By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist January 10, 2012 at 12:20PM
Synopsis: Polio-afflicted writer and poet Mark O'Brien decides, at the age of 38, to lose his virginity, and hires a sex surrogate to help him do so.
What You Need To Know: John Hawkes has become a bit of a Sundance favorite over the years, but after two brilliant but deeply sinister turns in a row -- his Oscar-nominated performance in "Winter's Bone" and last year's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" -- it's a wonder they let him in the place anymore without checking him for meth or rape drugs. Fortunately his 2012 entry is more benevolent, with Hawkes taking on the pathos-magnet role of journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, the subject of the 1997 Oscar-winning documentary "Breathing Lessons" who was near-paralyzed, and restricted to an iron lung for most of his time, by polio. And the actor's joined by Oscar-winner Helen Hunt, who's on the comeback trail in 2012 after a long absence, along with the great William H. Macy, as O'Brien's priest. Writer-director Ben Lewin has a long career as a documentarian and TV helmer behind him, so hopefully he'll be able to avoid obvious sentimentality here.
When? Sundance - 23rd, 24th, 26th, 28th (Park City), 27th (SLC)
"The To-Do List"
Synopsis: A virginal high-school honors student tries to gain sexual experience over the summer before she starts college.
What You Need To Know: Another raunchy female-driven comedy, "The To-Do List" (formerly titled "The Hand Job"), sets itself apart from the pack by the sheer depth of talent it's attracted. Written and directed by Maggie Carey, the filmmaker other half of SNL star Bill Hader, the film toplines "Parks & Recreation" star Aubrey Plaza as the Type-A girl crossing off a few sexual practices, with Hader, Andy Samberg, Alia Shawkat, Mae Whitman, Johnny Simmons, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Scott Porter, D.C. Pierson and Dominic Bierkes making up the hugely impressive supporting cast. Hader told us last year to expect the film to be a "raunchy 'Sixteen Candles,'" and Carey's very strong script certainly backs that up.
When? The film shot last summer, so SXSW could be feasible. If not, Toronto's very likely too.
"Trap For Cinderella"
Synopsis: A young girl, Micky, wakes up after a terrible fire in which her best friend, Do, died. But how did the fire come about? And can Micky's memories be relied on?
What You Need To Know: Thanks to "Black Swan," the high-stakes melodrama is very much back in favor, and nothing seems to scratch that itch in 2012 as much as "Trap For Cinderella." Based on the novel by Sebastian Japrisot ("A Very Long Engagement"), it's written and directed by Iain Softley, though responsible for weak fare like "K-Pax" and "Inkheart," also directed the terminally underrated "The Wings of the Dove," and has made the film something of a passion project. Initially intended for Felicity Jones and Imogen Poots, Softley ended up going with the next generation of rising stars, with the excellent Tuppence Middleton ("Skeletons") and Alexandra Roach ("The Iron Lady") taking the leads, with Kerry Fox, Alex Jennings and Aneurin Barnard in support. We enjoyed the script, a taut, Polanski-esque little potboiler, so this could turn out to be an under-the-radar surprise.
When? The film shot last summer, so we're sure it'll get a U.K. release, at the least, before the end of the year.
"Untitled Drake Doremus Project"
Synopsis: A high-school teacher is tempted to cheat on his wife by a precocious student.
What You Need To Know: Drake Doremus became the toast of Sundance last year with his youthful relationship drama "Like Crazy," but the young director didn't stick around to soak up the praise; before the film even hit theaters, he was lensing an even bigger project, albeit one using the same semi-improvised techniques as the last. His "Like Crazy" breakout Felicity Jones returns, alongside Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan and Nico Tortorella and Doremus told us a few months back that the project has thriller aspects to it, something that definitely has us intrigued. While "Like Crazy" was flawed, there was more than enough in there to suggest that Doremus was a major talent to watch.
When? Toronto seems like the best bet; we'd be surprised if Doremus was ready in time for SXSW.
"Untitled Ramin Bahrani Project"
Synopsis: A farmer plans to expand his business, but his racing driver son has no desire to follow in his father's footsteps.
What You Need To Know: If there's a stranger combination on this list than Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani -- favorite of Roger Ebert and helmer of lovely, delicate humanistic pictures normally focusing on immigrants -- and Zac Efron, star of the "High School Musical" series, then we haven't been paying enough attention. After the acclaimed likes of "Goodbye Solo" and "Man Push Cart," Bahrani is dancing with recognizable names this time out, with Efron, Dennis Quaid, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown and Kim Dickens, although the "Days of Heaven"-esque subject matter suggests he's not fallen too far from his usual concerns. While we ordinarily wouldn't rush to see something starring Quaid, Efron and Graham, we're fascinated to see if Bahrani can work his magic on his performers, and cross over to a wider audience while he's at it.
When? Bahrani's a favorite at Venice, so that's our top guess, but "Chop Shop" debuted at Cannes, so the film shouldn't be ruled out from participating there instead.
"The We & The I"
Synopsis: A group of schoolkids travel into the future by accident, discovering a machine that keeps them younger.
What You Need To Know: It's a year since Michel Gondry's ill-fated Hollywood experiment "The Green Hornet" landed, but the filmmaker didn't spend too long licking his wounds. Instead the French helmer got underway on production of "The We & The I," a smaller-scale film born out of meetings with the publishers of his "Be Kind Rewind"-tied book about community filmmaking. Starring a group of non-professional Brooklyn school kids, and seemingly with the same focus on community that much of the director's best recent work has had, this won't just be some kitchen-sink flick, with a rep for the film revealing to us last year that the project contained some sci-fi elements. Could this be Gondry's first kids' film? He'd seem particularly well-suited to it, if so.
When? We've been told that the film's still in post, which is why it's not at Sundance, and unlikely to make it to SXSW. Given the Brooklyn setting, an NYC premiere at Tribeca or the NYFF would seem to make sense, but don't rule out Toronto.
"West of Memphis"
Synopsis: A documentary following the quashing of the convictions of the West Memphis Three, the three Arkansas teenagers who were convicted of the 1994 murders of three children.
What You Need To Know: "Lord of the Rings" helmer Peter Jackson has taken a particular interest in the West Memphis Three since the start of his career, helping to fund their defense and now producing this documentary about the case and the recent release of the three, from Amy Berg, director of the Oscar-nominated "Deliver Us From Evil." There are plenty of questions to be raised in advance here. Will another doc, on top of three "Paradise Lost" films from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, prove surplus to requirements? Will Jackson's interest in the case, and the producer credit for West Memphis Three member Damien Echols, mean that any ambiguities (of which there are a few) will be brushed over? We'll see, but there'll be few other docs in Park City with the same hot button value as this one.
When? Sundance - 20th, 21st, 28th (Park City), 21st (SLC), 24th (Sundance Resort).
"What Maisie Knew"
Synopsis: An adaptation of Henry James' novel, about a young girl shuffled between her divorced parents.
What You Need To Know: The films of Scott McGehee and David Siegel ("Suture," "The Deep End," "Uncertainty") have been consistently interesting without ever overcoming their flaws, but they seem to be onto something good with their latest. It looks to be a more grounded, less genre-tinged project, an update of a lesser-known Henry James novel to the present day, with Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan cast as the irresponsible parents (a rock star and an art dealer, respectively) of the central character, while the much-in-demand Alexander Skarsgard will play Moore's second husband. A lot will depend on the acting abilites of Onata Aprile, the young actress the pair put in the lead role, but the premise still holds plenty of weight, over a century after James wrote the book, so this could turn out to be a hidden gem.
When? Toronto, at best guess.