It will be very hard for this year’s Sundance Film Festival to top last year’s, which offered an embarrassment of riches.
There were the documentaries ICARUS, STEP, City of Ghosts and Casting JonBenet, as well as the debuts of some of the best films of the year, including: Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound, The Big Sick, A Ghost Story, Columbus, and a surprise raucous midnight screening of Jordan Peele’s Get Out that won’t soon be forgotten.
It was a chaotic festival, too. Every day brought with it up to two feet of snow and astronomically high Uber surges. There was a satellite Women’s March up Main Street led by Chelsea Handler that, unfortunately, counted Harvey Weinstein among its ranks. And… did I mention the bad weather? It was really bad. Trudging through snowstorms at 7,000 feet is nobody’s idea of fun.
This year’s edition of the world’s premier (sorta) independent film festival, running Jan. 18 - 28, will once again see 50,000-plus people descend on Park City, Utah, for ten days of films, talks, parties, and hopefully some skiing, as well as this year’s edition of the satellite Women’s March, dubbed the Respect Rally, taking place Saturday morning.
And as far as this year’s films go, there are plenty of anticipated releases. Here are the ones that caught our eye.
Director: Jesse Peretz
Cast: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd
Jesse Peretz, who’s directed some of the best episodes of HBO’s Girls, returns to the fest for the first time since 2011’s breezy comedy Our Idiot Brother with this buzzy feature about a woman (Byrne) stuck in a relationship with a man (O’Dowd) who’s an obsessive fan of the musician Tucker Crowe (Hawke). A chance encounter leads to a long-distance romance with the rocker. The film is adapted from a novel by Nick Hornby and co-produced by Judd Apatow, who helped shepherd last year’s Sundance smash The Big Sick.
Director: Craig William Macneill
Cast: Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Kim Dickens
This one sounds an awful lot like Monster, the film that led to an Oscar win for star Charlize Theron. Set in 1892, it tells the tale of Lizzie Borden (Sevigny), a woman who became a media sensation after being tried (and acquitted) for the gruesome axe murders of her father and stepmother. Here, the film dramatizes both the budding romantic relationship between Lizzie and Bridget (Stewart), the family’s live-in maid, and the abuse she suffered, leading her to unravel.
Director: Claire McCarthy
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, Tom Felton
It’s Star Wars’ Rey in a clever retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the eyes of Ophelia, as the Danish noblewoman secretly romances the beguiling prince amid rising tensions within the kingdom. The film also boasts a helluva cast, including one of the world’s greatest—and criminally underutilized—actresses, Naomi Watts.
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Richard Brake
The publicity photo for this midnight movie is Nicolas Cage’s face covered in blood. Sold. Add to that a plot involving Cage on a revenge-rampage after a pack of religious zealots murders his beloved (Riseborough) and you have a recipe for some thoroughly captivating chaos.
Director: Sebastian Silva
Cast: Jason Mitchell, Christopher Abbott, Caleb Landry Jones, Ann Dowd, Michael Cera
I have a very good feeling about this, the latest from Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva (The Maid). It’s a tension-building thriller centering on Tyler (Mitchell), a black man who accompanies his friend on a trip to the Catskills, along with several strangers. Soon, he realizes he’s the only black person there, which, when the drinking and rowdiness picks up, places him in a very vulnerable position
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
Director: Tim Wardle
I’ve already had the pleasure of seeing this gripping documentary. It’s filled with so many dark twists that I wouldn’t dare give too much away, but Wardle’s film centers on three complete strangers—Eddy Galland, Bobby Shafran and David Kellman—who reunite in 1980 New York after discovering that they are identical triplets separated at birth. They subsequently become tabloid sensations…and then things get very, very dark.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Director: Boots Riley
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Patton Oswalt
The plot to this movie sounds nuts, featuring Stanfield as a telemarketing stud, Thompson as an underground Banksy-esque street artist, and Hammer as Stanfield’s cocaine-huffing, orgy-having CEO. Oh, and look at that cast.
