Tomorrow marks the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival, the annual winter movie orgy/buyer’s market/excuse to party for those who make, buy, watch, and act in independent films (or what passes for independent, in this IMAX 3-D superhero climate). Your humble film editor is traveling to Park City (for the first time) to take it all in: the swag, the hobnobbing, the VIP parties. Or he may just end up going to movies all day and staying up all night writing stuff about them. That’s probably a bit more likely.
Taking on the screening schedule is a bit daunting; the festival is screening 110 feature-length films from 31 countries, and, well, there’s only so many hours in the day. (If you think that’s heavy, it’s worth noting that the number of submissions was up to 4,042 films. Yikes.) But I think I’ve plucked out the cream of the crop; I’ll probably find out that I’m wrong, that the movie I missed to see the Sean-Penn-as-an-emo-Nazi-hunter movie (yes, that’s real) ends up winning the competition and getting picked up for $5 million by the Weinstein Company. But until that happens, here’s the ten Sundance films I’m most looking forward to.
Sleepwalk with Me
Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s first appearance on This American Life (above) was a turning point for his career — no one who heard his story of a sleepwalking episode gone horribly awry was likely to forget it. He turned that story into a one-man off-Broadway show and book; now, with the help of TAL’s Ira Glass (who is one of the film’s producers and screenwriters), he’s brought the story to the big screen. In addition to the always-welcome Lauren Ambrose, the cast list is a who’s-who of modern stand-ups; Marc Maron, Wyatt Cenac, Hannibal Buress, Jesse Klein, Kristen Schaal, Amy Schumer, and David Wain are among the cast. It sounds like a wet dream for alt-comedy and public radio fans — and thus, it’s at the top of this viewer’s list.
West of Memphis
If there’s a topic that has been given the full documentary treatment, it’s the story of the West Memphis Three, the young men from West Memphis, Arkansas who were wrongfully accused of the ritual murder of three boys back in 1993. They served 18 years for the crime, and over the course of that time, their story was told in the acclaimed Paradise Lost documentaries; those three films total something like seven hours. But here’s another look at the story, this one produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, and directed by Amy Berg, whose 2006 film Deliver Us from Evil was a harrowing and masterful look at the sex crimes that have rocked the Catholic church. With Paradise Lost 3 airing on HBO just this month, West of Memphis will tempt WM3 overload, but there’s an urgency and power to the trailer that has piqued our interest.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady directed 2006’s Jesus Camp, and are thus to thank for the priceless scene of an evangelical woman asking God to bless a PowerPoint presentation. (They also directed The Boys of Baraka, 12th and Delaware, and a segment of the omnibus Freakonomics.) They spent years in Detroit working on their latest film, a documentary portrait of urban decay in the Motor City.
2 Days in New York
Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris (trailer above) was one of the nicest surprises of 2007; what sounded like a JV Before Sunrise was instead its own charming creation, and Delpy proved a particularly capable writer/director with a unique comic voice. Now, in the spirit of Before Sunset, she returns to the story, which finds her character a single mother in New York, now dating a new man played by Chris Rock. Vincent Gallo also appears, playing himself according to IMDb — and based on what we know about Mr. Gallo’s personality, that could prove to be, well, interesting.
Save the Date
Community alert: co-star (and perpetual crush object) Alison Brie co-stars with Party Down’s Lizzy Caplan and Martin Starr in what is, according to director Michael Mohan, “a romantic comedy without any of that stupid bullshit.” That’s an awfully appealing pitch, and if there’s a cast that can make it happen, this is it.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Time travel movies always catch our attention (particularly at Sundance, where Primer premiered in 2004), and this one’s got one more reason to give it a look: Aubrey Plaza, who’s playing one of the three potential time travelers in this comedy/drama from Colin Tervorrow. “She’s very cynical,” the director says of Plaza’s character. We’ll try to wrap our heads around that idea.
Hello I Must Be Going
If you love High Fidelity like we do, you’ll recognize director Todd Louiso from his unforgettable performance as meek Championship Vinyl clerk Dick. But he’s also a fine director; he helmed the genuinely sad Love Liza a few years back, which featured Philip Seymour Hoffman in his first leading role. This time, he’s giving the great character actress Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures, Win Win, The Informant!, Up in the Air) a chance to move front and center — and good for that.
Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare
As we all discovered a couple of summers back, there are few topics as potentially incendiary as the American health care system: if it’s broken, how it’s broken, why it’s broken, and how to fix it. Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke’s documentary looks at the health care industry as it currently exists — both in American life and in the military. It’s a big, tricky concept to tackle within the confines of a two-hour documentary, but it’s ripe for a real discussion beyond the buzzwords that took over the debate.
How’s this for an impressive cast: Common, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, and Michael Kenneth Williams (aka “Omar” on The Wire). Sheldon Candis pulled them all in for this drama, which concerns an 11-year-old kid who spends a day with the uncle he idolizes and discovers that he might not be such a great guy.
I Am Not a Hipster
I mean, come on. How can you resist that title?