Another Sundance is upon as, and with it comes the expected mix of excitement and trepidation. The year's first major festival is a notoriously mixed bag – it's absolutely guaranteed that Robert Redford's indie film institution will premiere some of the movies that will eventually come to define the year in cinema, but Sundance is unfortunately as much of a market as it is a festival, and that uneasy balance between art and commerce invariably leads to an event where "buzz" often exists independent of quality. As a result, for as many filmmaking trends that are born at the festival, just as many are petrified. For every artist that's given an incredible chance to share their vision with the world, another is given one chance too many.
Of course, it's hard to chastise Sundance for lowering the bar when the festival remains so determined to welcome filmmakers who leap over it – sure, much of the buzz at last year's festival was around hot garbage like "Don Jon", but elsewhere on Main Street visionary work like "Upstream Color", "Computer Chess", and even Park Chan-wook's "Stoker" were enjoying their world premieres. For every "Afternoon Delight" there was a "Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)", and on top of that there was "Cutie and the Boxer", "Ain't them Bodies Saints" and "This is Martin Bonner". The divide could even be seen in the work of a single filmmaker, Sebastián Silva delivering the solid if familiar "Crystal Fairy" and the boundary-pushing freakout that is "Magic Magic".
As with most major festivals, Sundance contains multitudes, and while it might be easy to scoff at a movie where Kristin Stewart plays a Guantanamo Bay prison guard, it's just as easy to feel the beat that your heart skips as you look over the dizzying array of ideas and perspectives that will gather in Park City later this week (and who knows, "Camp X-Ray" could be amazing, half the fun is in finding out). It's a further testament to the depth of the Sundance lineup that our list of the most anticipated films shares minimal overlap with those that can be found on similar sites.
So with that preamble out of the way, here are the 11 films that leapt out of the program for us. They may not all pan out, but we'll be there on the ground to find out – our extensive review & interview coverage kicks off on Friday with a look at this year's crop of short films, and will be updated with all the latest throughout the duration of the festival.
See you on the shuttles.
THE BETTER ANGELS (A.J. Edwards) // New Frontier Film
You had me at “produced by Terrence Malick.” [Wipes away tear]. You had me at “produced by Terrence Malick.” [Runs into the arms of my beloved. “Solsbury Hill” begins to play faintly in the background.]
Malick is almost as selective of a producer as he is a director, and so to see his name attached to a project is something of an event regardless of the capacity. While “Amazing Grace”, the last film he produced, bore neither the mark nor quality of Malick’s genius, “The Better Angels” feels like a very different beast. Indeed, A.J. Edwards’ directorial debut sounds like it will be very different regardless as to what you’re comparing it, a unique contribution to the ever-expanding genre of movies about the life of Abraham Lincoln. With a log line that suggests the film could be called “Even Younger Mr. Lincoln”, Edwards’ film pledges to depict our 16th President’s formative years as they’ve never been seen before. Jason Clarke portrays Lincoln as a young man coming of age in the stark wilds of Indiana, while Brit Marling and Diane Kruger appear as the two women who shaped the budding icon’s character (but not his standards of beauty).
The official festival description busts out words like “lyrical” and “poetry”, so it sounds like “The Better Angels” may not be far removed from the kind of movie you’d expect Malick to produce. Shot in lustrous black and white, it stands to reason that this could be 2014’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”.
BOYHOOD (Richard Linklater) // Premieres
Quantitatively speaking, Richard Linklater is the kind of "most anticipated" Sundance movies. It's not just how badly we want to see them, but also for how long we've been waiting to (though in the case of "Before Midnight", last year's surprise Linklater selection, we didn't know that we had anything to anticipate until just a few months before the festival announced its program). Linklater and his collaborators have been whispering about "Boyhood" for years now, but I suppose that a movie that spends roughly 12 years in production is difficult to keep secret. It would be reductive to call the film's extended temporal gaze a gimmick, as it's nothing less than the project's sole reason for being, Linklater creating a fictional riff on Michael Apted's "Up" series by shooting bits and pieces of a coming-of-age drama over the span of 12 years, both the protagonist and his parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) aging in real time.
