Synopsis: When his bad behavior causes his brother to be taken by Child Protective Services, 13-year-old Jacob and his father Hollis must come to terms with each other as they try and reunite the family.
What You Need To Know: Having found success at Sundance with "Take Shelter" and "Mud," Jeff Nichols is now well-established enough that he can lend support to projects as an executive producer in the way that David Gordon Green did for his debut "Shotgun Stories." The result is "Hellion," a decidedly Nichols-esque coming-of-age tale about a tearaway kid and his grief-stricken father, from Texan filmmaker Kat Candler. Based on her 2012 short (which was edited by "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" director David Lowery), this features newcomer Josh Wiggins in the lead role, with "Breaking Bad"'s Aaron Paul as his pops and Juliette Lewis also in the cast. Probably more under the radar than some right now, but we've heard some very promising buzz around this one for a while.
Sundance Prospects: This actually feels like it could be a potential prize-winner, assuming it turns out as good as the advance word. Even if it doesn't, Paul's presence should ensure that someone picks it up at some point.
Synopsis: Jenny breaks up with her boyfriend just before Christmas, and with nowhere else to go, moves in with her brother and sister-in-law.
What You Need To Know: Unexpectedly, last year's "Drinking Buddies" saw Joe Swanberg working with bigger more established names than he's used to, and even more unexpectedly, it proved a success, the film being easily the filmmaker's most likable effort in a long time, and turned out to be something of a sleeper hit too. Swanberg's made a couple of other pictures since, but this looks to be his return to the similar kind of territory as "Drinking Buddies," with Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey in the lead roles, and Mark Webber, Lena Dunham and Swanberg in support. Regardless of your feelings about Swanberg, if the idea of a movie pairing Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey doesn't float your boat a little bit, there might not be any helping you.
Sundance Prospects: "Drinking Buddies" proved a surprise VOD success, so don't be surprised if Magnolia go for this one again. But with Swanberg having sold a project to Fox Searchlight, some of the bigger companies might be interested too. Either way, given the title, don't expect it in theaters before December...
Synopsis: A young woman joins the military only to end up as a guard in Guantanamo Bay, where she befriends a detainee.
What You Need To Know: Kristen Stewart: Guantanamo Guard might sound like some kind of Funny or Die sketch, but "Camp X-Ray," which stars the "Twilight" actress, is deadly serious. First-time feature director Peter Sattler, a former graphic designer and screenwriter, compares his film to "Elephant" and "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence," among others. Guantanamo is a subject that's been shamefully avoided by the movies so far, and while Stewart is a divisive figure these days, post-Bella, she's always had the raw talent to make her way back to the power of her early performances.
Sundance Prospects: Whether it's good or bad, Stewart's presence ensures this'll be one of the most talked about—or at least tweeted about—films of the festival. Her indies haven't always performed, though, so distributors may be cautious unless the reviews are strong.
Synopsis: A PhD student specializing in the evolution of the eye falls in love with a masked model, only to make a discovery years later that threatens everything he knows.
What You Need To Know: Three years ago, Brit Marling was the toast of Sundance as the co-writer and star of two ambitious and distinct sci-fi projects, "Another Earth" and "Sound of My Voice." This year, she's back, reunited with "Another Earth" director Mike Cahill for this new project, albeit without script input and in a supporting role. Instead, "Boardwalk Empire"'s Michael Pitt and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey take the lead roles. Even more so than his previous sci-fi romance, Cahill seems to be tackling some heady, decidedly low-concept premises and themes with this project, but that alone is exciting, even if we weren't all that crazy about "Another Earth."
Sundance Prospects: "Another Earth" underperformed a bit, and this seems less commercial on the surface, but if it's really good (and this sounds like it could be this year's answer to "Upstream Color," in theory at least), then there should be an audience out there for it.
"Kumiko The Treasure Hunter"
Synopsis: A lonely Japanese lady travels to Minnesota to find the buried treasure from a popular American film.
What You Need To Know: You know that urban legend about a Japanese woman that died while searching for the money Steve Buscemi buried in the Coen Brothers' "Fargo?" "Kumiko The Treasure Hunter" is a film inspired by that, which probably marks a definitive snake-eating-its-own-tail moment in American independent cinema. But for all its metatextuality, there's plenty to be excited about here: it's the return of David and Nathan Zellner, who were behind the excellent "Kid-Thing," and it had a boost going into the festival, with Alexander Payne attaching himself as an executive producer yesterday. Plus "Babel" and "Pacific Rim" star Rinko Kikuchi takes the lead role, which is always good news.
Sundance Prospects: Could turn out to be a curio, could be one of the films of the festival. Payne's association suggests it could be the latter, and bodes well for distribution pick-ups.
And There's Always More: It feels like we say it every year, but this year we really mean it: the Sundance lineup is absolutely stacked. And while the above 30 are the ones that have pinged loudest on our radar so far, there's a whole host of other pictures we're excited about and that we will be doing our durndest to cover for your reading pleasure over the next fortnight. They include: "20,000 Days On Earth" (the Nick Cave documentary); "Dear White People" (which is reportedly early Spike Lee-ish); "Land Ho!" (from Aaron Katz of Cold Weather); "Little Accidents" (a dark crime drama starring Elizabeth Banks, Chloe Sevigny, Boyd Holbrook, Josh Lucas and "Mud"'s Jacob Lofland from hotly-tipped new filmmaker Sara Colangelo );"Rudderless" (William H. Macy's directorial debut, Billy Crudup and Anton Yelchin star) "War Story" (which stars Catherine Keener and is from Mark Jackson, who did the excellent "Without"); and Gregg Araki's "White Bird In A Blizzard."
Other films you can look out for reviews of from us are: "Hits" (directed by David Cross); "Finding Fela" (Alex Gibney documentary about Fela Kuti); "Jamie Marks Is Dead" (coming of age story featuring Liv Tyler and Judy Greer); "Infinitely Polar Bear" (Mark Ruffalo stars); "Appropriate Behavior" (debut feature from Iranian-American director Desiree Akhavan); "Blue Ruin" (FIPRESCI prizewinner from Cannes); "Cooties" (Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill); "Drunktown's Finest" (feature debut from Sydney Freeland); "Fishing Without Nets" (a Somali Pirate story); "Foxy Merkins" (apparently a comedic, female-centric riff on iconic male hustler films); the baseball documentary "No No: A Dokumentary" which features a score by founding Beastie Boy Ad-Rock), "Happy Valley" (Joe Paterno documentary from the "My Kid Could Paint That" director); "Imperial Dreams" (starring "Attack the Block" breakout John Boyega); "Lilting" (stars Ben Whishaw); "The Lunchbox" (Irrfan Khan from "Life of Pi "stars); "Memphis" (docu/fiction hybrid); "Mitt" (documentary about Mr. Romney); "Mr. Leos CaraX" (documentary about the "Holy Motors" filmmaker); "Nick Offerman: American Ham" (recording of a stand-up gig from "Parks and Recrecation"'s Ron Swanson); "Obvious Child" (starring Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffman, David Cross); "The One I Love" (stars Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, and Ted Danson); "Ping Pong Summer" (Susan Sarandon, John Hannah and Lea Thompson star); "The Signal" (hacker thriller/road movie featuring Laurence Fishburne); and "Whitey" (documentary about notorious criminal Whitey Bulger by director Joe Berlinger of the "Paradise Lost" trilogy). And while we've already seen the following at festivals previous we can heartily recommend: "Only Lovers Left Alive," "Ida," "Stranger By The Lake" and "Locke."
It's gonna be a busy festival... -- Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez