If the indie film fan closest to you was squealing with delight yesterday afternoon you've probably already noticed that the 2012 Sundance Film Festival lineup has been announced, bringing with it the promise of a lot of buzz and glitzy celebration in the high mountains of Park City, Utah next January. I'll be on the ground there for my third Sundance, and I'm looking forward as much as anyone to what's in the store, both seeing some of the indie titles that will rock the film world for the rest of the year (your Martha Marcy May Marlenes and Winter's Bone's, you might say) and also plenty of duds that everyone will pretty much ignore once they finally limp into theaters (The Son of No One).
It's always easy in hindsight to predict which Sundance titles were never going to find an audience. But when you're picking out tickets and lining up at the Eccles, or even before then, when you're building your schedule? Totally impossible. And yet, I"m going to try and do it anyway, sifting through the recently announced competition titles-- which, mind you, nobody beyond the filmmakers and Sundance programmers has seen-- and figuring out which are the highlights to look forward to. As you might guess, this involves going off nothing but the names of actors and directors, and a vague sense of potential. Here are 10 tittles I'll be looking for, and you might want to keep an eye on as well.
Beasts of the Southern Wild / U.S.A. (Director: Benh Zeitlin, Screenwriters: Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar) — Waters gonna rise up, wild animals gonna rerun from the grave, and everything south of the levee is goin’ under, in this tale of a six year old named Hushpuppy, who lives with her daddy at the edge of the world. Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry.
I'll go ahead and admit a bias right at the top-- I have social ties to a lot of people who worked on this film, and know the student film that director Zeitlin made in 2004 marked him for success early on. But take a concept as original as the one described here along with my promise that the people making it are inventive and smart, and can you just trust me on this one being one to see?
The First Time / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Jonathan Kasdan) — Two high schoolers meet at a party. Over the course of a weekend, things turn magical, romantic, complicated and funny, as they discover what it’s like to fall in love for the first time. Cast: Brittany Robertson, Dylan O’Brien, Craig Roberts, James Frecheville, Victoria Justice.
Jonathan Kasdan has directed one movie that was pretty awful, In the Land of Women, but his family name promises he's capable of something better. The concept is very, very Sundance-y, but a good high school movie is hard to come by, and it seems worth putting faith in this one for now.
For Ellen / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: So Yong Kim) — A struggling musician takes an overnight long-distance drive in order to fight his estranged wife for custody of their young daughter. Cast: Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva, Shay Mandigo.
Kim's previous films Treeless Mountain and In Between Days have been festival successes, and working this time with Sundance stalwarts like Paul Dano and Jon Heder, she's guaranteed to get even more attention-- and hopefully just as well deserved.
Hello I Must Be Going / U.S.A. (Director: Todd Louiso, Screenwriter: Sarah Koskoff) — Divorced, childless, demoralized and condemned to move back in with her parents at the age of 35, Amy Minsky’s prospects look bleak – until the unexpected attention of a teenage boy changes everything. Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Blythe Danner, Christopher Abbott, John Rubinstein, Julie White.
Melanie Lynskey has been great in a series of supporting roles for years now (see this year's Win Win as just one example), and the chance to see her go lead with something as weird as a cross-generational romance seems too good to pass up.
Nobody Walks / U.S.A. (Director: Ry Russo-Young, Screenwriters: Lena Dunham, Ry Russo-Young) — Martine, a young artist from New York, is invited into the home of a hip, liberal LA family for a week. Her presence unravels the family’s carefully maintained status quo, and a mess of sexual and emotional entanglements ensues. Cast: John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt, India Ennenga, Justin Kirk.
This is the most obviously starry option in the US Dramatic Competition, and lets be honest, anything dealing with a "hip, liberal LA family" and east Coast/West Coast tensions has the potential to go terribly wrong. But movies with this many stars are likely to get picked up at Sundance, so even if the film doesn't hit, it's one you're likely to hear about beyond Park City.
Safety Not Guaranteed / U.S.A. (Director: Colin Trevorrow, Screenwriter: Derek Connolly) — A trio of magazine employees investigate a classified ad seeking a partner for time travel. One employee develops feelings for the paranoid but compelling loner and seeks to discover what he’s really up to. Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karen Soni.
Personally I'm just a sucker for time travel, but the cast combination of Parks & Recreation's Aubrey Plaza, The League's Mark Duplass and New Girl's Jake Johnson is an immediate sell as well.
The Surrogate / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Ben Lewin) — Mark O’Brien, a 36-year-old poet and journalist with an iron lung, decides he no longer wishes to be a virgin. With the help of his therapist and the guidance of his priest, he contacts a professional sex surrogate to take him on a journey to manhood. Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy.
This could just be a straightforward biopic, but the presence of John Hawkes in a leading role with a lot of potential for greatness demands attention here. The guy has had two Sundance hits in a row with Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene; let's see if he can make it three.
DETROPIA / U.S.A. (Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady) — The woes of Detroit are emblematic of the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base. This is the dramatic story of a city and its people who refuse to leave the building, even as the flames are rising.
Ewing and Grady were at Sundance just last year with 12th and Delaware, about the abortion debate, and now they're tackling a slightly less controversial but just as pressing subject, with real cinematic potential in filming the decaying Detroit.
Marina Abramović The Artist is Present / U.S.A. (Director: Matthew Akers) — Marina Abramović prepares for a major retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York hoping to finally silence four decades of skeptics who proclaim: ‘But why is this art?’
Abramovic's presence at MoMA caused a huge stir in New York, when people would wait in line for hours to simply sit opposite the artist. Who knows if this documentary can actually get inside the mysterious Abramovic, but I'm dying to see if it can.
Wish You Were Here / Australia (Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith, Screenwriters: Felicity Price, Kieran Darcy-Smith) — Four friends embark on a carefree holiday, but only three return home. Who knows what happened on that fateful night? Cast: Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Felicity Price, Antony Starr. World Premiere.
The last time Joel Edgerton had a film at Sundance, it was the terrific Animal Kingdom. That's not much to go on, but like I said, it's all about hunches at this point.