Sundance 2014: 20 Films We’re Already Excited About Seeing in January

By  · Published on December 6th, 2013

It happens every year. Smack in the middle of the seemingly never-ending time period of “consideration” and loud arguments known as awards season, the Sundance Film Festival announces their selections for their upcoming spectacle. Such announcements could not come at a better time, really, as they stand to remind us of all the fresh films awaiting our eyes in mere weeks. (It’s okay, we only have to think about the same ten or so awards contenders for another four months, really.) For the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the fest’s programmers selected 118 feature-length films (from 37 countries and 54 first-time filmmakers) from a boggling 12,218 submissions. In short – there’s a lot of fresh stuff to look forward to here, and we’re just starting to give it the attention it deserves.

Despite the depth of field to dive into here (including Dramatic titles in competition, the NEXT category, and the newly launched Sundance Kids section), the festival is not quite done announcing selections – picks from its Premieres and Documentary Premieres will be announced later – but as those are typically the films we already have awareness of far in advance (if your Sundance film has a bunch of star power beside it, you’ll probably bow in the Premiere section), they’ve got enough buzz behind them already. We’re already looking for the unexpected gems, and here’s hoping one of these picks pans out come January.

1. Dear White People – U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director and screenwriter: Justin Simien
Four black students attend an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over an “African American” themed party thrown by white students. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the film explores racial identity in postracial America while weaving a story about forging one’s unique path in the world.

Simien was just named one of Variety’s “10 directors to watch.” Now we can watch him! Or, well, his film!

2. Happy Christmas – U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director and screenwriter: Joe Swanberg
After a breakup with her boyfriend, a young woman moves in with her older brother, his wife, and their 2-year-old son.

Yeah, yeah, getting excited about a Swanberg playing at a film festival is like getting excited about French fries being in stock at McDonald’s – it’s just assumed — but we can’t help but be excited about this cast, including Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, and Swanberg himself.

3. Jamie Marks is Dead – U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director and screenwriter: Carter Smith
No one seemed to care about Jamie Marks until after his death. Hoping to find the love and friendship he never had in life, Jamie’s ghost visits former classmate Adam McCormick, drawing him into the bleak world between the living and the dead.

Something about teen angst and boo-ghosties sounds like the sort of creative combination Sundance needs.

4. Life After Beth — U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director and screenwriter: Jeff Baena
Zach is devastated by the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Beth. When she mysteriously returns, he gets a second chance at love. Soon his whole world turns upside down…

Baena wrote I Heart Huckabees, so that’s just about all you need to know about his taste. Oh, and his film stars Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, and Paul Reiser. That might help clarify things, too.

5. The Skeleton Twins – U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Craig Johnson, Screenwriters: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman
Estranged twins Maggie and Milo coincidentally cheat death on the same day, prompting them to reunite and confront the reasons their lives went so wrong. As the twins’ reunion reinvigorates them, they realize the key to fixing their lives may just lie in repairing their relationship.

The Bill Hader- and Kristen Wiig-starring twin film sounds too damn weird to miss.

6. All the Beautiful Things – U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: John Harkrider
John and Barron are lifelong friends whose friendship is tested when Barron’s girlfriend says Barron put a knife to her throat and raped her. Not knowing she has lied, John tells her to go to the police. Years later, John and Barron meet in a bar to resolve the betrayal.

We may be off-base here, but this sounds like the kind of doc that comes with a gut-punching twist and, no, we don’t want to be spoiled on it. We want to spoil it for others! (Kidding. Sort of.)

7. CAPTIVATED The Trials of Pamela Smart— U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
In an extraordinary and tragic American story, a small town murder becomes one of the highest profile cases of all time. From its historic role as the first televised trial to the many books and movies made about it, the film looks at the media’s enduring impact on the case.

Nothing goes with Sundance docs quite like justice system-based rage and confusion.

8. Blind— World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Director and screenwriter: Eskil Vogt
Having recently lost her sight, Ingrid retreats to the safety of her home – a place she can feel in control, alone with her husband and her thoughts. But Ingrid’s real problems lie within, not beyond the walls of her apartment, and her deepest fears and repressed fantasies soon take over.

A blind person who has to confront repressed fantasies in a confined space? This sounds like just the kind of feature to shake us out of a five-movie-day stupor.

9. God Help the Girl— World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Director and screenwriter: Stuart Murdoch
This musical from Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian is about some messed up boys and girls and the music they made.

