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21 Films I’m Anticipating at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

These lists get harder and harder. You know more filmmakers, you hear more buzz and honing in on pre-festival favorites with any kind of concision becomes more an act of exclusion than a celebration of possibility. (In other words, this list’s length is more determined by the pokiness of Delta’s on-flight wi-fi and the festival opening-day deadline than my enthusiasms for the selections of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.)

Below are 21 festival picks, beginning with a favorite project I’ve been wanting to see realized for years. As you’ll note, I’ve paid particular attention to folks from our 25 New Faces list, particularly the ones from the last two years who landed on the list by virtue of our belief in the projects that are premiering here. I’ve left out a ton of people, many of whom are listed at the end, and I also haven’t noted some of the other cool stuff at the festival, like the chance to try an Oculus VR headset, or some of its fantastic music events.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter: You know how you know when a screenplay sticks with you? When it inspires your passwords. The script for the latest by the Austin-based Zellner Brothers passed through my New York Forensic Films production office quite a few years ago, and we all took to it. My old interns still talk about it and, yes, for some time after it’s arrival you’d key past our alarm system or log on to our Gmail by typing the name of the film’s eponymous and unassuming Japanese seeker-of-riches. (Plus, of course, some random number at the end. And maybe the “o” in “Kumiko” was typed as a “0.”) We tried to help out a bit in the early days, getting the script to one possible cast member, but for too long this has always been one of those “what if” films we have all just wanted to see on screen. So, I was thrilled to see it in the Sundance Dramatic Competition line-up.

Fishing without Nets. The Zellners were in Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces years ago, and so was — although more recently, in 2012 — Cutter Hodierne, who debuts the feature version of his Somali pirate drama, Fishing without Nets. Post Captain Phillips we need an independent, Somali-POV version, and if you’ve seen Hodierne’s short you know he has the chops to pull it off.

The Internet’s Own Boy. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you know that I’m interested in the story of Aaron Swartz, the programmer and internet activist who committed suicide while being aggressively prosecuted for the downloading of academic articles via a laptop stashed in a closet at MIT. His tale covers everything from prosecutorial overreach to the responsibility universities have to their communities to who controls the internet. Director Brian Knappenberger, director of We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, knows this territory, and I’m looking forward to a doc that balances a human story with one involving the great technological issues of our time.

Little Accidents. Here’s the second feature expansion of a short on this list: Sara Colangelo’s debut drama, Little Accidents. Like Hodierne, Colangelo is a 25 New Face, and she also attended the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs with this story of the disappearance of a teenage boy and its effect on three people in a small coal-mining town. The short was powerful drama, and Colangelo has amassed a stellar cast and crew here, including Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook (another 25 New Face), and Fruitvale Station DP Rachel Morrison.

Hellion. Let’s add another feature film based on a short. Hellion is the debut of Texas filmmaker Kat Candler, and it’s also got a potent cast: Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis. It was an IFP No Borders project, and producer Kelly Williams blogged about it at Filmmaker when it was going into production. She wrote:

To fill you in, the story follows thirteen-year-old, Jacob, obsessed with motocross and heavy metal. In the wake of his mother’s death, he’s stirring up trouble across town and butting heads with his emotionally absent father, Hollis. Eventually, his behavior gets his younger brother, Wes, taken away and Jacob and Hollis must take responsibility for their actions in order to get Wes home.

It gets much more complex than that, it’s a world where refineries, the prison system and high school sports rule. Where young boys set fires to skate rinks, smoke cigarettes in drainage ditches and tear up construction sites on their motocross bikes. It’s a film set to ’80s thrash metal and inspired by films like Over the Edge and Lord of the Flies.

My 52 Tuesdays/52 Tuesdays. At Sundance there are the (hopefully) cool movies, and then the cool New Frontiers stuff — the multimedia, transmedia, interactive work. But often there’s little overlap — few films trying to take advantage of both sorts of experience. So, that’s why I’m particularly interested in these two works. 52 Tuesdays is a feature film by Sophie Hyde and My 52 Tuesdays is a New Frontier piece by Hyde, Sam Haren and Dan Koerner that mysteriously promises viewers access to a place allowing them to contemplate their own lives on successive Tuesdays.

