Before we travel to the snowy mountains of Utah, we had to set our yearly Sundance to-watch list.
As we’ve done for a number of years, we’re headed back to Park City, Utah next week for the annual film nerd camp known as the Sundance Film Festival. Every year, we put on our boots and scarves and brave the cold, thin air of Utah to seek out what could become the most talked about movies of the coming year.
For example, you may recognize a few titles that made our Best of Sundance 2016 list — The Eyes of My Mother, Manchester by the Sea and Swiss Army Man all began their 2016 runs with debuts at Sundance. The festival is a buffet of independently produced films looking for distribution and future awards contenders looking to get the year started on the right foot. We still remember being introduced to It Follows and Brooklyn at Sundance 2015, Boyhood, Whiplash, What We Do In The Shadows, and The Babadook at Sundance 2014, not to mention Fruitvale Station, Upstream Color, and The Spectacular Now at Sundance 2013. The list could go on, all the way back to seeing Be Kind Rewind at Sundance 2008.
Every year we become a bit wiser to the way Sundance works and every year we get a little better at picking out the best films to see in advance. Below, you’ll see a list of 32 films selected by this year’s team – Neil Miller, Tomris Laffly, Rob Hunter, and Matt Hoffman – as the can’t miss films of Sundance 2017. It’s possible that there are some great films that didn’t make this list, just as it’s possible some of these may be duds. That’s the dangerous brilliance of Sundance – often, we know so little about what we’re seeing until we’ve seen it. This fact will not, however, stop us from making a list. Without further ado, here are the 32 films we can’t wait to see when we get to Sundance next week…
An Inconvenient Sequel
Neil Miller: Climate change is a big theme this year at Sundance. And there’s no bigger name in the genre of climate change docs than Vice President Al Gore. The former VP and Presidential nominee comes to Sundance with the sequel to his 2006 Academy Award-winning film, the appropriately titled An Inconvenient Sequel. Director Davis Guggenheim has passed the baton to two award-winning filmmakers, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, for the sequel, but Al Gore’s presence looms large. The question is: how many times is he going to have to give us this lecture before we do something?
A Ghost Story
Neil Miller: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery returns to Sundance with a film about a “spectral figure” (played by Casey Affleck), who was once a man, and is now forced to remain in his former home forever, watching and waiting out the life of his grief-stricken love, played by Rooney Mara. It’s a project that screams innovation, as it apparently tells a story that “hurtles further and further forward,” causing this spectral figure’s humanity to erode as time passes. Sounds delightful.
Neil Miller: I’ve been a fan of Zoe Lister-Jones for quite some time, from her work on the CBS show Life in Pieces to her multi-hyphenate work on films like Breaking Upwards, Lola Versus, and Consumed. With Band-Aid, she makes her directorial debut with the story of a married couple who decides to break out of their relationship rut by forming a band. Chances are that while this sounds like a good idea, they will eventually have to deal with their real problems. But with a cast that also includes Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, and New Girl’s Hannah Simone, we’re likely to get some laughs along the way.
Tomris Laffly: Writer-director Eliza Hittman is back in Sundance with her sophomore feature, four years after her observant, sensual debut It Felt Like Love that premiered at the festival. With Beach Rats, Hittman follows an aimless teenager and his sexual awakening amid the everyday misery of his life, which involves a dying father and a nagging mother. Shot on film, the dark and perilous-sounding Beach Rats promises to further establish Hittman as an authentic independent voice and signals a powerful performance from debuting actor Harris Dickinson.
Rob Hunter: A young Australian woman visiting Germany somehow finds herself trapped in a Berlin apartment. I’m unclear if she’s being held captive or if this is some manner of psychological issue, but the thriller premise is just intriguing enough. It doesn’t hurt that the lovely Teresa Palmer gets the rare opportunity to act in her native Australian accent.
The Big Sick
Matt Hoffman: Michael Showalter’s work has never failed induce uproarious laughter from audiences. Between Wet Hot American Summer and They Came Together, Showalter is proved himself as a master of comedy. Yet, his 2016 film Hello, My Name is Doris showed the writer (that time also directing) trying something a little different. While quite funny, the Sally Field-starring film packed a wallop of heart and emotion. With that in mind, his follow-up film seems as if it will be able to provide a lot more than laughs. Written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the film provides a fictionalized account of the real-life couple’s relationship. Nanjiani stars opposite the endlessly charming Zoe Kazan as a couple who must tackle familial expectations and the clashing of cultures. The Big Sick is already a hot ticket at the festival and I have a hunch that this one will send eager distributors into battle.
