2015 Sundance Preview!

It’s absolutely insane that it’s already been a year since my last trip to Park City, Utah for Sundance 2014. This marks my sixth time at the fest, and I’m as excited as I’ve ever been. This is one thing I’ll never get used to. People say “love your work and never work a day in your life.” That’s exactly how I feel about covering Sundance. It’s a true privilege and I’m incredibly lucky for the opportunity to attend.

As always, the Sundance lineup is eclectic. Unlike TIFF, where most of the films are buzzed-about awards titles, at Sundance it’s more of a discovery. Some years are better than others, but 2014 was one of their best ever. While there I got to attend the world premieres of BOYHOOD, COLD IN JULY and THE RAID 2, while also getting an early look at a little under-the-radar indie – WHIPLASH. Could this year’s lineup boast another WHIPLASH? We’ll just have to wait and see, but the following are some of the titles that seem to have a good shot at being buzzworthy.

Now, onto the films!

1. Z For Zachariah

Z FOR ZACHARIAH is one of the bigger titles to debut this year. It also has the distinction of already having a distributor in place, having been acquired by Lionsgate/Roadside, who’ve had tremendous success with other Sundance titles like THE SKELETON TWINS, MUD, MARGIN CALL, and more. It’s easy to see why this was picked up, with the marquee friendly cast (Chris Pine, Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the genre-friendly premise, which finds Pine and Ejiofor – the two last surviving men on Earth – battling over the affections of Robbie, the only woman left alive. Coming from Craig Zobel, the director of the controversial COMPLIANCE, chances are this will be less genre than it sounds, and somewhat more unconventional.

2. Knock, Knock

How crazy is it that Eli Roth’s THE GREEN INFERNO still hasn’t seen the light of day? I caught it at TIFF way back in 2013, and it’s yet to get any kind of release (being tangled-up legally). Still, Roth hasn’t let that stop him from making another movie, with KNOCK, KNOCK being perhaps his most ambitious, mainstream-friendly sounding film to date, starring Keanu Reeves as a mild-mannered suburbanite who lets two beautiful girls stay with him for the weekend, only to have them turn his life upside-down in a presumably horrific way. As a bonus – if I get the chance to meet Roth at Sundance I’ll ask him about the status of GREEN INFERNO for those of you still anxious to see it.

3. Mississippi Grind

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are directors I can’t help but root for. I absolutely despised their last movie – IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY - but HALF NELSON was so good they almost get a lifetime pass from me. Here’s hoping their long-gestating MISSISSIPPI GRIND is a return to form. Based on the premise and photos, it seems to be a riff on Robert Altman’s amazing CALIFORNIA SPLIT, with Ben Mendelsohn (always worth watching) in the George Segal part, and Ryan Reynolds attempting to reinvent himself somewhat in the Elliot Gould role. If you haven’t seen SPLIT, Mendelsohn and Reynolds play small-time, compulsive gamblers who try to break their losing streak. I’m not sure if it’s a full-on remake, but if it’s half as good as CALIFORNIA SPLIT it’ll be great.

4. The D Train

Jack Black’s been low-key for the last few years. While he was great in BERNIE, he’s been somewhat MIA since then. THE D TRAIN fixes that problem, with him playing the mild-mannered head of a high school reunion committee who tries to track down the most popular guy from his class (James Marsden) and convince him to come to their reunion. Sundance has a long tradition of breakout indie comedies (THE WAY WAY BACK, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, THE SKELETON TWINS, CELESTE & JESSE FOREVER) and THE D TRAIN sounds like it has as good a shot as any of walking away from the fest with a lot of buzz.

5. A Walk in the Woods

Ok, so everyone knows the Sundance Film Festival is Robert Redford’s baby. But, as far as his actual movies go, Redford’s always been reticent to feature them, not wanting anyone to think he was using the fest as a platform for his own work. Only one or two of his movies (notably THE CROSSING) have ever shown there. A WALK IN THE WOODS joins that (tiny) company, with this starring the legend as real-life writer Bill Bryson, who sets out to walk the Appalachian Trail with his best buddy, played by Nick Nolte. Nolte and Redford? Together? Sold.

6. End of the Tour

James Ponsoldt is certainly one of the most exciting directors in recent memory to breakout thanks to the Sundance film festival. His last two films, SMASHED and THE SPECTACULAR NOW were among my favorites of their respective fests, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see his THE END OF THE TOUR be one of 2015’s highlights. This is Jason Segel’s big stab at critical respect, with him playing David Foster Wallace opposite Jesse Eisenberg, who plays journalist David LIpsky, who accompanied Wallace on an eventful book tour in 1996, which formed the basis of his memoirs, which this is based on.

7. Last Days in the Desert

I love me some Ewan McGregor, but LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT sounds like a stretch, even for him. How so? LAST DAYS is about Jesus Christ’s forty days spent wandering in the desert, with McGregor playing both Jesus and The Devil. See what I mean? Rodrigo Garcia (MOTHER & CHILD, IN TREATMENT, ALBERT NOBBS) directs. What’s really interesting is that the DP is none other than Emmanuel Lubezki (BIRDMAN, GRAVITY, CHILDREN OF MEN)!

