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25 Films We’re Excited about at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

Spheres: Songs of Spacetime

Sundance starts tomorrow, and just before the curtain raises we’re squeaking in with a list of films our correspondents — Vadim Rizov, Meredith Alloway and myself — are excited to see. I’m about to start packing, and colleagues from other magazines and companies are Facebooking their SARS-mask covered faces on their way to the influenza petri-dish of Park City. I could spin this intro out longer — quote Sundance festival director John Cooper on how this year’s festival is full of “alternative voices” — or perhaps left-turn into some metaphor or another, but I’ll just do what we do here and cut to the films. Below are 25 titles we can confidently say you shouldn’t try to miss.

Madeline’s Madeline. Josephine Decker’s latest made the #2 spot on Dan Schoenbrun’s list of most anticipated features of 2018, and we’ll find out soon whether his enthusiasm is warranted. But there’s reason for excitement: over the course of her two previous films, Decker is defining a singular narrative style — her own grammar, really. Decker’s background in performance art should inform this new movie, which deals with a teenager finding herself within an acting workshop, and which stars a fascinating trio of actresses: one total newcomer (Helena Howard, who Decker discovered judging a high school acting competition); one iconic performance artist and independent filmmaker (Miranda July); and one amazing arthouse actress (Molly Parker). — Scott Macaulay

Our New President. Last year’s festival was unavoidably colored by the inauguration, on day two, of President Donald John Trump, but it was too soon for filmmakers to substantively work him into their films. This year — just in time for the one-year mark of this administration — festivalgoers can kick things off with a feature-length deep-dive into Our 45th President’s rise to power from an alternative perspective, assembled by director Maxim Pozdorovkin from predictably insane, conspiracy-minded Russian state television “news” and even more appalling social media posts. Refresh your memory and tremble once more. — Vadim Rizov

SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime. Produced by Darren Aronofsky and directed by Eliza McNitt, whose last VR project, Fistful of Stars, explored the Cosmos and Hubble Telescope, this is the first episode in a series about black holes. Coupling the still unpredictable nature of VR with the mystique of space should prove for a trippy interactive experience. We’re also excited to see VR in the series format through Oculus Rift — even if it’s three episodes. — Meredith Alloway

A Thousand Thoughts. You go to festivals for singular experiences — seeing films at their premieres surrounded by the excitement of their makers and first-viewing audiences. But there are singular experiences, and then there are singular experiences. For several years Sam Green has been creating a “live documentary” style, which merges non-fiction storytelling with music and his own performance narration. He elevates his concept further for this streaming, instant-access age with this new documentary about, scored by and featuring in live performance new music superstars Kronos Quartet. Sundance is the premiere, and given the busy schedule of these musicians I wouldn’t necessarily count on seeing this in your hometown soon after the festival. — SM

Bisbee ’17. After his first appearance at the festival with Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene returns with his first widescreen film that’s also his first (sort of) musical/period drama. The subject of investigation is the Bisbee deportation of 1917, in which an Arizona mining town rounded up IWW strikers and sympathizers, shipped them on cattle cars to the desert, and proceeded to forget about the whole thing. Politically-inflected scars will be probed in hybrid-doc style. — VR

Generation Wealth. Filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield last premiered her alternately alluring and scabrous Queen of Versaille at Sundance in 2012, when Obama-era positivity and a bulging Fed balance sheet were able to situate the real estate shenanigans of her obscene subjects as part of a past we’d never return to. So how will her new doc, Generation Wealth — “a postcard from the edge of the American Empire — play at a time when class divisions are being cheered on by up high? I don’t know, but Greenfield has a sly manner and incredible eye and she should make us cringe and most likely laugh inappropriately.

American Animals. A director who can vacillate between fiction and documentary films often proves compelling — and we hear this film braids together both formats. Director Bart Layton’s last film, The Imposter, was an impressive 2012 Sundance-selected doc, and now with a cast like Evan Peters, Ann Dowd and current it-boy Barry Keoghan, this heist movie should be both riotous in its subject and execution. — MA

Night Comes On, courtesy Sundance Institute

Night Comes On. I loved the Gummo-esque flourishes in actress-turned-director Jordana Spiro’s short Skin, so I was already predisposed towards her debut feature, Night Comes On. That interest really cemented, though, as I scanned its cast list. The film stars Dominique Fishback, who was flat-out amazing as the Dickens-reading Times Square prostitute in the debut season of HBO’s The Deuce. She hit so many beautiful, unexpected notes throughout the season, and I can’t wait to see the character she’ll be creating here. — SM

