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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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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“We now have a situation where audiences very often prefer commercial trash to Bergman’s Persona or Bresson’s L’Argent. Professionals find themselves shrugging, and predicting that serious, significant works will have no success with the general public. What is the explanation? Decline of taste or impoverishment of repertoire? Neither and both. It is simply that cinema now exists, and is evolving, under new conditions. That total, enthralling impression which once overwhelmed the audiences of the 1930s was explained by the universal delight of those who were witnessing and rejoicing over the birth of a new art form, which furthermore had recently acquired sound. By the very fact of its existence this new art, which displayed a new kind of wholeness, a new kind of image, and revealed hitherto unexplored areas of reality, could not but astound its audiences and turn them into passionate enthusiasts.

Less than twenty years now separate us from the twenty-first century. In the course of its existence, through its peaks and troughs, cinema has travelled a long and tortuous path. The relationship that has grown up between artistic films and the commercial cinema is not an easy one, and the gulf between the two becomes wider every day. Nonetheless, films are being made all the time that are undoubtedly landmarks in the history of cinema. Audiences have become more discerning in their attitude to films. Cinema as such long ago ceased to amaze them as a new and original phenomenon; and at the same time it is expected to answer a far wider range of individual needs. Audiences have developed their likes and dislikes. That means that the filmmaker in turn has an audience that is constant, his own circle. Divergence of taste on the part of audiences can be extreme, and this is in no way regrettable or alarming; the fact that people have their own aesthetic criteria indicates a growth of self-awareness.

Directors are going deeper into the areas which concern them. There are faithful audiences and favorite directors, so that there is no question of thinking in terms of unqualified success with the public—that is, if one is talking about cinema not as commercial entertainment but as art. Indeed, mass popularity suggests what is known as mass culture, and not art.”
~ Andrei Tarkovsky, “Sculpting In Time”

“People seem to be watching [fewer] movies, which I think is a mistake on people’s parts, and they seem to be making more of them, which I think is okay. Some of these movies are very good. When you look at the quality of Sundance movies right now, they are a lot better than they were when I was a kid. I do think that there have been improvements artistically, but it’s tough. We’ve got a system that’s built for less movies in terms of how many curatorial standard-bearers we have in the states. It’s time for us to expand our ideas of where we find our great films in America, but that said, it’s a real hustle. I’m so happy that Factory 25 exists. If it didn’t exist, there would be so many movies that wouldn’t ever get distributed because Matt Grady is the only person who has seen the commercial potential in them. He’s preserving a very special moment in independent film history that the commercial system is not going to be preserving. He’s figuring out how to make enough money on it to save these films and get them onto people’s shelves.”
~ Homemakers‘ Colin Healey On Indie Distribution