Seven Sundance Competition Narrative Films We're Looking Forward To

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One of the most daunting tasks facing a festivalgoer is winnowing through all the buzz, descriptions, previews, and trailers to find which of the hundreds of films should be on the priority viewing list for the week. We’re here to help. The Sundance Film Festival runs January 20-30, and every day this week Paste brings you a preview article.

Monday: 10 Slamdance and Smaller Sundance Films We’re Looking Forward To
Tuesday: Seven Sundance Competition Documentaries We’re Looking Forward To
Wednesday: Seven Sundance Competition Narrative Films We’re Looking Forward To
Thursday: Seven Sundance Premieres We’re Looking Forward To
Friday: Sundance Opening Night Report

The Sundance Narrative U.S. Dramatic Competition and U.S. World Competition are where careers are made (and sometimes reinvigorated). Last year, festivalgoers got a sneak peek at performances from likely Oscar candidates Ryan Gosling and Michele Williams , Jennifer Lawrence , and Jacki Weaver , as well as soon-to-be buzzy performances in 2011-release films like Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), happythankyoumoreplease (Tony Hale), and Sympathy for Delicious (Christopher Thornton). And those are just the big-name films; there were smaller wonders as well, like Obselidia, Boy, 3 Backyards, and Yo, Tambien. For all the grumbling that filmmakers sometimes do about the festival, they’d still sell their mothers to get into one of these competitions. And the films still hold the promise of blowing viewers away. Here are seven we’ll be especially watching for next week.


1. Higher Ground
The Category: Sundance, U.S. Dramatic Competition
The Premise: “As a child growing up in the 1960s, Corinne’s defining feature is her sense of inadequacy. When she reaches high school, her home life begins to unravel, driving her into the arms of Ethan, a guitarist in a local band. An event propels them to join a small fundamentalist community where they find meaning and stability. But some of its more conservative tenets leave Corinne unsettled, driving her into a profound crisis of faith that turns her world upside down.”
The Key Players: Director Vera Farmiga; John Hawkes, Joshua Leonard
The Draw: Crazy fundamentalists seem to be the boogedy-bears of this year’s festival with several films—narrative and documentary—bringing audiences the parishioners who say boo. You can bet that nuanced character development won’t be a strength of many of them. But if there’s one that promises to be a thoughtful look at the topic, it’s Farmiga’s directorial debut. And the old saw about “I’d watch them read the phone book” is becoming more and more applicable to the criminally underrated John Hawkes.
The Details: Higher Ground at


2. Take Shelter
The Category: Sundance, U.S. Dramatic Competition
The Premise: “Curtis LaForche lives in a small town in Ohio with his wife, Samantha, and daughter, Hannah, a six-year-old deaf girl. When Curtis begins to have terrifying dreams, he keeps the visions to himself, channeling his anxiety into obsessively building a storm shelter in his backyard. His seemingly inexplicable behavior concerns and confounds those closest to him, but the resulting strain on his marriage and tension within his community can’t compare with Curtis’s privately held fear of what his dreams may truly signify.”
The Key Players: Director Jeff Nichols; Kathy Baker, Michael Shannon 
The Draw: I’ve been waiting for another of the U.S. Dramatic competitors to emerge from the pack as a contender to watch, and when the news came down yesterday that Sony Pictures had bought this film before the festival even opened, it made me take a second look. I had forgotten that LaForche had helmed the haunting Shotgun Stories, and of course Kathy Baker is a tour de force of an actor. And “Am I crazy?” stories tend to have lots of introspective potential. There’s our winner.
The Facebook Page: Take Shelter


3. Abraxas
The Category: Sundance, World Dramatic Competition
The Premise: “Jonen is having a crisis of faith. In his youth, he was a punk-rock musician, creating noise and onstage spectacles. Now he’s settled into a life as a Buddhist monk with a wife and five-year-old son. During his career-day speech at a local high school, however, Jonen has a public breakdown that leads to a deep depression when he realizes the importance of music to his life. In an attempt to raise Jonen’s spirits, the compassionate chief monk suggests he play a live show. As he plans for the concert, Jonen faces challenges from past loss, small-town resistance, and the possibility of alienating his family. [Abraxas] posits ‘once a punk rocker, always a punk rocker.’”
The Key Players: Director Naoki Kato
The Draw: Now here’s a religious story I can get behind. “Once a punk rocker, always a punk rocker?” Spoken by a Buddhist monk? If nothing else, the film will be worth it for that line alone.
The Details: Abraxas at


