Picking the right Sundance film requires knowing something about the films. But it also requires knowing something about yourself. What kind of story do you think you’re looking for? And how far “out there” are you prepared to be taken once you sit down in your theater seat?
Since Sundance no longer allows film critics to preview its films prior to the festival, most of our recommendations involve speculation and educated guesswork. Based on industry knowledge and early buzz, our two seasoned Sundance reviewers have created this guide to help tailor your Sundance experience.
City Weekly has broken down six broad genre areas into three levels: Level 1 movie-goers are those who prefer straightforward storytelling unlikely to freak them out. Those in Level 2 are more OK with being pushed just a little bit outside their comfort zones. Level 3 is the avant-garde soul for whom the better question is, “What comfort zone?”
Ashton Kutcher plays the role of Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs, covering 30 years of his personal and professional life. Director Joshua Michael Stern’s previous film was the 2008 mainstream political comedy Swing Vote with Kevin Costner, suggesting a fairly straight-ahead, uncomplicated approach to the subject matter, without too many off-the-wall twists.
Kill Your Darlings (U.S. Dramatic)
First-time feature director John Krokidas tells the story of a real-life 1944 murder case involving three “Beat Generation” literary giants: Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster). A story involving the legendarily envelope-pushing Beatniks seems likely to explore potentially gritty areas, leaving aside that the plot actually does involve a murder. And erstwhile Harry Potter Radcliffe has certainly shown himself willing to court controversy, as his starring role onstage in Equus indicates.
The behind-the-scenes story of perhaps the world’s first “porn star”—Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried), the star of the 1972 breakthrough hit Deep Throat—includes her later biographical revelations of abuse and manipulation by those close to her. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman took an unconventional angle on film biography in their previous Sundance entry, 2010’s Allen Ginsberg profile Howl. That, combined with the definitely edgy subject matter, suggests that viewers should go in not expecting a light-hearted romp.
Before Midnight (Premieres)
Director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy once again revisit the lives of Jesse and Celine, nine years after their reunion in Before Sunset showed how their one night together in Before Sunrise changed them forever. Before Sunset may be one of the most brilliantly realized sequels in film history, and few films in the festival offer more promise than one that shows us how Jesse and Celine have evolved over the course of nearly another decade. Could be blissful, could be heartbreaking, but almost certain to be worthwhile.
The pun title hints at the kind of comedy to expect: First-time feature director Shaka King follows the stoner love story between “a Brooklyn repo man and his globetrotting girlfriend” (quoting the film guide). The description—and the film’s presence in the micro-budget NEXT category—suggests something that will take a down & dirty approach to its love story, something more darkly comic than straight-ahead rom-com.
The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman (Premieres)
The titular American abroad (Shia LaBeouf) becomes fascinated with a young Romanian woman named Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood) and falls hard for her—which is something of a problem, considering that her possessive ex is a violent gangster. We’re taking a wild stab based on the title that things don’t end merrily for young Charlie, but it could be a fascinating (if bloody) ride along the way, plus the presence of an eclectic supporting cast including Mads Mikkelsen and Rupert Grint.
WAR & PEACE
Manhunt: The Search for Osama bin Laden (U.S. Documentary)
Director Greg Barker profiles some of the intelligence analysts who were engaged in the process of finding the infamous leader of al-Qaida even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. What sounds like a documentary companion piece to the current theatrical feature Zero Dark Thirty looks more likely to deal with behind-the-scenes stories and compelling background material than the gruesome nuts & bolts of warfare.
The Square (Al Midan) (World Documentary)
The “Arab Spring”—and the ongoing battles for democracy and human rights in Arab nations—get specific human faces in this documentary from Egyptian-born documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (Startup.com, Control Room) that tells the stories of five revolutionaries in Egypt. Revolution is likely to be messy and frightening, but Noujaim’s track record suggests a crisply edited, engrossing character study about people pursuing what they’re most committed to.
Which Way to the Front Line From Here? (Documentary Premieres)
Sebastian Junger looks at the life—and death while on the job in Libya—of Tim Hetherington, the gifted photojournalist with whom Junger co-directed the Sundance documentary Restrepo. Hetherington’s focus on chronicling the world’s battlefields is likely to mean the presence of some potentially disturbing images.
