The winter coats, hats, and gloves have been pulled out of the closets. The boots have been re-Scotchgarded. The voice recorder has fresh batteries. It’s time once again for the Sundance Film Festival. Here are the twenty films we’re most looking forward to.
The Category: NEXT
The Sundance Synopsis: Feeling disenchanted with life after retirement, Mitch, a brassy former surgeon, convinces mild-mannered Colin, his ex-brother-in-law, to holiday with him in Iceland. The pair set off through Reykjavik ice bars, trendy spas, and adventurous restaurants in an attempt to reclaim their youth, but they quickly discover that you can’t escape yourself, no matter how far you travel.
Land Ho! is a bawdy road-trip comedy as well as a candid exploration of aging, loneliness, and friendship. Iceland’s vast and haunting landscapes—moss-coated cliffs, fog-shrouded mountains, geothermal pools, and otherworldly Northern Lights—form a primordial Eden and the perfect backdrop for Mitch and Colin’s adventures.
Cowriters/directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz present seniors as we rarely see them in film: multidimensional characters full of life. Paul Eenhoorn returns to NEXT with another superb performance (This Is Martin Bonner screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival) and displays remarkable comedic chemistry with Earl Lynn Nelson, who delivers an extraordinary breakout performance as a man refusing to go gentle into that good night.
The Key Players: Directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz; Paul Eenhoorn
The Draw: Stephens’ 2012 feature Pilgrim Song first put her on our radar as a distinctive, unique voice. We’re interested to see what she does with a larger budget and a dynamic lead actor.
Last Days in Vietnam
The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: During the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army closes in on Saigon as South Vietnamese resistance crumbles. With the specter of a Communist victory looming and only a skeleton crew of diplomats and military operatives still in the country, the United States prepares to withdraw. As they begin to realize the reality of certain imprisonment and possible death of their South Vietnamese allies, American diplomats and soldiers confront a moral quandary: obey White House orders to evacuate only U.S. citizens, or risk being charged with treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they can. With the clock ticking and the city under fire, heroes emerge as a small handful of Americans take matters into their own hands.
Renowned Sundance Film Festival veteran Rory Kennedy dares to reopen the books on a war that scarred our national psyche. Chronicling a story few of us know, Kennedy’s potent documentary may both shock you and restore your faith in humanity.
The Key Players: Director Rory Kennedy
The Draw: We’ve gotten a sneak peak at this one. It’s an intriguing, well-done doc, and we predict it will be one of the most polarizing of the fest (unsurprising, given its subject matter).
The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: In 2013, we lost Roger Ebert—arguably the nation’s best-known and most influential movie critic. Based on his memoir of the same name, Life Itself recounts Ebert’s fascinating and flawed journey—from politicized school newspaperman, to Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, to Pulitzer Prize winner, to television household name, to the miracle of finding love at 50, and finally his “third act” as a major voice on the Internet when he could no longer physically speak.
Filmmaker Steve James masterfully uncovers the snags and strains hidden under Ebert’s prominence, including his battle with alcohol; his ongoing, sometimes ruthless, conflict with fellow critic Gene Siskel; and scorching debates among film critics about whether their television show reduced criticism to “consumer advice.” Ebert bridged high and low culture, defending film as a populist medium even as he championed films that challenged mainstream aesthetics and expectations. Insisting on bare honesty, Life Itself is as much a love letter to Ebert as it is an expression of Ebert’s own love—for his family, humanity in general, and, of course, the movies.
The Key Players: Director Steve James; Executive Producer Martin Scorsese
The Draw: A documentary on my favorite film critic, directed by my favorite documentarian, executive produced by my favorite narrative director? Yeah, I think you could say I’m in.
Listen Up Philip
The Category: NEXT
The Sundance Synopsis: Anger rages in Philip as he awaits the publication of his sure-to-succeed second novel. He feels pushed out of his adopted home city by the constant crowds and noise, a deteriorating relationship with his photographer girlfriend Ashley, and his own indifference to promoting the novel. When Philip’s idol, Ike Zimmerman, offers his isolated summer home as a refuge, he finally gets the peace and quiet to focus on his favorite subject—himself.
