By Indiewire | Indiewire November 21, 2013 at 3:08PM
Thanksgiving is the most anxious holiday for indie filmmakers, as the Sundance Film Festival begins making its calls with (hopefully) good news. The first round of programming announcements are expected following the four-day holiday weekend, with over 100 features expected over various sections of the January 2014 festival.
Ahead of those announcements, Indiewire is offering 30 films as a Sundance wish list (in honor of the festival's 30th anniversary). Basically, it's a wholly unscientific collection of films that might reasonably make the cut and/or we hope will make it to Park City.
Much more so than fellow festival powerhouses Cannes or Toronto, Sundance is a hard lineup to predict. Tiny films from up-and-coming directors often end up being the most talked-about films at the festival (few had heard of Ryan Coogler or David Lowery this time last year). Of course, some of the lineup will be comprised of more high-profile possibilities -- and it's all but certain that some of the festival's breakouts are not going to be on our list.
So with those caveats in mind, here are 30 titles to consider (in
alphabetical order). And if you have a title to add, tell us in the
Michael R. Roskam’s “Animal Rescue” is an obvious eyebrow raiser in relation to other entries on this list for the fact of a budget upwards of $10 million and a star-studded cast that includes the late James Gandolfini in his final film appearance. “Animal Rescue” tells the story of a Boston bartender played by Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) who upon rescuing an abandoned pit bull finds himself face-to-face with the dog’s former owner and a lethal mafia conspiracy beyond anything he could have imagine. “Animal Rescue” will star Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini and Matthias Schoenaerts among others in a film that. for its cast and foundational material in crime novel veteran Dennis Lehane’s original story of the same name, is sure to catch a glimpse or two.
"Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary"
2014 might be bringing us the action-packed, animated, eyeball-strainer that is "The Lego Movie," but we also want to catch this lower-key documentary about the beloved brick toy. Oscar-winner Daniel Junge ("Saving Face") and Oscar nominee Kief Davidson ("Open Heart") will make a huge shift form their more serious fare to bring us the history of the colorful little bricks. According to Deadline, the film will "unspool through the lens of culture, art, and education" and "will feature input from designers, fans, LEGO artists and kids who just like to play."
"A Blind Eye"
As a cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has quickly made a name for herself with documentary hits from “The Invisible War” to “Darfur Now” to “The Oath.” "A Blind Eye" cannot but feel like that quintessentially perfect fulfillment of her journey in the form of a documentary on the nature and dynamics of cinematography and the things often missed from the behind the camera. Johnson’s film takes us through the daily toil of Kabul’s streets from the perspectives of Najeeb, a young one-eyed boy, and a teenage girl that struggles with measuring her desire to transcend boundaries from within a repressive society. While there has been no shortage of documentaries on Afghanistan, its wars as well as its civilians, a new film on cinematography in the context of urban war torn chaos certainly seems new and exciting.
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 nearly completed "Boyhood" is said to have begun production in Houston in the summer of 2002 and completed shooting last month. 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.
"Cold In July"
With his post-apocalyptic vampire saga "Stake Land" and slick remake "We Are What We Are," Jim Mickle has steadily established himself as one of the most accomplished young horror directors working today, with a lyrical style that builds on the genre's more shocking ingredients. Mickle's latest adaptation, which draws from Joe Landshale's novel, co-stars Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepherd in a tense story involving a burglar shot dead by a homeowner in the process of the robbery, which spurs the late criminal's vengeful father to go after the offspring of his son's murderer. As usual for Mickle, the premise pits Biblical components with the prospects of a rough life-and-death showdown, suggesting the ideal material for a white-knuckle thriller.
It should be a good year for Gillian Flynn fans. Beyond the David Fincher adaptation of "Gone Girl," her previous book "Dark Places" is getting the cinematic treatment, and could pop up at Sundance. It follows Libby Day (Charlize Theron), who survived the brutal killing of her family as a child and is forced to confront the events of that day by a secret society obsessed with solving notorious crimes. Joining Theron is Corey Stoll, Tye Sheridan, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicholas Hoult, Sterling Jerins and Christina Hendricks. It might be a bit too mainsteam for Sundance, but the film -- directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner -- is still looking for a US distributor and Sundance is a great place to find one.
"Get a Job"
From director Dylan Kidd, "Get a Job" is a comedy centered around a recent college graduate, his friends, and their attempts to secure employment. It stars Miles Teller as its central character, with Bryan Cranston, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alison Brie and Marcia Gay Harden, among others, joining him. It's the kind of American ensemble comedy that often finds its way to Sundance, which would mark a first for Kidd, whose first two films ("Roger Dodger" and "P.S."), debuted at Tribeca and Venice, respectively.