Dear White People. Debuting filmmaker Justin Simien cites influences ranging from Spike Lee to Robert Townsend to John Landis to Robert Altman when discussing his campus comedy, Dear White People. It’s the story of four black students, each navigating their racial identity in different ways at a predominantly white Ivy League college, and it’s a comedy. In addition to a cast mixing newcomers with vets like Dennis Haysbert, it has top producing talent involved, including Stephanie Allain (Hustle and Flow) and Effie Brown (Real Women Have Curves).

The Babadook. Australian actress Jennifer Kent makes her feature directing debut with The Babadook, a creepy, “there’s a monster in the house” horror film that, from the looks of its trailer, is elevated by a sophisticated, almost theatrical visual sensibility, maxed-out performances, and an exploration of the complicated dynamics of single mother/young son relationships.

Rich Hill. Speaking of horror, 25 New Face Andrew Droz Palermo‘s most well known credit is for lensing Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, but he makes his own directorial debut, along with his cousin, Tracy Droz Tragos, with Rich Hill, a documentary about three youth growing up in the economically stressed town of Rich Hill, Missouri. “There are no outside experts – the kids themselves tell their story,” writes Droz Tragos on the project’s Kickstarter page.

Life Itself. There are some films you believe will be great, but you just don’t catch them at a festival like Sundance. “I can see it later,” you say to yourself. Again, no slight to the films, it’s just that you’re not sure the context of Sundance will add much to your viewing experience. The above is not an issue that will come into play when deciding to see the latest from Hoop Dreams and Stevie director Steve James. He’s made a feature documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert, whose eulogies are still appearing in pages like ours. Ebert was an indefatigable and enthusiastic presence at Sundance over the years. I can’t think of a better cinematic chronicler of his life than his Chicago neighbor Steve James, and I can’t wait to this film.

Mr Leos CaraX. Speaking of director portraits, here’s another: Tessa Louise-Salomé’s picture about the chain-smoking visionary of French cinema, Leos Carax. In 2012 Carax’s Holy Motors was my favorite film, and just recently I’ve spoken to a number of young filmmakers who caught his astonishing second feature, Mauvais Sang, when it was revived at the Film Forum. Carax is a complicated talent who is consistently proven by his challenging and often brilliant pictures.

Song One. Kate Barker-Froyland makes her directorial debut with one of the higher-profile titles in the Dramatic Competition. Song One is a drama about a woman, Franny (Anne Hathaway), drawn back to New York by her comatose brother’s accident and who connects with a musical idol in the Brooklyn music scene. Barker-Froyland shot in real venues like Pete’s Candy Store and Bowery Ballroom, and, she told Hollywood Reporter, her family’s cinephilia (she is the daughter of Sony Classics head Michael Barker) and love of filmmakers like Wim Wenders and Louis Malle inspired her to become a director.

Land Ho!. Quick, what’s a Gamechanger film? You know, Gamechanger, the new film fund for woman directors whose launch has been part of the recent dialogue about the paucity of female directors in Hollywood and female-centric stories in theaters. Well, whatever your vision of “a Gamechanger film” is is likely to be challenged by the company’s first picture, Land Ho!, premiering in Park City just a few months after the launch of the company itself. First of all, the film is about dudes — two older retired guys trekking around Iceland. And it’s co-directed, by a woman and a man. They are Aaron Katz (whose Quiet City remains a favorite of mine) and Martha Stephens (Passenger Pigeons). It’s easy for companies to fall victim to their own mission statements, and the fact that Gamechanger is interpreting theirs in expansive, interesting ways is, I think, a good sign for the long-term health of this company.

Obvious Child. Another film based on a short, Obvious Child is a sly comedy about unplanned pregnancy starring one of our 25 New Faces, Jenny Slate. It’s directed by Gillian Robespierre, produced by Kickstarter hero Elisabeth Holm and features an ace supporting cast that includes Gaby Hoffman and David Cross. This film’s subject matter requires both irreverence and a thread-the-needle precision. Robespierre pulled it off in the short, a work that left plenty of room for expansion, and I’m pretty sure she’ll do it again.