Call Me By Your Name
Matt Hoffman: Call Me By Your Name is the one film I was certain would not show up at Sundance. The latest film from Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love) just screams “CANNES!” and I’d love to hear the story of how it ended up here. Nevertheless, the Italian director’s latest features Armie Hammer in a steamy gay Jewish love story set in Italy. Having consulted with friends that have read the source novel, this is surely going to be one of the festival’s most erotic films. It will definitely be interesting to see how audiences – specifically the festival’s Utah residents – respond to this one.
Matt Hoffman: There’s nothing more popular these days than true crime. From Making a Murderer to OJ: Made in America, audiences just can’t seem to get enough of the documentary drama taking the country by storm. With so many different true crime documentaries available, Casting Jonbenet stands out. Here, director Kitty Green takes a radical approach. Instead, Green frames her film around a casting call to play JonBenet Ramsey, relying on locals to narrate the story of one of the most sensationalized unsolved murders of all time. Described as a “hybrid” documentary, this film certainly reminds me of last years festival film Kate Plays Christine. If Casting JonBenet is anything like Robert Greene’s masterful film, we may have a hit.
Cries from Syria
Tomris Laffly: Having lived in a country that has been under severe dictatorship for over 40 years, people of Syria just wanted to claim their hopeful stake at the Arab Spring, and instead, were subjected to extreme brutality and crimes against humanity by the regime. This intense and mind-blowing account of the eruption and worsening of the Syrian civil war is as powerful and heartbreaking as one could imagine. In the tradition of his 2015 documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, Evgeny Afineevsky combines talking heads interviews with chilling and graphic wartime footage to unsettling effect, highlighting both the direness of the situation in Syria, and its undeniable urgency.
Neil Miller: In order to adapt the story of Colin Warner, a young man wrongfully convicted by a deeply broken system, writer/director Matt Ruskin had to earn the trust of the real life young man. It’s both the story of Warner’s imprisonment and his friend, Carl King, who dedicated his life to clearing his friend’s name. With Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12, Atlanta) in the lead role, this appears to be one of Sundance’s somber, heart-wrenching breakouts waiting to happen.
Matt Hoffman: With three features under his belt, Manhattan rep-cinema dweller Alex Ross Perry has grown quite the following among the indie film-going crowd. His previous films provided tense examinations of troubled relationships in a refreshing, funny, and often frustrating manner. He’s also writing the screenplay for the upcoming live action Winnie the Pooh movie. In the meantime we have Perry’s fourth feature, which sounds just as promising as his previous work. With Golden Exits, Perry broadens his scope, focusing on two families whose lives are disrupted when a young foreign woman appears. That’s really all we know at this point, but with Perry’s track record and an ensemble cast that features the likes of Emily Browning, Chloe Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker, Lily Rabe, and Jason Schwartzman, how can you go wrong?
Matt Hoffman: Brett Haley’s 2015 film I’ll See You In My Dreams slipped under the radar following its Sundance premiere, given only a small summer release. I stumbled into a press screening of the film in advance of its theatrical release knowing little, and was absolutely floored. Not only did the film prompt a career-best performance from Blythe Danner, but it was also absolutely heartbreaking, while remaining sweet through its entirety. Sam Elliot appeared as Danner’s love interest in the film, and he reteams with Haley for his latest. Elliot plays man very similar to himself, described as a “western icon with a golden voice”. Like I’ll See You In My Dreams, The Hero will examine what it means to move past your glory days, and whether or not you can ever get it back. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the film is that it marks the return of the great Katharine Ross (The Graduate and The Stepford Wives), who previously has not appeared in a film in over a decade.
The History of Comedy
Neil Miller: Last year, it was ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America that made a splash by debuting its first few hours at Sundance. This year it could very well be CNN’s The History of Comedy, an eight-part series exploring the ever-evolving world of comedic entertainment. It promises archival footage, plenty of interviews, and covers everything from sitcoms to late-night to improv. Thankfully, they’ve only brought the first two episodes to Sundance, otherwise I’d need to schedule an entire day, as there’s no way I’d miss this.
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
Rob Hunter: Macon Blair has been something of a muse for writer/director Jeremy Saulnier having starred in all three of the filmmaker’s increasingly fantastic films. Hopefully he’s picked up a thing or two along the way as now he’s stepping behind the camera with a thriller of his own. He’s handing actor duties over to the powerhouse pairing of the always amazing Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, and if their presence wasn’t enough the story intrigues too with Lynskey as a depressed woman who finds new purpose in her attempt to track down some criminals. Sold.
