Yesterday, we learned about the Competition and NEXT films at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. With the latest announcement of the Midnight and New Frontier films, we’ve got yet another list of enticing possibilities to pour over in advance of next year’s first big festival. Here are a few highlights that stand out from the rest — for now, at least.
“Room 237” Gets Some Company
“Room 237,” filmmaker Rodney Ascher’s feature-length essay on heavy (and sometimes heavy-handed) theories about the meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” came out of nowhere at Sundance’s New Frontier section two years ago and become a huge phenomenon. Less focused on behind the scenes information than the sheer intensity of engagement that drives the analysis at its center, the movie was unlike anything else out there. Now Ascher is back with another unlikely subject: “The Nightmare,” which screens in the Midnight section, focuses on sleep paralysis. The movie, which examines eight people who suffer from the disorder, is designed to convey the uneasiness of their experiences. “I love Rodney Ascher and his approach to making films,” said Sundance’s director of programming, Trevor Groth. “His jump from New Frontier to Midnight is a testament to what an innovative filmmaker he is. His films don’t fit into any boxes. It’s a documentary, but he works in an element to it that brings to life these nightmares in such a smart, spooky way.”
Eli Roth Returns…Again?
With “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel,” Eli Roth made a name for himself as one of the most stylishly confrontational American directors on the emerging horror scene — so much that he eventually epitomized the so-called “torture porn” movement. Then he stumbled a bit with a poorly-received “Hostel” sequel and a number of projects that never fully came together. While Roth maintained a strong presence as a producer and landed a major role in front of the camera in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” his directorial career floundered. In 2013, the cannibal shocker “The Green Inferno” didn’t exactly do much for him — the midnight movie delivered some gory treats, but was largely seen as an empty-headed homage to better, scarier efforts. His latest feature, however, the Midnight premiere “Knock, Knock,” however, looks intriguing: It stars Keanu Reeves, who’s been enjoying something of a career resurgence in the wake of the hit “John Wick,” as an unfaithful parent and husband who winds up in the throes of a revenge plot. Reeves has described the project as a home invasion story, and his choices of late suggest that the material may in fact suit his muted delivery. In other words, this sounds like a different pace for Roth, who has always shown a strong command of the medium even in his weakest efforts — and it could be just the time for a bounceback.
A Super Spotlight
Sundance’s Spotlight section is one of the few parts of the festival where premiere status doesn’t matter — it’s a basically a look at some of the highlights from other recent programs. So it’s usually a good focal point for movies that have already been endorsed around the world. Even so, this year’s lineup is particularly strong with international titles that few American audiences have had the chance to enjoy: “’71,” which stars “Unbroken” leading man Jack O’Connell, is a startlingly well-made war move set in Belfast with extraordinary action sequences; Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a real estate drama starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, uses the 2008 housing crisis to develop a fascinating thriller about economic priorities; Mia Hansen-Love’s immersive “Eden” offers a mesmerizing tribute to the development of the French electronic music scene, with cameos by Daft Punk. Then there’s the groundbreaking Cannes winner “The Tribe,” a boarding school drama told exclusively in sign language, and “White God,” a disaster movie told exclusively in dog (well, most of it — there are human characters, but Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s uneasy tale of dogs that team up to overtake their masters foregrounds the canine performances). Above all else, Argentinean selection “Wild Tales” (an Oscar submission for best foreign language film) delivers a hysterical, searing breakdown of the country’s fragmented society through a series of bizarre short stories. There will be plenty of new titles to discuss at Sundance this year, but if you only focus on Spotlight, you won’t be let down.
Guy Maddin Goes Wild
Guy Maddin’s name may not instigate huge bidding wars among the regular crop of Sundance buyers, but the Canadian filmmaker has a well-deserved cult following for a good reason: His oddball narratives pay homage to silent film while incorporating surreal, fantastical ingredients of his own making. With “The Forbidden Room” (co-directed by Evan Johnson), Maddin sets his sights on, well, the synopsis says it all: “A submarine crew, a feared pack of forest bandits, a famous surgeon, and a battalion of child soldiers all get more than they bargained for as they wind their way toward progressive ideas on life and love.” The cast, which includes Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Ramplin and Maddin regular Udo Kier, suggests the kind of marvelously original whatsit that we’ve come to expect from Maddin over the years, so here’s hoping he doesn’t let us down yet.
The Return of Doug Aitken
Multimedia artist Doug Aitken last surfaced at Sundance with 2012’s “The Source,” a giant installation piece set up on Park City’s Main Street designed to explore the creative process through the combined words of various practitioners. Now he’s back with “Station to Station,” a collage of 60 minute-long films not unlike “The Source” that showcases artists discussing their output. Sundance attendees looking for something more enthralling than your traditional narrative experience will find their best outlet with the ever-reliable Aitken.