I'm packing my warmest sweaters and socks, scheduling my days in 15 minute increments, and stocking up on Vitamin C-- it must be time for Sundance! This year I'll be representing Cinema Blend at the 10-days festival all by myself, and it's actually my first time, so there are pretty much even odds of some hilarious disaster taking place. But for now, we'll pretend everything will go as planned, I'll see all the movies I've planned to see and conduct all my interviews, and even all the movies will be great. Isn't optimism great?

To get you up to speed on Sundance before slamming you with more coverage than you can possibly handle (that is, if the Park City wifi cooperates), I've put together a guide to some of the films I'm looking forward to most at this year's festival. There are hundreds of films at Sundance, obviously, so this is just a tiny fraction of what there is, and inevitably some movie not on my radar at all will be the next Precious or Little Miss Sunshine. Hopefully I'll be able to tell you about those during our festival wrap-up; for now, let's stay focused on the unknowable future.


12th and Delaware
Directors: Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing
Documentary
Grady and Ewing made the mesmerizing and terrifying Jesus Camp and have returned to a corner of fundamentalist America to document the conflict in Fort Pierce, Florida, where an abortion clinic and a pro-life "pregnancy crisis center" sit across the street from one another. It's a hot-button topic that's endlessly fascinating, and I can't wait to see Grady and Ewing's take on it. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: On an unassuming corner in Fort Pierce, Florida, it’s easy to miss the insidious war that’s raging. But on each side of 12th and Delaware, soldiers stand locked in a passionate battle. On one side of the street sits an abortion clinic. On the other, a pro-life outfit often mistaken for the clinic it seeks to shut down.


Blue Valentine
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams

Two actors with name-brand recognition who consistently choose great indie projects, starring as a married couple whose relationship is falling apart even as they remember better times. The performances alone should make this worth it. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: On the far side of a once-passionate romance, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are married with a young daughter. Hoping to save their marriage, they steal away to a theme hotel. We then encounter them years earlier, when they met and fell in love—full of life and hope.


Boy
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Taika Waititi, James Rolleston

Waititi first introduced me to the wonders of Jemaine Clement with his 2006 indie Eagle vs. Shark, which was like a New Zealand take on Napoleon Dynamite, and I've been dying ever since to see what he does next. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: It’s 1984, and Michael Jackson is king—even in Waihau Bay, New Zealand. Here we meet Boy, an 11-year-old who lives on a farm with his gran, a goat, and his younger brother, Rocky (who thinks he has magic powers). Shortly after Gran leaves for a week, Boy’s father, Alamein, appears out of the blue. Having imagined a heroic version of his father during his absence, Boy comes face to face with the real version—an incompetent hoodlum who has returned to find a bag of money he buried years before. This is where the goat enters.


CASINO JACK and the United States of Money
Director: Alex Gibney
Documentary

Gibney made the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side about torture in Guantanamo, and now turns his clever, measured anger to Jack Abramoff and the lobbying scandal that exposed yet another hole in the American soul. Given that Abramoff got what was coming to him, it might be a little less depressing than his other film too. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: This portrait of Washington super lobbyist Jack Abramoff—from his early years as a gung-ho member of the GOP political machine to his final reckoning as a disgraced, imprisoned pariah—confirms the adage that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. A tale of international intrigue with Indian casinos, Russian spies, Chinese sweatshops, and a mob-style killing in Miami, this is the story of the way money corrupts our political process.


The Company Men
Director: John Wells
Starring: Chris Cooper, Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Rosemarie DeWitt

It's one of the starriest movies at Sundance this year, and the director was behind The West Wing and ER. Giant star vehicles have been known to crash and burn horribly at Sundance, but this one looks too fantastic to resist. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: One of the first casualties of a corporate downsize is Bobby Walker, a hot-shot sales executive who is living the idyllic life—complete with two kids and a mortgaged picket fence. His boss, and founder of the company, doesn't take Bobby's severance well, and he storms into the boardroom to demand a reprieve of the severe measures. He learns quickly that some choices are out of his hands, and this is only the beginning. We embark on a journey that is all too familiar in today’s recessionary economy: one that will test friendships, loyalties, and family bonds.


Cyrus
Directors: Mark and Jay Duplass
Starring: John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh

The directors are mumblecore darlings thanks to movies like The Puffy Chair and Baghead (you'll also recognize Mark as an actor from Humpday) and this time they're working with real stars and on a bigger scale. It's one of the few Sundance movies with stars that seems guaranteed to be coming from an honest place. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: Alone and acutely depressed, having just learned of his ex-wife’s wedding plans, John can’t believe his luck when he encounters beautiful, charming Molly at a party. The two get along famously and launch a passionate affair—until Molly’s 21-year-old son, Cyrus, enters the scene. Will Molly and Cyrus’s deep and idiosyncratic bond leave room for John?


