By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz January 7, 2014 at 12:15PM
Our annual Sundance Curiosities column takes a look at various movies and filmmakers from the upcoming Park City festival worthy of anticipation. This year, the column is being written by members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, who will also review films during the festival.
The 30th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival will see the return of at least six filmmakers who, despite their burgeoning mainstream success, continue to uphold the identity of the independent film community as it has been reflected by Sundance in recent years. No matter how widely they’re known now, these figures have retained their ability to tell original stories without the need for stratospheric budgets. Their work exudes an affinity for risk-taking with uncompromising narratives often unexplored in profit-driven projects. While it's too early to assess the quality of their latest projects, the directors' track records provide reason enough to feel optimistic about the following titles.
If one were describe “mumblecore” filmmaker Joe Swanberg in three words, they would have to be prolific, efficient, and multifaceted. In a span of less than 10 years, he has written and directed over a dozen micro-budgeted features, acted in many others, and participated with shorts in anthology films like “V/H/S.” After seeing his biggest hit to date last year with the craft beer-infused romance “Drinking Buddies,” the overly productive and highly talented creator returns to Sundance with “Happy Christmas.” Starring Anna Kendrick, Mark Webber, and Lena Dunham, his latest “dramedy” deals with the challenges faced by a young couple with a small child. Known for his naturalistic use of improvisation and being a young married father himself, the film promises to be a personal and smart addition to his already successful and truly independent career.
Bringing a reinvigorating freshness to the science fiction genre within the constraints of an indie production, Mike Cahill’s first feature, “Another Earth,” debuted at Sundance in 2011 to great reception. For his new technology-friendly love story, Cahill recast his longtime friend and creative partner Brit Marling, who has had her fair share of audacious projects in recent years (including roles in Sundance premieres “Sound of My Voice,” “The East” and “Arbitrage”). In “I Origins,” the drama unfolds as a molecular biology PhD student searches for a mysterious masked girl — with his only clue being a picture of her eyes. Michael Pitt plays the leading role as a man whose passion for discovery leads him to a trek across the globe in search of answers. With such an undoubtedly intriguing premise, Cahill’s blend of scientific existentialism and romantic misconnections has already enabled him to establish a peculiar perspective in his work, which makes “I Origins” worth seeking out.
Probably the most commercially successful of the pack, actor and director Zach Braff waited an entire decade to follow up his hit feature “Garden State,” which premiered in Park City back in 2004. Produced in part via the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, his sophomore effort, titled “I Wish I Was Here,” will put him on the spotlight once again. Just as in his directorial debut, Braff also stars as the protagonist, in this case alongside Kate Hudson, Jim Parsons, and the late James Avery. Still exploring the conflicts that arise from accepting adult responsibilities while chasing one’s professional dreams, the film follows an unemployed aspiring actor in his thirties who decides to home school his children when he can no longer afford their pricy Jewish education. Expectations are definitely high given the caliber of his previous work. However, if Braff can manage to imbue his latest with the same blend of wit and emotional poignancy of “Garden State,” there is no doubt the feat will be repeated.
After winning an array of accolades in the independent realm throughout her short but outstanding career as a writer/director, Lynn Shelton continues to bring to the screen intimate stories about the relationships that mark people’s lives. She will return to Sundance for the third year in a row this January with “Laggies,” just a year after premiering “Touchy Feely,” which hit Park City on the heels of Shelton’s previous feature, “Your Sister’s Sister.” Her new coming-of-age tale stars Keira Knightley, Sam Rockwell, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garlin, Mark Webber, and focuses on a directionless woman in her late twenties whose unlikely friendship with a teenage girl will help her figure out herself and reconsider her choices in life. Helped by the incredible cast, Shelton’s talent to craft touching and relatable characters makes “Laggies” a promising new entry in her expanding filmography.
Better know for her graphic novel-turned-animated feature “Persepolis,” which earned her an Academy Award nomination, the Iranian-born French artist will screen her first English-language feature at the festival. Leaving her native tongue behind, if not her unique magical realist vision — last seen in “Chicken With Plumbs” — Satrapi’s latest, “The Voices,” includes talking animals in the context of yet another unconventional plot: It is no surprised the unorthodox filmmaker was attracted to a story (written by “Paranormal Activity 2” scribe Michael R. Perry) about a man who discusses his love life with his pets. On the contrary, this may very well provide the perfect stage for Satrapi to further her expertise in creating visually enthralling and tonally fascinating stories. Featuring Ryan Reynolds as the bizarrely gifted lead, the film will also provide an opportunity for the Hollywood star to make the case that that he’s ready for more challenging and eccentric roles.
The critically acclaimed 2012 Sundance entry “Keep the Lights On,” about the struggles of a young gay couple in New York, was the first work from director Ira Sachs since his “Forty Shades of Blue” won the festival’s U.S. competition in 2005. Fortunately, he’s working faster now: This year, Sachs promises another emotionally charged drama with his latest feature, “Love is Strange.” Similar to his previous works, Sachs latest gives voices to the gay community, in this case by exploring an older couple facing relationship problems in the aftermath of their marriage. With John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as the leads, Sachs’ subtle technique for eliciting powerful performances suggest a profoundly affecting result.