Following up his critically acclaimed The Color Wheel, Alex Ross Perry scripts a complex, intimate, and highly idiosyncratic comedy filled with New Yorkers living their lives somewhere between individuality and isolation. Jason Schwartzman leads an impressive cast, including Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, and Jonathan Pryce, balancing Perry’s quick-witted dialogue and their characters’ painful, personal truths. With narration by Eric Bogosian, we switch perspectives as seasons and attitudes change, offering a literary look into the lives of these individuals and the triumph of reality over the human spirit.
The Key Players: Director Alex Ross Perry; Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter
The Draw: A rising young director gets a chance to work with a big name cast. This is teh kind of place where Sundance magic can happen.
The Category: U.S. Dramatic
The Sundance Synopsis: Told through the wise eyes of his young daughter, Amy, Low Down chronicles the torrid, true life of jazz pianist Joe Albany. Born into her beloved father’s unorthodox segment of society, Amy’s improvisational adolescence evolves in the shadow of Joe’s struggle between his musical genius and a suffocating heroin addiction. As young Amy sifts through the demimonde of artists, musicians, and vagabonds who permeate her apartment building, she attempts to cling to the deep-rooted love she shares with her deteriorating father. As she emerges into adulthood, she is forced to define her own identity, separate from her father’s troubles.
Set against a sensuously textured 1970s Hollywood, Jeff Preiss’s deeply melodic film weaves effortlessly through time, transporting us through Amy and Joe’s journey with graceful confidence. But the bedrock of this film is the remarkable performances from Elle Fanning and John Hawkes, whose tender portrayals of Amy and Joe draw the audience into the powerful and unique love between a father and his daughter.
The Key Players: Director Jeff Preiss; John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Flea
The Draw: The Sessions. Martha Marcy May Marlene. Higher Ground. Winter’s Bone. If John Hawkes is in a Sundance film, I’m seeing it. Period. And the fact that I get to see Dinklage and Headey together on the big screen is a wonderful added bonus.
A Most Wanted Man
The Category: Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s psychological novel follows German spy Gunther Bachmann as he tracks down Issa, a suspicious Chechen-Russian immigrant on the run in Hamburg. Pressured by his German and American colleagues to capture and interrogate his suspect as a Muslim terrorist, Bachmann instead asks for more time to carefully track Issa’s movements and his relationship with his German immigration lawyer, Annabel Richter. Using his secret contacts and keen skill, Bachmann uncovers a connection between a world-renowned Muslim philanthropist and a terrorist group and devises a plan to use Issa and Annabel in a brilliant ploy to expose the scheme.
In a post-9/11 world, the fear of terrorism grips the globe. Corbijn’s captivating storytelling depicts the underbelly of the often-corrupt business of eliminating terrorists. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Bachmann is breathtaking as his complicated character strives to maintain his integrity in a grossly depraved industry awash with furtive motives.
The Key Players: Director Anton Corbijn; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright
The Draw: This might be the most anticipated narrative film at Sundance, and has inspired a bit of grumbling that it seems awfully Hollywood-y to be playing the fest. But the programmers usually choose these kinds of films well.
Nick Offerman: American Ham
The Category: Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: If you like your ham hot and steamy with a sexy side dish of full-bellied laughter, come and dine at the comic feast laid out by the one-and-only Nick Offerman. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer screened as Toy’s House in last year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition) returns to the Sundance Film Festival for the second year in a row with this live taping of Offerman’s one-man show from the Town Hall theatre in New York.
In Nick Offerman: American Ham, the humorist widely known for his breakout role as Ron Swanson in NBC’s Parks and Recreation serves up “10 Tips for a Prosperous Life”—tips that run the gamut from “carry a hanky” to “have a relationship with Jesus Christ … if it gets you laid.” And, of course, if it does get you laid, you can always use that hanky to clean up the spunk. These are but morsels in a full-on comedy banquet of philosophical anecdotes, irreverent songs, and practical woodworking tips served up saucy by one very talented comic ham, complete with minor nudity.
The Key Players: Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts; Nick Offerman
The Draw: Sure, it’s likely to be not much different from going to see Offerman live. Um, which is AWESOME.
