MCN Columnists

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.

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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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“I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

It wasn’t easy. We started back in July 2018, it was actually on the Fourth of July – that was our first shoot. It’s like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more. We threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not, and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor’s race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here. By election day, Zak Piper, our producer, had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double-check that, it might have been seven. We had this organized team effort to hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn’t already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the Board of Elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So, yeah, it was kind of a monster.”
~ Steve James On City So Real

“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho