Sundance is many things – cold temperatures, snow, memorizing the shuttle schedule, training your body to take two hour “naps” each night, Simon Baker stopping your delirious self from walking into on-coming traffic on Main Street (a true, and embarrassing, story), but most importantly – it’s about movies. The Sundance Film Festival is the first big film festival of the year and as such, it never fails to set the bar high with standout programming from premiere features to moving documentaries to midnight scare-a-thons. With an impressive (and at times overwhelming) slate of films to choose from, I narrowed down the films that seem to be getting the most buzz already and are popping up on people’s “must-see” lists. Of course there will probably be a film or two here that do not live up to expectations while there is also a good chance that I have left something out that will end up being a standout at this year’s festival, but it is that unpredictability that’s part of the fun.

Stay tuned to FSR as Kate Erbland and I head to Park City this weekend to take in as many of these titles as we can and report back on whether they live up to the hype and what should stay on your must-see lists as these films (fingers crossed) get picked up for distribution over the next eleven days. A mix of features and documentaries, comedies and horror, this list features both actors and filmmakers returning to Sundance and those making their debuts at the festival.

And let us know if there is a film you are looking forward to seeing that was missed here in the comments!

John Dies At The End

Already an Internet hit, John Dies At The End is being brought to the big screen by director Don Coscarelli making it not only an anticipated release for fans of the web series, but horror fans as well. Coscarelli is well-versed in the horror genre and should be able to tap into that aspect in this story about a street drug able to give users a literal out-of-body experience (possibly permanently) while the fate of humanity rests on the shoulders of two out of work slackers. Considering John (Rob Mayes) and Dave (Chase Williamson) are less than ideal candidates to save Earth, this film is set up for an interesting premise executed by a knowledgeable director.

Robot and Frank

While not an entirely new idea (I, Robot and A.I. both tackled the relationship between robots and humans), Robot and Frank sounds like it will be more of a buddy adventure than thriller. While including aspects of a heist film, Frank (Frank Langella) develops not only a relationship with his robot caretaker, but said robot gets Frank to revisit his more “colorful” past. This may be Jake Schreier’s first feature, but the film is filled with a stellar cast to accompany Langella which includes Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler and Peter Saarsgard who are sure to bring a new slant to the story of humans and machines.

Searching for Sugar Man

When some musicians die, their legends do not end with them. Fans of artists such as Tupac and Elvis are either not quite able to let go of their idols or they feel there is still reason to believe they are not yet gone. While rocker Rodriguez did not find much success stateside, his album became a huge hit in South Africa and when his second album is released there, two of his fans try to figure out exactly what happened to him. Rodriguez disappeared to rumors of his death, but with his latest release, questions are raised about what exactly happened to him as this documentary follows these men as they try and figure out if those rumors are actually true.

Save the Date

As Kate highlighted here, Lizzy Caplan is looking to make quite an impression on Sundance this year with not one, but two releases. Save the Date pairs Caplan with Alison Brie (of Community and Mad Men fame) in a story about love and loss. While these are not new tropes tackled by film, in the hands of Caplan and Brie (who have proven both their comedy and dramatic chops over the years) it should be interesting to not only watch these two as sisters, but as two women at very different points in their lives. 

Smashed

While many films look at addiction and the downward spiral it can send users into, Smashed looks to focus on the point between rock bottom and recovery as Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) sobers up and realizes that her marriage to Charlie (Aaron Paul) may have been rooted in booze rather than love. Paul has been getting critical acclaim for his work on AMC’s Breaking Bad and it should be interesting to see him playing against Windstead (whose performance was one of the highlights in last year’s The Thing) with TV royalty Nick Offerman and wife Megan Mullally rounding out the cast.

Safety Not Guaranteed

If you weren’t lucky enough to have a sidekick like Marty McFly when you decided to travel through time, what would you do? Put out a want ad to fill the position, of course. And if the person who responded to your ad was played by Aubrey Plaza (who has been making a name for herself playing the seemingly disinterested, but lovable April on Parks and Recreation), this already offbeat meet-cute premise is even further turned on its ear. With the Duplass brothers (who brought us last year’s Cyrus) as two the film’s executive producers, here’s hoping Safety Not Guaranteed’s time traveling device rivals that of the now classic Delorean.

