Last night, the 36th annual Sundance Film Festival kicked off in Park City, Utah, a small resort town taken over, for a week and a half each year, by a gaggle of stars, independent filmmakers, moviegoers, and press. But it wasn’t always such a big deal; it was originally dubbed the Utah/US Film Festival and held in early fall, only moving to mid-winter in 1981 so that the nearby slopes would draw otherwise uninterested Hollywood types. (I like to remind myself of this little story while trudging through the snow and cold there.) For the third year in a row, your Flavorwire is on the ground in Utah, soaking up some of the year’s most promising independent films. Here are a few of our most anticipated titles:
Director: Richard Linklater Cast: Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane
At a Sundance screening of Before Midnight last year, I asked director Linklater about the mysterious film referred to only as “Untitled 12-Year Project” on his IMDb page. He said little: “We’re doing this film over a long period of time. It’s a narrative, it’s not a documentary. It’s about a kid going growing up.” We now know a bit more — it was indeed shot in pieces over 12 years, as young Ellar Coltrane matured from first to 12th grade, with Hawke and Arquette as his parents. And unsurprisingly (considering the arc of his and Hawke’s Before… series), it continues the director’s pattern of using cinema and the passage of time to capture ongoing stories, fusing narrative storytelling with documentary conventions. Added to the Sundance slate just this past week (the rest of the films were announced weeks ago), Boyhood has quickly become the festival’s hardest ticket to get.
Director: Lynn Shelton Cast: Keira Knightley, Sam Rockwell, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garlin
Shelton is quickly becoming the Woody Allen of the Sundance set; this is the third year straight that she’s had a new comedy/drama at the festival, following the delightful Your Sister’s Sister and the surprisingly moving Touchy Feely (which made our top 20 of 2013). Add in a cast full of people we love — I mean seriously, who can resist a filmmaker with the good sense to put Rockwell, Garlin, and Kemper into the same movie — and this is an easy call.
Director: Steve James
This documentary profile of Roger Ebert, adapted from his wonderful memoir, had already been announced shortly before his death last year. And the personnel involved gave him a thrill: the executive producer is Martin Scorsese, one of the film critic’s favorite moviemakers and most frequent subjects, and the director is Steve James, whose Hoop Dreams was one of Ebert’s most beloved films. With that pedigree, Life Itself promises to be more than just an in-memoriam piece; expect a vibrant look at a beloved national figure who brought movie criticism to the masses.
Director: Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks premiered (amid much controversy) at Sundance 2013, so it’s not surprising that the prolific filmmaker has another one ready for this year (and put out yet another doc, The Armstrong Lie, in between). Dipping his toe into the waters of the music documentary, Gibney profiles the late Fela Kuti, Nigerian musician and Afrobeat legend. Sundance gives us at least one magnificent music doc a year (it was 20 Feet from Stardom last year, Searching for Sugar Man the year before that); considering Gibney’s considerable skill, Fela could be that movie this time around.
Director: David Cross Cast: Meredith Hagner, Matt Walsh, James Adomian, Jake Cherry, Derek Waters
Though he was heavily involved in the writing of Mr. Show (and its spin-off film Run Ronnie Run), David Cross has never done the solo writer/director thing — until now. Upright Citizens Brigade’s Walsh leads the cast, which is further peppered by the likes of Wyatt Cenac, David Koechner, Cross’ It’s a Disaster co-star Julia Stiles, and Arrested Development co-star Michael Cera.
Director: John Slattery Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, John Turturro
Another TV fave turns director, as Mad Men’s John Slattery follows up five episodes behind the camera on that show by helming this adaptation of Peter Dexter’s novel. He brings Christina Hendricks along for the ride, as part of a rich ensemble headed up by Philip Seymour Hoffman (himself a busy presence at the ‘dance, where he also leads Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man).
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Director: David and Nathan Zellner Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner,
So here’s a fascinating case of art imitating life imitating art: the Coen Brothers’ Fargo claimed to be inspired by a true story — though it wasn’t — and because of that claim, a 28-year-old Japanese woman named Takako Knoishi tried to go find the money that was hidden on a snowy road in the film. And in the process, she died. Now her story has inspired a film of its own, with Oscar nominee Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim) in the title role and Alexander Payne (and his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor) exec-producing.
Director: Joe Swanberg Cast: Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Joe Swanberg
Hyper-prolific mumblecore fave Swanberg teamed with name actors for the first time and made, by leaps and bounds, his best film in last year’s Drinking Buddies. He then went right back to making dull booby-gawkers like 24 Exposures, but hey, maybe re-teaming with Buddies’ ever-delightful Kendrick, with think-piece magnet Dunham and the wonderful Lynskey thrown in for good measure, will result in more of what he does well.
The Trip to Italy
Director: Michael Winterbottom Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Even the indie scene isn’t immune from sequel fever; last year Sundance gave us Before Midnight, and 2 Days in New York the year before. Here we have the follow-up to The Trip, the semi-improvised road comedy from versatile director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, Trishna, Tristam Shandy), this time sending stars Coogan and Brydon to Rome, Tuscany, Capri, and beyond. Coogan and Winterbottom’s Sundance ’13 entry The Look of Love was a tad underwhelming, but they should have little trouble recapturing that travelogue magic (particularly if there are Michael Caine impressions involved).
The Raid 2: Berandal
Director: Gareth Evans Cast: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara
One of the best experiences of all of my festival-going days was the Sundance 2012 screening of The Raid, a press and industry affair where the jadedness of the assembled journos, bloggers, and execs was all but punched out of us by Gareth Evans’ thrilling action extravaganza. The screening room burst into applause at the end (and that doesn’t happen much at the P&Is). So it is with great sadness that I must note that The Raid 2’s premiere will occur at about the exact moment your correspondent is due at the Salt Lake City airport. Hats off to the programmers for spreading out the big premieres, but I sure wish I’d have known about this one before getting that airline ticket. (No big deal; we’ll all see it together in March.)
Join us over the weekend as our full Sundance coverage begins and continues through the festival’s run next week.