Linklater's "Tree of Life"? Maybe, but given how perfectly "Boyhood" seems to summarize Linklater's essence and obsessions as a filmmaker, perhaps it's wrong to invoke the name of another director when it comes to this most ostensibly personal of projects. Reactions from those who have already seen the film run the gamut from "truly great" to "it's a masterpiece", so hopes are high. And keep your eyes peeled for a touching performance from Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter, who grows up in front of her father's camera.
GOD HELP THE GIRL (Stuart Murdoch) // World Dramatic
Live twee or die.
Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch has been toiling away on his first film for years now, and what felt like a lock for SXSW 2013 is finally being unwrapped at this year’s Sundance. Sharing the same title as Murdoch’s memorably buoyant musical side project, “God Help the Girl” sounds like a hipster tweed riff on “Can a Song Save Your Life?”, but with a better title and probably also a better everything else. Set in Murdoch’s native Glasgow, the film ditches album guest singer Carey Mulligan for Emily Browning, Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray, three kids with a twinkle in their eyes and a song in their hearts who get together and form a rock band. While Murdoch’s filmmaking skills remain to be seemed, the source material almost guarantees that this will be a sweet, toe-tapping good time, free of cynicism and full of hooks. “Once” for people who know how to smile.
IMPERIAL DREAMS (Malik Vitthal) // Next
So far as first-time filmmakers are concerned, I have good reason to have faith in “Imperial Dreams” director Malik Vitthal. His debut feature, about a young writer (“Attack the Block” star John Boyega) who hopes to start a “normal” life after he returns to Watts, LA after a 28-month stretch in prison, is produced by Katherine Fairfax Wright, who directed the exquisite documentary “Call Me Kuchu” and has earned my trust and then some. Likewise, while Boyega was poised to breakout following his turn in “Attack the Block” as Moses (“Moses! Moses!”), he’s seemingly been rather selective about his next steps, and it’s a significant endorsement that a young actor within reach of next-level fame attached his star to this material.
And if Wright and Boyega’s contributions weren’t enough to pique your interest, “Imperial Dreams” also boasts an original score by the infallible Flying Lotus, who guarantees that the movie will at least be worth listening to if it isn’t worth watching (though I’ve got a good feeling that it will be).
KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER (David Zellner) // US Dramatic Comp
Okay, don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been hearing amazing things from reliable sources about “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” for months. And even if I hadn’t, the idea of the Zellner brothers (“Kid-Thing”, “Goliath”) making a movie about a Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi, natch) who stumbles upon and quickly becomes obsessed with an old VHS of “Fargo” would be enough to put this film near the very top of my list. Said to be one of the most beautifully shot films of the fest, “Kumiko” is the Zellners’ most ambitious project yet, assuming an international scope when Kumiko’s infatuation with the Coen brothers’ classic finds takes her to the remote tundras of North Dakota in search of a movie MacGuffin that was thought to be lost forever.
LISTEN UP PHILIP (Alex Ross Perry) // Next
Alex Ross Perry’s previous feature, “The Color Wheel”, is the kind of lo-fi micro-budget masterpiece that validates the entire mode of filmmaking, and the rare movie that is genuinely impossible to forget (the ending sticks with you forever, whether you’d like it to or not). In some circles, Perry’s follow-up was destined to be an event regardless of its merits, but – at the risk of sounding like a trade stooge – I’ve heard time and again that the script for “Listen Up Philip” is one of the best to come along in some time. Indeed, this story of a young narcissistic novelist who retreats to a summer home in order to recover from a decaying relationship was sufficiently compelling to attract actors like Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, and everyone’s favorite minor character from “Gilmore Girls’” Yale years, Krysten Ritter. Sure to be as erudite as it is scathing, “Listen Up Philip” may well be one of the films that defines this year’s festival.
LOVE IS STRANGE (Ira Sachs) // Premieres
New York filmmaker Ira Sachs has become something of a Sundance institution, especially since winning the Grand Jury Prize in 2005 for “Forty Shades of Blue”. His most recent film was the his aching “Keep the Lights On”, which offered an unflinching portrait of a romantic relationship between two men, strained by time and distance. Sachs’ follow-up reminds us that the indie filmmaker is comfortable with name talent (as was made clear with “Married Life”), and “Love is Strange” – the story of a gay couple who are finally married after nearly 40 years of being partners, only for their relationship to then be strained by… time and distance – is anchored by the likes of John Lithgow and the always welcome Alfred Molina (Marisa Tomei appears in a supporting role).