Shut Up and Play the Hits

There is something to be said for leaving them wanting more and when LCD Soundsystem was scheduled to play Madison Square Garden last year, rather than use the gig as a launching pad to further their career, they decided it would instead be their last performance. Even if you are not a huge fan of the band, it is hard to deny their influence on music and when an influence like that decides to pack up shop, it is hard not to note it. Shut Up and Play the Hits follows the two days leading up to this final performance and the moments and feelings surrounding that decision. Fans of the band or not should find this to be an interesting look at what it means to consciously decide to bring about the end of an era.

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V/H/S

Although the found footage aspect of the horror genre has run a bit thin (I’m looking at you The Devil Inside), V/H/S promises to be an interesting addition to the genre as viewers are forced to watch the unsettling content of various VHS tapes along with the thieves hired to find a specific tape out of what seems like a never ending pack. Add to this a group of directors who are no strangers to horror (Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, David Bruckner and Joe Swanberg) including Ti West who wrote and directed last year’s The Innkeepers, which successfully terrified viewers as it made the festival rounds. 

Under African Skies

Music has always been a medium with the ability to spark conflict and bring about change, bonding some while dividing others. Paul Simon’s album “Graceland” combined American and African music and while successful (both financially and culturally) when Simon travels to South Africa for a performance in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary the album’s release, he realizes his album’s impact was not all positive and is forced to face that fact head on. Documentary director Joe Berlinger brings us not only into Simon’s world, but also shows us how his music and impact influenced other artists like Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte and Paul McCartney. 

Shadow Dancer

Mixing politics and family, Shadow Dancer focuses on a woman’s attempt to bring down the organization that broke up her family and after a failed bombing, is forced to become an informant for that organization to keep herself out of prison and her son safe.  As people begin to question Collette’s (Andrea Riseborough) motives and the MI5 officer (Clive Owen) forcing her to work for him tries to keep her safe, their story takes many twists in turns under the sharp direction of James Marsh in the face of the volatile political landscape of Northern Ireland .

Arbitrage

Featuring one of last year’s breakout stars, Brit Marling returns to Sundance alongside Richard Gere, Susan Saradon and Tim Roth in a thriller about the constantly changing financial landscape. Robert Miller (Gere) seems to be the example of success, but the truth behind his success is threatened to come to light if he is unable to pull off his biggest business deal yet. As the directorial debut of Nicholas Jarecki, the film features a strong cast scored by one of last year’s most influential composers, (at least in my opinion) Cliff Martinez, making this film one to check out.

Liberal Arts

Elizabeth Olsen was also noted as one of the breakout stars from last year’s Sundance (for her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene) and returns to the fest with fellow Sundance alumn Josh Radnor in a film that tells the story of a man who goes back to college to instill his wisdom on students only to find himself potentially learning even more from one of the undergrads. Radnor wears three hats as writer, director and leading man and should be undoubtably kept on his toes on screen by the enigmatic Olsen as Liberal Arts looks to show how meeting one person can change one’s outlook on life.

This Must Be The Place

Making its North American debut at Sundance, director Paolo Sorrentino brings a new twist to the aging rock star with This Must Be The Place. Rather than try and reconnect with his distant father through a bonding excursion (like camping or fishing), Cheyenne (Sean Penn) opts instead to track down the Nazi who made his father’s life in a concentration camp even more intolerable. Adding to this emotionally charged quest is Penn dolled up in mascara and lipstick as goth rock front-man, Cheyenne, making this potentially volatile plot even more interesting.

Wrong

From the director of Rubber (a film about a killer…tire), Quentin Dupieux brings us his latest film about a man, Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick), who loses his dog and in his quest to find his four-legged friend runs across a bevy of different characters. Dupieux proved he can make a slightly off-beat premise compelling with Rubber so his take on a man searching for his dog (and possibly losing his mind in the process) should prove nothing less than original. And with a title like Wrong, one can only imagine how Dolph’s search will take some unexpected turns.

Bachelorette

While it sounds slightly like the female version of The Hangover (with a touch of Bridesmaids), the cast of Bachelorette is hard to write off (Kristen Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden and Adam Scott) with producing partners Will Ferrell and Adam McKay at the helm promises to make this a hilarious trip to the theater. Bridesmaids has proven that female driven comedies are not all shoes and gossip and Bachelorette sounds like it will keep the potty humor and add in some more drugs as this group of girlfriends try and get their bride to the alter, but not before one last night on the town.

Snuggle up with the rest of our Sundance 2012 coverage


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