So yes, tomorrow brings the Oscar nominations (and you can take a look at our predictions one last time here). But if there were ever any doubt, there's a double reason that tomorrow might be the biggest day of the year in the movie calendar because, in a piece of scheduling that's somewhat infuriating to those of us who like sleeping occasionally, Thursday also marks the start of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Thirty years on from its founding, Robert Redford's little Utah get-together remains the premier venue for American independent film, and sees the arrival of a whole host of movies that will be talked about for the next twelve months.
Team Playlist is currently packing their mittens and snowshoes and boarding flights to Park City, but ahead of the festival's kick-off tomorrow, we've picked out thirty of the most appealing movies in the lineup. As that high number suggests, it's an exceedingly promising year, and we're more than hopeful that 2014 will bring movies to match the quality of films like "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," "Searching For Sugar Man," "Sleepwalk With Me," "Middle Of Nowhere," "Fruitvale Station," "In A World...," "Before Midnight," "Upstream Color," "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" and many more. Read on below, and if you're lucky and Park City-bound, you'll be able to see the films at Sundance between January 16th and 26th. Some of the line-up will also head across the Atlantic for the Sundance London festival from April 25th-27th. But sooner or later, all of the below should be playing in a theater (or VOD-system) near you. In no particular order, the Sundance films we're most looking forward to are:
“Love is Strange”
Synopsis: After four decades together Ben and George finally get married, but it results in George being fired from his conservative job, and the couple can no longer afford their New York City apartment. As a temporary measure, Ben stays with his nephew while George stays with neighbors, but the pressures of separation after so long together weigh heavy on both.
What You Need To Know: Director Ira Sachs’ followup to the extremely well-received “Keep the Lights On” (we raved about it two years ago, it won the Teddy award for queer cinema in Berlin and earned four Independent Spirit nominations) boasts an irresistible logline that is both timely and ripe with bittersweet comedic potential. And it has an impeccable cast, with Alfred Molina and John Lithgow playing the central star-cross’d lovers, and Marisa Tomei, among others, in support.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? With a wonderful cast and a director who had a bona fide Sundance breakout with his last entry, this film has a huge amount going for it, and could very well break out of the “gay cinema” ghetto to reach a much wider audience if the buzz is strong enough to get it a good distribution deal. And if nothing else, with its themes of late-in-life love, it has serious potential to be the most adorable film of the festival, and to possibly contend as an audience favorite.
Synopsis: An Irish priest striving to make the world a better place is continually shocked by the meanness he encounters in his small country parish, and when his life is threatened during confession, he feels the forces of darkness closing in around him.
What You Need To Know: Director John Michael McDonagh, brother of the similarly crazy-talented Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”), wrote and directed one of the most underseen gems of the last few years with “The Guard.” “Calvary” sees him retain the rural Irish setting, and his star, the great Brendan Gleeson, in a cast that also includes Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Isaach de Bankole, Dylan Moran and Brendan’s son, Domhnall Gleeson. We absolutely loved “The Guard,” with its foulmouthed, un-PC mix of caustic, iconoclastic Irishness and dizzying verbal wit, and would turn up with bells on to anything McDonagh had a hand in, landing this followup at no. 60 in our Most Anticipated Films of the Year list. But while “Calvary” retains many familiar elements, most importantly Gleeson in the central role, it also changes things up, taking the unfashionable-to-the-point-of-“controversial” step of portraying an Irish Catholic priest in a good light, and retaining elements of “The Guard” ’s dark comedy, but in service of a much more dramatic and serious narrative.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Good, we hope. “The Guard” also premiered at Sundance, but gained surprisingly little buzz off its showing there (in Ireland the film has since gone on to be the most successful homegrown film of all time, but it was still relatively underseen in the U.S.), so we hope the “Calvary” crowd will want to redress that injustice, especially as this time out it does seem like McDonagh’s going for a bit more serious (though hopefully no less caustic) tone, so it may feel more overtly “important” than his debut.
“Listen Up Phillip”
Synopsis: Adoptive New Yorker Philip gets increasingly irritated by the city and his girlfriend in the run up to the publication of his second novel, so when his idol offers him his summerhouse, Philip retreats to its isolation, and gives full vent to his self-absorption.
What You Need To Know: Starring Jason Schwartzman (who else you gonna call for your neurotic New York novelist role?) and Elisabeth Moss, alongside Jonathan Pryce and Krysten Ritter, this is director Alex Ross Perry’s third feature, his last being “The Color Wheel,” which we admit we weren’t as hot on as some in the indie film world. However we love both these leads, we like that it’s being billed as a kind of comedy, and are very curious to find out whether this slightly higher-profile canvas may have done for Perry what is has done for the likes of Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? The film’s inclusion in the Next sidebar, which is dedicated to progressive or innovative storytelling, suggests that there may be something more to it than the potentially seen-it-before storyline. Then again, it could be wildly self-indulgent too.
Synopsis: The life of a child told from age six to age 18, following his relationship with his parents before and after they divorce.
What You Need To Know: Nestling at no. 59 on our 100 Most Anticipated Films of 2014 list, "Boyhood" might be the most ambitious thing that Richard Linklater's ever attempted: following in the footsteps of Michael Apted's "Up" series and Michael Winterbottom's "Everyday" (which was conceived after, but completed before this), Linklater has spent a few weeks in every year since 2002 shooting aspects of this film, which stars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as parents, and newcomer Ellar Salmon as their child. As a result, it's a literal coming-of-age film, which will see Salmon and the other actors age before the cameras: as Hawke described it, it's like "timelapse photography of a human being." With twelve years passing between the start of filming and release, it's likely the longest film shoot in history.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Very strong. The film was a late addition to the lineup, only being confirmed this week as the 121st feature of the festival (indeed, we’d had it pegged as a more likely SXSW premiere, so shows you what we know). As a result it benefits from that last-minute rush buzz that late, high-profile additions get, and, most tellingly, this was where Linklater’s triumphant “Before Midnight” premiered just last year, before going on to conquer hearts (and quite a few best-of-2013 lists). And the indie-royalty director has a relationship with the festival that goes all the way back to the Grand Jury nomination for his debut “Slacker.” Plus, look out for Arquette, who [checks comeback clock] is due for a major renaissance any time now.
“The Skeleton Twins”
Synopsis: An estranged brother and sister reunite in the wake of a family crisis, bringing old memories to the forefront, and forcing both to confront the rather disillusioning way their lives have turned out.
What You Need To Know: This is director Craig Johnson’s second feature (after 2009’s “True Adolescents”) and if its generically indie logline might sound a little off-putting (it feels similar to relationship dramas “You Can Count on Me” and last year’s “Touchy Feely,” to name a couple of titles that spring to mind), the fact that the central siblings are played by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in rare serious roles, gets us back onside. We’re proponents of the school of thought that if an actor can be funny, they can certainly nail ‘serious’ and both these actors definitely seem to have that range. The cast is rounded out further by Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell and Mark Duplass.
What Are Its Sundance Prospects? Almost too good—this seems like the kind of film that was specifically designed for Sundance, and if it’s to have a chance of picking up an award (it plays in the U.S. Dramatic competition), it needs to distinguish itself somehow. That said, if any one element does help it rise above its relationship-drama brethren, it could really do well, and the goodwill both these actors bring should see it get a decent distribution deal at least.