The Foxy Merkins. What a title! The Foxy Merkins is Madeleine Olnek’s follow-up to her Gotham-nominated Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, a film everyone at Filmmaker fell in love with a few years ago. Despite the presence of actors like Girls star Alex Karpovsky, who returns here, that film didn’t get the recognition it was due. I’m hoping Olnek’s latest — about lesbian hookers — is as good and does.

Appropriate Behavior. As mentioned, quite a few of our 25 New Faces have films at Sundance. Here’s another: Desiree Akhaven, whose Appropriate Behavior is an autobiographical comedy of identity in which director/actor Akhaven tries to reconcile hers as “an ideal Persian daughter, politically correct bisexual and hip young Brooklynite.”

Concerning Violence. Black Power Mix Tape director Göran Hugo Olsson returns to Sundance with a film essay about colonization, violence and resistance movements narrated by Lauryn Hill and partially based on psychologist/philosopher Frantz Fanon’s groundbreaking anticolonial text, The Wretched of the Earth.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart. Jeremiah Zagar’s In a Dream is, I think, one of the more influential documentaries of recent years, and what seems interesting about his feature follow-up, Captivated, is that it’s not just about a famous tabloid tale but also its retelling and commodification by the media. For those who only know this story through its dramatization in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, Captivated promises to tell it from Smart’s point of view.

20,000 Days on Earth. Nick Cave has still got it. On the last night of his Bad Seeds show earlier this year at the Beacon Theater, an audience member shouted, “You’re old enough to be my grandfather!” Then, in the show’s fiery finale of “Stagger Lee,” Cave approached the front lights, thrust his pelvis forward, and ad-libbed, “Oh, Stagger Lee, you can suck your grandfather’s….” Well, you get the idea. 20,000 Days on Earth is some kind of hybrid pseudo doc starring and about Cave by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard that the filmmakers say is influenced by Godard’s One Plus One and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. It’s also one of four British films premiering at Sundance the BFI is offering U.S. distributors financial P&A support.

Boyhood. Rick Linklater’s latest is, along with Kumiko, my top title on this list. It’s been whispered about for years, and Linklater elaborated a bit when he talked with James Ponsoldt for our Summer issue. Briefly, it’s a narrative film that deals with time’s passing by using an approach more often found in documentaries such as Ken Loach’s Up series (and, I guess, Linklater’s own Before pictures). Star Ethan Hawke explains to Entertainment Weekly:

Richard Linklater and I have made a short film every year for the last 11 years, one more to go, that follows the development of a young boy from age 6 to 18. I play the father, and it’s Tolstoy-esque in scope. I thought the Before series was the most unique thing I would ever be a part of, but Rick has engaged me in something even more strange. Doing a scene with a young boy at the age of 7 when he talks about why do raccoons die, and at the age of 12 when he talks about video games, and 17 when he asks me about girls, and have it be the same actor — to watch his voice and body morph — it’s a little bit like timelapse photography of a human being.

The Sleepwalker. Norwegian music video director Mona Fastvold makes her feature debut with a U.S.-shot co-production about sisters, family history, inheritance and conflict. What’s interesting, aside from the co-production angle and Fastvold’s impressive visual style, is the screenplay collaboration. Fastvold wrote the movie with actor Brady Corbet, who is about to have his moment, I think. After playing memorable supporting parts for directors like Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke, toplining Antonio Campos’s recent Simon Killer, and starring in great shorts by young filmmakers like Laure de Clermont-Tonnere and Andrew Renzi, he is set to direct his own first feature — also co-written by Fastvold — this summer. And it stars Juliette Binoche! A major career seems about to bust out.

Of course, this list could have been twice as long. I tried to stay away here from a lot of the names we’ve cited in similar lists of the past, so apologies to a slew of filmmakers I’m just as excited about, including Ira Sachs, Joe Swanberg, Carter Smith, Damian Chazelle, Stuart Murdoch, Lynn Shelton, Jim Mickle, Mike Cahill, Jeff Preiss and Anton Corbijn, among many others.

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