Hold on to your hats, dear readers: the 29th annual Sundance Film Festival kicks off today in Park City, Utah. Your humble film editor is on the ground, in snow boots and several layers of sensible sweaters, with a film-going schedule that could alternately be described as “ambitious” or “insane.” But what are we to do? It’s the most prestigious festival in America for a reason — with dozens of feature films unspooling over the next eleven days, it’s a survey and preview of what we’re going to be watching, enjoying, and chattering about all year. Still, there’s always going to be a few titles that move to the top of our “must-see” list; we’ll share them with you (and explain why they’re there) after the jump.
Before Midnight DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater CAST: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Director Linklater and co-star/co-writers Hawke and Delpy pulled a fast one on all of us last year, sneaking off and shooting the third installment of their ongoing romantic chronicle while giving interviews insisting it was still just in the writing stage. But the timing was right — it’s been nine years since Before Sunset (yes, seriously, and yes, WE KNOW), which is the length of time between that film and the first of the series, Before Sunrise . In prep for Sundance (okay, using prep for Sundance as an excuse), your film editor revisited both films recently — a return viewing which confirmed that, as wonderful as the first film is, the second is a richer and deeper one (perhaps due to the addition of its actors’ voices to the screenplay). Will that pattern of improvement-upon-perfection continue? We can’t wait to find out.
Don Jon’s Addiction DIRECTOR: Joseph Gordon-Levitt CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Rob Brown
Our love of Joseph Gordon-Levitt hasn’t just been proclaimed; it’s been catalogued. But we’re not quite sure when the guy sleeps — he was in four films last year (The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Premium Rush, and Lincoln), continued to work tirelessly on his hitRECord collaborative website, and somehow found time to write and direct his first feature film. His name alone is enough to pique our interest, but with a supporting cast like that — including our beloved Julianne Moore, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ingénue Glenne Headly, and Miss Scarlett at her hubba hubba-est — this is looking like a must-see.
Sound City DIRECTOR: Dave Grohl CAST: Documentary
Our affection for Dave Grohl is roughly comparable to our crushes (man- or otherwise) on Mr. Gordon-Levitt; he kills it in concert, is continuing to make fine music in the studio, and always comes off as intelligent, funny, and self-deprecating in interviews. He seems like a guy who can do it all, so why wouldn’t he be able to make a documentary? The topic is juicy as well: Grohl tells the tale of Sound City Studios, the fabled Van Nuys facility where several classic albums (including Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, and Nirvana’s Nevermind) were recorded, and documents the resurrection of its fabled soundboard to create one more record. Sound City is just one of several intriguing music-related docs at this year’s fest; also on the slate are Muscle Shoals, the story of another fabled studio; Twenty Feet from Stardom, a celebration of back-up singers; and Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer, which presumably needs no explanation.
Upstream Color DIRECTOR: Shane Carruth CAST: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins
Shane Carruth’s challenging, fascinating, and occasionally impenetrable Primer won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize back in 2004 and became a brainy cult hit, particularly among those who like a bit of Kubrick in their coffee. But Carruth all but disappeared from the indie landscape; this is his first film since that big breakthrough. According to the Sundance film guide, it concerns a young woman who is “unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again” — in other words, anyone afraid that Carruth was going to sell out for his sophomore effort need not have worried.
Toy’s House DIRECTOR: Jordan Vogt-Roberts CAST: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Alison Brie, Mary Lynn Rajskub
This coming-of-age comedy drama from Jordan Vogt-Roberts (making his feature debut) caught our eye with its ace supporting cast. Robinson, Basso, and Arias are the stars (playing three adolescents who break away from their homes and live in the woods), but get a load of that bench: Flavorwire friend Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson), his wife Megan Mullally (aka “Tammy Number Two” and Will & Grace’s Karen), Marry Lynn Rajskub from The Larry Sanders Show and Mr. Show (and, fine, 24), and (sigh) Community’s Alison Brie. We say any movie that could get that crew on board is worth checking out.
The Way, Way Back DIRECTOR: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash CAST: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James
Speaking of Community, here’s The Way, Way Back, the directorial debut of “Dean Pelton” himself, Jim Rash — who co-writes and co-directs with Nat Faxon, with whom he penned the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Descendants. (You may recall their acceptance speech.) This script has been floating around for a while, as the duo resisted selling it to another director (it’s been around so long, in fact, that they had to retitle it after another film called The Way Back was released last year); based on the talent their Oscar win drew to it, it’s looking like it was worth the wait.
Touchy Feely DIRECTOR: Lynn Shelton CAST: Rosemarie DeWitt, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Josh Pais
Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister was one of our favorite movies of Sundance 2012, and she’s not sleeping on it: she’s back this year with a new comedy/drama, and with Sister star Rosemarie DeWitt in tow. Also promising: yet another chance to enjoy the work of last year’s primary object of “Who is that terrific actor?” questions, Scott McNairy (Argo/Killing Them Softly/Promised Land), and a Juno reunion for Ellen Page and Allison Janney (who is also in The Way, Way Back, and there is no such thing as too much Janney).
The Lifeguard DIRECTOR: Liz W. Garcia CAST: Kristen Bell, Mamie Gummer, Martin Starr, Alex Shaffer, Amy Madigan, Joshua Harto, David Lambert
We’ve probably spent a bit too much time and energy puzzling over the career of the wonderful Kristen Bell, whose dazzling three-season performance as Veronica Mars was one of contemporary television’s best, but whose film choices since that show’s sadly premature end have ranged from problematic (Hit and Run, Serious Moonlight) to horrifying (When in Rome, You Again, Burlesque). Hopefully going the indie route will help; this comedy/drama sounds both terrifyingly relatable — she plays a 30-year-old who ends up living at home and working her high school job — and promising, particularly with Freaks and Geeks and Party Down’s invaluable Martin Starr in the mix.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks DIRECTOR: Alex Gibney CAST: Documentary
Alex Gibney is one of the most gifted documentary filmmakers out there: whether investigating torture (Taxi to the Dark Side), Congressional corruption (Casino Jack and the United States of Money), the fall of a governor (Client 9), the Enron scandal (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), or just a famously fumbled baseball (Catching Hell), his films have the brains and intellectual brawn of good investigative journalism, and the wit and innovation of great cinema. He’s also wildly prolific; his furiously powerful Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (one of our ten best docs of last year) has barely left theaters and he’s already got another one on deck — taking on a topic that seems a perfect match for his unique gifts.
C.O.G. DIRECTOR: Kyle Patrick Alvarez CAST: Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, Corey Stoll, Dean Stockwell, Casey Wilson, Troian Bellisario
As noted in the Sundance Film Guide, C.O.G. is the “first film adaptation of David Sedaris’ work.” ‘Nuff said.
That’s what we’re looking forward to at “The ‘dance” — Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments.