By Indiewire | Indiewire January 14, 2014 at 10:16AM
Over 120 feature-length films will screen over the course of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, which launches this Thursday and runs until January 26. Before flying out to Park City to present our annual coverage of the event, Indiewire has weeded through the massive lineup to pick the 14 features we're most excited to see. Below are our selections in alphabetical order.
Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy has enthralled audiences for almost two decades, but it's not the only time-based narrative that the ambitious filmmaker has been guiding along. For years known only as "Linklater's 12 Year Project," the latest addition to the Sundance lineup, "Boyhood," is said to have begun production in Houston in the summer of 2002 and reportedly completed shooting in late 2013. The central drama involves a divorced couple (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) and their impact on their son (Ellar Salmon) as he grows from childhood to his teen years. The experimental production has largely been shrouded in secrecy as Linklater has returned to it each summer, but one can imagine based on the director's recent work that a thoughtful and tremulously innovative analysis of human development is in store.
"Dear White People"
We've got a special interest in "Dear White People," which was Indiewire and Tribeca Film Institute's first-ever Project of the Year. First-time writer/director Justin Simien's semi-autobiographical film centers on four black students at an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over an "African American" themed party thrown by white students. We're hoping for a smart satire that explores racial identity. Although he's likely to be compared to another African-American Sundance-approved filmmaker, Simien told Indiewire, "I'm not the next Spike Lee. I'm the first me."
This opening night selection for the Sundance Film Festival contains the irresistible qualities of being a non-fiction thriller about dinosaurs. More specifically, Todd Miller’s look at the 1990 discovery of the world’s most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton suggests an element of intrigue that could be applied to all history no matter how distant. In the aftermath of the excavation, the skeleton becomes the center of a battle between the FBI and the National Guard, self-righteous museums and passionate Native American tribes. If documentary can bring this war to life with the same excitement and danger that the story entails, it may very well rank among one of the more enticing stories of the year. More than anything else, "Dinosaur 13" looks well-poised to tap into the massive reverberations of far-flung history in the present moment.
Just as he (surely) receives his first Oscar nomination for "12 Years a Slave," Michael Fassbender will show audiences at Sundance his very different follow-up. A comic take on the true story of Chris Sievey (Fassbender), a comedian who decides to front a pop band via his alter ego Frank Sidebottom (who hides under a cardboard head), "Frank" is a long ways away from "12 Years a Slave." Co-starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson, the film is director Lenny Abrahamson's follow-up to the underrated "What Richard Did," and should definitely be high on the to-see lists of anyone heading to Sundance.
Fela Kuti, the late Nigerian musician who spawned Afrobeat and the political movement that accompanied it, has already inspired a successful musical and there's also a Hollywood biopic in the works. But his Kuti's story warrants the documentary treatment and Academy Award winning documentarian Alex Gibney ("The Armstrong Lie") is just the director to bring it to life. From his musical legacy to his political activism (Kuti was jailed on political grounds in Nigeria) to his love life (he had many wives), Fela Kuti's life should make a gripping documentary – and the music is guaranteed to satisfy.
After going all star crazy with last summer’s "Drinking Buddies," Joe Swanberg is at it again, employing bankable actors for his latest ensemble comedy, "Happy Christmas." "Buddies" star Anna Kendrick is back, alongside a roster of Swanberg newcomers including Lena Dunham, Mark Webber and Melanie Lynskey. Working with "Beasts of the Southern Wild" cinematographer Ben Richardson (who also shot "Drinking Buddies"), the quintessentially digital-friendly Swanberg made "Happy Christmas" on Super 16mm film, his first production to utilize the medium since film school.
Mike Cahill's debut feature, the sci-fi "Another Earth" won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance ’11, and "I Origins" has already received the Sundance stamp of approval. Not only will it premiere at the upcoming fest, but the film also was the first-ever recipient of the Dolby Family Sound Fellowship. Cahill wrote, directed, produced and edited the film about a molecular biologist and his lab partner who discover evidence that could have dramatic implications for society. We're expecting some stunning visuals and impressive sound design.
