There’s no science when it comes to picking the big winners at a film festival before the first film strip unfurls (or someone hits play on a digital file, as is most often the case these days), no proven method to the madness, no guaranteed formula to finding the best of the best. It’s a gamble every single time, and that’s precisely where much of the joy in attending a film festival comes from. That discovery, maddening as it may seem.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival is predictably stuffed with all manner of films and talents – from the star-studded to the utterly up-and-coming – and while it’s certainly easy to pick out pictures that “sound” like they might be good or at least feature “bankable” talent, there are always a few sleepers that sneak in and captivate an unsuspecting audience.
That all said, we here at Film School Rejects have attempted to apply our expertise and our personal interests to this year’s festival in order to pick out a handful of films that just might be the best of the fest, but that are at least guaranteed to send us running into a theater to see them once the festival kicks up. It’s time for Sundance! And it’s time for films! It’s even time for anticipation! And now it’s time for some anticipated Sundance films!
Can Kristen Stewart actually flex some big, actorly chops in a post-Twilight world, or is she doomed to Bella-Swan-sour-face her way through the rest of her work? Hey, I don’t know the answer to that one just yet, but perhaps we’ll have a clearer idea of what the actress is capable of after seeing Peter Sattler’s Guantanamo Bay-set drama, which sees Stewart starring as a young soldier who forms an “unlikely bond” with one of the detainees she’s tasked with overseeing. It’s certainly different than anything she’s done lately, and if she can bring the sort of hidden hardness that punctuates her personal life, Camp X-Ray could certainly break out. – Kate Erbland
A horror comedy from the writer of Saw and Insidious and the creator of Glee about school children turning into deranged, cannibalistic little shits and starring Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, and Jack McBrayer? I’m already itchy with anticipation. The only thing that could dampen my excitement for this one would be discovering that it’s aiming for a PG-13 audience. – Rob Hunter
2011 saw the double-barreled arrival of Brit Marling as a talent to watch when she crashed Sundance with two films in which she both starred and co-wrote. Sound of My Voice was the more universally acclaimed of the two, but Another Earth is the one that has stuck with me the longest. This year sees her return with another film from Another Earth director Mike Cahill, and once again it looks to tell a very human and emotional tale through a science fiction lens. – RH
If you’ve seen the “Safe Haven” short in V/H/S/2 (co-directed with Gareth Evans) or the “L Is for Libido” segment in The ABCs of Death, then you’re already familiar with the bloody, violent, and often ridiculously messy works of Timo Tjahjanto. As part of The Mo Brothers he’s also the creator of 2009′s Macabre, and now five years later he and co-director Kimo Stamboel are finally ready to deliver their follow-up feature.
This 137-minute film promises to be an endurance test of sorts as it follows two differently motivated killers whose deeds lead them into a competition resulting in a mangled trail of bodies and multiple violations of YouTube’s user agreement. – RH
The only thing that Sundance loves more than a film about arrested development is a film crafted by Lynn Shelton, and Laggies delivers both in one nifty little package (with bonus Sam Rockwell!). Keira Knightley stars as a twenty-something who is so terrified of moving forward in her life that she literally runs away when her boyfriend proposes. Regressing at a frightening speed, she soon falls in with a new teen bestie (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her hot dad. Who will learn a big life lesson and mature in the course of the film? Who won’t learn a big life lesson and mature in the course of the film? - KE
A Most Wanted Man
Anton Corbijn‘s The American was a highly unconventional thriller thanks to its methodical pace and disinterest in explosions, but viewers craving intelligent, adult cinema were rewarded with one of 2010′s best films. The director’s follow-up is an adaptation of the John le Carré bestseller and promises a high degree of literary thrills, drama, and suspense.
The cast which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Brühl, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Willem Dafoe is also a fairly good guarantee of quality that hints at a film to rival Tomas Alfredson’s le Carré adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. -RH
You say “Jenny Slate abortion comedy” and, well, that’s pretty much all you need to say to get me excited for a film. -KE
The Raid 2: Berandal
Have you seen The Raid? Welcome to its 148 minute-long sequel. Still not long enough if you ask me… -RH
The Skeleton Twins
Bill Hader has already been quite forward about the fact that his big screen team-up with Kristen Wiig is not a comedy, despite its gifted comedic cast and a laugh-happy plotline (estranged twins reunite and stuff!). What will that even look like? -KE
The Anne Hathaway-starring drama sounds like the most Sundance film of Sundance this year, one that features unexpected accidents, PhD candidates, music, Bedouin tribes, New York City, more music, family dramas, a hot stranger, more music, and shocking revelations. Just read this line from the Sundance program: “…subway troubadours, scratchy tracks on a gramophone, late-night guitar noodling, and gentle hospital serenades create an organic musical landscape that paves the way to each character’s gentle awakening.” Good God, was this film literally made to play at Sundance?
Still, the fact that writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland could snag a star like Hathaway for her first film indicates that there just might be something special beating underneath all that aural noise. - KE
They Came Together
Wet Hot American Summer. Role Models.
Wanderlust. Well I’m no math whiz, but two out of three David Wain/Paul Rudd collaborations ain’t bad in my book, and with any luck their latest will be a return to form. It helps that Rudd is joined onscreen in this romantic comedy by Amy Poehler (who also co-starred in WHAS) and a bevy of hilarious supporting players including Christopher “Dick Cream” Meloni. I expect to laugh. -RH
White Bird in a Blizzard
Just get on the Shailene Woodley express, people. Just hop on board and surrender yourself to all the beauty and drama and pain and wonder and weirdness that a coming-of-age tale written and directed by Gregg Araki that stars Hollywood’s most up-and-coming It Girl can deliver. (Hint: we’re hoping it can deliver a lot.) -KE
Wish I Was Here
Located almost exactly next to the brainspace I dedicate to wondering if Kristen Stewart can actually act is a little chunk of matter dedicated to wondering if Zach Braff can actually write and direct. The multi-hyphenate debuted his feature film Garden State at Sundance in 2004 and, if we’re putting it kindly, he has definitely not lived up to the expectations that were heaped upon him after the beloved slice of fluff premiered.
That thing was a hit, you guys, and Braff hasn’t directed a feature since – take away from that what you will. Wish I Was Here has also already stirred up ire thanks to its tricky Kickstarter campaign, so Braff really is working uphill with this one. What’s the final result going to be? I can’t even guess, but I can’t help but anticipate it. -KE
Put aside the fact that writer/director Jake Paltrow is Gwyneth’s younger brother, and instead focus solely on the details of his new feature. Michael Shannon stars in this post-apocalyptic western as a man trying to protect his family and land from scavengers and other unwelcome guests in an ecologically-ravaged world. Nicholas Hoult, Elle Fanning, and Kodi Smit-McPhee co-star. -RH
The Sundance Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, January 16th and runs until Sunday, January 26th.
Follow along with all of our Sundance 2014 coverage right here