Twenty-four years ago Sex, Lies, and Videotape almost single-handedly turned a nice little film festival in a ski resort town into the annual feeding frenzy it remains today, as the seemingly everyone in the business of making movies realized independent films might actually make some money for them. So now we have the many-headed monster that is Sundance (not to mention what Robert Redford has dubbed its “parasite” parallel events, mostly famously Slamdance), and you know what? It really is a BFD.
One proof of that arrived last week, when the Oscars—eternal bastion of major-studio self-congratulation—announced its nominees. High among them, jostling for room amidst the Spielbergs and such, were such 2012 Sundance alumni as Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions and Searching for Sugar Man—and nobody blinked at this shocking invasion of little-indies-that-could into the company of movies whose Oscar-campaign budgets were possibly larger than their own entire budgets. Not so long ago such an occurrence would have seemed unlikely. But today, with Hollywood hedging its commercial bets by sticking to superheroes, sequels and not much else, the independent sector is needed to provide award-caliber movies—the kinds that actual grownups might want to see.
So, for eleven days starting this Thursday, most people seriously interested in film will find themselves paying attention—however reluctantly—to the news from Park City. Yes, there will be plenty of celebrity photo ops, exclusive parties, “gifting lounges” (kill me now), distributor bidding wars, and young industry types unaccustomed to actual winter weather swapping this year’s flu virus with each other. There will also be, no doubt, a few pretty fatuous big-stars-go-indie-slumming vehicles premiered, though expectations can always be overturned—advance skepticism has zeroed in on the looming incongruity of Ashton Kutcher as (Steven) JOBS, but I hold out hope that this closing-night biopic just might be less about the man’s “visionary” side than the one that was by all accounts the Worst Boss Ever. Hey, anything is possible.
But of course there’s plenty to look forward to without flinching. What follows is a highly subjective list of eight especially promising Sundance premieres, though it’s the nature of the beast that some of the festival’s highest highlights (like Beasts of the Southern Wild) come out of practically nowhere. As anyone who’s ever attended Sundance knows—and I’ve attended more than my share, covering for Variety since 1997—the picks made in advance almost never turn out to be the ones that word-of-mouth directs you toward once the movies actually get seen.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman made an adventurous jump to narrative filmmaking with 2010 Sundance opener HOWL, which starred James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in a semi-animated depiction of that legendary poem’s history and content. But they’d already been among the most acclaimed documentarians of recent decades, their resume including such superb work as Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk and the duo’s Common Threads, The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175. Their second wade into narrative cinema is also their first non-gay subject: Linda Lovelace (played by Amanda Seyfried), who became the first porn superstar in 1972’s taboo-breaking Deep Throat. But fame and its aftermath brought a lot of grief to the erstwhile Bronx-bred Catholic high schooler. Its all-star cast includes Franco, Peter Sarsgaard, Hank Azaria and Sharon Stone.
2. History of the Eagles Part One
As usual Sundance this year features plenty of docs about music and musicians, including Dave Grohl’s directorial debut (Sound City) and a portrait of famous—but not quite famous enough—backup singers (Twenty Feet from Stardom). But hopes for the juiciest revelations are surely pinned upon Alison Ellwood’s biopic about the 1970s soft-rock supergroup whose hits were as twangy-sweet as their off-stage chemistry was legendarily sour.
Goofy comedies are always a Sundance mainstay, and few proved so popular and influential as 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite. Now its cowriter Jerusha Hess is back with her first directorial project—also the first not directed by her husband, Jared Hess. The concept is irresistible: Diehard romantics who wish the Regency Era had never ended—at least not its literary form—swarm to the titular English theme park to indulge their fantasies of chaste courtship and flattering retro dress styles. Keri Russell and the ever-hilarious Jennifer Coolidge are among those looking for love in all the wrong centuries.
4. Crystal Fairy
Sebastian Silva, the Chilean writer-director who created 2009’s excellent The Maid, has two films at Sundance this year. Quasi-horror-sounding Magic Magic in the Park City at Midnight section sounds promising enough. But this mostly English-language film—also about tourists in rural Chile—sounds like it might equal The Maid mixture of sharp black comedy and surprising emotional depth. Michael Cera plays a spoiled, obnoxious Yank abroad whose quest to try a legendary local hallocinogenic might prove enlightening in ways he doesn’t expect.
5. God Loves Uganda
Tea Party types may not have triumphed at the polls in November, but they have other fields to till—as Roger Ross Williams’ surprising documentary reveals. American Christian fundamentalists have chosen desperately poor Uganda as their launching point for a new sort of religious colonialism in which “salvation” on the most conservative evangelical terms is the price demanded for the West’s material charity. When the Sundance catalog calls it “the most terrifying film of the year”—over the docs about Wisconsin’s hyperactively social-engineering GOP, not to mention the ones called Dirty Wars and The World According to Dick Cheney—you know for once the hype might be worth paying attention to.
6. 99%—The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film
Ah, “Occupy”…wasn’t that rare latterday instance of actual widespread liberal activism ages and ages ago? Or so the media would have had us think. Has it really gone away so completely, left so little mark? Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites’ documentary promises to correct that popular impression with a sweeping overview of Occupy’s brief history and its considerable impact. Perhaps it will re-ignite a public debate that has been skewed back toward the plusses and minuses of extreme conservatism since that faraway era of…2011. Another likely incendiary doc premiere: The self-explanatory We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.
7. Prince Avalanche
This is just the sort of big-star, big-deal project that usually seems ill-suited to Sundance, no matter its players’ pedigree, and often disappoints in that context. Yet very indie-originated David Gordon Greene made something hilarious of Pineapple Express and James Franco. So odds are good he might be able to do the same with this more comedic remake of a Icelandic dual character study (last year’s Either Way) and actor Emile Hirsch. Playing the other half of a duo awkwardly paired for summertime traffic-line painting on a rural highway, Paul Rudd won’t surprise anyone if he’s very funny.
Every prior feature from South Korean maverick Park Chan-wook (Thirst, the Vengeance trilogy) has been a stunner, so naturally expectations are high for his first English-language feature. Mia Wasikowska stars as a teenager whose shock over the loss of her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) and the resultant mental tether-snapping of her mother (Nicole Kidman) is compensated for in the strangest ways by the arrival of a hitherto unknown uncle (Matthew Goode). A confident prediction: Things will get grotesque.
Needless to say, that list just scratches the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t touched upon new films by such established Amerindie names as Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), directorial debuts by interesting actors (Lake Bell’s In a World…, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Juan’s Addiction), the latest from mumblecore graduates Lynn Shelton (Touchy Feely) and Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess), plus documentaries about Google, Pussy Riot, the real (as opposed to Zero Dark Thirty version) hunt for Osama bin Laden…and so on and so forth.
Let’s face it, any edition of Sundance has innumerable films that sound unmissable—at least until a week or two from now, when some will turn out to be quite missable after all. But their number won’t include next year’s Beasts, Sessions, or Invisible War, those variably under-radar titles that turn out to be among the year’s best movies.
It’s been a couple decades now that Sundance has had its pick amongst new non-mainstream films—at least the U.S. ones—and so each January we must pay attention, however grudgingly. Because what plays Sundance over the next 11 days will likely encompass a big share of the movies we want to see in theaters over the next year and beyond. Those movies not featuring weight-lifting dudes in latex soaring into the sky to punch each other, that is.