The Incredible Jessica James
Neil Miller: The last time I was at Sundance (two years ago), I was taken with Jim Strouse’s film People Places Things, starring Jemaine Clement and Regina Hall. One of the pleasant surprises of that film was a delightful supporting performance from former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams. Both Strouse and Williams are back with Jessica James, the story of a New York playwright who is getting over a breakup when she meets an intriguing man (played by Chris O’Dowd). It’s a strong cast working with the filmmaker behind Grace is Gone and The Winning Season. There’s nothing that’ll keep me away from this closing night film, as everything Strouse has brought to Sundance in the past has ended up on one of my Best of the Fest lists.
Ingrid Goes West
Rob Hunter: When you think mentally disturbed young woman, but with a comedic twist, you think Aubrey Plaza. Director Matt Spicer agrees and casts her here as a mild loon who becomes obsessed with a popular celebrity, played by Elizabeth Olsen. The film promises a mix of laughs and dark thrills, and we’re excited to join these two ladies on their descent into madness.
Matt Hoffman: Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature Obvious Child was not only one of the most refreshing films of 2014, but it also provided a star vehicle for hilarious Jenny Slate. With her latest film, Robespierre reteams with Slate and heads for some good old 1990s nostalgia. Set in 1995 Manhattan, the film explores the complicated lives of the Jacobs family. There are sure to be plenty of laughs along the way, but what excites me about this one is that Robespierre seems to be heading into more dramatic territory. Perhaps the best selling point is that that film also stars Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano! Nurse Jackie!) in a leading role. Falco, one of television’s best actresses, has not really gotten her chance to shine in a leading role on the big screen. This could be the one.
Matt Hoffman: Over the past couple years, Brett Gelman has written/starred in three absolutely bat-shit crazy episodes of the Adult Swim airing Dinner series. These twenty-minute shorts featured Gelman (as himself) entering bizarre situations with various actors over meals. They are hard to describe, but these shorts are polarizing. With that in mind, I’ll essentially watch anything tagged with the words “Written by Brett Gelman”. This NEXT title is co-written by (with director Janicza Bravo) and stars Gelman as a failing actor whose blind girlfriend of ten years is planning to leave him. Sign me up!
The Little Hours
Rob Hunter: “A young servant fleeing from his master takes refuge at a convent full of emotionally unstable nuns in the middle ages.” Emotionally unstable nuns? As a thirteen year veteran of Catholic schools this is a synopsis tailor-made for me, and then I find out that the main trio of nuns are played by Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci? And Fred Armisen, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman, Adam Pally, and Paul Reiser co-star? Thank god for Sundance.
Neil Miller: To be honest, Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto was almost cut from this list. It’s a very odd project that was shot over 12 days in Berlin and was originally used as a 130-minute multi-screen art installation. It was basically a museum piece about the originality (or lack thereof) of modern art featuring Cate Blanchett in 13 different roles. Sounds like a trip, but how does that get cut into a watchable movie? Then I watched the first trailer and was immediately reminded that Cate Blanchett is a goddamn powerhouse that demands our attention. So I won’t be missing the 90-minute movie version of Rosefeldt’s art installation when it premieres at Sundance.
Matt Hoffman: Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter went largely under the radar as one of the most captivating films of 2015. Returning to hopefully a wider audience, Almereyda presents an adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s widely celebrated 2015 play Marjorie Prime. With a plot that seems fit for an episode of Black Mirror, the film follows eighty-five-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith, resuming her role from play’s opening run), who spends her last days with a computerized – and much younger – version of her deceased husband (Jon Hamm).
I’m really banking on this film as being a come back of sorts for Lois Smith. The actress is perhaps most famous for appearing in the classic films East of Eden and Five Easy Pieces, yet done great work from 1955 to her most recent appearance on last week’s episode of The Affair. One of her strongest roles came in a single-episode appearance in the most recent season of The Americans, a performance that deserved much more attention than it ultimately received. It’s certainly quite early to predict, but with the right execution from Almeryeda, Marjorie Prime has the potential to be a major awards contender.