This sounds like the most twee feature to ever hit Sundance (and that’s saying something), but there’s also the chance it could be one hell of a crowdpleasing charmer, much like Can A Song Save Your Life? at this year’s TIFF.

10. Wetlands – World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Director: David Wnendt, Screenwriters: Claus Falkenberg, David Wnendt, based on the novel by Charlotte Roche
Meet Helen Memel. She likes to experiment with vegetables while masturbating and thinks that bodily hygiene is greatly overrated. She shocks those around her by speaking her mind in a most unladylike manner on topics that many people would not even dare consider.

It just sounds too bizarre to ignore.

11. Love Child — World Cinema Documentary Competition
Director: Valerie Veatch
In Seoul in the Republic of Korea, a young couple stands accused of neglect when “Internet addiction” in an online fantasy game costs the life of their infant daughter. Love Child documents the 2010 trial and subsequent ruling that set a global precedent in a world where virtual is the new reality.

Our vote for most tear-stained screening.

12. My Prairie Home — World Cinema Documentary Competition
Director: Chelsea McMullan
A poetic journey through landscapes both real and emotional, Chelsea McMullan’s documentary/musical offers an intimate portrait of transgender singer Rae Spoon, framed by stunning images of the Canadian prairies. McMullan’s imaginative visual interpretations of Spoon’s songs make this an unforgettable look at a unique Canadian artist.

We’re more than willing to take a journey through the life of a performer we’ve never heard of before – that’s sort of the point of this stuff.

13. Listen Up Philip – NEXT
Director and screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry
A story about changing seasons and changing attitudes, a newly accomplished writer faces mistakes and miseries affecting those around him, including his girlfriend, her sister, his idol, his idol’s daughter, and all the ex-girlfriends and enemies that lie in wait on the open streets of New York.

Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel may not have been my thing, but it was a lot of other people’s thing, and I’m willing to give him another try, especially with a film that stars Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, and Krysten Ritter.

14. Obvious Child – NEXT
Director and screenwriter: Gillian Robespierre
An honest comedy about what happens when Brooklyn comedian Donna Stern gets dumped, fired, and pregnant, just in time for the worst/best Valentine’s Day of her life.

We will be the judge of how “honest” your comedy is, Gillian Robespierre! Especially if it involves Jenny Plate! Yeah, we’re gonna judge (read: laugh)!

15. Blue Ruin – Spotlight
Director and screenwriter: Jeremy Saulnier
A mysterious outsider’s quiet life turns upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving to be an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.

The Spotlight section is where films that have played at other festivals get a chance to hit it out of the park with the Sundance crowd, and few films have caused such a buzz whereever they go like Blue Ruin. We can’t wait to catch up on this one.

16. The Double – Spotlight
Director: Richard Ayoade, Screenwriter: Avi Korine
Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon, a timid and isolated man who is overlooked at work. When James, a new coworker arrives, he upsets the balance because he is both Simon’s physical double and his opposite: confident and good with women. Then James slowly starts taking over Simon’s life.

Yes, this is a bit of a cheat – I saw The Double back at TIFF and just loved it, but I am excited to have more people to talk about it with come January.

17. Cooties – Park City at Midnight
Directors: Jonathan Millott, Cary Murnion, Screenwriters: Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan
A mysterious virus hits an isolated elementary school and transforms the students into a feral swarm of mass savages; then an unlikely hero must lead a motley band of teachers in the fight of their lives.

Finally! Food for our childhood playground nightmares!

18. The Guest – Park City at Midnight
Director: Adam Wingard, Screenwriter: Simon Barrett
A soldier on leave befriends the family of a fallen comrade. He soon becomes a threat to everyone around him when it’s revealed he’s not who he says he is.

New Wingard and Barrett. That’s all you need to know.

19. The Signal – Park City at Midnight
Director: William Eubank, Screenwriters: William Eubank, Carlyle Eubank, David Frigerio
Three college students disappear under mysterious circumstances while tracking a computer hacker through the Southwest.

Guys, Laurence Fishburne is in this.

20. Ernest and Celestine – Sundance Kids
Directors: Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Screenwriter: Daniel Pennac
Unlike her fellow mice, Celestine is an artist and a dreamer. When she nearly ends up as breakfast for a bear named Ernest, the two form an unlikely bond that is quickly challenged by their respective communities.

Move the hell out of the way, kiddies, I’ve been waiting for decades to see this beloved childhood book hit the big screen.

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The 2014 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 16th to January 26th. We will, of course, be there.

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