Prince Avalanche (Premieres)
David Gordon Green needs to get back some indie cred, and Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch might help him do it. The director transitioned from the masterful poetry of George Washington and All the Real Girls to the raunchy pot comedy Pineapple Express. Then his latest two efforts—The Sitter and Your Highness—were met with considerably less enthusiasm. Hopefully he rediscovered his immense talent while making this humorous character study about two highway road workers.
Crystal Fairy (World Dramatic)
If anyone can help Michael Cera get away from his trademark cute-and-awkward roles, Chilean director Sebastián Silva—the 2009 World Dramatic Competition Grand Prize winner The Maid, and 2010’s Old Cats—is a good bet to do it. He has a gift for inspiring excellent performances while creating sly, funny examinations of human nature. On Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Cera described this road movie as “kind of meandering” in its study of two Americans who travel Chile together. Cera and Silva also collaborated on the darker Magic Magic, in the Park City at Midnight category.
Hell Baby (Midnight)
If most of the horror films in the Midnight section look a little too frightening, this exorcism comedy starring Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb might temper the scares with laughs. Writers/directors/actors Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon worked on the ’90s sketch-comedy show The State and Comedy Central’s Reno 911. Erstwhile collaborators like Michael Ian Black also appear in this tale of a couple in New Orleans who bring in a crack team from the Vatican to save their demonic baby.
Indie or mainstream, all horror hits get a sequel. And so Sundance 2012’s Midnight discovery V/H/S—which had a theatrical release locally—continues with another collection of short, faux-found-footage horror stories. Those who didn’t care much for the first film can still be hopeful; there are several new filmmakers contributing to this one.
We Are What We Are (Midnight)
If you like to go into a horror movie knowing what you’re getting, here’s one with a tested story and a tested director. We Are What We Are is a remake of the 2010 Mexican film by Jorge Michel Grau, about a family that tries to continue its cannibalistic rituals after its patriarch dies. A couple years back, director Jim Mickle made the apocalyptic vampire tale Stake Land, so horror junkies may be familiar with his work.
Charlie Victor Romeo (New Frontier)
The 1999 play Charlie Victor Romeo depicted doomed lives in crashing airplanes. Its script came only from black-box transcripts, without sensationalism or augmented drama. Now, Robert Berger and Karlyn Michelson are trying to bring the terror to the cinema with stereoscopic 3-D recreations of the crashes. The question is, have they created a truly unique 3-D experience or just another 2-D film with debris flying in your face?
DOCUMENTARIES WITH ISSUES
The Gatekeepers (Spotlight)
Instead of guessing which Sundance entries might be up for Oscars next year, see one that already received a nomination this year. Dror Moreh’s engaging documentary revolves around Shin Bet, Israel’s anti-terrorist apparatus. In rare interviews, several of the organization’s past leaders discuss the strategic, political and social implications of their work. Some of the interviewees received vehement criticism during their terms, and it’s fascinating to hear their side of the story and thoughts on how Shin Bet’s policies have shaped Israeli-Palestinian relations.
99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film (U.S. Documentary)
The Occupy movement was often criticized for its inability to communicate a cohesive, consistent message. Cue this documentary with footage from a huge range of sources, which examines the nationwide movement against out-of-control corporate power. The film’s four directors face a big challenge in weaving together content created by filmmakers from around the country; the publicity used to say “over 60” filmmakers, now the tally is a convenient 99. If they get a grasp on this varied movement that refused to be streamlined, it’ll be one hell of a collaboration.
Fire in the Blood (World Documentary)
Years after drug cocktails brought the AIDS virus under control in the United States, millions continued to die in Third World countries while pharmaceutical companies blocked low-cost drugs. First-time director Dylan Mohan Gray, from India, traveled the globe to tell the story of the people who fought to halt the growing death count. This is an ambitious topic for an unestablished director, but if done well it could have a big emotional payoff.
Also in Sundance Film Festival 2013 Guide: