Sundance Film Festival

Festival Kickoff: Movies to Watch Out For

Each January, as the Sundance Film Festival approaches, there’s a mad scramble among journalists and critics to pinpoint something, anything new to differentiate their articles from the ones they wrote last year—and usually they turn to the documentaries for their hook. One year it’s LGBT issues, another year it’s Iraq. This year, the festival’s 25th anniversary (well, since the Sundance Institute took over its management anyway), the popular “news hook” is the environment. By way of evidence, writers point to the number of environmental docs in competition this year: 5 out of 32 total. But I just looked at last year’s film guide and counted three environmental docs. From 3 to 5—not such a dramatic increase, is it?

To be fair, it’s true that an unusually high number of environmental docs were submitted for competition at Sundance this year (and, on a side note, there’s a movement to eradicate disposable water bottles) but, as always, the documentary lineup is best characterized as diverse—diverse in subject matter, style and, yes, skill. As festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore says (press release quote alert!), “This year’s films are not narrowly defined. Instead we have a blurring of genres, a crossing of boundaries: geographic, generational, socio-economic and the like.” Which, really, could be said about the festival lineup every year since its inception.

The same, of course, could be said for the dramatic films in competition. But again, there’s nothing particularly sexy or newsworthy about diverse film programming. That being the case, well, this year is all about laughing in spite of the economy. And because of the economy, a lot of journalists and moviegoers are going to stay home. And those who do come to Sundance, well, they just aren’t going to party as much. (The Golden Globes’ after-parties suggest otherwise.)

If I sound cynical about the media coverage thus far, it’s only because I worked in print media for several years and, more times than I’d care to admit, wrote stories based on similarly tenuous hooks. I have been a beat reporter, an investigative journalist, and a music, book, and film critic—including a previous stint covering Sundance for an East Coast alt-weekly. Currently, though, I’m just a NYC-based graduate student working on a travel memoir—which, I am well aware, is just as easy to mock—and, for the next ten days or so, I’ll be blogging right here for the Sundance Channel.

My job is find the proverbial pulse of the festival, but the reality is that Sundance has no pulse until it actually begins. Last night, Park City’s Main Street was dead; tonight, it’s sure to be vitalized. Which is why I’m refraining from pat, premature generalities about this year’s lineup, the party scene, and the Recession Effect (as I’ll be calling it from here on out, if that’s alright). The pulse of the festival, furthermore, quickens and slackens depending on which films you see, whom you meet, which parties you manage to slip into, and so on. Thousands of people come to Sundance, but, at the risk of stating the obvious, the experience is necessarily individual. I can only promise to tell you mine.

That said, there are plenty of films worth keeping an eye on. But first, some stats to put the following list in perspective. There were 118 feature-length films selected this year, out of 3,661 submissions—a 3.2 percent admission rate that puts Harvard to shame. Of those, 87 are world premieres (including all 16 in the U.S. documentary competition). In all, 21 countries are represented and 42 of the films were made by first-time filmmakers.

The following films, for reasons I’ll attempt to explain, have garnered pre-festival buzz:

I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS — Primarily, it seems, because Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor kiss. Which might have been a big deal, I don’t know, ten years ago? The reason it should get press: co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa were co-screenwriters of the instant Christmas classic BAD SANTA.

SPRING BREAKDOWN — Because Parker Posey and Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler are in it. Personally, I’m more drawn to the half-dressed college girls. Also, punny title! (Director/screenwriter Ryan Shiraki’s last film, incidentally, was called HOME OF PHOBIA. Who wants to bet his next film is called MIDTERM ABORTION?)

500 DAYS OF SUMMER — Because it’s a romantic comedy (a rarity at Sundance) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.

MANURE — Because it’s a comedy about feces starring Billy Bob Thornton, Téa Leoni, and Kyle MacLachlan. I’d see it because it’s by the Polish brothers (TWIN FALLS IDAHO, THE ASTRONAUT FARMER). And because it’s a comedy about feces.

ADVENTURELAND — Because it stars TWILIGHT’s Kristen Stewart and THE SQUID AND THE WHALE’s Jesse Eisenberg, with SUPERBAD’s Greg Mottola directing.

SPREAD — Because Ashton Kutcher plays a gigolo.

MARY AND MAX — Because it’s the opening night film, and because it’s a kids’ movie that’s not for kids (see WALL-E). But hey, claymation featuring the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette? I’m sold.

BROOKLYN’S FINEST — Because it’s an Antoine Fuqua film (TRAINING DAY) with Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke and Wesley Snipes.

THE INFORMERS — Because it’s Mickey Rourke’s next film since his devastating performance in THE WRESTLER. That’s enough for me, but it helps that the film is based on a Bret Easton Ellis story (who worked on the script, too) and also stars Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger. And the New York Times sold it pretty well.

RUDO Y CURSI — Because Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna reunite for the first time since Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN. If they’re even half as good as they were in that movie…

It should come as no surprise that all of these films are in the “Premieres” category, which means they already have distributors. That, more than anything, is why they get buzz—they’re the most likely of all Sundance films to actually appear at your local movie theater.

Most people, me included, don’t come to Sundance to see these films. The following are films I’m hoping to see—and my flimsy reasons for wanting to see them. If my list leans towards documentaries, it’s because the overall quality of the docs is always—yes, always—higher than the dramatic features. (If you don’t believe me, take Kenneth Turan’s word for it.)

DIRT! THE MOVIE — Because I love documentaries that focus on something very specific and everyday that I never think about. Also, I love exclamation points.

THE COVE — Because this doc, which follows a group of activists as they infiltrate a cove where dolphins are captured for sale in Japan, makes environmentalism sound thrilling and dangerous.

BIG FAN — Because director/screenwriter Robert Siegel also wrote THE WRESTLER.

BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN — Because it’s based on David Foster Wallace’s brilliant short story collection (his best work, according to several great writers), and because director/screenwriter/star John Krasinski (THE OFFICE) seems a perfect fit for the material.

DEAD SNOW — Because it’s a Norwegian horror flick with Nazi zombies.

BIG RIVER MAN — Because this doc follows a Slovenian as he swims the length of the Amazon River, and I found boat-hopping the same river last summer to be exhausting enough.

TYSON — Because it’s a doc about the world’s largest processor of chicken. Or maybe it’s about some former boxer with control issues. Either way…

JOHNNY MAD DOG — Because not all films about civil war atrocities in African nations have to be documentaries.

PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI — Because what better year (nay, month!) to watch a doc about a prom being racially integrated for the first time?

KIMJONGILIA — Because I’m a sucker for docs about insane leaders (see THE FALL OF FUJIMORI).

AN EDUCATION — Because novelist Nick Hornby (HIGH FIDELITY) wrote the screenplay.

For those who are attending the festival: happy hunting. And for those reading from somewhere other than Park City: I’ll report back on which of these films lived up to my, or others’, expectations.