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Christopher Abbott, Laia Costa, Wendell Pierce
Sundance has a sterling reputation for hosting some genuinely twisted midnight movies. I still vividly remember screening Oldboy here at the Prospector Square Theatre over a decade ago at midnight, five beers deep. What a blast. Based on a novel by Ryu Murakami, this nightmarish film follows a deranged husband (Abbott) who has designs on killing a prostitute (Wasikowska). He doesn’t expect the tables to turn. The poster for the film features splotches of blood and a person in a black leather gimp suit, so…expect plenty of fireworks.
Director: Crystal Moselle
Cast: Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith, Nina Moran
Filmmaker Crystal Moselle earned critical raves for her debut film, the 2015 documentary The Wolfpack, which premiered at Sundance. She returns with her feature debut, telling the story of an 18-year-old female skateboarder who stumbles upon a tight-knit, sexually fluid community of female skaters dubbed “The Skate Kitchen.” Plus, Jaden Smith!
Director: Joshua Marston
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Condola Rashad, Danny Glover, Jason Segel, Martin Sheen
Every performance by the great Chiwetel Ejiofor is potential Oscar bait, and here, as Bishop Carlton Pearson, is certainly another. Pearson was a superstar preacher among the Evangelical set—that is, until he began preaching universal reconciliation. The man of God lost his mega-following, and was eventually branded a “heretic.” The film is directed by Joshua Marston, whose 2004 debut Maria Full of Grace was a Sundance sensation, and Netflix has already snatched up the rights.
AN EVENING WITH BEVERLY LUFF LINN
Director: Jim Hosking
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Emile Hirsch, Jemaine Clement, Craig Robinson
At last year’s Sundance, Aubrey Plaza delivered a gleefully unhinged performance in the surprisingly good dark comedy Ingrid Goes West. She’s back with another wacky turn as Lulu Danger (!), a woman who, after getting fired and ripped off by her devious hubby (Hirsch), finds herself drawn to the mysterious event “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn For One Magical Night Only,” featuring a man from her past. The film’s director, Jim Hosking, helmed one of the most demented movies of 2016 in The Greasy Strangler, so this one is sure to be packed with gross-out moments galore.
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Vanity Fair writer turned filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer is the man behind the stellar documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor. He’s back with another intriguing doc in this uncensored, behind-the-scenes look at the famed Big Apple nightclub Studio 54 that will, hopefully, erase the stench of that bizarre Mike Myers movie.
MONSTERS AND MEN
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Cast: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chante Adams
This is shaping up to be the year that John David Washington (son of Denzel) really breaks out. The Ballers star toplines this hotly anticipated Eric Garner-inspired drama playing a young man who captures video of a white New York City cop gunning down a local black street hustler. Later this year, he’ll star as Det. Ron Stallworth, a black cop who infiltrates the Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, in Spike Lee’s Black Klansman, opposite Adam Driver and Laura Harrier.
Director: Paul Dano
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Camp
The first feature written by acclaimed actress Zoe Kazan, 2012’s Ruby Sparks, was a fascinating Pygmalion-esque deconstruction of male entitlement and the male gaze. Here, she’s teamed up with her partner Paul Dano to pen a tale about a 14-year-old boy (Oxenbould) in 1960s Montana who watches desperately as his mother (Mulligan) falls apart when her husband (Gyllenhaal) goes off to fight a forest fire. The also marks the directorial debut of Dano, who’s previously featured in a number of excellent Sundance films, including The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Little Miss Sunshine and Swiss Army Man.
Director: Betsy West
Yes: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is coming to Sundance. The 84-year-0ld trailblazing Supreme Court Justice/liberal icon, dubbed The Notorious R.B.G., is given the documentary treatment by 21-time Emmy winner Betsy West, who follows her journey from the mean streets of Brooklyn to the highest court in the land.