20 Sundance Films We're Looking Forward To (2014)

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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.

20,000 Days on Earth


The Category: World Documentary
The Sundance Synopsis: Nick Cave has long been one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in the music and film world. 20,000 Days on Earth enhances his mystique. This innovative drama/documentary features Cave as both subject and coconspirator, intimately documenting his artistic process and combining it with a fictional staged narrative of his 20,000th day on Earth. As a result, the film also explores the creative spirit. The film weaves two parallel narrative threads. The first is a cinematic portrait of Cave’s 20,000th day, created through a series of staged, but not scripted, scenes and encounters. The second looks in depth at his creativity—from writing through recording and rehearsal to performance.

This unique blend of documentary essay and cinematic fiction demonstrates the connection between Cave and the filmmakers, visual artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard; all three are illuminating the search for truth through artifice and myth. Ultimately, 20,000 Days on Earth reaches beyond Cave to ask all of us how many days we’ve been alive and what use we’ve made of that time.

All the Beautiful Things

The Key Players: Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard; Nick Cave
The Draw: Just spending an hour and a half or so inside the mind of Nick Cave would be fascinating enough. But the themes of time and lifetime, and the 20,000-day take on it, make this one a must-see.


The Category: U.S. Documentary
The Sundance Synopsis: All the Beautiful Things describes the palpable and uniquely portrayed real-life experience of two men seeking to repair their lifelong, but fractured, bond. Looking to move beyond their individual and shared histories of domestic violence, poverty, and racism, each seeks redemption and solace.

Best friends John Harkrider and Barron Claiborne reunite in a crowded New York jazz club to confront the actions that caused the extended rift in their longtime friendship. Both men recount chapters of their tumultuous childhoods and growing-up years in different areas of Boston. Striking black-and-white illustrations ground the unfolding story. Weaving in conversations with a stunning bartender amidst a live band’s performance, All the Beautiful Things conveys the raw emotional power of director John Harkrider’s life story. His vibrant new work is a distinctive portrayal of a night of intense conversation between old friends hoping to right past wrongs.


Cold in July

The Key Players: Director John Harkrider
The Draw: This is the kind of documentary that a great festival should be finding and showing. What an amazing concept. We hope it lives up to it in its execution.


The Category: Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Not yet available.
The Key Players: Director Richard Linklater; Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette
The Draw: The biggie, on the narrative side at least. Richard Linklater is a master American filmmaker, and directed our favorite film of last year. For twelve years he’s been filming a scene a year with the same actors to chronicle a young boy’s coming of age.


The Category: U.S. Dramatic
The Sundance Synopsis:How can a split-second decision change your life? While investigating noises in his house one balmy Texas night in 1989, Richard Dane puts a bullet in the brain of low-life burglar Freddy Russell. Although he’s hailed as a small-town hero, Dane soon finds himself fearing for his family’s safety when Freddy’s ex-con father, Ben, rolls into town, hell-bent on revenge.
Michael C. Hall brings a shell-shocked vulnerability to his portrayal of Dane that contrasts perfectly with the grizzled badasses portrayed by Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. Directed with an excellent eye for the visual poetry of noir, this pulpy, southern-fried mystery is a throwback to an older breed of action film, one where every punch and shotgun blast opens up both physical and spiritual wounds. Twists and turns accelerate as the film reaches its inevitable destination: a gore-soaked dead end. Cold in July is as muggy, oppressive, and hard to shake as an east Texas summer.

Finding Fela

The Key Players: Director Jim Mickle; Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard
The Draw: Mickle has proven himself to be a very promising young filmmaker. Even his high-concept films are pensive and thoughtful; the fact that he’s turning his hand to a more low-concept story is exciting.


The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: No individual better embodies African music of the 1970s and ’80s—and its pivotal role in postcolonial political activism—than Fela Kuti. After quickly taking his native Nigeria by storm, the pioneering musician’s confrontational Afrobeat sound soon spread throughout the continent and beyond, even as it made determined enemies of the repressive Nigerian military regime. As a result of continued persecution, increasingly unorthodox behavior, and, eventually, complications due to HIV, Kuti’s final years saw his musical output and influence wane.

Within the past decade, a resurgence of interest in his work has posthumously repopularized Kuti, culminating in the massively successful Broadway show FELA!, written by Jim Lewis and directed by Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones. Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney interweaves the show’s skillful staging with a treasure trove of period interviews and hypnotic performances to recapture the essence of the man, his music, and his enduring cultural and political relevance.


The Key Players: Director Alex Gibney; Fela Kuti
The Draw: Alex Gibney is, of course, one of America’s greatest documentarians, so we have high expectations for this one. And even if it falters, at least it will be fun to listen to.


The Category: Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Frank is a comedy about a young wannabe musician, Jon, who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a band of eccentric pop musicians led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank and his terrifying sidekick, Clara. Frank’s uniqueness lies in the fact that he makes music purely for the joy of creating…and because he wears a giant fake head. After a rocky start, Jon ingratiates himself with the band members, and they retreat to a cabin in the woods to record an album. As his influence waxes, creative tensions mount, and the band’s entire raison d’être is called into question.

