Sundance Film Festival 2017’s Buzziest Movies: Al Gore’s Return, Hulk Hogan’s Gawker War, and More

This year’s edition of the world’s premier indie film fest, running Jan. 19-29, boasts everything from intriguing sci-fi flicks to several eye-opening documentaries.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

It is, without question, the world’s premier showcase for independent cinema—one that’s hosted the feature filmmaking debuts of the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Darren Aronofsky, and many more of America’s best and brightest. And each year, upwards of 50,000 people don their best Dumb and Dumber mountain chic duds and pour into Park City, Utah, to celebrate the Sundance Film Festival. The fest was founded by the dashing Robert Redford, named after his iconic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid character, and has blessed us with films like The Usual Suspects, Man on Wire, Whiplash, the list goes on. The talk of last year’s fest was Birth of a Nation, which was acquired for a record $17.5 million before collapsing under heavy scrutiny concerning star/director Nate Parker’s dark past, and Kenneth Lonergan’s quietly devastating drama Manchester by the Sea (which did not). Here are this year’s hottest contenders for next big thing.


Filmmaker Charlie McDowell helmed one of Sundance’s most surprising films in 2014 with The One I Love, a masterful psychological pas de deux between stars Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass. He returns this year with another sci-fi entry starring Robert Redford as Dr. Thomas Harbor, a physicist who discovers proof of an afterlife, sending his estranged son (Jason Segel) and a fetching stranger (Rooney Mara) down mysterious, potentially grim paths.


Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino became a household name with his 2010 satire of the Italian haute bourgeoisie, I am Love, and cemented his status with last year’s twisty black comedy A Bigger Splash. His follow-up follows Ello Perlman (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year-old summering at his father’s lavish villa in 1983 northern Italy, who falls for a 24-year-old American doctorate student (Armie Hammer). The film raised eyebrows when Sony Pictures Classics acquired it for a hefty $6 million prior to its fest debut.


Climate change is the central theme of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and, given that President-elect Donald Trump recently appointed a climate change denier head of the EPA and a former Exxon exec as Secretary of State, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Enter Al Gore, the original Electoral College hater who became the face of combatting climate change with his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He returns with this sequel from filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (Audrie & Daisy) about how close we are to an “energy revolution,” and how dire the situation is.


Remember when Jennifer Aniston got all that Oscar buzz for Cake a couple of years back? That was a bit much, but here, as the tortured mother of a young soldier (Tye Sheridan) who goes missing in Iraq, she may find herself in the mix for all the right reasons. The film stars Alden Ehrenreich, aka the next Han Solo, as the young man’s fellow soldier and best pal who may harbor the secret to his disappearance in Iraq, as well as Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston as the duo’s hotheaded sergeant.


German video artist Julian Rosefeldt’s latest boundary-defying project features the boundless, Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett portraying 13 different characters—from housewife to factory worker—delivering the artistic manifestos of some of the world’s most groundbreaking creators. In other words, it’s Cate freaking Blanchett going full Orphan Black in the name of artistic appreciation, embodying over a dozen characters and spirits. Don’t tell me that’s not worth the price of admission.


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In May 2010, a 16-year-old African-American kid by the name of Kalief Browder was arrested on the false charge of stealing a backpack, and proceeded to spend three years without trial on Rikers Island. There, with much of his time done in solitary confinement, he made several attempts on his own life. Following his release, Browder committed suicide—due, many believe, to the psychological traumas he faced while locked up. This six-part TV series, executive produced by Jay Z and premiering on Spike TV later this year, examines the tragic case of Browder and our broken criminal justice system.


Filmmaker Craig Johnson made a huge splash at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival with his tragicomic sophomore feature, The Skeleton Twins. He’s back with this Fox Searchlight-distributed comedy about a wildly eccentric, slightly unhinged middle-aged loner (Woody Harrelson) who finds it in himself to reconnect with his estranged wife (Laura Dern) and finally meet their teenage daughter. The film also stars Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, and Cheryl Hines.


The debut feature of writer-director Amman Abbasi, who’s found himself on a number of “filmmakers to watch” lists, tells the story of Dayveon (Devin Blackmon), a 13-year-old boy in a severely poor Arkansas town who is torn between a local gang and an insightful father-figure following his big brother’s murder. The film is executive produced by James Schamus and David Gordon Green, and is said to contain echoes of Green’s stunning debut George Washington.


The filmmaker-actor team of Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate worked wonders in their 2014 Sundance entry Obvious Child, an affectionate and oft-hilarious comedy about a woman who decides to have an abortion. Their follow-up provides considerable more star power. Set in 1995 New York (nostalgia!), it focuses on two rebellious young women who discover that their father (John Turturro) is cheating on their mother (Edie Falco). In addition to Slate, the film also stars Finn Wittrock, Jay Duplass, and Abbi Quinn.


Filmmaker Dee Rees’s 2011 saga Pariah was a Sundance smash, cementing her status as one of the most exciting young American filmmakers out there. She returns to Utah with this awards bait period drama set in 1946 and starring Carey Mulligan as a young, big-city wife who moves to a cotton farm in rural Mississippi with her older husband (Jason Clarke). There, she’s turned off by the racism and bigotry she encounters from her racist father-in-law (Jonathan Banks). But hope soon arrives in her husband’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and his pal Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), two World War II veterans who work on the farm and challenge its racist system.


Writer-director David Lowery thrilled Sundance audiences with his lyrical outlaw drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at the 2013 fest, and here, he’s reunited with that film’s stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for a made-in-secret movie about a fallen man (Affleck) who watches over his wife (Mara) as she struggles to cope with his passing—while wearing a white sheet, no less.


Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery isn’t the only sci-fi entry heating up the slopes, there’s also this feature from filmmaker Michael Almereyda (Experimenter) about an 86-year-old woman (Lois Smith) who’s chosen to spend her final days recreating cherished memories with a computerized version of her dead husband (Jon Hamm). The intriguing film also stars Geena Davis and Tim Robbins.


Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry spent three years working at the renowned Kim’s Video Store in Manhattan’s East Village before seguing into directing. His third feature, Listen Up Phillip, garnered rave reviews—and quite a few Woody Allen comparisons—when it debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. His latest centers on a twenty-something Australian woman (Emily Browning) who arrives to help Nick (the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz) with an archival project—only to cause chaos within the families of Nick and Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), a music producer. The film also stars Chloe Sevigny, Lily Rabe, and Mary-Louise Parker.


Michael Showalter’s last film was the lovely—and criminally overlooked—comedy Hello, My Name Is Doris, starring the wonderful Sally Field. Here, he directs a screenplay by the real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani (of Silicon Valley fame) and Emily V. Gordon (here played by Zoe Kazan) about the trials and tribulations of their cross-cultural courtship (he is Pakistani-born, and she is a white American). The film is produced by comedy kingmaker Judd Apatow, and also features the acting talents of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.


The media world’s jaw collectively dropped when it was revealed that billionaire Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter and member of his transition team, had secretly funded a series of lawsuits with the aim of taking down Gawker Media and its army of bloggers. In March 2016, he got his wish when a jury awarded Hulk Hogan a $140 million judgment against Gawker for posting his sex tape online (he eventually settled for $31 million—after Gawker declared bankruptcy). This documentary raises interesting questions about freedom of the press, which will face perhaps its biggest threat yet in President-elect Trump.