The cinematic year well and truly kicks off with the legendary Sundance Film Festival.
From Boyhood to Reservoir Dogs, Whiplash to Little Miss Sunshine; Sundance has ushered in some of the most unique, fascinating films over the past few years, and this year will hopefully prove no different.
The line-up sees the return of the usual US Competition, World Competition and NEXT categories; alongside the introduction of New Climate, which will showcase stories and conversations based around the environment and climate change. stories and conversations based around the environment and climate change.
"From the passion and chaos of creativity, independent filmmakers make decisions to harness that energy, break new ground and tell their stories," Robert Redford, President and Founder of stories," Robert Redford, President and Founder of Sundance Institute, stated. "This year’s Festival reflects every step of that journey, and shows how art can engage, provoke and connect people all over the world."
Sundance can also be an early look-in to some of the films which will later crop up, roughly a year later, during the monstrous hype of awards season; Manchester by the Sea had its very first screening at Sundance last year, before Casey Affleck became a frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar.
Here are our picks for 30 films to get excited by.
The films to watch out for from Sundance 2017
The films to watch out for from Sundance 2017
1/29 Beach Rats
Frankie, an aimless teenager on the outer edges of Brooklyn, is having a miserable summer. With his father dying and his mother wanting him to find a girlfriend, Frankie escapes the bleakness of his home life by causing trouble with his delinquent friends and flirting with older men online. When his chatting and webcamming intensify, he finally starts hooking up with guys at a nearby cruising beach while simultaneously entering into a cautious relationship with a young woman. As Frankie struggles to reconcile his competing desires, his decisions leave him hurtling toward irreparable consequences. Writer/director Eliza Hittman’s short film Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight played the Festival in 2011. Her first feature, It Felt Like Love, premiered at the 2013 Festival and put her on the map as someone to watch.
2/29 Beatriz at Dinner
Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a miracle worker—highly sensitive with her touch, and passionately dedicated to curing pain through holistic therapy. After treating the mother of a young woman Beatriz helped recover from chemotherapy, her car breaks down, so she is invited to stay for a dinner celebrating a lucrative business deal. Beatriz at Dinner is riveting, yet with an apprehensive tone. Half chamber drama, half dark dramedy of errors, director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, 2002 Sundance Film Festival) discerns his characters by showing their most telling reactions, such as the subliminal determination of Hayek’s face, while spinning an indelible wickedness onto this tale of a fateful encounter.
3/29 Burning Sands
In his freshman year of college, it seems Zurich has everything going for him; he has the respect of his teachers and university administration, the love and devotion of a wonderful girlfriend, and he’s been selected for admission to a prestigious black fraternity on campus. But as Zurich embarks on the Hell Week of pledging his fraternity, the harsh trials of entry into brotherhood begin to test the limits of his self-worth. As the intensifying abuse begins to become untenable, Zurich struggles to honor the fraternity’s code of silence, and the scaffolding of his life outside the frat begins to dismantle. Gerrard McMurray’s Burning Sands constructs a deeply complex cross section of the fabled fraternity hazing culture and the vicious power of the desire for acceptance. McMurray’s grounded filmmaking builds a textured world populated with an exceptional young cast, resulting in a deeply profound exploration of being a young black man in America.
4/29 Call Me By Your Name
It’s the summer of 1983 in northern Italy, and Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old American-Italian boy, spends his days in his family's seventeenth century villa lazily transcribing music and flirting with his friend Marzia. One day Oliver (Armie Hammer), a charming, 24-year-old American scholar working on his doctorate, arrives as the annual summer intern tasked with helping Elio's father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an eminent professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture. Amid the sun-drenched splendor of this sensual setting, Elio and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire over the course of a summer that will change their lives forever. The latest film by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, 2010 Sundance Film Festival) is adapted from the novel by André Aciman, with a screenplay by Guadagnino and James Ivory.
5/29 Casting JonBenet
After 20 years of media speculation and public hysteria, the unsolved death of six-year-old American beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey remains one of the world’s most sensational child murder cases. Casting JonBenet presents audiences with a hybrid of nonfiction and fiction filmmaking that examines the complicated legacy of this tiny starlet. Relying on a local casting call to entirely voice her film, director Kitty Green expands on a fascinating technique she last explored in her short film which won a 2014 Jury Award for nonfiction (The Face Of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul).
