The 2014 Sundance Film Festival is well underway and as usual, is doing some pretty great things for films we've all been dying to see. From giving underdogs some much-needed confidence to creating serious Oscar buzz for others, this is definitely the one film event that's at the top of every movie lover's bucket list. Ever since it first hit the scene in 1978, helped by Robert Redford's involvement, Sundance put Park City, Utah on the cultural map and has launched the careers of some of the industry's top filmmakers. Sometimes a movie does so well, either in terms of box office sales later on or it ends up a cult favorite, it becomes a Sundance champion and the filmmakers can closely associate their success with the festival. Where would Clerks be without Sundance? Reservoir Dogs? What about Pi or Once? It's small brilliant gems like these that have come to define the festival.
Since the festival runs until January 26, we have a few more days until we get the full picture, but I've always had a hard time waiting. So, let's check out some of my picks for the most exciting films and maybe one of them will become synonymous with Sundance.
20,000 Days On Earth
Directors: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard
Composers: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Cast: Nick Cave
Not having seen this documentary yet is literally physically painful for me. Not only is Nick Cave one of the most talented and intriguing figures in the music industry, he is in the film and literary world too. Instead of going the route of traditional music documentaries, Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard and Cave looked to those docs as to what not to do and didn't treat 20,000 Days On Earth as a self-promoting machine. By combining drama with reality, the film is part doc and part stylized fiction, which will make sense to you if you've ever absorbed Cave's arsenal of work. It charters a day in the life of his artistic process, with his narrations leading you through an imaginary day that is partially constructed. He talks with a Freudian analyst, drives around with Ray Winstone, has a touching chat with Kylie Minogue about loneliness, and reunites with former bandmate Blixa Bargeld (who left the Bad Seeds suddenly in 2003). Though the situations are planned, the conversations are organic.
Nick Cave has spent decades creating a superhuman persona, and anyone in the crowd for his performances can feel that persona in a very visceral way. This film is a rare insight into Cave's unique thought process, something that he keeps pretty private, and is more accurately a reflection of how he'd like the world to see him. Ultimately, 20,000 Days On Earth is a pretty tricky portrayal of an artistic icon and challenges how we see ourselves and which representations can be considered the most truthful.
The Skeleton Twins
Director: Craig Johnson
Screenwriters: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman
Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson
Produced by the Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, The Skeleton Twins brings together estranged (and suicidal) twins Maggie and Milo (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader) after a moment of crisis. By bringing together these two Saturday Night Live alums, it's a pretty safe bet that this film is full of really funny improvisational moments. Plus, it's already been picked up by Lionsgate for a worldwide late-summer release.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenwriters: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Domhall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Michael Fassbender has been riding a wave of critical acclaim and fan mania, so why not hide him in a giant papier-mâché head? He plays Frank, a man at risk of tumbling into insanity — who also happens to be the lead in a strange band, alongside the bizarre character of Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). After their keyboardist attempts suicide, they bring in sweet songwriter Jon (played by the charming Domhall Gleeson). The trio retreat into a cabin in Ireland to record an album, telling a darkly funny story of the humor in epic failure and the beautiful purity of the creative spirit.
Director & Screenwriter: Kat Candler
Cast: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins
Aaron Paul plays Hollis, a disaster of a father who can't keep his life together after his wife dies, despite having two sons. Though the Breaking Bad star lends Hellion its biggest name, the movie is actually about thirteen-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins), who spends his days of delinquency wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. After his little brother is taken away by Child Protective Services, Jacob and Hollis are forced to confront one another while trying to bring their family back together. This broken family drama is an expansion of Candler's short film that screened at last year's Sundance, and promises to be as emotionally disturbing as it is powerful.
Wish I Was Here
Director: Zach Braff
Screenwriters: Zach Braff, Adam Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene, Joey King
There are so many factors pushing Wish I Was Here into the spotlight. It is the first flick made using Kickstarter funds by someone this high-profile and it comes exactly 10 years after the actor-turned-movie-maker's cultural benchmark Garden State premiered at Sundance in 2004. Having received a standing ovation — which isn't too common at this festival — Braff's follow-up is apaprently exactly what you would expect from him: funny, heartwarming, and moving.
