Editor's note: Sundance Curiosities is a new feature that will run each week between now and the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival and analyze five aspects of the upcoming program. For more details on the latest Sundance announcements, go here.
The NEXT <=> Enigma
Four years ago, Sundance created a curious sidebar called "NEXT <=>" populated by low-budget movies from emerging talent. It was a noble attempt to elevate the profile of films that might otherwise have a hard time gaining festival buzz, but I was among those who expressed skepticism about the prospects of ghettoizing audacious cinema in a predetermined section rather than finding ways to embed those movies in other areas of the festival. Today, the sidebar still lacks a cogent identity, but it has showcased a number of movies that have garnered significant attention at the festival and beyond, such as last year's "Compliance" and "Sleepwalk With Me."
But what qualifies a movie for NEXT? It's certainly not a place exclusive to first-timers, as several notable selections from this year's lineup make clear. Andrew Bujalski, the first director to use the term "mumblecore" publicly -- in this outlet, no less -- recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of his perceptive debut, "Funny Ha Ha," and he has completed the equally witty and observational character studies "Mutual Appreciation" and "Beeswax" since then. His fourth feature, "Computer Chess," is billed as "an existential comedy about the brilliant men who taught machines to play chess," and counts film critic Gerald Peary among the members of its cast. Sundance's director of programming, Trevor Groth, tells me that this peculiar-sounding period drama is unlike anything we've seen from Bujalski before, which suggests that NEXT is a place for showcasing innovative filmmaking that exists outside of traditional narrative approaches. But the real experimentation, of course, belongs in Sundance's New Frontiers section, which we'll announce here tomorrow.
Instead, NEXT strikes me as a place for the strain of predominantly American cinema that is made outside the network of high-profile, star-driven productions that have deepened the Sundance brand, where budgets tend to balloon and distributors dig for potential crossover hits. Another NEXT entry, Matthew Porterfield's "I Used to Be Darker," tracks the struggles of a family in Baltimore coping with interpersonal troubles, a description that calls to mind Porterfield's thoughtful 2010 sophomore effort, "Putty Hill." Like Bujalski's earlier features, "Putty Hill" gained serious traction after it screened at the SXSW Film Festival, a venue for plenty of acclaimed microbudget American cinema that -- until NEXT came along -- rarely made the Sundance cut.
Perhaps Sundance should retitle this sidebar South by South-NEXT.
The Weird Factor
If you can look past the celebrity names that crop up in countless casts, Sundance is a haven for plenty of intriguing and potentially offbeat narrative possibilities. Putting last year's "The Comedy" in the U.S. dramatic competition was a bold move for Sundance programmers; this year, "Primer" director Shane Carruth's long-awaited and incredibly cryptic sophomore feature "Upstream Color" might take that slot. The movie, which co-stars Carruth and Amy Seimetz, revolves around "a man and a woman… entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism." Whether Carruth has made a cosmic statement along the lines of "The Tree of Life" or "The Fountain" remains to be seen. However, one of the pleasures of "Primer" involved the director's capacity for turning a familiar sci-fi concept into something tangible and engaging to the point where you could actually believe it. He's certainly got the ability to infuse the same genre with the emotional turmoil of a troubled relationship, and according to Groth it has serious potential to provoke strong reactions. "I'm looking forward to talking to people about it," he said, and even though I haven't seen "Upstream Color" yet, I can relate.
While the pressure's on for Carruth, returning with his first movie in eight years, "Upstream Color" is far from the only truly irreverent choice in this year's program. In the NEXT <=> section, writer-director Randy Moore's "Escape From Tomorrow" has one of the best plot synopses I've ever read: "In a world of fake castles and anthropomorphic rodents, an epic battle begins when an unemployed father's sanity is challenged by a chance encounter with two underage girls on holiday."
Sold… for now.
Last January, I suggested that the real Sundance breakout stories aren't the ones involving movies that generate universal praise, but rather those that lead to lively reactions from supporters and naysayers alike. In addition to "The Comedy," last year's button-pushers included "Simon Killer" and "Compliance," but nobody knew early on that any of these films would provoke the way they did. It's too early to say what could fill these slots this year, but let's start with "Blue Caprice," a NEXT <=> film that centers on the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks that, according to Groth, "doesn't unveil the snipers in a formulaic way." Back in the dramatic competition, writer-director Stacie Passon's "Concussion," about a woman who rejects her blue-collar domestic life after a bump to the head, apparently features the sort of transgressive sexual politics that American independent cinema has engaged with increased frequency in recent years.
The Hot-Topic Docs
Sundance's documentary categories -- U.S., World and Premieres -- generally contain a number of would-be Oscar-nominees as well as countless other non-fiction entries bound to stick around in the national dialogue for the rest of the year and beyond. Since these are movies produced in 2012 and premiering at the first big festival of the year, many of them are extremely timely and poised to carry activist intentions. "Blackfish," for one, involves the unsettling tale of killer whale Tilikum, a Sea World captive responsible for three human deaths. The movie's negative take on killer-whale captivity might make it this year's "The Cove." Above water, it comes as no surprise that Occupy Wall Street has a presence in the festival with "99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film." With a title like that, you pretty much know what to expect, but the question is whether old, familiar footage of the Occupy movement can still have a serious impact. Sundance definitely has the power to provide a platform for issues of the moment. Along similar lines on the international front, Jehane Noujaim ("Control Room") brings a close-up look at the Egyptian uprising, from the initial riots at Tahrir Square to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, in her new doc "The Square."
Sundance makes no secret about its desire to keep certain filmmakers in its family, bringing them back to the festival year after year after playing a role in establishing their careers. It seemed like just yesterday that Lynn Shelton graduated to Sundance with her third feature, "Humpday," a breakout comedy that announced the arrival of a first-rate director with a knack for naturalism. One year after "Your Sister's Sister" hit Park City, Shelton's Seattle-based "Touchy Feely" will premiere in competition with her most robust cast yet. Featuring Rosemarie DeWitt, Allison Janney, Ellen Page and Scoot McNairy (among others), "Touchy Feely" revolves around a massage therapist suddenly afraid to touch people. A master of awkward interactions, Shelton appears to have expanded her scope, but her focus on the nuances of behavior means this description alone is a reason to get pumped.
On totally different terrain, another filmmaker making great strides forward recently came to Sundance with a short film, but he has now made a competition film with the kind of advanced cast few directors at any stage of their careers can land. David Lowery, whose short film starring Will Oldham, "Pioneer," came to Sundance in 2011, arrives at the festival this year with the feature "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." The movie, which co-stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, revolves around a Texan prison escapee meeting up with his wife and the daughter born while he was away. If Lowery's disquieting post-apocalyptic feature "St. Nick" is any indication, expect a visually mesmerizing and likely ominous drama that treats the American landscape as a haven for cinematic poetry.
Fingers crossed, of course.