Monday, January 13, 2014

The 2014 Sundance Film Festival's 13 must-see movies

Eckerd College's Nathan Andersen and his students prep for a trip to Park City, Utah.

Posted by on Mon, Jan 13, 2014 at 2:00 PM

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It’s been cold here in St. Pete, and even colder up north. Forecasters here predict warmer weather this week, but not for me. My forecast is for mountain snow, icicles on the roof, cold and cloudy skies … zombie Nazis rising from the frozen ground, white birds in blizzards, and only lovers left alive. Yes, that’s right, I’m heading to the Sundance Film Festival, where the suits from L.A. and cinephiles from everywhere don winter garb and head up into the mountains in search of exciting new films to warm their hearts (and perhaps — for the suits at least — to pad their pocketbooks).

There are, of course, predictable delights: low budget big concept indie horror flicks like Tommy Wirkola’s follow up to the 2009 Sundance hit Dead Snow, about evil and bloodthirsty frozen undead Nazis, this time with the subtitle Red vs. Dead. Or the latest from Sundance veterans such as Gregg Araki, who’s back this year with White Bird in a Blizzard (click here for the interview I did with him in 2011, when he screened the apocalyptic coming-of-age polysexual thriller Kaboom). There are also U.S. premieres of critically acclaimed auteur hits from other festivals like Jim Jarmusch’s arthouse vampire pic Only Lovers Left Alive. Of course, most of these are sure to play elsewhere soon: if not in theaters then on-demand.

What’s really exciting about Sundance, and makes it worth it braving the snow, are the untried and untested projects from new indie hopefuls that might never go much further, but just might be the next big thing. While some of the unknowns are disappointing, there are always lots of fantastic new films playing in competition in the Feature and Documentary categories. Some of my favorites over the years have been from the even riskier projects playing in the Next category, or at the less well-known but equally promising Slamdance Film Festival, taking place at the same time in the Treasure Mountain Inn on top of Park City Utah’s quaint Main Street.

I’m heading back for my seventh year with a group of students from Eckerd College, and the lineup looks amazing. I am, of course, excited by things I’ve read about films arriving in Utah following premieres at European festivals, but here are the films I’m looking forward to most, all of which are screening for the first time in Park City this year:

Digging Dinosaur 13
  • Digging Dinosaur 13
Dinosaur 13 - The documentaries are often the best part of the festival, and I am probably most excited about this one, about the world’s greatest dinosaur discovery in 1990, which turned into a 10-year legal battle between museums, governments, and Native American tribes. In honor of this one, I’ll limit myself here to just 13 flicks I can’t wait to see.

I Origins - I was less impressed than some by Mike Cahill’s debut psychological science-fiction pic Another Earth, but it did highlight what is possible in independent science fiction focused more on character and feeling than on special effects. More importantly, it introduced his extraordinarily talented collaborator and actress Brit Marling, who is back here in his sophomore feature about a molecular biologist whose work promises to change everything.

The Better Angels - Brit Marling also stars in this Terrence Malick-produced film by A.J. Edwards, that appears to be an impressionistic and lovely black and white exploration of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood. The teaser trailer had its exclusive premiere a few days ago on The Film Stage.

Fed Up - This documentary, from the producers of groundbreaking films like An Inconvenient Truth, aims to expose the complicity of the “Big Food” corporations and the U.S. government in creating an epidemic of obesity and other food-related illnesses.

The Voices - Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-born graphic novelist and filmmaker behind 2007’s fantastically inventive animated film Persepolis, is back with this film starring Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick and Gemma Arterton, about a disturbed factory worker who gets (what is very likely bad) advice from his pets.

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter - The latest film from longtime low-budget Sundance veterans David and Nathan Zellner features Rinko Kikuchi (a prolific Japanese actress who was last seen starring in Pacific Rim and 47 Ronin), as a lonely Japanese woman who becomes convinced that the stash of cash buried in the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo is real, and travels to Minnesota to find it.

Drunktown’s Finest - Created by Sydney Freeland in response to a news story characterizing her hometown of Gallup, NM as “Drunktown, USA,” the film follows three very different young Navajos who aspire to leave their town behind.

Land Ho! — Aaron Katz (director of the ultra low budget understated comedies Dance Party, USA, Quiet City and the understated mystery Cold Weather) and Martha Stephens (who acts and directs) co-direct this senior citizen road trip flick about retirees who rediscover their youth in Reykjavik.

Listen Up Philip - NYU filmmaker Alex Ross Perry directed the critically acclaimed 2012 feature The Color Wheel about a brother and sister whose road trip takes them places they hadn’t anticipated. His newest film stars Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks, most of Wes Anderson's filmography) and Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men and Top of the Lake), in a comedy about writer’s block.

Ping Pong Summer - Writer/Director Michael Tully shot Ping Pong Summer in Ocean City, inspired by his summer vacations there with his parents in the ’80s. It tells the story of Rad Miracle, a shy, 13-year-old white kid obsessed with Ping-Pong and hip-hop.

Cold in July - John Mickle, director of the critically acclaimed indie horror pics Stake Land and We are What We Are, has one of the most anticipated thrillers at this year’s Sundance. Starring Dexter (I mean Michael C. Hall) the film tells the story of a Texas parent who shoots a burglar in his house, only to put his family in jeopardy when the burglar’s ex-con father comes to town.

Happy Christmas - The incredibly prolific Joe Swanberg — seriously the guy makes at least two or three films a year — is back with another awkward comedy starring Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham. His films have an improvisational style that doesn’t always work perfectly but always feels genuine and raw and more honest than most things out there.

I Play with the Phrase Each Other - There are several films, both documentary and feature, I plan to catch at Slamdance this year, but this is at the top of my list. A film comprised entirely of phone calls, it looks strikingly inventive, suggesting a new young voice of cinema. The trailer reminded me of Slacker, the debut film by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Before Midnight).

There’s no guarantee I’ll get to see all of these films, but I’ll see as many films as I can and report back on what I loved and didn’t. I’ll share news from my students as well, who will be blogging about the festival at www.eckerd.edu/sundance.

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