6/29 City of Ghosts
A real-life international thriller, City of Ghosts exposes a new type of warfare: a battle over ideas, a fight for hearts and minds, a conflict over clicks and views. Captivating in its immediacy, it follows the journey of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”—a handful of anonymous activists who banded together after their homeland was taken over by ISIS in 2014. Directed, produced, and filmed by Academy Award–nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, 2015 Sundance Film Festival Directing Award), City of Ghosts is a singularly powerful cinematic experience that is sure to shake audiences to their core as it elevates the canon of one of the most talented and exciting documentary filmmakers working today.
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a hard partying New York scene girl who is thrust into crisis when her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), grows sick of her antics and kicks her out of their apartment. With no other options, she moves back to her hometown and quickly regresses, drinking every night until last call and accepting a job at a bar owned by her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). One day she wakes up and blurrily finds out that Seoul was terrorized by a giant creature the night before. Eventually, Gloria begins to suspect her own drunken actions are bizarrely connected to the monster rampaging in South Korea. Writer/Director Vigalondo, aided by an outstanding cast, weaves a twisty, funny tale with real depth and emotional resonance. Colossal is proof that the ambitions of indie filmmakers can be epic in scope without losing their humanity.
8/29 Crown Heights
On April 10, 1980, a shot rang out on the streets of Crown Heights, igniting a decades-long quest for justice in this harrowing true story. Colin Warner, played with heartbreaking sincerity by Lakeith Stanfield, is arrested and tried for a crime he did not commit, a victim of a deeply broken system that refuses to listen. Quick to throw him away, the court wrongfully convicts him. But as Colin loses hope to reclaim an innocence that has been cast aside, his best friend, Carl King, devotes his life to restoring Colin's freedom, doggedly pursuing every lead for years. Writer/director Matt Ruskin, who worked closely to earn the trust of the real Colin Warner, imbues this film with a gifted touch and emotional authenticity to shed light on a painful personal story—and on a horrifying systemic issue. Anchored by Stanfield, an indie film secret weapon, Crown Heights unfolds as a powerful ode to those we leave behind.
In the wake of his big brother’s violent death, 13-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon) struggles to find his way in an economically depressed Arkansas town. With no parents and few role models around, Dayveon is soon torn between the lure of a local gang and the friendship of his sister’s boyfriend, who reluctantly acts as a father figure. Amman Abbasi’s remarkable debut feature is a lyrical slice of Southern life, with an uncanny feeling for the rhythms of rural existence. Abbasi, the son of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Arkansas, developed the script (co-written by Steven Reneau) with input from local gang members. First-time actor Blackmon anchors the film with a poignant performance, complementing Abbasi’s introspective approach.
10/29 A Ghost Story
Lauded filmmaker David Lowery, last at the Festival with the lyrical Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), reunites with his collaborators for a haunted tale like no other—one conceived in secret and fueled by the spirit of pure, creative expression. Lowery's meticulously sparse narrative contemplates a spectral figure who was once a man (Casey Affleck). Prematurely taken from this Earth, he makes his way toward his former home, where he is fated to remain forevermore. Shrouded in a white sheet, he observes the lament of his grief-stricken lover (Rooney Mara). Bearing unseen witness to her pain, the wisp stands sentry for years to come, interacting only with time as it hurtles further and further forward, the remnants of his humanity quietly evaporating.
11/29 Golden Exits
Nick has settled into a safe existence in a small pocket of Brooklyn, where he currently toils on an archival project for his father-in-law. Soon, 20-something Naomi arrives from Australia to assist Nick for the semester. She has no acquaintances in the city beyond a loose family connection to Buddy, a music producer who lives in the same neighborhood. For the few months she spends around Nick, Buddy, and their families, Naomi's presence upsets the unpleasant balance holding these two households together. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry (2014’s Listen Up Philip) returns to the Festival with another acerbic ensemble, this time exploring the personal torment belying domesticated oblivion.