Shirkers. In 1992, a college-aged Sandi Tan embarked on production of what was supposed to be a rare example of/landmark in Singaporan independent film, but when her mentor/director absconded with all 70 reels from production, Shirkers became a tantalizing unrealized project. No spoiler here: the film begins with (gorgeous) footage from the film, and the tale of its rediscovery is a fascinating detective story. — VR

Lords of Chaos. Filmmaker Jonas Akerlund directed Beyonce’s infamous 2016 “Hold Up” music video and has been the creative brains behind other impressive videos for Lady Gaga, Sigur Ros and Metallica. Watching his knack for musical stories long form should be a delicious, radical and haunting experience. The cast is also chock full of exciting young talents like Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer and to be honest, the gothic Rory Culkin press portrait sold us. — MA

Mandy. Canadian autodidact Panos Cosmatos made our 25 New Faces list in 2011 on the basis of his cool, hypnotically Cronenberg-ian debut feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow. It’s taken him until now to mount a follow-up, which seems as far away from that futuristic film as possible. Mandy is a 1983-set revenge thriller starring Nicolas Cage up against the religious sect that destroyed his family. — SM

Piercing. Ryu Murakami’s source novel uses an extreme situation as a shockingly compelling/empathetic study of the lifelong processing of childhood abuse. A man hires a sex worker to exorcise his life-long desire to pierce someone to death with an ice pick — he believes if he does it just once, he’ll be purged (shades of Clare’s Knee). It’ll be interesting to see how Nicholas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother) translates the Japanese novel into a Christopher Abbott/Mia Wasikowska English-language drama, and (oof) how far he’ll take the violence — note that Murakami also wrote the source novel for Takashi Miike’s Audition, if that gives any idea of how far this could go. — VR

Sorry to Bother You. Any film that wants to tackle difficult issues like racism and systemic oppression through a genre lens is exciting — and not just because Get Out was so successful. Filmmaker Boots Riley went through the Sundance labs with this script, and as a first-time director, is bringing a vibrant and brave voice to screen. He’s also willing to get wild with it — we hear there are battles and armies — and Armie Hammer, of course. — MA

Organ Player. For two years straight the performance artist who goes by the name of Narcissister blew away audiences — ones including me — at the Creative Capital retreat in upstate New York. Those plugged a bit more into the avant-burlesque and young performance art scene already knew her work, but for most of the arts professionals at Creative Capital, her reverse striptease, where she entered the stage naked and then fully dressed herself in an outfit entirely removed, shoes and all, from her Afro, to her beautiful, Russian doll-like piece in which she silently essayed a woman from birth to death were extraordinary, new, revelatory experiences. Her New Frontiers piece is another hybrid performance/doc that, in the catalog’s words, “explores how ancestral data is stored in our bodies, impacting the lives we lead. On the personal level, the film investigates how the artist’s complex family history compelled her to create the masked, erotic performance character Narcissister.” — SM

Private Life. Disclosures on this and the following film: these directors are friends who I’ve also worked with professionally as a producer. But there’s not only personal interest here. Auteur Tamara Jenkins makes a another long-awaited return — it’s been 10 years since her Oscar-nominated The Savages — with a drama (albeit one I’m sure that will be laced with her idiosyncratic humor) about a couple dealing with the effect of infertility on their relationship. It’s great to see Jenkins back with a film featuring two stars who will definitely be on her wavelength: I Love Dick‘s Kathryn Hahn and Jenkins’s Savages co-star Paul Giamatti. — SM

Juliet, Naked. In 1995 I went with Jesse Peretz to Sundance with a film — an adaptation of acclaimed British author Ian McEwan’s short story, First Love, Last Rites — I produced with Robin O’Hara. Peretz has done quite a bit of great work since — several features as well as directing and sometimes producing a score of excellent Peak TV, including GLOW, Girls and Nurse Betty. And now he’s at Sundance with another adaptation of an acclaimed British author, Nick Hornby. What’s more, the script is cowritten by Tamara Jenkins along with her husband, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson and Peretz’s sister, Evgenia Peretz. Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke star in a story that deals with a long-distance relationship and, of course for Hornby, music. — SM

Frankenstein AI: A Monster Made by Many. Filmmaker readers know well the work of Lance Weiler, who has been on the cutting-edge of interactivity and new forms of storytelling since his ahead-of-its-time The Last Broadcast in 1998. His articles for us over the years have anticipated the possibilities new technologies bring to film and filmmakers — even if those possibilities aren’t always embraced, or are crushed by the avaricious Siren Servers. Don’t ask me too much about the interactive, AI-powered New Frontier project that he’s made with a host of collaborators because he’ll be blogging here at Filmmaker during the festival to tell you all about it. — SM