Braff plays Aiden, a father in the midst of an existential crisis, wrestling with his own stern dad (Mandy Patinkin), his wife and kids, religion, sickness, and his imaginary acting career. After his dad gets diagnosed with cancer, he can't pay for his grandkids' Rabbinical schooling, and it forces Aiden to take a good look at himself.
As expected, the movie has already been picked up by Focus Features for $2.7M.
Director: Jeff Preiss
Screenwriters: Amy-Jo Albany, Topper Lilien
Cast: John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey
Yes, this film has a stellar cast (not to mention a little Game of Thrones reunion with Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey), but it also looks to be a powerful story. Based on Amy Jo Albany's memoir, this movie tells the true story of jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes) and his daughter Amy (Elle Fanning). At its core, Low Down is a stark film set in the 1970s about a young girl having to grow up beneath her father's musical genius and heroin addiction. Critics are applauding Fanning and Hawkes, and even the film's mistakes (like its bloated length and slightly muddled direction) can't downplay their powerful performances.
The Trip to Italy
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriters: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
If you're not already familiar with the hilarious Steve Coogan, you need to cancel plans for the rest of the month and settle yourself in for the long haul. There's a lot to get through, but you won't regret it.
The Trip to Italy is a follow-up to 2010's The Trip, a British comedy following Coogan and Rob Brydon on a foodie trip through northern England, that was edited into a film from the BAFTA award-winning TV series of the same name (which itself was a follow-up to 2006's A Cock and Bull Story; all directed by Michael Winterbottom). Make sense?
For this flick, all you really need to know is that the comedic duo go on a new culinary trip — this time through Italy — and it's full of fantastic impersonations, witty banter and improvisations. Constantly trying to one-up the other, Coogan and Brydon eat gourmet meals while arguing over the vocal range of Batman and the artistic worth of Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, proving that sometimes all you need to make a movie perfect is some good conversation.
Director: Mike Cahill
Screenwriter: Mike Cahill
Cast: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling
As a huge fan of Brit Marling, I am pretty excited to see this follow-up to Another Earth (which won awards at 2011's Sundance and was co-written by Marling). In this film, PhD student Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) meets a mysterious model at a party and after an intense night, they part ways. Years later, Gray and his lab partner Karen (Marling) make an existential and scientific discovery and he embarks on a mission to find the model. While this isn't a sequel to Another Earth, it may be a good idea to check it out first, since it solidifies I Origins' exploration of humanity and science, and will give you a better idea of Mike Cahill's narrative structure.
Director: Jake Paltrow
Screenwriter: Jake Paltrow
Cast: Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Elle Fanning, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Yes, that's Michael Shannon holding a shotgun, and I'll admit, that was enough to make me want to see it. Young Ones is a science-fiction Western that takes place on some other planet that is running out of water. With people struggling to stay alive in a harsh climate, Ernest Holm (Shannon) is trying to protect his kids (Elle Fanning and Kodi Smit-McPhee) from dangerous thieves. His daughter's boyfriend though (played by Nicholas Hoult) decides he wants Ernest's land for himself and will do whatever it takes to get it.
Personally, I love when filmmakers reinvent the Western genre (with my favorite being Nick Cave's The Proposition) and Young Ones promises to strip it down and introduce some good ole' Greek tragedy. Who doesn't love that?
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Director: David Zellner
Screenwriters: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube
Inspired by an urban legend, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a love story to an eccentric loner who seeks identity and truth in a movie. Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) plays Kumiko, a quiet girl who lives in a tiny apartment in Tokyo with her pet rabbit. When she's not toiling away as an "office lady," making tea and picking up dry cleaning, she's at home obsessively watching the same American film on VHS. In studying the movie, she maps out where a briefcase full of money is buried and sets out on a journey to the United States to look for it in Minnesota.
Critics are applauding David Zellner's ability to keep the strange film expressive, no matter how much the title character may withdraw into herself, and they love Kikuchi's emotive body language that would be at home in a silent film.