A new movie from "Humpday" filmmaker Lynn Shelton is always a welcome prospect, and "Laggies" finds the director working with her highest profile cast yet as well as making her first film penned by another screenwriter -- Andrea Seigel in her screenplay debut. Keira Knightley stars as a woman who, after her boyfriend (Mark Webber) proposes, lies about going on a business trip in order to spend time with her new teenage friend (Chloë Grace Moretz). Shelton's always been good about belated coming of age stories -- it should be fun to see how the often very grown up Knightley does at letting loose.
It's the first-ever feature-length documentary on the life of Roger Ebert, which is enough of a reason for us to see it. But the fact that it's directed by Steve James ("Hoop Dreams") and features interviews with filmmakers such as Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay and Martin Scorsese (who is one o the film's executive producers), elevates the film to must-see status. No doubt, it will cover Ebert's early days at the University of Illinois to his move to Chicago where he became the first critic ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, and then to his time on television where he became a household name alongside Gene Siskel. But we're most excited to see the way the film handles Ebert's "third act," when he overcome disabilities and became an important voice on social media, not to mention his ongoing love affair with his wife, Chaz Ebert.
"Love is Strange"
Two years after winning raves for his "Keep The Lights On," Ira Sachs is back with another gay love story, though this doesn't sound quite as brutal as the semi-autobiographical "Lights." "Love Is Strange" stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as Ben and George, who after 39 years together decided to take advantage of the new marriage laws and tie the knot in New York City. On the return from their honeymoon, and on account of their vows, Ben gets fired from his longtime job as a choir director for a co-ed Catholic school. Suddenly, with no real savings to count on, the couple finds that they can’t afford the rent on their small Chelsea apartment. The film looks like an age demographic not often served in LGBT cinema (or in any cinema, really) and we're very curious to see where Sachs takes us after keeping those lights on two years ago.
"The Raid 2: Berandal"
Gareth Evans’ 2011 Indonesian action movie "The Raid: Redemption," a blisteringly fast-paced action story set entirely in the confines of an apartment building, resulted in one of the most remarkable entries in the genre to come along in years. Both the tale of a bumbling SWAT team making its way through hordes of criminals and a relentless martial arts experience, "The Raid" also managed to establish a keen contrast in warring siblings Rama (Iko Wais), an unflappable police officer, and Andi (Donny Alamsyah), a committed mob boss. They still haven’t worked out their differences: Though the plot of "The Raid 2: Berandal" isn’t entirely clear, we know that it begins relatively soon after the end of the first movie and that the plot involves Rama going undercover as a criminal to protect his family. That might sound like familiar turf, but the trailer promises wall-to-wall action from start to finish — and judging by the first movie, that means you may as well grow nails out, because "The Raid 2" is likely to make you gnaw them to pieces.
"The Trip to Italy"
This follow-up to Michael Winterbottom's road trip comedy, "The Trip," this semi-fictional film also re-teams stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Following the pair on a driving tour of Italy from Liguria to Capri as they talk about life, love and work, the film promises spectacular scenery as well as lots of clever, off-the-cuff banter.
"While Bird in a Blizzard"
The first dramatic offering from Gregg Araki since his acclaimed 2005 film "Mysterious Skin," "White Bird in a Blizzard" is a late 1980s set tale of a a young woman (Shailene Woodley) whose life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears. Based on the acclaimed novel by Laura Kasischke, "Blizzard" will make its debut amidst the snow covered mountains of Sundance, it could very well mark a turning point in the career of Araki, who burst onto the scene at that very festival 21 years ago with "The Living End."
"Wish I Was Here"
Even if you weren't a fan of Zach Braff's directorial debut "Garden State," you might be charmed by his Kickstarter-funded follow-up effort which stars Braff as a 35-year-old struggling actor, father and husband who homeschools his two kids. The supporting cast alone – including Joey Kimg, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad and Ashley Green – is enough of a reason to check out the film, which managed to raise over $3 million on Kickstarter.
[Paula Bernstein, Peter Knegt, Eric Kohn, Nigel M. Smith and Alison Willmore contributed to this article.]