While writer-director James Roday's upcoming comedy "Gravy" is still lingering in mystery, the film is set to offer an exciting creative mix between old and new that has naturally caught our attention. The clearly ambiguous (yet enticing) synopsis is as follows: "This dark comedy follows a group that descends on a Mexican cantina on Halloween with a taste for more than what is on the menu." While that may be all there is to say about the film plot-wise, "Gravy" will mark "Psych" actor and writer Roday's first leap into film as director and will star up and coming as well as instantly recognizable actors including Molly Ephraim, Gabourey Sidibe, Sarah Silverman and Lily Cole.
After going all star crazy with this 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. As revealed exclusively to Indiewire, Swanberg shot the film last December, and given how swiftly the filmmaker works, it’s no doubt ready to screen at Sundance should they choose to program it. Plot details are being kept under wraps, but he did reveal to us that it “focuses on a family and is set during the holidays.” 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.
This feature was borne out of Kat Candler's short film "Hellion" which played well at last year's Sundance. It centers on a fracturing family in a small refinery town in Texas. Aaron Paul (who has four feature films planed for a 2014 release!) stars as an emotionally and physically absent father who must confront his delinquent son, whose actions push the family to the brink of collapse. The film also features Juliette Lewis and Jonny Mars, who appeared in the original short. It was shot in Candler's adoptive home of Texas, where many of Sundance's big films came out of last year.
The feature-length directorial debut of comedian and "Arrested Development" star David Cross takes aim at our YouTube-obsessed culture, focusing on a town in upstate New York whose inhabitants are recklessly fixated on delusions of fame. Unsurprisingly, Cross has rounded up a who's-who of comedy actors who include Matt Walsh, Michael Cera and Amy Sedaris. The film finished production back in September, which looks good for the film's chance of playing at Park City, with its quirky conceit no doubt helping its prospects as well.
“How to Catch a Monster”
Ryan Gosling might make his way back to Sundance for the first time since “Blue Valentine” debuted at the fest back in 2010 -- the difference this time being that he’d be attending the event as a director, and not as an actor. Principal photography on his directorial debut “How to Catch a Monster” wrapped early this year, so it’s not wild to assume that Warner Bros. might choose to debut the film in Park City. Written by Gosling, the film stars his “Drive” co-star Christina Hendricks, Ben Mendelsohn, Eva Mendes, Saoirse Ronan and “Doctor Who” star Matt Smith in a fantasy centered on a single mother who is swept into a dark fantasy underworld.
We've all heard of Civil War reenactors, but what would compel someone to reenact Vietnam? This documentary from Mike Attie and Meghan O'Hara follows a hardcore "platoon" of war reenactors in Northern Oregon who live in the woods for days at a time, sleeping in foxholes and eating canned food. They carry around M16s and giant backpacks as if they are actually involved in an ongoing war. The description gets even odder when it's revealed that many of the men who participate are veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. How far does PTSD go when soldiers returning home from war feel more comfortable reliving one that the whole country would rather forget?
"Infinitely Polar Bear"
Mark Ruffalo stars as a father suffering from bipolar disorder whose decision to go off of his medication worries his wife (Zoe Saldana). While he tries to keep his family life under control, his mood imbalances put his wife and their children to the test. While it sounds like downbeat stuff, the film's director, Maya Forbes, has written the likes of such kid fare as "The Rocker" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days," which hints that "Infinitely Polar Bear" may be equal parts drama and comedy. The film was reported to have been shot right before summer, leaving one to assume it had plenty of time to be completed in order to premiere next January.
"Kill the Messenger"
Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, this film follows Webb as played by Jeremy Renner as he uncovers the CIA's role in trafficking cocaine into the US and arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The film goes further though as Webb then becomes the target of a smear campaign orchestrated by the CIA that drives him to the point of suicide . "Kill the Messenger" is bound to stir up some controversy over what the CIA actually did and didn't do, but with Michael Cuesta's background in directing politically dynamic action such as in "Homeland," "Kill the Messenger" is bound to be a compelling film to watch.
"Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter"
“Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” follows Kumiko, a Japanese woman who upon seeing a large sum of money buried and forgotten in a fictional film, is convinced that it is real and decides to leave Tokyo and hike through the snow-cloaked vastness of Minnesota in search of that underground fountain of wealth. Directed by David Zellner and starring Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi ("47 Ronin," "Pacific Rim"), the plot brings to mind everything a Sundance film should be: unique. In addition to the presumed endless ambition of a character set on fulfilling the wildest of dreams, the Tokyo-Minnesota setting transition is a rare one to look out for.
Director Lynn Shelton is obviously no stranger to Sundance, showing up there this year with "Touchy Feely" and previously with "Humpday." And given her latest film "Laggies" was in post as of July, it seems like a safe bet to make it her third. Written by Andrea Seigel (the first time Shelton has directed a feature that wasn't from her own pen), the film stars Keira Knightley as a young woman who, after being proposed to by her boyfriend, pretends to go on a business retreat that is actually just hanging out with her new -- 16-year old -- friend Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz). Sam Rockwell, Mark Webber and Kaitlyn Dever (a breakout in "Short Term 12") round out the promising cast.
Of all the so-called "mumblecore" filmmakers to emerge over the past 10 years, Aaron Katz has stood out for his gentle, poetic stories of lost souls: "Dance Party, U.S.A.," "Quiet City" and "Cold Weather" were all accomplished cinematic tapestries rooted in highly sympathetic, believable characters. Filmmaker Martha Stephens garnered similar acclaim for her low-key 2012 feature "Pilgrim Song." So the prospects of the directors teaming up, as they have to co-direct the feature "Land Ho!," is promising. The movie hails from the all-too-familiar mold of the road trip drama, as a pair of ex-brother-in-laws travel across Iceland -- but with these people involved, it's easy to assume there's a lot more going on that just a pair of people in a car.
Two years after winning raves at Sundance for his "Keep The Lights On," Ira Sachs could return to Sundance 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.
“Ping Pong Summer”
Following “Septien” and “Cocaine Angel,” filmmaker Michael Tully is back with what looks to be his most mainstream effort to date, “Ping Pong Summer,” starring Susan Sarandon, who described the film to Indiewire as “’The Karate Kid’ with ping-pong.’” "Ping Pong Summer" is set in 1985 at the family beach town where Tully spent his childhood summers. At the heart of the film is a 13-year old boy from the Maryland suburbs obsessed with ping pong and hip hop. Finally on his eagerly anticipated family vacation, he meets a new best friend and a new worst enemy. In addition to Sarandon, the film also stars John Hannah ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), Lea Thompson ("Back to the Future"), Amy Sedaris ("Strangers with Candy") and Robert Longstreet ("Pineapple Express"). The film wrapped principal photography late last year, and given the star pedigree and Tully’s track record, a Sundance debut seems likely.
"The Daily Show" will arrive in Park City should host Jon Stewart make his way to Sundance with his directorial debut, "Rosewater." The comic took a leave of absence from his day job back in July to shoot the project alongside Shohreh Aghdashloo and Gael García Bernal. Written by Stewart, Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molly, and based on Maziar Bahari's 2011 memoir "Then They Came For Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival," the film centers on an Iranian-Canadian journalist (Bernal) detained in Tehran for over 100 days during the 2009 presidential election in Iran. Stewart covered Bahari's imprisonment extensively on his show. Footage from the film was screened for buyers in Toronto this September, so chances are it's ready to screen in its entirety at Sundance.
Selena Gomez sent Austin into a frenzy back when "Spring Breakers" screened at SXSW this year, and she's in all likelihood set to do the same in Park City should her latest indie "Rudderless" world premiere there as expected. The film marks the big-screen directorial debut of William H. Macy (he directed an HBO TV movie back in 1988), and stars Gomez, alongside Macy, Laurence Fishburne, Felicity Huffman, Billy Crudup and Anton Yelchin. In the musical drama, Crudup stars as a grieving father who forms a band after discovering music written by his late son.
"Squirrel to the Nuts"
It's been well over a decade since seminal American filmmaker (and current Indiewire blogger) Peter Bogdonavich directed a narrative feature, and even as he's remained busy with journalistic pursuits and documentary work, it's hard not to wonder what sort of stories the man behind "The Last Picture Show" could tell today. Wonder no longer: Aided by producers Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, "Squirrel to the Nuts" finds Bogdonavich returning to the screwball comedy genre that he explored so well with the likes of "Paper Moon" and "What's Up, Doc?" in the early seventies. With a high-profile cast that includes Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, Will Forte and Cybill Shepherd, in addition to a screenplay co-written by Bogdonavich and ex-wife Louise Stratten, the project -- in which Wilson plays a Broadway director who falls in love with a prostitute -- holds the potential to realize some of Bodgdonavich's old school charm with a fresh set of faces.
