The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
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By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

14 Must-See Films at Sundance ‘14

While the Sundance 2014 line-up has been out since late November, it usually takes me until I have a physical program guide in my hands before I know exactly what it is I need to pay attention to. (The information, while available online via the festival website, is just far easier to digest in print). Now, having spent the past days combing through the catalogue, I’ve found several films that have me more than excited to return to Park City. I steered clear of rubber-stamping Sundance regulars, or the latest Joe Swanberg venture (Happy Christmas), Kristen Wiig drama (The Skeleton Twins) or either of the Phillip Seymour Hoffman films (God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man). Not that those films don’t sound just fine, mind you.

The following is grouped by programming section. My must-see films are primarily American, but as Sundance is the premiere festival for American independent cinema, it’s expected.

US Documentary Competition

THE CASE AGAINST 8 – Directed by Ben Cotner, Ryan White

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One of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had at Sundance was a public screening of 2010’s 8: The Mormon Proposition (nary a dry eye in the house). And given Utah’s recent marriage equality gain (Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage was ruled unconstitutional on December 20), it now seems especially prudent to take in a documentary about the subject. The Case Against 8 follows a team that took the first Californian marriage equality lawsuit to the Supreme Court, and it’s sure to be affecting.

IVORY TOWER – Directed by Andrew Rossi

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I love when documentaries are described as “urgent.” Ivory Tower looks at Harvard University and ties it back in to the financial crisis, painting “an urgent portrait of a great American institution at the breaking point.” With looming tuition costs and crippling student debt across the country, is going to college really worth it? As a recent university graduate, I’ll be sure to see this film and update readers on this pressing question. (Kidding aside, the film sounds fascinating.)

FED UP – Directed by Stephanie Soechtig

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There’s a common theme in the upcoming documentaries I want to see. Alongside The Case Against 8 and Ivory Tower and their respective crises, Fed Up focuses on an issue that is currently paramount in the United States: obesity. The film promises to reveal a “thirty-year campaign by the food industry, aided by the US government, to mislead the American public, resulting in one of the largest health epidemics in history,” which is a lofty, damning claim. Whether or not the film pays off, though, is something else entirely.

Sundance Premieres

LITTLE ACCIDENTS – Directed by Sara Colangelo

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I’ve been interested in small-town mysteries ever since binging on “Twin Peaks” last summer, so I’ll be making sure I catch Little Accidents. The film looks at a tiny American industry town coping with the disappearance of a teenaged boy, and as the drama unfolds, three residents are sucked into a “web of secrets.” Sold. The film also gives us the chance to check in on Jacob Lofland, the child actor of Mud who played Neckbone.

THEY CAME TOGETHER – Directed by David Wain

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I’ll be honest: as a big fan of offbeat comedy troupe Stella (featuring the stylings of David Wain, Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter), I’m looking forward to They Came Together solely because it’s a project written by Showalter and Wain. Wain reteams with Paul Rudd (having worked previously together on 2012’s Wanderlust), while Amy Poehler, Ed Helms, and Cobie Smulders tag along in this New York City-based subversive romantic comedy. Michael Ian Black makes a cameo.

YOUNG ONES - Directed by Jake Paltrow

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First glance at the program book: is that Michael Shannon holding a rifle? Yes; yes it is. A quick Google search later and I learn that Young Ones is a science-fiction Western by a director I’m not familiar with. But it doesn’t really matter what this film is about in the slightest, because director Jake Paltrow had me at “Michael Shannon with a rifle.” I hope that’s what the initial pitch to producers boiled down to.

THE RAID 2 – Directed by Gareth Evans

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I was going to avoid putting this film on my must-see list because it’s kind of a no-brainer. But since I saw The Raid at TIFF’s Midnight Madness world premiere and was present for a sneak-peek Midnight Madness clip of The Raid 2 back in September 2013, it’s safe to say that I need to see this film as soon as I possibly can. Reportedly, the running time is a hard-punching 148 minutes.

THE VOICES – Directed by Marjane Satrapi

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Whenever I see the term “genre-bending” in a Sundance programme book, I’m immediately interested. Then I notice The Voices features an “evil talking cat” and a “benevolent talking dog” in a live-action film by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and I say to myself, “oh look, Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick star in this.”

I ORIGINS – Directed by Mike Cahill

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You’ll remember director Mike Cahill from Another Earth, winner of Sundance 2011’s Alfred P. Sloan prize. He’s back at the festival with I Origins (again starring Brit Marling), a film that features two molecular biologists who discover “startling evidence that could fundamentally change society as we know it.” For better or for worse, the premise reminds of something like Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (which played Sundance’s Park City at Midnight program in 2010) but as Cahill’s film is playing in the Premieres section, we can expect a more dramatic sci-fi.

HITS – Directed by David Cross

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David Cross (Tobias of “Arrested Development”) joins Sundance for his feature directorial debut. Hits looks at a small town in upstate New York obsessed with the realm of YouTube fame, featuring a major turn by Matt Walsh (of the Upright Citizens Brigade) and a small role for Wyatt Cenac (one of the best “Daily Show” correspondents in memory). Cross is following the path of his “Arrested Development” co-star Jason Bateman who recently debuted with the fairly funny Bad Words, so it should be interesting to catch Cross’ chance at bat.

Sundance’s “Next”

PING PONG SUMMER – Directed by Michael Tully

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Michael Tully (of HammerToNail.com) brings us what could a part of a Computer Chess double-bill: Ping Pong Summer sounds awkward, it sounds funny, and it’s set in the 1980s. Add in summer love, rap music, and some misunderstood adolescence, and you’ve got the makings of a potential Sundance gem. And look at that: Susan Sarandon’s in it!

US Dramatic

KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER – Directed by David Zellner

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The summary for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter reads like a bizarro Nebraska: “a lonely Japanese woman becomes convinced that a fictional satchel of money is, in fact, real. Abandoning her structured life in Tokyo for the frozen Minnesota wilderness, she embarks on an impulsive quest to search for her lost mythical fortune.” That cache of money? We (and Kumiko, apparently) last saw it in Fargo. It’s a 105-minute long solo show (Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi plays the title character) and it sounds fantastic.

THE SLEEPWALKER – Directed by Mona Fastvold

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The set-up: when a young couple is violently interrupted at their home by some unexpected guests, The Sleepwalker “transcends genre conventions and narrative contrivances to reveal something disturbing.” And this movie isn’t in Sundance’s Next program? Count me in for something unique with this Norwegian-American co-production. With songs by Sondre Lerche; co-written by co-star Brady Corbet (Simon Killer).

World Cinema Dramatic

BLIND – Directed by Eskil Vogt

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Scandinavian cinema is often some of the craziest. Blind sees a woman who has recently lost her vision face her deepest fears and repressed fantasies as she navigates her house, alone with her husband. There’s surely more to this movie than its vague summary in the Sundance guide, as director Eskil Vogt helped write Joachim Trier’s excellent Oslo, August 31st. I don’t know what to expect other than something striking.

For more Sundance as it happens, follow @Jake_Howell on Twitter.

One Response to “14 Must-See Films at Sundance ‘14”

  1. Sam E. says:

    1. David Cross also has experience behind the camera in creating the excellent IFC miniseries Todd Margaret.

    2. I would add Zach Braff’s Garden State follow Wish I was here to the list.

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“Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have come from a studio, but it still required a substantial chunk of outside financing, and at $35 million, it’s not even that expensive. No studio could find the $8.5 million it cost Dan Gilroy to make Nightcrawler. Birdman cost a mere $18 million and still had to scrape that together at the last minute. Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail—and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.”
~ Mark Harris On The State Of The Movies

How do you make a Top Ten list? For tax and organizational purposes, I keep a log of every movie I see (Title, year, director, exhibition format, and location the film was viewed in). Anything with an asterisk to the left of its title means it’s a 2014 release (or something I saw at a festival which is somehow in play for the year). If there’s a performance, or sequence, or line of dialogue, even, that strikes me in a certain way, I’ll make a note of it. So when year end consideration time (that is, the month and change out of the year where I feel valued) rolls around, it’s a little easier to go through and pull some contenders for categories. For 2014, I’m voting in three polls: Indiewire, SEFCA (my critics’ guild), and the Muriels. Since Indiewire was first, it required the most consternation. There were lots of films that I simply never had a chance to see, so I just went with my gut. SEFCA requires a lot of hemming and hawing and trying to be strategic, even though there’s none of the in-person skullduggery that I hear of from folk whose critics’ guild is all in the same city. The Muriels is the most fun to contribute to because it’s after the meat market phase of awards season. Also, because it’s at the beginning of next year, I’ll generally have been able to see everything I wanted to by then. I love making hierarchical lists, partially because they are so subjective and mercurial. Every critical proclamation is based on who you are at that moment and what experiences you’ve had up until that point. So they change, and that’s okay. It’s all a weird game of timing and emotional waveforms, and I’m sure a scientist could do an in-depth dissection of the process that leads to the discovery of shocking trends in collective evaluation. But I love the year end awards crush, because I feel somewhat respected and because I have a wild-and-wooly work schedule that has me bouncing around the city to screenings, or power viewing the screeners I get sent.
Jason Shawhan of Nashville Scene Answers CriticWire 

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies