There’s always a feeling of tense anticipation heading into the Sundance Film Festival — after all, this is the starter pistol for the year in independent film, introducing film fans, critics, and the industry to the movies they may well be talking about all year. But this year’s festival (which kicks off tonight) falls squarely in the middle of an awards season dominated by last year’s biggest ticket, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, reminding us of exactly how far a splash at Sundance can take you. Will any of this year’s high-profile indies and docs take that kind of hold in 2015? Here are a dozen movies we’re keeping our eyes on in Park City — and beyond.
The End of the Tour
David Lipsky’s 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is a fascinating document borne out of a sad desire: it was an account of a never-published Rolling Stone interview with David Foster Wallace, conducted during the publicity tour for Infinite Jest. What sounded like ghoulish exploitation of leftover scraps became a fitting tribute to the writer’s introspection and value, so fingers crossed that this dramatization of those events, directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) with Jason Segel as DFW and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, does the same.
Sleeping With Other People
Leslye Headland’s 2012 Sundance feature Bachelorette sounded like a Bridesmaids rip-off, but revealed an edgier, nastier voice with a gift for dark ensemble comedy. Now she’s back with a sex-drenched riff on When Harry Met Sally…, populated by a cast (Alison Brie, Jason Sudeikis, Adam Scott, Amanda Peet, Jason Mantzoukas, and Natasha Lyonne) that sounds genetically engineered to elicit the affection of your film editor.
Digging for Fire
Another ace ensemble — Jake Johnson, Rosemarie Dewitt, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Sam Elliot, Melanie Lynskey, Chris Messina, Jenny Slate, and Anna Kendrick — anchors the latest from the comically prolific Joe Swanberg, who here credits Drinking Buddies co-star Johnson as co-writer (inasmuch as his improvisation-heavy films are “written” at all).
Z for Zachariah
One of Sundance 2012’s most feverishly debated titles was Compliance, a provocative and disturbing dramatization of the power of unchecked authority from writer/director Craig Zobel. This year, Zobel is back with a high-profile cast — Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine, and Margot Robbie — to tell the story of a post-apocalyptic love triangle that presumably (considering Zobel’s usual MO) goes horribly awry.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach and co-writer/star Greta Gerwig look to continue an admirable indie hot streak (following Greenberg and Frances Ha) with this effort, shot shortly after Frances — and before Baumbach’s other 2015 release, While We’re Young, which premiered last fall at Toronto. Got that? At any rate, their latest is, per the Sundance program, a New York-set comedy about “dream-chasing, score-settling, and cat stealing.”
I Smile Back
Back in 2011, Sarah Silverman made an impressive (and seemingly effortless) transition to dramatic acting with a turn as a recovering alcoholic in Sarah Polley’s wonderful Take This Waltz. This drama from Adam Salky finds Silverman working her serious side again as a troubled wife and mother; Josh Charles is on hand to lend support.
The D Train
Silverman’s frequent co-star Jack Black has spent the past few years taking it easy — he hasn’t fronted a major movie since 2012’s Bernie. If he was biding his time looking for a stronger vehicle than the likes of The Big Year or Gulliver’s Travels, he may have found it in this comedy from writer/directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, as the poor schlub heading up a high school reunion committee who will stop at nothing to get his most popular classmate (James Mardsen) to attend.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
This documentary exposé from director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks) and author Lawrence Wright has already drawn flack from its target, the Church of Scientology, which took out full-page ads in the New York Times denouncing the movie sight unseen. But Gibney’s had a staff of researchers and lawyers working overtime, so this is shaping up to be one of the most interesting movies (and controversies) of the festival.
The Beaver Trilogy Part IV
Trent Harris’ 2001 cult classic The Beaver Trilogy (memorably spotlighted on a 2002 episode of This American Life) was a three-part documentary/drama hybrid, profiling a real young man named “Groovin’ Gary”; Harris then re-filmed that documentary footage in 1981 (casting Sean Penn as Gary), and again in 1985 (with Crispin Golver in the role). Now director Brad Besser goes one level further, to tell the story of what happened to Gary after that film was made — and of filmmaker Harris as well.
Call Me Lucky/ Misery Loves Comedy/ Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Thanks to WTF with Marc Maron, Showtime’s Inside Comedy, and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, interest is high in examinations of exactly how, and why, we laugh. Three documentaries at this year’s festival tackle that question from very different viewpoints. Call Me Lucky takes an insider’s view (via comic-turned-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait) to profile “comic’s comic” — which is to say, unknown comic — Barry Crimmins, with the help of such colleagues as David Cross, Margaret Cho, and Patton Oswalt. Comedian, podcaster, and character actor Kevin Pollak’s Misery Loves Comedy examines the common presumption that funny people have to be deeply unhappy; 50 comics and actors (including Larry David, Janeane Garafalo, and Amy Schumer) throw in their two cents. And Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead looks at the history and influence of one of the most hallowed comic institutions in history, the satirical magazine National Lampoon.
The Sundance Film Festival runs through February 1. Keep an eye on Flavorwire for daily reports on some of this year’s most-anticipated movies.