"St. Vincent De Van Nuys"
From his own Blacklisted script, filmmaker Theodore Melfi makes his directorial debut with "St. Vincent De Van Nuys," which finds none other than Bill Murray playing the the title character, a misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who becomes an unlikely mentor to the boy who lives next door. Melissa McCarthy plays the boy's mother, while Naomi Watts turns up as a Russian prostitute who develops a close relationship with St. Vincent. The script was compared to the likes of "As Good As It Gets" and "Silver Linings Playbook," so they might wait for the more Oscar-appropriate Toronto to launch the film. But if it hits Sundance instead, expect it to rise to the top of many a to-see list.
Considering it received the backing of Sundance Institute, Cinereach and the IDFA Forum in its road to completion, Yance Ford’s "Strong Island" seems like an extremely likely inclusion in the doc programming at Sundance come January. The film follows William Ford, a black 24-year-old teacher who was killed in 1992 after arguing with a white 19-year-old mechanic over a repair job. The mechanic shot him, and even though Ford was unarmed he claimed self-defense and charges were not pursued. Twenty-two years later, Ford's sister Yance is returning to the scene of the crime with this sure to be eye-raising film.
"Two Faces of January"
Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac star in this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel of the same name, with Mortensen and Dunst starring as a couple who have fled to Greece after the con-artist husband killed a police officer. Oscar Isaac plays a stranger who weasels his way into their lives, causing unexpected repercussions. Seeing as the author of the source material also penned "The Talented Mr. Ripley," we can expect plenty of globe-trotting characters hanging out in luxurious locations cloaked in a tinge of intrigue and tension. Still in post-production after filming last fall, the sumptuousness and excitement of "Two Faces of January" would certainly liven up the snow-infested streets of Park City.
Student Academy Award nominee Leah Meyerhoff (“Twitch”) has generated a lot of buzz for her feature debut “Unicorns” after nabbing an Emerging Narrative Filmmaker Grant from IFP, an All Access Grant from the Tribeca Film Institute and making it onto the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Emerging Visions program. So what of the finished product? Hopefully we’ll know soon should it premiere at Sundance. The coming of age story stars a slew of indie darlings, most of whom have been to Park City before, including Julia Garner (“We Are What We Are”), Amy Seimetz (“Upsteam Color”), Joshua Leonard (“Humpday”) and Natalia Dyer (“The Healer”). The film centers on a teenage girl who escapes her obligations to her disabled mother by running away with an older boy, and escaping into her beautifully twisted fantasy life.
"Welcome To Me"
Shira Piven -- who is married to comedic filmmaker Adam McKay (the "Anchorman" movies) -- makes her move to film after directing over 20 stage productions. And she sure does have a strong cast and an immensely promising premise on her side. Kristen Wiig tops the cast as Alice Klieg, a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder who wins millions of dollars, quits her meds and buys her own talk show. Will Ferrell, Linda Cardellini, Jennifer Jason Leigh and James Marsden round out the cast. The film finished production just last month, so it will be tight for Sundance (and perhaps more suited for SXSW).
"White Bird In a Blizzard"
Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Angela Bassett and Gabourey Sidibe offer director Gregg Araki a remarkable cast to work with in his follow up to "Kaboom," "White Bird in a Blizzard." Following a young woman whose life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears, the film also appears to be the first dramatic take from Araki since his acclaimed 2005 film "Mysterious Skin." We like our Araki dramatic or comedic, so either way we're in if this makes its way to Park City.
Filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine has cropped up as an actor in movies ranging from "Richard's Wedding" to "Green," written and directed by his partner Sophia Takal. But it was Levine's 2010 directorial debut "Gabi on the Roof in July" that displayed a truly distinctive New York filmmaking voice with a contemporary point of view of the city's youth culture. "Wild Canaries," which co-stars Takal, Levine, Jason Ritter and Alia Shawkat, also promises a uniquely New York tale: a Brooklyn couple finds out their neighbor, who lives in a rent-controlled department, has died, and they suspect it may have been murder. Levine and Takal has already showed an incredible range with a mixture of projects that combine black comedy and straightforward drama, which makes the premise of "Wild Canaries" especially promising.
Casey Cipriani, Ramzi Nadim Xavier De Coster, James Hiler, Clint Holloway, Peter Knegt, Eric Kohn and Nigel M. Smith contributed to this article.