The ruthless worlds of international sports and politics rarely collide as spectacularly on screen as they do in Bryan Fogel’s thriller that is sure to set off convulsions of controversy. While investigating the furtive world of illegal doping in sports, Fogel connects with renegade Russian scientist Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov—a pillar of his country’s “anti-doping” program. Over dozens of Skype calls, urine samples, and badly administered hormone injections, Fogel and Rodchenkov grow closer despite shocking allegations that place Rodchenkov at the center of Russia’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program. When the truth is more complex than imagined, and accusations of illegalities run to Russia's highest chains of command, the two realize they hold the power to reveal the biggest international sports scandal in living memory.
13/29 Ingrid Goes West
Ingrid is an unstable young woman with a checkered past of obsessive behavior. She secretly moves to Los Angeles to get close to Taylor Sloane—an Instagram “lifestyle guru” with a fabulous artist boyfriend, a camera-ready terrier, and an array of new products and brands to promote to her followers. After Ingrid adopts a Taylor-made identity for herself, her machinations to prove she’s BFF material for her Insta idol are underway—that is, until she meets Taylor’s obnoxious brother Nicky, who threatens to tear down her façade. Writer/director Matt Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith brilliantly satirize the ideal lives we create online, yet at the same time acknowledging the effects of a technologically dominated society where the human needs for truth and connection are still essential to our being.
Broadcasted through a makeshift network of discarded televisions, this story is tangled up in the aftermath of Los Angeles's worst earthquake nightmare. Travel between screens and aftershocks into the twisted lives of the survived. Welcome to the weird and wild mind of filmmaker Steven Ellison. Already acclaimed for his expansive psychedelic albums as musician Flying Lotus, Ellison steps behind the camera to direct this mind-altering freakshow of a first feature, co-written with David Firth and Zach Fox. Their unbridled imaginations plunge the audience into a magical mix of filth-covered fables and hypnotic animations to reveal a film rotting from the inside out.
The Manhattan of 1995: a land without cell phones, but abundant in CD listening stations, bar smoke, and family dysfunction. Enter the Jacobs. Eldest daughter Dana’s looming marriage to straight-laced Ben prompts a willful dive into her wild side, while her younger sister, Ali, is still in high school but leads a covert life of sex, drugs, and clubbing. After discovering love letters penned by their father, the sisters try to expose his apparent affair while keeping it from their all-too-composed mother. Gillian Robespierre’s follow-up to Obvious Child reprises her talent for subversive comedy and explores how family bonds grow sturdier through lying, cheating, and strife.
Isaac Lachmann has seen better days. His acting career is tanking, while his colleagues succeed; his blind girlfriend of 10 years plans to leave him; and his own family singles him out as a constant disappointment at their latest reunion. Even as he takes a chance on new romance, Isaac struggles to define his place in a world that has seemingly turned against him. Director Janicza Bravo (Gregory Go Boom, 2014 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Jury Award winner) returns to the Festival with her description-defying debut feature that promises to delight and unsettle audiences in equal measure with its unique brand of discomforting humor. Bravo unflinchingly strips down her stellar lead and co-writer, Brett Gelman, to appalling levels of vulnerability, emphasized by idiosyncratic supporting turns from Michael Cera, Judy Greer, Nia Long, Martin Starr, and Gillian Jacobs.
Tour-de-force: a term so overused that we need an undeniable acting performance to renew its meaning for cinema. Cate Blanchett has just given us one, going all-out in Manifesto. Already respected as one of the best actresses in film, Blanchett raises the bar even higher by playing 13 different roles in Manifesto, embodying some of the most influential and emotional artist manifestos in history. The architect of this unique film idea is director Julian Rosefeldt, a veteran of intricate films and installations. In Manifesto, he uses the words from various twentieth century manifestos of artists, architects, and filmmakers for dialogue.
In contemporary Los Angeles, two millennials navigating a social media–driven hookup culture begin a relationship that pushes both emotional and physical boundaries. Drake Doremus, director of the 2011 Grand Jury Prize winner Like Crazy, returns to Park City with his fourth feature to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. He and screenwriter Ben York Jones (who co-wrote Like Crazy with Doremus) display a masterful ability to capture the emotional texture and physical intimacy of a relationship as it twists and turns through the sometimes turbulent currents of life in the modern age. A strikingly contemporary love story, Newness features breathtaking performances from Nicholas Hoult and Laia Costa as lovers brought together by technology, but connected by something deeper.
19/29 Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press
When online tabloid Gawker posted a sex tape starring former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, a high-stakes legal battle pitting privacy rights against the First Amendment ensued. Hogan won the case and the staggering settlement he received not only bankrupted Gawker and its founder Nick Denton, but also exposed a controversial, behind-the-scenes benefactor: Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Whether you love or hate Gawker, Brian Knappenberger’s gripping polemic reveals the forces that really brought down the news portal. Taking examples like Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, this compelling documentary illustrates a growing, sinister trend at odds with our country’s free press. Corporate executives, titans, and billionaires are tipping the balance on the public’s access to news, posing new threats to society’s relationship to the truth.
20/29 Pop Aye
Thana, a once-illustrious architect, drifts ever further into existential crisis, propelled by the impending demolition of his proudest work and his wife’s waning romantic interest. Unexpectedly running into his long-lost childhood “pet” elephant Popeye, performing in the streets of Bangkok, spurs Thana on a quest across Thailand to return his displaced friend to rural Loei, the small village where they grew up. Pop Aye is a humane ode to the power of simple acts of kindness in a world of lost innocence and missed opportunities, punctuated by well-timed bursts of deadpan absurdity. Director Kirsten Tan, in her impressive feature debut, deftly weaves the poignance and humor of Popeye and Thana’s journey with a series of indelibly beautiful cinematic images of the film’s gigantic star in this lyrical road-trip dramedy.
An electrifying film that took Cannes by storm upon its premiere in the Critics’ Week section this past May, Julia Ducournau’s wild, primal, flesh-eating marvel, Raw, boldly introduces a major new French talent to the world stage. Brilliant, shy 16-year-old Justine heads to the same veterinary college her parents attended, and where her older sister, Alexia, is also a student. Along with the other newbies, Justine is subjected to a series of bizarre initiations, including a hazing ritual that forces her to eat a raw rabbit liver. Although she’s a committed vegetarian, Justine is desperate to fit in and ultimately caves to the peer pressure. Afterward, she grows a voracious appetite for meat, which starts branching out to other forms of flesh. At the same time, the young virgin’s new carnivorous tendency coincides with a burgeoning sexual desire.
22/29 Roxanne Roxanne
In 1984, Lolita Shanté Gooden was just another 14-year-old living in New York’s Queensbridge projects. When she famously laid down the lyrics to “Roxanne’s Revenge”—an underground answer rap to U.T.F.O.’s popular single “Roxanne, Roxanne”—she sparked one of the earliest and most significant beefs in hip-hop history, establishing herself as a feared battle emcee in a genre on the verge of worldwide recognition. In director Michael Larnell’s follow-up to his debut feature, Cronies (2015 Sundance Film Festival), newcomer Chanté Adams delivers a mic-dropping performance as the embodiment of the legendary Roxanne Shanté, backed by a stellar supporting cast featuring Nia Long and Mahershala Ali.
23/29 The Big Sick
Based on the true story of the film’s writers (and real-life couple), Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, this modern culture clash shows how Pakistan-born Kumail and his American girlfriend, Emily, have to overcome the expectations of his family and their 1,400-year-old traditions. As his parents relentlessly set him up with potential brides for an arranged marriage, Kumail navigates treacherous waters in the worlds of both dating and stand-up comedy. Produced by Judd Apatow, The Big Sick features a sterling collection of comedy talent in front of and behind the camera. Having acted in numerous previous Sundance Film Festival selections, Michael Showalter returns this time as a director with a hilariously insightful film that shrewdly puts the spotlight on its writer/star Kumail Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley).
