The film calendar begins on Thursday, January 21st, as Sundance kicks off for yet another year as the flagship festival of the US and arguably the world. For me, Cannes seems to be about stars and celebrities, TIFF is about sales, but Sundance still tends to be about screenings. This is my fourth year in a row at the festival, so I am starting to see it as part of my yearly cycle, really, the start of a new festival circuit. These films will all (most likely) play lengthy runs around the world at other fests, many receiving theatrical release before the end of the year.
Last year a new player, Netflix, shook things up by making some big purchases and moving them directly onto their platform. This is somewhat of a bummer, I think, because a film like Jennifer Phang’s breathtaking dystopian narrative ADVANTAGEOUS could have had a lengthy run on the fest and arthouse circuit and instead most of the world was robbed of seeing it theatrically. Netflix is hardly the only ones to pull films off market quickly. An increasing majority of the docs at Sundance every year seem to already be paid for and ready to be presented by premium cable (HBO is the biggest check writer, Showtime and others increasing their spend). The most powerful film I saw last year, RACING EXTINCTION, was given a major basic cable rollout by Discovery Channel. I’m sure more people saw the film that way than would have on the Arthouse Circuit, but I can’t imagine it had the same gut-wrenching effect it had on me in the front row of a dark theater.
However, for now, they are still just films in a vast program. I’ve learned over time to trust the Sundance Programmers (in some sections more than others). The program this year has tremendous scope, and the midnighters seem more varied than ever, pushing the boundaries of what might be called a midnighter (in a good way). Several of the most-buzzed-about selections are television programs. Anyway, here are some of the films I’m most looking forward to:
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: James Franco, Sarah Gadon, Daniel Webber, George MacKay, Josh Duhamel, Chris Cooper
Logline: On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy was killed, and the world changed. What if you could change it back?
Why You Should Care: This 9-hour mini-series will premiere on Hulu this year, with J.J. Abrams and original novel author Stephen King amongst the executive producers. Franco plays a high school history sent back in time to prevent the assassination, but finds that maybe the past doesn’t want to be changed. Sundance is just giving us the first 2 hours. I guess I finally need to sign up for Hulu.
Director: Mickey Keating
Cast: Ashley Bell, Pat Healy, Alan Ruck, Darby Stanchfield, James Landry Hébert, Larry Fessenden.
Logline: In 1978, a team of wannabe crooks botch a small-town bank heist and flee with their hostage deep into the California desert, where they inexplicably find themselves in a harrowing fight for survival against a psychotic ex-military sniper.
Why You Should Care: This is Keating’s third film to premiere in less than 11 months (POD, DARLING), And every time out he takes his audiences down a familiar path only to completely subvert it to something new and exciting. He has a bold vision and his use of atmosphere and sound rivals anyone else working in genre film today. I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.
Director: Tim Sutton
Cast: Robert Jumper, Anna Rose, Rosie Rodriguez, Karina Macias, Aaron Purvis, Eddie Cacciola
Logline: A suburban landscape plays witness to the inevitable, unfolding events that culminate in a Cineplex massacre. Over the course of one day, from sunrise to midnight, six strangers—the shooter among them—share in this new American nightmare.
Why You Should Care: Well, if the story for this one doesn’t pique your interest, than you’ve been living under a rock. Add to that, Sutton’s last film, MEMPHIS, was one of the highlights of Sundance 2014 and ended up on several critic’s top 10 lists.
LO AND BEHOLD, Reveries of the Connected World
Director: Werner Herzog
Logline: Does the internet dream of itself? Explore the horizons of the connected world.
Why You Should Care: Werner Herzog looks at the world through a special lens, so his documentary weaving together internet pioneers and the victims the new technology is leaving in its wake is sure to give us a fresh view on what might just be the most important human invention since fire. The film promises to stare back at the chilling face of progress and ask, are we better off? Will we be?
Love & Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsdale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, Stephen Fry
Logline: From Jane Austen’s novella, the beautiful and cunning Lady Susan Vernon visits the estate of her in-laws to wait out colorful rumors of her dalliances and to find husbands for herself and her daughter.
Why You Should Care: Stillman is one of my favorite directors of all time, and perhaps our modern master at the comedy of manners. Add to that he is finally doing a Jane Austen story, a writer his characters debated back in his first film METROPOLITAN, it seems like an inevitable well-made match. Also, Beckinsdale and Sevigny made such great sparring partners in Stillman’s LAST DAYS OF DISCO, it will be fun to see them team up again.
Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
Cast: Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska, Jakub Gierszal, Kinga Preis, Andrzej Konopka, Zygmunt Malanowicz.
Logline: Two mermaid sisters, who end up performing at a nightclub, face cruel and bloody choices when one of them falls in love with a beautiful young man.
Why You Should Care: To me, this is the most original sounding story in the entire Sundance program. The fact that it is NOT in the Midnighters section makes me think the issues in the film are going to be much deeper than scales and blood.
Director: Don Cheadle
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Logline: Inspired by events in Miles Davis’s life, this is a wildly entertaining, impressionistic, no-holds-barred portrait of one of twentieth-century music’s creative geniuses.
Why You Should Care: Cheadle writes, directs, and stars in this passion project, about one of the most important musician and composers of the last 100 years. I always find it interesting to see Jazz on screen, and see in the form of the film ends up informed by the form of the music. Also, by all accounts, this is not a biopic, but more like a self-contained snapshot of the man’s life, one note in a flourish of possible improvisations.
Director: Matt Johnson
Cast: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles, Ray James.
Logline: In 1967, four undercover CIA agents were sent to NASA posing as a documentary film crew. What they discovered led to one of the biggest conspiracies in American history.
Why You Should Care: Not your daddy’s Apollo 13, right? I love conspiracy films, and when you set one in the midst of one of the most critical junctions in US policy, I can’t wait. Plus, Johnson’s debut film, “The Dirties,” took top prize at Slamdance in 2013, so it’s fun to see a filmmaker take that next small step forward for their career.
Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Zosia Mamet.
Logline: This film tells several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading comfort and joy.
Why You Should Care: It can’t be that simple, right? This is Todd Solondz who welcomed us to the dollhouse and made jokes about pedophilia. But even if it is just a story about a dog that everyone loves, wouldn’t the fact that he is making that film be just as interesting? I’ll forgive him his Greta Gerwig (as I have Whit Stillman in the past) and just check in with one of my favorite filmmakers.
Director: Kevin Smith
Cast: Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Johnny Depp, Justin Long, Austin Butler, Tyler Posey.
Logline: Colleen Collette and Colleen McKenzie are teenage besties from Winnipeg who love yoga and live on their smartphones. But when these sophomores get invited to a senior party by the school hottie, the Colleens accidentally uncover an ancient evil buried beneath their Canadian convenience store.
Why You Should Care: Love him or hate him, Kevin Smith is not going to make a forgettable movie. TUSK was his most inspired filmmaking in years and this one seems to combine the best elements of his depthless genre-diving, and lovable characters stuck working at deadend jobs in deadend towns. In fact, the two leads, Smith’s daughter and Johnny Depp’s daughter, were featured in TUSK in these same characters.
And cause I’m so excited about it, here’s a NSFW teaser from THE LURE