Tomris Laffly: On paper, the Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke starrer Mudbound sounds exactly like the kind of epic one would hope the writer-director of the exceptional Pariah would follow up her debut with. Dee Rees adapts Hillary Jordan’s acclaimed novel with her co-writer Virgil Williams, telling a post-WWII pioneer story that revolves around two Southern families with the complex backdrop of social divides and harsh landscapes. Shot by renowned cinematographer Rachel Morrison, this period piece with scale and scope is without a doubt one of the hottest tickets of the festival.
Tomris Laffly: It ain’t Sundance without at least one coming-of-age tale in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Novitiate is an instant standout, as this narrative feature debut of writer-director Maggie Betts promises a different kind of coming-of-age and first love tale. Its timeline spans across a decade starting from the early 50s and follows young Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) who decides her first love is Jesus Christ, despite being raised by a non-religious mother. This young woman’s peculiar, challenging religious journey surely sounds like a welcome rarity. Plus, there is Melissa Leo.
Person to Person
Rob Hunter: Funny people often make for effective dramatic actors, and this simple-sounding drama looks to afford both Michael Cera and Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson the opportunity to prove their chops. Philip Baker Hall is on deck to keep them in line too. Odds are some laughs will slip through the cracks, but we’ll be there either way.
Neil Miller: I’m a sucker for any movie in which Peter Dinklage shows up unexpectedly after a man has passed away, claiming to be a past acquaintance. Unlike Death at a Funeral, Mark Palansky’s Rememory appears to be a dark and broody piece of sci-fi/fantasy that involves a machine that allows one to extract and replay someone else’s unfiltered memories. With a cast that also includes Martin Donovan and Julia Ormond, it’s safe to say that Palansky’s (Penelope, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) second feature will be worth a look.
Neil Miller: Director Shawn Christensen’s second feature might end up simply being a space for some burgeoning young talent to thrive, but after seeing Logan Lerman in Indignation and Elle Fanning in both The Neon Demon and 20th Century Women in 2016, it’s clear that both are worth tracking. Lerman plays a young man whose writing earns him celebrity status, only to see his life start to fall apart. It promises to be one of those sweet spot Sundance dramas about tortured artists with dark paths that, at the very least, serves to further amplify rising talent.
This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous
Tomris Laffly: The prolific, two-time Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple captures the transformation of a Canadian transgender ex-diver with This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous. This is an inspiring, empowering true story of a high-school student, who stood tall against bullies and embraced her sexual identity with the help of a loving, supportive family. A big-hearted, inclusive LGBTQ documentary just when we need it.
Rob Hunter: This will be one of our last chances to see Anton Yelchin on the big screen, but while that’s enough of a reason to catch this drama the rest of the cast seems equally compelling. Olivia Cooke and Ana Taylor-Joy play old friends who reunite, realize they’re both liars, and… plan a murder? A terrific cast and a just odd-enough plot guarantee I’ll be in line for this one. If nothing else I need to see where the horse fits into it all. (I don’t know as horses actually play a role in this film.)
Rob Hunter: Lily Gladstone. She’s mesmerizing in Certain Women (a Sundance 2016 premiere), and her presence here, even in a supporting role, is all I need to have me excited for this feature. I don’t recognize any of the other talents involved and know next to nothing about the plot aside from it involving a survival against threats both natural and manmade, but Gladstone’s in it so I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Tomris Laffly: Within a couple of years of their occurrence, you can expect almost every major instance of political and social unrest to make a much-needed appearance in documentary form in Sundance. Whose Streets? is billed as an unwavering inside look into the Ferguson uprising, which organically emerged following the shooting of an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown, within a rightfully angry community that has long lived amid racial injustice. That the story is told by activists themselves (including filmmakers Sabaah Jordan and Damon Davis) is reason enough to see this timely documentary depicting true events with an ongoing historical aftershock.
Tomris Laffly: The screenwriter of Sicario and this year’s surprise awards season breakout Hell or High Water has made his directorial debut. And it’s premiering at Sundance! The soon-to-be Oscar nominated Taylor Sheridan (if I may plug in a prediction here) completes his American frontier trilogy with Wind River and follows U.S. Fish & Wildlife worker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and the inexperienced agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) as they, after the discovery of a dead body, trace clues against impending violence and harsh weather conditions. Another hot ticket.
Rob Hunter: Here’s a film that promises to pack a few of my interests into a tight eighty minutes. One, it’s a horror anthology. Two, it’s a horror anthology helmed by talented women including Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, and others. And three, one of the segments stars Melanie Lynskey. I already love this movie.
All photos courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.