival Regular Gets a Boost
Dustin Guy Defa has steadily found his footing in the American film scene with a number of idiosyncratic comedic shorts, including “Lydia Hoffman, Lydia Hoffman” and “Person to Person,” which now provides the template for his feature-length debut. (The lanky Defa also frequently surfaces as an actor in films ranging from “Summer of Blood” to “Swim Little Fish Swim.”) Defa’s films are always surprising for the way they shift tones with ease. All of that makes “Person to Person,” which co-stars Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson, worth checking out. The film focuses on an obsessive record collector, his love-stricken roommate, and a bizarre murder mystery — exactly the kind of unpredictable hodgepodge that makes Defa such an alluring storyteller. —EK
Macon Moves Up
If you love Jeremy Saulnier movies like “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” then you already love Macon Blair, the filmmaker’s longtime muse and occasional leading man. Both raised in Virginia, the duo met in grade school, bonded over “Aliens,” and have been making wonderfully gory movies together ever since. The roles have a way of blending together when you’re working in a partnership that close, so maybe it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Blair has taken a seat in the director’s chair, or that his debut sounds like a glorious continuation of the artfully brutal genre fare that he and his best friend have been churning out for years.
Boasting one of the best titles of any Sundance premiere and starring a rock-solid cast of stalwarts like Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” tells the story of a depressed woman who loses some valuable things during a home robbery, but finds new meaning in her life when she decides to hunt down the fiends who stole from her. If Blair is half as good behind the camera as he is in front of it, this should be a major festival highlight. —DE
NEXT Graduates Head to Competition
While the NEXT section doesn’t have strict limitations, it often provides a starting point for filmmakers to crack the festival’s ever-expanding family. That certainly seems to be the case this year, with several filmmakers who played NEXT in recent years landing coveted U.S. competition slots. Among them: Alex Ross Perry, whose smarmy comedy “Listen Up Philip” was a hit at the festival. After taking a year off with the haunting “Queen of Earth,” the director’s loquacious style is set to continue with “Golden Exits,” a tale of two Brooklyn families and a young foreigner who complicates their lives. The cast, which includes “Philip” star Jason Schwartzman alongside Chloe Sevigny, Emily Browning, Mary-Louise Parker and Lily Rabe, suggests more hungry vessels for Perry’s acerbic storytelling.
Then there’s Eliza Hittman, whose NEXT premiere “It Felt Like Love” was the unsettling story of a young girl discovering her sexuality. That’s looking like a pattern for Hittman, who heads to U.S. competition with “Beach Rats,” the story of a Brooklyn teen questioning his sexual identity and dealing with various troublemakers in his social circle. Hittman is well-positioned to keep the tradition of gritty New York stories alive, but she’s not alone. Michael Larnell came to NEXT with the Spike Lee-produced “Cronies” in 2015, and now he’s back “Roxanne Roxanne,” an eighties-set tale of a battle emcee in the Queenbridge projects about the rise of a hip hop star named Roxanne Shanté (potential breakout Chanté Adams). The film, which also features “Moonlight” star Mahershala Ali, looks poised to be a serious crowdpleaser with great music to boot. —EK
Video Essayist Makes Good
At a time when video essays are a dime a dozen, most of them cobbled together as content with a bare minimum of thought, it can be easy to forget that the form has seen its fair share of grace. No one has done more to illustrate the medium’s potential for artistry than ::kogonada, whose elegant, insightful pieces on micro-subjects like Robert Bresson’s use of hands and Stanley Kubrick’s fondness for the one-point perspective have earned him serious street cred and prestigious commissions from “Sight & Sound” and the Criterion Collection.
With “Columbus,” the mysterious filmmaker’s surprisingly star-studded feature debut, ::kogonada won’t just be making a real name for himself, he’ll also be shattering the glass ceiling for video essayists everywhere, and hopefully inspiring them to aim higher in their own work. Details are still vague, but the synopsis — which wraps John Cho, Parker Posey, and Rory Culkin into a story about death and architecture in a Midwestern town — sounds like a natural extension of his previous work. And about that pseudonym? He just likes to let the work speak for itself. At Sundance, it’ll speak louder than ever. —DE
Bring On the Big Issues
As usual, much of Sundance’s non-fiction components are poised to tackle big issues. Two entries are already gathering significant buzz. “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” follows Hong Kong teen Joshua Wong as he launches a young protest movement against the country’s Communist powers. Director Joe Piscatella last focused on young revolutionaries with “#chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator,” which dealt with efforts to help protestors in Syria. His latest effort looks to be another galvanizing look at 21st century activism.
On the bleaker side, Pete Nicks’ “The Force” delves into efforts by the Oakland Police Department to capture its efforts at improving protocol. Shot over the course of several years, the film provides an intimate snapshot of reverberations from paradigm-shifting events such as the Ferguson aftermath. The film uses a cinema verite approach that viewers may find shockingly revealing, as its narrative reportedly includes a closeup look at a scandal that threatens the future of the police department. This is one topical effort bound to get viewers talking beyond the insular festival scene. —EK
Gay Stories Go Global
Sundance has always been a hospitable environment for LGBTQ films, but this year, that focus goes global. Gay stories can be found throughout the international selections in this year’s festival, providing a much broader window into international struggles. These entries include “The Wound,” from South Africa, which revolves around a factory worker whose sexuality is discovered by a younger member of their rural community. There’s also “God’s Own Country,” writer-director Francis Lee’s look about the relationship between a sheep farmer and a Romanian migrant worker in rural England. “I Dream in Another Language” follows the efforts of a young linguist to unearth a dying language in a remote area of Mexico, where he encounter a tale of forbidden love. (And there are more films that fall into this category yet to be announced.) As awareness of the challenges facing gay communities across the world has risen, these stories couldn’t come soon enough. —EK