It's been a peculiarly eventful January on the movie front, with Oscar nomination controversies and now the remarkable performance of "American Sniper" to chat about. There's also been at least a couple of January releases that feel a cut above the usual dross with which this wilderness period is typically associated. So painlessly has it passed that it's a pleasant surprise that the Sundance Film Festival, so often the sole bright spot on the dull January horizon, is already upon us, starting on Thursday and running through February 1st.
As ever, we'll be bringing you loads of coverage, reviews and interviews from Park City, and with a lineup absolutely brimming with fascinating prospects, we're confident that somewhere in the program there's the next "Boyhood" or "Whiplash" waiting to be discovered and maybe even to ride the Sundance breakout wave all the way to Oscar 2016.
Whether or not they end up deemed awards-worthy, here are the 30 feature titles from across all areas of the festival that we're most looking forward to (though we're also looking forward to the out-of-nowhere surprises that Sundance always provides). Keep an eye out for reviews of these, and much, much more from Sundance, as the cinephile year kicks off in earnest. Warning: a little jealousy may ensue if you're reading this and not planning to attend.
Synopsis: In 1950s Ireland, a young woman faces a heartrending choice between two countries and two men: essentially between two lives, one that reflects duty, the other love.
What You Need To Know: Irish director John Crowley made an impressive debut with the sprawling, snarling "Intermission," but fell off the radar subsequently as his next three features culminating in 2013's "Closed Circuit" all underperformed (rather undeservedly, especially in the case of "Boy A"). "Brooklyn," finds him with a bigger canvas in the source material of Colm Toibin's book of the same name, and his cast is impeccable, showcasing three of the most exciting younger talents around in Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson and Emory Cohen, with a sweeping, epic period backdrop. With a screenplay written by Nick Hornby, whose work on "An Education" and "Wild" makes him something of a poster boy for literary adaptations and great support in the shape of Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters, this could be big. Then again, it could be merely tasteful, but hopefully some edge will be retained.
Synopsis: In St. Louis, Missouri, Louis attempts to grow up, but his oldest friend Jack, jealous about new pal Andrew, resists.
What You Need To Know: Even at Sundance, your microbudget feature with an unknown cast needs a little help to stand out from the crowd, but fortunately director Michael J. Larnell had some: his debut feature "Cronies" is exec produced by none other than Spike Lee. What's even more remarkable is that Larnell will still be in film school when his film hits Sundance's NEXT program: he doesn't graduate from NYU (Lee's alma mater, famously) until the summer. As for his film, it's a low-key drama shot, per the film's teaser, in arresting black-and-white, that's reportedly inspired by "Stand By Me" and "La Haine.” NEXT's been the home of many of the most striking new movies at the festival in recent years, and this is certainly one of the more promising films in its line-up.
"The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
Synopsis: A teenaged aspiring comic book artist growing up in 1970s San Francisco embarks on an affair with her mother’s boyfriend.
What You Need To Know: That "A Walk Among The Tombstones" actress Marielle Heller is making her writer/director debut at Sundance should come as no surprise —she was selected as a Sundance Labs Writing and Directing fellow in 2012, and this adaptation of the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner is the first fruit of her labors. Coming-of-age tales are hardly groundbreaking fare, especially not at Sundance, but Heller has assembled a strong cast around London-born rising star Bel Powley, including Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard and Christopher Meloni, and the details of setting and period in the story should set it apart. In fact, there’s a reason the genre is so enduringly popular, especially among first-timers and if Heller’s fresh voice can capture the mordant, edgy appeal of the source material (Gloeckner’s work has been lauded by and compared to the likes of Robert Crumb), this may be a real treat and Heller may be a real new Sundance-darling find.
“Digging For Fire”
Synopsis: A married couple take a break from raising their toddler by house-sitting for a friend, andthe discovery of a bone and a gun sends husband and wife on separate adventures.
What You Need To Know: Continuing the second act of previously mumblecore-centric Joe Swanberg's directorial career, “Digging For Fire,” co-written with “New Girl” and “Let’s Be Cops” star Jake Johnson (who plays one of the leads opposite the great Rosemarie DeWitt), looks to be Swanberg’s biggest endeavor yet. Aside from the central couple, we also have Swanberg vets like Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Jane Adams and Melanie Lynskey, plus Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Sam Elliott, Chris Messina, Jenny Slate, Judith Light, Timothy Simons and Mike Birbiglia. Oh, and,presumably hoping to kick off a comeback/indie reinvention, Orlando Bloom. That stacked, indie-darling cast in a fun-sounding set-up directed by a guy whose last two movies, “Drinking Buddies” and “Happy Christmas” marked, for us a major step forward? Yep, we're all aboard, placing this on at 86 in our 100 Most Anticipated Films of the Year.
Synopsis: A 90s hip-hop-loving geek in a tough neighborhood in Inglewood dreams of attending Harvard, but his future's thrown into question when a drug dealer invites him to his birthday party.
What You Need To Know: Last time Forest Whitaker produced a Sundance movie, it was "Fruitvale Station," a film that turned out to be the breakout hit of the festival that year, going on to become a crossover hit and picking up awards buzz. As such, we should be paying attention to the Whitaker-backed (and narrated) "Dope," a passion project from "The Wood" and "Brown Sugar" director Rick Famuyiwa. Coming across as a blend of "We Are The Best!," "Superbad" and "The Wackness," with the protagonists playing in a punk/hip-hop band together (Pharrell Williams is contributing music), this could be a vibrant crowd-pleaser in the making. And it has the cast to match it: newcomer Shameik Moore takes the lead, with "Grand Budapest Hotel"'s Tony Revolori, "X-Men" star Zoe Kravitz, "Short Term 12" and "Selma" actor Keith Stanfield, and rapper A$AP Rocky and Tyga also involved.
"The End Of The Tour"
Synopsis: The true story of the 5-day interview between Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky and writer David Foster Wallace and what it reveals about public/private personas and the very interview process itself.
What You Need To Know: James Ponsoldt's one-two of the promising, well-performed "Smashed" followed by excellent "The Spectacular Now" would have us anticipating whatever he had coming next, but this story, based on the memoir by Lipsky himself, plays right into our wheelhouse while also delivering hopefully meaty roles for Jesse Eisenberg as the reporter and Jason Segel, in a rare properly serious role as the already semi-mythical Wallace. With the supporting cast rounded out with Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer and Ron Livingston, photography by Jakob Ihre ("Oslo 31. August") and music by Danny Elfman, the elements seem in place to make this another leap up in Ponsoldt's continuing skyward trajectory, and we are eager to see how he brings his proven eye for relationship detail to a different type of relationship altogether.