Sachs isn’t necessarily batting 1.000, but his grace and immediacy as a storyteller continues to blossom with every subsequent project, and I hope that his quick return to Sundance suggests that he’s entering the most inspired and assured phase of his career. Although, if “Love is Strange” wounds me to the same extent as “Keep the Lights On”, I may regret celebrating Sachs’ newfound prolificacy.
THE TRIP TO ITALY (Michael Winterbottom) // Premieres
I’m not saying that Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” is the best film ever made, but I am saying that you can’t prove to me that it isn’t. Cut down from the television series of the same name, the film – ostensibly an epic battle of impressions between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves – isn’t only one of the funniest and most compulsively quotable movies of recent years, it’s also one of the cinema’s most honest depictions of the male ego and the things it consumes. While the first film was charmingly pathetic in its own way, the sequel promises to double down in a big way, the duo reprising the same impersonations as they indulge in a foodie’s tour of Italy. Forget Sundance, this might be my most anticipated film of the year. Gentlemen to bed! For we rise at… what time’s the premiere?
WEB JUNKIE (Shosh Shlam & Hilla Medalia) // World Docs
If the recent rash of documentaries about the country are any indication, China might be the most interesting country in the world these days (for better or worse). An insanely fertile place for remarkable true-life stories, no nation on earth has more radically confronted the 21st century, and “Web Junkie” follows in the tradition of “Last Train Home” and “Up the Yangtze” in isolating a single sliver of contemporary Chinese life and extrapolating from there.
China is among the first countries to clinically diagnose Internet addiction, establishing eerily militaristic rehab centers for the afflicted (almost exclusively young men) to receive treatment. “Web Junkie” is the work of two Israeli filmmakers who were given remarkable access to one of these facilities, and the footage they captured promises to reveal a story much deeper than a generation of teenage boys hooked on “World of Warcraft”, providing an acute look at what happens when generational rifts deepen into moral crises.
WETLANDS (David Wndendt) // World Dramatic
Almost certainly the best film ever made about a young German girl who’s obsessed with her anal fissure, and… wait, do you really need to know more? David Wndendt’s surprisingly warm and delightful comedy is an adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s allegedly indecent novel of the same name, which caused something of an international furor when it was published.
An unapologetic assault on the restrictive standards of feminine hygiene and the “proper” ways for a woman to behave, “Wetlands” introduces us to Helen (Carla Juri), a teenage girl whose fixation with bodily fluids is matched only by that of reuniting her divorced parents. And who can’t relate to someone who deliberately and repeatedly inflames her hemorrhoids in the delusional hope that her parents will visit her in the hospital at the same time, thus rekindling their romance? A universal story, really. For Sundance attendees, “Wetlands” promises to be worth seeing for the inevitably bonkers Q&A that will follow the screening.
WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (Gregg Araki) // Premieres
Gregg Araki might march to the beat of his own drum, but damn if that guy doesn’t have some serious rhythm. One of the most significant queer filmmakers of the last 20 years, Araki has somehow remained consistently interesting and idiosyncratic since emerging with his “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” in the mid-90s. 10 years removed from his 2004 masterpiece “Mysterious Skin” and still enjoying the afterglow of his brilliantly bonkers 2010 apocalypse party “Kaboom”, Araki returns to Sundance with “White Bird in a Blizzard”, which sight unseen feels a bit more austere and reined in than his most recent work.
An adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s widely beloved novel, the film – a period piece set in 1988 – brings us into the home of a seemingly normal teenage girl named Kat (Shailene Woodley). When Kat’s increasingly disturbed mother (Eva Green) suddenly disappears one day, the young woman is left with an irreconcilable void in the middle of her life. Co-starring the likes of Angela Bassett and Thomas Jane, “White Bird in a Blizzard” is sure to be of a slightly higher profile than many (or perhaps all) of Araki’s previous films, but you can bet on it proudly wearing his signature all the same.
OTHER FILMS WE'RE EXCITED TO SEE: Ping Pong Summer, Land Ho!, The Raid 2, The Green Prince, God's Pocket, No No, I Origins, A Most Wanted Man, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Girl From Nagasaki, What We Do in the Shadows