Damsel. The Zellner brothers’ last film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter premiered at Sundance in 2014 and ever since, we’ve been waiting (in our red hoodies) to see what they’d do next. Their voice evokes the Coen brothers, classic folklore and at the same time is both wholly unique, swapping out self-importance for a sense of humor. Led by two artists who also continue to surprise us, Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson, we’ll be first in line for this who-knows-what-to-expect Western. — MA

I’m Poppy. Warhol, YouTube and meme culture (with a bit of David Lynch) have produced the creepily anodyne internet star Poppy. Moriah Rose Pereira is the slight blonde human figurine while Titanic Sinclair (Corey Michael Mixter) is the director who situates her within those grey-white empty spaces. Poppy’s high-quality internet content has included literally hundreds of videos on her YouTube channel as well as an album, Poppy Computer. I’m Poppy is found in Sundance’s new Indie Episodic section, and it’s described like this: “Join Internet sensation Poppy as she enters the real world for the very first time and quickly realizes that fame and fortune comes at a price, with secret societies, dangerous fanatics and a very envious mannequin named Charlotte.” I’ve watched more than a few of Poppy’s YouTube clips, and the most minimal are, to my taste, the best. Recognizing that Warhol’s Screen Tests are better than the more narrative work he’d go on to produce, I’m hoping that I’m Poppy resists the urge to make Poppy more than she is, which, in her wispily subversive, social-media-enabled indeterminancy, is quite splendid already. — SM

Monsters and Men. One acquisition title going into Sundance with great buzz is Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men which, like his excellent Sundance short, Stop, deals with police violence. In Stop, it was the threat of police violence. In this new film, which stars Cara Buono, Anthony Ramos and Rob Morgan, it’s about the actual police shooting of a black man and the videographer who captured the act. — SM

NANCY. A female imposter targeting a grief-stricken couple is the titular anti-heroine of Christina Choe’s debut feature. I’ve been a fan of Choe’s since her 2011 short, I am John Wayne. Continuing the running theme of these picks, it’s taken since then for her to get produced this first feature, but the timing may be fortuitious as lead Andrea Riseborough — known for her star turn in Birdman as well as, most recently, her tour de force performance in the “Crocodile” episode of Black Mirror — is poised to break out, and this tough, complex role may be the one to do it. — SM

Midnight shorts block. We’re interested in up and coming voices more than anything, and especially in the horror genre, where filmmakers are pushing boundaries and tackling taboos. This block has standouts like Great Choice, that wowed us at Borscht FF, last year and others like Hair Wolf (white women sucking black culture blood), Ultraviolet (scorpions in a posthuman future) and Deer Boy — about a kid born with antlers. — MA

306 Hollywood

306 Hollywood. 306 Hollywood is the first documentary to play in Sundance’s NEXT section, which has been known, basically, as the edgy, creative low-budget category. There’s usually a film or two here that blows the Competition titles away, and this year it may be this hybrid doc made by filmmaking siblings Elan and Jonathan Bogarin, who, on the basis of footage we saw before placing them on our 2017 25 New Faces list, have found worlds in the flotsam and jetsam of their late grandmother’s decades-lived-in house. — SM

Leave No Trace. Having edited this magazine for 25 years, I’ve seen thousands of American independent features. I’m always focused on the new, as much as, this anniversary year, we’ve also tried here to look back at the past. But when asked to come up with a list of what I consider to be indisputable classics produced out of American independent cinema, the number of titles shrinks tremendously. One film I keep coming back to is Debra Granik’s sophomore film, the wise, hardbitten Winter’s Bone, which broke out Jennifer Lawrence. My interview with Granik was the cover of our Spring, 2010 issue, and it’s been an outrageous eight years until this new narrative feature. There’s little information out there about the storyline other than this blurb: “A father and daughter live a perfect but mysterious existence in Forest Park, a beautiful nature reserve near Portland, Oregon, rarely making contact with the world. A small mistake tips them off to authorities sending them on an increasingly erratic journey in search of a place to call their own.” — SM

Wildlife. We’ve been wondering when Paul Dano might sit in the directing chair. With Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan (we loved Ruby Sparks) adapting Richard Ford’s novel, the film should prove both delicate and difficult. About a boy witnessing the disintegration of his parent’s’ marriage, Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan will be showing off their chops while Dano excavates those bittersweet moments that both build a relationship, and end one. — MA

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