By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 4, 2013 at 4:00PM
Today's announcements of the main Sundance competition sections, along with its ever-intriguing NEXT <=> sidebar, kick off a hyperactive process of speculative hype that culminates next month in Park City. The festival has yet to reveal the full lineup, as the premieres and midnight sections will be unveiled in the coming days, but already a hefty chunk of the program has provided plenty of material to sift through. Having received over 12,000 submissions, the festival's final selection of 117 features leaves a lot to scrutinize. Here's an overview of some of the notable inclusions from the festival's upcoming 30th edition with some input from its top programmers.
2014 Competition Lineup:
Genre Conquers All
While the midnight section has yet to be announced, there are plenty of genre offerings throughout the lineup. In "Life After Beth," the directorial debut of "I Heart Huckabees" co-writer Jeff Baena, Aubrey Plaza (Baena's real life girlfriend) stars as a woman who returns to her boyfriend (Dane DeHaan) after her untimely death, leading to a series of conundrums involving the couple's future. "Jamie Marks is Dead," from "The Ruins" director Carter Smith, also revolves around a ghost -- in this case, played by Noah Silver -- who forms a relationship with old classmate. "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," in the NEXT section, takes place in a sleepy Iranian town assailed by a vampire. In the U.S. competition, Jim Mickle (whose cannibal remake "We Are What We Are" was hit in last year's midnight section) brings the high profile crime noir "Cold in July," about a man dealing with the fallout of his encounter with a burglar. Also in competition, first-timer Mona Fastvold's "The Sleepwalker" (co-written by "Simon Killer" star Brady Corbet) involves a quartet of characters in a remote family estate. None of these entries suggest especially traditional uses of genre ingredients. "Classic storylines are being enhanced by genre to make stories more fresh and interesting," said Sundance director John Cooper earlier this week. Director of programming Trevor Groth added that "indie filmmakers are using more genre elements and finding new ways to tell personal stories."
Here Come the First-Timers
Sundance has long prided itself on its potential to discover new talent, but the opportunity looks especially significant this time around: With 54 first-time filmmakers and 10 in the U.S. competition alone, the program is riddled with new names. But that doesn't mean they're all coming out of nowhere: "Mad Men" star John Slattery will debut his first directing effort "God's Pocket," about the attempts of a man to cover a murder, with a cast that includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Richard Jenkins. Peter Sattler, whose previous credits include graphic design work on "Star Trek," brings "Camp X-Ray," a Guantanamo Bay-set story with a cast that includes Kristen Stewart. Among the movies shepherded along by the Sundance Institute's labs, one of the prominent ones is "Fishing Without Nets," Cutter Hodierne's tale of Somali pirates (based on an earlier short) that's bound to invite comparisons to "Captain Phillips" -- even though it has an all-Somali cast and assumes their perspective rather than the one of their victims. If nothing else, the "Captain Phillips" connection might help "Fishing Without Nets" gain exposure, which is ideal for any movie at the start of a festival. But some of these first-timers started a lot earlier than that: Justin Simien's "Dear White People," a satire about four black students at an Ivy League school, won Indiewire's Project of the Year back in March.
Upgrades For Swanberg And Zellner
In addition to Mickle and Slattery, two other directors who stand out in the U.S. competition are Joe Swanberg and David Zellner, Sundance veterans who have been producing work for quite some time but are making their first appearances the festival's most prominent section. Swanberg, who first shifted from micro-budget character pieces with last year's Olivia Wilde-Anna Kendrick vehicle "Drinking Buddies," re-teams with Kendrick alongside Lena Dunham, Melanie Lynskey and Mark Webber for "Happy Christmas," a contained tale about a woman crashing at her married older brother's apartment. Zellner, who with his brother Nathan has developed a cult following out of their home base in Austin with weirdly compelling movies like "Kid-Thing" and "Goliath," will premiere "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" in competition -- the story of a Japanese woman who watches "Fargo," thinks the buried treasure is real and travels to Minnesota to find it. Neither Swanberg nor the Zellners tend to work in particularly conventional ways: Swanberg uses heavy improvisation in every scene he shoots, and at their best the Zellners are masterful surrealists, so these two selections are worthy of serious anticipation.
NEXT <=> Continues to Be the Most Promising Section
When Sundance first launched the NEXT <=> section, it wasn't just the strange spelling that threw people off. Why should an indie-focused festival include a special place for low budget indies? But over time, the section became much more than that. After last year's terrific selection, it became clear that NEXT <=> was predominantly a place for surprising and ambitious storytelling that -- while not exactly avant-garde (leave that to the New Frontiers section) -- usually presents stories that go off the beaten path. (The popularity of the section led the festival to launch the similarly-themed NEXT WEEKEND festival this past August.) This year looks especially heavy with possibilities: Desiree Akhavan's "Appropriate Behavior" revolves around a bisexual Persian woman struggling through various lifestyle challenges in Brooklyn. Cooper praised Akhavan, who also stars in the film, for her witty storytelling, comparing her abilities to the directorial debut of actress Lake Bell, "In a World...," which premiered at the festival last year. But NEXT <=> isn't all about newcomers. Alex Ross Perry, whose "The Color Wheel" was a sleeper hit on the festival circuit two years back, steps up to bigger production heights with "Listen Up Philip," the story of a neurotic young New York writer co-starring Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss. Also familiar to those following festival buzz: Aaron Katz, whose lyrical character studies include "Cold Weather" and "Quiet City," co-directs the Icelandic road trip comedy "Land Ho!" with "Pilgrim Song" director Martha Stephens. Then there's Michael Tully, the proprietor of indie film site Hammer to Nail and director of the batty "Septien" that played the midnight section a few years back, with the Susan Sarandon vehicle "Ping Pong Summer." Set in Maryland in 1985 and intent on recreating the era, the movie features one of the more enticing synopses of the program so far: "You know deep down you're as funky fresh as it gets." That might as well be the NEXT section's mantra.
And the "Searching for Sugar Man" Slot Goes To…
Two years ago, "Searching for Sugar Man" screened out of the documentary competition on opening night and went on to win an Oscar. Now it looks like another non-fiction movie with a uniquely mysterious hook is set to generate a lot of chatter at the start of the festival: Todd Miller's "Dinosaur 13" tracks the fallout of the 1990 discovery of the world's most complete Tyrannosauras skeleton, in which a network of interests ranging from government powers to Native American tribes swarmed in to claim ownership of the discovery. "It plays like a thriller," Groth said. "The less you know about it, the better." Cooper called it "an epic tale" and added that it's "a fascinating story of the science world."