24/29 The Discovery
What would you do if there was proof of an afterlife? The answer to this question is rivetingly explored in The Discovery, where world-renowned physicist Doctor Thomas Harber (Robert Redford) is able to scientifically prove the existence of an afterlife—but with dire consequences. His estranged son, Will (Jason Segel), tries to confront the situation by returning to the New England–esque island where he grew up. He crosses paths with Isla (Rooney Mara), who's returning to the island for mysterious reasons of her own. The tale unfolds over the ensuing days as the regret of past choices forces these lost characters to reflect on how they've gotten to where they are. Director/co-writer Charlie McDowell (2014’s The One I Love) returns to the Festival with another metaphysical thriller that uses a fascinating premise as a launching point to explore complex issues in a deftly absorbing fashion.
Emotionally challenged Amanda and contemptuous Lily reboot their childhood friendship after years of instability and judgment, thrown back together by standardized-test tutoring. When Lily’s icy stepdad, Mark, conspires to ship her off to reform school instead of her dream college, Amanda’s nonchalant quips about killing him suddenly seem enticing. Even as Amanda’s sinister tendencies surface and the girls hatch a plan, the mutual manipulation that has always defined their relationship threatens to derail their ambitions. First-time director Cory Finley’s impressively stylish and assured filmmaking evokes a high-class world that is simultaneously familiar and strange, dripping with acidic dark wit and a disquietingly eerie score.
Woody Harrelson stars as Wilson, a lonely, neurotic, and hilariously honest middle-aged, misanthropic dog lover who reunites with his estranged wife (Laura Dern) and gets a shot at happiness when he learns he has a teenage daughter he’s never met. In his uniquely outrageous and slightly twisted way, Wilson sets out to connect with her in what could be his last chance at having a family. In Skeleton Twins, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, director Craig Johnson displayed a knack for finding humor and warmth in the darkest of places, which is why he was the perfect choice to bring to life this Daniel Clowes graphic novel of the same name. The writer of the Ghost World and Art School Confidential graphic novels, Clowes is a master of making the unlikable lovable. His Wilson is a bit of jerk, but a jerk who refreshes our empathy for people—in all of their imperfections.
27/29 Wind River
U.S. Fish & Wildlife agent Cory Lambert discovers a body in the rugged wilderness of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The FBI sends in rookie agent Jane Banner, but she’s unprepared for the difficulties created by the oppressive weather and isolation of the Wyoming winter. When she employs Cory as a tracker, the two venture deep into a world ravaged by violence and the elements. Wind River is a stark look at life on the edge of an imposing wilderness, where the rule of law is eclipsed by the laws of nature. Acclaimed screenwriter Taylor Sheridan makes his directorial debut with the final film in his trilogy of screenplays on the American frontier. He showed the power of his writing in Sicario and Hell or High Water, both of which reverberated with unforgettable characters and dialogue, while creating a level of texture and detail that felt more like a novel.
Gather round if you dare for four murderous tales of supernatural frights, predatory thrills, profound anxiety, and Gothic decay in the first all-female-driven horror anthology film. Audacious new works from some of the genre's most promising voices—Annie Clark (better known to fans as St. Vincent), Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Girlfight), Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound), and Jovanka Vuckovic (former editor of Rue Morgue magazine)—bring forth a study in the proper unspooling of dread for your viewing pleasure. Framed around innovative animator Sofia Carrillo's haunting tableaus, these modern myths range from Vuckovic's reverent control of grotesque elegance to Clark's deliciously macabre sense of comic timing, Benjamin's skillful powers of tonal transformation, and Kusama's authorial grasp of simmering psychological fear.
29/29 Sidney Hall
Sidney Hall harbors a precocious talent for writing. His classroom essays exhibit a danger that some find off-putting, though one teacher recognizes his talent and urges Sidney to pursue a writing career. Early success with his first novel makes Sidney a celebrity, though his dystopian observations about suburbia provoke tragic outcomes among some young readers, cloaking his name in scandal. Heightened scrutiny and expectations haunt him, as do dark secrets from his past that complicate his creativity, and interfere with his chances of finding love with a childhood sweetheart. When the disillusioned writer has all but disappeared from public life, a mysterious detective seeks the answer to his mystery. Shawn Christensen's impressive second feature offers a far-reaching examination of the societal pressures and failings that can send a life of promise into free fall.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from the 19 to 29 January.
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