The Extra Man
Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Starring: Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, Katie Holmes, John C. Reilly

The American Splendor directors are worth seeing in any circumstances. And I'll see Paul Dano do anything. And I'll see Kevin Kline do anything. And I'm damn curious to see Katie Holmes act again. And it's set in New York, and I'll probably be homesick by then. Sold. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: Louis Ives, a lonely dreamer who fancies himself the hero of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, leaves his job and heads to Manhattan to become a writer. He rents a room in the ramshackle apartment of Henry Harrison, a wildly eccentric, but brilliant, playwright who happens to be an “extra man”—a social escort for the wealthy widows of New York’s high society. The two form an unexpected bond.


happythankyoumoreplease
Director: Josh Radnor
Starring: Josh Radnor, Malin Akerman, Kate Mara, Zoe Kazan, Tony Hale

There are a million ways this could go wrong-- the story about young people trying to grow up, the sitcom star making his directorial debut, the very presence of talent void Malin Akerman. But I love Radnor on How I Met Your Mother. I'll give it a shot. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: Six New Yorkers juggle love, friendship, and the keenly challenging specter of adulthood. Sam Wexler is a struggling writer who's having a particularly bad day. When a young boy gets separated from his family on the subway, Sam makes the questionable decision to bring the child back to his apartment and thus begins a rewarding, yet complicated, friendship. Sam’s life revolves around his friends—Annie, whose self-image keeps her from commitment; Charlie and Mary Catherine, a couple whose possible move to Los Angeles tests their relationship; and Mississippi, a cabaret singer who catches Sam’s eye.


Hesher
Director: Spencer Susser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Devin Brochu

The completely bizarre premise, about a crazy houseguest changing the life of a young boy, might be your typical overly wacky Sundance thing. But the cast is the lure here-- if all these famous people got talked into it, maybe it has to be good? The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: TJ is 13 years old. Two months ago, his mom was killed in an accident, leaving TJ and his grieving dad to move in with grandma to pick up the pieces. Hesher is a loner. He hates the world—and everyone in it. He has long, greasy hair and homemade tattoos. He likes fire and blowing things up. He lives in his van—until he meets TJ.


Holy Rollers
Director: Kevin Asch
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Ari Graynor

Jesse Eisenberg, of Adventureland and Zombieland fame, playing, a Hasidic Jew who is an Ecstasy dealer. The punny title should be enough, but the casting makes it a slam-dunk must-see. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: Sam Gold, an insulated Hasid on the cusp of manhood, is frustrated by the constraints of his beliefs and his father’s poor business decisions. When Sam is presented with an opportunity to make some real money smuggling Ecstasy between Amsterdam and New York, he cautiously accepts it—and quickly finds himself seduced by the allure of the secular world. Caught between life as a smuggler and the path back to God, Sam and his worlds begin to unravel.


I Am Love
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring; Tilda Swinton, Edoardo Gabbriellini

I actually caught this movie at a pre-festival screening in New York and haven't been able to get it out of my head. It's beautiful and haunting and features a typically fantastic performance from Tilda Swinton, and packs a surprising emotional punch given the fairly typical plot. The chance to get a look into the inner life of the Italian rich really should not be missed. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: The polished rooms of a Milanese villa ignite with anxious activity as the wealthy industrial family, the Recchis, prepare to celebrate the birthday of their patriarch. It is an occasion designed to ensconce family traditions—the handsome grandson, Edoardo, introduces his new girlfriend; his sister presents another piece of her artwork to her grandfather; and the grandfather, knowing this is his last birthday, names the successor to his empire. As the refined familial machinations unfold, the woman of the house, Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), skates along the tight seams of the family, exuding elegance and uncertain turbulence. Change is like a fog at sea that quickly consumes the land.


Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Director: Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg
Documentary

I'm pretty sure the title speaks for itself. Right now it looks like I'll be missing out on the chance to talk to Joan herself (except for your possible chance encounter), but I can't wait to hear what people have to say about this one. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: This exposé chronicles the private dramas of irreverent, legendary comedian and pop icon Joan Rivers as she fights tooth and nail to keep her American dream alive. The film offers a rare glimpse of the comedic process and the crazy mixture of self-doubt and anger that often fuels it. A unique look inside America's obsession with fame and celebrity, Rivers's story is both an outrageously funny journey and brutally honest look at the ruthless entertainment industry, the trappings of success, and the ultimate vulnerability of the first queen of comedy.


