Unlikely friendships. Ill-advised road trips. General malaise, ennui, and straight-up boredom. Family issues of every stripe. The Internet as a character or an idea or a feeling or just you know, whatever, man.
The Sundance Film Festival may be the crown jewel of the U.S. film festival circuit and the announcement of any and all of its selections is cause for celebration and discovery, but it also comes complete with some very familiar keywords, plot lines, and characters. This year’s Sundance will feature no less than 118 feature-length films as culled from a staggering 12,218 submissions. There are 54 first-time filmmakers in the bunch and 97 of the features will be getting their world premiere at the festival, and despite all that fresh material and all that new talent, there are still plenty of films that sound as if they’ll fit firmly into the traditions that Sundance selections have carved out over the years.
Basically, there are Sundance films, and there are Sundance films, and today’s announcement of selections for the U.S. and World Cinema Dramatic competitions, the U.S. and World Documentary Competitions, and the out-of-competition NEXT <=> section may all be firmly (and clearly) the former, but the list is also jam-packed with the latter (and, yes, we’ve still got announcements for the Spotlight, Park City at Midnight, New Frontier, Premieres, Documentary Premieres, Short Film, and Sundance Kids sections to come).
"A young woman is stationed as a guard in Guantanamo Bay, where she forms an unlikely friendship with one of the detainees."
While a Guantanamo Bay-set story that stars Kristen Stewart may not initially smack of that deliciously specific Sundance flavor, Peter Sattler’s feature debut (the screenwriter and director started his career as a set dresser for David Gordon Green and has also served as a graphic designer for films like “Black Snake Moan” and “Star Trek”) has got one essential element to drive it – it’s about an unlikely friendship. Nothing says “Sundance” quite like an unlikely friendship – especially one that just might have a dangerous edge.
“After a breakup with her boyfriend, a young woman moves in with her older brother, his wife, and their 2-year-old son”
Filmmaker Joe Swanberg has made the festival rounds over the years (after all, at the rate he’s turning out films, regular theatrical releases just don’t make much sense), but something about his “Happy Christmas” simply demands a big time Sundance inclusion. Perhaps it’s the cast, one that includes Sundance vets like Melanie Lynskey and Mark Webber, along with emerging names like Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham, that all but begs for the serious indie cred the most “Sundance” of Sundance films ultimately earn once January rolls around. Or maybe it’s just that log line, which neatly checks off the “romantic troubles” and “family involvement” Sundance film boxes.
"When an accident leaves her brother comatose, a woman sets out to retrace his life as an aspiring musician, leading to an unexpected relationship against the backdrop of Brooklyn’s music scene."
Nearly everything about Kate Barker-Froyland’s “Song One” announces the feature as a firmly Sundance endeavor, especially key words like “estranged from her family,” “aspiring musician,” “Brooklyn’s music scene,” and “unexpected relationship.” It’s entirely possible that this thing was made just to get into Sundance, which only makes the casting of its leading lady – Anne Hathaway! Oscar winner Anne Hathaway! – all the more intriguing. What could be just another lo-fi entry doomed to charm a few audience members and potentially serve as a fun footnote in Barker-Froyland’s career suddenly has cache and clout. It sounds like pure Sundance saccharine, but maybe it can surprise – and that would be the most Sundance thing of all.
CAPTIVATED – The Trials of Pamela Smart
"An examination of the media’s impact on Smart’s 1991 murder trial, which became one of the highest-profile criminal cases of all time."
When it comes to the documentary side of things, there’s nothing that Sundance loves more than a film that details tragic miscarriages of justice that incite its audience to extreme anger and flowing tears (see: “Valentine Road,” “West of Memphis,” “Crime After Crime”), and Jeremiah Zagar’s “CAPTIVATED” looks to happily fill that need for 2014. Billed, as “an extraordinary and tragic American story,” the film examines how “a small town murder becomes one of the highest profile cases of all time. From its historic role as the first televised trial to the many books and movies made about it, the film looks at the media’s enduring impact on the case.” Murder and media? That’s the Sundance documentary program in a tasty little nutshell.
THE INTERNET'S OWN BOY: THE STORY OF AARON SWARTZ
"Documents the life and accomplishments of programming prodigy and information activist Swartz before he took his life at the age of 26."
What else says “Sundance documentary” like tragic true tales and tech-fueled double-dealings? Enter Brian Knappenberger’s “The Internet’s Own Boy,” which combines both of those elements and issues of social justice and political organizing! The director’s follow-up to “We Are Legion,” which premiered at the 2012 festival, centers on programming whiz kid Aaron Swartz, who tragically ended in his own life at the tender age of twenty-six. The angry march up Main Street will kick off after any and all screenings.
"An emotionally charged drama about a 16-year-old girl whose mother reveals her plans for gender transition."
Sure, it may be a cheap pick – any film that has a synopsis that makes casual mention of gender reassignment surgery is instant fodder for the Sundance faithful – but when paired with some big time family issues and a cozy little time constraint, it sounds like Sophie Hyde’s “52 Tuesdays” might be the most Sundance film of the year (or, at least of this first round). The Australian entry centers on a mixed up teen who grows still more confused by the news that her mother is undergoing a gender transition that will not only make their relationship decidedly different, but that limits their time together to just one day a week. Yup, Tuesdays. And yup, Hyde’s film unfolds over the course of one year – fifty-two weeks of Tuesdays.
GOD HELP THE GIRL
"A musical about some messed-up boys and girls and the music they made."
Well, “52 Tuesdays” has already lost its “Most Sundance” title to Stuart Murdoch’s musical, the very one which we had nearly forgotten even existed. The Belle & Sebastian frontman directed the film (with the help of a big Kickstarter campaign!) about “some messed up boys and girls and the music they made.” Starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray, “God Help the Girl” seems poised to earworm its way into every single festival attendee, all of whom already love Belle & Sebastian already. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. A small, snowy barrel.
"A graphic adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s bestselling novel about an 18-year-old girl obsessed with her own bodily secretions."
When your official synopsis includes the second (only the second!) sentence “she likes to experiment with vegetables while masturbating and thinks that bodily hygiene is greatly overrated,” that’s it – you’ve automatically got a Sundance film. The German feature from David Wnendt sounds a bit like if “Frances Ha” was about a totally gross gal named Helen Memel (call it “Helen Meeh”) who trafficked in being “unladylike.” Repulsion is always fun, right?
"The story of the identity struggles facing a young Persian-American bisexual woman in Brooklyn."
Brooklyn again. It’s always Brooklyn. Desiree Akhavan’s film reportedly centers on just one young lady who contains multitudes – “an ideal Persian daughter, a politically correct bisexual, and a hip, young Brooklynite” – but cannot succeed at any of them. Sundance has always loved films about struggling twentysomethings, and “Appropriate Behavior” wins the race by being about just one twentysomething that can’t help but struggle at everything. Bring your urban malaise.
THE FOXY MERKINS
"A prostitute buddy comedy about two lesbian hookers working the streets of New York."
Madeleine Olnek’s feature wins just by virtue of its title, the fact that it does indeed center on a pair of lesbian hookers is simply icing on the cake. Set in New York City (because of course), the NEXT entry is already selling itself as a “prostitute buddy comedy,” thus already earning unabashed Sundance adoration. If that’s not enough for you, Alex Karpovksy co-stars in it. Go figure.
The 2014 Sundance Film Festival will run from January 16 to January 26.