The end of the year is often seen as a time when awards season gains momentum and critics produce their top 10 lists, but for much of the film industry, it’s also the first big preview of 2018 movies. Thanks to the Sundance Film Festival lineup, which in January will include 110 movies from 29 countries, a fresh crop of films to talk about have just been announced, many of which are certain to continue generating conversations throughout the year.
However, the Sundance program takes its time to gather buzz, and it’s not always obvious which movies deserve the most attention right off the bat. So here’s our annual attempt to take a first crack at some of the surprises and hidden gems in the lineup, with some input from Sundance director John Cooper and director of programming Trevor Groth. We’re as excited as anyone to see Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife” (co-written by Zoe Kazan, starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal), not to mention the latest from Gus Van Sant (“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot”), but so’s everyone else; the Sundance lineup goes a lot deeper than the most obvious highlights.
Here are a few that don’t stand out quite as much — but, according to our sources, deserve just as much hype. Expect to hear a lot more about these movies in the very near future. For more on potential sales activity and broader trends at this year’s festival, check out our breakdown here.
From Wacky to Wacky and Great
In addition to featuring universal crowdpleasers, Sundance also tends to launch weird, off-kilter and often boundary-pushing filmmaking more likely to find a cult following than mainstream success. That was the case with “The Greasy Strangler,” Jim Hosking’s grotesque 2016 midnight entry that baffled many audiences even as it won over people looking for a truly wacky charge. Hosking has now made his way to a somewhat larger arena with his NEXT entry “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn,” the peculiar story of a marriage-gone-wrong and a “magical” performance that dredges up past baggage. The movie, which co-stars Aubrey Plaza, Craig Robinson, Emile Hirsch, Jemaine Clement, and Maria Bamford, is supposedly a more accessible variation on Hosking’s previous work. Groth called it “a bizarro comedy, but not in a gross-out way — he’s still wacky, but it’s a little more fun…it takes his sensibility and injects it with a lot of heart.”
As far as the midnight section is concerned: Cooper said he was especially excited about “Assassination Nation,” Sam Levinson’s “one-thousand-percent-true” story about the town of Salem losing its mind. “It’s so big and crazy and fun,” Cooper said. “It hits everything in a big way.” But also look out for “Mandy,” Panos Cosmos’ long-awaited followup to the psychedelic “Beyond the Black Rainbow.” His latest zany thriller stars Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough in an early eighties setting as a happy couple find itself under assault by a deranged cult leader. Expect something bizarre, shocking, and utterly memorable.
Ditto for the Zellner brothers’ “Damsel,” which co-stars Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowski in a slapstick western sure to keep the “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” directors in the spotlight as some of the most innovative American directors working today.
Diversity Will Dominate
Sundance has long been seen as a focal point for alternatives to Hollywood and a platform for marginalized perspectives. As the film industry faces increased pressure to diversify its storytelling, the festival often provides the first glimpses of that impulse at the start of the year. Last year, Sundance breakouts (and eventual box office hits) “Get Out” and “The Big Sick” provided the most prominent examples of American movies with people of color finding success with a wide audience. This time around, several promising selections are poised to fulfill that need.
One of the most enticing of them is “Blindspotting.” The directorial debut of music video director Carlos Lopez Estrada stars “Hamilton” Tony winner Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Diggs and Casal also co-wrote the screenplay, which is inspired by their experiences as movers, growing up in Oakland against the backdrop of rampant gentrification. Expect this passion project to go over big as a crowdpleaser sure to boost the profiles of everyone involved. According to one insider who got an early look, “it’s why people go to Sundance.”
On the more idiosyncratic side, Boots Riley’s satire “Sorry to Bother You” may hit the sweet spot of racially-charged satire that “Dear White People” nailed at Sundance a few years back. Riley is best known as a rapper, whose politically-tinged work has made him one of the most engaging, iconoclastic musicians of the last 25 years. But he has long maintained a connection to the movie world, and his long-gestating directorial debut holds a ton of promise: The ensemble cast includes Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, and Lakeith Stanfield in the story of a black telemarketer who finds success in his job by adopting the cadences of a white actor.
Entering the festival with a lower profile but likely to find plenty of admirers, “Monsters and Men” marks Sundance short film alumnus Reinaldo Green in competition with his feature-length debut. The movie stars Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (the discovery of “It Comes at Night”) and deals with the aftermath of police killing an unarmed black man, told through the eyes of a bystander who filmed the act. The movie is said to display a directorial confidence from Green that will launch his career at the festival in a big way. According to Groth, “while it has no known actors, it’s really sharp, insightful storytelling.”