The Kids Are All Right
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, MIa Wasikowska, Mark Ruffalo

Fans of talented American actresses will probably drop dead halfway through seeing this film, in which Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a lesbian couple raising teenagers. Add in Mia Wasikowska, a.k.a. Tim Burton's Alice, and there's enough starpower to draw everyone in-- which is why I'm glad it's premiering later in the festival, when things will be less insane. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: A couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Benning and Julianne Moore), live with their teenage children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson), in a cozy craftsman bungalow in Los Angeles. As Joni prepares for college, her younger brother pesters her for a big favor—help him find their biological father. Against her better judgment, she makes a call to the sperm bank; the bank, in turn, calls Paul (Mark Ruffalo) and asks him if he’s willing to meet his daughter. He agrees, and a complicated new chapter begins for the family.


Lucky
Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Documentary

The Spellbound director will presumably be using his same skill for weaving together multiple characters to tell what happens to people who win the lottery-- and also the stories of those who try for years in vain to win. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: Lucky crisscrosses the country, examining a handful of past lottery winners as they navigate their newly found riches and a couple of extremely determined hopefuls. The winners’ lives are undoubtedly changed forever but not necessarily in the ways we may expect. Life becomes complicated as attorneys, hired security guards, jealous friends, scheming family members, and desperate pleas for help from strangers pepper their new existence.


Night Catches Us
Director: Tanya Hamilton
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington

This is nothing more than a gut feeling. Director Tanya Hamilton has worked with the Sundance labs as a screenwriter, Mackie and Washington are both enormous talents, and the subject matter is both fascinating and under-explored. I don't know that anyone else is talking about this one yet, but I'm going out of my way to make sure I catch it. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: In the summer of ’76, as President Jimmy Carter pledges to give government back to the people, tensions run high in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood where the Black Panthers once flourished. When Marcus returns—having bolted years earlier—his homecoming isn’t exactly met with fanfare. His former movement brothers blame him for an unspeakable betrayal. Only his best friend’s widow, Patricia, appreciates Marcus’s predicament, which both unites and paralyzes them. As Patricia’s daughter compels the two comrades to confront their past, history repeats itself in dangerous ways.


Nowhere Boy
Director: Sam Taylor-Wood
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff

Johnson is the star of Kick-Ass, and therefore likely to be a very big star very soon, but right now he's playing John Lennon in a biopic about the singer's early life. Early buzz on this film from the London Film Festival was positive, and I'm one of those people who's a sucker for Beatles history, so I'm in. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: Growing up in Liverpool in 1955, and raised by his aunt and late uncle, John is a smart, spirited, but directionless, teen who skips school, steals records, and is told he’s going nowhere. Having brought rock music into the "house of Tchaikovsky," John widens the rift with Aunt Mimi when he seeks out his estranged mother, to whom he forms an immediate attachment. Full of energy and sexuality, his mother encourages John’s interest in music, inflaming the rivalry with her sister, Mimi. In opening the door to a painful past, John seeks refuge in music—a journey that leads to The Beatles.


ODDSAC
Director: Danny Perez
Documentary... Sorta

Animal Collective is one of the most exciting music groups out there right now, and their "visual album" promises to be unlike anything else at Sundance. Could be brilliant, could be pretentious crap... but I know it'll be something different. The official plot synopsis (such as it is) goes a little something like this: Opening with torch-wielding villagers and a wall bleeding oil, ODDSAC attaches vivid scenery and strange characters to the wonderful melodic wavelengths of the band Animal Collective, revitalizing the lost form of the “visual album.” Working on the project for three years with friend Danny Perez, Animal Collective pushes the boundaries of the music video and joins music visionaries like The Residents, Devo, and Daft Punk, who previously connected film imagery with their songs.


The Pat Tillman Story
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Documentary

Everyone's talking about Bar-Lev's take on the story of former NFL player Pat Tillman, who died in Iraq and was held up as a symbol of the war effort until his family protested the way the government had used his story. It's all about the story on this one. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this: Pat Tillman gave up his professional football career to join the Army Rangers in 2002—and became an instant symbol of patriotic fervor and unflinching duty. But the truth about Pat Tillman is far more complex, and ultimately more heroic, than the caricature created by the media. And when the government tried to turn his death into war propaganda, they took on the wrong family. From her home in the Santa Cruz mountains, Pat’s mother, Dannie Tillman, led the family’s crusade to reveal the truth beneath the mythology of their son’s life and death.


Twelve
Director: Joel Schumacher
Cast: Chace Crawford, Emma Roberts, Rory Culkin, 50 Cent, Kiefer Sutherland

What to make of the Batman & Robin director tackling a seminal teenage drug novel set in New York City? I guess I have to see it for myself to find out. The official plot synopsis goes a little something like this:Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Nick McDonell, written when he was only 17 years old, Twelve is a chilling chronicle of privileged urban adolescence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Set over spring break, the story follows White Mike, a kid with unlimited potential, who has dropped out of his senior year of high school and sells marijuana to his rich, spoiled peers. When his cousin is brutally murdered in an east Harlem project, and his best friend is arrested for the crime, White Mike is hurled on a collision course with his own destiny.

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