4. The Guard
The Category: Sundance, World Dramatic Competition
The Premise: “Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a salty village cop in Ireland, has a subversive sense of humor, a caustic wit, and an uncanny knack for keeping people at arm’s length. When a straitlaced FBI agent chasing an international drug-smuggling ring hits town, Boyle has no intention of letting the arrival disrupt his routine of hookers and wisecracks. Initially, he relishes offending and ridiculing the agent, but a murder and a series of peculiar events draw the reluctant sergeant into the investigation.”
The Key Players: Director John Michael McDonagh; Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle 
The Draw: Sundance is often bereft of good comedies; it’s one of the reasons a superbly crafted one like 500 Days of Summer in 2009 or happythankyoumoreplease in 2010 can be such a treasured experience. And Brendan Gleeson is a master. I’m all in.
The Details: The Guard at


5. Kinyarwanda
The Category: Sundance, World Dramatic Competition
The Premise: Fresh, insightful, and profoundly moving, Kinyarwanda, the first dramatic feature film conceived and produced by Rwandans, is an extraordinary telling of the 1994 genocide that expands the common victim/perpetrator narrative to illuminate the complex fabric of life during the tragic event, and the even more complicated process of redemption in the truth and reconciliation process. Director/writer Alrick Brown and cowriter/producer Ishmael Ntihabose elegantly interweave six stories based on true accounts—a Tutsi/Hutu couple, a small child, a soldier, a pair of teenage lovebirds, a priest, and an Imam—as they are affected by the Muslim leadership of the time. Little is known about how the Mufti of Rwanda—the most respected Muslim leader in the country—forbade Muslims from participating in the killing of the Tutsi. As the country became a slaughterhouse, mosques became places of refuge where Muslims and Christians, Hutus and Tutsis came together to protect each other.”
The Key Players: Director Alrick Brown
The Draw: Now that’s an amazing premise. As the first dramatic feature film that’s a product of Rwandans themselves, this one would be a great story no matter what. But the promise of a hopeful story to come out of that hideous chapter of our time is encouraging indeed.
The Trailer:

KINYARWANDA Extended Trailer from Alrick Brown on Vimeo.


6. Mad Bastards
The Category: Sundance, World Dramatic Competition
The Premise: TJ is a mad bastard, and his estranged 13-year-old son Bullet is on the fast track to becoming one, too. After being turned away from his mother’s house, TJ sets off across the country to the Kimberly region of northwestern Australia to make things right with his son. Grandpa Tex has lived a tough life, and now, as a local cop, he wants to change things for the men in his community. Crosscutting between three generations, Mad Bastards is a raw look at the journey to becoming a man and the personal transformation one must make. Developed with local Aboriginal communities and fueled by a local cast, Mad Bastards draws from the rich tradition of storytelling inherent in Indigenous life. Using music from legendary Broome musicians the Pigram Brothers, writer/director Brendan Fletcher poetically fuses the harsh realities of violence, healing, and family.”
The Key Players: Director Brendan Fletcher
The Draw: Why is it that intergenerational “what it means to be a man” films always seem so much more immediate and compelling in still-wild places? Northern Australia is a place that even a relatively educated guy like me knows little about, and I’m looking forward to getting a glimpse into society there.
The Trailer:


7. Vampire
The Category: Sundance, World Dramatic Competition
The Premise: Simon seems like a fairly normal, average young man who’s devoted to his teaching job and ailing mother. Underneath the surface, however, things are not what they seem. Simon hunts through online chat rooms and message boards, searching for the perfect girl: beautiful, shy, and suicidal. Simon has a particular condition: he is compelled to drink blood. Acclaimed Japanese director Iwai Shunji demonstrates that he is a master of cinematic storytelling in any language.”
The Key Players: Director Iwai Shunji
The Draw: Yet another example of why Sundance needs to exist. Making a pensive, thoughtful film about a vampire is generally not the path to fame and fortune in Hollywood. Sundance and festivals like it give these films a chance to be seen. And if it is a complete failure—well, that’s all part of the process too.
The Details: Vampire at

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