Already a presence at the Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto film festivals, director Lenny Abrahamson makes his Sundance debut with a captivating offering featuring a phenomenal cast, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Michael Fassbender as you’ve never seen him before. The ensemble creates lasting images and sounds for a film that playfully examines the nature of art and artists. Frank possesses such creative audacity and thought-provoking observations—propelled by a barrage of wit, performance, and, of course, song—that you are bound to emerge feeling as if you have seen and heard something completely original.

God Help the Girl

The Key Players: Director Lenny Abrahamson; Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
The Draw: I know, I know. It sounds like a ridiculous premise. But after seeing that Fassbender was involved, and especially after a great preview conversation with director Lenny Abrahamson, I think this one’s going to work.


The Category: World Dramatic
The Sundance Synopsis: Eve is a catastrophe—low on self-esteem but high on fantasy, especially when it comes to music. Over the course of one Glasgow summer, she meets two similarly rootless souls: posh Cass and fastidious James, and together they form a group.

In God Help the Girl, first-time writer/director Stuart Murdoch creates a poignant coming-of-age story that doubles as an indie-pop musical. The project began as a suite of songs, written while Murdoch was in between records and tours as lead singer of Belle and Sebastian. He nurtured it for nearly a decade into a fully formed film, set in the bohemian fantasia of Glasgow’s West End, which is populated by mods, rockers, and emo kids who sing and dance. With its mix of memorable songs and strong lead performances, God Help the Girl is sure to stick with you.

Happy Christmas

The Key Players: Director Stuart Murdoch; Emily Browning
The Draw: Former Paste cover boy Stuart Murdoch turns his hand to directing. We’re longtime fans of his music, and if his filmmaking is anywhere close, we’re in for a treat.


The Category: U.S. Dramatic
The Sundance Synopsis: It’s almost Christmas, and Jenny just broke up with her boyfriend. Without a real plan, she moves into her brother, Jeff, and sister-in-law, Kelly’s, spacious bachelor-pad basement in Chicago. As she reconnects with old friends and attempts to put her life back together, she continues to self-sabotage by repeatedly getting drunk and high. Kelly becomes fed up with Jenny’s immature behavior but soon realizes that she, too, feels stuck. As Christmas draws near, Jenny and Kelly realize that they can offer each other the solace and support they’ve both been craving.

Director Joe Swanberg returns to Sundance Film Festival (his film Uncle Kent played at the 2011 Festival) with his signature voyeuristic approach to filmmaking, offering a refreshing and candid look at complicated family interactions. His wonderfully imperfect characters pull each other out of their respective ruts and bring a strikingly human element to a story we all know well. The female characters in this film form a tight bond—a drunken sisterhood of sorts—enabling them to discover their true potential.

I Origins

The Key Players: Director Joe Swanberg; Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham
The Draw: After building his career on fascinating, shoot-it-quick-and-dirty delights like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Uncle Kent, Joe Swanberg made a fascinating turn last year into more conventional filmmaking with the excellent Drinking Buddies. he’s still doing the former, but Happy Christmas appears to be the latter. We’ll keep watching both.


The Category: Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Ian Gray, a PhD student studying molecular biology with a specialty in eye evolution, leaves his lab to go to a party and has an intense, but fleeting, encounter with a mysterious, masked model who escapes into the night. With only a picture of her stunning and iconic eyes, he tracks her down, and they fall in love. Their fundamentally different beliefs about life only serve to intensify their connection, and they vow to spend forever together. Years later, Ian and his lab partner, Karen, make a stunning discovery with profound existential implications. He must risk his life’s work and his family to travel across the world to find the truth behind what he has found and what it may mean.

Writer/director Mike Cahill returns to Sundance (Another Earth screened at the Festival in 2011) with a new, enthralling exploration of the connective tissue between love and science. He casts Brit Marling again, as well as Michael Pitt and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and utilizes their onscreen chemistry to vigorous effect. As emotionally moving as it is intellectually stimulating, I Origins solidifies Cahill’s position as a distinctive cinematic voice.


The Key Players: Director Mike Cahill; Michael Pitt, Brit Marling
The Draw: I’m an unabashed fan of Cahill’s polarizing 2012 Sundance breakthrough Another Earth, so I’m dying to see what he does his second time out.


The Category: Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Content to remain in a permanent adolescence, 28-year-old Megan clings to her job as a sign flipper for her father’s accounting company as her high school friends get married and advance their careers. When her high school boyfriend proposes unexpectedly, Megan panics and forgoes attending a professional-development retreat to hide, at least temporarily, at the home of her new 16-year-old friend, Annika, and her attractive, single dad.

Lynn Shelton, whose unique directorial voice created such crowd pleasers as Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday, crafts a warm and funny coming-of-age story about three people who find their lives intertwined in sudden, unexpected ways as they try to make their way in the imperfect reality of modern-day life.

The Key Players: Director Lynn Shelton; Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garlin, Mark Webber
The Draw: Lynn Shelton is one of the most exciting American directors working today. Many found last year’s Touchy Feely a disappointment (although we liked it a good bit), but Laggies looks to be a crowd pleaser.

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