Josephine Decker Comes to Sundance
It’s always exciting when a filmmaker who has generated acclaim on the festival circuit finally lands at Sundance, whether it’s Sean Baker with “Tangerine” or Andrew Bujalski with “Computer Chess.” This year, one of the notable directors making her Sundance debut is Josephine Decker, the experimental filmmaker whose intense psycho-sexual thriller 2013 “Butter on the Latch” was a sleeper hit on the circuit. Now she’s in NEXT with a somewhat more traditional movie, “Madeline’s Madeline,” a reportedly hypnotic drama about a young woman keen on landing the lead role in a rather unorthodox theater piece. The cast includes Miranda July and Molly Parker, but the titular star is New Jersey native Helena Howard, who may be a genuine Sundance discovery. “It’s a concentrated storyline and she really pulls it off,” Groth said of Decker’s direction. “It looks different from her other films but her authorial voice comes through as well.”
Each year brings a range of documentaries tackling famous subjects, often with mixed results. But sometimes, the filmmaking brings a fresh perspective on a popular face. That seems to be the case with “MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.,” Stephen Loveridge’s look at the Sri Lankan musician that one source unassociated with the project called “authentic, unfiltered, and kind of inspiring.” The movie includes home video footage and other personal background information about M.I.A.’s evolution that may bring a whole new context to her career — think “Amy” without the tragic finale.
NEXT Goes Non-Fiction
Ever since it launched seven years ago, Sundance’s NEXT section has always provided an exciting alternative to the more conventional narratives found in competition, with movies ranging from “Escape from Tomorrow” to “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” generating attention for the lineup. It’s usually where one looks for some of the most exciting cinematic experiences at Sundance, but to date, has woefully neglected the non-fiction form. At long last, that’s changing, with “306 Hollywood.” Described as a “magical realist documentary,” the movie revolves around a pair of siblings digging through their late grandmother’s house and making a range of discoveries; it’s exactly the sort of unclassifiable journey that NEXT excels at singling out.
Weird But True
The Sundance documentary competition has shown an increased openness to non-traditional documentary formats in recent years, most notably when it screened Robert Greene’s hybrid project “Kate Plays Christine,” the very first Sundance documentary to win a screenplay prize from the festival. Now, the versatile Greene is back with “Bisbee ’17,” the portrait of a mining town on the Arizona-Mexico border recalling tales of 1,200 miners deported 100 years ago. Greene uses reenactments and employs locals to star in this boundary-pushing look at immigration history that couldn’t be more relevant now.
But the most topical documentary is likely to land on the first day of the festival, with “Our New President.” Maxim Pozdorovkin’s look at the U.S. election exclusively told through Russian propaganda. Other hot-button issue docs include “Crime and Punishment,” which deals with corruption in the NYPD, and “The Devil You Know,” a look at child sexual abuse.
Solitary Survival Tales
Some of the most exciting movies at Sundance are the ones that don’t require a big scope to leave a mark. This year, there are several minimalist narratives that are likely to do just that. In the World Dramatic Competition, Danish production “The Guilty” revolves around a single character who works at a police station, and takes place almost exclusively within the confines of a single room, with the lead character on the phone speaking to a kidnapped woman.
There’s also Debra Granik’s long-awaited follow-up to Sundance breakout “Winter’s Bone,” an untitled adaptation of Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment” with Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie as a father and daughter pair living on the outskirts of civilization in Oregon and dealing with the fallout of being discovered. (Think “Captain Fantastic” with a thriller twist.) And Reed Morano, currently the toast of the town with her Emmy win for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” makes her Sundance debut with “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which explores the experiences of an isolated man (Peter Dinklage) coping with his solitude and finding unexpected company.
A Boost For Brazil
Sundance has been mainly known for American movies, but the festival continues to invest in new ways of bringing quality into its international competitions. This year, one of the more notable aspects of that programming is the presence of two features from Brazil. “We’ve seen a lot of quality films coming out of there recently,” Groth said. That led them to both “Rust” (“a personal family story about a matriarch and the way she deals with her crazy family”) and “Loveling” (“contemporary issues of teenagers leading their lives online and the sometimes devastating impact”). These may not be the first movies on most hungry buyers’ lists, but they could be significant discoveries at this year’s festival if they generate enough word of mouth — especially “Loveling,” which landed the coveted “Day One” slot for its section.