8. Going Clear

Alex Gibney is something of a film festival mainstay, with his docs (THE ARMSTRONG LIE, FINDING FELA, and WE STEAL SECRETS are a few of his more recent films) always playing to acclaim. GOING CLEAR sounds especially ambitious even for him. Based on the controversial Scientology expose, GOING CLEAR would have been unimaginable a few years ago when the famously litigious religion would have no doubt used their Hollywood power to quash it. Alas, things have changed, with many of the celeb members not holding the same kind of power they used to hold. There’s no doubt this will be utterly fascinating.

9. Mistress America

It’s crazy that following his TIFF premiere of WHILE WE’RE YOUNG just a few months ago Noah Baumbach is back with another movie, MISTRESS AMERICA. While YOUNG was a pretty broad comedy, MISTRESS AMERICA feels more indie-flavored, with it starring his muse Greta Gerwig. Not much is known about the premise yet but it’s already been acquired by Fox Searchlight, who’ve become notoriously selective at Sundance as of late. So it must be pretty great, right?

10. The Overnight

A few months ago, while attending the Fantasia Film Festival, I got an early look at Patrick Brice’s horror-comedy CREEP. Before that hits theaters (no date set but Radius has already picked it up) Brice is back with another genre mashup, THE OVERNIGHT. Not much is known about the premise, other than the fact it’s about an adult ‘playdate’ gone awry, the cast sounds pretty great, with it starring Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman.

11. True Story

See what I mean about James Franco being busy? TRUE STORY is one we’ve been hearing about for a while now, with Jonah Hill (in another straight dramatic turn) starring as disgraced journalist Michael Finkel who –after being fired for making up stories – is given a shot at redemption when he’s contacted by convicted killer Christian Longo (James Franco). It’ll be interesting to see Hill and Franco co-star in something so dark, but the early trailer is intriguing (although I suspect also highly misleading).

12. I Am Michael

After all the controversy surrounding THE INTERVIEW, I’d be willing to bet James Franco’s eager to move on. Always insanely prolific, Franco’s at Sundance with two movies, before jetting over to Berlin for the world premiere of yet-another film (he also has multiple other movies in the can). I AM MICHAEL sounds highly intriguing, with him starring as a gay activist who, after turning to God, apparently becomes straight. Zachary Quinto and Emma Roberts co-star.

13. Experimenter

I’ve always been a fan of Peter Sarsgaard. Regardless of whether or not the movie he’s in is any good, Sarsgaard can always be relied on to give a great performance. EXPERIMENTER sounds like a good vehicle for him, with him staring as psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose infamous social experiments in the sixties revealed sobering truth about people’s lack of empathy and need for authority.

14. The Stanford Prison Experiment

The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, where a random sample of volunteers were put in a makeshift prison setting and randomly assigned the role of guard and prisoner, was the basis for the amazing German film DAS EXPERIMENT, which was subsequently remade (badly) as THE EXPERIMENT. THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT dramatizes the original experiment, and boasts an outstanding cast, including Billy Crudup, Olivia Thirlby, Nelsan Ellis, Ezra Miller (soon to play THE FLASH), Tye Sheridan, and more.

15. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

A documentary about National Lampoon, from its beginnings as a magazine, through its heyday as the sponsor of stage shows (LEMMINGS), movies (ANIMAL HOUSE, VACATION) and more. National Lampoon in an integral piece of modern comedic history, and it’s about time someone actually set out to chronicle its history. Hopefully this will be an anarchic and amusing as the Lampoon’s best work.

16. Cop Car

Anyone see OUR ROBOCOP REMAKE? No, not the big-budget, shitty version. I mean the unauthorized, crazy one that came out on Vimeo shortly after the feature. Well, one of the guys involved with that is at Sundance with a midnight selection, called COP CAR. Kevin Bacon stars as a small-town sheriff whose cop car gets stolen by a couple of bratty kids. Sounds fairly innocuous, right? Well, from what I hear this is actually hardcore violent and nuts. I can’t wait.

17. The Nightmare

I figure everyone – by this point – has seen Rodney Ascher’s ROOM 237. Well, that film originally premiered at Sundance, and Ascher is back with his latest, THE NIGHTMARE. Apparently, this is a documentary about sleep paralysis, and one that explores what its like to suffer from this disturbing phenomenon. Given how messed up ROOM 237 was, I’ve no doubt that THE NIGHTMARE will be giving us some nightmares of our own before long.

18. Digging For Fire

I honestly can’t remember ever attending a film festival where the crazy prolific Joe Swanberg didn’t have a film showing (well okay, I’m exaggerating a bit). Following HAPPY CHRISTMAS (which I quite liked) DIGGING FOR FIRE sounds like another stab at the mainstream, with an appealing cast (including Jake Johnson, Sam Rockwell, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson and Swanberg regulars Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey) and a cool premise, where this discovery of a bone and a gun send a husband and wife on separate adventures over the course of a weekend.

19. Strangerland

Nicole Kidman hasn’t been on the best run lately, but STRANGERLAND sounds like a promising step in the right direction. Kidman, working in her native Australia, stars as a mother whose teenaged children go missing in the vast Australian Outback. Joseph Fiennes (due a comeback of his own) co-stars. The always great Hugo Weaving co-stars.

20. Don Verdeen

Honestly, I’m not a huge Jared Hess fan. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE is...fine but overrated. I also absolutely hated GENTLEMEN BRONCOS. Still, I’m an optimist, and DON VERDEEN, which stars Sam Rockwell as a biblical archaeologist sounds fun. Sam Rockwell stars alongside Jermaine Clement, Amy Ryan, and Danny McBride.

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