No No: A Dockumentary
The Category: U.S. Documentary
The Sundance Synopsis: The story of the pitcher who threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid—known by fans and nonfans alike—has become emblematic of professional baseball’s excess in the 1970s. However, that pitcher, Dock Ellis, had a career and a life that transcended one use of LSD. During a time when the insular world of baseball was clashing with the world outside, Ellis was widely known as one of the most unabashedly black baseball players ever. Nearly suspended for wearing curlers in his hair and refusing to apologize for or moderate his aggressive behavior, Ellis used drugs to hide his crippling fear of failure.
No No: A Dockumentary provides the backstory to an outrageous anecdote by presenting the full life—warts and all—of a unique baseball player and human being. From Jackie Robinson to Donald Hall, Ron Howard, and others, Dock Ellis touched the lives of many people, as told in this surprising story of redemption.
The Key Players: Director Jeffrey Radice
The Draw: Yes, you read that correctly. A no-hitter. On LSD.
Ping Pong Summer
The Category: NEXT
The Sundance Synopsis: The year is 1985. Rad Miracle is a shy, 13-year-old white kid obsessed with two things: Ping-Pong and hip-hop. During his family’s annual summer vacation to Ocean City, Maryland, Rad makes a new best friend, experiences his first real crush, becomes the target of rich, racist local bullies, and finds an unexpected mentor in his outcast next-door neighbor. Ping Pong Summer is about that time in your life when you’re treated like an alien by everyone around you, even though you know—deep down—you’re as funky fresh as it gets.
Writer/director Michael Tully creates the ultimate love letter to the 1980s coming-of-age comedy with this vivid cinematic time capsule. Hilarious in content and meticulously designed, Tully’s film relishes making an artifact of pop culture through synth-heavy suspense, Super 16 shades, and classic characters with original quirks. _Ping Pong Summer _is a high five to the 13-year-old inside all of us who is hoping to come out on top.
The Key Players: Director Michael Tully; Susan Sarandon, Lea Thompson, Amy Sedaris
The Draw: If you saw Septien, you know that Tully’s got a wildly anarchic streak to his filmmaking. When directors like that work within more conventional genre trappings (as is the case here), the results can be stunning. Expect this one to be one of the sleeper hits of the fest.
The Category: Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Sam is a former high-profile advertising executive whose life has been torn apart by the tragic death of his son. Off the grid, living on a docked sailboat, he drowns his pain in alcohol. When Sam discovers a box filled with his son’s demo tapes and lyrics, his own child’s musical talent is a revelation for him, a grieving father who felt he’d been absent from his son’s life. Communing with his deceased son’s dashed dreams, Sam learns each song and eventually musters the will to play one at a local bar. When Quentin, a young musician in the audience, is captivated by the song, the unlikely duo form a rock band that becomes surprisingly popular and changes both of their lives.
A searing performance from Billy Crudup, as Sam, leads an exemplary cast that includes Anton Yelchin as Quentin, plus Selena Gomez and Laurence Fishburne. Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison’s potent screenplay was the launching pad for acclaimed actor William H. Macy’s glorious feature-directing debut. Rudderless is a poignant musical drama about the power of a parent’s love.
The Key Players: Director William H. Macy; Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman, Selena Gomez, Laurence Fishburne
The Draw: Anything that former Paste cover boy William H. Macy wants to bring us, we’re down for it.
WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Infamous gangster James “Whitey” Bulger wielded a mystique as the Robin Hood of South Boston. Fabricated in his hometown, Bulger’s legend captured the imagination of the entire country. Separating the man from the myth, this riveting documentary challenges conventional wisdom by detailing shocking new allegations.
With unprecedented access, filmmaker Joe Berlinger utilizes this past summer’s sensational trial against Bulger as a springboard to explore corruption within the highest levels of law enforcement. Embedded for months with retired FBI agents, Massachusetts state police, victims, lawyers, gangsters, journalists, and federal prosecutors, Berlinger scrutinizes Bulger’s relationship with the FBI and Department of Justice—an interaction that allowed him to reign over a criminal empire for decades.
Academy Award nominee Berlinger returns to the Sundance Film Festival for the sixth time with this mesmerizing and complex account of crime and corruption. WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger relates a universal tale of human frailty, opportunism, and deception and reveals the often-elusive nature of truth and justice.
The Key Players: Director Joe Berlinger
The Draw: I’m not sure why this doc isn’t getting more pre-fest love. Berlinger is a fantastic (and celebrated) filmmaker, and this is one of the most fascinating high-profile news stories of the last few years. What am I missing here?